No Italian thinker enjoys a greater fame today than Gramsci. Alike, academic citations and internet references place him above Machiavelli. The bibliography of articles and books about him now runs to some 20,000 items. Amid this avalanche, is any compass possible? The Prison Notebooks first became available, politically expurgated, in Italy in the later 1940s. The first extensive translation from them into any language came in the early 1970s, Selections in English produced by Quintin Hoare and Geoffrey Nowell Smith giving them a global readership, and still probably the most widely consulted single version of them. Some four decades later, there is already an extensive secondary literature on the history of their world-wide reception, covering a vast span of usages.footnote1 The scale of this appropriation, in an epoch so unlike that in which Gramsci lived and thought, has owed much to two features of his legacy that set it apart from that of any other revolutionary of his time.
The first was its multi-dimensionality. The range of topics covered in the Prison Notebooks—the history of leading European states; the structure of their ruling classes; the character of their dominion over the ruled; the function and variation of intellectuals; the experience of workers and the outlook of peasants; the relations between state and civil society; the latest forms of production and consumption; questions of philosophy and education; the interconnexions between traditional or avant-garde and popular or folklore culture; the construction of nations and the survival of religions; and not least, the ways and means of passing beyond capitalism and sustaining socialism—had, and has, no equal in the theoretical literature of the left. The range was not only topical but spatial, since Italy combined an advanced capitalist industry in the North with an archaic pre-capitalist society in the South, and the Notebooks came from a direct experience of both, capable in another time of speaking to First and Third World readers alike. There was a lot to choose from.
The second magnetic attraction of this writing lay in its fragmentation. In prison, Gramsci’s notes were laconic, exploratory jottings for works he was never able to compose in freedom. That made them, as David Forgacs would point out in these pages,footnote2 suggestive rather than conclusive, inviting imaginative reconstruction after his death, into one kind of totalization or another. Less binding than a finished theory, they were the more appealing to interpreters of every sort—a score inviting improvisation. In his own country, the effects were unhappy, since in control of the process was the party he had led, but which had changed while he was a prisoner, falling in exile under the compulsions of Stalin. The result was continuous instrumentalization of his thought for official purposes, as defence and illustration of the political line of the pci, no matter how many contradictory positions this involved, from the time of the Cominform to that of Eurocommunism, and on to ultimate self-liquidation. Within this tactical straitjacket, naturally, no critical scrutiny of the tensions and hesitations, as well as illuminations, of the Prison Notebooks was possible.footnote3 At first, to be cleared of any suspicion in Moscow, Gramsci had to be identified en bloc with Lenin. After the Twentieth and Twenty-Second Congresses of the cpsu, he became complementary to Lenin, and then, after 1968, superseded him. Finally, as the end approached, he was discarded as—after all—contaminated by Lenin, in a party that claimed it had developed beyond both, shortly before it gave up the ghost.
Since the pci was never coextensive with the Italian Left, which contained other significant currents, not a few sharply at variance with it, the legacy of Gramsci could never be completely monopolized by the party, and in the sixties and seventies, alongside wholesale rejection of it as the ideology of a compromised formation, there emerged an alternative reading of it, centred on the key role of factory councils in his early Ordine Nuovo writings, counterposing the idea of workers’ autonomy in these to the elevation of the party as a ‘modern prince’ in the Notebooks. Though often spirited enough in expression, this was a reaction-formation that could not dislodge the undulating sequence of established recensions based in the prison writings. The net result, as both pci and these thorns in its side eventually faded away, was a sterilization of Gramsci’s legacy in his homeland.
Creative employment, free from institutional constraints, migrated abroad. There is inevitably something arbitrary in illustrating the result. But among possible candidates, there can be no doubt of four leading—arguably the four leading—appropriations of Gramsci’s thought since the eighties, viewed comparatively. Do they form a pattern? Strikingly, in certain respects. All came from thinkers far from their homelands. All emerged within the Anglosphere—the uk, us, Australia—within less than a decade of each other, between the mid-eighties and mid-nineties. All were highly individual constructions, yet each was also the fruit of a common project. All were centred around Gramsci’s concept of hegemony. Below, some snapshots of them.footnote4