The Great Gramsci

Selections from the Prison Notebooks of Antonio Gramsci

edited and translated by Quintin Hoare and Geoffrey Nowell Smith
International Publishers, 483 pp., $4.25 (paper)

Letters from Prison

by Antonio Gramsci, selected, translated, and introduced by Lynne Lawner
Harper & Row, 275 pp., $10.00


Antonio Gramsci, probably the most original communist thinker produced in the twentieth-century West, has until recently been virtually inaccessible to non-Italians, and not very accessible even to Italians.1 Anyone who reads only English has hitherto had to rely chiefly on some frankly inadequate textual selections, on the usual scatterings of articles in left-wing journals, and, more than anything else, on John M. Cammett’s most useful book of 1967.2 The situation is now radically changed with the publication of Giuseppe Fiori’s pioneer biography3 and, above all, with the exemplary edition of a selection from the Prison Notebooks by Quintin Hoare and Geoffrey Nowell Smith. We can now see Gramsci as a man rather than as a shadow. But, as he himself would have observed, men can only be understood in and through their politics.

When Gramsci died in 1937, shortly after his release as a hopelessly sick man after ten years of fascist prison, he was known to the wider world only as one of the numerous martyrs of the international communist movement, of whose existence the public was periodically reminded by their death or execution. He had been the leader of the Italian Communist Party from 1924 until his arrest. Thereafter his career as a politician was at an end, and his isolation was such that it may actually have been possible to conceal his deviations from the watchful eyes of those Comintern officials who had no friendliness for the Italian CP. This made possible his posthumous career as a Marxist theoretician, for though the guardians of orthodoxy were suspicious—he did not receive an official Russian imprimatur until 1958—his writings were tolerated as a concession to the national pride of what was, after the war, the most important communist party in the Western world.4 Gramsci as a political thinker and strategist meant nothing, except to the tiny group of Italian Communist leaders (which fortunately included his friend and admirer Palmiro Togliatti) and to his personal friends.

Gramsci’s martyrdom is relevant to his subsequent fame, for it was the Letters from Jail, first published in an incomplete edition in 1947 and now finally selected and translated into English by Lynne Lawner with a lucid and useful introduction of fifty-seven pages,5 that captured the reading public. What gripped readers was not only, as Lawner says, “one of the significant works of twentieth-century Italian literature,” but also the exemplary story of suffering and resistance by the small, crippled, sick revolutionary from a poverty-stricken Sardinian background, whose brain, as Mussolini said, had to be stopped from functioning. Before death stopped it, Gramsci had filled the equivalent of 4,000 typescript pages in the notebooks (published in six volumes, 1948-1951). They form the bulk of his theoretical writings and with the addition of an essay on “The Southern Question,” virtually all that was available until the 1960s. For though the publication of his juvenilia and precommunist writings went ahead,6 his work as a leading communist remained uncollected until the second half of the 1960s.

Gramsci, whose intellectual stature was immediately recognized, at any rate by those who read Italian, Marxists or not, thus appeared initially as a general essayist artificially separated (if only by the restrictions imposed on his reading and writing by the fascist jailers) from the active political leader. This was helpful in one way, unsatisfactory in another. It meant that he could be read with immediate interest by people who knew nothing about Italian Party affairs before 1926, though foreigners probably still have trouble adjusting to the intellectual context of a highly educated man formed in a culture and a period that were both extremely sophisticated and relatively provincial. Italian intellectual readers, of course, do not have this difficulty. On the other hand even they were bound to miss much of the connection between the controversies of the militant communist and the general observations of the isolated prisoner.

Nevertheless, the connection was in fact tacitly made by and through the Party, which was responsible for the version of Gramsci’s life and the selection of his work that appeared, and which imposed its “reading” of his theory. Togliatti, who claimed that the strategy of the Italian Communists was specifically “Gramscian,”7 though naturally also Leninist, tied his friend’s theories to postwar party policy and in doing so made them vulnerable to criticisms directed against that policy.

Initially there were few such criticisms, for in the extraordinary period after 1941 Party strategy appeared to be remarkably successful. The CP succeeded in establishing its leadership of the working class, which in turn led the nation in the armed struggle against fascism. It thus appeared to realize the Gramscian “hegemony.” The Party emerged leading a new “historic bloc”8 in post-fascist Italy, where capitalist power, though shored up by the US, seemed unstable or even provisional and temporary. Not least, the CP established an impressive position of leadership in Italian intellectual and cultural life. The new Risorgimento of the 1940s looked as though it might be the basis of a transition to socialism in Italy. In 1945 the Party refrained from seizing power by insurrection in the north, not only because that was probably impracticable, and even if practicable would have implied the break-up of a united Italy,9 but also, it may be suggested, because it seemed that the alternative stategy looked unusually promising.

