The Routledge Guidebook to Gramsci's Prison Notebooks
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The Routledge Guidebook to Gramsci's Prison Notebooks

John Schwarzmantel

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eBook - ePub

The Routledge Guidebook to Gramsci's Prison Notebooks

John Schwarzmantel

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Gramsci's Prison Notebooks are one of the most important and original sources of modern political philosophy but the Prison Notebooks present great difficulties to the reader. Not originally intended for publication, their fragmentary character and their often cryptic language can mystify readers, leading to misinterpretation of the text. The Routledge Guidebook to Gramsci's Prison Notebooks provides readers with the historical background, textual analysis and other relevant information needed for a greater understanding and appreciation of this classic text. This guidebook:

  • Explains the arguments presented by Gramsci in a clear and straightforward way, analysing the key concepts of the notebooks.
  • Situates Gramsci's ideas in the context of his own time, and in the history of political thought demonstrating the innovation and originality of the Prison Notebooks.
  • Provides critique and analysis of Gramsci's conceptualisation of politics and history (and culture in general), with reference to contemporary (i.e. present-day) examples where relevant.
  • Examines the relevance of Gramsci in the modern world and discusses why his ideas have such resonance in academic discourse

Featuring historical and political examples to illustrate Gramsci's arguments, along with suggestions for further reading, this is an invaluable guide for anyone who wants to engage more fully with The Prison Notebooks

