Friday, 24 April 1987


Paul Anderson, review of Selections from Cultural Writings by Antonio Gramsci (Lawrence and Wishart, £6.95), Tribune, 24 April 1987

Antonio Gramsci died 50 years ago at the age of 46, after more than a decade of imprisonment in fascist Italy. The "crime" for which he was imprisoned was communism. He was a founder of the Italian Communist Party (PCI) in 1921, and its leader from 1924 to his arrest (and its near-complete suppression) in 1926.

By the time of his imprisonment he had established a reputation as one of the Italian left's most incisive thinkers. But his current intellectual standing is based largely on the contents of more than 30 school exercise books he filled with notes while in prison.

The major historical reason for interest in these Prison Notebooks is that an interpretation of some of their passages by Palmiro Togliatti, the post-war leader of the PCI, provided him with the intellectual justification for the parliamentary gradualist course on which he set the PCI — a course that would lead eventually to the "Eurocommunism" of Enrico Berlinguer's PCI in the seventies.

Togliatti rightly saw that the sudden insurrectionary seizure of power by the classical Leninist party was not on the agenda in Italy, but at the same time sought to make this partial abandonment of Leninism legitimate in Leninist terms. Gramsci posthumously provided the means.

Gramsci had been an exemplary communist intellectual (a martyr, no less) who had never uttered a public word of criticism of the Comintern's lines. And yet he had argued the heterodox position that, in the developed west, where the ruling class rules more by acquiescence or consent of the ruled than by force, communists should fight not a rapid "war of manoeuvre" to smash the bourgeois state apparatus (as in Russia in 1917) but a sustained "war of position" against the whole ideological basis of the ruling class's hegemony (rule by consent or acquiescence of the ruled) in civil society.

The role of communists in this "war of position" was to be the "organic intellectuals" of the struggle, raising "national popular" demands to create and lead broad alliances against the ruling class's hegemony in every walk of life. The politics of culture was every bit as important as the achievement of state power.

There were two roots to Gramsci's heterodoxy: first, a Hegelian-humanist (and in many ways anti-Leninist) western Marxism (which, outside Italy, had, fallen victim to Comintern intellectual police action in the early twenties); and second, a deep concern with specifically Italian problems, particularly the political and cultural legacy of the nineteenth-century creation of an Italian state.

Unsurprisingly, neither the PCI nor its admirers in the Eurocommununist wing of the British Communist Party and elsewhere have been particularly keen to acknowledge the tensions between Gramsci's Leninism and his western Marxism – the Bolshevik revolution remains the communist parties' raison d'etre even today – and opening up a debate that might eventually undermine that raison d'etre is simply not in their interests. On the other hand, the PCI has made much of Gramsci's concern for the "national popular" in Italian culture, a theme that hitherto has had little influence on the PCI's British acolytes. Perhaps, though, now that Selections from Cultural Writings is available in paperback, this will change.

Selections from Cultural Writings, most of which consists of extracts from the Prison Notebooks, cotains much that is very much specific to Italy. Anyone looking for a ready-made general Marxist theory of culture will be disappointed by this collection, and anyone unfamiliar and uninterested by Italian intellectual history will find it heavy going.

Nevertheless, the book does give a fascinating insight into Gramsci's way of interpreting the world; and the admirable editing of David Forgacs and Geoffrey Nowell-Smith makes manageable the task of putting into context Gramsci's often elliptical and parochial polemics.

The Prison Notebooks extracts in Selections from Cultural Writings are ordered thematically: there's a chapter on journalism, one on the culture of Italian Catholic reaction, another on popular fiction, and so on. At times, the thematic ordering of the material is jarring: but until an edition of the complete Prison Notebooks appears in English, we'll just have to put up with that. This book is a reminder that Gramsci deserves more than being mythologised as a secular saint by fans of the modern PCI: he really ought to be read as well.


Paul Anderson, review of Antony and Cleopatra (National Theatre), Tribune, 24 April 1987

Judi Dench plays a superb, sensuous Cleopatra in the National's Antony and Cleopatra; so say all the critics, and, for a change, they're right in their unanimity. They also like Michael Bryant's worldweary Enobarbus and Tim Piggott-Smith's icy, mean Octavius — and they're right there too.

Anthony Hopkins' Antony, by contrast, has had a mixed press. Some love him; others hate him. For my taste, he is more suited to the part than he is to Lear(whom he's playing in the same theatre), but is so consistently boisterous that he becomes tedious. I wouldn't go for him if I were Cleopatra — which of course I'm not.

But don't let that put you off. Peter Hall's is an excellent production that should not be missed. It seems almost a no-nonsense staging of the play: it doesn't feel like dry-ice-plus-incredible-stage-machinery Shakespeare, even though it makes liberal use of dry ice and has large mobile crumbling colonnades that trundle across the stage at the end of every scene.

Pride of place is given to the narrative thrust of the story (it's played at lightning speed) and to the actors' interpretation of the words Shakespeare gives to his characters. Even the costumes are designed not to jar: they're a twentieth-century version of late renaissance, easing the audience into putting the play into the historical context in which it was written.

