Great Books Written in Prison: Essays on Classic Works from Plato to Martin Luther King, Jr. (2015)

Antonio Gramsci’s The Prison Notebooks: A Humanist Reconstruction of Marxism

Brendan Hogan


Antonio Gramsci’s imprisonment, during which he wrote The Prison Notebooks, is the classic story of a political radical and state persecution. Through an active career as a writer, an organizer, and a politician, Gramsci made a significant impression. It was an impression that threatened the political status quo of Italy in the 1920s and ’30s. The Prison Notebooks offer a critique of capitalism and political organizations, as well as of social and political power. Much of Gramsci’s theoretical approach has been adopted in different areas of academia and political analysis. Like many of the figures in this book, he was singled out for special political and criminal persecution, and—again, as with others in this book—the persecution backfired. The attempt to silence Gramsci was a spectacular failure, especially given the fact that the Italian fascists have wound up in the dustbin of history while Gramsci’s work and ideas remain alive and vital.—J.W.R.

Biographical Sketch

Antonio Gramsci was born into a family of a respectable social lineage in Ghilarza, Sardinia, in 1881. While his family was not wealthy in his early years, it did not, at first, suffer the harsher effects of widespread poverty throughout Sardinia at that time. Still, severe poverty made its way into their lives when his father fell upon disgrace through a local scandal. Francesco Gramsci lost his administrative post and the entire family was brought into dire straits. Poverty was a scourge that would haunt Gramsci’s life up into his adulthood. This hardship was exacerbated by a spinal aberration that appeared in Gramsci’s childhood and developed into a permanently hunched back. The causes of this condition were not fully understood, though his mother attributed it to him being dropped as a child. At any rate, he remained of smaller than normal physical stature his entire life. Gramsci’s health fell into compromised states at various points throughout his life and experiences of extreme physical and nervous distress were not uncommon due both to his physiological and his economic hardships.

Gramsci excelled in his schooling enough to earn scholarships that allowed him to leave Sardinia for mainland Italy where his political consciousness would awaken to the variety of struggles so characteristic of industrialized nations. While in Turin, Gramsci continued to succeed in school, impressing his teachers and student colleagues. He was rewarded with just enough scholarship and aid to complete his course of study, though desperate poverty permeated his experience. He became involved in political organizing and quickly became a well known figure in the socialist movement in Turin and from there gained a national reputation through his journalism and political activities. Gramsci rose to prominent international recognition in the Italian Communist Party (CPI) and served in the Italian Parliament as a deputy of the Communist Party. He was arrested on November 8, 1926, in Rome, was moved to various prisons over the course of eleven years, and finally died in custody in 1937.

Historical Background

“We must stop this brain from working for the next twenty years!” So declared the Fascist prosecutor of Antonio Gramsci at his official trial in 1928 following his arrest Fascist police under the direction of Benito Mussolini (Motilio 600).

On the evening of November 8, 1926, Gramsci was arrested while walking in Porta Pia, in Rome. Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini had just ordered that the Communist party members who sat as deputies in the Italian parliament should be “added to the list” of those who were to be expelled for “abandonment of parliamentary work.” The list of expelled parliamentarians had been created as punishment for setting up an alternative government known as the Aventine Secession, in protest to the increasingly authoritarian and dictatorial methods of Mussolini. Up for specific targeting were those groups who championed the causes of worker rights and organized labor, often self-proclaimed socialists and communists, and those who had criticized the Fascists. Gramsci had been hounded and followed by police for several years by the time of his arrest. This crucial inclusion of parliamentary deputies on the list of those to be arrested suspended the law of immunity from prosecution that was the recognized legal precedent at the time. With this act, Gramsci’s fate was sealed. He was accused of “conspiracy, of instigation of civil war, of justifying criminal acts, and of fomenting class hatred” (Fiori 230). Contrary to the wishes of the minister quoted above, Gramsci’s imprisonment allowed him to compile one of the most significant theoretical works of Marxist thought in the twentieth century. With the ongoing adoption of several of Gramsci’s key concepts and arguments in these writings, across a variety of disciplines, the Prison Writings ranks as one of the greatest works of twentieth century social and political thought.

