A New Priest: Notes on Gramsci’s Pre-Prison Writings. by Gerardo Muñoz

While reading the articles of the young Antonio Gramsci (penned from 1914 to 1920) it becomes evident that he was a keen observer of the historical and geopolitical reality of his time. Gramsci was a realist thinker but of a strange kind. The emphasis on “faith”, for instance, runs through the articles conforming a providential design of history. There are many “entities” that incarnate this providentialism: the Party, the transitional state, the proletarian culture, the organizational discipline, and the productionism of the working class. In fact, all of these subjects are vicarious and obedient to historical developmentalism. In a way, Gramsci appears as a “new Priest” (humanist, Hegelian, and providential) rather than a “new Prince” (Machiavellian, contigent, desicionist), which has become the gentle image through which he is remembered today. The 1914-1920 newspaper articles are filled with theological deposits, but I will limit these notes to three subdivisions, which do not exhaust other possible combinations.

  • The Party. The conception of the “Party” is understood by Gramsci in the same way that official authorities of the Church understood the providential mission; that is, as “the structure and platform” for salvation. But it is also a subjunctivizing apparatus that demands submission and supreme cohesion under a party-culture. For instance, in “Socialism and Culture” (1916) he writes: “Culture is something quite different. It is the organization, the discipling of one’s inner self; the mastery of one’s personality, the attainment of a higher awareness, through which come to understand our value and plea within history, our proper function in life, our rights and duties” (9-10). So, for Gramsci, it is through the energic investment with the Party that one “becomes master of oneself, assert one’s own identity, to enter from choke and become an agent of order, but of one’s own order, one’s own disciplined dedication to an ideal” (11). In the same way that official Church administered the “soul” through a regulatory exercise of “sin”; Gramsci’s conception of the Party is limited to an administration of “revolutionary energy” vis-à-vis discipline and sacrifice in the name of an objective ideal of “philosophy of history”.


  • Faith. The notion of faith in Gramsci is intimately intertwined with History. To have faith is to “transcend” the otherwise empty void of History. In this well-known theological conception, faith is the force to have true “objects of History”. The object here means two things: both the intention and “end” to carry forth the revolutionary process. But faith here is nothing like the “knight of faith” who stands beyond the ethical and universalist positions. On the contrary, faith is always a communal faith of believers, whose are the resilient militants of the communist idea. As Gramsci says clearly in “The Conquest of the State” (1919): “And it must be ensured that the men who are active in them are communist, aware of the revolutionary mission that their institution must fulfill. Otherwise all our enthusiasm and faith of the working classes will not be enough to prevent the revolution from degenerating wretchedly…” (114). Or as confirmed in “History” (1916): “Our religion becomes, once again, history. Our father becomes; one again, man’s will and his capacity for action” (14). We see the double movement produced by the apparatus of “faith”: it unifies under a command (the Party), but it also instantiates an objectification to cover the void of History. Indeed, “life without an end’ is a ‘life not worth living”, says Gramsci. This particular instrumentalization of faith legitimizes the struggle against the bourgeois cosmos.


  • Order. Throughout these articles the defense of order is quite explicit. It is in this point where Gramsci comes closer to upholding a political theology that transposes the principles of liberalism unto “socialism”. He writes in “Three Principles and Three Kinds of Political order” (1917): “And the socialist program is a concrete universal; it can be realized by the will. It is a principle of order, of socialist order” (25). There is never a substantive idea of “order”, in the same way that there is no clear “transformation” of the state once the state has been occupied and functional to “administrating”, “managerial”, “productive systematization”, “vertical planning’, and “coordinating functions” (“The Conquest of the State”, 113). Gramsci goes as far as to say that “the proletarian state is a process of development…a process of organization and propaganda” (114). And although he claims that it is not, the occupation of the state is a pure “thaumaturgic” act pushed by the community of believers. Isn’t someone like Álvaro García Linera today a faithful follower of this strategy?