The absence of half-thought-out affectations gives a commonsense feel to the production — no doubt one reason for the sympathetic reviews it has received.

Friday, 10 April 1987


Paul Anderson, review of Sylvia Pankhurst: Porait of a Radical by Patricia Romero (Yale, £17.50), Tribune, 10 April 1987

Patricia Romero first came across Sylvia Pank­hurst as a name on an impressive tomb in Addis Ababa. Romero writes that "as a feminist" she was enthralled by Pankhurst's enthusiasm for the Ethio­pian monarchy in the period from the thirties to her death in 1960. She decided to write a monograph on Pankhurst's years in Ethiopia - but found that she couldn't do that without understanding Pankhurst's earlier lives: "the anti-fascist of the early thirties, the communist of the early twenties, and the suffragette and socialist of the nineteen-tens". Hence this biography.

The problem Romero found, as she more or less admits, was that the Sylvia Pankhurst she felt she had to understand wasn't half as interesting to her as she had hoped. Romero seems to have become first infuriated and then bored by her subject, and the result is a strangely unsympathetic and at times crass piece of work.

The crassness is nowhere more apparent than in the treatment of Pankhurst's "communist years" (roughly 1917-24). For most of this period, Pankhurst was the most prominent representative in Britain of a spontaneist, anti-parliamentarian, revolutionary council communism. Inspired by the Bolshevik revolution, Pankhurst was a prime mover in the creation of a British Communist Party and participated in several founding meetings of the Third International in Europe. She and her political allies nevertheless gave voice to beliefs deeply rooted in the strong working-class "rebel culture" that had grown up in Britain during the early years of the century through a whole series of political struggles (and which has been rediscovered by Shiela Rowbotham and others).

Perhaps because of this rootedness in domestic radicalism, Pankhurst's welcome for the Bolshevik revolution cooled rapidly as she became critical of the Russian communist leaders' imposition of political strategies and organisational structures on western communists operating in conditions quite unlike those faced by the Bolsheviks in pre-revolutionary Russia.

She was particularly critical of the way the Third International advocated parliamentarianism and affi­liation of the British communists to the Labour Party, and her paper Workers' Dreadnought increasingly became the English language mouthpiece for left communist critics of the International's "centrism" and "Bolshevisation", including Gyorgy Lukacs, Amadeo Bordiga, Herman Gorter and Anton Pannekoek.

For her pains, she was attacked by Lenin in Left Wing Communism: An Infantile Disorder, and even­tually expelled from the Communist Party for refusing to accept party discipline. She kept Workers' Dread­nought going for a while, and was involved in attempts to create a left-communist Fourth Interna­tional (which, contrary to Romero, had no­thing whatsoever to do with Trotsky), but in 1924 – broke, exhausted and disillusioned – she retired from the revolutionary left political scene.

Romero first of all fails to understand the British political context of Pankhurst's actions in this period, goes on to fail to understand the international context, and camouflages her failings with some sloppy pop psychology. She quite apparently feels intuitively that Pankhurst's left communism was wrong (which it may well have been) but has neither the inclination nor the expertise to get to grips with it, let alone give convincing reasons for her judgment.

Which is not to say that untangling the politics of the British revolutionary left in the period after the Great War is an easy task, or that the history of twenties left communism in Europe isn't complex. But secondary texts that fill in the necessary back­ground are available - Walter Kendall's The Revolutionary Left in Britain and Russell Jacoby's Dialectic of Defeat for starters – and it is scandalous that a professional historian has failed to consult them. Perhaps the moral is simbply that you shouldn't write lives of people you find rather tiresome.


Paul Anderson, review of Macbeth by William Shakespeare (Royal Shakespeare Company, Barbican), Tribune, 10 April 1987

There are moments when Adrian Noble's Macbeth comes alive, but they are few and far between in a pedestrian production.

Noble has decided to interpret the play as the story of the psychological dislocation caused to Macbeth by the frustration of his desire to have children (and thereby form a dynasty). He shifts the centre of the play's gravity away from the initial regicide to the murder of Lady Macduff and her babes, and makes much of the cooling of passion between Mr and Mrs Macbeth.

I got the idea that the pair would never have got themselves into this awful mess if they'd concentrated on sex instead of getting ambitions beyond their station. Or perhaps they could have benefited from the services of a surrogate mother.

Jonathan Pryce plays Macbeth as a little man dominated by the voices in his head, a suitable case for treatment rather than a lucid human agent wrestling unsuccessfully with the moral implications of his actions. What Pryce does he does well, but it doesn't really seem to be Macbeth: to turn Macbeth's need for authority into a matter of individual psychosis might be very twentieth century, but it's hardly what Shakespeare intended.

Apart from Pryce, the cast is mostly unremarkable. Sinead Cusack's Lady Macbeth complements Pryce's Macbeth (which is hardly a compliment); the witches (Dilys Laye, Susan Porrett and Anna Patrick) are weird and unconvincing; and Peter Guiness's Macduff is adequate. The set is impressive and the staging well done (with the seige of Dunsinane particularly spectacular). But that's not really enough to detract from the production's basic failings.