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Gramsci's Common Sense
Inequality and its Narratives
By Kate Crehan
Duke University PressCopyright © 2016 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
It really must be stressed that it is precisely the first elements, the most elementary things, which are the first to be forgotten. ... The first element is that there really do exist rulers and ruled, leaders and led.
— SELECTIONS FROM THE PRISON NOTEBOOKS, 144
This is a book about narratives of inequality. In his history of modern capitalism, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, Thomas Piketty observes, "The history of inequality is shaped by the way economic, social, and political actors view what is just and what is not, as well as by the relative power of those actors and the collective choices that result" (Piketty 2014, 20). As an economist, Piketty's focus, however, is on the quantitative measurement of inequality, and the policy reforms that might lessen it, rather than on the processes by which "economic, social, and political actors" arrive at their understandings of "what is just and what is not." It is those processes that this book explores. What are the origins of the narratives that explain why specific inequalities are inevitable, necessary, indeed beneficial, or conversely unjust, harmful, and far from inevitable? And how do certain of those narratives establish themselves as self-evident truths, the kind of "truths" that the Italian Marxist, Antonio Gramsci, refers to as senso comune (common sense)?
Inequality was once commonly theorized using a Marxist concept of class. In recent years, however, class has fallen from favor in both academic and popular circles. But if we want to understand inequality, how it is lived, and why people see it as just or conversely unjust, perhaps we have been too quick to write off the usefulness of a Marxist notion of class. One reason this approach to inequality has fallen into disfavor is that all too often nowadays the Marxist concept of class is understood as confined to the realm of the economic, as when Richard Wolin writes of "orthodox Marxism's stress on the universalizing framework of 'class,' which reduced social conflict unilaterally to the opposition between wage labor and capital" (2010, 358). Understood in this reductive way, class is indeed easy to dismiss as overly simplistic. The Marxist tradition, however, contains far richer and more interesting versions of class that encompass the many other ways structural inequality manifests itself, and that pay attention to the different ways people in different social locations understand "what is just and what is not." A particularly rich and nuanced approach to inequality is to be found in the now celebrated notebooks Gramsci wrote during his years of imprisonment by the fascist regime of Benito Mussolini. At the heart of this approach is a concern with the complex passage from lived experience, itself always mediated by the existing explanations of that experience, to political narratives and political movements capable of bringing about radical change.
Class, as long as it is not defined in narrowly economic terms, is fundamental to Gramsci's thought. I approach his nuanced and multifaceted understanding of class through three concepts that I see as central to his theorization of power: subalternity, intellectuals, and common sense. Tracing his use of these concepts and their interlinkages provides something like a map of his approach to the complex relationship between the particular economic and political vantage points from which people view the world, and their conceptions of that world.
This chapter introduces the concept of subalternity we find in the notebooks. First, however, it is necessary to say something about the nature of those notebooks as a text. Unfinished, never prepared for publication by Gramsci, and consisting as they do of a series of separate notes that range over very disparate topics, they present the reader with a challenge. And unless we understand the conditions under which they were written, and the basic questions they address, it is difficult to grasp the creative and open Marxism that informs the overall project, a Marxism that is always attentive to the multiple forms in which the inequality between "rulers and ruled, leaders and led" manifests itself.
In November 1926, even though as an elected parliamentary deputy he should have had immunity from prosecution, Gramsci was arrested by the fascist authorities. He and twenty-one other leaders of the Italian communist party were then subjected to a show trial in June 1928. Conviction was never in doubt, and one of the longest sentences was handed down to the future author of the prison notebooks: twenty years, four months, and five days. Referring to this physically diminutive but intellectually imposing prisoner, the prosecutor famously declared: "We must prevent this brain from functioning for twenty years." For his part, Gramsci was determined to keep his brain functioning. He petitioned for a single cell and permission to write. The petition was granted in January 1929, and on the 8th of February he would make his first entry in the first notebook. He continued to work on the notebooks until 1935, when his deteriorating health made further work impossible. He would die in 1937, a patient in the Quisisana clinic still under surveillance, a few days after the expiration of his now reduced sentence.
After their publication in Italy in the late 1940s, the notebooks soon began to acquire an international readership. A key moment in the Anglophone world was the publication of Quintin Hoare and Geoffrey Nowell Smith's Selections from the Prison Notebooks of Antonio Gramsci (1971), which includes a substantial number of the notes, organized thematically. The volume was rapidly taken up by social scientists across a wide range of disciplines and has never gone out of print. Raymond Williams's Marxism and Literature, published in 1977, further popularized Gramsci's concepts among those unable to read Italian, as did the work of Stuart Hall and other members of University of Birmingham's Centre for Cultural Studies. As yet, however, there is no complete English translation of the notebooks, although the first three volumes of a planned five-volume edition, edited by Joseph Buttigieg, have appeared.