Italy, at the time of Gramsci’s arrest in 1926, was experiencing severe social and political repression due to a confluence of forces, most importantly among them industrialization, the consequences of World War I, and the seizure of political power by the Fascists. Since the unification of Italy in 1871 the forces of modernization had been unevenly distributed and, as in many other European countries, there was a growing conflict between workers and the industrialists. Increasingly force was being used both by the state and by privately hired paramilitaries to curtail worker movements, some of which also resorted to violent actions on occasion. Gramsci had been at the heart of these political struggles and debates since his university days in Turin.

His first interest in terms of political problems was the use, abuse, and marginalization of the south of Italy by the northern establishment. His political sensibility was rooted in his earliest experiences in Sardinia, leading to deep sympathies with the cause of Sardinian nationalism. His studies led him to understand that Italian unification had done very little to bridge the material disparities between the rich north and the poor south. This understanding was reinforced as Gramsci came into touch with the work of northern intellectuals who espoused eugenicist and racist explanations of the South’s condition. Specifically, northern Italian academics were promulgating explanations that attributed the uneven development of Southern Italy to genetic characteristics, understood as defects in the “race” of Southern Italian peoples. In Gramsci’s youth, this regional racism and oppression of the south and Sardinia in particular, had awakened not only nationalist passions, but also a sense of injustice and exclusion from the entire Italian project.

Turin was a city known for its strong labor movement and a wide variety of political perspectives on how workers could get a more legitimate share of the goods of industrialization. Gramsci’s experience as a student organizer and a participant in the political struggles of the day led him to a broader view of the injustices he had witnessed in the distribution of the benefits of modernization in Italy. Through connections made by his older brother, Gennaro, Gramsci became very active in the labor movement in Turin. Gramsci was both an organizer and a writer, creating journals with fellow activists organized around addressing the political struggles of the day. Crucially important, too, was that Gramsci knew the cultural life of Turin as a drama critic and was a critic of culture more generally. This activity reflected Gramsci’s lifelong belief that the press, in all of its manifestations, was necessary for the education of the masses as to their real self-interest with respect to economic matters as well as their cultural enlightenment. His emphasis on the education of workers through mediums of a more quotidienne variety also informed his understanding of what was required in Italy, given the stage of modernist and capitalist development it had achieved.

This is reflected in Gramsci’s life. In addition to his activities in the press, Gramsci also took his educational activities to the workers and youth of Turin. During this time, Gramsci became well known through worker education programs, lectures, and dialogues. Gramsci spent a great deal of time with workers and students discussing their interests and offering his interpretation of the conditions in their struggle for a better life. This was part of a larger vision of just economic production led by factory councils of workers who had collective ownership of the means of production, in contrast to the managerial capitalist model that prevailed at that time. It was Gramsci’s popular writings and coordination with others that he became a nationally known figure. He was soon drafted into electoral politics as a member of the PCI, the Communist Party of Italy. His participation in the communist party led to connections with the revolutionary forces in Russia after 1917 and he even traveled there as an Italian representative of the communist party.

His regional frame of analysis, the Italian North’s exploitation and mendacious characterization of the Italian South, expanded and deepened. He connected this view to a more inclusive understanding of the forces at work in the processes that combined economic and political power to shape the destiny of Europe, and indeed, anywhere capitalism prevailed.

The crisis of World War I from 1914 to 1919 only reinforced these conflicts and highlighted for Gramsci the need for an even more intensive effort to educate and empower the working class. The failure of the emergence of an international working class organized to meet their collective interests across European national borders was partly responsible for workers choosing nationalism over class based solidarity and slaughtering each other in the millions in World War I. This presented a deep problem for many who agreed with the socialist and communist ideas of Gramsci’s cohort. This led Gramsci to rethink some of the pillars of Marxist thought. However, a successful worker’s movement modeled on the Russian Revolution of 1917 never materialized in interwar Fascist Italy. It should be remembered that the strategies and activities of the communists and socialists in Italy were a major social force and constituted a significant part of the political context for Gramsci’s activities. These groups were powerful enough to be systematically targeted and repressed with physical beatings, intimidation and imprisonment, as in the case of Gramsci and many others.

