There are a number of reasons why reading Gramsci’s prison notebooks is difficult. For one thing, they do not comprise a manuscript prepared for publication by its author, but were precisely notes by Gramsci to himself, some consciously preparatory for some future “for publication” writing, and some not. Secondly, the thematic groupings (at least in the Selections) seem to be largely determined by the editors. Apparently Gramsci kept several notebooks going simultaneously, and went back and forth over time between a wide array of topics. The themes we see in published form were apparently culled from various notes, in various books, written at different dates, and given order by the editors. Finally, Gramsci was very well-read, and intensely engaged in civic (not just political) life, and his notebooks make frequent references to European (and global) contemporary events, contemporary politics, contemporary (or recent) political thinkers and philosophers, who possess varying levels of present-day fame, as well as to specifically Italian history, especially of the Risorgimento. Many of these thinkers and topics are not well-known to a modern, non-specialist, American reader, and, since Gramsci was making notes to himself, he was not moved to give background explanations. (The editors’ notes in the “Selections” help some, but not enough.)
Still, with some persistence, I have found these readings rewarding.
The sections of the Notebooks that comprise The Modern Prince were, loosely, notes for a planned work on politics modeled on Niccolò Machiavelli’s classic, The Prince. Some of the passages included in the published work clearly were directly related to this project; other’s were perhaps selected (by Gramsci? or the editors?) as at least loosely related. (Gramsci’s planned work was to have been called The Modern Prince, which leads to some complication of terminology. The words “The Modern Prince” may refer to the work Gramsci intended to publish, but did not complete; to the actual published assemblage of notebook sections; or to the protagonist of Gramsci’s work, which, as we shall see, was the Communist Party.)
It may seem strange that the radical, Communist firebrand should take as a model someone so often viewed as virtually the devil incarnate. But Machiavelli is a much-misunderstood figure. The Prince horrifies many readers because Machiavelli seems to advocate naked violence and cruelty on the part of rulers. Interestingly, Machiavelli never says that brutality in a ruler is morally acceptable, nor does pretend morals don’t matter. He refers to such behavior as “bad”. But he distinguishes between what is morally “good”, in the sense of describing the world we might choose to live in if we could, and what is “necessary” if certain ends are to be accomplished in reality. In the ideal world, the “good” might be preferable; in the real world, “necessity” must often prevail. Machiavelli believes, probably more than most of us would be willing to accept, that the ends justify the means. What is almost charming about him is how perfectly matter of fact he is about this; so much so that he never even feels the need to specifically state this as a principle.
What were the political ends that Machiavelli sought? This is a little harder to prize out of his writing than his ideas about means. There are clues in The Prince, but the Discourses on Livy are give a better glimpse. Machiavelli was a republican, at heart. With some oversimplification, the adjective “republican”, from ancient world through the Renaissance, can probably best be described as having a preference for the rule of law over the rule of men. Machiavelli’s own political career had been in the service of his native city of Florence during a republican period; he lost his job upon the return of the Medici princes (and went to prison, briefly, where he was tortured, then released). The Prince, in fact, was at least partially written as a sort of job resume; an attempt to get back into politics in the service of the Medici.
Machiavelli was a republican, but not particularly a democrat. Gramsci, I think, overstates Machiavelli’s role as a precursor of Gramsci’s own mass-based politics. Machiavelli had no particular concern, other than pragmatic ones, with how broadly the franchise of citizenship should be distributed. His primary model was the (pre-Augustan) Roman Republic, but he didn’t think it important to copy the forms of the Romans directly; it was how effectively they achieved their ends that he admired. He was concerned with the stability of a social system, and with a city’s greatness. Liberty, for him, as for those in classical times, was for a people to live under their own laws without foreign rule, and preferably without a native tyrant, as well. The closest he came to democratic thinking was strictly from instrumental concerns; he believed that a republic would be greater, and ultimately more stable, if it was based on the willing and engaged participation of the mass of the citizenry. In the Discourses, he points out how the disruptions of the plebs in the early days of the Roman Republic forced the senatorial class to make concessions – establishing the tribunate of the people, gradually opening the other constitutional offices to plebeians – but Machiavelli believes if they had not done this, and had somehow been successful in suppressing the plebs, then Rome would never have possessed the loyal, disciplined citizen army that conquered the world. Thus, civil disorders, producing the need to compromise with the masses, rather than being evils to be avoided, are to Machiavelli the necessary costs of greatness.
From passages in The Prince, it seems evident that Machiavelli was also a sort of Italian patriot. He wanted to see Italy united, as were the great kingdoms of Europe such as Spain and France, in his time, and he wanted foreign rulers (French, Spaniards, Germans) out of Italy. If, as it perhaps seemed to him late in his life, the best way to accomplish that was for Italy to be united through force of arms by a powerful but autocratic leader, so be it, and anything Machiavelli could do through his studies and writing to help the process along was for the good.
