Gramsci and Stalin: Some Elements of The Prison Notebooks and the Alleged Rivalry of the Two Communists

Aldo Bernardini

On July 17, 2003 the Italian daily newspaper, Corriere della Sera,  published a news article by Silvio Pons, concerning a hitherto unknown letter addressed to Stalin in December 1940 written by Gramsci’s wife, Giulia in collaboration with her sister, Eugenia Schucht; the latter died in a fascist prison in 1937. The letter requested Stalin to take charge of publishing Gramsci’s writings (the ‘Notebooks’) as the Italians had neglected so far to do, renewing suspicions that Gramsci’s prosecution and detainment, a treacherous betrayal on the part of Italians, was actually done to keep Gramsci from being released from prison. The suspects mentioned in the letter were predominately Italians – both Fascists and Trotskyites. However, the letter also made clear allusions to the old affair of the Greek letter and the alleged ambiguity of Togliatti.

In response, a torrent of press articles followed, centred on philological subtleties, such as that the letter provided no new arguments or the fact it added nothing to what was already known and refuted abundantly. They dealt, of course, with the ‘Stalinist Terror’ (Eugenia was a fervent Stalinist…) and the issue that the letter could ultimately be thought of as a plot… against Togliatti.

No one has questioned either the authenticity of the letter or whether its contents reflected the true feelings that Gramsci had while he was alive. We are not interested in this piece to discuss alleged treacheries and even less to discuss the unjust, ill-treatment Gramsci received as a prisoner, including the alleged parties who acted in such a manner (one can even have suspicions and fears that are excessive in this regard) or of the whys and wherefores. We find that the array of writings presented to be of frivolous, inferior quality, because with the unapparent fleeting exceptions of A. Santucci and A. Burgio, they focus on everything but the central question: the relationship between Gramsci and Stalin. These vulgar revisionists (in the Marxist-Leninist sense and not the historical one) made up vile untruthful stories that the two were either estranged or hated each other. All of this is based on nothing, as the passages in the ‘Prison Notebooks’ concerning Stalin, Trotsky, or Soviet socialism, all shine a favourable light on Stalin. In a passage from 1930-32 (p. 801 of the Gerratana edition, to which we always refer), Gramsci criticises Bronstein (Trotsky), for ‘trying to maintain a political theory of frontal attack in a period when such attack could only lead to defeat.’  He makes the essential distinction between a war of movement or manoeuvring and a war of position, such as the one that the Soviet Union had to wage to sustain itself and which (listen, listen!) ‘requires an  unprecedented concentration of hegemony and therefore a more interventionist form of Government that can both take a more open offensive against its enemies and can permanently organise against the possibility of internal disintegration: By control of every kind; political, organisational, etc., strengthening the hegemonic position of the dominant group, etc. In the passages, the distinction between the two types of ‘war’ (p. 865 f.) is analysed in depth. In them, he made the famous distinction between the situation in the East, where the State was everything and civil society was primitive and loosely-bound; and the West, where ‘a proper relationship existed between state and civil society: In which, one saw immediately in the rumbling of the State, a robust structure of civil society’; this rejects, once again, Trotsky’s theories. Very significant is the passage (p. 1728) referring to Stalin himself (Joseph Vissarionovich), which draws its inspiration from an interview with him in September 1927, which points out, ‘how according to the philosophy of praxis whether in the formulation of its founder (i.e., Marx – translator’s note), or especially as clarified by its most recent great theoretician (Stalin, as the text refers to – translator’s note), the international situation should be considered in its national aspect’. It deals specifically with the dialectical relationship between the national and international situation, which is fundamental to Stalin’s view: ‘It is based upon this point, I believe, that the fundamental disagreement hinges between Leon Davidovich (Trotsky) and Vissarionovich (Stalin), the interpreter of the majority movement (…)’. On at least two occasions Gramsci justifies and approves of ‘the liquidation of Leon Davidovich’ (p. 1744), as he similarly did in arguing for the ‘liquidation of the “Black” Parliament that had survived after the abolition of the “legal” Parliament’ in the Soviet Union. He did this especially after having analysed Trotsky’s tendencies in a concise and profound fashion. In doing so, Gramsci found that the trend Trotsky opposed (Stalin’s trend – translator’s note) was not ‘something abstract, coming from the scientist’s toilet bowl,’ but was founded on the Jacobin formula,in a form fitting to current, concrete, living history, suitable for the present time and place, as coming from all the pores of the given society that had to be transformed, as the alliance of two social groups, with the hegemony of the urban group’ (i.e., what Stalin was applying). And in a definitive manner (p. 2164), when Gramsci always refers to Trotsky’s tendencies, he reveals in no half measures ‘the inexorable necessity to crush it’ (the passage is attributable to 1934), which, according to the note, had indeed happened in the Soviet Union.

It is therefore a lie that Gramsci’s final thoughts could lead to a separation from Stalin: Gramsci even approved actions that today are considered ‘authoritarian’, ‘dictatorial’ or even worse. And no one can even say, according to the last refuge of the vulgar revisionist, that ‘objectively’ the Gramscian approach was antagonistic: different positions can result from different contexts (West and East) and from the various phases and levels of struggles waged in the Soviet Union and, in particular, in fascist Italy, which Gramsci could not have not thought of. But Gramsci would be the first to have a big laugh if someone had proposed to apply to Stalin's Soviet Union the ideas that he had elaborated especially for Italy of that time.

Now, to go back to the letter, if the members of Gramsci’s family had turned to Stalin to request (rightly or wrongly, it does not matter) protection against the Italians; even if the two writers remembered that Gramsci had recommended that the Soviet party conduct negotiations for his release, making sure none of the information was leaked to the Italians, this means that the great Sardinian (Gramsci) had complete confidence in Stalin and his party, as genuine expressions of world communism. This is quite the opposite from what, for many years, has been poisonously spread. Now with the publication of this letter, the liars of modern revisionism, dealing with the reactions of complete embarrassment that their lies aroused, are finally receiving the reply they deserved.

What was the objective of Silvio Pons’ text? Perhaps to destroy completely historical Italian Communism: Togliatti, an untrustworthy traitor; Gramsci, no longer the ‘angel’ who rejected the ‘devil’ Stalin. This is the way the game is played. But even this validates our position: Stalin and Gramsci, two leaders both committed to the last for our great ideal and its unswerving defence.

February 26, 2012

Translated from the Italian by Jessica Coco

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