The Book The Prison Notebooks

Gramsci’s prison notebooks are a collection of notes, writings and longer commentaries on a large variety of topics and problems. Their subject matter is wide ranging and in this sense does not constitute a “book” in the traditional sense. However, read together, the three published volumes provide the basis for general conclusions about Gramsci’s views on a variety of philosophical, economic, political, literary, and cultural subjects. The challenge is to select the central ideas that Gramsci formulated and had the most influence since the notebooks have made their way to the light of day.

Before getting to these main influential concepts, however, the conditions of Gramsci’s imprisonment bear some mentioning. Specifically, Gramsci’s fragile health worsened while he was in prison. He was kept in a cell close to the guards’ quarters and so he had trouble resting as well due to the disturbance of the round-the-clock presence of the guards. However, he was also in communication with other political prisoners and while he was not allowed to write at first, he exercised his legal right to reading materials and used the law to the greatest degree possible to alleviate his suffering without indicating he was in any way capitulating to the desired outcome of the Fascist government: that he renounce his position and admit that he was wrong. For many months at first, Gramsci was not allowed to write and his reading materials were strictly controlled during his imprisonment. His contacts, such as the famous Italian economist Piero Sraffa, later provided reading materials he requested and he was able to exchange with other prisoners lessons in history, politics, and the study of languages, thus learning to translate German while incarcerated. All the more amazing then is Gramsci’s ability to recall much of what he was writing on while in prison from earlier studies. In addressing problems of political organization, questions of philosophy and methodology, as well as political and military movements during the unification of Italy, in the nineteenth century, Gramsci’s memory served him extraordinarily well as later editors of his works attest.

In addition, it is useful to remember that Gramsci’s letters and writings were subject to censors, and thus much labor has been exercised in interpreting his works. As stated earlier, in order to do this with a collection of comments, fragments, and variety of arguments, it is best to lift out the main conceptual elements of the work. With these biographical and historical details in mind, the stage is set to explore Gramsci’s innovative contributions to the tradition of political thought he was a central part of, Marxism, and then examine some specific arguments that had the most lasting impact in discussions of political and cultural theory since his death.

Gramsci’s New Historical Materialism

At Gramsci’s time, one of the most significant historical events was the development of Russian communism and the Russian Revolution of 1917. In fact, as we shall see, the concept of “hegemony,” one of Gramsci’s most important contributions to political theory, has its roots in late nineteenth century Russian socialist thought. The success of the revolution and its decline into a particularly violent and contentious regime were significant lessons that Gramsci drew upon to articulate a view of the status and struggles of the working classes against exploitation under capitalism. Specifically, Gramsci was interested in rethinking the main interpretation of history and the progress of the human species that had informed the Russian debates about “what is to be done” and what happened following upon the deeds of the revolutionaries.

One of the main points of contention Gramsci had with the architects of the revolution was the status of Marx’s theory of history. Gramsci was interested in examining this in two ways. First, he was concerned with the account of human society as a theory, in terms of its claims to general truth and validity. Second, Gramsci wanted to extend Marx’s own reflections on the practical character of human activity, its transformative and creative nature, into the activity of political theory itself.

Marx claimed he had scientifically determined, the laws of the development of the history of human societies. This provided a scientific explanation of what is responsible for driving the change and progress that society had experienced over the centuries. Crucially, Marx declared that what drives history are not the ideas of individual Great Men or Women, but rather the material forces that allow the human species to meet its physical needs, ones that are analogous to the needs of other animal species. The history of the human species, for Marx, was explained by two major forces: the labor power of the human animal and the technological means at their disposal at any given time in history. Marx theorized that humans meet their material needs by creatively transforming their wider natural environment through these two forces, giving rise to entire societies in all of their differences. Marx referred to these dynamic drivers of human history as the “forces of production.”

This is what fundamentally distinguished the human animal from other animals who, while driven by their own material needs also reproduced their species through what the environment provided, did not change the “world” in which they lived. Species of bees continually make the same structure of hive they always have, with very minor variations. Beavers construct the same types of dams, and birds the same type of nest. For example, there are no transformations from Bauhaus style structures to Art Deco in meeting their fundamental need of shelter. Humans, however, exhibit the all-important distinguishing feature of creativity through their material culture.

