Gramsci and the German Crisis, 1929-34 : a historical interpretation of the Prison Notebooks
This thesis investigates how far the political theory of Gramsci's Prison Notebooks
(1929-35) had its immediate origins in the crisis going on in Germany at the time he
wrote them. The crisis was a matter of burning interest to all European communists
for whom the whole future of the revolutionary project started in 1917 depended on
what happened in Germany. The thesis reconstructs the historical context of the
Prison Notebooks year by year and identifies a series of notes - the 'German'
notes - in which Gramsci theorises about questions suggested by current events in
Germany. A few of these notes are in a concrete state and their German content is
readily identified but many were written in general terms which must be decoded
before their 'practical origins' in the German events become apparent. The method
of decoding Gramsci's notes is to contextualise them.
The order of chapters is chronological and each has three levels: (i) an account of
Gramsci's personal drama - his moral struggle in the context of his deteriorating
conditions of health - based largely on the Prison Letters. These letters are the
outstanding human document of the European resistance to fascism, including
resistance to German fascism at the hour of its victory; (ii) a reconstruction of
Gramsci's knowledge of the German events based on a systematic reading of the
political periodicals and newspapers he received on subscription in prison. These
provided Gramsci with continuous news and comment on German affairs, the full
extent of which has not been investigated (Appendix 2); (iii) a critical commentary
on the 'German' notes following the chronological order established by Professor
V. Gerratana in the critical edition of the Quaderni del Carcere (1975). The
technical difficulties of determining the precise dates of the notes are sometimes
considerable and have been a matter of scholarly dispute. Where the dates of the
'German' notes discussed in this thesis present particular problems, they are dealt
with separately (Appendix 1).
The conclusion draws together the conceptual threads running through the
German notes and summarises the main features of Gramsci's interpretation. His
theory of the rise of Hitler differs from those of other marxists inside and outside the
Comintern for two reasons: firstly, his assimilation of concepts of non-marxist origin
such as Weber's concept of the charismatic leader and Sorel's concept of the
historical bloc; secondly, his rethinking from its Hegelian origins of marxism itself,
which enables him to conceptualise aspects of the German crisis neglected by
other marxists, notably the historic crisis of the traditional intellectuals, the counter revolutionary effects of civil society, and the role of the bureaucratic caste.
In Gramsci's interpretation, Hitler comes to power in the context of a crisis of
hegemony marked by the breakdown of the 'ruling ideas'. The traditional
intellectuals, the Prussian nobles, are unable to provide leadership in politics or
culture. Despite the catastrophic nature of the economic crisis after 1929, it does
not develop into a revolutionary situation because of the resistance presented by
the superstructures of civil society (private armies, newspaper concentrations, and
other elements), a complex network of 'trenches' which make up the ideological
front of the dominant class. The crisis is solved by the transformation of traditional
into charismatic authority through the sudden appearance of a "man of destiny".
The charisma of Hitler depends on reinventing tradition, a process most visible in
the 'symbiotic' dependence of the parties and ideologies of the German Right. The
element of race, a subordinate element in traditional nationalist ideology, now
becomes the nucleus of a new utopia - the 'Third Reich', Gramsci regards the Third
Reich not as a revolution (which it claimed to be) but as a dynamic restoration
founded on the traditional solidarity of the dominant agrarian-industrial bloc.
Despite this, his final word on the 'monstrous' phenomenon of Hitlerism, written in
1935 in response to the first laws of the racial State, unmistakably registered the
shock of the new.