Gramsci is one of the major political thinkers of the twentieth century. Gramsci would think that’s an unreasonable and inaccurate reason to look at him. But that’s not really the interesting way to talk about him. In fact, the way of thinking about intellectual history as a series of great thinkers is one of the points that Gramsci wants to challenge throughout all of this.
One of the most intriguing moments in the Prison Notebooks is when he writes a whole set of notes on how one might think about Marx. Both very detailed things in saying, yes, we should pay very close attention to the biography. We should figure out which things Marx was writing that were meant for a public audience and which were correspondence, because one might say things in correspondence that one wouldn’t say in a public audience. What are the things that are then put together by the inheritors later? And on the other hand, wanting to say, what’s the relation between Marx and those that are his inheritors of Gramsci’s own generation, like Lenin? So the question of how one thinks about such a figure is one of the key questions for Gramsci.
But the first question to be asked is, where do our conceptions of the world and where do our norms of conduct come from? And how do they change? One of his powerful arguments is to say that the philosophy of praxis, Marxism, is a historic change in our conception of the world, not unlike the Renaissance or the Protestant Reformation. For him, Marx is not unlike Martin Luther, a figure who is not just a great thinker, but is an emblem of a major transition in intellectual, philosophical, and political action.
That’s the way that Gramsci reads Marx and wants to understand how the philosophy of praxis is the Renaissance and the Reformation combined for the modern world, and why he will return to a Renaissance text, Machiavelli’s The Prince, in trying to write his own book (never finished), The Modern Prince. Gramsci himself says that a modern Reformation will probably take centuries, as indeed the Renaissance and the Reformation did.
He is of that remarkable generation of artists, intellectuals, writers, and thinkers that we refer to as “modernists.” Most of them, including Gramsci, came of age in the late 1910s at the time of World War I and the Russian Revolution of 1917. From 1914 to 1945, World War I to World War II, with the Great Depression in between them — that was the moment of Gramsci’s life.
He was born in 1891 in Sardinia, a Mediterranean island off the Italian coast, part of that newly united Italy — a nation only since the 1860s, thirty years before his birth. He was the child of a petty bureaucrat. In fact, the family’s fortunes went downhill when his father was imprisoned, either rightly or wrongly, for embezzlement. He was not a peasant as he grew up, but he was living in an overwhelmingly peasant society.
Gramsci was speaking a dialect. Across Italy, many people speak many different versions of Italian. There is no national language. Many of his comments about dialect and national language are actually accounts of his own experience.
When he went to northern Italy, to Turin, in 1911, Turin was kind of the Detroit of Italy. It was the center of the new auto industry. Fiat is based there. So he moved from a very rural, agricultural island on the periphery of Italy to the most modern, Fordist part of the Italian peninsula to study at university there. It was an industrial metalworking center of the new technologies of the day, which were fashioned around the automobile: steel and oil and rubber and the assembly line, all being brought together. That was the world he came into.
Gramsci was studying language and philology. One of his linguistics professors was always asking him, “How do they say these things in Sardinia?” He was the native informant from the provinces who came to Turin and very strongly felt his outsiderness, as a Sardinian in northern Italy.
This would not be there later, but the young Gramsci even had his first political experience as a kind of Sardinian nationalist, interested in autonomy and the independence of Sardinia. But he became an activist in the Socialist Party. He was in his twenties, a Socialist Party activist and theater critic, and he never got his doctoral degree or anything. He was revealing a precarious life with letters home — always “send more money,” which they didn’t have very much of. At the same time, he was involved in organizing, going to the theater, writing reviews in the newspapers, editing little newspapers of his own with his friends.
Then the war had a tremendous impact. Many of the military metaphors you find in Gramsci’s notebooks come out of living through or battling over World War I and Italy’s involvement. But the events that most structured Gramsci’s life would be after the war, when Italian workers occupied the factories. Gramsci was involved in it. He was visiting those factories, he was organizing in them. He was editing a journal called The New Order.
He and the workers were also receiving news of the Bolshevik Revolution, the Soviets or councils from Russia in 1917 and on. There was a number of postwar — in 1919 — attempts to create councils, to create factory occupations and general strikes. There was one in Seattle. That moment right after the war was a remarkable moment of political and social and labor upsurgence, and Gramsci was a key part. That really shaped him.
That was the great moment — indeed, a great tragic moment, as there was a split in the socialist movement between those which remained the main socialist parties in most places on the one hand, and on the other, the emergence of new communist parties allied in one way or another with the hopes of the new Bolshevik Revolution. Gramsci was part of that split in the Italian party and became one of the founders of Italy’s Communist Party; he was elected to parliament in the early 1920s. He also went to Moscow and was for a number of years the representative of the Italian party to the Communist International, in those early years of debate and controversy before Lenin’s death in 1923 — before Stalin’s takeover of the party apparatus and the purging, isolation, and eventual killing of figures like Bukharin and Trotsky.
The Italian trajectory went slightly differently, because at that moment there was an explosion of new labor movements, new socialist movements, new syndicalist movements, new communist movements on the Left. It was also the seedbed of a new fascism. One sees that in the early fascist organizations of Hitler in Germany and, in this case, Mussolini’s March on Rome and coming to power. Early on, Gramsci became one of the key figures in the opposition to fascism.
In 1926, he was only thirty-five years old. He was arrested, and at his trial, a prosecutor said, “we must prevent this brain from functioning for twenty years,” because Gramsci had become such an important leader of the Italian left at that point. So from 1926 to 1937, he was in prison. At the very end, he ended up in prison hospitals and was eventually released. But by then, his health had deteriorated so much that he died in 1937. It was about those ten years when most of the notebooks were written. It was a long, hard process. The physical notebooks were protected and saved from destruction by the fascists and were then published after World War II.
I think the most interesting thing to finish on with this is that Gramsci’s writings before 1925, when he was a young activist, are quite interesting, but mainly to scholars and historians of that particular period, because these works were always written for the moment. They are newspaper articles about this particular issue, this particular strike, this particular debate in parliament or whatever. One of the things that happened when he got into prison — and after a year or more of actually fighting to have paper and pen to be able to write, and then later to actually have some books and newspapers — was that he decided that he wanted to write for eternity. He could no longer be engaged in day-to-day politics.
All of a sudden, his writing changed. He was actually asking questions. Why did things go wrong? Why did the factory occupations not win out? Why did those organizations not take root? Why did fascism win? What were the roots of Mussolini’s popularity? How do we see this in the roots of contemporary politics in the long history of Italy and Italian politics? How do we understand how we get our conceptions of the world, how we get our norms of conduct, and how do those change?
And as a result, the notebooks that he wrote in — literally in those black school notebooks that schoolchildren had, thirty-three of them — ended up being the thousands of pages later published, edited, and understood. In some sense, they were written for us, for posterity, in the way that the journalistic articles of 1917 or 1922 were not. Thus they continue to fascinate. They go back to first questions. They’re interesting, often more for the questions that they ask than for the answers that they provide.