Gramsci's GiftHistorians in the News
tags: Marxism, Political theory, Critical Theory, Antonio Gramsci
Alan Wald is the H. Chandler Davis Collegiate Professor Emeritus of English Literature and American Culture at the University of Michigan. He is the author of a trilogy from the University of North Carolina Press about writers and Communism in the United States, as well as an editor of Against the Current and Science & Society.
To Live Is to Resist: The Life of Antonio Gramsci
Jean-Yves Frétigné, translated by Laura Marris
University of Chicago Press, $35 (cloth)
Is the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci, among the most noteworthy Communist activists and theorists of the last century, enjoying yet another cultural moment? His writing on social science and the correspondence of culture to power has had a significant impact in both academe and activism, but his work is increasingly spilling out to popular culture; throughout 2021 his name resounded through mainstream media, from the New York Times to the Wall Street Journal. “The old is dying and the new cannot be born,” a familiar quotation from Gramsci’s prison writings, turned up with eye-rolling frequency—in New York Magazine, Open Democracy, Los Angeles Review of Books, Foreign Affairs, New Statesman, the Nation, Jacobin (several times), Salon, and the New Yorker. Another motto, “pessimism of the intellect,” habitually attributed to Gramsci even though it was coined by French novelist Romain Rolland, was equally ubiquitous in print but also on tote bags and T-shirts. Is there something genuinely novel happening in all this Gramscimania?
The new year adds to this mix the first biography of Gramsci by a French historian: Jean-Yves Frétigné’s To Live Is to Resist, translated by Laura Marris. Frétigné’s volume—a lucid, sober, and well-substantiated documentation and interpretation of Gramsci’s life and work—unquestionably stands apart from the shallowness of stan culture. Its meticulous mapping of the coordinates of historical events and Gramsci’s thought is in some respects more revealing and immersive than earlier studies. Frétigné may not radically advance the theoretical debates surrounding Gramsci’s work, but he certainly puts to rest some of the nonsense that has been alleged about the end of his life. (Theories have ranged from a death-bed religious conversion to committing suicide or being poisoned.) All the same, with the central aspects of Gramsci’s life amply chronicled by now, and in the absence of bombshell revelations, one could be forgiven for thinking the ground Frétigné covers is well enough worn.
Yet each generation may well need its own biography of Gramsci. I was introduced to Gramscian ideas—cultural hegemony, working-class education, Marxism as a “philosophy of praxis”—through John M. Cammett’s worthy study, Antonio Gramsci and the Origins of Italian Communism (1967). It was mainly of intellectual interest, the product of an older left focused on party history and without much of a portrait of the young, idealistic student who first emerged as something of a Sardinian rural nationalist and self-described provincial. Knowing someone’s political “positions,” such as they are, is not the same as knowing the person, the life behind the public persona. I developed a much keener impression of the man after reading Giuseppe Fiori’s Antonio Gramsci: Life of a Revolutionary, first published in 1965 but only translated in 1971. Fiori, with access to more primary sources, was richer in disclosures of Gramsci’s inner being and literary preoccupations. In any case, Gramsci cemented a reputation for oxygenating Marxist thought so long ago: Where do things stand now?
Gramsci was born in 1891 and died in 1937. A comprehensive history of his reception merits a book in itself, but a few salient stages can be outlined. It was only after World War II that the reputation of this Sardinian-born antifascist martyr, who died from illness arising from his eleven-year imprisonment by Benito Mussolini, was rejuvenated in his homeland. This posthumous notoriety came through a fractional publication of personal letters and prison writings orchestrated by the Communist Party of Italy (PCI). Troublingly, the aim of these bowdlerized selections was to manufacture a “usable past” consistent with the increasingly reformist policies of Gramsci’s one-time comrade, PCI General Secretary Palmiro Togliatti. The result was a domesticated Gramsci, one you could take home and introduce to your mother.
Decades later, following a wave of revolutionary fervor catalyzed by international youth radicalization in the 1960s, Gramsci’s reputation geographically expanded, as did his degree of celebrity. This enlargement was abetted by the unearthing of noteworthy new details of his intimate life and discerning of heretical political views. Some of the latter turned out to be expressly opposed to positions supported by Togliatti: a suppressed 1926 letter Gramsci wrote regarding the treatment of Leon Trotsky’s Left Opposition in the Soviet Union (Togliatti supported Stalin), and several testimonials from around 1930 of his rejection of the Communist International’s view of socialists as “social fascists.” These clarifying enhancements and corrections of the record kickstarted fresh scholarly appraisals, culminating in Gramsci’s dramatic metamorphosis from semi-reformist to full-throated revolutionary.