To Live Is to Resist: The Life of Antonio Gramsci
Jean-Yves Frétigné, translated by Laura Marris
University of Chicago Press, $35 (cloth)
Is the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci, among the most noteworthy Communist activists and theorists of the last century, enjoying yet another cultural moment? His writing on social science and the correspondence of culture to power has had a significant impact in both academe and activism, but his work is increasingly spilling out to popular culture; throughout 2021 his name resounded through mainstream media, from the New York Times to the Wall Street Journal. “The old is dying and the new cannot be born,” a familiar quotation from Gramsci’s prison writings, turned up with eye-rolling frequency—in New York Magazine, Open Democracy, Los Angeles Review of Books, Foreign Affairs, New Statesman, the Nation, Jacobin (several times), Salon, and the New Yorker. Another motto, “pessimism of the intellect,” habitually attributed to Gramsci even though it was coined by French novelist Romain Rolland, was equally ubiquitous in print but also on tote bags and T-shirts. Is there something genuinely novel happening in all this Gramscimania?
For decades Gramsci has been a kind of Rorschach Marxist, a revolutionary for all seasons.
The new year adds to this mix the first biography of Gramsci by a French historian: Jean-Yves Frétigné’s To Live Is to Resist, translated by Laura Marris. Frétigné’s volume—a lucid, sober, and well-substantiated documentation and interpretation of Gramsci’s life and work—unquestionably stands apart from the shallowness of stan culture. Its meticulous mapping of the coordinates of historical events and Gramsci’s thought is in some respects more revealing and immersive than earlier studies. Frétigné may not radically advance the theoretical debates surrounding Gramsci’s work, but he certainly puts to rest some of the nonsense that has been alleged about the end of his life. (Theories have ranged from a death-bed religious conversion to committing suicide or being poisoned.) All the same, with the central aspects of Gramsci’s life amply chronicled by now, and in the absence of bombshell revelations, one could be forgiven for thinking the ground Frétigné covers is well enough worn.
Yet each generation may well need its own biography of Gramsci. I was introduced to Gramscian ideas—cultural hegemony, working-class education, Marxism as a “philosophy of praxis”—through John M. Cammett’s worthy study, Antonio Gramsci and the Origins of Italian Communism (1967). It was mainly of intellectual interest, the product of an older left focused on party history and without much of a portrait of the young, idealistic student who first emerged as something of a Sardinian rural nationalist and self-described provincial. Knowing someone’s political “positions,” such as they are, is not the same as knowing the person, the life behind the public persona. I developed a much keener impression of the man after reading Giuseppe Fiori’s Antonio Gramsci: Life of a Revolutionary, first published in 1965 but only translated in 1971. Fiori, with access to more primary sources, was richer in disclosures of Gramsci’s inner being and literary preoccupations. In any case, Gramsci cemented a reputation for oxygenating Marxist thought so long ago: Where do things stand now?
Gramsci was born in 1891 and died in 1937. A comprehensive history of his reception merits a book in itself, but a few salient stages can be outlined. It was only after World War II that the reputation of this Sardinian-born antifascist martyr, who died from illness arising from his eleven-year imprisonment by Benito Mussolini, was rejuvenated in his homeland. This posthumous notoriety came through a fractional publication of personal letters and prison writings orchestrated by the Communist Party of Italy (PCI). Troublingly, the aim of these bowdlerized selections was to manufacture a “usable past” consistent with the increasingly reformist policies of Gramsci’s one-time comrade, PCI General Secretary Palmiro Togliatti. The result was a domesticated Gramsci, one you could take home and introduce to your mother.
Decades later, following a wave of revolutionary fervor catalyzed by international youth radicalization in the 1960s, Gramsci’s reputation geographically expanded, as did his degree of celebrity. This enlargement was abetted by the unearthing of noteworthy new details of his intimate life and discerning of heretical political views. Some of the latter turned out to be expressly opposed to positions supported by Togliatti: a suppressed 1926 letter Gramsci wrote regarding the treatment of Leon Trotsky’s Left Opposition in the Soviet Union (Togliatti supported Stalin), and several testimonials from around 1930 of his rejection of the Communist International’s view of socialists as “social fascists.” These clarifying enhancements and corrections of the record kickstarted fresh scholarly appraisals, culminating in Gramsci’s dramatic metamorphosis from semi-reformist to full-throated revolutionary.
