‘Revisiting Gramsci’s Notebooks’ by Francesca Antonini, Aaron Bernstein, Lorenzo Fusaro and Robert Jackson (eds) reviewed by Michael Deckard

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Revisiting Gramsci’s Notebooks

Brill, Historical Materialism Book Series, Volume: 205, Leiden, 2019. 521 pp., €170.00 hb
ISBN 9789004337039

Reviewed by Michael Deckard

About the reviewer

Michael Deckard is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Lenoir-Rhyne University. He teaches courses …


Starting in fall 2016, after a fatal election in the US, several of us from different faculties (history, philosophy, economics, psychology, religion, sociology and other disciplines) began reading Buttigieg’s English translation of the Prison Notebooks and comparing it to the original Italian as needed.* Most of us were not Gramsci scholars, and our interests and backgrounds were varied. We began dipping into themes like ‘Americanism’, ‘Natural Law and Catholicism’, ‘Achille Loria’, ‘Sarcasm as an expression of transition among historicists’, and ‘Types of Periodicals’. We spent several months on the Risorgimento, learning who Garibaldi, Ferrari, Crispi and Mazzini were, what the ‘Action Party’ and the ‘Southern Question’ referred to, and other historical points of interest. The varied but detailed close reading included reading entire sections aloud and often spending an hour or more discussing a single sentence, phrase, expression. We called our group L’Ordine Nuovo after the newsletter created and edited by Gramsci and took as our motto the three points of revolution indicated in the masthead of the newsletter: educate, agitate, organize. We spent much of our time on the first of these three points of revolution, since education was primary in creating true revolution about the masses. We wish that we were fully collectively writing this review and reading this book while continuing our in-person discussion of Gramsci’s work but, alas, the pandemic intervened. Nonetheless, Revisiting Gramsci’s Notebooks is a wonderful accompaniment that would have made our efforts to comprehend and apply Gramsci’s work even more fruitful. With 25 chapters from various disciplines and from all over the globe, Revisiting Gramsci’s Notebooks provides a mapping of the terrain and a bit of a skeleton key that unlocks much of what Gramsci intended in his work.

What makes the Prison Notebooks help us understand passive revolution and the subaltern are touched upon in many of the chapters of this book. Two in particular are striking. First, Roberto Roccu looks at ‘Neoliberalism as Passive Revolution? Insights from the Egyptian Experience’, showing how this has played a part in Egypt’s agency. There are links between the Risorgimento in Italy as well as corporatism under fascism and transformations ‘imposed on Europe by the establishment of Fordist methods, and the attendant ideology of Americanism’ (29), which helps us to see the restructuring in Egypt both before and after the 2011 revolution as an ‘externally induced process’ (36). Second, Anthony Crézégut claims that three images of Gramsci existed around the middle of the twentieth century. He was seen as an anti-fascist martyr, a builder of the Workers’ Councils, or a cultural Marxist, in the sense that he paid attention to history and the role of intellectuals in that history. According to Crézégut, this spells three ways of understanding the reception of Gramsci, particularly in France. First, at the philosophical level situated between existentialism and phenomenology through the concept of praxis; second, at the political level it became an alternative to Stalinism and the communist party (PCF) through a new leftist movement; third at the sociological level the merging of theory and practice as it applied to class struggle.

Part 1, ‘Global Gramsci: Gramscian Geographies’, presents Gramsci as a theorist of space and spaces, as seen in Alex Loftus’s claim concerning the ‘making of solidarities’ within the ‘uneven geographical development of the emerging state of Italy’ (12-13). The importance of the philosophy of praxis for what Loftus calls ‘spatial historicism’ as it concerns the southern question and inequalities that are material allows for a critique of political economy ‘that also pays due attention to the lived life of the labourer’ (21). Roccu, as already seen above, and Buddharaksa concerning Thailand, conclude this section.

Part 2, ‘Language and Translation’, contains three articles concerning Gramsci’s interpretation of language by Derek Boothman, Alen Suceska and Marta Natalia Wróblewska. Two of the most interesting claims in this section concerns the organic nature of language (just as with intellectuals) and the move from common to good sense when it comes to the inherent metaphorical nature of language (90-100). Boothman analyses language in terms of ideology, looking back on Gramsci’s university linguistics studies, which included Albanian, Romanian and Bulgarian (69-70), allowing him to see the language-ideology nexus such as in the word for sheep (Delm) in Albanian related to a rugged place. ‘This may be compared with Italy, whose name […] is etymologically linked to “vitulus” (in modern Italian “vitello”) meaning a calf; “Italy” is thus a fertile place, suitable for cattle’ (70-71). Wróblewska also looks at specific translations of the Prison Notebooks in Polish, pointing out fascinating connections between theory and practices of translation.

Part 3, ‘Gramsci and the Marxian Legacy’, deepens the relationship of the philosophies of Gramsci and Marx particularly through definitions of time and revolution – ‘[i]ndividual and collective, also like active and passive, are not opposed, but necessarily imply each other’ (132), in Fabio Frosini’s contribution. Every interpretation of reality is also a transformation of that reality; national history cannot be separated from international history (129). Utilizing the Preface to Marx’s A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, historical materialism becomes manifested in time: ‘The intertwining of “truth” and “power”, the conception of ideologies as jointly the site of knowledge and practical transformation, in the end the theory of translatability: these elements that constitute the Marxism of Gramsci, prevent the detachment, if not by abstraction, of the objective side from the subjective’ (136-7). Aaron Bernstein adds to this philosophical side of political economy with the relationship to Marx’s Theses on Feuerbach, particularly when in Notebook 7, Gramsci claims that ‘the only philosophy is history in action, life itself’ (154).

