Kitchen Notebooks: A Great and Terrible Climate of Political Debate - Gramsci’s Brief Clinch with Stalin

I recently acquired “A Great & Terrible World”, Derek Boothmans selection of Gramsci’s pre-prison letters (1908-1926), published by Lawrence and Wishart (it seems they are picking up the Gramsci-pace having in recent years been surpassed by Columbia University Press’ publication of Buttigieg’s edition of the complete Prison Notebooks, and the two-volume “Letters from Prison”).

Although this book dumping in my mailbox did disrupt my reading of a collection of franco-belgian bande dessinée’s under the heading “’Tempo’” (these things are rare publications in Norwegian these days), containing both Jean Graton’s ’Michel Vaillant and Charlier and Hubinons ’Barbe-Rouge, I have at the time of writing this not read the whole volume.

It is probably not a book I will read cover to cover anyhow, but rather jump back and forth in according to the subject that most interests me at the time. Anyhow - the matter at hand concerns the last two letters in the volume. And it is perhaps an attempt to partially answer the age-old questions “Was Gramsci a Leninist” and “What is a Leninist, anyway?”

Discussions in this area often center around quotes by Gramsci in this and that setting, and I have seen Gramsci presented as both a Trotskyist and a Stalinist. I have here avoided the difficult “Leninist” term, and I will briefly explain why.

After Stalin won the power-struggle, first with Trotsky, later also with Zinovjev and Kamenjev, he put himself in a position to define what was “Leninist” and what was not in the international communist movement. From before his death Lenin was the Marxist with the decidedly highest ideological authority in current questions where Marx could not be evoked. To counter Stalin, it was therefore necessary also for those opposing him, to present their ideas as Lenin’s. After Stalin’s death, Lenin was still the only authority that could overshadow him, and Lenin was thus used also by later Soviet anti-Stalinists from Khrushchev to Gorbachev.

The term “Leninism” and who is a “Leninist” or not, as used in internal Marxist debate from 1924 until this date, has thus been completely devoid of meaning.

If we attempt to break through the heavy veil of Stalinist interpretation, to see what Lenin actually meant about Stalin’s ideas and heavy-handedness, it becomes clear he was no Stalinist. Lenin’s desperate attempts, nearing his death to remove Stalin from power, failed, and critical letters by Lenin were halted by newspaper editors. Too little too late from Lenin there, in other words. While Lenin lived, Gramsci might not have deviated greatly from his stances on various theoretical issues, but these were in reality quite different than the Stalinist interpretations that have dominated many peoples view of Lenin in later years. Gramsci did not however let himself be limited by this in later thought, as his Prison Notebooks demonstrate.

And he did have a clinch with Stalin, to which we will now turn.

One reason for the differencing opinions of Gramsci is that the climate for debate was not particularly free and open, and that Gramsci thus had to word his criticism carefully. He might then sound vague, and for a reader reading Gramsci out of context, might seem to say the opposite of what he is saying. An important example can be found in the famous letter to the Central Committee of the CP of the USSR 14. October 1926, which Gramsci wrote on behalf of the Political Bureau of the PCI.

In it he criticizes the handling of the internal split in the CPUSSR, in which Zinoviev and Kamenev had formed an alliance with Trotsky, and was now a minority opposition against Stalin and his supporters. In the relatively long letter commenting this conflict, Gramsci criticizes both factions, and stresses the importance of unity. He writes “ you are destroying your own work, you are degrading and running the risk of nullifying the leading role that the CP of the USSR has gained…” (p. 373)

In the closing paragraphs of the letter, Gramsci however distributes some blame, writing:

“Comrades Zinov’ev, Trotsky, Kamenev have contributed powerfully to educating us for the revolution, sometimes they have corrected us very forcefully and severely, they have been among our teachers. To them in particular we turn as the people most responsible for the current situation, because we want to be sure that the majority of the Central Committee of the C.P. of the U.S.S.R. does not intend to be all-conquering in the struggle and is willing to avoid excessive measures.

Here Gramsci does three things. He praises the contributions by the minority leaders. He blames them the most for the current situation, and he warns the majority (with italics and underlining) against being all-conquering and taking excessive measures.

The first point somehow blunts the subsequent criticism, and the final point may indicate that Gramsci was aware of Stalin’s tendencies toward brutality, all though they had not yet been seen in full. Yet nobody can use this to criticize Gramsci for siding with the opposition.

Was this letter uncontroversial? No, it was not. After Gramsci had sent it to Palmiro Togliatti, the latter hastily replied, criticizing it in several points. One important point he stresses is that “in the first half of your letter … you speak indifferently of all the leading Russian comrades, in other words you make no distinction between the comrades who are at the head of the Central Committee and the heads of the opposition.”(p. 384)

Gramsci’s paragraph was not early and present enough for Togliatti, but not just that. He writes later about that exact paragraph “can one claim that a small part of the blame belongs to the Central Committee? I think not.” (p. 385) Togliatti (otherwise not known as a Stalinist hardliner) seems to think that even hinting that blame may lay with Stalin and his cronies, is going way too far.

When it comes to Gramsci’s fear of repression, Togliatti is chocked: “The expression “we want to be sure” has a limitative value, i.e. by using it you want to say that YOU ARE NOT sure.” (p. 385)

In his reply to Togliatti, Gramsci concentrates on other of the more fundamental and theoretical matters, which we shall not address here, and simply brushes off these questions by telling Togliatti “…I authorized you to modify [the letters] form. You could quite easily put the two parts later on and begin instead with our affirmation of the oppositions ‘responsibility’. This line of reasoning of yours has therefore left me with an extremely bad impression.” (p. 379)

To Togliatti even the slightest hinting of error by the majority, even here, was a huge mistake, and we can see a systematic aversion against criticizing the leadership of the CPUSSR. This might of course have contributed to the fact that, Togliatti, having spent many of his active political years in Russia, never fell victim to the Stalinist purges. In this, he eventually was one of few leading communist thinkers.

Out of Lenin’s final Politburo, consisting of Zinoviev, Kamenev, Lenin, Rykov, Stalin, Tomsky and Trotsky, only Lenin and Stalin himself died of natural causes (as far as we know – there are speculations both were killed). All the rest were executed by Stalin. The same went for many, many others. It could probably be said that no man in history has orchestrated the death of so many communists as Joseph Stalin.

In this it thus seems history has granted Gramsci the sad legacy of having been right in his warnings against “excessive measures”, (and Lenin for that matter in his warnings against Stalin’s brutality).

This clearly demonstrates what was the title of this essay: A Great and Terrible Climate of Political Debate. Although these letters were written some 10 years before the Stalinist brutality reached its peak, the climate for debate was already then suffering, and scholars working on this period should take this into account when reading letters and texts from that period.

Gramsci on his hand was never a victim of Stalin. Another brutal tyrant - Mussolini - got to him first, and a very short time after these letters were published he was arrested, only to be released close to his death from harsh prison conditions 10 years later.

If nothing else, Gramsci’s correspondence with the CPUSSR, gave him training in writing carefully and in code. A training he would have to use to get his prison notebooks past the fascist censors.

All page referances are to Gramsci, Antonio, Boothman, Derek (ed.) (2014) A Great and Terrible World The Pre-Prison Letters, 1908-1926, Lawrence and Wishart

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