Book Review: Prison Notebooks Vol 1, Antonio Gramsci


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Book Review: Prison Notebooks Vol 1, Antonio Gramsci, Columbia University Press (2011)

“Culture is a fundamental concept of socialism because it integrates and concretizes the vague concept of freedom of thought.” Antonio Gramsci

Antonio Gramsci’s cultural awareness permeates every single reflection recorded in his notebooks. Arrested and imprisoned in 1926 on conspiracy charges of an alleged attempt on Benito Mussolini’s life, Gramsci eroded the certainty expressed vehemently by the prosecution, who argued that “We must prevent this brain from functioning for twenty years.”

Volume 1 of the Prison Notebooks introduces Gramsci’s reflections with a detailed synopsis of both his work and the circumstances under which this intellectual legacy flourished. The Fascist victory only succeeded in removing an influential leader of the Partido Comunista d’Italia (PCd’I) from public view but his philosophy was far from annihilated, having already meticulously planned on furthering his political analysis and reflections from the confines of jail.

Writing to his closest friends and relatives, he requested ‘paper and ink’, also a selection of books, detailing his plan to immerse himself in study, analysis and writing during his tenure in prison. Permission to write was given after several petitions – however Gramsci was not allowed to retain his work in his cell – these were locked up and only a limited selection of his notebooks were available to him on occasion. This restriction might be one of the reasons why the notebooks come across as a recording of fragmented reflections.

Gramsci’s initial reflections focused, amongst others, on the theory of history and historiography, education, popular literature, the formation of intellectuals, the Italian Risorgimento, prison life and references to Machiavelli. The seemingly fragmented and dissonant reflections gain momentum when read as a process of debate, discovery and affirmation. Rethinking culture in various forms, Gramsci reflects upon the dissemination of literature, arguing that artistic literature should be regarded as both an ‘actual element of culture’ and ‘a work of art’. The promulgation of literature is essential for civilisation enrichment, in order to prevent culture from becoming inferior.

“Otherwise, preference will be given not to artistic literature but to serial literature which, in its own way, is an element of culture – degraded, perhaps, but current.”

The first volume of the Prison Notebooks is perceived as the foundation for his later reflections. Gramsci’s philosophy is deeply entrenched in socialist ideology; affirming, through extensive reflection, that culture and socialism are necessarily interwoven, creating the conditions for people to embrace or rather, adhere to, the concept of freedom of thought.

Attaining freedom of thought is hindered by the restrictions of capitalism. Despite Gramsci’s view that each person is a philosopher due to participation, observation and the dissemination of thought through the use of language, the working classes’ alienation from culture is one of precincts which capitalism enforces upon this segment of society. Gramsci advocated that socialism should embrace culture in order to sustain the growth of intellectuals, impart a political education to the working class and further the struggle for freedom in society.

Gramsci makes a distinction between the illusion of justice and the truth of justice. The image which justice creates is decadent – an outward flourish of concern to conceal the abuse of power inflicted on people in which there is no regeneration. The concept of hegemony – a term used previously by Marxists such as Lenin, was expounded upon by Gramsci, who maintained that capitalism had assumed absolute power, resulting in bourgeoisie values dominating the working classes’ aspirations and identity. In order for the working class to develop its own culture and values, it is imperative that the oppressed and intellectuals identify with the proletariat. The dominance of the bourgeoisie relies on coercion of the masses and any revolt against this coercion results in a manifestation of force. The accord which balances the void between consent and force is corruption which, as Gramsci states:

(… is characteristic of certain situations in which it is difficult to exercise the hegemonic function while the use of force presents too many dangers); that is, the procurement of the antagonist’s or antagonists’ debilitation and paralysis by buying, covertly under normal circumstances, openly in the case of anticipated dangers – their leaders in order to create confusion and disorder among the antagonist ranks.

Referring to historical insurrections in Europe, Gramsci observes that most modern states were created through a balance in which the bourgeoisie remained in power within a system that the working class found flexible enough. The struggle for power and its achievement transforms the meaning of politics for different social classes. While politics retains its definition for the productive class, the intellectuals define politics as rationality. Gramsci states that these differences in philosophical idealism should be ‘explained on the basis of historic relations’.

Gramsci exhorts the relevance of history, revolution and political thought in order to discern the immediate realm. A consciousness of history is necessary to create the present. Criticising the past in order to adhere to the present is rational and crucial, in order to interpret our analysis hypothetically and politically. Splintering the link between past and present renders humanity unable to comprehend the process of perception, extension and revival.

“In other words, we must stick closer to the present, which we ourselves have helped create, while conscious of the past and its continuation (and revival).”

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5 Responses

  1. anne

    October 12, 2011 6:12 pm

    is Gramsci overrated or are the citations evidence of a poor translation? They hardly appear fruits of a brain that needed to be prevented from functioning for 20 years.

  2. B. Rand

    October 13, 2011 1:49 am

    I read a few of his essays/reflections some years ago and would say that Gramsci had high intelligence and a range of interests. Probably something gets lost in translation. Continental Latin-derived vocabulary, especially abstract nouns concerning intellectual concepts, can jar on the ears of anglosaxon speakers.

    The reviewer alludes to the constraints imposed on the prisoner during his years in jail, so he can’t be judged in the same way as the writings of a free academic who has the run of a research library.

    BTW: An Irish republican internee during WW2 in the Curragh wrote reflections, reviews and essays. They were later published in Gaelic as As an nGéibheann by Máirtín Ó Cadhain. I wonder how they compare in IQ and range with the writings of Gramsci?

  3. anne

    October 13, 2011 11:18 pm

    It would be interesting to see an English translation of similar citations from As an nGéibheann. Might help provide an insight into whether we are looking at a poor translation from Italian or an over-rated political thinker and activist.

    As founder of the Italian Communist Party Gramsci was revered in Italy until . . when . . you know!! Hasn’t been celebrated much since, which may have nothing to do with the quality of his insights and everything to do with Italian mentality and the current government. Or perhaps not?

  4. B. Rand

    October 15, 2011 6:18 am

    ÓCadhain wasn’t a marxist, of course, but a native of Connemara who became involved in republican politics. I agree that his Curragh detention writings might be welcomed and sell well in Ireland in English translation.

    Some of Gramsci’s writings, in English, may be accessed online at this website of the International Gramsci Society:

  5. anne

    October 16, 2011 3:56 pm

    Thanks for the link – will have a look. Maybe their translations are better!
    Best regards