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books Hegemony Changes Everything

This new biography sheds light on the work and life of this Italian Communist leader who was one of the most significant Marxist theorists of the last 100 years.

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To Live Is to Resist
The Life of Antonio Gramsci

Jean-Yves Frétigné
Translated by Laura Marris
Foreword by Nadia Urbinati
The University of Chicago Press
ISBN: 9780226719092

LAST YEAR, during a diversity workshop I was required to take for work, the facilitators asked each of us to share the moment we first became aware of class inequality. One of them gave her example to “get us started” and told us about the time she visited a wealthier classmate’s house and saw a bidet in the bathroom. I think we were meant to laugh, but I kept wondering if this “rich person” was maybe just Japanese. Details aside, I was confused. You would have to live in an absolute cultural vacuum not to realize until that point in life that rich people existed. The class divide was the very foundation of the soap operas I watched as a kid with my grandmother. Her favorites were Young and the Restless and Bold and the Beautiful; both revolved around two wealthy warring families whose dramas were punctuated by the trials and tribulations (faked deaths, split personalities, secret love children, comas, etc.) of the people who worked for them. From my earliest years, I imbibed the lesson that in life you were either a child of Victor Newman or a child of the streets. 

The Italian communist Antonio Gramsci (1891–1937) would argue that it was precisely through the proliferation of such norms in our culture—wherein the inequalities of capitalism appear natural, as “senso comune” (common sense)—that the ruling classes stay as such. This concept would become known as “cultural hegemony.” In his early writings for socialist newspapers like Avanti! and later in his Prison Notebooks, Gramsci analyzed folklore, serialized novels, theater, devotional literature—anything he could get his hands on in the prison library—to search for the ways that capitalist logic appeared as a self-evident truth (not some secret hiding in a remodeled bathroom). Accordingly, Gramsci approached the subject of taste with the same vigor that other Marxists reserved for political economy. He reserved special rancor for Eugène Sue’s popular novel The Mysteries of Paris (1842–1843). In the novel, a Prince Rodolphe metes out vigilante justice in Paris’s seedy underbelly. Gramsci said the French serial provided “the romantic setting in which the fascist mentality is formed,” since it presented social problems as something to be solved by a superhero figure rather than through class struggle. 

The primacy within Marxism that Gramsci ascribed to culture inspired thinkers like Raymond Williams and Stuart Hall, who, through the field of cultural studies, explored the links between popular culture, mass media, and capitalism. In his essay “Gramsci and Us” (1987), Hall would attribute the triumph of Thatcherism precisely to the prime minister’s efforts to instill “a reversal in ordinary common sense.” Meanwhile, Hall lamented, “the Left forlornly tries to drag the conversation round to ‘our policies.’” Gramsci’s writings on language and power were also a touchstone for postcolonial scholars like Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak and Edward Said as they examined the cultural and linguistic apparatuses of empire. 

Indeed, much of what we take for granted about the connection between culture and economic disenfranchisement was birthed by Gramsci in a tiny Italian prison cell. His arrest by the Fascist government for treason nearly killed him (he lost all his teeth and became incapable of digesting solid food). Yet that cell was arguably where Gramsci first truly came alive. His writings prior to incarceration were immature, produced hurriedly (by his own estimation); they are now scarcely cited. As a result, any biography of Gramsci is doomed to be read as a prequel to the Prison Notebooks, a theorist’s origin story we look to for early clues that little Nino would one day grow up to revise Marx to account for the popularity of Arsène Lupin. 

To Live Is to Resist, a new book on the life of Gramsci by French scholar Jean-Yves Frétigné, carries the promise of something different, more akin to an intellectual biography that emphasizes ideas over events. Frétigné diligently delves into Gramsci’s life as a student at the University of Turin—where he met the classmates and professors who inspired his political commitments and introduced him to the critical study of language—and covers his time as a journalist for socialist newspapers where he tried to build out a culture beat alongside strictly political news. Yet one longs for Frétigné to retreat further still into Gramsci’s mind. The book is weighed down by well-trodden information about socialist organizing in interwar Italy and made dry by endless acronyms for organizations that fell apart because of infighting and ego. Gramsci urged us to look at bad detective novels and Jules Verne to understand our political reality, and To Live Is to Resist’s best moments are when it takes seriously the unserious.