The stimulus for this transfiguration was the late 1960s, an era punctuated by the red flags of the May 1968 student-worker revolt in France. As we now know, that was no country for old Mensheviks, and Gramsci was befittingly repackaged by the nascent New Left to showcase his authentic revolutionary politics. This time around, he was reclaimed as an inspirational dissident Communist prior to the triumph of Stalinist orthodoxy, even though within the Bolshevik tradition. Meanwhile, the PCI was still busy working to further defang Gramsci’s Marxism; by this point he was recast as a forerunner of Eurocommunism, the beginning of the PCI’s shift to social democracy and its ultimate extinction. Then came Perry Anderson’s brilliant 1976 essay, “The Antinomies of Antonio Gramsci,” in New Left Review. Here was the definitive codification of the far left makeover of Gramsci in its time. Retaining significant authority to this day, the essay was recently rereleased in a book-length edition along with Anderson’s companion volume, The H-Word: The Peripeteia of Hegemony (2017)—“hegemony,” of course, referring to group domination bulwarked by legitimating ideas and norms.
“I hate the indifferent,” Gramsci wrote. “I believe that living means taking sides.”
The decline of militant socialism in the 1980s and 1990s, however, brought a tug of war as divergent conclusions continued to be drawn from a similar body of material, albeit one that was unfinished and famously coded in “Aesopian” language to evade prison censors. As historian Geoff Eley observed in a 1984 survey, “Everyone, it seems, has their own Gramsci,” but by the end of the decade and during the next, two approaches predominated. On the one side were those still holding to an Anderson-like Leninist framework; they contended that the vexing matter of political force, being required to transform state power and the concentrated wealth of capital, was central to Gramsci’s thought. On the other side were novel varieties of cultural Marxists; they sought to detach or at least give overwhelming weight to Gramsci’s argument for a “war of position,” a complex form of protracted persuasion aimed at holding ground, and his quest for a “counter-hegemony,” best understood as the denaturalization of dominant ideological assumptions.
These latter tendencies—to abstract cultural and ideological work from party organization and class battles—sometimes echoed the Eurocommunists (who found influence beyond Italy) in a drift toward gradualist reform. At other times, they gave the impression of equating the activity of “organic intellectuals”—Gramsci’s term for those who articulate the feelings of a new class—with the production of criticism for professional journals. Both were the slant of a university-based post-Marxism, often immersed in the discourse theory of Argentinian Ernesto Laclau and Belgian Chantal Mouffe. Such understandings were ostensibly authorized by the rise of new social movements along axes supplanting classical models of class struggle; fresh and exciting action groups, often middle class and local, concentrated on gender or the environment.
Toward century’s end, a small academic industry was at also at work, engaging a truly global audience. In England, associates of Stuart Hall at the University of Birmingham’s Contemporary Centre for Cultural Studies extended Gramscian thought to race and racism. Their aim was to promote a counter-hegemony from below against the moralism that Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan used as a cover to gain consent to privatization and deregulation. In tandem, archival-based scholars such as Notre Dame’s Joseph Buttigieg—father of former U.S. presidential candidate and now Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg—provided augmented and corrected versions of Gramsci’s personal correspondence, pre-incarceration political works, re-organized and annotated prison notebooks (formerly assembled thematically, not chronologically), and hitherto hidden biographical episodes.
In the early twenty-first century, one found Gramscians on several continents producing original research in relation to political ecology, globalization, post-colonialism, education, and space. Then arrived The Gramscian Moment (2009), Peter D. Thomas’s large-scale effort to provide a philologically accurate reading—a tome that also went mano a mano with both Anderson and French Marxist Louis Althusser on many fine points of interpretation. Now, at the end of the second decade of the new millennium, is there something truly distinctive and novel afoot?
Not in a precise way that I can see. The latest burst of Gramsci references and publications in the United States is the product of an overlapping web of factors: the movement of the ethnonationalist far right from margin to center, the establishment of a serious democratic socialist foothold as a current in the Democratic Party, and a revitalized investigation of history and culture inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement. Yet one also doesn’t have to look too closely to see that some of the citations of Gramsci’s name in journalism serve to bloat an alleged expertise in order to hawk one’s wares—selecting a phrase from Gramsci to give one’s preferred ideas the cachet of sophistication or insider knowledge. On occasion Gramsci’s name is gratuitously summoned simply to gussy up an unexciting truism about the politics of culture.
