Antonio Gramsci’s Reception in Scotland
“Gramsci’s relevance to Scotland today,” wrote one young socialist in 1975, “is in his emphasis that in a society which is both mature and complex, where the total social and economic processes are geared to maintaining the production of goods and services (and the reproduction of the conditions of production), then the transition to socialism must be made by the majority of people themselves and a socialist society must be created within the womb of existing society and prefigured in the movements for democracy at the grass roots.”
Although the politics of the author have altered somewhat in the intervening years, the absence of punctuation, constipated literary style and portentous declamation of platitudes remain unchanged and may alert the reader to his identity. The author was, of course, Gordon Brown, then student Rector of Edinburgh University, here introducing The Red Paper on Scotland, a volume that in many ways represents the climax of the process by which Gramsci’s ideas were received in Scotland.
Brown was no revolutionary even then and his appropriation of Gramsci was generic rather than specific to Scotland, since there were few Western societies of which his comments would not have been true. However, two other contributors, Tom Nairn and Ray Burnett, made far more concrete use of a Gramscian approach. Their writings, together with the earlier work of Hamish Henderson and the later work of Christopher Harvie and James D. Young, established the main ways in which Gramsci would be used to analyse Scottish conditions, to which surprisingly little of any substance has subsequently been added. Angus Calder once claimed that “Gramsci’s thought has been especially influential in Scotland”. It is difficult to know how influence can be measured, but what Calder seems to have meant is that Gramsci’s thought has been applied to distinctively Scottish issues and dilemmas, rather than, as in Britain as a whole or other parts of the English-speaking world, to general problems of hegemony or revolutionary organization.
Why this should is one of the questions that I hope to answer in this article. All of the writers listed in the preceding paragraph drew attention to Gramsci’s Sardinian origins, suggesting that this gave his work a special affinity with or applicability to Scotland. For Nairn, the comparisons could be found in their levels of development: “In the past it is clear that the cultural importance of marginal and relatively backward areas of Europe, like Scotland, the Italian Mezzogiorno, Ireland or (in the nineteenth century) Russia, always depended upon a complicated inter-relationship of province and metropolitan centres.” Henderson thought that both Sardinia and Scotland had retained distinct national characteristics within the larger nations of which they were part and had a common tradition of educating the subaltern classes. (In one respect, however, he saw Scotland as being superior: “It must never be forgotten that both Gaelic and Scots, unlike Sardinian, are proud possessors of a glorious literary tradition.” ) Language is obviously central to culture and Henderson was fond of citing Gramsci’s advice to his sister, Teresina, that she should bring up her son, Franco, to speak their native Sardinian, and not “proper” Italian. In the second issue of his journal, Calgacus (1975), Burnett reproduced Henderson’s translation of the same letter with an accompanying note: “Those Marxists who would dismiss minority languages and the whole question of folk culture as insignificant may perhaps find some significance in this letter”. Young also quoted the letter as an example of both the complexity of “Gramsci’s attitude to languages” and how he had “departed from Marxist orthodoxy,” before going on to argue for the need to ensure the survival of the Scots and Gaelic languages.
What is most striking about these parallels is how inexact they are. Harvie came closer than the others by noting that, as a Sardinian, Gramsci “came from the Italian equivalent of the Scottish Highlands”. In that case the comparison is between Sardinian and Gaelic, not Scots, since–leaving aside the precise status of Scots as a language–it clearly has closer affinities with English than Sardinian has with Italian. In other respects, however, the comparison is between the Italian South as a whole, of which Sardinia was a part, and the Scottish Highlands. What is clearly not sustainable is what is implied, namely that it is possible to compare Sardinia with Scotland as a whole, and that Scotland occupies a position within Britain similar to that which Sardinia, or even the entire Mezzogiorno, occupies within Italy.
This may seem to be a trivial point about the inappropriate use of analogy; in fact it illustrates how a highly selective reading of Gramsci has been used to support certain misleading assumptions about Scotland. The publications and events through which Gramsci’s work was disseminated in Scotland produced insight as well as this type of mystification–this is why they are still worth discussing; but any attempt to map the process must therefore also address two questions raised by it: the extent to which the writers responsible were true to Gramsci’s own conceptions–where possible by referring to the texts available to them at the time–and, perhaps more importantly, how useful their appropriations were in analysing Scottish history and society.
There is only one indirect reference to Scotland in Gramsci’s writings. In a 1919 survey of the European revolutionary left for the Turin-based paper which he edited, L’Ordine Nuovo, one passage commends the “tendency represented by John Maclean,” although it describes him as being based “in England.” Gramsci was probably following Lenin’s war-time identification of those key individuals and organisations which could form the basis of a new International. A more tenuous connection can be traced from a reference in his prison notebooks to the Italian liberal educationalist, Ferrante Aporti. As the editors of the 1971 Selections from the Prison Notebooks point out, Aporti was influenced by Robert Owen’s Scottish infant school experiments after the Napoleonic Wars; the extent to which Gramsci was aware of this connection is, however, unclear. Perhaps the most significant connection, however, was the earliest and most intangible: the concept of “civil society” which emerged from the Scottish Enlightenment and was transmitted, via Hegel and Marx, to Gramsci, for whom it became a key concept in the prison notebooks.
The first direct link between the Sardinian revolutionary and Scotland was made by Hamish Henderson during the Second World War. After his death in 2002, Henderson was frequently described as a communist in obituaries, although his relationship with the Communist Part of Great Britain (CPGB) was complex and, according to his biographer Timothy Neat, there is no evidence that he ever actually joined it. Formal membership was, however, less important than it might appear: Henderson wrote for CPGB journals like Our Time, acted as a CPGB spokesman at international events and, until 1956 when he sided with the party’s internal critics, he cleaved to most of the basic tenets of Stalinism. None of which is to imply an absence of independent thought on his part during the forties and early fifties, but this relative orthodoxy had implications for his understanding of Gramsci.
Henderson was first introduced to Gramsci’s work by comrades of the 2nd Partisan Division of the Valtellina while he was serving in Italy with the British Army. He was subsequently sent the first Italian edition of the Lettere Del Carcere by Amleto Micozzi in Rome on their publication in May 1947. This edition did not, however, present the texts as written, but in edited form–partly to avoid making public those aspects of Gramsci’s personal relationships which threatened family sensitivities, but also to effectively censor his disagreements with positions taken by the Communist International (CI) and the Communist Party of Italy (PCI) during his incarceration. According to Henderson’s own account, he immediately began translating them into English, a process which involved travelling to Italy where he met Gramsci’s brother Carlo, and a visit to Cambridge to meet Gramsci’s friend and benefactor, Piero Sraffa. He completed the translations in March 1951.
What did Henderson see in Gramsci? His interests are clear from a letter to publisher John Lehmann sent in late 1949 in an attempt to persuade him that Henderson should translate the letters and Lehmann should publish them:
…a confirmed theatre goer, the first “critic” to quote and honour Pirandello and his “barn-stormers”: Gramsci applauds Ibsen and Andreieff, he anticipated George Orwell by a decade, he recognised the mythological force in Boys Stories, Westerns and Serial Romances. He saw Folk Art as the natural bedrock of all cultural developments. He planned a book on popular taste and studied popular “bad art” because of what all art tells us of the human and social reality. He exemplifies a “quality of civic courage”: the quality above all, perhaps, that modern man needs…Gramsci was a great man. Possibly one of the very few great men to have lived in this sorry century, he has a strange (Scottish) mixture of hardness and softness…
Henderson then compares Gramsci to a number of world figures including the Scots John Maclean, Norman Douglas, Thomas Carlyle and Hugh MacDiarmid.
Despite Henderson’s efforts, his translation remained largely unpublished for over 20 years. Although extracts appeared in The New Reasoner during 1959, the first substantial selection only appeared in New Edinburgh Review in 1975 and in book form in 1988, by which time Gramsci’s other works had become widely available through other sources. Gramsci was therefore first imported into Scotland, not through Henderson’s translations, but through the latter’s own writings and the enthusiasm which they conveyed. His essay assessing the post—war Scottish literary scene, “Flower and Iron of the Truth,” for example, contains references to “pluralism of the superstructures” becoming a form of mere “Alexandrian virtuosity” if disconnected from the life of the people. The reference to a plurality of ‘superstructures” in the rather than a singular superstructure, as in Marx’s own writings, indicates a distinctively Gramscian approach. Henderson also introduced Hugh MacDiarmid to Gramsci–something for which he may or may not be forgiven–in a letter of 1950. MacDiarmid went on to refer to Gramsci in his 1955 poem, “In Memoriam, James Joyce,” which rather clumsily invokes “That heroic genius, Antonio Gramsci/Studying comparative linguistics in prison”.