After 1948 it became clear that it was not. A combination of reform and repression broke the militancy of the northern workers and the revolutionary upsurge of the southern peasants long enough to give the subsequent “economic miracle” of a flourishing northern capitalism the chance to lower the social temperature. The CP remained the largest party of its kind enjoying voluntary support, and continued to grow electorally, though at a modest rate. Nevertheless it had lost the initiative, and the Gramsci-Togliatti perspective—socialism as a consequence of national hegemony—faded. A socialist Italy seemed increasingly remote. From the left, CP policy looked very like some sort of reformism of the social-democratic type. Moreover, even if the Party had been right to avoid a simple “seizure of power” in 1945, critics might very well ask retrospectively whether in 1943-1945 it had not failed, in the interests of maintaining a common front of which it could not guarantee to maintain control, to press a more radical attack on those institutions which were, in effect, to push it into the political wilderness after 1948: the Church and the unreconstructed apparatus of the state.

Abroad, the increasing ideological independence of the Italian CP after 1956 made Gramsci more interesting. He began to be discussed and translated. Within Italy skepticism about Party policy implied taking a new look at the thinker in whose name it had been conducted. Some of the critics, who increasingly began to leave the CP or who expressed their views freely within or outside it, attempted to establish a non-Togliattian reading of Gramsci. Most were hostile to him because they were hostile to the Togliatti line, but all agreed that the official version of his life and work required revision.

The largest body of such criticism is concerned with Gramsci’s part in the early development of the CP, though it must be observed that the Party has done more than anyone to strip the layers of myth and dogma from its own history, at least since Togliatti himself initiated a realistic study of it.10 The nature of these historical revisions is summarized in the long introduction to the Prison Notebooks. Broadly speaking the sharpest critics have attempted to defend Amedeo Bordiga, the earliest pioneer and leader of the Party, against the “Turin group” which took over the leadership in 1923-1924 and kept it until Togliatti’s death. Bordiga’s historical priority and importance are undeniable, but it will take some powerful advocacy to persuade impartial observers that his gifts as a theoretician bear comparison to Gramsci’s, that he was in the same league as a practical politician with Togliatti, or for that matter that his policy had much to be said for it. Historians may well criticize the early hesitations and oscillations of Gramsci, both in his analysis of and attitude toward fascism, but Bordiga’s own much less complex views have only the virtue of simplicity (or the vice of sectarianism).

The critical investigation of Gramsci’s political career is perhaps less important than the evaluation of his ideas. This is a rather esoteric activity, given the fragmentary nature of the writings and their highly abstract and not always consistent terminology, designed partly for his own purposes, partly to fool the fascist jailers. When Gramsci writes about specific political issues which a contemporary Italian communist might recognize, intelligent guesswork helps, though it is difficult enough to follow a cooking recipe expressed entirely in general chemical principles even if one knows that it is supposed to tell us how to make pizza. On the other hand, it is not always clear when Gramsci’s generalities conceal concrete references, when they do not, when they are both specific and general, and to what exactly they may refer. The editors of the Prison Notebooks have done a splendid job of clarification, but have not eliminated all difficulties.

Two things are nevertheless clear about Gramsci’s thought. First—and to the sorrow of foreign readers unfamiliar with his intellectual content—Gramsci’s ideological background is that of the dominant Italian philosophy of the period, the Hegelianism of the Neapolitan school, and especially Benedetto Croce. The notebooks are in one sense a long, half-rebellious, half-admiring dialogue with this intellectual father-figure. Gramsci’s ideological road from the simple anticolonialist Sardinianism of the starving hunchbacked schoolboy to Marxism is not fully clear even from Fiori’s excellent and pathbreaking biography. Still, it seems clear that it owed little to the orthodoxies of pre-1914 Italian socialism, dominated as it was by the trinity Darwin-Spencer-Marx or to Kautskyan social democracy, whose inevitabilist evolutionism and determinism he passionately rejected.

Gramsci’s Marxism was homegrown on Hegelian-Crocean soil, inspired by the double experience of the poverty-stricken intellectual from an exploited island (who brought with him an instinctive understanding of backward peasantries and colonial peoples) and the student and socialist militant in the capital of the liberal bourgeoisie and the modern factory, Turin. Gramsci combined, as no other Italian Marxist did, the capacity to generalize both from the specific experience of the peasantry (there is no better guide to the social history of “primitive rebellion”) and that of industrial proletarians, whose factory organization he made into the keystone of an Italian soviet strategy. The October Revolution precipitated this ideological mixture. One might almost say that he finally came to Marx via Lenin, thus by-passing the normal intellectual progress of most contemporary Marxists. Since his interests were also those of a humanist academic—he entered politics as a philosopher-journalist, critic, and teacher—he also by-passed the phase of socio-economic analysis on which so many other Marxists cut their teeth.11 His revolutionism led him directly to philosophy and politics. Suitably enough his code name for Marxism in the notebooks is “the philosophy of praxis.”