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Antonio Gramsci (1891–1937) was one of the original members of the Italian Communist Party (Partito Comunista d’Italia, PCd’I), taking part in its founding congress in Livorno in January 1921. Before that, he had left his native Sardinia to study philology and linguistics at the University of Turin, and had become engaged in the politics of the Italian labour movement and joined the Italian Socialist Party (Partito Socialista Italiano, PSI). Starting in the years of the First World War he worked as a journalist and theatre critic for the socialist press in Turin, and was an active participant in the struggles of the working class of the city. He played a leading role in the wave of strikes and occupations of the Fiat car factories which took place in the so-called ‘red two years’ or biennio rosso of 1919–20. He saw the factory occupations as the possible beginning of a socialist revolution in Italy, inspired by the revolution which the Russian Bolsheviks had made in October 1917. Along with other young socialist intellectuals Gramsci founded the journal LOrdine Nuovo (The new order) and his articles for that journal developed the idea of factory councils as the institutions through which the workers could run the factories and which could be the basis of a new type of socialist state. Critical of the failure of both the PSI and of the trade unions to defend and extend the factory council movement, Gramsci joined the PCd’I at its foundation, became one of its leaders, and was sent to Moscow in May 1922 by the party as its delegate to the executive committee of the Communist International (Comintern). It was while in Moscow, recovering his health in a sanatorium, that he met Julia Schucht, who was to become his wife and mother of their two children. In November 1923 Gramsci left Moscow for Vienna, and returned to Italy in May 1924, having been elected as a deputy (member of parliament) for the region of the Veneto in the elections of April 1924. Gramsci became secretary general of the PCd’I in August 1924. Since the March on Rome of October 1922 the fascists had taken power in Italy, and after having survived the crisis provoked by the fascist assassination of the socialist deputy Matteotti in April 1924, the fascists went on to consolidate their power through the violence of their armed gangs of squadristi and the intimidation of their opponents.
Antonio Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks, or Quaderni del carcere to give them their title in the original Italian, are a series of notes and reflections written over a period of more than six years from 1929 to 1935, years spent in jail following the prison sentence handed down to Gramsci by a tribunal (a Special Tribunal for the Defence of the State) convened by the fascist government headed by Benito Mussolini. After what was essentially a show trial in June 1928, having been arrested in November 1926 despite his parliamentary immunity as a deputy elected to the Italian parliament, Gramsci was condemned to prison on trumped-up charges of subversion for twenty years, four months and five days, and similar sentences were handed down to the other leaders of the PCd’I with whom Gramsci was put on trial. He started writing his notebooks in February 1929, as soon as he had been able to get permission to write in prison, and filled twenty-nine notebooks (school exercise books) with his reflections on history, politics, philosophy and culture, as well as a further four notebooks filled with translations from German, English and Russian texts, which Gramsci used as language exercises.
Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks are an undoubted classic of twentieth-century political thought, and they have had a huge influence over all fields of social and political thought and cultural theory. Gramsci is one of the Italian thinkers who have been most translated and studied throughout the world, and the Prison Notebooks have made concepts like hegemony familiar in a range of intellectual disciplines. This influence was a long time coming. Gramsci died in 1937, and the Notebooks, retrieved from Gramsci’s last place of confinement by his sister-in-law Tatiana Schucht and sent by her to the Soviet Union, remained in an archive in Moscow until they were returned to Italy at the end of the Second World War. Large sections of the Notebooks were first published in Italian in the years 1948 to 1951, while Gramsci’s letters from prison first appeared in published form in 1947. But it was only in 1975 that the first complete Italian edition of the Notebooks appeared, with full scholarly apparatus and identification of the many sources referred to in the course of more than 2,300 printed pages of Gramsci’s notes. For reasons more fully explained in the next chapter, the Notebooks are not an easy text to read: constrained by the circumstances of his imprisonment, Gramsci was often forced to be allusive and cryptic in his references, and the Notebooks are composed of hundreds of separate sections of paragraphs, some long, some short, which cover a massive range of subjects. Compared with other classic texts of political and social theory, it appears as an assemblage of fragmentary reflections, and certainly not as a polished text revised for publication, with a beginning, middle and end of a coherent argument. A substantial English-language edition of parts of the Prison Notebooks was published in 1971 entitled Selections from the Prison Notebooks of Antonio Gramsci, edited and translated by Quintin Hoare and Geoffrey Nowell-Smith, and it is this edition which provides the structure for the present guide. While approaching the Notebooks through this set of selections does impart a particular perspective to the analysis of Gramsci’s Notebooks (in a way privileging the political, historical and philosophical aspects at the expense of the themes of culture and popular beliefs which are also important), the justification remains that the Hoare/Nowell-Smith edition is still the way in which most English-speaking readers initially approach Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks. The present guide is therefore oriented to that set of selections, designed to help readers encountering the text through that edition, while making reference also to the full text of the Notebooks in both the 1975 Italian edition and to the as yet incomplete English translation, which at the moment (2014) covers only the first eight of the twenty-nine notebooks, as well as to other English-language translations.
