Antonio Gramsci: Heroic Intellectual (With A Biscuit Wrapper)

BY JACQUI KINGHAN

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Antonio Gramsci’s greatest work was written on little fragments of biscuit wrapper. Jailed by the Italian Fascist regime in 1926, his words were smuggled out of prison by his sister. Gramsci died shortly after his release but he has since become a potent symbol of the heroic intellectual. His biscuit wrapper scribbles are now in the collective form of “The Prison Notebooks” – the focus of one of this semester’s Book Trouble events.

Sharing his own experience of Gramsci’s work was Partha Chatterjee, a Professor of Anthropology at Columbia University and Director of the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Calcutta. Chatterjee is distinguished for his theoretical studies of post- colonialism and presented valuable insights for Book Trouble participants coming from a broad range of disciplines including Law, Social Anthropology and Middle Eastern studies.

Chatterjee pointed out that the covert biscuit wrapper nature of Gramsci’s work played a unique role in shaping its future. His book amounts to a coded discussion where Marxist philosophy is described as the “philosophy of praxis” with “subaltern” disguising the “proletariat” and “elite” the bourgeoisie. These new terms have opened avenues for fresh ways of thinking about power relationships in other contexts and places in history.

Gramsci’s work on Italian history and civil society has been extremely influential on Chatterjee and his contemporaries. One key concept is that of the passive revolution which, in contrast to the classic French Revolution, contains an element of restoration. In the passive revolution, transformations take place not as a result of one massive overthrowing of power, but in “molecular form” where elements of the old are found in the new. Critically, where new states are formed in the name of the popular classes, such classes are subsequently demobilized within the new state structure. The two sides, elite and subaltern, “bleed each other mutually.”

The passive revolution provides a vital analytical framework for Chatterjee to look at state politics in post-colonial societies and the influence of state led modernization. The framework might, for example, allow us to deconstruct what it really means for peasant societies to adopt the technology and practices of the modern state.

Do peasants then become bourgeois citizens? Chatterjee’s work points to the contradictions of the post-colonial model and the continuing difference between ruler and ruled. As a founding member of the Subaltern Studies Group, Chatterjee encourages listening and utilizing the voices of peasants, tribal peoples and those outside centres of power in the interpretation of colonial history.

Another key component in ‘Prison Notebooks’ is the idea of the “organic intellectual.” Gramsci urges the popular classes to seize control by developing their own coherent culture. In Gramsci’s world, everyone is a philosopher. Traditional knowledge is brought “into crisis” by renovating and criticizing existing thoughts. Arguably, only then can we show the real contradictions between what we articulate and what we believe. Only then may we confront “the pessimism of the intellect and the optimism of the will.”

Chatterjee finally embarked upon an illuminating comparison between Gramsci and Foucault’s principle of governmentality and the domain of discipline. Gramsci saw intellectualism as deriving from many sites within communities and explored the potential for political change within social power. Hegemony is articulated by Gramsci as a process not simply of domination but domination and consent. He saw dominance as successful in eliciting the consent of those over which it dominates. Elicitation is located not in state institutions alone but in the power located broadly in institutions of civil society. This provides a lens for looking at the work of Foucault and raises interesting questions of both distinction and relevance to globalization and popular culture today.

Exploring each of these concepts and revelations in the context of Chatterjee’s personal transforming experience of “The Prison Notebooks” was both challenging and enlightening. The Program on Law and Social Thought, supported by the Dean, promises to place superb readers in direct engagement with wonderful books, and this event did not disappoint. Chatterjee succeeded in allowing participants to collectively reflect on Gramsci and explore his relevance to their own area of study.

“The Prison Notebooks” holds continuing potential for inciting reflection on new coherent ways for thinking about law, society and culture and perhaps might even inspire us all to take some time to rethink history on a biscuit wrapper.

Be troubled at the next event on March 13th: www.law.harvard.edu/faculty/jhalley/projects

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