After all, since World War II Gramsci has never really followed the familiar pattern of obscurity and rediscovery. It was long ago that posterity began compensating steadily for the original slight of Gramsci’s achievement, and at present his magisterial synthesis of historical materialist thought with diverse classical and contemporary thinkers is world renowned. What further can be done to fortify his authority? Probably cited more than any other Italian intellectual, he is not merely part of the socialist pantheon but accepted in the canon of world culture with an interdisciplinary heft comparable to Marx himself. Politically, even as research into the former Soviet Union persists in discrediting the Stalinist experience, the appeal of Gramsci’s Marxism over the past five decades has not been diminished one whit. Whatever debates have roiled the younger left since over the last decade and a half, Gramsci has resisted any lapse into a spectral position, in contrast to regrettable decline of attentiveness to other Marxist icons such as Raymond Williams.
Gramsci’s message of radical possibility—a launching pad and not a road map to social transformation—issues no easy prescriptions.
Perhaps the most novel development affecting his reputation, since the turn of the century, is the tenacity with which reactionary polemicists have been pumping the zeitgeist full of attacks on what they call “cultural Marxism.” There are now enough book-length works to constitute a genre, most featuring confrontational (and often wild-ass) titles like Islamic Jihad, Cultural Marxism and The Transformation of The West (2016), The Red Trojan Horse: A Concise Analysis of Cultural Marxism (2017), The Tentacles of Cultural Marxism (2020), and American Crisis: Cultural Marxism and The Culture War: A Christian Response (2020). The most recent, Mark R. Levin’s best-selling American Marxism (2021), sounds more sedate but extends the same scare tactics. While the emotionally potent simplifications of this campaign against cultural Marxism originally focused on Jewish Marxists of the Frankfurt School, it is now the name of Gramsci who frequently tops the list as the Great Satan of academic wokeness.
In recent months, the focus of the right started turning to a bogus version of critical race theory (CRT) in which Gramsci became the prime candidate for the avatar of evil alongside running mates Derrick Bell and Kimberlé Crenshaw. From the pages of the Wall Street Journal to loose cannons firing all over the Internet, the anti-radical pundits of Trumpistan are a channel playing all Gramsci, all the time. Needless to say, it is a rendition scrupulously drained of complexity. A composite summary of their complaint reads as follows: the unrepentant Communist with the famously small body and big hair advocated undermining the pillars of decent society in the interests of “flipping hegemony from alleged oppressor to the oppressed” (The Times and Democrat); he believed that “societal norms and institutions, such as family, nation state, capitalism, and God, needed to be torn down” (The Discovery Institute, offshoot of the Hudson Institute); and this was all to create a situation where “the revolutionary vanguard would teach the workers how to think” (The Heritage Foundation).
Yet this caricature exemplifies precisely the kind of mechanical thinking that Gramsci set out to demolish in his Prison Notebooks, which most scholars read today as a triumph of humanistic reflection pledged to creating a domination-free international order. Wasn’t one point of his analysis of the Neapolitan Revolution of 1799 to argue that efforts to impose principles on a population from the outside are doomed to failure? Didn’t he renovate Lenin’s concept of hegemony by advancing the moral and intellectual along with the political in the quest to achieve truly democratic institutions? Something of a cultural anthropologist by training, Gramsci was less interested in telling people the opinions they should hold than in finding out what they believed and why.
From the left, the recent cascade of writing about Gramsci has been more restrained and scholarly, but often highly specialized. In 2021 English-language titles of new books include Gramsci and Media Literacy: Critically Thinking about TV and the Movies, Hegemony and Class Struggle: Trotsky, Gramsci and Marxism, Subaltern Social Groups: A Critical Edition of Prison Notebook 25, and Gramsci’s Plan: Kant and the Enlightenment 1500 to 1800. Briefer articles about the practical meaning of Gramsci in our own time have appeared in Jacobin, and there is a substantial recent essay by Michael Denning in New Left Review viewing Gramsci as a “theorist of organizing.” This last, drawn from a lecture given in the United States and abroad in recent years, is noteworthy as a bid to reconsider Gramsci’s conception of politics in the era of radical activism inspired by Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Denning wonders: “Is there a future for Gramsci’s legacy?” If the right seeks to weaponize a surface caricature of Gramsci through a shallow assembly of anti-Communist clichés, the left oscillates between recondite scholarly pursuits and its own bid to adduce ongoing relevancy.
