I am in the awkward situation of wanting to write something about a book that I scarcely understood. Part of the problem is that I read it in roughly 20 page chunks over a span of two weeks, so I wasn’t able to track the continuity and the discontinuities in Gramsci’s thought. But the bigger problem is the same that I had when reading Lenin many years ago: both authors wrote many polemics, arguing with their fellow socialists about the correct tactics to take in their current situation. But without having a deep understanding of that situation, and without being aware of the arguments put forth by the other side, it is hard to grasp the main points of the polemic, let alone form an opinion. But, of course, forming an opinion on tactics is not really the point of reading Gramsci: you might as well form an opinion about the accession of Charles II. The point of reading Gramsci is to gain an understanding of his principles and methods.

The book spans the period from just before the Russian revolution to near the time of Gramsci’s death in 1937, including the ten years that he was imprisoned by the Fascist regime. The first third of the book contains excerpts from his articles in Avanti!, L’Ordine Nuovo, and Il Grido del Popolo. The period from 1917 to 1920 was one of great revolutionary possibility because of the terrible suffering caused by the world war. The industrial north of Italy saw tremendous growth in working class membership in socialist / revolutionary parties. Gramsci advocated for something beyond trade unionism, calling for workers’ councils to take over management of the large industrial enterprises. This idea fell apart when the weak Gioditti government managed to break the largest strike in Turin. Throughout that period, and after, Gramsci time and again says there is a need to understand the national context and to base tactics on that deep understanding rather than on more general principles. He attacked fellow Marxists who took a mechanistic approach; those who operated on a belief in economic determinism. It was at this time that he began to develop his important contributions to Marxism regarding the dialiectical relationship between structure and superstructure; i.e. the interplay between the objective development of capitalism and the layers of culture and politics that overlay that base.

The remainder of the book consists of extracts from the prison notebooks. These were necessarily less tactical than the earlier works, and were written in a way to get past the censors - referring to Marxism as “the philosophy of praxis”, for example. In these works he continues the analysis of structure and superstructure, and draws a distinction between the “state” and “civil society”. For Gramsci, the state, if I understood correctly, consists of the coercive elements of what we normally call the state. Civil society consists of some parts of government (public education, for example, or government pension systems) along with non-state civil organizations and mass political parties (n.b. please don’t believe anything I say here - this is from memory of a poor reading of his work). This distinction is useful if for no other reason than it allows us to avoid certain absurdities when talking about the state as operating solely or mostly on behalf of the ruling or dominant class. That case can be made much more easily when talking about the state in Gramsci’s sense, and allows us to see that elements of public education, for example, are not explicitly or solely controlled by ruling class interests.

The main theme throughout Gramsci’s work is the insistence that local and national conditions must drive practice; and that Marx’s approach to dialectics does not pre-ordain any particular unraveling of history. The end of capitalism does not come about merely because the conditions have become ripe for worker control of the means of production. He understood early on that the interplay of superstructure with structure has a big impact on the ability of workers to gain class consciousness. Popular culture, mass media, and religion all play a role in retarding the uptake of revolutionary ideas.

At the end of the revolutionary period, around 1921-1924, Gramsci began to develop a theory of revolution using war as a guiding metaphor. This was unfortunate, because the war that was most on his mind was the one that had just ended: a war that was unique in its strategy and tactics. Gramsci discussed the nature of “war of maneuver” and “war of position” (trench warfare, basically), and concluded that “war of position” had become the only possible way of conducting warfare because of the specific technologies that had been developed. And he used that conclusion to draw conclusions about the proper strategies to be adopted by revolutionary parties. This was unfortunate, since the events of 1939 would show that “war of maneuver” defeats “war of position” every time, if done right. If Gramsci’s analogy was correct, then his conclusions about revolutionary strategy should be rejected out of hand.

My overall impression is that Gramsci was excellent at fundamentals, but made many errors, perhaps as a result of the terribly dynamic situation in Italy from 1917 to 1924. I can’t say that I learned a great deal by reading him, but it was probably worthwhile taking the time, just for the pleasure of seeing a genuine revolutionary navigate rough seas.



Book cover

Metadata Info

  • Title: The Antonio Gramsci Reader: Selected Writings 1916-1935
  • Author: Antonio Gramsci
  • Published: 1937
  • ISBN: 0814727018
  • Buy: Amazon search
  • Check out: Seattle library
  • Rating: 4.0 stars