This review was first published in Irish Left Review here.
“The concepts of revolutionary and internationalist, in the modern sense, are correlated to the precise concept of state and class: a poor understanding of the state means a poor consciousness of class (understanding of the state exists not only when one defends it but also when one attacks it in order to overthrow it)”
The preface to the second volume of Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks states that at the time of writing these philosophical reflections, Gramsci had transformed his prison cell into an ‘intellectual workshop’. Drawing upon the Risorgimento, Marx and Machiavelli, Gramsci reflects extensively upon class consciousness, the state, history of the subaltern classes and Machiavelli’s political treatise, The Prince.
Gramsci elaborates further about class dominance and the ensuing revolt by the subaltern classes. Having been subjected to the dominant class, revolution within the subaltern classes arises out of a perpetual state of defence. “Every trace of autonomous initiative is therefore of inestimable value.” The fragmentation of the subaltern classes’ history has resulted into a lack of coherent documentation pertaining to the spontaneity of the masses’ revolts due to the absence of class consciousness within the subaltern classes.
Affirming the socialist stance, Gramsci expounds upon the splintered consciousness of society created by undocumented history. Social stratification and the domination of the upper class have ensured the extinguishing of any traits of spontaneity within society. Arguing that “… pure spontaneity does not exist in history”, Gramsci points out that spontaneity exists within the periphery of society, within a history that remains undocumented due to a lack of manifested class consciousness. The element of spontaneity is ingrained in the “history of subaltern classes” however; any evidence which might have documented the spontaneous struggle of the marginalized classes has been annihilated.
This subversive attitude of the dominant class in relation to the subaltern classes has created a parody out of law and governance, demonstrating that arbitrary power amongst privileged groups from the upper class has become a means of asserting dominance, hence ensuring that history may be manipulated, altered or even undocumented, having magnified and possibly even encouraged due to stratification, the dissonance between levels of class consciousness.
Gramsci defines the ruling classes as reactionary, due to their separation from the subaltern classes. Having only access to a theoretical framework of revolt, due to the stratification that separates the ruling class from the struggles of the masses, their knowledge of revolt is rudimentary. The alienation surrounding their elevated class transforms the essence of revolt into an incomprehensible phenomenon.
The manipulation of history is also visible in the dynamics of the modern state. Autonomy is abolished but certain characteristics of the subaltern classes survive in the form of trade unions and cultural associations. However, this form of autonomy is also threatened by the modern dictatorship, trying hard to “incorporate them into the activity of the state: in other words, the centralisation of the whole life of the nation becomes frenetic and all-consuming.”
“Politics is nothing more than a [particular] phenomenology of criminality; it is “sectarian criminality” … ” With governments functioning as a party in power, the interests of the nation and state become embroiled in ambiguity, causing a separation between the masses and the framework constituting a nation’s supposed harmony. By placing itself as a party above all other parties, the government threatens the unification of the state by disrupting the activity of the masses into oblivion. The destruction which politics enforces upon society manifests itself within various segments, notably in the masses’ unwitting role as victims of political criminality and also within the medium of artistic expression.
Gramsci’s concern with politics and art portrays the subservience between power and culture. The implication of art within power reduces the significance of culture whilst the domination of politics feeds upon creativity, ultimately delivering destruction. “Politics destroys art, philosophy, morality.” This philosophy is demonstrated further in Gramsci’s reflections about Niccolò Machiavelli’s writing, most notably The Prince.
Exhibiting a consciousness of historical and social treatises, Gramsci demonstrates the futility of simplifying philosophical text into an affirmation of one particular ideology. Focusing on The Prince, which to this day remains an integral part of intellectual discourse and debate,Gramsci reiterates the necessity of contemplating the historical and social environment in order to comprehend the philosophy of ‘the prince’; a protagonist that distances himself from the abstract in order to demonstrate the metaphor of “… a determinate historical party operating in a precise historical environment, with a particular tradition, in a distinctive and quite specific combination of social forces.”
According to Gramsci, Machiavelli alters the concept of morality and religion, creating a contrast between the autonomy of political science and the essence of morals. Far from lauding the unrealistic concept of utopia, Machiavelli is concerned with the logic which leads to immediate political action. Moving away from the literal definition of ‘prince’, Gramsci sparks further debate on the identity interpretation of the prince in Machiavelli, suggesting various distinctions in which immediate political action may not solely be within the reach of a head of state, but also an alternative method of insurrection for the masses.