Auspiciously, Frétigné’s volume manages to assume a distinctive place even among the upper echelon of the most sober writings on Gramsci. It is exemplary for tracing the development of ideas against the backdrop of a life, preferring to plumb the depths of the uncertain and enigmatic rather than taking the easy way out. The title, To Live Is to Resist, might be heard as hagiography, but it is a compelling and appropriate condensation of the entire story, which is messier and more complicated than the simplified public image of a valiant victim. While there is much evidence of Gramsci’s unflagging spirit even into his early prison years, it is painful to read his anguish over the effects of separation on his marriage, suspicions about betrayals by his comrades, and petty resentments at mistakes or misunderstandings by his sister-in-law and others. This Gramsci does not always come across as likable, let alone lovable.
The perplexing foreword by Nadia Urbinati is bound to raise several misgivings from those already familiar with the basics of Gramsci’s political history. Despite her valuable observations about Gramsci’s reading and a welcome insistence that we must understand the world that Gramsci inhabited by “reconstructing the political history of the first half of the twentieth century,” Urbinati divests him of any connection to Communism or the Russian Revolution! Only once does she come close to the subject when she notes that “he used Leninist language” in discussing the role of the party as an organizational form. Distancing him further from the far left, she treats his concept of “hegemony” in the narrowest possible way, glossing it as “consensus and adhesion, without the use of explicit and direct coercive practices.” Inasmuch as so many Gramsci scholars hold that Gramsci’s notion of hegemony is a complement to compulsion—that consent and forceful domination are always interrelated—the best that might be said for this gloss is that it is a highly partisan interpretation. Anderson and Thomas, at odds about numerous other issues, agree on that point: Gramsci was not naïve about what it would ultimately take to activate a transformation of the economy and the state, nor about the ferocity with which these would be defended.
Gramsci was less interested in telling people the opinions they should hold than in finding out what they believed and why.
Urbinati also botches an elementary biographical matter, maintaining that Gramsci “was born hunch-backed, and almost a dwarf.” A notable virtue of Frétigné’s research is abundant and painstaking detail about the history of Gramsci’s physical ailments, too often simplified. He clearly corrects these misconceptions: “until he was eighteen months old, Antonio . . . was in excellent health.” At that point a mysterious blister appeared on his spine, which his mother believed was caused by a fall. A diagnosis years later revealed that it was Pott’s Disease, a tuberculosis of the spine cause by bacteria. Over the decades Antonio did become increasingly hunchbacked, but at age eighteen he was still able to wear clothes that masked the deformity.
Cancelling out the domesticating foreword, Frétigné makes clear that to tell Gramsci’s life story is to narrate the making of a “professional revolutionary,” unambiguously in a “Bolshevik” mold (however fluid this movement was in the 1920s and early 1930s). The five parts of To Live Is to Resist track a meticulous chronology that considers the first twenty-four years of Gramsci’s existence, first in Sardinia and then as a poor student in Turin. These initial chapters establish his cultural grounding in the Southern region that would leave an indelible imprint on his thinking; the treatment of urban life on the mainland provides freshly detailed information about Gramsci’s teachers and activities. This is followed by a step-by-step tracing of Gramsci’s career as a socialist journalist, including his founding of L’Ordine Nuovo (The New Order) in 1919 and his association with the factory occupation in Turin that year. In 1922 he departed for Moscow to represent in the leading bodies of the Third International the new Communist party that he had helped to found.
The totality of these experiences transformed Gramsci from a provincial into an Italian citizen and finally a citizen of the world. Along the way he managed to digest a considerable number of massive and challenging books. It was also in these years that he consolidated critical relationships with early Communist figures such as Amadeo Bordiga, Angelo Tasca, and Palmiro Togliatti, made his debut as a socialist writer with an unfortunate exoneration of Mussolini’s “neutralist” view of World War I in October 1914, and achieved his first mark as a revolutionary theoretician with a quasi-idealist defense of the October Revolution called “The Revolution against Capital” in December 1917. Frétigné shows that Gramsci was quite capable of taking political positions he came to regret, including the embrace of a short-sighted interpretation of Woodrow Wilson’s policies and later an underestimation of fascism’s strength. Throughout this account Frétigné offers corrections to the earlier biographical record, observing, for example, that Togliatti’s writing on Gramsci invented an early influence by the pioneer Italian Marxist Antonio Labriola, and that the distance between Gramsci and idealist historian-philosopher Benedetto Croce was much greater than some scholars have claimed.