So, in this early Gramsci I find a priest rather than a modern prince. A priest driven by a substantive and coordinated theological effort to establish a voluntarist and teleological dogma for historical change, which really does not differ much from the principles of modern Liberalism and its potestas indirecta. It is interesting that in the last issue (1977) of the mythical Italian journal L’erba Voglio, there is a small satirical portrait of Gramsci dressed as a bishop with pen in hand, which speaks to the theological garments of Gramscianism well into our days. But the problem is not theology; it is rather that it is a theology of submission organized around order, reproduction, and history as idols in the name of consented domination.

Finally, I could very well imagine that some could rebuttal these theological imprints by claiming that this is only early Gramsci, and that things change later on. I am not too sure about this. It seems that this heuristic claim is analogous to Kafka’s “Leopards in the Temple” parable. In other words, isolating an “early” from a “late” Gramsci becomes a general ceremony to save the philosopher in spite of himself. But this is a self-defeating maneuvering from the very start.



*Image source: from the magazine L’erba Voglio, N.30, 1977.

Pre-Prison Writings I (by Jon Beasley-Murray)

Cross-posted from Posthegemony.

Antonio Gramsci’s reputation on the Left, the academic Left at least, is surprisingly solid and enduring, especially when compared to other figures within Western Marxism (Lukács? Adorno? Althusser?) who may once have been much cited but who are now marginal tastes at best. Other names that have similarly withstood the vagaries of time and the fickleness of fashion are perhaps Walter Benjamin and Raymond Williams, and what Gramsci shares with them (Benjamin in particular) is the fact that his writing was quite varied and even fragmentary, permitting a wide range of interpretations and re-readings in different circumstances and for diverse purposes. Indeed, famously this is particularly the case for Gramsci: his most important and influential work by far is the Prison Notebooks, an unfinished textual labyrinth of historical investigation and political creativity produced under the extreme conditions of incarceration and fascist censorship, that was not published until after his death and has still not been fully translated into English. From this cauldron of often ambiguous and sometimes obscure enquiry, many Gramscis or Gramscianisms have subsequently been reconstructed, informing bodies of thought and activism as diverse as the Eurocommunism of the 1970s, Anglo-American Cultural Studies in the 1980s and 1990s, and more recently a “neo-Communism” that pledges, at times more convincingly than others, to employ philological tools to be more faithful to the supposedly systematic character of Gramsci’s original thought. But it is in the nature of the form in which that thought has come down to us that there is much room for dispute and divergence.

gramsci_pre-prison-writingsSome claim, especially in reaction to the version of Gramsci popular in Cultural Studies (for which a term such as “hegemony” can come to mean both everything and nothing), or to his “post-Marxist” appropriation by Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe, that turning to his pre-prison writings reveals the truer, more pragmatic and political, essence of an unadulterated Gramscianism. And no doubt Gramsci was at vastly more liberty to speak and write his mind before he was arrested and imprisoned by Mussolini’s police and judicial apparatus. Moreover, for the most part these comprise texts that were published, often in venues over which Gramsci had some measure of editorial control, and that as such appeared in something like finished form. It is here that we can read Gramsci the organizer and agitator, the Leninist Gramsci who threw his support behind both the Russian Revolution and the Turin Factory Council movement that sprung up in its wake.

Yet these early texts hardly resolve the Gramscian enigma. For one thing, it is evident that Gramsci’s restless mind was continually developing, experimenting, and trying out new ideas even (perhaps especially) once it was locked up in a prison cell. We have no reason to assume that he thought the same way about things in 1929 as he did in 1919. For another, this corpus is no less fragmentary than the Prison Notebooks, consisting as it does on the whole of short pieces written to a deadline on topical debates for the socialist press. If anything, prison gave Gramsci the freedom to work more consistently and coherently on the key concepts and underlying concerns that mattered to him. Finally, it is not as though censorship and, perhaps above all, self-censorship did not shape and constrain these articles that he knew would see the light of day, by contrast to the long labour of the notebooks that had no immediate audience. After all, throughout this period from 1914 to 1926, Gramsci was quite self-consciously (and unabashedly) engaged in a project of what he himself would call propaganda.