However, what distinguished Gramsci from other intellectual communists who came to Marxism in a similarly unorthodox manner, such as Lukàcs and Korsch, was that he became and remained primarily a political and not a professorial figure. He was the academic who actually abandoned his studies before graduation to turn himself into a professional revolutionary. He was, even for the 1920s, a far from typical leader of a communist party, but he was a genuine one: a political as much as an intellectual animal. And CP policy can be legitimately derived from theories designed precisely for this purpose.

The critics of the Togliattist version of Gramscian theory have therefore in general taken one of three lines. Some have attempted to rehabilitate a syndicalist Gramsci, champion of workers’ control, against bolshevism. This interpretation, popular among anti-Stalinists after 1956, has been convincingly criticized as merely another selective reading of a sacred text.12 Others have criticized in him those Hegelian and “historicist” elements which are nowadays—for largely extraneous reasons—identified with “revisionism.” This is the approach of Louis Althusser, whose respect for “this enormously delicate and subtle work of genius” and anxiety to use some Gramscian concepts for his own purposes make his criticism both acute and courteous.13 There is some force in the accusation that Gramsci remains excessively Crocean-Hegelian, but the argument of the third and most extreme school of critics, which flatly denies that he was a Marxist or Leninist at all, seems fairly pointless.14


We need not spend much time on Gramsci’s philosophical views, in spite of their considerable interest, because as a philosopher he does not stand alone. Indeed, he forms part of that curiously assorted revolutionary “new left” of 1910-1920 which brought some unexpected recruits to the Bolsheviks, and which in turn was attracted to Marxism not through the theory of Marx, which they knew and rejected in the prevalent positivist and determinist interpretations, but through the revolutionary practice of Lenin,15 Moreover, and above all, Gramsci’s philosophy cannot be profitably treated in isolation, since it is inseparable from his politics.

Marxist literature today is full—perhaps perhaps excessively full—of philosophers who, while undoubtedly convinced that their version of Marx proves the correctness of one approach to politics and excludes others, can be read for practical purposes as pure academics. Gramsci, for whom (as for Croce) history and philosophy were one, cannot be read in this manner without a grave misunderstanding of his thought. He was in fact a political theorist, perhaps the only major Marxist thinker who can be so described, and his originality lies in this field. It is no accident that for him Machiavelli provides the main image of the role of the Communist Party (“The Modern Prince”) or that he should have set about a systematic discussion of “the place that political science occupies…in a systematic (coherent and logical) conception of the world, in a philosophy of praxis” (Notebooks p. 136).

Most Marxist thinking about politics has moved rapidly to and fro between the poles of general socio-economic or historical analysis and current commentary, stopping only briefly for casual observations on such problems as those of the state and its constitution and organization, the nature and structure of rule, and similar matters. Marx’s and Engels’s own discussion (apart from their more systematic remarks about the origin of the state) is little more than brief aperçus, mostly incidental to other arguments, and Lenin’s only attempt to grapple with the general problem of the state was, characteristically, initiated and abandoned on the eve of the Bolshevik seizure of power. Both the moment of writing and the failure to complete it are significant. The intensive discussion of the structure, organization, and leadership of socialist movements which developed under the Second International was about practical questions. Its theoretical generalizations were incidental, except perhaps in the virtually virgin field of “the national question” where the absence or unsuitability of the classic texts made a fundamental analysis indispensable.

By and large, Marxists tended to take the general framework of politics (including that of their own organizations) for granted in prerevolutionary periods, and to discuss concrete questions of organization, strategy, tactics, etc., as they arose, within this accepted framework. Evidently, as witness Lenin, this did not exclude considerable and profound theoretical innovations. Yet these were, paradoxically, pragmatic rather than theoretical, though underpinned with Marxist analysis. It is surprising how little Marxist theory entered into the famous debate on Lenin’s new concept of the party in the early 1900s, though Marxists as celebrated as Kautsky, Luxemburg, Plekhanov, Trotsky, Martov, Ryazanov, and others participated in it. 16 For Lenin as for Kautsky the form of party organization was a matter of political expediency in a given situation, except insofar as it reflected generalizations about social classes and strata taken directly from socio-economic analysis, e.g., the isolation of intellectuals and the characteristics of the proletariat deriving from group labor in factories.

