The Routledge Guidebook to Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks
By JJ Schwarzmantel
306 pp., $22.95
The Gramscian Moment, Philosophy, Hegemony & Marxism
By Peter D. Thomas
453 pp., $233.55
Antonio Gramsci, one of the founders of the Italian Communist Party (PCI), suffered and died in Mussolini’s prison system. In jail, he wrote his famous Prison Notebooks — more than 3000 pages long — in which he theorised a unique revolutionary Marxist alternative to Stalinism.
The Notebooks became revered within the PCI after their post-WWII publication. However, problems arose from the start as PCI editors rearranged and edited them according to the PCI’s reformist orthodoxies.
Gramsci’s thinking covered many areas. Possibly best known is his theory on cultural hegemony as the main means the capitalist class uses for holding power, and the associated division of civil and political society.
From the 1970s, many earnest Marxists devoted themselves to anti-hegemonic cultural pursuits in Gramsci’s name, eschewing party building. Many efforts withered on the vine or were co-opted by bourgeois forces.
The value of these two books, published this century, is in recovering a more balanced reading of Gramsci. In his Routledge Guidebook, JJ Schwarzmantel shows Gramsci was “situated in the milieu of the Italian and international communist movement, and grappling with problems of how to organize the working class movement in a period of capitalist reaction”.
Gramsci was critical of economic determinism — the idea that socialism would fall like ripe fruit as capitalism decayed. He famously called interventions to advance working people’s politics the philosophy of praxis. For him, this was the very definition of Marxism.
He also believed that from the everyday experience of capitalism, “organic intellectuals” would emerge from among the oppressed and that the socialist parties must seek to nurture this.
The task of these “organic intellectuals” would be to struggle over what people regarded as the “common sense” of the times. For example, part of our era’s “common sense” is that government services should be cut and that sensible people must look after their personal interests first.
The capitalist class uses a series of groupings in civil society to bolster such views, such as the mainstream media, political parties and even sections of the trade union movement. Using language that became commonplace after World War I, Gramsci refers to those forces as the capitalists’ “defensive trenches” in civil society.
The worker intellectuals must build counter-trenches as part of its “war of position” (long-term trench warfare) before moving to the “war of movement” — open revolution.
In the 1960s and ’70s, Gramsci was critiqued by both the French Communist Party’s Louis Althusser and the New Left Review’s Perry Anderson. Their criticisms are the launching pad for Peter Thomas’ monumental Gramscian Moment, which will be the reference point in Gramsci studies for a long time to come.
Thomas believes that just as a piece of orchestral music must be regraded both as a singular item and a moment in a larger whole, so the Prison Notebooks must be read in the context of the intellectual debates that Gramsci took part in during his time.
In particular, Gramsci’s writing must be read in relation to the Italian intellectual Benedetto Croce, who was a dominant Italian public intellectual during the first half of the 20th century. The Notebooks are an extended critique of Croce’s idealism — but Gramsci also tackled the ideas of Nikolai Bukharin, Joseph Stalin and Leon Trotsky as leaders of three major factions in the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in the 1920s.
Gramsci was expanding on Karl Marx’s Theses on Feuerbach, Capital and other works — all the time in a prison cell with hostile guards harassing him.
It is a tragic fact that today the most focused students of Gramsci are not on the left. Various US neo-conservatives and European fascists are plundering Gramsci to help build far-right groups.
The right is pushing hard on its ideological project before the rest of society has time to react. Recent interventions into Australian politics, such as ongoing attacks on racial vilification laws or the debate over Australia Day, are examples of the right carving out public ideological space in Gramscian fashion.
As Gramsci suggested, shutting the left out of ideological space will be followed by attempts to shut the left down in physical spaces too.