Part 4, ‘Subalternity between Pre-modernity and Modernity’, captures what subaltern means today. While the precise term ‘History from below’ is not used in this book, this may be another way of interpreting the notion of the subaltern. However, Peter Thomas points out how the notion of subalternity can be caught up in historical progress. He refers primarily to Notebook 25, ‘On the Margins of History’, where Gramsci ‘attempted to develop a transhistorical concept of the subaltern, of the night in which all subalterns are subalterns’. According to Thomas, this notion made postcoloniality relevant, ‘offering a transhistorical vocabulary that seemed to escape the “historicist”, “teleological”, or “Eurocentric” prejudices common to most theories of modernity and modernisation’ (178). Instead of thinking in terms of pre-modern, inclusion, or exclusion, the subaltern is constituted and Thomas thinks that it should not be categorized as an anti-Enlightenment or anti-universalist stance. In over 30 notes between 1930 and 1933, Gramsci expands upon this methodological perspective. In addition, Anne Freeland takes a genealogy of concepts from the National-Popular as it relates to the subaltern and Susi Meret, as already mentioned, truly ‘re-politicises participatory action research’, especially as it applies to migrants and refugees.

Part 5, ‘Postcolonial and Anthropological Approaches’, begins with a deeper look at Gramsci’s work on the Southern Question. In light of the fact that throughout history southern Italy was identified as ‘backward, African and non-European’ makes for a more anthropological approach to Gramsci’s roots. In order to unmask the colonial relationships of power between North and South, it is worthwhile to read Carmine Corelli’s contribution in light of other North/South relationships in other countries, ‘the global souths’, as he calls them,

‘those places that, through an act of epistemic violence, are considered in terms of lacks and absences in relation to the progress and development of the “north” and the West. It seems crucial to reopen and unravel the domestic colonial archive through the toolbox provided by this renewed and unexpected Gramsci, in order to grasp and challenge the embeddedness of the discourse on Southern’s inferiority in the Italian unconscious.’ (247)

Furthermore, Nicolas Vandeviver, in his ‘Resisting Orientalism’, sees Gramsci’s view of power as ‘something one possesses […] with an intention or will to use, exploit or abuse’ (252). The article by Ciavolella furthers the anthropological question as related to ‘popular politics’, which may include folklore or rural ways of being, and how Gramsci’s remarks have changed meanings from the 1950s and 1960s to today. If we are to understand Gramsci’s remarks on ‘people’ today, then ‘a new collective will’ analogous to a modern prince must not give way to postmodern visions of floating subjects, but rather become historians who ‘try to understand how to connect with […] different subaltern groups, by understanding them in their historical formation, as well as in their political activities’ (282).

Part 6, ‘Culture, Ideology, Religion’, critiques (in the Kantian sense) Catholicism, at least how it functioned in Italian society. Gramsci never thought natural law would completely die out, especially for the popular masses, but its mythology could certainly be challenged by intellectuals such as Benedetto Croce who helped the radical intellectuals detach themselves from the ‘peasant masses’. Gramsci disagreed with the part of Croce’s system that detached themselves from the peasants, especially in the South, since the entire notion of common sense and good sense speaks to a ‘split in the community of the faithful’ (294, quoting Prison Notebooks, Q11, §12). Ingo Pohn-Lauggas, in ‘Past and Present: Popular Literature’, thinks that comparing linguistics with Pirandello’s literature as well as ‘cheap novels’ will allow us to understand the relation of culture to art. How history is dynamic with respect to the past and the present in the individual’s experience and need for progress is already contained within the first Prison Notebook, Pohn-Lauggas shows, and even within serial novels that Gramsci found in the prison library where he says he can ‘extract blood even from a beetroot’ (303, quoting ‘Letter to Tatjana Schucht’, 22 April 1929).

Part 7, ‘Historical Capitalism and World History’, takes us on the route of relating modernity to feudalism and thus history. Agriculture is spoken of by Yohann Douet as an economic factor that contributes to the rise of capitalism. Douet compares Italy to Flanders, medieval economies to political factors, and reveals how Weber was partially right about ‘the national character of Protestantism [and its] new conception of Grace […] Protestantism created a national-popular will’ (347). He also looks at Machiavelli, as his texts would relate to the city and the country today. Gramsci’s question to Machiavelli concerns how the state incorporates rural classes with respect to the laws of motion of capitalism. While this moment has its own organicism, power can be seen like a centaur (358) – half man, half beast – in which ‘private and national property generate divisions, borders, wars, national states in permanent conflict amongst themselves’ (361). The Prison Notebooks can be read in both a national and an international level simultaneously. Americanism, Lorenzo Fusaro states, ‘with its café life and ideology of the Rotary Club’, doesn’t stand for anything new; rather, quoting Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks, it is ‘whether America, through the implacable weight of its economic production […] will compel or is already compelling Europe to overturn its excessively antiquated economic and social basis’ (368).

While this review has neglected some chapters of this 521 page book, the task is clear and compelling: all the authors and the group that met at one small university in the South beginning in 2016 to read and think through the Prison Notebooks are not individual collaborations, but ‘within the ambit of a coordinated and collective international project’ (6), even when we have not personally met each other. This is inspiring for what we all believe is possible, changing the world by moving more and more from educating to agitating to organizing.

*With assistance from Gordon Cappelletty, Katherine Gerlaugh, Jonathan Schwiebert

28 August 2021

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