More important than these passing references, however, was the emphasis Henderson drew from Gramsci’s work on the political significance of folklore or what he called, “the fostering of an alternative to official bourgeois culture, seeking out the positive and “progressive” aspects of folk culture”. It was this which inspired both his work with the School of Scottish Studies at Edinburgh University and his contribution to the Scottish folk revival. But perhaps his single greatest intervention in this respect was to the establishment of the Edinburgh People’s Festival in 1951. He later described how it related to Gramsci:
Attracting people who felt excluded by the International Festival, keeping the prices low and including children–it was Gramsci in action! One of the things that attracted me to Gramsci was his great interest in popular culture. He was a Sardinian, and the Sardinian folk song is rich and bountiful and vigorous to the nth degree. When he was in prison he wrote to his mother and sisters asking for details of their folk festivals. Gramsci in action was the People’s Festival.
Speaking on BBC Radio in 1992 Henderson claimed: “What is now the largest and greatest Arts Festival in the world was kicked into being by the Edinburgh People’s Festival–by Antonio Gramsci, a dead man–and by the Communist Party.” The People’s Festival ran parallel to the International Festival of the Arts from 1951 to 1954, until it was sabotaged by Cold War politics: the Scottish TUC placed the Festival on its list of proscribed organisations and withdrew financial support, while the Labor Party declared that association with the Festival, which it essentially treated as a CPGB front organisation, was incompatible with party membership.
Henderson’s achievements then, were to identify, over thirty years before extracts from the prison notebooks dealing directly with this subject were published in English, those aspects of Gramsci’s work which were the primarily concerned with culture and to give them practical application. Use of Gramsci for this purpose was possible, however, not only because of Henderson’s personal drive and inventiveness, but because in the post-war period there was in any case a resurgence of interest in folk culture among the communist parties and their peripheries. In other words, the turn to national folk traditions may have been given a Gramscian inflection in Scotland, but the general approach was not particularly of Gramscian inspiration: the onset of the Cold War saw an assertion of the idea of national culture as a repository of popular “folk” values against the threat of American commercialisation and consumerism. In this context, Gramsci’s arguments about the importance of culture were assimilated, at a Scottish as much as a British level, to a much more conventional strategy which was profoundly hostile to the very aspects of US-produced mass culture (detective novels, Hollywood films) that he saw as important. Henderson’s admirer and fellow-poet, the historian Edward Thompson, participated in denunciations of “the American threat” in the early 1950s without any recourse to Gramsci. In the prison notebooks, Gramsci links the “the loss of [British] naval and economic supremacy,” with the fact that “its very culture is menaced by America”; but it is unlikely that he regarded this as a matter for regret. His linkage of imperial with cultural decline should also remind us that Gramsci retained the classical Marxist notion of totality; he did not, in other words, believe that culture could be understood outside of its inner connection to politics and economics.
Henderson was not the first socialist–and he would certainly not be the last–to draw from Gramsci not only inspiration, but validation for their existing positions. For, although Gramsci was indeed interested in folk culture, he was also a modernist who critically admired the work of the Italian Futurists, despite the reactionary and, in many cases, fascist nature of their politics. His desire to see folk culture taught and studied, read and performed, was partly in order to overcome what he called “the separation between modern and popular culture,” not to preserve the latter as an supposedly untainted expression of subaltern consciousness. In her history of the post-war Scottish folk music scene, Ailie Munro quoted Gramsci (via Henderson’s translation) on the significance of folk as “a separate and distinct way of perceiving life and the world”: “This profound statement implies some class alignment but goes beyond it, to the idea of the ‘man of independent mind’ who can fight back against the overpowering tide of mass consumer culture. Yesterday’s rebels may be tomorrow’s ‘officials’, but folk song continues to present the alternative, the nonconformist, the unofficial viewpoint which is perennially necessary for society’s health.” Yet Gramsci understood the “philosophical” aspect of folklore as an embodiment of “common sense,” which he saw it as an inherently contradictory world view partly composed of ruling class ideas. This was why he counterposed it to “good sense,” meaning a world view more consciously constructed on a scientific (i.e. Marxist) basis. As he wrote in a crucial passage in the notebooks: “The philosophy of Praxis does not tend to leave the ‘simple’ in the primitive philosophy of common sense, but rather to lead them to a higher conception of life.”
Nevertheless, when all these qualifications have been made, the extent of Henderson’s achievement needs to be recognised. The role of Gramsci as a theoretical mainstay of the cultural studies industry has become so familiar since the 1970s that the exceptional and innovatory nature of Henderson’s strategy, in this place (Scotland) and at that time (the early years of the Cold War) tends to be obscured. The People’s Festival in particular was not an academic exercise, not a rhetorical invocation of “cultural struggle” which never at any point leaves the seminar room, but a relatively successful public intervention in which large numbers of working class people participated.
Application (1): 1956-1968
Henderson was as dependent as everyone else on what Gramsci’s successor as leader of the PCI, Palmiro Togliatti, was prepared to authorise for publication, and political sensitivities were even greater in relation to the notebooks than the letters. In a letter to Phil Stein, a friend in the CPGB, Henderson wrote of his “respect for Togliatti himself, worthy heir to the great tradition of Gramsci” But Henderson was unaware that Togliatti had been deeply concerned by the incompatibility of the prison notebooks with Stalinist orthodoxy. “The notebooks of Gramsci, which I have finished studying, contain material which could be utilised only after a proper processing,” he wrote to CI head Georgi Dimitrov in 1941: “Without such treatments the material cannot be utilised and, in some parts, if the contents were found in their unexpurgated form, it would not be in the party’s best interest.” It was in this spirit that Togliatti “oversaw” the editing of the original Italian edition which appeared between 1948 and 1951, as part of a strategy to which simultaneously emphasised Gramsci’s supposed, but in fact wholly imaginary adherence to Stalinist doctrine, and his role as a distinctively “native” intellectual ornament for the PCI.
Access to Gramsci’s work was even more limited for those reliant on English translations–a narrow selection from work already censored. In the decade after 1956, when interest in non-Stalinist Marxism began to revive, the main works of Gramsci which were available in English were two short US-edited selections of his writings both published in 1957, extracts from Henderson’s translation of the prison letters which appeared in The New Reasoner during 1959, and rather esoteric extract from the notebooks on the subject of education published in New Left Review (NLR) during 1965. Nor were there a great number of serious commentaries. Gramsci appears in US historian Stuart Hughes’ 1958 survey of European intellectual trends between 1890 and 1930, but is subject to a relatively sophisticated Cold War treatment emphasising the supposedly “totalitarian” implications of his theory. A pioneering article from 1960 on Gramsci’s use of hegemony by the Welsh Communist Gwyn Williams was misleading and subsequently disowned by its author on these grounds. These two works were drawn on by Edward Thompson in his mid-sixties polemic with Perry Anderson who subsequently criticised him precisely for relying on such dubious secondary sources.
The second Scot to show any interest in Gramsci was one of Anderson’s colleagues on the editorial board of NLR, a young intellectual called Tom Nairn. In this case too there is a connection with the PCI interpretation of Gramsci’s work. Nairn read Gramsci in the original Italian while was studying at the Scuola Normale Superiore in Pisa, during 1957-8. One of Nairn’s first published articles, “La nemesi borghese,” appeared in the PCI’s cultural journal Il Contemporeano during 1963, but the bourgeoisie whose nemesis he recounted in Gramscian terms was that of England, not Scotland. That the PCI should have exercised an influence the hitherto apolitical Nairn was unsurprising: it was the largest a communist party in Western Europe, had the most sophisticated theoretical approach and a highly developed cultural apparatus, in many ways comparable to that of the Central European Social Democracy before the First World War: the contrast with the CPGB would have been obvious even in Nairn’s native Fife, which had a strong communist tradition by British standards. On his return to the UK, Nairn maintained his contact with the party as British correspondent for the PCI daily paper Unita, to which Henderson had also contributed, and joined the editorial Board of NLR. His partnership with Anderson produced the articles which form the basis of their famous “theses” on the backwardness of the English social formation. In “La nemesi borghese” Nairn had invoked Gramsci’s notion of “delegated authority,” in the sense of the bourgeoisie passing responsibility for political rule onto the established landowning class. It reappears in Anderson’s “Origins of the Present Crisis,” where Gramsci is invoked at the beginning of the section on “History and Class Consciousness:
Hegemony”. In the case of both articles the key passages from the prison notebooks were those eventually published in English as “Notes on Italian History”. Nairn continued to be interested in Gramsci’s ideas, and would occasionally quote from him in general terms, for example in his comment that the history of a party is really the history of a country from a particular point of view. Nairn would not begin his analysis of Scotland until the late sixties, however, and initially at least, it owed nothing directly to Gramsci.