It is a mark of how progressive Machiavelli’s thinking was (if I am correct in this) that his dream of a united Italy was not actually accomplished until nearly 350 years after his death.
Gramsci clearly felt many points of kinship with Machiavelli. In the section of The Modern Prince on the “Elements of Politics” (p. 144 ff), Gramsci stresses the need to start from things as they really are, rather than pretend to some more ideal conditions. We live in a world in which there are leaders and led. We should study whether and how it may be possible to move to a world without rulers and ruled, but in the mean time it behooves us to study how to lead effectively. Gramsci also stresses (p. 170 ff) how Machiavelli was an “active politician”, and not either a political scientist nor a diplomat. For Gramsci, this means his concerns with politics were primarily pragmatic, unlike the political scientist, but unlike the diplomat, he also had visionary goals. An “active politician” uses pragmatic means to move towards a vision of a different future, unlike a diplomat, who works in service to the status quo. It is not hard to see how Gramsci identified himself, as well as Machiavelli, in this.
Gramsci was also fascinated with Machiavelli’s reference to the Centaur who taught Achilles in classic myth, which Machiavelli interprets as meaning that a ruler must combine elements of man with elements of the beast. Gramsci identifies this with his own ideas of force and consent, which are intimately tied up with his ideas of authority (associated with force) and hegemony (associated with consent). Gramsci seems to feel that Machiavelli anticipated his own thinking on these things; in fact, I think he was right. The lesson of the Roman plebs, cited above, could easily be used as an example of the Gramscian idea of hegemony in practice.
Gramsci argues that Machiavelli must be understood and interpreted in the context of his own time, and not necessarily as laying down timeless principles. In particular, says Gramsci, Machiavelli is concerned with “the moment of force” and not primarily with “the moment of consent”. This observation is clearly tied to Gramsci’s plan for The Modern Prince, a work to be designed similarly address the needs of Gramsci’s time, in a way similar to that in which Machiavelli’s had addressed his own.
The prince of Machiavelli’s title, is, to Gramsci, a mythic figure, an ideal type constructed to serve as a model for real live rulers to emulate. While Machiavelli’s prince may have been a suitable model for the 16th Century, Gramsci feels no single individual can bear such weight of history in modern times; the “modern prince” of Gramsci’s opus must be, therefore, a collective person, a political party – specifically the Communist Party. The Modern Prince was to be a study of the political reality in which the Communist Party finds itself, and the character and attributes it must have or acquire if it is to play its historic role therein.
Gramsci’s idea of the party, at least at the mythic level appropriate to The Modern Prince, differs from the conventional. To him, the essence of the party is what he calls the “organic” or fundamental party. There can be many such organic parties, each of which gives expression to the needs of one specific “group” (which is prison-notebook code for “class”). These “organic” parties may be broken into numerous apparent “parties”, which would be those entities the world would generally recognize as political parties. Even “non-party” functions such as groups of intellectuals and publishing enterprises are in fact integral parts of the “organic” party.
The party, as the expression of a class, also expresses the “common will” of that class (and, as that class becomes hegemonic, as the bourgeoisie is now, and as the proletariat will become, the “common will” of society as a whole). You might think that for Gramsci, if a class possesses something like a “common will”, that the party, as an “organic” party would come to express this spontaneously or automatically. But Gramsci does not see a “common will” as something automatically existing in a class; it must be developed, and it is the party that develops it.
What is the “common will” exactly? It is difficult to extract exactly what Gramsci meant. In some passages, it seems it could be something as simple as a broad consensus on nationhood (or class consciousness – i.e., who does and does not make up the nation or class), along with a consensus on, or at least a hegemonic conception of, the broad structures of society, state, economy, etc. Absent a rigid demand for absolute consensus, such a concept of the “common will” could probably be uncontroversially accepted as applying, e.g., in a modern nation such as the United States. In other places, though, he seems to have a much more extreme view, as when he says (p.133) “the modern Prince [Communist Party], as it develops, revolutionizes the whole system of intellectual and moral relations in that its development means precisely that any given act is seen as useful or harmful, as virtuous or as wicked, only in so far as it has as its point of reference the modern Prince itself, and helps to strengthen or oppose it.” This seems to represent a system of totalitarianism hard to accept as desirable, even in theory, or as attainable, in actual fact.
In addition to the “organic” parties, Gramsci makes reference to what he calls “marginal”, “purely reformist movements (p. 157-158). My first thought on reading this was that examples would be the environmental, feminist, civil rights, gay rights, etc. movements, which (excepting their most radical exponents) do not envision a complete restructuring of society, nor do they depend on any particular economic structure (unlike, arguably, bourgeois liberals), but rather support reforms which could, and must, apply to any overall social form.