GRAMSCI WAS BORN on the island of Sardinia, “the periphery of a periphery,” explains Italian political theorist Nadia Urbinati in a foreword: “Italy was a periphery of Europe, and Gramsci was born in Sardinia, which was itself a periphery of Italy—geographically, politically, culturally, and economically.” Frétigné adds texture to this idea, pointing out that within Sardinia, an island populated mostly by poor peasants and shepherds, Gramsci’s parents were exceptional. For one, his mother could read and write in Italian at a time when just one in thirty women on the island were literate. “The assertion,” interjects Frétigné, “that Antonio Gramsci was the son of poor peasants is therefore a pious legend.” This would soon amount to a distinction without a difference, as the family fell into stark penury when Gramsci’s father was sent to prison. For much of Gramsci’s childhood, his mother was on her own, working as a seamstress and doing laundry. Gramsci and his six siblings had to subsist on one meal a day. For Gramsci, this experience inspired two questions that would guide him for the rest of his life: “Why this poverty, and what could remedy it?” 

In 1911, he found his answer in the city of Turin, or “Italy’s Petrograd,” as he called it. The headquarters for Fiat, Turin was “a laboratory for political and union experiments,” writes Frétigné. As a young college student, Gramsci attended socialist meetings and studied with radical professors of linguistics who promoted southern dialects and taught him that Florentine Italian was “the language of an exclusive caste.” By 1915, Gramsci started working for the Turin desk of Avanti!, where he focused his efforts on writing cultural reviews, proving himself to be an acerbic and unforgiving critic. In a scathing review of The Enemy by Italian playwright Dario Niccodemi, Gramsci writes:

Class struggle is seen from the perspective of the tender heart. No distinction is made between social classes, but rather individuals become the caricatures of convention and are represented according to the moral and literary categories of good and evil. . . . Its petty bourgeois mawkishness would make Octave Mirbeau vomit and bring an ironic smile to Maxim Gorki’s lips.

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The young Gramsci was also something of a prude. Writing about the popularity of seductive screen siren Lyda Borelli, he complained that sensuality “remains and will remain the major preoccupation . . . of society that does not work or cannot work.” He disliked silent film on the whole actually and for the same reason, complaining it was all bodies and no words. 

These early conclusions might strike us now as embarrassingly simplistic (and even elitist), not least of all since cinema was considered by the Soviets to be a revolutionary medium for the masses. Yet what stands out is Gramsci’s conviction that cultural analysis was about recognizing patterns and value systems. In an article titled “Socialism and Culture” (1916), he wrote that his generation must “free ourselves from the habit of seeing culture as encyclopedic knowledge, and men as mere receptacles to be stuffed full of empirical data and a mass of unconnected raw facts.” Such a view has done little more, he argued, than “given birth to a mass of pretentious babblers who have a more damaging effect on social life than tuberculosis or syphilis.” In 1919, he helped establish L’Ordine Nuovo, a socialist newspaper with a dedicated culture section, to counteract precisely that tendency. Gramsci, it turns out, was not the best boss. According to one young editor, after reading some article proofs that he found to be lacking, Gramsci screamed at his staff, “This isn’t a newspaper, it’s a sack of potatoes! Agnelli [the owner of Fiat] can call all his workers together tomorrow and say: ‘Look, you see! This lot can’t even put a newspaper together, yet they want to run the State!’”  

The editors of L’Ordine Nuovo were ardent supporters of the Bolsheviks and believed that for communism to be successful in Italy, it would need to follow the Russian model. Like Italy, Russia was still a largely agrarian society, and had not reached the zenith of industrial capitalism that Marx believed was necessary for a successful proletarian revolution. In an article, Gramsci praised the Russians for departing from strict Marxist orthodoxy in this regard, writing: “Why should they [the Russian people] wait for the history of England to be repeated in Russia, for the bourgeoisie to arise, for the class struggle to begin, so that class consciousness may be formed and the final catastrophe of the capitalist world eventually hit them?” One of Gramsci’s articles was lauded by none other than Vladimir Lenin, and in 1922, Gramsci was chosen to be a part of the Italian delegation for a meeting of the Communist International in Moscow.  