As a text, the thirty-three notebooks resist succinct summary. While there are certain recurrent themes, their richness lies in the ways their author explores and expands on these themes; grasping the argument requires close reading. In part this is because Gramsci gives us not polished summations of his reflections but rather tracks left by a mind continually on the move. We accompany Gramsci on his journeys through a thickly wooded intellectual terrain. Sometimes he sticks to the paths already marked out, but often he veers off, carving out his own path as he challenges conventional categories and established thinking. This is particularly true of his writings on intellectuals and the production of knowledge. Keeping up with this thinker requires that we pay careful attention to the twists and turns of his ever-active mind.
The very form of the notebooks confronts us with a problem. Each one consists of series of separate notes, varying in length from a sentence or two to many pages. Together they "possess all the intricacies and perplexities of a textual labyrinth," as Buttigieg has written (PNI, ix). If we are to find our way through this labyrinth, it is helpful to begin by considering the conditions in which Gramsci was writing, and how he approached the task of recording his reflections.
Two people who were crucial for Gramsci's physical and intellectual survival during his incarceration were Tatiana Schucht, a sister of his wife Julia, and Piero Sraffa, a left-leaning Italian economist and long-standing friend. Tatiana was an unfailing source of practical and emotional support. Remaining in Italy until his death, largely so that she would be in a position to provide this support, Tatiana did everything she could to ease the many hardships of prison life. Keeping him supplied with writing materials was one of her tasks. The prisoner was very clear as to what he wanted. She was, he wrote to her, to provide him with "notebooks of a normal format like those used in school, and not with too many pages, at most forty to fifty, so they are not inevitably transformed into increasingly jumbled miscellaneous tomes" (PLII, 141). Maintaining order was not easy, however. Gramsci would work on a number of different notebooks simultaneously. His intention was to keep different ones for different topics, but this was not always possible. For one thing, his mind worked in such a way that he was continually seeing connections between apparently separate topics. Another problem was that the prison authorities insisted that the notebooks be kept in storage. At any one time he was only allowed to have a limited number of them with him in his cell. Consequently, he would sometimes use whichever was at hand. To add to the reader's difficulty, the notes themselves can be fragmentary and elliptical, leaving them open to a wide range of interpretations. The openness of his thought is in fact one of his strengths as a theorist, but it does mean that if we are to find our way through Gramsci's labyrinth, we need to read him with extreme care.
Although living in Britain by the time of Gramsci's arrest, Sraffa made regular trips to Italy, during which he would visit Gramsci in prison. He was also in contact with a number of leading Italian communists living in exile, and he spearheaded a campaign in the international media for the release of this major political figure. This helped ensure that Mussolini's prisoner was not forgotten by the wider world. Most important, as regards the notebooks, Sraffa opened an account with a Milan bookstore in Gramsci's name (paid for by the independently wealthy Sraffa) that allowed him to obtain books and other publications. Although he was limited in his ordering by what the prison authorities would allow, the account still enabled him to obtain a wide range of books and periodicals. Without Tatiana and Sraffa, it is unlikely that we would have the notebooks: it was their support that enabled them to be written, and after their author's death it was they who ensured the notebooks' survival.
In addition to the notebooks, we also have many of his letters written from prison, available in English in Frank Rosengarten's superb edition. The largest number were written to Tatiana. Once sentenced, prisoners were only allowed to write to relatives. Although he wrote to various members of his family, Tatiana became his main correspondent. In part this was because he often found it hard to write to his wife. She was living in Moscow throughout his imprisonment but had various emotional and physical problems and wrote only intermittently.
The bookstore account was a particularly crucial resource given the dialogic character of Gramsci's thought. Most commonly a note will begin with his engaging with another author. In one of his letters to Tatiana, written in December 1930, he explains his need as an intellectual to feel himself engaged in a dialogue: "Perhaps it is because my entire intellectual formation has been of a polemical order; even thinking 'disinterestedly' is difficult for me, that is, studying for study's sake. Only occasionally, but rarely, does it happen that I lose myself in a specific order of reflections and find, so to speak, in the things themselves enough interest to devote myself to their analysis. Ordinarily, I need to set out from a dialogical or dialectical standpoint, otherwise I don't experience any intellectual stimulation. As I once told you, I don't like to cast stones into the darkness; I want to feel a concrete interlocutor or adversary" (PLI, 369).
The reluctance to focus simply on "the things themselves," however, is not only about wanting to "feel a concrete interlocutor." It also speaks to a concern with ideas as living realities rather than pure thought, abstracted from the messy flux of day-to-day life. The books he requested included not only serious academic scholarship but popular history, sociology, politics, and writings on cultural topics. And his orders included a range of newspapers and periodicals, from as wide a political spectrum as the prison authorities would allow. One reason he insisted on reading so much popular, ephemeral stuff is because, for him, what is important are not debates confined to a few intellectuals, but the ideas and beliefs that inform and shape the lives lived by the mass of the population.
