Some notes on pages 101-202 of Antonio Gramsci’s Pre-Prison Writings, (1919-1920)

There are four themes that jumped out at me in this block of writings covering the years 1919-1920: (1) the debate with and against anarchism; (2) the characterization of the future post-revolutionary state as a strong, military, ethical organism understood on cybernetic principles; (3) the factory council as the model of its social organization; and (4) The connection between communism and early Christianity.
The four themes articulate different aspects of one underlying problem: the determination of which shape the future stage (and final) state of humankind will (necessarily) take once humankind’s evolution is (Hegel-like) understood as the progressive and incremental realization of freedom.
AG’s answer is that the future social organization will provide, like the societies of
early Christians did for the Roman slaves, the means to realize everyone’s freedom by turning everyone into a self-conscious element of the state understood as a productive machine ruled by a tree-like structure of councils at top of which sits the communist party. As a consequence, the anarchists’ rejection of the state must be fought tooth and nail and understood as a liberal regression to a pre-modern tradition, while—similarly, and for the same reasons—the dissenters who refuse to accept their role in the cybernetic future organism must be dealt with military means.
The great merit of AG’s view is undoubtedly its consistency. While we could read it as a document of the particular socio-political conjunction he was working in, it could also be deployed as a theoretical blueprint opening up to its possible alternatives. Certainly (and obviously) each single element in this argument for the future of humankind represents a theoretical choice that could lead in different directions. Moreover, and perhaps most importantly, it also shows how some configurations that could be obtained through sheer combinatorics are actually inconsistent.
A proper articulation of AG’s overall argument ion terms of such elementary choices and its logically and historically possible alternatives is way beyond the scope of these notes, although it may be a useful, perhaps even a necessary step toward the articulation of a framework within which to locate the contemporary relevance of Marxism, —at least it would be for me. It may even become my concrete goal for the overall reading of Gramsci we are attempting. At this preliminary stage, I am simply going to list a series of statements that sum up some of the alternative choices. They are most likely not the “elementary” statements I mentioned, the basic steps in the overall Gramscian/Marxist view—further analysis is certainly needed. At this point, they will only work as reminders and signposts: each statement must be understood as a question admitting multiple answers.


  1. Freedom is the ultimate existential goal (or rather, to be clearer: existentive/existentiell goal, in Heideggerian language)
  2. Existential (-ive/-ell) freedom starts (phenomenologically speaking: “for itself”) and ends (“in itself”) from self-consciousness: it starts from an barely articulated yearning (“know thyself”) and ends in full, and fully realized, i.e. concrete self-consciousness
  3. Society is the locus of human freedom: both its condition of possibility and the arena of its deployment.
  4. Society’s overall goal is the production of goods.
  5. Freedom in the social context (the only possible context) is the self-conscious appropriation of one’s own role
  6. The (“scientific”, i.e. cybernetic) organization of production by the producers is the only possible social organization enabling human freedom.
  7. The state is the institutional realization of the the productive, self-conscious society of producers.
  8. The state’s must defend itself (that is, it must defend the productive society of producers it realizes) against external enemies and especially against the internal enemies with military means.
  9. The internal enemies are the dissenters who refuse to accept their role within the cybernetic society, thereby refusing to be free


These nine statements are meant to be just a very provisional recognized of a systematically organized view that will keep me busy for a while as we proceed through the text. As it stands, however, I wonder if it may help organize some of the discussions we had already. In particular, I would see some strong connections between the very first one and the points Alberto has made with reference to B. Stiegler and the Anthropocene debate. Personally, I am most concerned wth the theses about society, work, and production (4 and 5, that is). The whole contention with and against anarchism is contained with those two, it seems to me. The statement about self-consciousness is fertile ground for alternatives as well, obviously, but the question is whether its rejection can be accommodated with the others.
More work, is needed, no doubts about it…

Notes on Gramsci’s Pre-Prison Writings, 1-100


Of biological organisms, bourgeois citizens, and ethical comrades

I found a lot to be scared about in these first 100 pages—as I’m sure others will have. The insistence on the organic character of social life, the biological metaphors about the communal body, the aggregating molecules escaping bourgeois society to form higher-level compounds, and so on and so forth, these are all metaphors worth thinking about, especially in these years, especially after identity politics has become a norm, and especially after the symmetrical backlash that politics has generated—the politics we, or rather people with a stronger stomach than mine, endure every day at 6:00 pm. We may discuss these scary metaphors, but I am not sure we would find a lot to say—I am not sure *I*, at least would find much to say beyond marveling at I once deemed necessary to fight them, at how I thought urgent to reject the hold they seemed to exert.

Of cocaine, moral fiber, and redemption

I find Gramsci’s reflection on cocaine more interesting—perhaps, because they may offer an alternative path through the organicist bric-à-brac that avoids falling off the cliffs of nostalgic reminiscences marking little more than age. There are two passages I have in mind, both from p. 71. Gramsci is commenting about the drug users in Turin and Bologna who will walk free since cocaine consumption is not a crime. They’ll walk away as they should, innocent as they are of actions that are the necessary consequence of bourgeois society, he claims:

“It is quite natural that this kind of putrid scum will be produced: people without ends, without morals, without history. […] Pure animality, the pleasures of the senses, the mechanical action of nerve and muscle. […] I am amazed that so *few* slip down the slope of destructive pleasures.”

The explicit dualism underwriting this statement is remarkable in itself, even though it is not completely clear at which level it is pitched. Ontological, à la Kojève? Or is it purely axiological, à la Kant? But perhaps even more interesting is that last phrase, “destructive pleasures.” (I wish I could find the Italian, btw, but this piece is not included in the publicly available selection of his writings). It is easy to let your eyes skim over a trite clause used and abused when talking of drugs. But let us think about it for a second. Are the pleasures destructive because it is cocaine that triggers them, or are they destructive because they are pleasant? It seems pretty obvious to me that the latter interpretation is much better, otherwise the previous line about pure animality would make no sense. And what is the remedy to these dangerous pleasures whose looming destruction should have felled many more than it did?

“Work is the only thing that confers moral impulses: it is the crucible in which the spiritual essences that can give a meaning to our lives are volatized” [1]

Really, Antonio? I would be tempted to gloss. Really, in 1918, right at the end of the most destructive war in the history of Europe, right in the middle of famine, poverty, and overall sorrow you are extolling redemption through work? Would not have been more courageous, more daring, more in tune with the spirit of the times whose necessary path we are claiming to follow to praise pleasure against work? Shouldn’t the revolution abolish work—and not just meaningless work, but work altogether, as even Marx claimed? (Not always and not very consistently, to tell the truth, but he still claimed it). Should not that be the promise, the great ideal that wold override the petty details of the misguided utopian thinkers?

What if the road across the swamp of the organic society would only go through pleasure—the pleasure of the senses and the mechanical action of nerves and muscle,” as it were? What if it is cocaine that may redeem us from work?

That is a question I think we will want to discuss, or at least keep in mind throughout this Gramscian journey we just started.

[1] The translation here makes little sense and the crucible metaphor, as written, goes obviously against Gramsci’s meaning. I think he must have written something like “l’essenza spirituale si cristallizza” o “si distilla.” It certainly does not evaporate…