The Prison Notebooks

Jackson Pollock Untitled 1944


Comment on the magnum op by Antonio Gramsci

The new edition of prison notebooks, admirably prepared by Carlos Nelson Coutinho and his collaborators Marco Aurélio Nogueira and Luiz Sérgio Henriques, challenges inveterate Gramsci readers to ask themselves what guarantees the vitality of a thought that, since the 60s, has fertilized both the European left and the Latin American.

The vitality of a thinker is recognized more by the strength of his questions than by the fatally partial answers he managed to give them. What remains is the question, as long as it is well formulated; and what is inherited is the need to find the right solution, and this may vary according to the generations that pursue it.

Many of the issues raised by Gramsci were thought of in the early 1930s, in a world situation of extremely high tension. The triumph of Nazi-fascism took place in the same years as the rise of Stalinism and in the middle of the crisis of economic and political liberalism. The tunnel of dictatorships, mass control and total war was being built and the whole of humanity seemed condemned to get lost in its labyrinths. Despite everything, it was a time of expectation and, for some anxious spirits, an hour of hope.

Gramsci, arrested at the end of 1926, was experiencing a bitter defeat: the Italian socialists and communists, precariously allied since the founding of the PCI (Italian Communist Party), in 1921, had been beaten by Fascio squads. The promising experience of workers' organization in which he had actively participated in Turin, animating factory councils, culture circles and a high-level militant newspaper, ended under the same blows. order new. Death, exile and imprisonment, that is the lot of revolutionary leaders.

What to do? First of all, think. The recurrent, almost obsessive theme of our young Sardinian activist is precisely that of the role of intellectuals in the most diverse social formations. In order to understand it, he immersed himself in history armed with solid Germanic erudition, acquired as a philology student at the University of Turin and fed, for years on end, with his tireless scholarly curiosity. “We must prevent this brain from working for 20 years”, the prosecutor had sentenced when asking for the conviction of the subversive Antonio Gramsci. Thinking is dangerous.

From the collection of readings on the role of intellectuals from the Roman Empire to the industrial age, Gramsci induced a typology that is still the subject of discussion in the social sciences. There would be, in principle, two types of intellectuals. On the one hand, the organics, whose role is to provide ideological cement to the dominant strata: for example, the liberal economist who sanctions the hegemony of financial groups in the management of the State and is able to discuss the “natural” character of the machine it serves . On the other hand, welding the past into the present, the traditional or “ecclesiastics” who, not being directly linked to material production, guarantee the continuity and hierarchy of state-based institutions: the Church, the universities, the courts (the “aristocracy togada”), with his mandarins and bureaucrats.

The distance between the latter and the world of production creates in them the illusion, which Gramsci calls utopian, of being autonomous in relation to the prevailing economic machine: it is the pretense of the “self-position” common among academics, jurists and bureaucrats. Probably the current advance of globalized capitalism, which tightens the links between literate culture and the empire of merchandise, would have given Gramsci new material to think about the interactions, then quite mediated, now ostensible, between traditional groups and the world of organics.

A typology, even when supported by a reasonable amount of data, is always an ideal scheme. Gramsci knew Max Weber's masterpiece, as he had read it in the original and quoted it with his usual scrupulousness. But he had also read Hegel's dialectical logic, the German culturalists and above all the entire work of Croce, his virtual interlocutor and constant polemical point of reference.

Wanting to interpret Gramsci without having studied Croce is a vain task. The philosophical climate of the generation that matured after the first war was predominantly Croatian in Italy, as Norberto Bobbio recalled in a recent interview, speaking of his masters. The mark of Croatian aesthetics is unmistakable in the literary and theatrical criticism of the young Gramsci who, incidentally, recognizes it in more than one of his writings.

The subject of this first volume of notebooks it consists of the texts that Gramsci dedicated to Croce's thought. In the light of this training, it is understood why Gramsci, when conceiving a typology of intellectuals, warns us that his project is to do the history of culture, and not classificatory sociology: “This research on the history of intellectuals will not be of a “sociological” character. (the quotation marks are from Gramsci), but it will give rise to a kind of “cultural history” (cultural history) and the history of political science. However, it will be difficult to avoid some schematic and abstract forms that recall those of “sociology”; it would be necessary to find the most adequate literary form for the exposition to be “non-sociological”.”