Gramsci fell ill as soon as he arrived in Russia (he suffered from tuberculosis of the spine) and was sent to a sanatorium a short train journey from Moscow. It was there he met a young woman named Julia Schucht who was visiting her sister. In the early days of their courtship, they visited factories and attended political meetings. When they quarreled, Gramsci joked that she was a Cheka agent tasked with collecting a list of his bad qualities. Or at least Frétigné insists it was just a joke; Julia did in fact work for the secret police as a translator. Gramsci was still in Russia during Mussolini’s March on Rome and as news began to circulate of his attacks on communists. Gramsci refused to be dispirited, writing to one of his former professors: “Fascism really has created a new permanently revolutionary situation, just as tsarism did in Russia. . . . This is the source of my optimism.” 

Frétigné hints that Gramsci struggled “with perceiving the true illiberal nature of Fascism,” observing that when he returned to Italy in 1924, he did little to conceal his whereabouts. On the night of November 8, 1926, policeman arrived at Gramsci’s apartment in Rome. Initially, he was sentenced to five years of “confined exile,” and began serving out his sentence on the island of Ustica. While there, Gramsci endeavored again to set up a cultural school. He offered lessons in history and literature, which were attended by his fellow inmates as well as some local inhabitants of the island. Unfortunately, his time there was cut short (he had scarcely gotten past Ancient Egypt). Gramsci was transferred to Milan and then stood trial for higher crimes in Rome. There, the court sentenced him to over twenty years in prison for “planning to topple the regime and replace it with a government of soviets,” which, in all fairness, he was. It was during the trial that the prosecutor famously said of Gramsci, “For twenty years, we must stop this brain from functioning.”

Gramsci had hopes of getting his sentence commuted and imagined a brief stint in prison (it would be eleven years) would finally afford him time for deep intellectual work, not the hurried pieces he had scraped together as a critic for socialist weeklies. In a letter to his sister-in-law Tatiana, he wrote that he was “obsessed” with the idea of doing something “für ewig” (for posterity):

I would like to concentrate intensely and systematically on some subject that would absorb and provide a center to my inner life. Up until now I’ve thought of four subjects . . . (1) a study of the formation and the public spirit of Italy during the past century; in other words, a study of Italian intellectuals and their origins . . . (2) A study of comparative linguistics! . . . (3) A study of Pirandello’s theater and of the transformation of Italian theatrical taste that Pirandello represented and helped to form . . . (4) An essay on the serial novel and popular taste in literature.

What he had outlined would become the basis for the Prison Notebooks. For a time, Gramsci was barred from receiving books from the outside, so he was limited to the reading materials the prison made available, an “abundance of devotional books and third-rate novels,” he wrote to Tatiana. Gramsci saw this as no detriment: “Many prisoners underestimate the prison library,” he explained. The mass-market paperbacks, popular classics, and religious pamphlets were instrumental in helping him formulate the kinds of questions that became central to what we consider Gramscian analysis today: 

Why is this sort of literature almost always the most read and the most published? what needs does it satisfy? what aspirations does it answer? what emotions and points of view are represented in these trashy books for them to be so popular?

The Prison Notebooks are not a place to find clear and easily digestible answers to these questions; Gramsci’s notes are infamously cryptic, written using “Aesopian” language meant to evade the prison censor and thus left open to partisan interpretation and misinterpretation. Frétigné is too bogged down by party politics to add clarity to Gramsci’s thinking and how it matured in the lead-up to his incarceration.

A better introduction to Gramscian thought would be an edited volume of the Prison Notebooks with scholarly commentary (I recommend the one by Joseph Buttigieg, father of our current transportation secretary). Luckily, Gramsci’s letters from this time are less equivocal. When Tatiana writes him to say she enjoyed a recent film, Two Worlds (1930), about a love affair between a Jewish woman and an Austrian officer doomed by their supposedly incompatible natures, Gramsci can barely contain himself: “Your remarks astounded me. How can you possibly believe that these two worlds really exist? This way of thinking is worthy of the Black Hundreds, or the American Ku Klux Klan or the German Swastikas. . . . I embrace you tenderly.” 

Jennifer Wilson is a contributing essayist at the New York Times Book Review and a contributing writer for The Nation. She is an adjunct instructor at the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at the City University of New York.