Antonio Gramsci

Reviewed by Peter

Antonio A. Santucci, Antonio Gramsci (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2010)

Antonio Gramsci has long been regarded as one of the most creative political theorists since Karl Marx. In the social sciences and in Marxist circles, Gramsci’s writings prefigured modern-day discussions of topics such as uneven development, ideological hegemony and contradictory consciousness, class consciousness and false consciousness in late capitalism, the importance of society and culture in impeding or fomenting social change, and the connection between theoretical work and political activity.

However, Gramsci’s work remains marginal in academe, largely because he was an Italian communist leader and thus generally off limits to apolitical social scientists, and also because he produced no single definitive text that pulls together all his strands of thought. Gramsci has much to say to contemporary political scientists, sociologists, and others in the social sciences and humanities, as well as to activists in social movements. Yet his work has not been widely incorporated into the mainstream. Even in graduate courses in classical social theory, Gramsci’s work is often omitted from the curriculum.

Gramsci’s contributions are regarded as crucial to many Marxist and neo-Marxist thinkers. More recently, however, he has come under attack by anarchists who have challenged his focus on capturing state power, and for his Leninist bent. These critics have declared Gramsci dead. Like Marx, however, Gramsci does not seem that easy to do away with because his work contains rich insights that are pertinent to understanding the dynamics of a crisis-ridden capitalist system.

Monthly Review’s recent publication of the late Antonio Santucci’s volume on Gramsci is an invaluable addition to the treatment of Gramsci’s work, and serves as a reminder of the prescience of his thought. Santucci is particularly adept in grounding Gramsci’s writing in its political context and in identifying the transcendent concepts and theoretical insights that make Gramsci’s work germane to the present era.

Rendering Gramsci’s intellectual contributions is a challenge given the conditions under which he worked.  As an Italian communist leader and thinker continually hounded by a repressive state, and later as a prisoner of the state, Gramsci’s writing was out of necessity fragmented and contemporaneous. For a good part of his life he lacked the resources and the environment to polish his work. Santucci, however, is more than up to the task of presenting Gramsci’s work as a coherent whole and connecting it to its larger setting.

Santucci’s great triumph is his ability to weave together Gramsci’s political life with his writing in a fascinating account which allows the reader to better understand the political, social and personal realities that shaped Gramsci’s thinking. In the part of the book which covers Gramsci’s life before imprisonment, Santucci dramatically captures how Gramsci combined theory and praxis. The author tracks Gramsci’s thinking in response to internal party struggles and the external influences of the international communist movement to produce an engaging case study in the sociology of knowledge and political sociology. The reader is placed right in the middle of the political struggles in Italy, and is able to witness how Gramsci’s views were modified by a complex social and political environment.

Santucci is especially good at pointing out the continuity in Gramsci’s thought while also emphasizing how, as a political leader and editor of the party’s newspaper, he had to take changes in social relations into consideration. The capacity to be reflective and to critically examine Marxist theory is one of the strengths of Gramsci’s approach. The author also challenges the view advanced by some of Gramsci’s critics who see him as merely a party functionary, and who derisively call him “the last Leninist.”

Gramsci makes a genuinely original contribution to Marxist tradition in his writings on the concept of hegemony, the philosophy of praxis, the Southern question, and the search for a modern Prince. Santucci does an excellent job of debunking the notion that there is a split in Gramsci’s writing before and after imprisonment. He also persuasively argues that Gramsci’s work is classic and is truly original because of his intense engagement with politics. As the author suggests, Gramsci, like Marx, constantly tried to integrate theory and political activity, which accounts for the treasure trove of insights found in his Prison Notebooks.

The portrait of Gramsci which emerges is developed over the course of several chapters covering Gramsci’s political writings, letters from prison, and his prison notebooks. This is followed by an important chapter entitled “End of the Century Gramsci,” which bears witness to his continued relevance, while stopping short of canonizing his work.

What makes Gramsci fascinating even today is his resistance to dogmatic approaches to Marxist thought, and his insistence that the analysis of society and culture is an integral part of developing a political economy which can guide praxis. Gramsci’s dynamic conception of hegemony, conceived not as one-sided domination, but rather dialectically, offers what is arguably the best understanding of class consciousness or the lack of it in late capitalism. Santucci is able to ground Gramsci’s theoretical work in the concrete problems Gramsci confronted as a party leader, prisoner, and intellectual. In doing so, Santucci helps us overcome the tendency to pigeon-hole Gramsci, and makes possible a deeper appreciation of his life and work.

There are many on both the right and the anarchist left who seek to bury Gramsci and to caricature his work. This is certainly not unusual for critics of capitalism, as Marx’s ideas have frequently been misrepresented, and even declared dead at times. Gramsci’s work is not well known in many academic circles, and mainstream social scientists who have encountered his work tend to label him as a narrow Communist thinker of very marginal interest to contemporary social thought. But for people who have actually read Gramsci and studied some of the crucial secondary sources on him, it is apparent that his theoretical insights continue to provide a useful framework for understanding the present era.

Since the late 1990s, and especially after the crash of 2007, Marx’s ideas have been revived. This is true even among mainstream thinkers, who have generally been unable to provide a coherent explanation of the current capitalist crisis. The same might be said of Gramsci’s legacy, as his work (especially his notion of contradictory consciousness and his concept of hegemony) provide one of the keys to understanding a capitalist system which is experiencing its most serious crisis in decades.

Santucci’s small book argues for Gramsci’s significance in a lively and engaging way.  The author deserves much credit for reviving Gramsci’s ideas and situating them in their appropriate political milieu. The philosophy of praxis to which Gramsci devoted his life provides a theoretical linchpin to activists and social theorists alike as they engage in the on-going struggle to understand capitalist social relations and build opposition to capitalist hegemony. Peter Seybold Indiana University-Purdue University at Indianapolis