Outside Italy, nowhere more than in Britain have Gramsci’s writings exercised so prolonged, deep or diversified an influence. Some of this has been channelled through the academic disciplines of history, political science and cultural studies, but much of it has worked directly upon the theory and practice of the Left. There has been widespread recognition of the importance of Gramscian concepts in freeing Marxism from ‘economism’ since the sixties, and in interpreting Thatcherism and the crisis of the Left since the mid–70s. What has been less remarked upon is that they have been central to the theoretical reconstruction of Marxism in Britain at all stages since the late 50s.footnote1 The uses of Gramsci in Britain have been regionally specific; they have involved the overdevelopment of one side of his work at the expense of others. This imbalance can be explained by the needs which his texts have served to meet, the gaps they have served to fill in the culture of the Left. The impact made by new ideas never depends simply on their intrinsic quality; it also has to do with the degree of receptivity or resistance of the culture into which they enter. In the thirty-two years in which selections from Gramsci have been available in English, the culture of the Left in Britain and the political climate have both changed considerably. Gramsci has become more readable. But he has also become readable in different ways, as the meanings which have attached to his texts, the uses to which they have been put, have altered.

As a baseline for any discussion of Gramsci’s influence, two points need to be remembered about the peculiar nature of his legacy. The first is its fragmentary and posthumous character. His writings consist of letters, journalistic articles, internal party documents and a large body of manuscript notes only partially revised and systematized during his lifetime. This meant that his legacy was not passively ‘handed down’ but had to be actively constructed by his successors through a labour of assembly, rearrangement, annotation and (outside Italy) translation: processes which all involve interpretation and judgement. The first edition of the prison notebooks in Italy (1948–51) and the English editions published so far (1957, 1971, 1988) have been selections involving thematic reorderings of the original material. Only in 1975 did a critical edition appear in Italy, based on a chronological reconstruction of the manuscripts and including rejected drafts as well as revised versions. In English such an edition still has to see the light of day.footnote2

The second point is the lag between the time in which the prison notebooks were written (1929–35) and the time in which they were received in Britain. Gramsci came, so to speak, to Britain across a wide spatial, temporal and cultural gap: on the one side Italy between the wars, on the other post-war Britain; on the one side the Third International and the struggle against fascism, on the other the culture of Labourism and the post-1945 welfare state. In making the crossing some parts of his work fell away while others were creatively readapted. Several differences between Gramsci’s Italy and Britain are particularly relevant in explaining why this has been so. First, Italy’s history was one of early rise and decline of merchant capitalism, political partitioning, late unification and late industrialization; as a nation-state it had remained weakly integrated. Britain’s history was virtually the opposite. Second, Gramsci’s Italy had a mass of agricultural smallholders and proletarians, a relatively small industrial proletariat and an underdeveloped South; Britain had a large industrial working class and no peasantry. Third, Italy had young and weak parliamentary traditions which gave way to Mussolini’s ‘Caesarism’; Britain had old and resilient ones. Fourth, Italy had a culturally powerful Catholic Church; Britain had a strongly secularized culture. Fifth, in Italy the dominant labour movement traditions were Marxist and syndicalist; in Britain they were Labourist. Sixth, in Italy the dominant cultural traditions were idealist and historicist (Hegel, Croce); in Britain they were empiricist and anti-historicist.

Because of these differences, several parts of Gramsci’s work remained either untranslated or effectively unreadable in Britain. The untranslated parts include not only the many polemical forays in the prison notebooks (against Achille Loria, second-rate Italian novelists and so forth) but also whole tracts of text dealing with Croce’s philosophy, the Catholic movement, the culture of the subaltern classes, the history of intellectuals. The unreadable or less readable parts include those dealing with the problems of constructing a national worker–peasant bloc and with the ‘peasant question’ generally, as well as with the formation of a national-popular culture. One can hazard a guess that the welcome appearance of a complete text of the prison notebooks in English will not remove this unreadability. Conversely, the parts of the Gramscian corpus that have been most creatively drawn on have been those dealing with the mechanisms of political stabilization and regulation in advanced capitalist societies, their resources of cultural and ideological ‘hegemony’, the dynamic and flexible nature of political alliances, the recognition of civil society as a terrain of political organization and struggle, and the need for the Left to break out of an ‘economic–corporate’ outlook and construct a hegemonic politics of its own. In general the tendency has been to draw Gramsci forward in time, to put him into modern clothes.

Although Gramsci’s work did not go completely unnoticed in Britain in the two decades after his death, it made a negligible impact before it first appeared in book form in 1957, in Louis Marks’s edition of The Modern Prince and Other Writings.footnote3 Marks had submitted the typescript in early 1956 to the publishers Lawrence and Wishart, whose managerial board was at that time directly accountable to the higher committees of the Communist Party of Great Britain. It was passed to the Political Committee for vetting but blocked on the grounds of its heterodoxy by a number of members, including Emile Burns. However, the events of 1956—Khrushchev’s secret speech, the Polish and Hungarian crises, the consequent resignations from the cpgb—supervened to produce by the end of the year a changed political and theoretical climate. Maurice Cornforth, then managing editor of Lawrence and Wishart, pressed again for publication and the edition finally appeared in 1957.

Gramsci was thus conveyed into the culture of the Left on the tide of the post-1956 thaw, destalinization and the formation of the first new Left. These circumstances were crucially to affect the way his work was read, the meanings it assumed, in a first phase which lasted till about the mid-60s. The edition emerged out of the anti-Stalinist current within the cpgb (Marks was, together with Eric Hobsbawm, Christopher Hill and others, a member of the Party’s History Group) and to some extent smacked of that particular ambience. The book did not sell well and had relatively little resonance at the time beyond a small circle of people actively interested in Marxist politics. This lack of immediate impact was probably attributable as much to the small scale and market of left publishing in the late 50s, and the resistances of an insular culture to foreign novelty, as to any intrinsic limitations of the edition itself. In fact The Modern Prince provided an intelligent and fairly political cross-section of Gramsci’s writings, even though it was too small a sample to give an adequate representation of his range or to show the interconnections between different thematic strands and concepts in the prison notebooks. For Gramsci to be assimilated into the British cultural system, he needed first to be mediated to readers by a work of intellectual brokerage and he needed a wider reading public.

The brokerage came in the early 60s from two directions: from the work on culture and class produced by intellectuals such as Raymond Williams and Edward Thompson and from the theoretically innovative writings on the British state and the labour movement by Perry Anderson and Tom Nairn which appeared in New Left Review in 1963–64.footnote4 The first kind of brokerage was indirect. It was not so much a question of Williams or Thompson having read and been influenced by Gramsci in their own work at this stage—though both of them clearly did have some familiarity with Gramsci from the early 60s. Rather, it was that their work on culture provided a framework, an intellectual space, within which Gramsci, or at least a certain side of Gramsci, could be made visible and readable, a space which his own work would, in turn, begin to illuminate and reconstruct from within. Gramsci, or a certain way of looking at Gramsci, fitted in very well with the Marxist humanism and the ‘culture and community’ outlook which began gaining ground around 1956. Gwyn A. Williams saw Gramsci in this light in an article of 1960 which, although he would subsequently repudiate it,footnote5 remains highly significant as a snapshot of this moment: