‘Antonio Gramsci’ reviewed by Dylan Kerrigan

Antonio Gramsci

Translated by Graziella DiMauro with Salvatore Engel-DiMauro. Monthly Review Press, New York, 2010. 208 pp. £12.95 pb
ISBN 9781583672105

Reviewed by Dylan Kerrigan

About the reviewer

Dylan Kerrigan is an anthropologist, currently based at the University of the West Indies, St …


Who was Antonio Gramsci? How do we know him? Many know of Gramsci through a plethora of disciplinary culture industries with their particular definitions of concepts such as `hegemony’, `historical bloc’, `organic intellectuals’, `war of position’, etc. Then there are his Prison Notebooks with their rich and consistent gems of intellectual enlightenment, and his pre-prison writings too, full of counter-hegemonic discourse rooted in his valiant stand against capitalism. Some may also know his early journalism where columns like ‘The Light That Went Out’ in 1915 and his many theatre reviews delivered short, sharp Hegelian sunbursts that illuminated the features of a new way to conceive the relationship between culture and politics. It is from such sources we get a portrait of the man who is quite rightly revered as a giant of Marxism. But how well do we really know the life of Antonio Gramsci? Not just his writings and concepts but also the history of the man’s life, its context, the people he cared for, the schools he went to, the essays he submitted at university? Who did he write his letters too, what were their contents? What were the intellectual concepts in his head long before they got written down? Who were those he loved and those he did not? What of his own words do we have about how he viewed his own life and work?

Seventy-four years after his death such glimpses are harder to come by than the familiar narratives of a revered, intellectual giant of the Left. Thankfully in this biography – an English translation of Antonio Santucci’s Antonio Gramsci. Guida al pensiero e agli acritto and the first chapter of his Gramsci: Fin de Siècle – those glimpses can be found. The text is a portrait that humanises the spectacle surrounding his name and helps the reader to develop a more intimate understanding of the struggles Gramsci faced. We see in his own words how Gramsci coped with the immense personal struggles of poverty, malnourishment, stunted growth, nervous exhaustion, separation from family and friends, and ultimately in the final years of his life, imprisonment. At the same time the biography clearly articulates the accomplishments behind Gramsci’s more familiar persona, the revolutionary-minded, public intellectual who was well versed in labour history and politics, unafraid to speak on behalf of the masses in his quest for social change. It is these two aspects of Gramsci that drive Santucci’s narrative.

In the Preface, Eric Hobsbawm, who amongst other things is the Honorary President of the International Gramsci Society, reminds readers that upon his death Gramsci’s body of work was not easily accessible, and that two scholars in particular did much to bring it to the wider world: Antonio Santucci and Valentino Gerratena. Their effort and work, he says, helped Gramsci become one of the most distinguished of twentieth century intellectuals. After the Preface, Foreword, Editor’s note, and Introduction, which each present their own glimpses of both Gramsci and Santucci – ‘the most important philologist of Gramsci’s texts’ – the book is divided into four chapters. These sections follow Gramsci’s life chronologically, dividing it into his early formative political journalism, his letters from prison, his Prison Notebooks, before rounding off with a chapter on the end-of-century Gramsci, which interrogates Gramsci’s position in the intellectual world of the late twentieth century.

The narrative of personal events in Gramsci’s life is illuminated through letters he wrote to his mother, his wife Julia and their sons, his sister-in-law Tatiana Schucht, and his colleagues and friends, who included Piero Sraffa, later an influential economist. As well as glimpses into his early articles, letters and essays, Santucci does a fine job of linking historical events in the development of Italian and wider socialist politics to Gramsci’s words. We learn that for Gramsci and those who voted for him there was a harsh reality and physical price to be paid for the desire for social change.

The numerous letters give much insight into the method and themes underlying Gramsci’s work, and also his own personal battles and sense of self. For example, in a letter to Tatiana in 1927 Gramsci lays out the basis of his Notebooks, noting that the common thread in them is the ‘popular creative spirit, in its various phases and degrees of development.’ In another piece of correspondence – this time a love letter to his wife Julia written in 1924 – we get a glimpse into the tender side of a man tormented by being far from home. It is in such personal reflections that readers glimpse Gramsci’s life in new ways. Personal stories of Gramsci’s childhood also give insight into the person he would later become:

What spared me from becoming a completely lifeless rag? The rebellious instinct I felt against the rich as a young boy, because I couldn’t continue to attend school, even if I had received the highest marks in all elementary school subjects, while the son of a butcher, the pharmacist, the clothing merchant could attend. This instinct extended to all the rich who oppressed Sardinian peasants and so I then thought that it was necessary to fight for national independence of the region: Throw the continentals to the sea!

His final letters from prison show his state of mind after years in jail, the crumbling of his own personality, which he describes as a shipwreck, and himself a refugee who must turn to cannibalism and whether or not he can consider himself the same person as he was before prison – to which he answers that he cannot.

Humanising Gramsci the man, through the journeys, destinations, people and events of his life works well for those who already have a familiarity with Gramsci’s works, because it answers questions that many long-term readers of Gramsci no doubt have. The extra details gained through his correspondence also make the reader rethink certain aspects of Gramsci’s work. For example, in the popular 1971 Hoare and Smith, Selections From The Prison Notebooks – a common first encounter with Gramsci’s words for many English speakers – there is a disconnect with Gramsci’s pre-prison life and writings. The disconnection can mean his concepts, whether intended or not, are redefined from what he actually said.

A good instance of this is the concept of ‘organic’ intellectuals. Do organic intellectuals today, because they are related to a particular mode of production through education and by the social necessities of production and of their group, exist only on one side of the class divide? In this biography we see that while organic intellectuals are predominantly connected to the dominant class and its coercive institutions there are times when organic intellectuals emerge from the ‘specific social relations’ of the proletariat, and Gramsci himself is good evidence of this. These organic intellectuals like Gramsci are much rarer and do not form their ‘own layer’ or strata. As the biography shows Gramsci’s thinking emerges ambiguously and slowly over years. He moves from the South to the Turin factory council movement and workers groups in the North. He is constantly writing and learning to create and communicate a counter-hegemonic discourse born on the terrain of the contradictions engendered by the material forces of production. Nothing happens immediately. Gramsci’s consciousness is actively produced.

For those new to Gramsci the biography will also work well. It provides both personal and academic insights on a gentle curve from personal life story to the political philosopher incarcerated – whose body was broken but whose ideas grew stronger. The Appendix will help those unfamiliar with Gramsci’s life and includes both a biographical chronology and some useful biographies of the main political figures in Gramsci’s life. These will also be useful for those more familiar with his life.

Overall the text helps readers understand the context, events and people in Gramsci’s life. This illuminates Gramsci’s methodology. For Gramsci political action became an object and model for scientific inquiry. Through his letters and essays, the reader watches the development of this methodology as Gramsci himself discovers the relationship between culture and politics, between theory and practice.

In the final chapter – ‘End-of-Century Gramsci’ – Santucci discusses the Gramscian methodology in a last analysis which can be read as a final farewell between both men. In seven short topics that include the titles ‘After 1989’, ‘Why Two Gramscis?’ and ‘Reform of Politics’, Santucci uses Gramsci’s methodology to argue that both radicals and conservatives have misappropriated his work. In this final section Santucci comes full circle and answers the questions “who is Gramsci?” and “how do we know him?” most explicitly. Gramsci took sides and he hated those who didn’t. Santucci is quite clear on that. Those who use Gramsci today and don’t take sides don’t know Gramsci. Thankfully, in Santucci’s biography the reader will find a rigourous and seminal riposte to the disciplinary culture industries that have misappropriated Gramsci’s life because Santucci’s text is an excellent reminder of the purpose behind Antonio Gramsci’s words and the side he most defiantly took.

28 February 2011

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