Those who disagreed with Lenin also reached back directly to socio-economic analysis. Beyond this, their objections were taken from historical experience (e.g., of Jacobins or Blanquists) or consisted of commonsense observations about democracy, dictatorship, the dangers of the “cult of personality” (a phrase revived in the 1950s), and the like, which might have been—and have since been—made in exactly the same terms by entirely non-Marxist critics. This does not make them less persuasive. The point is that a Marxist theory of politics remained at best implicit in this debate. The nearest approach to it may be found in the polemic about whether “socialist consciousness” developed spontaneously within the proletariat or had to be introduced into it by intellectuals. But even this was little more than a series of summary assertions and counterassertions backed by suitable citations from Marx, Kautsky, and, with Lenin, Sidney and Beatrice Webb.

So long as the victorious proletariat revolution remained somewhere in the unpredictable future, but nevertheless appeared historically “inevitable,” Marxists could probably manage without an explicit political theory, i.e., without systematic thought about the relations between “base” and “superstructure.” It could be taken for granted that developments in the economic base would necessarily bring about the “expropriation of the expropriators,” and that this would consequently produce suitable changes in the superstructure.

The proletarian revolution did remain hypothetical until 1917, when Lenin, always the realist, set about considering the political nature of the proletarian regime in State and Revolution. But practice overtook theory. Moreover, it soon became clear, the immediate problems of Soviet Russia, lurching from one critical situation to the next, had to be solved as they arose, at greater cost to its socialism than even Lenin appreciated. General theorizing about the political aspects of the new order therefore once again seemed academic or antisoviet, until such critical reflection was forcibly extruded from the communist parties.

On the other hand, doubts about “historic inevitability” had arisen even in the 1890s. However, they were regarded (mistakenly) as throwing doubts on the Marxist analysis as such. Caught between Bernstein’s “revisionism” on one hand, anarcho-syndicalism voluntarism on the other, the Marxists tended to retreat into a militant reassertion of the old orthodoxy, where there was one. This made it difficult to undertake theoretical as distinct from pragmatic extensions of Marx’s ideas about politics. The simultaneous collapse in 1914 of revisionism, anarchism, and the social-democratic version of Marxian orthodoxy removed this bloc. On the other hand revolution now seemed imminent. Moreover, in the form of the “councils” it appeared to be generating its own new political system, and thus practice seemed to answer the theorists’ questions.

So it was not until the collapse of revolutionary hopes in the early 1920s that the necessity of systematic thinking about politics once again became urgent. It concerned both the nature of socialist regimes (though discussion here was muted) and the nature of the struggle for power in a period when a “long war of position” rather than a decisive battle was to be expected. The defeat of soviet revolution in Europe, the need to analyze and explain it and to find an alternative and more promising strategy, form the starting point of Gramsci’s mature political thought. He himself linked his ideas to Lenin’s via the first United Front policy of the Comintern, formulated in 1921 (Notebooks, pp. 237-238). However, his ideas do not seem to have been fully elaborated until the slump years of 1930-1931, a period of even more profound setbacks for the European communist movement.

Of course the Italian intellectual tradition (e.g., the national prestige of Machiavelli), his own Croceanism, and the historic experiences which encouraged an unusually flourishing school of home-grown or adopted political sociology in the country,17 made it easier for Gramsci to develop the specifically political dimension of Marxist theory. But to describe this as a mere consequence of his alleged “philosophical idealism” is itself an “idealist” error. He became a political theorist (though one with a rather wide definition of politics) because he believed that the situation called for some Marxist thinking about politics. Long-term socio-economic trends provided the possibilities and limits of political action, but did not themselves replace it. In Marx’s phrase, which he liked to quote, “it is on the level of ideologies that men become conscious of conflicts in the world of economy” (Notebooks, p. 162) and through political action that they changed a social order. In specific terms, the failure of the revolution in Italy, where revolutionary possibilities had undoubtedly existed, at least objectively, in the years after 1917, required a “superstructural” analysis which was not yet part of Marxism, though implicit in it.


The outlines of Gramsci’s theory are sketched in a letter of September, 1931:

My study of the intellectuals is a vast project…. Moreover, I greatly extend the notion of intellectuals beyond the current meaning of the word, which refers chiefly to great intellectuals. This study also leads me to certain determinations of the State. Usually this is understood as political Society (i.e., the dictatorship, or coercive apparatus to bring the mass of the people into conformity with the type of production and economy dominant at a given moment), and not as an equilibrium between political Society and civil Society (i.e., the hegemony of a social group over the entire national society exercised through the so-called private organizations such as the church, the labor unions, the schools, etc.). Civil society is precisely the special field of action of the intellectuals…. I think that this conception of the intellectuals throws light on the reason, or one of the reasons, for the fall of the medieval Communes, i.e., of an economic class which was unable to create its own category of intellectuals, and therefore unable to exercise hegemony, but only dictatorship.

