Thursday, April 11, 2019

Gramsci Should Be Difficult To Understand

Fact: If you use the word "carceral" instead of "prison" your argument immediately becomes more persuasive.

Good praxis is to use words like "praxis" that nobody understands. -- Matthew Yglesias (5 April 2019, on Twitter)

A large academic literature exists around Antonio Gramsci's Prison Notebooks. Topics discussed include the relationship of civil society to the state, hegemony, the contrast between consent and coercion, class alliances in political parties, Fordism, the contrast between a "war of position" and a "war of movement", the contrast between organic intellectuals and traditional intellectuals, and the concept of a passive revolution.

When writing his notebooks, Gramsci had to be concerned with Fascists guards reading them and tearing them up in displeasure. Thus, he wrote in a kind of code. The communist party becomes the "modern prince". Machiavelli wrote to advise the ruler of Florence how to obtain rule over Italy; Gramsci was thinking about how communists could rule with the consent of the governed. Marxism or Marxist-Leninism becomes "the philosophy of praxis." As I understand it, praxis is practice informed by theory or theory embodied in practice, in some sense. Gramsci is referring to the last of Marx's Theses on Feuerbach:

The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it. -- Karl Marx

As you can see, these code words are not a mechanical substitution. To understand Gramsci, one would want to think about these choices.

Gramsci never thought of his notebooks as complete. You can find him often writing about what a study on some topic should contain. I saw this in the selection titled, "The Modern Prince", for example. Gramsci could order books. Piero Sraffa provided an unlimited account at some bookstore. Nevertheless, he hoped to complete his work, which was to be "for forever", sometime in the future. Given the circumstances of their writing, the Notebooks were not required to be internally consistent.

Despite the abstractions used by Gramsci, his writing is often quite concrete. But to appreciate it, one would need to know about Italian intellectuals before he entered prison. Myself, I am no expert on Amadeo Bordiga, Benedetto Croce, Giovanni Gentile, Antonio Labriola, or Achille Loria. Nor can I easily check claims about arguments on how to standardize Italian, whether focused on the dialect in Florence or also allowing for influence of other dialects. I suppose to understand Gramsci, one should also know about Giuseppe Garibaldi, Sardina and the southern question, and lots more about Italian history.

For me, there is a language issue. I rely on Quentin Hoare and Geoffrey Nowell Smith's Selections from the Prison Notebooks, not Joseph Buttigieg's comprehensive translation. The literature on Gramsci also contains attempts to translate his concepts to times and places, other than the Italy of Gramsci's day.

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