Frétigné also notes that Gramsci’s political development was forged in a series of conflicts between reformists and revolutionaries—and that Gramsci, through a sequence of shifting alliances, would take his stand with the latter, albeit eschewing what he regarded as ultraleft illusions about a rapid political turnaround in the country. As Frétigné observes of Gramsci’s deepening organizational work, such commitments transformed him “in the space of a few months from a marginal original Socialist journalist into a militant Communist and major player in the dramas of his new party and those of the Third International more broadly.” Gramsci evolved toward Leninism even before he evolved toward Marxism, and his intellectual references always included thinkers entirely outside strictly Marxist terrain. He saw the pattern of the Russian Revolution, especially the swift fight with the feudalist-capitalist state in a “war of maneuver,” as inappropriate to the institutions of the West; in his estimation, a “war of position” would take precedence there until moments of rupture when opportunities for more dramatic action presented themselves. Yet he also appropriated from 1917 a new conception of order, life, and ethics, one that gave the subject a more decisive role.
The next four years treated in the book cover his service for the Communist International in Moscow and Vienna. During this time, he met and married violinist Giulia Schucht, a Bolshevik from a pro-Communist family, then relocated to Rome. He was now a leader of the Communist Party, with a membership of around 25,000, and a deputy in parliament. In this narrative, Frétigné, whose main contribution lies in fact-based and not theoretical matters, makes explicit what mystified biographer Giuseppe Fiori about the complicated relationship of Gramsci to Eugenia Schucht, the older sister of Giulia. The hostility that emerged toward Gramsci, and then later translated into Eugenia’s possessive obsession with Gramsci’s first son, Delio, was linked to their brief failed romance that preceded Gramsci’s attraction to her younger sister, Giulia.
What is more, Frétigné conjectures that Gramsci and Giulia were not technically married in 1923; a document to that effect was perhaps forged later to allow Tatania Schucht, the oldest of the three sisters, to present herself as Gramsci’s sister-in-law when she came to Italy to support him during his imprisonment. Frétigné occasionally, and effectively, breaks chronological narrative in order to follow through and clarify such matters. Moreover, he has no use for conspiracy theorists who claim that one or several of the sisters were spying on Gramsci for the Soviet secret police (the GPU). Giulia, he notes, was employed by the GPU for a period, but only as a translator.
Gramsci was not naïve about what it would take to transform the economy and the state, nor about the ferocity with which these would be defended.
The final section of the book treats Gramsci as a prisoner, writer, and political thinker from his arrest in late 1926 until his death. Frétigné’s discussion of Gramsci’s prison writings, treated today as a near-sacred text, is sketchy. On the other hand, Frétigné reminds us of guiding principles for interpreting the Prison Notebooks, including the need to understand Gramsci’s “Aesopian Language” in which the phrase “philosophy of praxis” was more than just a cipher for Marxism. The notion pointed instead to a new kind of Marxism that Gramsci was developing, one free of the determinism he saw in thinkers such as Nikolai Bukharin and enriched by ethical ideas adapted from classics. Likewise, what he called “The Modern Prince” (inspired by Niccolò Machiavelli’s sixteenth century political treatise), was not to be the PCI of old but a communist party of a new type, especially through the concept of an insurrection based on workers councils led by a collective leadership infused with an anti-determinist and anti-economist sensibility. Other familiar matters are briefly spelled out such as Gramsci’s differences with the Comintern on the nature of fascism (especially its durability), and his acceptance of nationalism as the framework of struggle—which placed him, if only in a formal sense, closer to Stalin’s “socialism in one country” than Trotsky’s internationalism and “permanent revolution.”
The book ends with a twenty-page epilogue in two parts. The first considers the horrors of Gramsci’s illness as his incurable tuberculosis accelerated and was joined by arteriosclerosis, uricemia, peritonitis, nervous exhaustion, and more. Then Frétigné takes up Gramsci’s final actions, clarifying the details of his release from prison shortly before his death. Contrary to the impression given in other narratives, Gramsci did, in the very end, capitulate to the demand that he personally request freedom from Mussolini, and he accepted the dictator’s codicil to refrain from political activity. As Frétigné notes:
“This declaration should not be interpretated as an act of cowardice, but rather as the gesture of a very sick man, whose nerves were exhausted . . . not the martyr to Fascism that the Communist and non-Communist hagiographers of the postwar era made him out to be—so heroic that he was no longer human.”
