Prison Notebooks Critical Context - Essay

Antonio Gramsci

Critical Context

(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks, like his Lettere dal carcere (1947; Letters from Prison, 1973), reflect Italy’s confused and unhappy situation, the result of the difficulties during and after World War I. Originally allied with the Germans and Austro-Hungarians, the Italian government, with promises of extensive Austrian, Adriatic, and Dalmatian territorial concessions by Great Britain, France, and Russia, switched sides. Poorly equipped and wretchedly led, the Italians experienced a sequence of disasters during the war. At the war’s end, the promised territorial concessions were disputed contemptuously by the victorious powers.

Political chaos was rife within a largely impoverished Italy. Individuals, factions, and nationalist political parties arose to claim by force what they believed was denied them through negotiation. Mussolini, a former socialist, organized the violence that effectively stabilized internal affairs, but at the cost of quelling all serious opposition. As the bound bundle of sticks composing the Fascist symbol indicated, Italy was to be one by force. Gramsci was a stick that did not fit into the Fascist corporatist bundle. Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks displays a sense of Italy’s philosophical and historical distinctiveness and achievements—replete with a humanism that is not entirely or abstractly Marxist. It displays, too, Gramsci’s vision of an Italy that would maintain its cultural variety and complexity under a Communist government that reflected this variety and complexity.