The Italian intellectuals lacked a national-popular character, but were cosmopolitan, according to the model of the Church. Leonardo did not mind selling the plans of the Florentine fortifications to Duke Valentino. Hence the Communes were a syndicalist state, which failed to develop beyond this phase into an integral State. Machiavelli pointed this out, but in vain. What he proposed was that the city should organize its hegemony over the countryside by means of the organization of a (popular) army. Hence he may be described as the first Italian Jacobin…. [Lettere, 1965, pp. 481-482; Lawner, p. 138.]

Five elements emerge clearly from this passage: Gramsci’s specific concept of the state and the role of intellectuals, his belief that the creation of “hegemony” requires conscious political action through organization, his insistence on the national character of revolution, and the implication that the Italian proletarian revolution could and would solve the problems which previous Italian ruling classes had been unable to solve. One might perhaps add that this implies a marked sense of the continuity of proletarian revolution in Italy with the country’s earlier history. It would both negate the past and fulfill it.

The conception of the state as an equilibrium between coercive and hegemonic institutions, though unfamiliar in Marxist discussion, is not in itself novel. It is obvious that a ruling class relies not only on coercive power and authority, but also on consent deriving from hegemony (“the intellectual and moral leadership” exercised by the ruling group and “the general direction imposed upon social life by the dominant fundamental group”) which is in turn “‘historically,’ caused by the prestige (and consequent confidence) which [it] enjoys because of its position and function in the world of production” (Notebooks, p. 12). This implies both a distinction—perhaps excessively sharp—between the state and “civil society,” and one between “dominant” and “subaltern” classes. The concept of “subalternity” is crucial to Gramsci’s thought, since the basic problem of the revolution is how to make a hitherto subaltern class believe in itself as a potential ruling class, and credible as such to other classes.

Less familiar is Gramsci’s insistence that the apparatus of rule, both in its hegemonic and to some extent in its authoritarian form, consists essentially of “intellectuals.” These are not a separate social category, singular or plural (though in some societies they may well form one), or a special elite of the intellect, but rather a functional specialization of society.18 The intellectuals are the dominant group’s “deputies” exercising the social functions of hegemony and political government (Notebooks, p. 12). Two points are to be noted here. The question is not envisaged in institutional terms (though “the problem [of bureaucracy] partly coincides with that of intellectuals” [Notebooks, p. 186]), and it is assumed that purely executive functions are subsumed under those of direction or orientation (“an already existing army is destroyed if it loses its generals, while the existence of a united group of generals…soon creates an army even where none exists” [Notebooks, p. 153]). The distinction between rulers and ruled, leaders and led, at least in class societies, is also crucial to Gramsci’s thought. It exists even in “socially homogeneous” groups.

On the other hand Gramsci’s much-elaborated distinction between “traditional” and “organic” intellectuals is of more marginal interest. It is historically true, and politically relevant insofar as it stresses the crucial point that if a class is to be hegemonic it cannot rely merely on intellectuals surviving from previous social orders or representing permanent specializations (e.g., clerics or academics), but must develop its own “organic” cultural and intellectual cadres; and if it is hegemonic, it will do so.19 It is also relevant to observe that, while the bourgeoisie found it easy to generate “organic” intellectuals informally, by virtue of its productive functions, the proletariat only develops them through its movement, i.e., for Gramsci through its Party.

However, there is no necessary connection between the organic/traditional duality and the view that the consciousness and hegemonic capacity of the proletariat, unlike that of the bourgeoisie, exists only through formal class organization. The contrast between organic and traditional intellectuals is no longer of great importance in developed countries: who cares whether Kissinger or MacNamara is one or the other? The distinctions which obviously do exist among the intellectuals of bourgeois society today do not derive from the Gramscian duality. Finally, the proposition that the organized working class movement is the only way for the proletariat to generate organic intellectuals before the revolution does not, alas, imply the automatic or permanent identity of class and party or of originally organic intellectuals with either. Of course Gramsci does not imply this, as his realistic discussion of bureaucracy shows. In any case he would have been the last to believe in historic automatism of any kind. Yet it cannot be said that even his own championship of “democratic” against “bureaucratic” centralism (Notebooks, pp. 185-190) rests on firmer foundations than hope and good intentions.

