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Reminiscing Gramsci

[Portrait of Antonio Gramsci at around thirty years of age from the early 1920s. Image by unknown via Wikimedia commons] [Portrait of Antonio Gramsci at around thirty years of age from the early 1920s. Image by unknown via Wikimedia commons]

“What would Gramsci think of our current predicaments?” wondered the young leftist mayor of the Italian city of Cagliari, Massimo Zedda. “He would probably think that things have improved, but we also have many problems in Sardinia… That is why we need to organize.” With this proclamation, the blue-jeaned mayor declared 2017 the “Year of Gramsci,” and opened the conference “A Century of Revolutions: Gramscian Paths in the World.” It was a fitting moment to revisit the life and work of Antonio Gramsci on April 27, the eightieth anniversary of his death, in a year that also marks the centenary of the Russian Revolution, and seven years into the turbulence of the Arab uprisings. The energy and enthusiasm around the Gramsci event, held in the city’s central auditorium adjacent to Gramsci’s old high school and around the corner from his first student apartment, was a blend of town and gown, intellectual reflection and ordinary lives, theory and practice — praxis, a very Gramscian habitus.  

The two-day conference was followed by an expedition to trace Gramsci’s early life in the central Sardinian village, Ghilarza, where his home is now a museum, and back to Cagliari for a walking tour. We saw his high school at the Dettori Lyceum, homes in which he shared a room with his brother Gennaro, his favorite cafe, as well as the infamous tailor shop where the cruel owner took Gramsci’s money as payment for a debt of his troublesome father and refused to give him his long-awaited winter coat.

[Poster for conference on Antonio Gramsci and a Century of World Revolutions]

In those moments, I could not help but wonder what Gramsci would have to say about our regions’ predicaments, and how he would read the Arab revolutions. With the little I have learned from Gramsci, I imagined him responding, “What would I know? I reserve my judgment for Italy; as for the Middle East, I leave that to those who know the nitty-gritty of the region.” This would not have come as a surprise, for Gramsci’s insights were deeply informed by the subtleties of the Italian state, society, and it’s subaltern culture. It was such stubborn sensitivity to historical particularities that led him to break theoretically from the economic reductionism of the Third International and its strategies of revolution — Lenin’s frontal attack, Trotsky’s permanent revolution and Rosa Luxemburg’s general strike. He grew weary of the prescriptive pictures of society composed merely of the proletariat and bourgeoisie dominated by the state and ruling classes. He presented an astute analysis of the middle class and other social groups, re-examined state-society relations, and offered a new perspective of revolution in which culture occupied a central place. He rejected the Bolshevik model of  “frontal attack” or “seizing state power” as a strategy for revolution in Europe, because the capitalist hegemony in Europe had penetrated, indeed gained strength from, its civil societies — workers unions, civil associations, political parties and the Church. Instead, he envisioned an alternative strategy — the “war of position,” where revolutionaries would work to win over civil society through cultural and ideological struggles, turning emancipatory ideas into common sense, all the while pushing forward to transform the state. For Gramsci, then, civil society activism was different from the models that dominated the political scene in the post-Socialist neoliberal world order, where it first became a panacea for everything that was bad with the state, and then equivalent to simply NGOs, often serving as a kind of “anti-politics machine.” For Gramsci, civil society activism meant something like revolution before the revolution.

How far can we think with Gramsci while remaining responsive to our historical contingencies, the experiences of our twenty-first century revolutions? Just as Gramsci was sensitive to the nuances of his native Italy, we should also be sensitive to our local and regional histories to build perspectives that reflect the nuances of our own realities, without falling into theoretical nativism or aversion of learning from others. “It is one thing to be particular, another thing to preach particularism,” as Gramsci put it. Thus, it is fair to say that Gramsci’s idea that the insurrectionary frontal attack would become obsolete after the Russian Revolution proved premature. He did not live to see how most twentieth-century revolutions — in China, Cuba, Nicaragua, or Iran, and the Arab uprisings to some degree — assumed similar insurrectionary modes to the 1917 Russian experience. In truth, insurrectionary revolution, both in terms of historical event and theoretical reflections, continues to remain relevant today, particularly with respect to the authoritarian states that are unable to address social divides and political conflicts through institutional mechanisms.