Nairn knew Henderson, having contacted him after The New Reasoner published extracts from the prison letters in 1959. Henderson approached Nairn late in 1966, inviting him to collaborate on the project of translating and publishing the letters in their entirety. According to Timothy Neat, “Nairn gave Hamish help and advice but lacked the resources to do more.” It was now fifteen years since Henderson had completed his translation of the letters and the sheer lack of interest in them, except from other left intellectuals who were similarly lacking in institutional support, indicated the how little impact Gramsci had made on Scottish political culture or academic life. This was soon to change.
Application (2): 1968-1975
The upsurge of Scottish interest in Gramsci had three stimuli. One, general throughout the West, was the opening of a period of global revolution which began with the Vietnamese Tet Offensive in January 1968 and only ended with the sidetracking of the Portuguese Revolution in November 1975. Another, specific to Scotland but in some respects a symptom of the growing crisis, was the emergence of the Scottish National Party (SNP) as a credible electoral force with its victory at the Hamilton by-election in November 1967, although the party had been gradually building support throughout the decade. The third was that, from 1968, the accessibility of material by and about Gramsci in English began to multiply as the new revolutionaries began to explore the buried traditions of pre-Stalinist Marxism. In the immediate aftermath of the French May a collection of articles from L’Ordine Nuovo dealing with the factory councils was published in NLR and subsequently reprinted as a pamphlet by the Institute for Worker’s Control. Some serious biographical and critical works, notably those by Cammett, Pozzolini and Fiore (translated by Nairn), and articles mainly concerned with exposition began to appear in English, but these were still limited resources for those without Italian. With the appearance of Selections from the Prison Notebooks in 1971, however, the English-speaking left had direct access to substantial passages from his later work. This was of particular significance for the anti-Stalinist revolutionary groups which had begun to emerge after 1956 and which had been boosted by the events of 1968 and after. To the extent that they had previously been interested in Gramsci, it had largely been in relation to his views on party organisation. In the interim a third protagonist had entered the scene.
Ray Burnett, an Edinburgh–born, working class Catholic was a student at Aberdeen University in the late sixties and early seventies. In his own words: “Largely because of their rejection of Laborism and their ostensibly deeper interest in theory and political analysis I gravitated towards and then joined the principal group on the Trotskyist left, the ‘International Socialists’ [IS]”. Burnett had originally been far more concerned with Irish than Scottish issues and travelled to the North at Easter 1969 to take part in first Belfast to Dublin civil rights march. In the sections of his book, War and an Irish Town, devoted to his personal experience of the civil rights movement, Eamonn McCann noted: “With Ray Burnett, a Scottish comrade, then a member of IS, who had been hitching around Ireland and been given a lift in the middle of a riot, I drafted a leaflet which by seven o’clock was being distributed as ‘Barricade Bulletin No. 2’.” Burnett subsequently took part in the Derry Defence Committee.
For Burnett, the publication of the Selections from the Prison Notebooks encouraged him to look at “the peculiarities of the Scottish for a change, rather than the English”. In 1972 the Edinburgh-based cultural magazine, Scottish International, published his major contribution to Gramsci studies, “Scotland and Antonio Gramsci”. Burnett surveyed the views of Scottish left-wingers towards the question: “What does ‘Scotland’ mean or what should it mean to him [sic] as an advocate of socialism.” The answer, he thought, would be “very little”. Burnett discerned three tendencies within the Scottish left, each with their own way of ignoring the issue. The first, an amorphous ‘social” tendency around students and the underground, was not concerned with Scotland at all, but with “the global deterioration of life under advanced industrial society” to which it counterposed solutions that essentially revolved around lifestyle politics. The second consisted of those political tendencies, usually of Trotskyist descent, which organised at a British level and did recognise Scottish problems, but only as specific examples of those generally faced by other declining industrial regions in advanced capitalism, “no different from [those of] any other distressed region of England, viz. unemployment and low wages”. The third tendency, the left nationalist parties and groups organised at a Scottish level, did indeed recognise a distinct Scottish dimension to politics, but their analysis relied on the myth that Scottish was a colony of England, a position which Burnett rightly rejected. The tendency to which Burnett allocated the greatest proportion of the blame for failing to take the Scottish Question seriously was the second, with which he himself was aligned, since it had the most potential to do so:
The truth of the matter is that those who formulate the basic theories of the Left in these islands simply do not see anything specific about Scotland other than a geographical district and an ephemeral political movement which can be summed up and dismissed in classic terms with contemptuous ease and a few choice quotes from Lenin. … Rather than face up to the awkward question of what ‘Scotland” is, as opposed to what Scottish Nationalism is, the formal left have pretended that it does not exist.
Burnett found that the approach of the IS, although generally more sophisticated than its competitors, had one thing in common with them: “There was some fine writing, some good incisive critique of several aspects of the contemporary social order. But invariably the source material, the statistics, the examples, the references were all derived from the social, political and cultural complexities of England. And for the most part it was accepted. In Aberdeen, as elsewhere, we not only read them, we sold them and promoted them as valid critiques of our situation. In reality they were not.” What Burnett calls “a suffocating Englishness” meant more than a refusal to analyse those aspects of the Scottish experience that were distinctive within Britain, it involved a attitude which he found “ferociously anti-Scottish,” as if any interest in Scottish conditions was the antechamber to Scottish nationalism–an object of ritual denunciation on the basis of classical (but often contradictory) Marxist texts from time of the First World War.
It was to remedy this situation that Burnett turned to Gramsci and, in particular, the passages which seemed to distinguish between different revolutionary strategies. Burnett’s purpose in referring to the famous distinction between a war of position in the West and war of manoeuvre in the East, supposedly required because of the greater strength of civil society in the former, was not to advocate a reformist strategy, as he made clear, both in this essay and subsequently in The Red Paper on Scotland. Rather, it was to draw attention to the need to understand the nature of civil society in Scotland, if this was indeed, to be the battleground in a prolonged war of position:
…while we have a homogenous British state it must be noted that the organisations and institutions in civil society which compromise its bulwarks and defences have an azoic complexity the most significant feature of which is for us is that civil society in Scotland is fundamentally different from that in England. What is more, much of our shared “British” ideology, as it manifests itself in Scotland, draws its strength and vigour from a specifically Scottish heritage of myths, prejudices and illusions.
Burnett is thinking in second quoted sentence about the Scottish contribution to British imperialism and anti-Catholic Irish racism. He then goes on to make a claim which was startling at the time, although it since become part of the common sense of left in Scotland: “Furthermore, even political society, the State in its ethico-political sense, does not have the same external façade in Scotland as it does down south.” Burnett ended by referring to Gramsci’s note, “Against Byzantianism,” with its call for concrete application of universal theory to specific situations: “Applying this to our own situation, the left must look again at its own practice of using formulae developed elsewhere to combat nationalism in debate instead of defeating it by deflecting these truths through a Scottish prism and thereby presenting a superior understanding of our problems.”
Burnett’s argument did not involve support for Scottish nationalism or independence, or even for the setting up of a specifically Scottish section of the IS, but rather the adoption of an approach which would both “cherish the diverse contributions of the flowering Makar and the rantin’ ploughboy, the radical weaver, the passionate Gael, and the rovin’ tinker,” and also address the specificities of contemporary Scotland. In the short-to-medium term this made no impact on his erstwhile organisation and Burnett had left the IS by the time it transformed itself into the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) in late 1976, its existing attitude to Scottish issues intact. As Neil Williamson noted, in his account of the Scottish revolutionary left after 1968: “Typical…was the election campaign leaflet of Peter Porteus of the SWP in the 1978 Garscadden by-election where the entire issue of devolution, the Assembly and self-determination did not rate a mention in one of his leaflets.”