The remainder of this introductory chapter seeks to explain briefly Gramsci’s political career and writings before his imprisonment. The next chapter gives an overview of the main themes of the Notebooks, and then discusses the structure and nature of Gramsci’s prison writings, explaining the way in which they were written and the periodization of their composition. After that, the successive chapters of this guide follow the thematic ordering of the Selections from the Prison Notebooks (hereafter SPN), with chapters on intellectuals and education; history and modernity; politics and the state; and finally philosophy and Marxism. The only departure from the ordering of SPN is in the discussion of Gramsci’s views on Americanism and Fordism, which are dealt with here in the chapter on history and modernity, whereas the SPN puts these in the section dealing with politics. The aim of the following chapters is mainly expository. It is hoped to give a clear explanation of Gramsci’s ideas, with the addition of some critical analysis of how those ideas stand up in the conditions of contemporary twenty-first-century politics. A concluding chapter offers a brief and selective review of some of the ways in which Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks have influenced wider political and social analysis, and takes up the way in which Gramsci presents the themes of the national and the global, the crisis of the nation-state, and his ideas of cosmopolitanism, themes which have become ever more topical since his day. If the present guide helps to clarify Gramsci’s ideas and assists readers in their study of the Selections, and hopefully directs them to the complete version of the Notebooks, then it will have served its purpose. In the light of the discovery of new sources of documentation and helped by the work of scholars engaged in the preparation of the new (Italian) national edition of Gramsci’s works, and the cooling of Cold War passions and distortions, it should be possible to arrive at a more balanced and dispassionate treatment of this classic of twentieth-century political and social thought.
Understanding the content of the Prison Notebooks requires some grasp of Gramsci’s own life and political career, so it is necessary to give a short account of Gramsci’s development before he was imprisoned in 1926 by the fascist regime, which was to keep him in prison effectively for the rest of his life, until 1937. Gramsci was born in Sardinia in 1891, and came to Turin as a student, to study (primarily) philology, though as his fellow student, and later leader of the PCd’I, Palmiro Togliatti observed, wherever there were lectures on interesting subjects, Gramsci was to be found there: ‘I would bump in to him’, Togliatti wrote, ‘wherever there was a Professor who enlightened us on a series of essential problems’ (Togliatti 2001, 140). Gramsci did not complete his studies at the University of Turin, committing himself to a career as a socialist journalist and organizer in the city of Turin, writing first for the socialist paper Avanti! (Forward!) and then joining with a group of other young comrades to set up the socialist paper L’Ordine Nuovo, which proclaimed its mission to be an organ of working-class culture and education, with those involved in it known as the ordinovisti, the ‘new order people’ (Rapone 2011). The core ideas of the ordinovisti are important for understanding the ideas of the Prison Notebooks, since there is continuity between the early Gramsci and the late Gramsci, in the same way, it can be argued, as there is continuity between the young Marx of the 1844 Paris Manuscripts and the later Marx of Capital (Das Kapital). In his early writings in the period of L’Ordine Nuovo Gramsci was concerned to articulate the idea that the working class could express and develop its own culture, and that Marxism did not represent a form of economic determinism but expressed such a new culture. Just as the French Revolution had been preceded by a long period of intellectual critique and undermining of traditional ideas, so too the socialist revolution was bound up with a process of intellectual renewal and transformation. This is well illustrated in Gramsci’s article on ‘Socialism and Culture’, written for the socialist paper Il Grido del Popolo (The cry of the people) on 29 January 1916. In that article Gramsci wrote that ‘every revolution has been preceded by a long process of intense critical activity, of new cultural insight and the spread of ideas through groups of men initially resistant to them, wrapped up in the process of solving their own, immediate economic and political problems, and lacking any bonds of solidarity with others in the same position’ (PPW 10). He illustrated this with reference to the French Revolution and the ideas of Enlightenment figures like D’Alembert and Diderot. For Gramsci, ‘the Enlightenment was a magnificent revolution in itself … it created a kind of pan-European unified consciousness, a bourgeois International of the spirit’ (PPW 10). But in the present situation of 1916, Gramsci wrote, a similar process was occurring, not a ‘bourgeois International’ but a new socialist consciousness: ‘The same phenomenon is occurring again today, with socialism. It is through a critique of capitalist civilisation that a unified proletarian consciousness has formed or is in the process of formation’ (PPW 11). This article illustrates themes which were to be much more fully explored in the Prison Notebooks, namely the importance of ideas and forms of consciousness, and the need to form a new intellectual perspective as a precondition for radical political change. There is also the idea of getting beyond a limited perspective concerned just with ‘immediate economic and political problems’, and the need to articulate a broader philosophy which rises above what Gramsci in the Prison Notebooks would refer to as the ‘economic-corporate level’.
One other theme was also raised in Gramsci’s early journalistic writings which receives a far deeper and more extended analysis in the Prison Notebooks, namely the idea of Marxism not as a form of economism in which politics was determined by economics, but of Marxism as precisely the expression of human will and creative action, encapsulated in the term which Gramsci developed in the Notebooks, ‘the philosophy of praxis’. The most famous expression of this idea in the pre-prison writings came in his article on the Bolshevik Revolution, which he saluted as ‘The Revolution against Capital’. In that article Gramsci startlingly refers to Marx’s Capital as being ‘more the book of the bourgeoisie than of the proletariat’, at least in the way in which it had been interpreted in Russia (PPW 39). Instead of just passively waiting for the unfolding of history along a path determined by the iron laws of economics, with socialist revolution deferred until after the development of capitalism, or as Gramsci put it, in opposition to the idea that ‘a bourgeoisie had to develop, the capitalist era had to get under way and civilisation on the Western model be introduced, before the proletariat could even start thinking about its own revolt, its own class demands, its own revolution’, the Bolsheviks had shown a different path through their own actions (PPW 39). In Gramsci’s words, ‘They are living out Marxist thought – the real, undying Marxist thought, which continues the heritage of German and Italian idealism, but which, in Marx, was contaminated by positivist and naturalist incrustations’ (PPW 40). Here again there is a core idea which received more extensive treatment in the Notebooks, the idea of the importance of practice and the rejection of the ‘positivist and naturalist incrustations’ which had, for Gramsci, distorted the nature of Marxism. It is true that in these early writings of Gramsci his use of Marx and Marx’s writings was rather a polemical one, making an appeal to Marxism as a way of criticizing the passivity of Italian socialists and their failure to exploit the potentialities of the situation in the way the Bolsheviks had done in Russia in 1917. A careful study by Francesca Izzo of Gramsci’s