Book Review: I due carceri di Gramsci. La prigione fascista e il labirinto comunista By Franco Lo Piparo.

I due carceri di Gramsci. La prigione fascista e il labirinto comunista, Roma: Donzelli Editore, 2012. Pp. VI, 144. € 16 paper
Franco Lo Piparo
Reviewed by Danniele Salerno

In the last century, Italian political history has been particularly marked by texts written in captivity: the letters and memorial of Aldo Moro (the president of the Christian Democratic party kidnapped and killed by Brigate Rosse in 1978), the prison letters of the Italian Resistance movement combatants condemned to death, and the letters and notebooks of Antonio Gramsci (general secretary of the Italian Communist Party (PCI) and one of the most influential Italian thinkers of the last century) are considered foundational texts that still mark Italian politics and culture. In considering the material condition in which they were written, these texts were often compared and juxtaposed in the public memory domain, not always in a correct way, as if one could shed light on the others.

Nevertheless the use of Moro’s and Gramsci’s texts have always been very problematic because of their hermeneutical complexities that have generated, since the publication, conflicts of interpretation, attempts at manipulation, conspiracy theories and consequently clashes over the memory of the two prominent political figures.

The hermeneutical problems come from the material conditions of production of the texts. The authors wrote under censorship or under a police regime and they were deeply aware that with their writings they were addressing not just their explicit addressee (in the case of the letters) but a much larger readership which includes censors and even the public at large. As a result, the communicative structure of these texts is very complicated: on the one hand, the authors elaborated different strategies in order to allow the messages to get through the censors; on the other, the reader is pushed to go beyond the written word as it appears on the page, and try to uncover the real intention of the author and to decode the message.

This is the semiotic problem at the centre of the book I due carceri di Gramsci. La prigione fascista e il labirinto comunista [The two Gramsci’s prisons. The Fascist prison and the communist maze] by the Philosopher of Language, Franco Lo Piparo. According to Lo Piparo, Antonio Gramsci, in the last years of his life, decided to leave Communism and the Soviet Union having realised in his prison years that the choice to embrace Communism was the biggest fault of his life. The Sardinian intellectual would have expressed his intention in his letters and notebooks but he had to disguise the message because his writings were subject to a double regime of censorship: before leaving the prison they were checked by the fascist regime and, if addressed to the family in the Soviet Union, they were checked by Soviet and communist censors as well.

In order to support his surprising thesis, Lo Piparo has to decode Gramsci’s writings by working on a double level: he analyses what we can define as the “discursive conditions” of the public reception of Gramsci’s texts (Ouverture, and chapters 2-4) and, more importantly to the argument of this book, he analyses sentence by sentence and by using semiotic and philological tools a letter that Gramsci wrote on the 27th of February 1933 to his sister-in-law Tania (chapter 1). This letter is used by the scholar as a sort of matrix that could provide us with new insights for decoding and explaining Gramsci’s writing strategies. Lo Piparo analyses in particular the use of metaphors and of other linguistic and rhetorical devices that allow Gramsci to disguise his messages in order to get through censors.

Concerning the “discursive conditions” that embed Gramsci’s texts, Lo Piparo highlights the role of Gramsci in the general PCI narrative after the end of the Second World War. He had to become a communist “martyr” by passing through a process of canonization that was intentionally built up by the general secretary Palmiro Togliatti. Notably, the construction of this narrative needed the fabrication of myths and false accounts like that of the death of Gramsci in prison (actually he died in a private clinic, having been released on parole already in 1934, three years before his death, because of his poor health condition) and the heroic recover of his writings from the prison. Furthermore, his writings were initially kept in the Comintern archive and carefully selected before publication by Palmiro Togliatti and his collaborators. Togliatti argued in different letters that Gramsci’s texts had to be edited before becoming public because “if they would be used in the form in which they currently are, they could be not useful to the party”. Lo Piparo speaks in this sense of a “stolen memory”, a memory that would be still trapped not in a fascist prison but in a communist maze. This is the second prison that still keeps Gramsci in captivity even “after his death” (chapter III), and to which the title of the book refers after a letter that the Sardinian intellectual wrote in 1930: “Io sono sottoposto a vari regimi carcerari: c’è il regime carcerario costituito dalle quattro mura [..e] l’altro carcere” (“I am under different prison regimes: there is the prison regime made by the four walls [..and] the other prison”). In particular, according to Lo Piparo, the Gramsci that is still imprisoned is the “liberal communist”

(p. 115), who detached himself from the Stalinist illiberal regime in the 20s. More specifically, this still imprisoned Gramsci would be that of a notebook that, according to Lo Piparo, was not published by Togliatti because it contained the explicit declaration of the Gramscian schism and the full elaboration of a liberal communism. This would be a new and different doctrine that Lo Piparo sees in its embryonic stages already in Gramsci’s early writings and in the lexical corrections that the thinker was introducing in re-writing his notebooks before dying.

As we said, the letter of the 27th of February 1933 – which was defined by Tania Schucht (Gramsci’s sister-in-law and the most important figure in the last years of the intellectual’s life) “a masterpiece of aesopic literature” – is pivotal in the process of complete re-interpretation of the Gramscian corpus and historical figure. Lo Piparo shows very well how Gramsci used metaphors in order to get through the censors and, by comparing different letters, shows as Gramsci himself instructed his readers for decoding them: “non devi fermarti all’apparenza strana di ciò che ti scriverò” (don’t stop at the odd appearance of what I will write you). Central to the Gramscian metaphors is the role of his Russian wife, Giulia-Iulca. For Lo Piparo the request of Gramsci to leave his wife and to dissolve the marriage should not be read literally but as the intention of Gramsci to leave the party and the Soviet Union. For Lo Piparo, Iulca is the metaphor of the party and of the Soviet Union itself.

Lo Piparo’s thesis is obviously challenging and, if confirmed, it would force us to rewrite an important piece of the Italian and European Left history. Although the philological analyses of the Gramsci’s aesopic letter is remarkable and impeccable, the author seems, in the following chapters, to slip sometimes into “interpretive drifts”, by over-interpreting some texts and suggesting a conspiracy hypothesis.

In the last part of the book the author unfortunately seems to indulge in provocative assertions that maybe attract readers’ attention but do not help in understanding better Gramsci’s life and legacy, especially, the idea that “Mussolini protected Gramsci in prison” (p. 123), by allowing him to be intellectually free. That of the intellectual that finds his or her freedom in prison is a topos that was
used in the Moro’s case as well and that was correctly and strongly criticized by historians (first of
all by Miguel Gotor, who worked on Moro’s letters and memoir). Nevertheless the book has the merit of having opened a very important debate in Italy on Gramsci’s legacy which, after the fall of the Berlin Wall was already largely revised. In particular, a commission of experts in the next months will be appointed in order to verify Lo Piparo’s thesis by shedding light on the hypothetical existence of an unpublished Gramscian notebook testifying his “liberal” turn.

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