Meanwhile, Burnett took a new initiative. In April 1973 he invited Henderson to speak at a conference he had organised at Marischal College in Aberdeen called “What Kind of Scotland?”
With the help of some non-aligned friends I put together a “Teach-in on Scottish culture” with over 50 invited contributors and a wide range of questions and topics spread over a weekend. The programme material bears unmistakeable traces of Gramscian influences which is not surprising given the central aim of the exercise was to get the left interested in all the diverse aspects and questions of Scottish culture which the left had almost entirely ignored.
The event received a mixed reception, with the revolutionary left being particularly sceptical; but Burnett later described to Timothy Neat how, as a result of Henderson’s intervention from the floor and their subsequent discussions, “he changed my life that day”.
Further initiatives, more directly related to Gramsci were now being taken by others on the left. The first National Day Conference on Gramsci to be held in Britain took place at Edinburgh University in June 1974 and the proceedings then published along with other papers in three special issues of the New Edinburgh Review, under the somewhat eccentric editorship of Maoist anthropologist Charles Keith Maisels. The first two of these issues also carried Henderson’s translation of the Prison Letters in their entirety for the first time. Burnett was, however, increasingly removed from these developments. He subsequently moved to Wester Ross to produce a quarterly journal called Calgacus, after the quasi-mythical Pictish warrior whom Tacitus credited with resisting the Romans at the Battle of Mons Gropius. The editorial board (which never met) included Henderson, the playwright John McGrath and the poet Sorley Maclean; but Calgacus’s combination of Celtic nationalism, folk revivalism and revolutionary socialism lasted for only three issues before succumbing to bankruptcy in autumn 1975.
The CPGB in Scotland, aware that the legacy of Gramsci–a nominally orthodox communist thinker–was being increasingly appropriated by the revolutionary left, attempted to recuperate him for the British Road to Socialism. The position was beginning to be emerge among the student membership of the party in England that Gramsci might be considered an alternative, rather than a supplement to Leninist tradition as they understood it; but this had no influence in Scotland at this stage. In Neil Rafeek’s oral history of Scottish women members of the CPGB, one of his interviewees, Frieda Park, describes her puzzlement while attending the Communist University of London in 1974: “That was the first time I’d come across people who said ‘I prefer Gramsci to Lenin’.” Far more typical were these comments from a 1974 article by David Whitfield in Scottish International, where Burnett had first launched his appeal for Gramscian analysis two years previously.
First, the author identifies what he sees as the limitations of Burnett’s own analysis, namely that it gave “very little indication…of the precise nature of Gramsci’s insight, or of the specific use to which it might be put in improving an analysis of Scottish politics,” then pointing out that “Scottish legal traditions, religious traditions, educational traditions, recreational traditions, all differ from those of the rest of Britain”. Apparently oblivious to the fact that these were precisely the points Burnett had made, Whitfield then continued:
The struggle to undermine the Scottish hegemony [sic] must therefore take place within its peculiarly Scottish context, and requires a party of the Left aware of and dedicated to the needs of Scotland, allying the demands of nationalism to those of the organised working class. But because the struggle cannot be located exclusively in Scotland, a wider alliance, an international alliance for socialism is necessary. The Scottish hegemony can fall only as the influence of capitalism in Britain as a whole declines.
Here we have the CPGB’s standard Popular Frontism refreshed with a barely-understood Gramscian terminology, for unless references to “the Scottish hegemony” mean “the exercise of bourgeois hegemony in Scotland,” the term is simply meaningless.
Burnett’s position did, however, receive support in the same journal from what might at first appear an unexpected source, Tom Nairn, who commended Burnett’s work in an open letter to Scottish International, describing “Antonio Gramsci and Scotland” [sic] as “one of the best articles you’ve published” and opined that: “I think that Gramsci today, whether he was considering Scotland or his own Sardinia, would try to set the problem [of nationalism] in a European context.” Nairn was to join the editorial board of Calgacus for its brief existence but, more to the point, starting from Burnett’s interpretation of Gramsci, Nairn’s own work began to reflect the influence of the latter. The context was the decline of Nairn’s brief revolutionary enthusiasm and his reconsideration of Scottish nationalism.
Nairn had been highly critical of Trotskyism in general and the IS in particular in “The Left against Europe?” The Trotskyist Burnett had, however, suggested a Gramscian interpretation of Scottish history and society which supported the move Nairn now wanted to make. In his major contribution to The Red Paper on Scotland, “Old Nationalism and New Nationalism,” Nairn quoted Burnett and extended his analysis in a direction far more sympathetic to Scottish nationalism–or at any rate, Scottish independence–than Burnett’s original article. Nairn now argued that, like several other areas in Western Europe, Scotland was experiencing the rise of what he called “neo-nationalism”. In the Scottish case, the arrival of American-based oil companies in the North Sea had provided a functional equivalent of the imperialist intrusions which had provoked “modernising,” “developmental” nationalisms of which Scotland had previously no need.
Drawing on the same sections of the prison notebooks as Burnett, Nairn goes beyond pleas to recognise the distinctiveness of Scottish culture to make a case for its uniqueness. Nairn starts from Gramsci’s distinction between pre-capitalist and capitalist ruling classes, and the respective relationships between their states and civil society: the former is essentially one of dominance, the latter of hegemony: “The main point about this modern State-society relationship–quite distinct from that of Antiquity or feudalism–is that through it the whole people become part of society, really for the first time.” The emergence of capitalist society is characterised by unevenness, resulting from different chronologies of development and respective starting points; but each civil society tended to be, or to become, coterminous with a particular state. Scotland was the exception, an anomaly which retained a distinct national identity within a larger geographical state, rather than being absorbed as a mere province of one or another of the great European powers, as had happened to so many other potential nations. Why was this? It was certainly the case that the majority of the Scottish ruling class welcomed the Union of 1707 as a means of development, but they were essentially the type of “essentially conservative” group Gramsci saw are characteristic of feudalism. The state into which Scotland was absorbed at the behest of this ruling class was quite distinct in Europe at the time in being “post absolutist,” “the very prototype of the modern development Gramsci indicates: that “revolution of the bourgeois class” which involved the progressive “absorbing of the entire society” into the new State-society relationship emblemized in nationalism”. But the absorption of Scottish society into Britain had created a problem of national identity in Scotland, one which was insoluble under the Union. The absence of statehood meant Scotland could not become a nation like others: “The problem of its bourgeoisie therefore became–put in the starkest terms–one of naturalizing or repressing the country’s more distinctive and proto-national features.” They chose repression and the consequent formation of a “neurotic” culture characterised by grotesque levels of kitsch.
This was undoubtedly a substantial and serious attempt to apply Gramscian concepts to Scottish history. The transformation of Scotland after 1746 was comparable with that of Italy after 1859–the model of “passive revolution” discussed by Gramsci at several points in the notebooks. Nairn was clearly aware of these parallels. In a subsequent discussion of works by Hobsbawm, Smout and Wallerstein, for example, he referred to how: “The Improvers–lairds, lawyers, clerical moderates, professors entrepreneurs–argued for an undemocratic revolution-from-above; argued and won.” Unfortunately Nairn did not develop these insights further. Referring to Burnett’s invocation of “our specifically Scottish heritage of myths, prejudices and illusions,” he wrote: ““All I have tried to do is indicate in some general ways how that heritage is accessible to discussion in the Gramscian terms which he proposed.” In effect, his use of Gramsci had been to establish an historical analysis upon which to base the contemporary political position he now wanted to adopt–an emphasis with which there could be no dispute were it not that the analysis itself contained several distortions.