The practical object of Gramsci’s theoretical labors was twofold. In the first place it was, evidently, victory. If a single metaphor dominates his political writings it is that of warfare, and though the distinction between military and political combat is constantly present, the extent to which even strictly military experience is ransacked for possible political lessons is striking. The relevance of the equilibrium between state and “civil society” is that it throws light on the nature of that “positional warfare” over a protracted period which characterized the struggle after the failure of the October Revolution to spread in the West. (He notes the divergence of developments in backward and colonial countries, but says little about these.) Hence, incidentally, his persistent criticism of Trotsky, whom he saw as “the political theorist of frontal attack in a period in which it only leads to defeats” (Notebooks, p. 233), though he admired him as a man and sympathized with his critique of Stalinist bureaucratization.20

Gramsci does not seem quite to have made up his mind about such periods of “positional warfare.” On the one hand they might once again, given suitable conditions, give way to the warfare of maneuver and frontal attack. On the other hand (and here the analogy of World War I was perhaps pressed too far), it might be the decisive form of combat, immediately preparing victory. At one moment he seems to have thought that the revolutionary crisis of 1917-1921 has so mobilized and locked the contending blocs of bourgeoisie and proletariat (the former through fascism21 ) that the eventual results of the battle must be final. Yet he also considered, realistically and with great intelligence, another possible outcome: a so-called “passive revolution,” i.e., on the one hand, the granting of certain revolutionary demands by the ruling class in order to forestall revolution, on the other a de facto acceptance by the revolutionary movement of its impotence (cf. Notebooks, pp. 59, 106ff.). Yet if the outcome is uncertain, the nature of “positional warfare” is not. It arises in the West because

when the state trembled, a sturdy structure of civil society was at once revealed. The State was only the outer ditch, behind which there stood a powerful system of fortresses and earthworks. [Notebooks, p. 238]

The belief that one has only to wait for another major crisis (such as the Great Slump [cf. Notebooks, p. 235]) to offer the chance of total and decisive victory is erroneous, though it may arise in countries where the ruling class has been unable to reinforce the State with the fortifications of “civil society,” as developed in the liberal West after 1848. The struggle for hegemony therefore remains crucial, all the more so because the political struggle, unlike war, is not concluded with the mere defeat of the opposing army, i.e., the seizure of power.

Warfare requires armies, and insofar as Gramsci’s theory is the operational preparation for revolution, the nature and organization of that army (the Party) preoccupy him. Here the crux of the problem lies not in formal organization—Gramsci is a Leninist—but in the nature of the relation between party and working class. The stress on the “organicity” of this relation reflects a critique not only of past Italian mass parties but of voluntarist insurrectionaries and sectarian communists. “When one analyses the Italian political parties one can see that they have always been parties of ‘volunteers’ and in a certain sense of déclassés…[They] were not really mass parties at all…but the political equivalent of gypsy bands and nomads” (Notebooks, pp. 203-204), and hence they were defeated by the bourgeoisie, whose parties had an organic connection with their social base.

The apoliticism and passivity of the Italian masses, the ready availability of activists from among the dissatisfied intellectuals and the marginal poor, encouraged this development. Incidentally, it left the labor movement itself open to the temptations of an “economism” and a “syndicalism” which actually perpetuated its subalternity, whether in a reformist or a utopian disguise (cf. Notebooks, pp. 160-161). The Party must not only lead, teach, and “represent” the class, but must be based on its mobilized activity as a class, the basis of which is the factory organization on which Gramsci laid such stress in his Turin period.

The second of Gramsci’s political objects is less easily described.

Victory,” however complex the struggle for it, can be isolated and defined. However, the fight for hegemony and the activities of the Party are not merely instrumental. Even before victory they convert a subaltern class into a potentially or actually hegemonic one, and in doing so already establish the nature of the victorious new society. There is here a continuity between past and future, means and ends. And unlike many other socialists, Gramsci—true to his antideterminism—never conceives the ends as the automatic by-product of the socialization of the means of production. Of course he takes the economic aspects of socialism for granted as the necessary base for the new society, but insofar as he discusses them—which is hardly at all—he does so chiefly in connection with the development of the consciousness and participation of the proletariat.22 The crux of the socialist revolution is that it enables man to free himself from the domination of the economic base, “the passage from ‘objective to subjective”’ and

…from “necessity to freedom.” Structure ceases to be an external force which crushes man, assimilates him to itself and makes him passive; and is transformed into a means of freedom, an instrument to create an ethico-political form and a source of new initiatives. [Notebooks, pp. 366-367]

The road to this freedom is through political action, since it is through such action, in the widest sense, that man escapes from the forces which constrain him. Here, incidentally, lies the significance of Gramsci’s distinction between the “economic-corporative” and the higher forms of party organization even in presocialist societies, and of his insistence on the intellectual nature of politics, which gives intellectuals a key function within them.

In the political party the elements of an economic social group get beyond [the economic-corporate] moment of their historical development and become agents of more general activities of a national and international character. [Notebooks, p. 16]

Classes that fail to advance beyond the “economic-corporative” organization, like the medieval Italian communal bourgeoisie or the “economist” labor movements, fail to achieve hegemony, i.e., to create civil society.

