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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 916

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Since Gramsci is considered by many to be one of the seminal political thinkers of his time, a genius of sorts, interpretations of Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks must begin with an understanding of the author’s own singular cultural view of himself and of the society with which he was most directly familiar.

To be sure, Gramsci was Italian, but despite the unification of 1866, Italy’s cultural divisions and distinctions had deep and ancient roots. Gramsci was a Sardinian, about as Italian as the Irish, Scottish, or Welsh were English, as Corsicans were French, or as Basques were Spanish. The inhabitants of Sardinia, which had resisted one invader after another through its history, are traditionally tough, laconic, and self-analytical members of a closed folk society who saw themselves as outsiders and whose heroes were rebels and outlaws. Gramsci, who possessed these characteristics himself, became a leading folklorist of his native Sardinia. Indeed, his ideas on how popular culture shapes social structure and class relationships would profoundly affect the intellectuals of his time. Even if Gramsci had never embraced Marxism, he would have opposed the political and social structure that had been imposed upon the Sardinians and their culture.

In the years just prior to his imprisonment, as a leader of the Italian Communist Party Gramsci sided with the Joseph Stalin/Nikolay Bukharin majority in the Communist Party against Leon Trotsky and the so-called left. The thrust of his critical attack was that the Russian Communist Party was tearing itself apart while being callously unmindful of its responsibilities to the international proletariat (working classes) whom it was obliged to help liberate. By the time of his arrest, therefore, he was as much in danger of extermination by Stalin as he was by Mussolini’s Fascists.

The notebooks are the work of a gifted, learned, and independent thinker. Gramsci sharply reminded the Russian leadership that Party unity and discipline could not be coerced; unity and discipline, he thought, must emanate from genuine loyalty and conviction. He held, too, that even the enemies of Joseph Stalin had played important, positive, and instructive roles in the party’s development.

In his limited, at times despairing physical and psychological circumstances, Gramsci managed to develop fresh historical explanations for the evolution of socialism. He also raised a number of seminal questions that were to revivify and revitalize discussions about socialism. His ideas would continue to be a source for Marxist writings and political polemics in years to come.

What Gramsci had to say about social structure, for example, was subtler and more complex than the traditional Stalinist party line. This party line essentially posited the existence of an exploitative capitalist imperialist class abetted by its bourgeois allies, whose actions were producing an increasingly impoverished and oppressed working class. The ultimate consequences of this unjust situation would produce international revolution under direction of a temporary dictatorship of the proletariat, directed from Moscow. Gramsci’s views, however, were what Marxists would then have called “revisionist.”

Gramsci doubted that international revolution was imminent, indeed even foreseeable in the near future. However desirable the advent of communism appeared, many of its realities failed to square with the hopes of its proponents. Gramsci found orthodox Marxist class explanations inadequate and unconvincing. According to Gramsci, societies were not composed of abstractly distinct functional strata. Multiple levels of culture linked and transcended “subaltern” (lower and ostensibly oppressed classes) with “hegemonic” (or dominant capitalist) classes. What he defined in his sociological observations as “good sense” and “common sense” pervaded all elements of cultures and societies and were not the singular distinctions of any specific groups alone.

Perhaps because of the extraordinary range of his subject matter, Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks contains certain contradictions and ambiguities. He argues that folklore should be elevated to a worldview; yet he claims elsewhere that folk culture is a collection of anachronisms that the new Marxist order should simply abolish. His terminology is often difficult: Terms such as “passive revolution,” “organic intellect,” “integral state,” “war of position,” “national-popular,” and “hegemonic” are not always easily grasped. Indeed, the contextual illusiveness of such concepts has been the source of provocative and productive studies by European Marxists and non-Marxists.

Yet a certain amount of obscurity does not detract from the remarkable breadth of knowledge amassed by Gramsci. His allusions and references in the notebooks to the prominent philosophical, political, and intellectual figures of his day as well as to seminal thinkers of earlier centuries constitute a tour de force. Hegel, Immanuel Kant, Giambattista Vico, and Machiavelli are only a few of those who became grist for his mill.

As founder of the Italian Communist Party, Gramsci was confronted with the fact that Italians preferred to consider their personal well-being over participation in civic life or in formal political organizations. They seemed to prefer more clandestine and covert organizations: gangs, mafias, or closely knit family networks. An important theme of Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks is that these Italian characteristics were a result of the insidious effects of capitalism. The triumph of Communism, according to Gramsci, would restore and revitalize Italian political life and civic-mindedness. Yet, as he was probably aware, the cultural characteristics and popular mores that he sought to reform long predated Italian capitalism. Indeed, after Gramsci’s death, they “infiltrated” and marked the Italian Communist Party itself.

None of these points detracts from Gramsci’s immense achievements both of intellect and the spirit, or from the gift of controversy passed on by him to his intellectual successors.


Critical Context