At one point Nairn referred to the role of the Scottish bourgeoisie in achieving the necessary degree of national “repression” and in this context invoked Gramsci again:
What is remarkable in the Scottish case is its success and solidity, and the degree to which it was self-administered. Gramsci used a story, “The Fable of the Beaver,” to illustrate the acquiescence of the Italian bourgeoisie in fascism: “The beaver, pursued by trappers who want his testicles from which medicinal drugs can be extracted, to save his life tears off his own testicles…” … Adapting the fable to our argument one might say: in the 19th century the Scottish bourgeoisie could hardly help becoming conscious of its inherited cojones to some extent, its capacity for nationalism: but since this consciousness conflicted with its real, economic interests in an unusual fashion, it was forced to–at least–repress or “subliminate” the impulse itself.
There are two problems with this passage. First, it is evident from Gramsci’s discussion after the “Fable” that he not referring to the Italian bourgeoisie, but to the passivity of the Italian Socialist Party and trade union movement in the face of Mussolini. Second, the comparison which Nairn wants to make here between the Scottish and Italian bourgeoisies is in any case completely misleading, and indicates the direction which his analysis was about to take. Most members of the Italian bourgeoisie welcomed Mussolini as their saviour from the socialist threat: it did not “acquiescence” in the face of the fascism but embraced it, at least until the alliance with Germany threatened the destruction of the Italian state from Allied invasion and popular insurrection. Similarly, as Nairn himself made quite clear on other occasions, the nascent Scottish bourgeoisie was not emasculated by the Union; the Union established the conditions for its rise to power. The purpose of this comparison is effectively to naturalise nationalism, so that the failure of the Scottish bourgeoisie to produce a political nationalism represents a form of sickness, a failure which now has to be overcome if health is to be restored. Nairn’s claim that entire nations can suffer from neurosis and whole social classes practice sublimation indicates that his theoretical basis has moved some way from Gramsci towards Freud.
Nairn dismissed the earlier optimistic analysis of “The Three Dreams of Scottish Nationalism” as based on “two misjudgements”: “the left had pinned too much faith on the rationality of working class based struggle (understood as a potentially international force), and far too little upon the non-rational strengths of nationalism.” For Nairn, socialists had little option but to accept the continued influence of nationalism: “In my view it has become totally inadmissible to oppose such tendencies in the name of an abstract internationalism, a universal socialist or class struggle which exists only in aspiration”. By now Gramsci has vanished from the horizon altogether. In the Prison Notebooks he had argued that revolutionaries had a responsibility to actively participate in bringing about the socialist world they wished to see: “In reality one can “foresee” to the extent that one acts, to the extent that one applies a voluntary effort and therefore contributes concretely to creating the result “foreseen”. Prediction reveals itself thus not as a scientific act of knowledge, but as the abstract expression of the effort made, the practical way of creating a collective will.” The failure of the class struggle in the early 1970s to achieve socialism might, in these terms, have involved a failure of the Left, including Nairn himself, to “contribute concretely to creating the result foreseen,” rather than the structural incapacity of the working class to free itself from nationalist influence. But Nairn increasingly saw Scottish nationalism as a substitute for the inability of the working class to destroy the British state: “More than any other factor, more even than the miners’ strikes of 1972 and 1974, it has exposed the senility of the old consensus and its two party system.”
These hyperbolic claims for the significance of Scottish nationalism did not, however, involve any sympathy for Scottish culture. Perry Anderson once revealed how Isaac Deutscher had described his and Nairn’s treatment of English history and society as involving the “rhetoric of deprecation” amounting in his eyes to a form of “national nihilism”. But there is a sense in which Nairn treats Scotland in the same way, as more conventional, less instrumentalist nationalists have complained. If Henderson and to a lesser extent Burnett exaggerated the oppositional qualities of folk culture, Nairn barely recognises that they exist. With the exception of works of High Modernism such as MacDiarmid’s A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle (1926), which Nairn invokes positively on several occasions, he treats Scottish culture as if it were nothing but the Sunday Post and Dr Finlay’s Casebook writ large. If for Henderson popular culture is the Voice of the People, hostile to bourgeois culture, for Nairn it is the Voice of D. C. Thompson, trapped within it. There is no sense in either position that culture is a field of contradiction and conflict played out in consciousness, but the latter is the most immediately debilitating by way of its pessimism. “Nationalism could only have worked,” Nairn wrote later in 1975, “because it actually did provide the masses with something real and important–something that class consciousness postulated in a narrowly intellectualist mode could never have furnished, a culture which however deplorable was larger, more accessible, and more relevant to mass realities than the rationalism of our Enlightenment inheritance.” Here again the echoes are not of Gramsci, but of Althusser, with his insistence on the inescapability of ideology. For Gramsci, the subaltern cannot already spontaneously possess complete non-ideological knowledge of the world under capitalism, but from their existing partial, contradictory understanding they can achieve it and it is the task of revolutionaries to assist in this: “If [Marxism] affirms the need for contact between intellectuals and simple [i.e. the term used by the Roman Catholic Church for the masses] it is not in order to restrict scientific activity and preserve unity at the low level of the masses, but precisely in order to construct an intellectual–moral bloc which can make politically possible the intellectual progress of the mass and not only of small intellectual groups.” For Nairn this aspiration had become a utopia.
Application (3): 1975-1979
The publication of The Red Paper on Scotland in February 1975 was closely followed by that of Michael Hechter’s Internal Colonialism, a discussion of Scotland and the other nations belonging to what the author called the British “Celtic fringe”. Hechter’s work was unique in a Scottish context, both at that time and since, in that, although it mention’s Gramsci only in passing, it does so in relation an important work written prior to his imprisonment, “Some Aspects of the Southern Question” (1926), referring to the 1957 edition of The Modern Prince. Hechter offered Gramsci’s discussion of the Mezzogiorno as an early example of the concept of internal colonialism. Yet he also added that the term fitted less well in Scotland than in Ireland, or even Wales, as a consequence of much more complex situation, a point which he emphasised more strongly in a 1982 retrospective on the debates of the previous decade. In another respect, however, Hechter’s book was the first sign of what was come. Although he identified with particularly American type of non-Marxist radical sociology (Immanuel Wallerstein and Charles Tilly are both acknowledged in the Preface), he wrote as an academic and published under the highly respectable imprint of Routledge and Kegan Paul: this was a wholly different environment from Scottish International, or even NLR.
Yet the same trend was underway in Scotland. 1977 saw the publication of both Nairn’s The Break-Up of Britain, which incorporated a revised version of “Old and New Nationalism” and Christopher Harvie’s Scotland and Nationalism, which continued the debate opened by Burnett and continued by Nairn. Harvie later described the participants, including himself, as “aggressive rationalists who didn’t really know the kind of material we had to deal with”: “Scotland and Nationalism was really a book written at the end of a period. It reeked of “the lessons of 1968”; it assumed that libertarian-Marxist intellectuals purged of false doctrine were going to ride the horse of nationalism as a new governing elite.” There were, however, several important differences between Harvie’s work and that of all his predecessors, which this retrospective assessment rather elides. His engagement with Gramsci did not take place at a time of optimism and opportunity for the left, which in their various and overlapping ways 1945, 1956 and 1968 had been for Henderson, Nairn and Burnett, but at the end of the revolutionary period symbolised by the latter date–something already recognised by Nairn, although his default pessimism led him to announce the onset of the downturn before it had really begun. But by 1977 the situation had clearly changed: only two years on from the publication of The Red Paper on Scotland, Harvie was already treating it as a historical document, recording the vanished illusions of a time now past: “The university intellectuals who contributed to the Red Paper had moved to a position of political involvement. But their prospective allies were far from evolving the conscious proletarian intelligentsia of Gramsci’s vision.” Instead “the people of the tower blocks and bleak estates” were turning to nationalism. Although Harvie refers here to “university intellectuals who contributed to The Red Paper,” less than half the contributors (14 out of 29) fell into this category at the time of publication and these did not include many of the most radical (Burnett and Nairn, but also McGrath). Indeed, the Scottish Gramscians had only limited, tenuous and uncertain relationships with Higher Education: Henderson and Nairn were intermittently or peripherally employed there and Burnett worked as a school teacher rather than a university lecturer. Harvie, on the other hand, progressed through the conventional academic route and was employed as a history lecturer with the Open University at the time Scotland and Nationalism was published. He remained a political activist, particularly in relation to the question of devolution which loomed large in Scottish politics as the decade staggered to an end. In occupational location, however, he was closer to Hechter and this in turn suggests the process by which the “man of letters” or free-lancing intellectuals, such as those who had originally brought Gramsci to Scotland, were beginning to be replaced by professional academics–although this of course a general process across the West.