Politics is thus the core of praxis, which is not an alternative to philosophy (Marx’s thesis does not ask philosophers to stop interpreting the world and to write manifestoes instead), but which is philosophy. And the other way round. Praxis is politics because it is within the scope of conscious action to “transform men and make them different from what they were before.”23 Conscious action operates in the framework outlined in Marx’s famous Preface. But Marx’s phrase about humanity setting itself only such tasks as it can solve implies the autonomy of politics:

Politics becomes permanent action and gives rise to permanent organizations precisely in so far as it identifies itself with economics. But it is also distinct from it, which is why one may speak…of “political passion” as of an immediate impulse to action which is born on the “permanent” and “organic” terrain of economic life but which transcends it, bringing into play emotions and aspirations in whose incandescent atmosphere even calculations involving the individual human life itself obey different laws from those of individual profit etc. [Notebooks, pp. 139-140]

Hence Gramsci’s admiration for Machiavelli, who failed to achieve for Italy what the “Modern Prince”—who is both Machiavelli’s ideal leader transformed into the Communist Party and his “science of politics” transformed by a nondeterminist Marxism—can achieve today. He saw The Prince, written “in the style of the man of action, who wants to make men act, the style of political manifestoes” as

…a political ideology expressed neither in the form of cold utopia nor learned theorizing, but rather by the creation of a concrete phantasy which acts upon a dispersed and shattered people to arouse and organize its collective will. [Notebooks, pp. 126-127]

He saw Machiavelli himself as the man who set himself the task of changing the world, though well aware that “all an individual or a book can do is to interpret reality and indicate the line of possible action.”

The limitation and the anguish of Machiavelli lie in the fact that he was simply a private person, a writer, and not the head of a state and an army…. But it would be a cheap gibe to say that he was therefore yet another “prophet unarmed.” Machiavelli never claimed that he himself would set about changing reality, but only that he had shown concretely how the historic forces ought to have operated if they were to be effective.

And perhaps Gramsci, alone in jail and cut off forever, as he knew, from heading armies, states, or parties, himself felt something of this limitation and this anguish.

Orthodox Marxism hardly prepares us for this sort of Marxist writing, but only because, as Gramsci knew, the Marxist “science of politics” implicit in both Hegel and such writings as the Eighteenth Brumaire (Notebooks, p. 407), and realized in the practice of Lenin, had not yet been formulated. He knew himself to be a pioneer. We need not accept him uncritically to appreciate him as such.

Neither cold utopia nor learned theorizing” is not a bad description of his own work. We need not regret Gramsci’s failure to write more than fragments. In any case commentators and textbook writers have already begun to systematize him. His “science” could, like Machiavelli’s, be realized only in the constant interplay between the general and the specific, the concrete and the abstract, past and present, whose object was political action. He shares with Marx the continual capacity both to imply and where necessary to explicate a philosophical framework and a method of analysis; and also, often simultaneously, to blow the flame of a single match, struck on some specific historical experience—such as the plotting of Louis Napoleon—into a shining general illumination. He had genius all right, though it requires to be stripped of a certain intellectual provincialism. He had independence, not least in his readiness—rare among Marxists—to treat Marx and Lenin as starting points and not finishing posts. He is sometimes wrong, often debatable, but almost always exciting. But above all, and in spite of his intellectual debts, he is an original thinker.

That we can now recognize both Gramsci’s originality and achievement is owing to three men, who should not be deprived of the credit. Mussolini, by a pleasing irony of history, saved him from Stalin by putting him behind bars. Had he remained free, he would either have been forced out of the Communist Party or obliged to lapse into silence or an ostensible public orthodoxy, whose faint and subtle implications would now be hard to recognize. His friend Piero Sraffa, the economist, enabled him to read and think in prison, by his financial generosity24 and by maintaining an intellectual contact the significance of which cannot yet be fully assessed. Last and most important, his friend and comrade Togliatti, who appreciated his genius sufficiently to plan the publication of his writings as early as 1928, secured his survival as an intellectual force, fittingly enough through the Communist Party. But a modest acknowledgment should also be reserved, at least by English-speaking readers, for Lynne Lawner and the editors of the Prison Notebooks, who have made the work of this remarkable man and philosopher-politician accessible to us at last.

  1. 1

    His Works began to be published shortly after the war by Einaudi of Turin, and eleven volumes have by now appeared. However, apart from criticisms of the editing of earlier volumes, the brevity and fragmentary nature of the writings make them difficult to consult, the indexing of each volume is inadequate (though there is a global index covering six volumes), and the explanatory apparatus is negligible.

  2. 2

    John M. Cammett, Antonio Gramsci and the Origins of Italian Communism (Stanford, 1967).