various readings of Marx shows that it was only with the Prison Notebooks that Gramsci engaged fully with some of the core ideas of Marxism, above all with the philosophy of Marxism (Izzo 2008). In his early journalistic and political writings, Gramsci was using Marx as an intellectual weapon in polemics against a range of political adversaries, in perhaps a rather superficial way, using Marxist ideas against liberal, conservative and nationalist politicians, for example against the Italian Prime Minister Giolitti and his protectionist economic policies which aimed at sealing an alliance between northern industrialists and southern landowners. Similarly Gramsci used Marxist ideas in opposition to nationalists like Corradini who sought to transform the idea of class struggle into the nationalist framework of the struggle of nation-states against each other, with Italy as a ‘proletarian nation’. As Izzo makes clear, it was only in the Notebooks that Gramsci made a ‘true and real “return to Marx”’, grappling with issues of base and superstructure, and reformulating ‘historical materialism’ (not a term Marx himself ever employed) as the philosophy of praxis. In the Notebooks he explored the philosophical implications of Marx’s work in ways which he did not do and could not do in those early writings, written as those journalistic articles were under the pressure of events, from day to day. It was with reference to Marx’s 1859 Preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy and The Poverty of Philosophy that these ideas were developed. Those writings were the key texts on which Gramsci drew in the Notebooks and which ‘constitute the source, the laboratory on which Gramsci drew in his discussion of critics of the philosophy of praxis, above all Croce’ (Izzo 2008, 575). While it is true that this more profound engagement with Marx and Marxism comes only with the Prison Notebooks, the idea of freeing Marxism (and political analysis generally) from the deterministic and economistic ‘incrustations’ of pre-1914 Marxism, and seeing Lenin as the example of such a voluntaristic and creative Marxism is one which is certainly an important element in the Notebooks but also finds some expression in Gramsci’s early articles, such as ‘The Revolution against Capital’ quoted above. In the early writings, Gramsci invokes the Marx of The Communist Manifesto and of The Holy Family, using these writings as examples of an activist creative perspective. In an article of 4 May 1918, also written for Il Grido del Popolo, Gramsci wrote that ‘Marx did not write some neat little doctrine; he is not some Messiah who left us a string of parables laden with categorical imperatives and absolute, unchallengeable norms, lying outside the categories of time and space. His only categorical imperative, his only norm: “Workers of the world, unite!”’ (PPW 54).
In his early journalistic writings, first for the periodical Il Grido del Popolo, then for the socialist newspaper Avanti! (whose editor at an earlier stage had been Mussolini), and finally for the journal LOrdine Nuovo (whose first issue appeared in March 1919), Gramsci gave an analysis of the events of the day, and in those journalistic writings certain themes appear which he was to develop further in his Prison Notebooks. In his early writings Gramsci developed a critique of Italian society and of the failure of the Italian bourgeoisie to be a truly modernizing force. In Gramsci’s analysis, the true face of capitalist modernity was realized through liberalism and a liberal society as represented by the Anglo-Saxon countries of England and the USA. In those societies a tradition of individualism spread ideas of autonomy and self-reliance. A truly liberal society, marked by civil liberties, was most conducive to the development of capitalism, and hence provided the best conditions for the growth and eventual victory of socialism. Gramsci’s Anglophilia even led him to praise Baden-Powell’s Boy Scout movement for fostering qualities of self-reliance and individualism (Rapone 2011, 145–50). Evidently Gramsci neglected or overlooked the imperialist ideology which the Boy Scout movement also developed. The corollary of his positive view of liberal capitalism as realized in Britain and the USA was his critique of Italy and the Italian character. Gramsci contrasted the Italian love of games of chance and the hope for fortune’s wheel to bring a windfall with the English belief that individuals had to work for and deserve any reward (clearly this was before the period of the National Lottery in Britain). In Gramsci’s analysis, Italy had not become a properly liberal society. The politics of Giolitti (the Italian prime minister) were marked by compromise, by economic protectionism rather than free trade, and by an endeavour to form an alliance of northern industrialists and southern landlords, with some attempt to co-opt the reformist leaders of Italian socialism into the alliance, and Gramsci saw this as the opposite of a progressive liberalism which would foster capitalist development. In an article written for Avanti! on 16 May 1918, Gramsci wrote of liberalism as ‘a precondition for socialism, both ideally and historically’ (Rapone 2011, 352). So for him Italy was a backward society in which the bourgeoisie was far from economically productive and dynamic. The character of the Italian people was marked by sentimentalism rather than force of character, and what was needed was greater discipline and stress on work rather than hoping for windfall gains from games of chance.
It is also interesting to note in these early journalistic writings of Gramsci his hostility to Jacobinism and to democracy, compared with his early praise for liberalism. In the Prison Notebooks Jacobinism (as we will see in Chapter 4 below) was praised as the politics which in the French Revolution had led the urban poor to support the demands of the peasantry, and which had pushed the revolution forward. In the early writings, by contrast, Gramsci’s use of the term ‘Jacobinism’ is much more negative, seeing Jacobinism as the politics of an intolerant minority, imbued with abstract ideas which it was foisting on the population as a whole, so that ‘Jacobin democracy is the negation of liberty and of autonomy’ (Rapone 2011, 359). He saw the Jacobins as the typical leaders of a bourgeois revolution, not in tune with the masses, and imposing their own ideas in an authoritarian fashion. This was linked with a critique (by Gramsci) of ‘democracy’, as seen...

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Citation styles for The Routledge Guidebook to Gramsci's Prison Notebooks
APA 6 Citation
Schwarzmantel, J. (2014). The Routledge Guidebook to Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks (1st ed.). Taylor and Francis. Retrieved from (Original work published 2014)
Chicago Citation
Schwarzmantel, John. (2014) 2014. The Routledge Guidebook to Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks. 1st ed. Taylor and Francis.
Harvard Citation
Schwarzmantel, J. (2014) The Routledge Guidebook to Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks. 1st edn. Taylor and Francis. Available at: (Accessed: 14 October 2022).
MLA 7 Citation
Schwarzmantel, John. The Routledge Guidebook to Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks. 1st ed. Taylor and Francis, 2014. Web. 14 Oct. 2022.