Humans also, being social animals, meet their needs in conjoined, cooperative activity with other members of the species. The consequences of this theory of history, then, most commonly referred to as historical materialism, is that the social arrangements of laws, educational institutions, religious worldviews, moral norms, forms of government, even the ruling philosophical ideas of any age, are the result of the more fundamental biological metabolism by the human creature of its environment. All human beings are born into a mix of political, cultural, and religious institutions, practices, and rituals. Thus they are subject, not just to the effects of a materially determined mode of production based upon labor power and technological development, but also to the ruling ideas of that age. These ruling ideas are embodied in the institutions that govern and direct the practices of any given human society. These are called the ‘relations of production’ in the historical materialist vocabulary. To illustrate, a quote from Marx: “The windmill gives you society with the feudal lord; the steam mill, society with the industrial capitalist” (Marx, “The Poverty of Philosophy” 38). We can trace the distinctions in different historical periods to differences in our labor power and technology.

It is important to go into some detail about the theory of historical materialism that Gramsci inherited because it had ossified, in his view, during the Soviet Marxist revolutionary experience. This is not to say, of course, that there weren’t significant disagreements among the Russian revolutionaries themselves. The history of pre- and post-revolutionary Russia is rife with major debates and polemics being solved with force rather than words. Think of the exile of Leon Trotsky in Mexico as just one example of this conflict. At the time, however, specific interpretations of human history, and what to do were becoming dominant. This had major effects on proposals for political action to be undertaken as part of a revolutionary international movement.

Gramsci focused in particular on two pernicious developments in revolutionary thought. The first, scientific positivism, was something Gramsci covered extensively in The Prison Notebooks. Scientific positivism had its own rich and varied history, but held that events in the natural world are governed by scientific laws expressible by cause and effect statements. At Gramsci’s time and in the decades prior to the turn of the twentieth century, the social sciences flourished. The dominant approach to the study of human beings in their social interactions and political life, in many leading research programs, held that social sciences should aim at determining the laws governing human history just as the laws of physics, chemistry, and astronomy had been explained in the natural sciences. In embracing positivism as its model for scientific truth, those studying human phenomena could be guaranteed that their prejudices, political dispositions, and moral values would not “color” the claims made in the name of social science. For any description of human action to be free from class ideology, then, it must embrace this conception of scientific laws and Mikhail Bukharin, the Russian revolutionary, had done just this, under the science of “sociology.” However, what this conception of the “laws” of society did, as expressed by Bukharin, is eliminate human freedom in terms of political struggles from his analysis. If history is governed by laws analogous or reducible to those that govern the natural world, then deliberate, free action based upon the right grasp of the historical situation on the part of individual agents or parties becomes moot. Communist society would come about regardless of human freedom, as sure as the moon orbits around the Earth, and this did not seem to accurately reflect the state of history and events at the time.

The second pernicious intellectual development was the reduction of human beings into merely economically determined creatures. Gramsci’s term for this mistake is “economism,” and might also be called “homo economicus.” This error reads the materialist theory of history or theory of human nature in too reductive a way, and is one that both the liberal critics of communist ideas and the communists themselves were guilty of falling into. Thus, these opposed ideological camps missed the importance of the fundamental power of human political action, in roughly the same way. Gramsci emphasized the creative capacity of humans to shape events based upon their understanding of the forces at work frustrating human emancipation. This creativity could not be reduced to mere utilitarian self-interest. The similarity of his interpretation of human nature to a revelatory text of Marx’s found in 1930, the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 is striking. Gramsci had no access to these essays, though their emphasis on the creative power of the human agent aligns with his criticisms of Soviet contemporaries. Gramsci saw the Soviet Marxists making mistakes that impeded the articulation of a mode of political praxis (Gramsci’s term for political action) that acknowledged the open-ended, multi-faceted, and creative dimension of humanity. In other words, the Soviet Marxists were actually getting in the way of workers finally losing their chains and living an emancipated life in a free society, Marx’s (and Gramsci’s) ultimate goal.