Take for instance Gramsci’s paean to the Bolshevik state, published as “The Price of History” in June 1919. Here he tells us that “The Russian communists are a first-class ruling elite. [. . .] Lenin has revealed himself as the greatest statesman of contemporary Europe [. . .] a man whose vast brain can dominate all those social energies, throughout the world, which can be turned to the benefit of the revolution” (92). Hence “the State formed by the Soviets has become the State of the entire Russian people” thanks to “the assiduous and never-ending work of propaganda, elucidation and education carried out by the exceptional men of the Russian Communist movement, directed by the lucid and unstoppable will of the master of them, Nikolai Lenin” (93-94). In short, “Russia is where history is; Russia is where life is” (95). Yet for all that this article manifests Gramsci’s undoubtedly heartfelt belief in the priority of state-building (“A revolution is a genuine revolution [. . .] only when it is embodied in some kind of State” [92]), one does not have to be an egregiously suspicious reader to wonder whether the hyperbole understandably directed to praise of the leaders of the first successful workers’ revolution might not extend also to the subsequent affirmation that “Society can only exist in the form of a State” (93). What, after all, has happened here to the Gramsci who is famously the champion of organizations of “civil” society, relatively autonomous from or even hostile to the state apparatus?

That other Gramsci, of what we might in shorthand call “society against the state” is indeed visible in these writings. Perhaps most interestingly, he can be found for example in a piece entitled “Socialism and Italy” in which he condemns “liberals, conservatives, clerics, radicals, republicans, nationalists, reformists” (27) as being, precisely, creatures of the state but not of society, or at least not of the Italian nation. Indeed, he offers here a hint of a counter-history of Italian nation formation, not as a process driven by Cavour and the Piedmontese bourgeoisie (who established a relationship to the Italian South that still remained, Gramsci repeats several times, “colonial”), but as the product of Italian socialism: over the course of what he calls a “plebeian Renaissance,” “Italy has become a political unity, because a part of its populace has united around an idea, a single programme. And socialism, socialism alone, was able to provide this idea and this programme” (28, 29). In other words, there is society despite the state, and in the face of the state’s resolute provincialism and particularism. This is “the history of the Italian people [that] has yet to be written–its secret, its spiritual history” (28). And maybe this is the history of the Russian people (and the Russian revolution) that also has yet to be written, even by Gramsci himself.

Again, none of this is to deny the strong statist tendency within Gramsci’s thought. There is no doubt at all that he saw the political objective of the working class movement in terms of the construction of (to borrow the title of the journal he co-founded in 1919) a “new order” premised on a new state guided by the Communist Party that he would also end up co-founding. As he put it even when he was, previously, a member of the Socialist Party of Italy, “The Party is a State in potentia, which is gradually maturing: a rival to the bourgeois State, which is seeking, through its daily struggle with this enemy, and through the development of its own internal dialectic, to create the organs it needs to overcome and absorb its opponent” (4). This is what will later be cast as the struggle for hegemony.

And yet there is also a tension here evident even in the thought of this early, manifestly Leninist, Gramsci. It is a tension perhaps best characterized in terms of two concepts that he continually employs that are both perhaps dissonant to our contemporary ears: “spirit” and “discipline.” As a party man, Gramsci is a great believer in discipline, which is a function of political leadership and education. Italians above all, he tells us in the few pieces that are dedicated to what we would now recognize as “culture” (articles on sport, for instance, and drugs), are a disorderly lot. Their preference for card games, for example, full of “shouting, fists slamming on the table and often in the faces of opponents,” reveals a country that is “backward economically, politically and spiritually” (73, 74). And yet it is precisely this spiritedness that indicates an alternative (and maybe posthegemonic) history, far from the rigidity and farcicalness of the state form. For sure, in Gramsci’s view, these “disorderly and chaotic energies must be given a permanent form and discipline” (97). But without them, without spirit, Italy is nothing.