However, revolutions are not just about winning state power—even though this is indispensable. Revolutions are especially about establishing a new social order—an egalitarian and inclusive social order that revolutionaries are supposed to envision; and on this point, Gramsci’s idea of building hegemony in civil society becomes exceedingly instructive, because this is an arena where norms and values are contested and new ones are cultivated. Yet it appears that the contestation for hegemony is not limited to civil society alone, however strategic this arena may be. Indeed, no relational space remains free from contestation, not even one’s own family, not even the private realm. Thus, building hegemony may take place not just in civil society but on multiple fronts. These may include the “state”—that is, the administration, judicial system, education, or even disciplinary settings like prisons; “political society”—or the spaces of electioneering, political parties, legislation, and local councils; “civil society”—in terms of both formal and informal associational life; the “street”—in the sense of public space, public order, and informal public opinion, and, finally, the “private realm”—that of lifestyle, taste, intimate relations, affect; and not to mention of family with its fundamental restructuring of gender roles and hierarchies that reverberates over all aspects of society and culture.

But there is something peculiar to Gramsci that distinguishes his relevance from that of his counterparts. Gramsci’s status as a revolutionary intellectual was deeply  informed by his organic grounding in the complexities of subaltern life and the affective qualities he carried from his childhood—physical and psychological hardship, grit, and courage. Born into a modest household in a village in central Sardinia, the family of seven children quickly slid into poverty after his father Francis was jailed for embezzlement. Gramsci left school for a period to work in the tax office to help out his mother who took in sewing to earn a living. With a poor diet, unheated house and constant exhaustion, he lived and engaged in a subaltern life, a conscious and reflective positionality that rendered him a model of the “organic intellectual.” 

[Gramsci, center, pictured with his class at school]

[Gramsci's secondary school in Cagliara. The plaque reads,
"Educate yourselves because we'll need all our intelligence." Photo by Linda Herrera]

Gramsci’s painful yet productive life can give us inspiration, even consolation, to deploy in these despairing times. Like many revolutionaries past and present, he underwent a tormented incarceration. As a founder of the Italian Communist Party in 1921 Gramsci became a member of the parliament, but in 1926 the Fascist authorities arrested and sentence him to twenty years of prison. Frail and fragile in solitude, he suffered lingering tuberculosis, lost all his teeth, and experienced such agonizing headaches that he would pound his head against the wall. Yet, as if turning his ordeal into opportunity, he generated some of the most insightful and original intellectual works on political theory and revolutionary strategies; on art, literature and linguistics, even writing fables for his children to maintain a connection to them. Opting for solitary confinement to work in quiet, he produced some four hundred letters and three volumes of Prison Notebooks that found their way out with the help of friends like the Cambridge economist Piero Sraffa, and his sister-in-law Tatiana Schucht. As if adamant to defeat despair, he took to heart the powerful aphorism of his favorite novelist Roman Roland—“pessimism of intellect, optimism of will.”

It is hard to penetrate Gramsci’s optimism of will at the time when he was experiencing agony, internment and political repression. The qualities he carried from his subaltern boyhood might have come to his aid. Visiting his homes, rooms, the tree under which he reportedly sat and read in the summer days; seeing the artifacts of his life in the museum—letters he drafted in meticulous handwriting, the impressive figures he drew, books he read and journals he edited, allows one to imagine the young Antonio as extraordinarily focused, neat, and methodical. Being short and hunchbacked with poor health from childhood, Gramsci seemed to revert to himself, becoming introverted if not anti-social, so creating a world of his own in which he read, drew, thought, wrote, and imagined a different order of things. His seemingly odd and loner persona invited derision and contempt by the boys of the town, who at times hurled and threw stones at him; but he would respond with “such energy that my attackers were put to flight.” His determined self-defense cultivated respect and recognition from his enemies.

As a subaltern intellectual, Gramsci was able to feel and grapple with the “feelings” of ordinary people, even if they did not “know” or “understand,” while lashing out on the intellectuals who believed that they could “know” without “understanding,” and especially without “feeling.” He thus became adamant that “one cannot make history without this passion, without this sentimental connection between intellectuals and people.” This uncommon positionality enabled Gramsci to supply, even in the midst of affliction, one of the most penetrating analyses about the crisis of his times—the crisis which by the incident of history has now become ours—“the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born.” It is a tribute to Gramsci to identify the crisis; it is up to us to address it.

[Video by Linda Herrera.]

[Display case at the Gramsci Museum in Ghilarza. Photo by Linda Herrera]

[This article is published in partnership with
Mada Masr]

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