Preliminary Reflections on Antonio Gramsci’s Pre-Prison Writings (p. 0-100) – Michael Portal

Preliminary Reflections on Antonio Gramsci’s Pre-Prison Writings (p. 0-100) – Michael Portal

Here are my preliminary thoughts and notes on the first 100 pages of Antonio Gramsci’s Pre-Prison Writings. My ignorance (in general, and of Gramsci in particular) means that I have, at the moment, little to contribute to our discussions. Still, I found the reading interesting and exciting – and I eagerly look forward to reading the reflections of others and learning from everyone in the coming days and months.

In my reading, I was struck by how Gramsci addressed the historical. Humanity, Gramsci suggests, is nothing but its history: “Man is primarily a creature of spirit – that is, a creation of history, rather than nature” (10). Elsewhere: “But society, like man himself, always remains an irreducible historical and ideal entity, which develops by continually contradicting itself and surpassing itself” (48). History exists to illuminate the world (we learn who we are as historical beings through our projects within history), but history does not predetermine our world: it is “a past which illuminates and does not overshadow us” (14).

Potentially in tension with this line, however, is Gramsci’s observation that we are intimately involved in crafting history (“History is a product of humanity”) and that history “is not a question of evolution, but of substitution of one thing for another: something which can only be done by a self-conscious and disciplined use of force” (78). For this, the Russian Revolution is exemplary: Russia is “where history is” because, in part, “the Russian Revolution had paid its dues to History” (95).

In the Italian context, as Gramsci hopes to demonstrate, history (or History?) means something particular. “Italian history,” he writes, is clearly distinct from “the history written in the history books” (30). Instead, “the greater, the richer history” remains unwritten and is present as a special “bond of solidarity” between the Italian people. Are these bonds contingent or eternal? Are they a “concrete universal”? (25)

What is interesting (or important) about these thoughts on history is how they allow us to rethink utopias and utopianism. For Gramsci, utopias are not ‘unreal’ in the traditional sense. Instead, they lack a history (they have “no foundation”) because they are founded “on an infinity of details, rather than a single moral principle” (20). History “in the true sense of the word” evades writing, of being restricted to some endless list of details (55). Merely recording information, producing encyclopedias, is not sufficient: “one will not be writing history” (56). Instead, we can (and must?) think of history as an event “entirely composed of practical activity (economic and moral).”

The turn towards practical activity might shed light on the supposed tension I isolated above – between our being both the products and producers of history. Practical activity, living daily life, sits bizarrely in historical writing. It does not contain high drama; it won’t sell books. But it is all that we have and are. Political mobility should, accordingly, be based on this (and our) reality.

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