But then Gramsci argues that “at the decisive turning points” all these “movements” must merge into their “natural” (class-based) overall party. The movements I was thinking of seem irreducibly cross-class (or, if you prefer, are not class-based). So then I thought Gramsci meant only such phenomena as “business unionism”, which has a reformist and immediate agenda under capitalism, but which could be subsumed into the greater working class (socialist) movement in a crisis of the state (revolution).
But then where does that leave the movements I first considered? They seem to have no role whatsoever in Gramsci’s big picture of politics. This apparent reductionism is perhaps not surprising in an early 20th Century Communist thinker, but noteworthy, nonetheless, and unsatisfactory from a 21st Century viewpoint.
An important part of Gramsci’s thinking is wrapped up in what he calls the elements of a party (p. 152 ff). Gramsci sees three “elements” of a party:
- The mass element (which doesn’t really comprise a party until conscious).
- Intellectuals, which form a ginger group (not a term G. uses), inspiring and catalyzing the formation of a mass base, of which they then become the “generals”.
- An intermediate stratum, rising from the mass base (Gramscian “organic intellectuals”?), forming in effect the non-commissioned and lower commissioned officer corps of the party.
It is hard to tell, from my so-far limited reading of Gramsci, whether he holds that the play of historic/economic forces must inevitably bring certain things about (e.g. socialism). He certainly believes that men and women’s political actions are important in determining the pace and course of these revolutions, if not their ultimate success or failure. A related question would be, how much does he think our actions – as opposed to inevitable historic forces – have in defining the nature of the ultimate goal, once realized? Antonio Santucci, who wrote an intellectual biography of Gramsci, seems to feel that Gramsci had rejected historical materialism entirely, but I am not convinced that his rejection of this central Marxist tenet was in fact that strong.
Gramsci is at pains, though, to point out his differences with “vulgar” Marxists and anarcho-syndicalists, who pin their faith in inevitability, and believe that nothing need be done in the here and know to prepare for or influence events. He frequently points to the role of the party, including the intellectuals, in preparing the road. Thus, for example, his frequent exhortations on the need for educating the masses, for training them in party discipline as well as to lead, for reproducing (as mentioned above) the leading intellectual stratum of the party. This emphasis on the leading/guiding role of the party stands, I would think, in particular counter-distinction to the anarcho-syndicalists, who presumably would hold that the mass base (1 above) is all that is important; that (3) will arise spontaneously from the base as needed (and fall back into it when needed no longer); and that (2) is completely superfluous. (Despite the irony implicit in various anarchist intellectuals espousing this view.)
Recall, though, that for all his emphasis on leadership, Gramsci holds that socialist leadership must look to creating the future conditions under which under which the distinction between leader and led will no longer be necessary, or even meaningful (p. 144). Also, he argues that the success of a socialist (communist) party can only be judged after it no longer exists. Since parties exist only as the expression of a particular class, the party which proposes to end all class divisions will succeed only when there are no more classes to express, and hence when no parties can logically exist.
It is interesting to compare Gramsci’s idea of organic parties to the situation in the modern United States, where the hegemonic capitalist class has, in effect, two parties. What Gramsci would see as the “organic party” of the working class seems to have minimal direct expression (marginalized groups such as DSA, a few intellectuals, the worklife-focused labor movement). Some of what might arguably be called “organic” expressions of working class politics can be pretty perverse (the Tea Party). How would Gramsci view the situation in which, for practical purposes, much of the political expression of the working class gets directed into the two parties of the capitalist parties? Sometimes this expression takes forms that Gramsci would be able to recognize as direct functions of the “organic” party – labor COPES, the Mass Alliance – but, primarily due to the Constitutional structure of the U.S. Republic, the energy is focused within one of the two capitalist parties.
What kinds of lessons can I actually draw from Gramsci? Where was he right, and where wrong? The concept of hegemony, as he developed it, seems to be a very powerful analytic tool, but I cannot follow it quite as far as he seems to do in his more extreme definition of “the common will”. I cannot agree (to the annoyance of some of my more traditionally Marxist friends) with his apparent reduction of all social struggle to class conflict. Issues such as race, gender, sexuality have their own independent (socially constructed) existence, and their own importance. Gramsci’s idea of the three elements of a party seems worth thinking about, and his ideas on the importance of education, and of creating the “ferment” that will reproduce activist intellectuals for a new generation are things to which anyone who cares about long term social change must certainly pay heed.
I’m certain that I will have more, and more detailed thoughts as my plunge into Gramsci’s thought continues. And no doubt I will have reason to regret more than one of the hasty, early judgments presented here.
References: Antonio Gramsci, Selections from the Prison Notebooks, Quintin Hoare and Geoffrey Nowell Smith, eds.; Niccolò Machiavelli, The Discourses, Penguin Classics edition, Leslie J. Walker, S.J. and Brian Richardson trans., and The Prince (Bilingual Edition), Mark Musa, editor and trans.; Antonio A. Santucci, Antonio Gramsci, Graziella Di Mauro, trans.