Monday 1 December 2008

Gramsci: secret Catholic humanist?

The story about Antonio Gramsci's deathbed conversion (or reversion) to Catholicism is fascinating, even if it turns out to be untrue. At least, it's fascinating to those of us (admittedly a tiny minority) who have found ourselves attracted at some time in our lives to both Catholicism and Euro-communism. 

The sceptics point to the absence of any mention of a return to faith in Gramsci's final letters, and to the fact that he is buried in the Protestant cemetery in Rome, traditional resting-place of unbelievers (the graves of Keats and Shelley can also be found there) as counter-evidence. And, on the face of it, a reconciliation between the greatest Marxist theorist of the twentieth-century, and the faith that he spent his life seeking to replace, does seem rather unlikely.

On the other hand, I've often felt that there are parallels between Gramsci's revisionist Marxism and the more sacramental, incarnational forms of Christianity. Just as Catholic theology views humanity as fundamentally good, and (at least in theory) seeks to 'go with the grain' of human culture and society - so Gramsci's Marxist humanism attempts to identify the 'good sense' in everyday 'common sense', and to build on existing social structures. And Gramsci had a great respect for tradition, believing that the new social order would incorporate the best of the old (see these posts). By contrast, you could argue that there are distinct similarities between extreme Calvinist Protestantism, with its negative vision of humanity and profound suspicion of culture, and the slash-and-burn revolutionism of the Leninist far left. So, whether or not the deathbed conversion story turns out to be true, perhaps Antonio was more Catholic (in a broad sense) than he, or his more secular supporters, would likely to admit.

I must confess to not having read any Gramsci for years. But there was a period in my life when the Prison Notebooks were my main political and intellectual reference-point. It's enough, now, to open the tattered pages of my Lawrence and Wishart edition, for me to be transported back, Proust-like, to the heady days of the mid-1980s, and I'm standing again in the Centerprise Bookshop on Stoke Newington High Street, leafing through the latest issue of Marxism Today or Red Letters, the smell of vegetarian food wafting through from the cafe, my 'Coal not Dole' badge proudly displayed on my donkey-jacket. Ah, memories...

(Via Dolphinarium, now added to my blogroll)


Tom said...

"Just as Catholic theology views humanity as fundamentally good"

Have I just misunderstood the idea of original sin here?

Martin said...

That's why I added the cautionary note 'at least in theory'. I'm no theologian, but as I understand it, the traditional Catholic view is that humanity is tarnished, but not completely corrupted, by sin, whereas in Calvinist thinking humanity is , in fact, totally corrupted and can't do anything good without divine grace. I think it's a matter of emphasis - but with important implications for how you see culture, politics, etc.

Martin Meenagh said...

I agree. Catholicism views people as yearning to be good and under a duty to elaborate their reason--but also to understand in a spirit of humility that everyone is fundamentally flawed. Love, of the sort that caused a universal God to allow himself to be blinded and nailed to a fascist tree for incomprehensible reasons, can partially redeem us, and the beginning of understanding is forgiveness. Beyond that, I guss are all on our own, unless we embrace the logical truth.

The fundamental point about Calvinism, which you have grasped, is that some people who accept its precepts are damned; but they can never know if they are or not, and success in the world is a sign of God's grace. So they are enjoined to neurotically succeed.

It's very strange what people will believe, left to themselves and unaware of how sex or other vices can make fools of us all, isn't it?