Frétigné also asserts, perhaps more controversially, that Gramsci was by this time “distanced from his political family after losing his faith in it” and goes on to speculate that his plan to return to Sardinia for recuperation meant a genuine detachment from the official Communist movement. Frétigné acknowledges that a letter was sent by Gramsci to his long-time friend, Piero Saffra, an Italian Marxist economist at Cambridge University close to the PCI, suggesting that Sardinia could be a steppingstone to escaping Italy. Nonetheless, Frétigné endorses another Gramsci scholar, Franco Lo Piparo, who argues that this assertion was intended to reduce the pressure placed on Gramsci by Saffra and the PCI to sign a request for his expatriation to the Soviet Union. At the end, the fatally ill Gramsci was stuck in a cruel limbo.
Another contentious area to which Frétigné devotes considerable space is the infamous “Grieco” letter. In 1928 Italian Communist Ruggero Grieco, in exile in Switzerland, sent a letter via Moscow to Gramsci, who was in prison awaiting trial. It contained sentences suggesting Gramsci’s ongoing importance to the PCI and its devotion to him. These particular words were not contained in two nearly identical letters sent by the same Grieco to other prisoners, and Gramsci reported that a judge (to whom the communication was shown) commented on their having a damaging impact on Gramsci’s case because they showed that he was indeed a major threat. Over the next five years, in complaints to his sister-in-law, Communist brother Gennaro Gramsci, and others, Gramsci expressed a suspicion that this damaging wording had been an intentional act aimed at keeping him imprisoned due to his dissident views in the Third International; at one point he even suggested that Giulia may have played a part.
Recognizing that parsing the meaning of the Grieco letter is a highly contested subject in Gramsci scholarship, Frétigné acknowledges the three most common explanations: Gramsci was hoodwinked into paranoia by the judge’s interpretation; the wording in the letter was indeed damaging but a foolish mistake; or the inclusion of the statement was carried out intentionally by the PCI to keep Gramsci from returning to a role in the movement. Frétigné adds in an observation of his own—that a diplomatic exchange of prisoners held by Mussolini with Catholic priests held captive in the Soviet Union was at that time being negotiated by the Soviet Union and Italy, with the condition that the PCI not be directly involved. This element tends to reinforce the interpretation that the Moscow letter aimed to compromise Gramsci as a potential candidate in a hostage swap by explicitly making his freedom a project of the PCI. Togliatti himself would have signed off on the letter, motivated by a desire to keep Gramsci and his known heretical politics in isolation from the movement.
Frétigné’s multisided discussion of the Grieco letter exemplifies his commendable refusal to tell conclusive truths about a complicated life. In many cases Frétigné willingly acknowledges what he cannot truly know. This is not to say the biography lacks a perspective. While he waves no political flags that I can see, a good deal of the original argumentation in this book is devoted to the theme of Gramsci’s adherence to a vision of communism in the process of being destroyed by the actually existing Communist International under Stalin. This is plainly stated in Frétigné’s characterization the 1926 rift between Gramsci and Togliatti over the treatment of the Left Opposition at the end of Part III: “This epistolary exchange and this last accusation”—bureaucratism—“clearly carry considerable historic weight, going so far as to outline two conceptions of communism, one that would be that of Soviet orthodoxy, the other a freer one, which would find its full measure in the Prison Notebooks.”
The legacy of the Old Left, the New Left, and the social movements of the last forty years are a heritage to be critically assessed rather than dismissed.
Expounding a communism of this variety will always be a tough sell for readers in the United States; we have too long been conditioned to think in terms of a rigid binary between Communism and anti-Communism. The many varieties of heretical communism and Bolshevism of the 1920s and 1930s have mostly been occluded by Cold War ideology. All the same, whatever Gramsci’s earlier infatuation with the Third International’s “Bolshevization,” his prison writings show him striving to envision a party of social revolution that was to be a laboratory for the experimentation of democratic political practice—a venture that can be contrasted with self-proclaimed Leninists who saw themselves as bearers of the “correct program,” aiming to radiate out and preach it to the working class.