Harvie was also at this time a member of the Labor Party. So too, of course, was Gordon Brown–but although Brown enabled the publication of authors attempting to discuss Gramsci’s work, he made no serious attempt to do himself. Harvie was therefore the first of Gramsci’s Scottish interlocutors not to have belonged to the far left, in one form or another. Of course, in small country with a highly concentrated population and relatively few media outlets like Scotland, the boundaries between the different sections of the left have always been relatively fluid: Harvie was, for example, later to share editorial board duties with Nairn on the short-lived Bulletin of Scottish Politics (1980-1), a journal which published figures from both the SNP left like Stephen Maxwell and then-Trotskyists like George Kerevan. Harvie’s intervention signalled two changes in Gramsci’s reception in Scotland, both indicative of the way in which indicated the mainstreaming of Gramsci, the Leninist and revolutionary, was becoming suitable case for academic citation and reformist appropriation. How did he put Gramsci to use?
Early in his book, Harvie argues that the historical relationship of the Union to Scottish nationalism, “underline[d] many of the insights of one European political thinker whose influence on the reorientation of socialist thought has been considerable, not least in Scotland”: “Influenced by Croce as well as Marx, [Gramsci] challenged the latter’s crude generalisations about nationalism. He was preoccupied by the way in which the masses were persuaded to accept “civil society” (a phrase originated in eighteenth-century Scotland) which sustained the dominant political and economic groups, and he attributed the critical function to the intellectuals. Intellectual history thus becomes, in Gramsci’s view, as in mine, the key to understanding why nationalist movements emerge.” Even this short extract suggests that the new academic context did not necessarily led to greater levels of understanding or accuracy. Harvie has written a number of valuable historical works, of which in many ways Scotland and Nationalism is one, but his grasp of Marxist theory has always been somewhat tenuous, to say the least. The masses are not “persuaded to accept “civil society”,” since civil society is simply those non-economic social relationships which are outside the state–the masses are part of civil society; the question for Gramsci was how they were persuaded to accept the capitalist system, and even then only partially (“contradictory consciousness”). How, in other words, does the bourgeoisie achieve and maintain its hegemony? In part the problem here is simply the type of slapdash formulation which recurs throughout Harvie’s work; but there are deeper misunderstandings at work. He retrospectively described himself as working, like Nairn, under the influence of the “Marxist contagion”. More specifically:
…both Nairn and I depended on Gramsci’s notion of the balance of “organic” and “traditional” intelligentsias. Like Marx, Gramsci saw political praxis occurring where intellectual “understanding” combined with the desperation of the proletariat. Arguing to some extent from Britain in 1848, where the intellectuals inhibited rather than furthered revolutionary change, he divided them into two: an “organic” intelligentsia who were essentially the experts of the industrial economy, whose ethic could affect the proletariat in the course of its work; and a “traditional” intelligentsia which, in education, law and medicine, served the conservative order. The latter can change (its commitment to “values” may even make it–or some of its members–a radical force in a crisis) but it usually influences its less focussed “organic” intellectuals in a conservative direction.
It is true that Gramsci believed intellectuals could be divided into traditional and organic groups, but the rest of this passage involves a distortion of what he meant by them. As Peter Thomas puts it: “These “traditional intellectuals” were, in fact, the organic intellectuals of a previously emergent and now consolidated and dominant class, unwilling, at best, or, at worst, unable, to recognise their continuing political function.” Ruling classes do not generally require organic intellectuals except in the period when they are still struggling for dominance: once installed in power, the organic will become the traditional in their turn. In relation to the bourgeoisie-in-power, a partial exception might be made for those periods in which a major reconstruction or reorientation of capital is required, such as the shift to neoliberalism in the 1970s: here the role of intellectual advocacy on the part of free-market think-tanks had a supporting role, but the decisive factor was in every case the application of state power.
Harvie writes of how: “In the twentieth century Gramsci marvelled at the way in which the ‘traditional intelligentsia’ of the British professions had pre-empted the role of the ‘organic intelligentsia’ produced by industrial capitalism.” In fact, members of the “British professions” acted as organic rather than traditional intellectuals. The crucial distinction is not one of different occupations, but of social roles. Harvie’s misunderstandings in this respect led to several misconceptions about Scottish history. In relation to the Reformation we are told: “In Scotland…the ‘traditional intelligentsia’ that Calvinism created anticipated the ‘organic’ managerial intelligentsia of capitalism.” Similarly, in relation to the Enlightenment (here Harvie is summarising the argument of Scotland and Nationalism in a later essay): “…during the Enlightenment the traditional intelligentsia–clergy, lawyers, and landowners–pre-empted the functions of the organic intelligentsia. Their expertise in the social sciences, invention and entrepreneurship, thus inoculated the country against any awkward radicalism on the part of this group.” The Calvinist clergy did not “anticipate,” nor did the Enlightenment intelligentsia “pre-empt” the functions of the organic intellectuals–they were the organic intellectuals of their respective periods. Gramsci saw the organic intellectual as being a revolutionary category, which meant that, in the context of his own time, he mainly thought of them in relation to the working class. This is why he writes of how: “…Ordine Nuevo worked to develop certain forms of new intellectualism and to determine its new concepts…since such a conception corresponded to latent aspirations and conformed to the development of real forms of life. The mode of being of the new intellectual can no longer consist in eloquence…but in active participation in practical life, as constructor, organiser, ‘permanent persuader’ and not just a simple orator.”
Harvie’s misconceptions were minor, however, compared to the phantasmagoric claims made at the end of the decade in James Young’s The Rousing of the Scottish Working Class (1979). Here we learn, for example, that “the contradictions in Gramsci’s thought which led him to advocate ‘civilising’ and emancipating the workers from ‘vicious habits like alcoholism’ at the same time as he thought to use populism, social banditry, mysticism and millenarianism as weapons in the struggle to overthrow capitalism”. Young was a long-term socialist activist who had been associated with several organisations, which briefly included the forerunners to IS, the Socialist Review Group, and was at this point working as History lecturer at Stirling University. Drawing on Hechter’s work he wrote that: “Scottish society [was] pushed into a subordinate role [as] a victim of ‘internal colonisation’ with an economy peripheral to the core of British capitalism, and with institutions dominated by the ‘conquering metropolitan elite’.” Young did attempt to establish a more direct connection with Gramsci by linking concept of internal colonialism to that of hegemony, quoting the classic exposition from the prison notebooks: “The ‘normal’ exercise of hegemony on the now classical terrain of the parliamentary regime is characterised by the combination of force and consent, which balance each other reciprocally, without force predominating excessively over consent. Indeed, the attempt is always made to ensure that force will appear to be based on the consent of the majority, expressed by the so-called organs of public opinion–newspapers and associations–which, therefore, in certain situations, are artificially multiplied.” Young then applies this general formula to Scotland: “However, as Scotland was an internal colony without its own State apparatus, it was necessary for the possessing class to depend on ideological indoctrination and consensus to a much greater extent than occurred in most other, industrial societies.” This passage consists of a series of non-sequitors. Why would the bourgeoisie in Scotland need its own apparatus when it had that of the British state? Would it not be more plausible for an ‘internal colony’ to require greater exercise of force than consent? And, without in any way accepting the internal colony thesis, is it not the case that, historically, Scotland was–initially at least–subject to greater exercise of force than England, both in the suppression of the Radical movement of the 1790s and the shop steward’s movement during the First World War?
In retrospect, the work of Harvie and Young, with all its confusions, represents the last moment in Gramsci’s introduction into Scotland by native thinkers on the Left. The decade which had opened so promisingly had not ended with Gramsci’s ideas being assimilated in any serious way. When the Trotskyist writer Neil Williamson came to give an assessment of the Scottish revolutionary left in the decade since 1968, one of his reflections was that “there must have been few who thought that these Gramscian plants produced around 1973 would find the Scottish left such stony soil”. Yet, looking back from the other side of the eighties in 1994, Lindsay Paterson could note how: “The writings of Antonio Gramsci…became popular among the Scottish left.” Which ideas had become popular and why?