  3. 3

    G. Fiori, Antonio Gramsci, Life of a Revolutionary (Dutton, 1971), originally published in 1965. The translation by Tom Nairn is first-rate. For a fuller analytical account see the valuable Leonard O. Paggi, Antonio Gramsci e il Moderno Principe, Vol. I (Rome, 1970).

  4. 4

    There is some discussion about the extent to which his heterodoxy after 1930—which was at least suspected among dissident Italian Marxists—was taken cognizance of by the Party.

  5. 5

    The selection has been made from the full and adequate edition of Elsa Fubini and Sergio Caprioglio (Lettere dal Carcere, Turin, 1965).

  6. 6

    Volumes were issued in the Einaudi edition in 1954, 1958, and 1960; a further collection was published by S. Caprioglio (Antonio Gramsci, Scritti 1915-1921; Quaderni de “Il, Corpo,” Milan, 1968).

  7. 7

    Cf. P. Togliatti, “Il leninismo nel pensiero e nell’azione di A. Gramsci” and “Gramsci e il leninismo” in Studi Gramsciani (Atti del convegno tenuto a Roma nei giorni 11-13 gennaio 1958), Rome, 1958.

  8. 8

    Togliatti sometimes uses this term in a somewhat more restricted sense of “political bloc” than Gramsci—cf, Studi Gramsciani loc. cit. p. 28.

  9. 9

    Why there was no insurrection has been discussed frankly by Italian communist leaders in Rinascità, January 29 and February 19, 1971.

  10. 10

    By introducing a frank edition of the correspondence of various Communist leaders during 1923-1924 in 1960 (La formazione del gruppo dirigente del PCI, Rome, 1962). The Party since the war always permitted and indeed, encouraged free discussion, though in the Stalin period it was obliged to proceed with some caution.

  11. 11

    There is no equivalent in his career to Lenin’s study of Russian capitalism or Rosa Luxemburg’s of Polish industrialization.

  12. 12

    Cf. F. Papi and L. Cortesi, “Per una storicizzazione marxista del pensiero e del azione di Gramsci” (Revista Storica del Socialismo 7-8, 1959, pp. 723 ff.).

  13. 13

    Louis Althusser and Etienne Balibar, Reading Capital (Pantheon, 1971), pp. 126-137.

  14. 14

    L. Cortesi, Revista Storica del Socialismo 30, 1967, p. 172: “In fact what…[X] has done is to demonstrate that Gramsci stands outside Marxism and Leninism.”

  15. 15

    Gramsci himself briefly and mistakenly hailed the October Revolution as “The Revolt against Capital.” Cf. Fiori, Antonio Gramsci, Life of a Revolutionary, p. 112.

  16. 16

    V. Strada’s recent edition of Lenin, Che Fare (Turin, 1971) reprints a large part of this discussion.

  17. 17

    Though he criticized Pareto, Mosca, Michels, and Sorel, he was probably indebted to their work on political elites, and certainly to the Sorelian discussion of “myth.”

  18. 18

    The belief that all men are intellectuals, though not all have the social function of intellectuals (Notebooks, p. 9) is fundamental to Gramsci, as to Marx, Lenin, or for that matter any democratic and humanist ideology. It also distinguishes his political theory from the elitism which it might otherwise resemble.

  19. 19

    One might reflect, sadly, that, functionally, the liquidation of the old Bolsheviks in the 1930s and the Cultural Revolution in China—both occurring about twenty years after their respective revolutions—amounted to the elimination of the “traditional” intellectuals by the “organic” ones generated in the new revolutionary societies. I owe this point to a Polish friend who might be inconvenienced by a more specific acknowledgment.

  20. 20

    Cf. S.Sechi, “Spunti critica sulle ‘Lettere dal Carcere’ di Gramsci” (Quaderni Piacentini, January 29, 1967), pp. 118-121.

  21. 21

    An unprecedented concentration of hegemony…and hence a more ‘interventionist’ government, which will take the offensive more openly against oppositionists and organize permanently the ‘impossibility’ of internal disintegration—with controls of every kind, political, administrative, etc., reinforcement of the hegemonic ‘positions’ of the dominant group etc.” (Notebooks, pp. 238-239). The context leaves room for the view that, on the proletarian side, this observation applies to the USSR.

  22. 22

    Most of his interesting reflections on the nature of the labor process in modern industry concern capitalism, but as the references to Trotsky show (cf. Notebooks, pp. 301-302) he is also thinking of socialist economies.

  23. 23

    It is merely for convenience and “to avoid lapsing into a wearisome and tautological catalogue of platitudes” that we separate out “the politics which is called political science in the strict sense” from the other activities which transform men (Notebooks, p. 224).

  24. 24

    He opened an unlimited account in his name with a bookshop in 1926 (Lettere [1965], p. 23).