Antonio Gramsci- Prison Notebooks

In a prison cell during fascist era Italy, Italian philosopher and Marxist Antonio Gramsci attempted to think through the current situation, re-think many concepts, and reflect on what exactly went wrong. His extensive writings cover a range of topics related to history, the politics of his age, as well as looking towards the future for potential new ways of praxis.

Gramsci challenges the conceptions and misconceptions of Marxist philosophers before him. One of these ideas Gramsci looks at is the relation of structure and superstructure, how they relate to one another. It is a mistake to think that every change and fluctuation in the superstructure is an immediate expression of the structure. From his reading of Marx on the subject, Gramsci adds three words of caution: 1. the difficulty in identifying at any given time, statically (like an instantaneous photographic image) the structure. 2. That errors of calculation can lead to historical crises, which mechanical historical materialism cannot account for, and 3. Not all political acts are necessarily from the structure. He gives the example of the Catholic Church, “if, for every ideological struggle within the Church one wanted to find an immediate primary explanation in the structure one would be caught napping: all sorts of politico-economic romances have been written for this reason.” (191)

Instead, Gramsci notes that the structure and superstructure form a ‘historical bloc,’ an idea he borrows to explain the relation of the two. It’s a relation that is complex, discordant, multi-faceted and reciprocal. To analyze using the historic bloc one has to look at structures and superstructures organized by cultural hegemony, that are movable and sometimes contradictory. “From this one can conclude: that only a totalitarian system of ideologies gives a rational reflection of the contradiction of the structure and represents the existence of the objective conditions for the revolutionizing of praxis. If a social group is formed which is one hundred per cent homogeneous on the level of ideology, this means that the premisses exist one hundred per cent for this revolutionizing: that is that the rational is actively and actually real. This reasoning is based on the necessary reciprocity between structures and superstructures, a reciprocity which is nothing other than the real dialectical process.”

The complex of superstructures and ideologies Gramsci sees as the cultural hegemony of the ruling classes. He notes that ideologies are not psychological, but epistemological. Ideologies are not merely illusions the ruling class. This line of thinking leads to the following error: ideology is distinct from superstructure, ideology cannot change the structure but vice versa, so then a political solution deemed as ideological is considered insufficient to bring about change, therefore ideology is nothing but pure appearance.

One must therefore distinguish between historically organic ideologies, those, that is, which are necessary to a given structure, and ideologies that are arbitrary, rationalistic, ‘willed.’ To the extent that ideologies are historically necessary they have a validity which is ‘psychological’; they ‘organize’ human masses, they form the terrain on which men move, acquire consciousness of their position, struggle, etc. To the extent that they are ‘arbitrary’ they only create individual ‘movements’ polemics and so on (199)

The word movement ties into a concept of history that Gramsci also develops. He starts off, again from Marx’s writings, two principles about historical societies: “1. That no society sets itself tasks for whose accomplishment the necessary and sufficient conditions do not either already exist or are not at least beginning to emerge and develop; 2. that no society breaks down and can be replaced until it has developed all the forms of life which are implicit in its internal relations.” His concept of history is dialectical, and adds more distinctions to the idea by making a separation of organic and conjunctural movements.

When a historical period reaches a moment of crisis that may last for several decades, it has reached a point where the structural contradictions are revealed. The attempts by those in power to conserve the structure leads to a new possibility:

These incessant and persistent efforts (since no social formation will ever admit that it has been superseded) form the terrain of the ‘conjunctural’ and it is upon this terrain that the forces of opposition organize. These forces seek to demonstrate that the necessary and sufficient conditions already exist to make possible, and hence, imperative, the accomplishment of certain historical tasks. (201)

Gramsci gives an example: the Paris Commune of 1870-1871 was an event that historically exhausted all the possibilities of 1789, where the “new bourgeois class struggling for power defeated not only the representatives of the old society unwilling to admit that it had been definitely superseded, but also the still newer groups who maintained that the new structure created by the 1789 revolution was itself already outdated: by this victory the bourgeoisie demonstrated its vitality vis-a-vis both the old and the very new.

“Furthermore, it was in 1870-1871 that the body of principles of political strategy and tactics engendered in practice in 1789, and developed ideologically around 1848, lost their efficacy.” (203)

An analysis of such historical movements is not an end, but an instrument towards detecting these possibilities for conjunctural movements, for those are the moments when action is best taken. “Therefore, the essential task is that of systematically and patiently ensuring that this force is formed, developed, and rendered ever more homogeneous, compact and self-aware.” (209)

When an organic crisis occurs it is a volatile situation. Although the forms are diffrent in different places, the crisis is one of authority, of hegemony, “either because the ruling class has failed some major political undertaking for which it has requested, or forcibly extracted, the consent of the broad masses (war, for example), or because huge masses (especially of peasants and petty-bourgeois intellectuals) have passed suddenly from the state of political passivity to a certain activity, and put forward demands which taken together, albeit not organically formulated, add up to a revolution” (218)  In such situations it becomes dangerous for all parties in the short run, and can have the ‘static victory’ of the emergence of a charismatic leader.



Another type of philosophy that Gramsci’s own philosophy of praxis attacks is one that relies on a separation of structure and superstructure, civil and political society. He terms it economism. This economism, found in ideas such as theoretical syndicalism and liberalism, which are far from the philosophy of praxis. These two philosophies share the same belief in the free trade,

The approach of the free trade movement is based on a theoretical error whose practical origin is not hard to identify: namely the distinction between political society and civil society, which is made into and presented as an organic one, whereas in fact it is merely methodological. Thus it is asserted that economic activity belongs to civil society, and that the state must not intervene and regulate it. But since in actual reality civil society and state are one and the same, it must be made clear that laissez-faire too is a form of state ‘regulation’, introduced and maintained by legislative and coercive means. it is a deliberate policy, conscious of its own ends, and not the spontaneous, automatic expression of economic facts. Consequently, laissez-faire liberalism is a political programme, designed to change- in so far as it is victorious- a state’s ruling personnel, and to change the economic programme of the state itself- in other words the distribution of national income (210)

Theoretical syndicalism is different in that it has not fully materialized yet, and it tries to speak for the subaltern, but the development of the idea of free trade is the same. For economism in history Gramsci sees 3 characteristics: 1. No distinction between relatively permanent and passing fluctuation 2. economic development is reduced to technological changes 3. economic and historical development depend directly on a change in production.

Gramsci sees two fatal flaws in economism: the search for self-interest in everything leads to some ‘monstrous and comical errors of interpretation.’ Furthermore, the tendency in economism is to look at situations and ask ‘who profits directly from the initiative under consideration?’ and answers: those in power.

One can be certain of not going wrong, since necessarily, if the movement under consideration comes to power, sooner or later the progressive fraction of the ruling group will end up controlling the new government, and by making it its instrument for turning the state apparatus to its own benefit. (216)

Economism can then never be wrong, but this infallability makes it theoretically insignificant. “It has only minimal political implications of practical efficacy. In general, it produces nothing but moralistic sermons, and interminable questions of personality.” (216)

To combat economism the concept of hegemony needs to be developed. And before looking at questions of self interest other things need to be taken into consideration: 1.  the social content of the mass following 2. what function did the mass have in the balance of forces? 3. what is the political and social significance of those of the demands presented by the movement’s leaders which find general assent? 4. the closeness of the means to the proposed end. 5. the hypothesis considered that such a movement will necessarily be perverted and serve different ends from what the followers expect (217)

“An analysis of the balance of forces- at all levels- can only culminate in the sphere of hegemony and ethico-political relations.” (217)