During the 1970s Gramsci had been used by the PCI to promote the turn towards Eurocommunism, in much the same way as he had been used to promote all its previous strategic turns since 1943. In this case, however, it signalled something qualitatively different: the open acceptance of reformist positions which had traditionally been associated with Social Democracy. As Nairn’s former colleague Perry Anderson pointed out in a celebrated article from 1976, this distorted Gramsci’s Leninist insistence on the need to overthrow bourgeois state power; but Anderson also argued that certain ambiguities in Gramsci’s own formulations had allowed the distortion to be carried out with some credibility. Anderson may have been less than fair to Gramsci in the later respect, but his concern for how Gramscian concepts were increasingly being used was only too well-founded.
In Britain, the main instrument for transforming Gramsci into a vulgar liberal was the organ of the Eurocommunist wing of the CPGB, Marxism Today. Prior to the 1980s ascendancy of this journal, the very few discussions of Scotland by party members which used Gramscian terms went little beyond the historical arguments advanced by Nairn. In the collectively written volume, Scottish Capitalism, produced by CPGB academics in 1980, the argument draws on the same passages from ‘state and Civil Society” as Nairn had done to argue essentially the same case for the specificity of Scotland within the Union. Nor did this change, as Neil Rafeek notes: “The reformers who identified with Marxism Today and who emphasized the importance of Gramsci [in England] did not have counterparts in Scotland.” What occurred instead was that the Marxism Today interpretation of Gramsci, rendered in its most sophisticated form by Stuart Hall, entered Scottish political life in a much more diffuse way, the various elements being accepted as (and here the term is used in Gramsci’s sense) the “common sense” of the left on the subject. Henderson, for example, whose formal links with the CPGB had been severed many decades before, was broadly supportive of the project, writing: “Mention must be made of the role of Marxism Today in applying Gramscian methods of political and cultural analysis to the concrete situation in Thatcher’s Britain.”
It was in culture and art that this particular interpretation of Gramsci loomed largest. Pat Kane, one half of pop duo Hue and Cry, noted of their first hit. “Labor of Love,” from 1987: “’Withdraw my labor of love’, the hookline, was a straight Leftist metaphor, the summit of my argument derived from Gramsci (and shamelessly cribbed from Marxism Today) about how Thatcherism was exercising ‘hegemony’ over the working classes: ‘loved you putting me down in a totally new way’, said the song’s speaker, a reference to the way Thatcher’s rhetoric of individualism was a new a subtle exercise of authority over the popular consensus.” The influence extended to more traditional art forms. Also during 1987, for example, the exhibition, The Vigorous Imagination: New Scottish Art, opened at the Gallery of Modern Art in Edinburgh in August and included Ken Currie’s “The Self-Taught Man,” in which a Clydeside shipyard worker is depicted reading a book with word “Gramsci” on the front cover. In another painting (“Glasgow Triptych: Young Glasgow Communists”) a young woman sits on a pile of books, one of which is by Gramsci, addressing her male comrades. According to Currie’s own commentary, this represents a rejection of “traditional” methods of struggle in favour of a “totally new approach” based on “adherence to the new and controversial ideas of Gramsci”. Henderson saw it as deeply significant: “That a Scottish working-class intellectual–a stubborn survivor in Thatcher’s Britain–should be interested in Gramsci’s thought in the 1980s is readily comprehensible.” Yet as Calder noted of Currie: “His famous image of the Self-Taught Man reading Gramsci has in the background the neon lights which typify the Glasgow night culture of pubs, boxing and gambling which Currie (who, without sectarianism, sees virtues in the Calvinist tradition) holds in moral contempt.”
Currie’s work embodies a more general problem. In a critique of Currie’s aesthetics, Paul Wood extended the argument to embrace the entire interpretation of Gramsci which had come to be dominant by the late eighties. Pointing out the fact that Gramsci was “a leader of factory occupations, a Bolshevik supporter, and a delegate to the International,” Wood noted these central elements of his life and work had been ignored or suppressed by a communist movement increasingly bound to national and reformist roads to socialism, but intent on using Gramsci as left cover for the abandonment of revolutionary politics. Wood recognised that there was a “positive side” to the way Gramsci was being used, notably “an address to the specific and particular conditions of local cultures,” but:
This aspect of the legacy of Gramsci, particularly in countries like Wales and Scotland, requires very careful debate. It reaches beyond the academic or artistic into areas of real strategy and policy: that is into areas where people’s lives are affected directly. There is no question that more–and or less–sophisticated advocacy of arguments about the production of national-popular culture has been a powerful pole of attraction in the recent period; not least because that period has witnessed a cyclical downturn in class-based militancy; and not least in Scotland. It is fairly common to find sections of the left arguing for the need to re-appropriate patriotism from the Right, for the articulation of a Left nationalism against, e.g., the depredations of multi-national capital. It is the terms of any such national-popular culture of resistance which require close scrutiny.
There was nothing particularly Scottish about most of the themes involved, whether the critique of so-called economism, the emphasis on the construction of political identity, the need for class alliances, the prioritisation of culture and ideology as sites of contestation, or the endlessly invoked ‘struggle for hegemony”; but in the context of the Thatcher regime and the rise of support for devolution in Scotland as a means of escaping it, one particular aspect of this new Gramsci had a more political resonance, to which Wood alludes: the “national-popular”. The editors of the Selections from the Prison Notebooks had cannily warned in 1971 that Gramsci intended this as “a cultural concept…radically alien to any form of populism or ‘national-socialism’.” However, in a topsy-turvy context where an essentially political concept like hegemony could be treated as cultural, it made perfect sense for an essentially cultural concept like the national-popular to be to be treated as political.
There were of course variations, depending on whether writers were using Gramsci to support classically reformist positions or those of the SNP left. Here for example is the conclusion to an article by Paul Tritschler on of the editors of the left journal, Radical Scotland in 1986: “To take a national approach…is not at variance with socialist objectives. Indeed, the party, for Gramsci, must pose the solution to the oppression of the working class and social movements within the context of the nation’s particular cultural orientations and traditions.” The “party” here–although Tritschler acknowledges its current failings–is the Labor Party. But here is a very similar argument from two adherents of a short-lived socialist current within the SNP, now entirely extinct, which appeared in print under the rubric of “national popular publications”: “National relations are the result of a combination which is original and unique and that the struggle must therefore exist within its own historical, cultural and geographic boundaries.” The actual text by Gramsci which is partially quoted prior to the first passage and which evidently inspired the second (which misquotes it without attribution) reads as follows:
To be sure, the line of development is towards internationalism, but the point of departure is “national”–and it is from this point of departure that one must begin. Yet the perspective is international and cannot be otherwise. Consequently, it is necessary to study accurately the combination of national forces which the international class [the proletariat] will have to lead and develop, in accordance with the international perspective and directives [i.e. those of the Comintern]. The leading class is in fact only such if it accurately interprets this combination…
A complex, even quite torturous argument, relating to internal debates within the CI about the precise role of national factors in achieving the international working-class revolution, is therefore turned into a simple celebration of the national. These conclusions cannot be legitimately derived from either Gramsci’s life or work. Gramsci’s own consistent position, from the moment of his adherence to Marxism, is not open to doubt. In “The Lyons Thesis” (1926), a crucial pre-prison work co-written with Togliatti and almost totally ignored on the Scottish left, they write that the initial revolt of the working class against capitalism:
…took a different form in each nation, which was a reflection and consequence of the particular national characteristics of the elements which, originating from the petty bourgeoisie and peasantry, contributed to forming the great bulk of the industrial proletariat. Marxism represented the conscious, scientific element, superior to the particularism of the various tendencies of a national character and origin; and it waged a struggle against these, both in the theoretical field and in the field of organisation.” … After the victory of Marxism, the tendencies of a national character over which it had triumphed sought to manifest themselves in other ways, re-emerging within Marxism as forms of revisionism.
As virtually all his major biographers and interpreters have noted, Gramsci increasingly abandoned his initial Sardinian nationalism as he became more involved in the socialist movement. The much-cited letter to Teresina indicates his continued support for Sardinian culture: “Nevertheless my culture is fundamentally Italian,” he wrote to his wife from prison, “and this is my world; I have never felt torn between two worlds”. But neither was he an Italian nationalist, for “it is one thing to be particular and another to preach particularism”. The error here is to assume that national consciousness automatically translates into nationalism: “Goethe was a German ‘national’, Stendhal a French ‘national’, but neither of them was a nationalist.”
