Gramsci's reception in Scotland

Davidson, Neil (2010) Gramsci's reception in Scotland. Scottish Labour History, 45. pp. 37-58. ISSN 0586-7762

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‘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.’ The author, Gordon Brown, then student Rector of Edinburgh University, was 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’s 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 Gramsci, and their writings, together with those of Hamish Henderson, Christopher Harvie and James D. Young established the main ways in which Gramsci would be used to analyse Scottish conditions, and to which little of any substance has subsequently been added. Angus Calder once claimed: ‘Gramsci’s thought has been especially influential in Scotland’. 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, to general problems of hegemony or revolutionary organization. The publications and events through which Gramsci’s work was disseminated in Scotland produced both insights and mystifications. 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.