Antonio Gramsci

Book by Antonio A. Santucci; New York: Monthly Review Press, 2010, 176 pp.

The status quo thrives in the digital age across the U.S. in 2010, fueling a toxic brew of popular fear and rage. Would Antonio Gramsci (1891 to 1937), the Sardinian activist and theorist, be surprised? I rather doubt it. Reading a biography of the author, journalist, and theorist by Antonio A. Santucci, a Gramsci scholar, drives the point home. He brings into sharp focus Gramsci and his political and prison writings.


A letter that Gramsci wrote to his wife gives us a sense of his self-critical character. In a telling incident, Gramsci encountered a divide in Italy between soldiers and workers in the north (urban) and south (rural). Santucci explores how Gramsci came to understand both sides during labor strife. The communist from Sardinia emerges as a robust thinker. For instance, he probes the causes and consequences of the participants' views of each other and themselves as a basis for future strategy. "Here, too, we can discern a significant aspect of Gramsci's method," Santucci writes. "Action and political ferment are revisited with the passing of time and turned into an object and model of science inquiry."


Gramsci's view on order and disorder under capitalism and socialism is noteworthy. This section is relevant to the current period. Think of the mainstream's oft-repeated claim that alternatives to business-as-usual are doomed to failure. "Proof" is the failures of previous attempts. The former Soviet Union and Cuba now are so-called cases in point. In any event, writing of a socialist theory and strategy, Gramsci urges proponents to be bold, to make concrete their strivings for a new society that privileges people's capacities. He continues, writing of anti-capitalist partisans: "The legal maxim that they want to realize is to make the complete realization of one's own human personality a possible for all citizens." Gramsci thinks big. In fact, he foreshadows social movements in Latin America now, i.e., Bolivia under President Evo Morales. That is, the concept of all people living well, with full bellies, spare time, and meaningful work.


Gramsci's prose after the Mussolini dictatorship imprisoned him is a treasure trove. Take the Letters from Prison. They are mainly Gramsci's missives to his family members and close friends. Santucci deftly weaves his descriptions of Gramsci's life under arduous circumstances with his familial relations. Friends also nurtured Gramsci's disciplined studies as a locked-up political prisoner who read and wrote voraciously. One friend was Piero Sraffa, the famed author and political economist. He with Gramsci's sister-in-law provided intellectual stimulus to combat his cruel isolation and deprivation at the hands of the Italian government.


In the Prison Notebooks, Gramsci digs deeply into concepts that have entered the language of resistance today, from civil society and hegemony to ideology. Consider Gramsci's analysis of a society's ruling ideas. In our time, one is the idea that the marketplace works best when government protects and regulates financial and industrial firms in their interests. Gramsci wrestles with a clearer understanding of this process, which in the U.S. sees an upper class crushing working people, while strident factions of the well-heeled fund anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim hysteria to better bolster elite control generally.


Santucci brings us a clearer picture of how Gramsci's critique of changing the status quo from the grassroots calls for a "war of position." This warfare requires patience and commitment to study to win. Here and in other areas of his study, Gramsci pays close attention to everyday details. Take his writings on culture. For example, Gramsci grasped the personal and political meanings of the popularity of African-American music among Europeans nearly a century past. Then as now such art forms can engender within people a conscience striving for a more humane future. Gramsci's analysis gives historic context to today's widespread appeal of black-inspired hip hop dress, lyrics, and rhythms in the young of many backgrounds.


Santucci ends with two appendixes. One is a biographical chronology of Gramsci. The other features biographies of main political figures. He wraps up with notes and an index. For those new and old to Gramsci, Santucci's book is a fine read.


Seth Sandronsky lives and writes in Sacramento.