Gramsci was especially interested in ideas and beliefs which had established themselves as "common sense" (senso comune). As he writes in one note (part of which I quoted in the preface): "[I]s a philosophical movement properly so called when it is devoted to creating a specialised culture among restricted intellectual groups, or rather when, and only when, in the process of elaborating a form of thought superior to 'common sense' and coherent on a scientific plane, it never forgets to remain in contact with the simple [common people] and indeed finds in this contact the source of the problems it sets out to study and to resolve? (SPN, 330). Were he alive today and writing in the United States, Gramsci would certainly be an avid follower of the whole spectrum of media, from WBAI to Fox, from The Nation to Rupert Murdoch's tabloids, not to mention the ever-expanding media landscape, including social media, of the internet. For the contemporary Anglophone reader, the dialogical character of the prison notebooks can present problems. Reading Gramsci's reflections on what he is reading is often like hearing a single participant in an ongoing conversation. Those other participants range from major thinkers to long-forgotten journalists, and for those unfamiliar with these interlocutors and the relevant debates, the argument can be hard to follow.
The sometimes fragmentary form of the notes is not, however, merely the result of Gramsci's need to engage in debate and his concern with ideas as they are lived. There is also the problem of what he referred to as his "methodological scruples." He had to overcome enormous obstacles to achieve his education: poor schools with inadequate teachers in his impoverished homeland of Sardinia, a lack of family resources, and his own ill health. Thanks to hard work and extraordinary persistence, he eventually won a highly competitive, although far from lucrative, scholarship to Turin University. For several years in Turin, despite the extreme poverty to which his meagerly funded scholarship condemned him, he studied language and philology with ferocious intensity, before finally dropping out to become a full-time political activist and journalist. In later life, he would continue to hold scholarship to the highest standards, writing in one letter to Tatiana: "You must also keep in mind that the habit of rigorous philological discipline that I acquired during my university studies has given me perhaps an excessive supply of methodological scruples" (PLII, 52). In the notebooks he repeatedly stresses the provisional, unfinished character of his notes, writing, for instance, "These notes often consist of assertions that have not been verified, that may be called 'rough first drafts'; after further study, some of them may be discarded, and it might even be the case that the opposite of what they assert will be shown to be true" (PNIII, 231).
The conditions under which the prison notebooks were composed made scholarship worthy of the name impossible in their author's eyes. For such a dialogic thinker, access to books and periodicals was crucial, and yet before ordering any publication from his bookstore account he had to apply for permission to the prison authorities, permission that might well be denied. Moreover, as the official prison stamp to be found on each page of every notebook testifies, every word he wrote was subject to the oversight of the prison censors. Over the years the degree of censorship varied, but it was a constant presence, although, as Marcus Green argues, its role in shaping the notebooks has been much exaggerated (Green 2011a). His lack of access to adequate library resources was, for Gramsci, a far greater obstacle to serious scholarship. Earlier in the same letter in which he notes his "methodological scruples," he also explains: "One might say that right now I no longer have a true program of studies and work and of course this was bound to happen. I had set myself the aim of reflecting on a particular set of problems, but it was inevitable that at a certain stage these reflections would of necessity move into a phase of documentation and then to a phase of work and elaboration that requires great libraries" (PLII, 51–52).
Excerpted from Gramsci's Common Sense by Kate Crehan. Copyright © 2016 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
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Table of ContentsPreface ix
Part I. Subalternity, Intellectuals, and Common Sense
1. Subalternity 3
2. Intellectuals 18
3. Common Sense 43
4. What Subalterns Know 59
Part II. Case Studies
5. Adam Smith: A Bourgeois, Organic Intellectual? 81
6. The Common Sense of the Tea Party 118
7. Common Sense, Good Sense, and Occupy 146
Conclusion. Reading Gramsci in the Twenty-First Century 184
What People are Saying About This
"Kate Crehan brings into bold relief the 'rich and nuanced approach to inequality' Antonio Gramsci developed in his Prison Notebooks. This, in turn, permits her to provide new and powerful insights into popular movements such as the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street and to demonstrate how and why inequality is much more than an economic phenomenon. Scholars have often turned to Gramsci to better understand mechanisms of power; Crehan now turns to Gramsci to illuminate how the dynamics of popular opinion and the movements they spawn may pose a threat to the established political order."
"With conceptual precision and sophistication, Kate Crehan's examination of subalternity, intellectuals, and common sense brings into focus the complex ways in which class inequality manifests itself in social life and everyday practices. An essential text in Gramscian studies, Gramsci's Common Sense will generate transdisciplinary interest across the humanities and social sciences and is of particular interest to Gramsci specialists across the globe."