What would be the error of method that Gramsci intended to rule out? Undoubtedly, an error that he attributed to the sociology of his time, which was fiercely deterministic. The answer is found in an excerpt from the notebooks in which the dialectical thinker accuses the passive and closed content of typological frameworks. Treating subjects as object-things and plastering them into categories, the tables do not contemplate the dynamism of consciences, internal ruptures and, much less, projects driven by the political will of groups that form militants (thus, distinguished intellectuals) for the exercise of functions contrary to the mere reproduction of the system: “Vulgar evolutionism is at the base of sociology, which cannot conceive of the dialectical principle with its passage from quantity to quality, a passage that disturbs all evolution and all law of uniformity”.

These are words that could have come from other critics of positivist historicism, such as Benjamin and Bloch, but which in Italy had been preformed by Croce's thinking. But Gramsci's motivations went beyond Croce's reasons. Gramsci is a revolutionary thinker. What leads him to overcome the limits of his own functional typology is his project to constitute in the vanguard of the working class the new figure of the leader capable of combining technical expertise with a culture permeated by socialist and democratic values. This culture should grow on the humus of the philosophy of practice, an expression that notebooks appears in place of the term “Marxism”, to circumvent the censors of the prison bureaucracy.

If the history of modern class societies is punctuated by crises and imbalances, why shouldn't the “positive” picture of the functions of intellectuals also change? Would these have to exhaust their minds in the reproductive task of legitimizing the market or parasitic bureaucracies? Yes, would answer the conformist always willing to denigrate the political will of others in order to better exercise his own and that of his group. (Read Gramsci's acute observations on the hasty gestures of so-called liberal governments that do not hesitate to intervene whenever interested parties are of interest to them).

But the thinker of practice opposes the biased attitude of the conformist: it was necessary to form militants who were organic intellectuals from the exploited class and whose democratic values, ingrained in the experience of the factory councils, could prevail after the conquest of power. In this context, the expression “dictatorship of the proletariat” loses the totalitarian character that the Stalinist jargon gave it and starts to mean the government of the public good by the citizen-workers and no longer by the strategists of strictly private interests.

It is not within the space of this review to unfold the pedagogical dimensions implicit in Gramsci's work ethic. It is enough to point out his reservations about the spontaneist school, which already at that time condemned any and all “directed” education programs. The thinker's option sought the right balance between the conquest of responsible freedom and the need for an intellectual and ethical discipline capable of fulfilling the tasks of building a republic to be patiently built on the rubble of a decrepit world.

It has been 71 years since Gramsci began writing the first page of his notes (February 8, 1929). Today, in times of a mass cultural industry, the growing discretion of financial capital and the reduction in the firepower of trade unions, the distance between the man in the street, a weak candidate for citizenship, and the cunning mechanisms of the market and official bureaucracies has widened. . In a difficult counterpoint, social movements and party sectors less ankylosed try the path of changes in behavior and law. There is a struggle for employment, a minimum income, protection of the environment, respect for minorities, the quality of urban life, in short, for multiple human rights. There are no hands to measure to instruct new intellectuals capable of thinking and undertaking resistance fronts.

Among us there is at least one group that inherited the radical perspective: the movement of the landless, so frowned upon by the skepticism of the well-off. The thirst for cultural formation of its leaders is notable, which confirms the clairvoyance of Gramsci's thought: "realism" or "intelligence pessimism" must not undermine "will optimism", since strictly speaking only the conscience suffered from the need can motivate liberating political action.

And no one will be able to claim without obtuse arrogance that he knows in advance all the possibilities of a social process: “It should be noted that political action tends precisely to make the multitudes come out of passivity, that is, it tends to destroy the law of the great numbers. How, then, to consider it a sociological law? If the laws of positive sociology, now resurrected by economism (Durkheim revives in Japanese universities!), were irrevocable, nothing would be left to the political will. But the overcoming of reifying sociology by dialectics opens, in Gramsci's writings, the passage from conformism to the courage to think about action.

* Alfredo Bosi (1936-2021) was Emeritus Professor at FFLCH-USP and member of the Brazilian Academy of Letters (ABL). Author, among other books, of Between literature and history (Editora 34).

Originally published in Journal of Reviews / Folha de S. Paulo, No. 34, January 10, 1998.


Antony Gramsci. The Prison Notebooks, vol. 1. Translation: Carlos Nelson Coutinho. Rio de Janeiro, Brazilian Civilization, 496 pages.


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