Gramsci, in contrast, articulated a vision of Marxist analysis that was more nuanced in its grasp of the laws of historical development. Rather than reading a simple one-way causal direction from the forces of production to the relations of production, Gramsci thought that political struggles were not merely adjunct to a technologically determined relation of production. Rather political struggle could transform the forces of production, the basis for society. What was required was an analysis that did not reduce contemporary social and political phenomena to surface appearances indicative of some deeper mechanical law of society at work, or rely on an overriding economic model of human action. The simplistic concepts that Soviet Marxists like Bukharin embraced as a kind of demystifying codex, were abstractions to Gramsci. They reduced all social action and struggle to the economic interests of class, governed by a law of historical development understood in a positivistic manner. They were conceptual schemes habitually applied without unraveling the specific elements at work in any given situation. Gramsci believed an additional set of concepts was required to actually combine the aim of complete emancipation with scientific explanation for how society was functioning. It is worth considering these conceptual innovations as they have created a good deal of intellectual debate and informed many political programs since their appearance.

Gramsci wanted to make a distinction between what he called the organic elements of a situation, and those that were simply conjunctural. Gramsci is distinguishing here between the essential and more permanent features of a situation, the organic, from the accidental, or at least the merely incidental or conjunctural characteristics. By making this conceptual distinction, Gramsci believed he had developed tools for figuring out the essential elements of the economic and political situation of his day. This distinction has a corresponding sociological determination.

In order for Marxism to remain scientific and not to devolve into ideology, Gramsci focused on the central role of intellectuals in social order. Intellectuals, according to Gramsci, were a key element in any society, defending and rationalizing the status quo of any regime of production through a kind of social pedagogy. Intellectuals articulated and expressed and reinforced the main mores, norms, rules, and ethos of a society. Their role was to offer a deeper story about the functioning of society that made sense of its behaviors, cultural patterns, and the deep habitual bedrock of any society that cooperates to function and reproduce successfully. In this function, traditional intellectuals mistakenly conceived of themselves as neutral, apolitical, seekers of knowledge, when in fact their work served to legitimate a social order and culturally indoctrinate a people into consenting to it.

Critical or organic intellectuals, however took a diagnostic stance towards the practices of their society. They were able to identify those elements of the regime of production that were part of the permanent, overarching, structure of society that enabled domination by one group over others. In addition to illuminating the deep structure of a society’s functioning, intellectuals were also agents of political change. The enlightened intellectual was responsible for engaging in wide social and public education of those who were oppressed by the arrangement of force, power, and the distribution of goods in a society. The hope was that organic intellectuals, through political education and activity, would establish an alternative, democratic, self-directed and emancipated culture of individuals who coordinated the means of existence in a non-exploitative way. The interesting thing about achieving such an arrangement, is that it would explode some of the larger myths propagated by the conjunctural or traditional intellectuals who legitimated the existing order. In this sense, intellectuals combine both theory and practice in disproving the ideology of the ruling class by replacing the ruling class through educating and motivating the people to assert themselves, become self-directing and unexploited, thus making life better for all.

Gramsci, following as he did Marx’s call to engage in the “ruthless criticism of everything existing,” was also interested in the specific stage of the historical materialist development of the human species as it stood at his time (Marx, “Letters”). Much of his analysis in the Prison Notebooks consist in historical exercises that describe different historical struggles and revolutions such as the French Revolution and the reunification of Italy. He then used the lessons provided in these analyses to illuminate the current situation in Italy and wider Europe with respect to the struggle for emancipation of the entire population from the abuses of the capitalist mode of production.

One of Gramsci’s most lasting contributions to political theory is his discussion of hegemony. Gramsci developed this concept from the Russian tradition, and used hegemony to describe the situation of domination by one class over an entire society. Hegemony also referred to the overarching social forces at work securing consent to the existing order of things in a society. In Marxist terms, hegemony exists when the social experience of the members of a society conditions them to accept as given the paths of life offered to them. Gramsci was adamant a hegemonic ordering of society according to a fundamental vision and way of life was also carried out in the sphere of culture as much as in economic life.