Scottish Marxist academics otherwise continued to use Gramscian concepts in their analysis, often to good effect. In particular, two excellent studies of the labor movement in Edinburgh, by Robert Gray and John Holford, both made exemplary use of the concept of “contradictory consciousness”. But more commonly there is little sense that they have anything specific to say about Scotland; in other words, they use the concepts to discuss features of Scottish society which are indistinguishable from those of English or even Western society in general. The effect is often of theoretical throat-clearing, which is no longer restricted even to Marxists of any description: Sean Damer uses “the intellectuals,” “hegemony” and “common sense” in discussing Moorepark housing scheme in Glasgow; Grant Jarvie uses “hegemony” in relation to the significance of Highland Gatherings and Games; David McCrone uses “ideology” in relation to a discussion of nationhood.
More often, however, the concepts are simply trivialised–although there is of course no specifically Scottish way of trivialising Gramsci. For example, in Colin McArthur’s generally very illuminating analysis of Hollywood representations of Scotland, he informs us of how Gramsci’s work was important in shifting the attention of Marxists to culture, “particularly in relation to his concept of hegemony, which he deployed to explain how ruling blocs retain control mainly by consent rather than coercion”. I am less interested here in the misreading this involves (ruling blocs retain control by consent and coercion) than in what follows. McArthur writes of one position which became popular in the early eighties: “To apply the terms of this analysis, the anti-Tartanry/Kailyard position became, in the 1980s and 1990s and at least as far as the Scottish intelligentsia is concerned, hegemonic.” The idea that the popularity of a particular notion among a group of academics and media professionals can be equated with the exercise of “hegemony” as a means of securing class rule simply means that the term has effectively been rendered meaningless.
The most explicit abandonment of Gramsci came, however, at the hands of the thinker who did most to naturalise his thought within Scotland in the first place. In April 1997, shortly before the New Labor dispensation began at Westminster, Tom Nairn gave a talk, appropriately enough at the Italian Department of University College, London. In the main, his argument was about the uselessness of the concept of civil society, both historically and in relation to contemporary debates–an argument with which I am in broad agreement. In passing, however, Nairn makes a number of comments about his one-time influence, which begin by noting the obvious attractions which Gramsci has for the New Left, as it emerged between 1956 and 1968:
Those reared within the political stultification and conservative oppression of the Cold War discovered a new icon, an apparently non-dogmatic and anti-economistic forerunner who spoke to them in ironic, frequently sarcastic undertones utterly different from the loud brass of official Marxism-Leninism. Furthermore, his interests were obviously in what they found to be a sympathetic direction: literature, the unexpected undersides of public displays, the minutiae of popular culture and fashion, the world of implications sometimes discernible in small or unpretentious phenomena. All this could not but appeal to a generation undergoing the socio-cultural and lifestyle revolution of the late 1950s and 1960s. And part of its glamour was the Gramscian representation of “civil society” as a sphere which not only counted but maybe mattered more than the arid gymnastics of statism, whether in the practice of the East or the aspirations of communist parties in the West.
But Nairn’s critique goes deeper than the rejection of a particular aspect of his theory; he declares that the entire fixation with Gramsci by the left had been a mistake:
What this ignored was Gramsci’s actual dour view of society. Non-state society was not rediscovered or enjoyed for its own sake, but with an absolutely statist redemption in mind. … The circumstances of censored notebook composition compelled a detour through pluralism, and the avoidance of overtly anti-statism, and anti-national rhetoric. But the point of it was to lay the foundations for the standard proletarian-internationalist state of Third International times: il moderno principe or radically Leninist polity within which society would be reconfigured to suit the vision of a commanding elite.
Nairn at least recognises that, whatever his innovations, Gramsci remained a Leninist throughout the composition of the prison notebooks and to the end of his life. Not for him the type of incomprehension displayed, for example, by Allan Harkness, who asserts that: “Gramsci’s is an argument for pluralist liberal democracies.” Nor does he display the astonishment of his former colleague Lindsay Paterson in the face of Gramsci’s unwavering belief in the need to destroy the state: “Even Gramsci–nowadays thought of as an apostle of a liberal communism–believed that the end of the state would be the dawn of the merely regulated society.” For Nairn, Gramsci’s rejection of liberal democracy is precisely the problem: “To ethical betrayal there corresponded a policy of ethical recovery which demanded a ferocious Redeemer: the modern prince of Machiavellianism reborn. In the collective form of the Party, this radical force was supposed to reinstate the class struggle and render it immune to further betrayals–by putting down firmer roots in ‘civil society’.” Nairn does note, in passing, that Gramsci was in fact opposed to the direction which Stalin took the USSR and the CI during the 1920s and 1930s, and that this was one of the reasons why socialists in the 1960s were attracted to his work. Nairn now revealed that they were mistaken:
“Behind any disenchantment with “crude” Russian hegemony lay a more powerful will towards, in [Neil] Harding’s words, ‘a transcendent tactic and sublime goal’ in the sky of the new proletarian enlightenment”. Gramsci is therefore said to have harboured a monolithic “statist” agenda behind the superficially open concepts employed in his prison notebooks. Here we have effectively returned to Cold War interpretations of Gramsci which were virtually the only ones available at the time Nairn first encountered Gramsci’s work in Italy, in for example in Stuart Hughes’ discussion from 1958 of “hegemony”: “As happened so often in Gramsci’s writings, a totalitarian thought was clothed in liberal guise.” At least Hughes allows that Gramsci was “innocent”: “Like Marx himself, he failed to draw the final implications of his own thinking, and quite sincerely believed he was aiming at human liberation.” Nairn is not even this generous. The irony is that, despite Nairn’s new-found hostility he has more accurately discerned the revolutionary core of Gramsci’s thought than most of his predecessors, including his own younger self. What attitude one takes toward Gramsci therefore depends on how valid one still regards the revolutionary project for which he gave his life.
Hamish Henderson, the first man to bring Gramsci to Scotland, died on March 8, 2002. On May 4 Angus Calder and George Gunn unfurled a gigantic banner of Gramsci at the summit of Ben Gulabin, before scattering Henderson’s ashes near the Glenshee Water. It is tempting to see in this gesture a symbol for the abandonment of any attempt to apply Gramsci’s thought to Scottish conditions. The original Scottish Gramscians had, by the late 1970s, produced an impressive if flawed body of work, the main focus of which was on the cultural distinctiveness of Scotland. This was necessary and, initially at least, probably unavoidable, given the lack of interest hitherto shown in the subject, above all on the revolutionary left. As the left entered the era of defeat and neo-liberal ascendancy, however, it proved all too easy for these positions to be assimilated to a reformist interpretation of Gramsci which saw him primarily, or even exclusively, as a theoretician of the cultural and ideological superstructures. Nairn and Burnett briefly raised the possibility of using Gramsci for other purposes; the former to establish an interpretation of Scottish history which might explain the origins of our national discontents, the latter to develop a specifically Scottish politics for the revolutionary left. Nairn’s was the more extended argument, but neither found any successors willing to develop their insights.
Burnett thought that the revolutionary left would be able to meet the challenge of making a Gramscian analysis of the Scottish situation. It did not do so then and is further away from doing so now, partly because of its current fragmentation, partly because many of the groups and individuals have adopted a form of “left nationalism” which does not require any form of Marxist analysis, Gramscian or otherwise–indeed, this “left nationalism” is actively hostile to any other left which does not immediately and unconditionally affirm the goal of Scottish independence. Independence may be a necessary tactical objective for the Scottish left–I believe that it is–but unless it is treated as part of a wider strategic conception, it is unlikely to deliver the results expected of it. Even under the present conditions of devolution, however, it should be clear that the difference between Scotland and the other nations of the UK is political, not cultural and that this is likely to increase. This divergence is precisely why Gramsci remains a potentially important theoretical resource for the left. As the translation of the complete prison notebooks into English proceeds and we also have access to a wider selection of the pre-prison writings, we can see more clearly the continuities in Gramsci’s thought, the most consistent of which is his relentless focus on the political. Whether elements of the Scottish left will be capable of Gramsci’s revolutionary Marxism, for both historical analysis and socialist strategy, is an open question. If it can, then it has the experience of the pioneers discussed in this article to draw upon: we can learn from their mistakes and build on their achievements.
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