Sofia Perrino on Antonio Gramsci's "Prison Notebooks" (selections)

Gramsci's "Prison Notebooks" are intended as a discussion of key issues affecting Marxist theory after the worldwide economic depression of the early 1930s, when Marxism failed to materialize in the most advanced capitalist nations of the West. They are also meant as a meditation on the active political life of the author, which was abruptly halted by Mussolini and which resulted in a prison stay during the last eleven years of his life. As such, they include incredibly complex and varied theories (in a rather fragmented order) which couldn't be discussed in their totality within a multi-volume work, not to mention in an essay of 600 words. I have chosen three main ideas which seem, from my perspective, to be the most significant, and which deal with both the new situation in the West and the polemic inherent in the organization (or lack thereof) of his text.

The most important aspect of the text is Gramsci's departure from the definition of hegemony which was widely accepted by Marxists at the time. It was considered by Lenin to be a strategy of political leadership in the democratic revolution; this leadership was based on a fundamental alliance with sections of the peasantry. Instead of focusing on hegemony as a strategy for the destruction of capitalism, Gramsci extends the term to include the bourgeoisie as well as other social classes. Although one class is inevitably to become the hegemonic class, this "presupposes that account be taken of the interests and tendencies of the groups over which hegemony is to be exercised, and that a certain compromise equilibrium should be formed" (211). In other words, the dominant class will not only exert a moral-intellectual leadership, but will also go beyond its own "economic-corporate" interests in order to ally itself within a social bloc of forces ("historical bloc") which represents a basis of compromise and consent. This new conception of hegemony allows for the possibility of any class (although preferably the working class) to become the leading political group. In a sense, then, Gramsci supposes that this triumphant group will represent the universal advancement of society beyond the pitfalls of the capitalist state. This will be accomplished in the West by a "war of position", or, metaphorically speaking, trench warfare. Although this idea seems more suited than previous theories to the implementation of the philosophy of praxis in the West, it relies heavily upon the assumption that the hegemonic class will be willing to compromise once it takes control. It is possible that Gramsci, in turn, relies on the idea that full democratic responsibility automatically kicks in once the dominant group takes over, which modern history (and perhaps a quick review of human nature) shows may be too idealistic.

It is supposed here that the cementing force of the historical bloc is a common political ideology which Gramsci views as a fusion of a country's traditions and the contributions of its diverse social groups (or "subaltern classes"). The hegemonic ideology, therefore, serves to put forth a coherent world view which comes to be accepted by the masses since it is in essence a recognition of the validity of all beliefs. In the past, Gramsci writes, dominant ideology served only as a tool of forceful oppression by the ruling class. While economism led to the idea that ideology is irrelevant in the analysis of a political situation, the author contends that quite the opposite is true. Ideology is fundamental for Gramsci's revised interpretation of the structure/superstructure model. Although Marx may have posited that the base influences the superstructure in only one direction, Gramsci is convinced that there is a "necessary reciprocity" (193) between the two. The new function of ideology, he suggests, is fundamental for the practical implementation of Marxism in the West.

Beyond the significance of Gramsci's original insights, moreover, it is essential to comment on the organization of the text. The "Prison Notebooks" were composed of nearly 3000 pages of notes regarding a variety of themes, all of which were written over a period of eleven years. Since they were not published until many years after his death, Gramsci was obviously not given the opportunity to organize the ideas for his readers. It is impossible to guess the order in which he would have wanted them presented, although on occasion he does note which previous argument he's picking up on (see p. 217 under number 12: "to be connected to the notes on situations and relations of force"). It can be assumed, then, that different editors have chosen to organize the notes in a subjective manner. As critical readers, or "cultural workers", we know that ordering a text can directly affect it's interpretation (as a student of Romance languages, the folios of Spanish Golden Age poets like Herrera and Soto de Rojas, as well as the work of the 20th century Peruvian poet Cesar Vallejo, which was posthumously organized by his wife, immediately come to my mind). The texts are fragmentary enough in and of themselves; it is only common sense to assume that posthumous reorganization implies bias. We should accept as inevitable the fact that these editors have had a large impact on the creation of the text's meaning.

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