Legacy and Impact

One of Gramsci’s great legacies is the articulation of the cultural aspects of hegemony, and how it operates on the consciousness of the main actors in the drama of national and international life. In addition, Gramsci made distinctions, echoing his experience in Sardinia, between the dominant class and those groups that were what he called “subaltern.” The subaltern are those groups subject to the ruling power’s initiatives and are classified as either threats, marked as inferior, or in some way dominated and categorized as “below” and “outside” the more powerful agent groups in a society. Alternatively, one could articulate the subaltern as located on the “periphery” of a society as opposed to its “center.” The subaltern becomes an important extension of how to discuss the non-dominant groups in society and widens the palette of social analysis beyond the more common groupings of “capitalist,” “proletariat,” “peasant,” and so on.

By highlighting the creative power of the human species, Gramsci directed the tradition of revolutionary Marxism away from vulgar conceptions of human nature. Gramsci interjected a humanist element into theorizing the complicated forces in society. He recognized the possible flaws in all intellectual activity and assertions, and widened the scope and practice of Marxist thought to include cultural practices, scientific dispute and democratic dialogue as he saw them as constitutive elements for transforming society precisely because of the exclusion of those subaltern groups by hegemonic forces.

Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks are widely variegated, yet precise, comments addressing fundamental texts, literary analyses (both famous and obscure works), historical analysis, and textual exegesis. There is also a profound rethinking of a variety of theorists, economics, and political problems. His concept of hegemony has had wide application in a variety of disciplines; in international relations, education theory, post-colonial studies, and political theory. Concomitant with this concept, the subaltern, those subjugated and categorized as “lower” or “lesser” or “insignificant” by hegemonic forces, has been enlisted in articulating structures of oppression and misrecognition in a variety of social scientific fields. Most specifically in analyses which contrast the Global North and the Global South as descriptive categories to understand the forces and flows of globalization today. His analyses of “Fordism,” a particular formation of the capitalist mode of production exemplified by Henry Ford’s automobile factories, has served many analyses of the development of consumer capitalism as not only an economic but also a cultural phenomena.

Gramsci’s influence and legacy are still being determined. After a huge concentration of intellectual labor in the 1970s, Gramsci’s texts are again becoming prominent for their prescience and scope in analyzing politics, economics, and political theory. For example, questions regarding the levels of inequality and the failure of economics and political science to provide state actors with prescriptions that solve social problems have revived Gramsci’s analysis of intellectuals, both organic and conjunctural. Unemployment, poverty, and lost life opportunities as an outcome of economic cycles have critics analyzing the possibility that various intellectual disciplines are actually justifying power structures as opposed to questioning proposals and explanations of government action and inaction in a truly scientific manner. The power of the market across the globe and the transformation of societies into consumption-based cultures has critics rethinking Gramsci’s notion of hegemony, now on a global scale, under the moniker of “neoliberalism.”

This is to say nothing of the influence this profound and iron-willed thinker and actor had upon Italian politics in his own life and-through his writings in prison-from his death onwards. Gramsci’s thought and inspiring example framed party debates in the Italian Communist Party, and political questions in Italy more generally, long after his death.

That The Prison Notebooks has garnered such attention, both by the first generation of scholars who cast eyes upon them, and now a new generation facing the unquestionable power of market forces on a global scale, is a testament to the vitality of his thought.

Works Cited

Fiori, Giuseppe. Antonio Gramsci: Life of a Revolutionary. Trans. Tom Nairn. London: Verso Press, 1990. Print.

Gramsci, Antonio. Prison Notebooks, Vols. 1–3. Ed. Joseph A. Buttigeig. Trans. Joseph A. Buttigeig and Antonio Callari. New York: Columbia University Press, 1992. Print.

Marx, Karl. The Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 and The Communist Manifesto. Trans. Martin Milligan. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Press, 1988. Print.

_____. “The Poverty of Philosophy.” The Thought of Karl Marx: An Introduction. By David McLellan. London: Macmillan, 1971. N.p. Print.

_____. “Letters to Arnold Ruge.” May and September 1843. Karl Marx: Selected Writings. Ed. David McLellan. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977. N.p. Print.

Motilio, Anasta. “Antonio Gramsci (1881–1937).” Prospects: The Quarterly Review of Comparative Education 23.3–4 (1993): 597–612. Print.