One might think—I did, before reading this book—that the challenge of understanding Gramsci for our time is that the complexities of his political life and opacities of his written work lend themselves to appropriation by far too many diverse political schemes. For the left, his attraction is overwhelming: What young radicals (or gray-haired ones, for that matter) can resist the twenty-six-year-old Gramsci’s cry against “indifference” in the 1917 recruiting pamphlet of the Socialist Youth Federation? “I hate the indifferent,” he wrote. “I believe that living means taking sides. Those who really live cannot help being a citizen and a partisan. Indifference and apathy are parasitism, perversion, not life. That is why I hate the indifferent.” It is hardly shocking that for decades political partisans have hastened to wedge him into prefabricated frameworks, including reform socialism, orthodox Leninism, cultural studies, post-Marxism, radical democracy, and even, in perverse fashion, the disingenuous tropes of the right-wing culture warriors. Gramsci was a kind of Rorschach Marxist, a revolutionary for all seasons, who could satisfy a reader’s need for drama, martyrdom, inspired heterodoxy, adulation, and even demonization.
After studying To Live Is to Resist, though, I am inclined to see Gramsci differently: as an inconvenient Marxist who truly doesn’t fit any of our received frameworks. Gramsci’s gift to twenty-first century socialism may be the inverse of “relevance” in the frivolous sense of dictating what to do next or confirming what politically aligned activists already believe is the line of march. It can be found instead in the inventive, resourceful, and openhearted outlook that animates his fashioning of an incomparably expansive version of Marxism. Intellectually, he was a sort of Fredric Jameson avant la lettre who judiciously admitted the finest of all thought into an historical materialist Weltanschauung, except that all this was done by a genuine leader of a large Communist Party who also focused on practical interventions in many layers of society.
Gramsci’s message of radical possibility—a launching pad and not a road map to social transformation—issues no tidy conclusions, no easy prescriptions, about exactly what is to be done, as Lenin asked in 1901 and many are once again asking today. Only engagement in hands-on, bottom-up activism can produce the paradigm shift we need to reconfigure the lattice of struggles brought into focus by the twenty-first century. Thinking as a Gramscian, our perspectives must be sharpened in the building of democratically organized social movements rooted in communities, factories, and workplaces—including in rural areas too often written off as hopelessly lost to Fox News. That we teeter on the brink of a climate catastrophe surely calls for some form of internationalist collective self-consciousness. Simultaneously we are confronted by white supremacist armed vigilantes who have come out of the shadows, often with police and military ties, fanned by a social media campaign Father Coughlin would envy. And all this unfolds amidst a new stage of rapacious late-stage capitalism, with ever deepening inequality and insecurity.
Those on the socialist left must take the lead in urgently conducting the search for a unifying vision of racial and gender equality, ecosocialist values, and working-class and internationalist solidarity with every ounce of imagination and conviction we can muster. We cannot look to anyone else for salvation but are obliged to mobilize en masse against the growing tide of nationalist and masculinist hate. What this means in practical terms for the new generation that wants to change the world is now under debate in dozens of fairly recent small journals, some with vaguely menacing names like Tempest, Rampant, and Spectre, that are joining the more established venues; in hundreds of Zoom discussions sponsored by Left Forum, Haymarket, and Historical Materialism; and, hopefully, with the end of the pandemic, in thousands of face-to-face meetings and debates in union halls, churches, and on campuses.
A strategy for socialism is a life’s work and must be puzzled out again and again.
False dawns have been all too frequent. Five decades ago, I was trained by my Marxist elders for an era when mass popular upheavals would generate forms of working-class dual power. That version of Gramsci’s “war of maneuver” is scarcely a certainty at this point; and if does lie ahead even now, it may be at a great distance entailing unimagined dangerous obstacles for which every thinking activist must be prepared. Much in the world has transformed, and we can’t operate like lost time travelers strolling through a reality that no longer exists. The question at stake in 2022 is not whether to change, but how to make change—not only for the system but in our lives.
Conversely, to push a reset button should not mean to proclaim that history begins today. Where necessary it may be useful to retie some of the broken threads of the past. The legacy of the Old Left, the New Left, and the social movements of the last forty years are a heritage to be critically assessed rather than dismissed. Volumes such as Haymarket’s indispensable Revolutionary Rehearsals (2008) and Revolutionary Rehearsals in the Neoliberal Age (2021), case studies in our search for emancipatory politics, are a first-rate starting point. As we learn from Frétigné’s biography of Gramsci—in his progression from Sardinian identity politics to the Second International to Third International Communism to dissident revolutionary Marxism—a strategy for socialism is a life’s work and must be puzzled out again and again. The gift of Gramsci matters, but a liberatory future is on us.
Boston Review, April 4, 2022