Literary and Critical Theory Antonio Gramsci
by
Debamitra Kar, Shinjini Basu
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 November 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780190221911-0134

Introduction

Born on 22 January 1891 at Ales in the province of Cagliari, Sardinia, Antonia Gramsci was the fourth son of Francesco Gramsci, a clerk in the local registrar’s office at Ghilarza, and Giuseppina Marcias. His childhood was fraught with financial difficulties and he suffered from ill health and physical deformity. After completing his elementary education, in 1911, he won a scholarship from Turin University. At Turin, he came into contact with the Socialist Party and started writing for political papers like Il Grido del Popolo (The People’s Cry) and Avanti!. He soon rose to political prominence and in 1917 was elected to the Provisional Committee of the Socialist Party. On 1 May 1919, he along with Tasca, Terracini, and Togliatti, founded Ordine Nuovo (New Order), an organ of the Turin Communists. When the Italian Communist Party (PCI) was formed in 1921, Gramsci was elected to the central committee and the following year participated in the Second Communist International. While he was in Moscow, Mussolini’s Fascist Party seized power on 28 October 1922, and soon a warrant of his arrest was issued. Gramsci was entrusted by the party to maintain contacts between the PCI and the European Communist parties. He was elected deputy in the Veneto constituency and he returned to Italy as the leader of the PCI. In 1925, he participated in the fifth session of the Executive in Moscow and in 1926 he took part in the third congress of the PCI held at Lyons. His “Lyon’s Thesis,” which he wrote with Togliatti, and “Some Aspects of the Southern Question,” received critical acclaim. He became the Secretary General of the party. On 8 November 1926, despite his parliamentary immunity, he was arrested and after his trial by a special court in 1928, he was sentenced to twenty years, four months and five days in prison and was sent to a special prison in Turi. After many appeals, he could finally start writing from 1929. His health soon deteriorated and his sentence was reduced to twelve years and four months. His intellectual activities continued in prison but in 1933 he had his second serious health crisis. He was transferred to a clinic at Formia but his condition did not improve and further appeal for conditional freedom was made. He was taken to a private clinic in Fiesole and then to Rome. On 27 April 1937 he died of a cerebral hemorrhage. His remains lie at the Protestant cemetery in Rome.

General Overviews

One of the first writers to write consistently about Antonio Gramsci was his fellow Sardinian, contemporary Communist leader, co-founder and later the secretary of the Italian Communist Party Palmiro Togliatti, who had a complicated personal and political relation with Gramsci. Togliatti wrote his first article on Gramsci in 1927 while Gramsci was still in jail and continued writing about him up to 1964. He was influential in shaping early interpretations of Gramsci. Togliatti, et al. 1945 is a commemorative volume published by Societa Editrice L’Unita that included contributions from Togliatti, Giuseppe Amoretti, and other contemporaries of Gramsci. Three other articles by Togliatti on Gramsci were translated in English and published in Togliatti 1979.Tamburrano 1963 is considered the first authoritative biography of Gramsci in Italian, Romano 1965 and Fiori 1966 are close seconds. In 1970 Fiori’s book was translated into English with the title Life of a Revolutionary. Cammett 1967 is the first comprehensive study of Gramsci’s life in English, the focus largely being on his relation with the Italian Communist Party. Davidson 2016 is reprint of Alastair Davidson’s book first published in 1977. Alastair Davidson’s articles on Gramsci, published in the Australian Left Review, were collected and given the form of a booklet in 1969 titled Antonio Gramsci: The Man, His Ideas. This booklet was enlarged and updated in the 1977 book. The 2016 publication includes a preface by Davidson detailing his initial encounter with Gramsci and contextualizing the book against later Gramsci studies. With the 1975 publication of the critical edition of Prison Notebooks in Italian there was a renewed interest in Gramsci’s life and work. Consequently, many other important biographical studies of Gramsci were published, such as Joll 1977 and Spriano 1977—the first is a concise account of Gramsci’s life and work, the second focuses on the prison condition, human relation, Gramsci’s mental turmoil, and relation with his party and comrades at great length. Later assessments of Gramsci, particularly during and after the Cold War had taken divergent directions in Italy and outside. Liguori 2012, translated in English as Gramsci Contested: Interpretations, Debates and Polemics, 1922–2012 and published in 2022, gives a detailed account of the debates about Gramsci’s theories that took place in Italy in his lifetime and later. Cadeddu 2020 is a volume that contains the translations of the seminal essays on Gramsci written by Italian scholars. Vacca 2012 uses Gramsci’s correspondences from the prison, mainly letters written by and to him, as a framework to reconstruct Gramsci’s life and relations as well as to decode the Prison Notebooks.

  • Cadeddu, Davide, ed. A Companion to Antonio Gramsci: Essays on History, Politics and Historiography. Leiden, The Netherlands, and Boston: Brill, 2020.

    Published on the eightieth anniversary of Gramsci’s death, this edition is valuable for those who have no access to the seminal Italian essays by Italian scholars and contemporaries of Gramsci. Divided into five sections, it engages in topics like history of Gramsci’s time, theories of history as described by Gramsci, Communism of Gramsci, Gramsci’s notion of hegemony, and Gramsci’s impact on historiography.

  • Cammett, John M. Antonio Gramsci and the Origins of Italian Communism. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1967.

    This book, written by one of the greatest Gramsci scholars, focuses on Gramsci’s views on history and politics in his formative years, between the end of World War I and the formation of the Italian Communist Party. It gives limited information about Gramsci’s childhood and adolescence. The emphasis is on the Ordine nuovo, Gramsci’s work on factory councils, the Turin strikes, activities of the Socialist Party in postwar Italy.

  • Davidson, Alastair. Antonio Gramsci: Towards an Intellectual Biography. Leiden, The Netherlands, and Boston: Brill, 2016.

    DOI: 10.1163/9789004326309

    First published in 1977 this book traces Gramsci’s growth as a socialist revolutionary, connecting his early years as an activist with his later theoretical formulations. While focusing on the Prison Notebooks, it explores how earlier positions developed into important conceptual categories such as Gramsci’s take on Croceanism, Leninism or Fascism. The 2016 edition contextualizes Gramsci against more recent debates about his legacy as a Communist and an intellectual.

  • Fiori, Guiseppe. Vita di Gramsci. Bari, Italy: Laterza, 1966.

    A political biography making extensive use of Gramsci’s correspondences and personal accounts of friends, family, contemporaries about his life, his family, political relations both within the Communist Party and outside. The focus is more on Gramsci’s formative years, peasant revolt and miners’ strikes in Sardinia, Gramsci’s work as a young organizer. Discussion of the Prison Notebooks is comparatively less. Translated as Antonio Gramsci: Life of a Revolutionary by Tom Nairn. London: Verso Books. 1990. The English translation was first published in 1970 by NLB from London.

  • Joll, James. Antonio Gramsci. New York: Viking Press, 1977.

    It is an introductory work on Gramsci’s life and his major concepts.

  • Liguori, Guido. Gramsci conteso Interpretazioni, dibattiti e polemiche 1922–2012. Rome: Editori riuniti University Press, 2012.

    The book is a concordance of different analyses of and debates around Gramsci that took place in Italy in his own lifetime by his contemporaries, after his death during the strong presence of the Italian Communist Party (PCI), after the party ceased to exist in 1991 and in the period between 1997 and 2012. It includes Communist readings, following or contesting Palmiro Togliatti, along with liberal-democratic, liberal-socialist readings and others. Translated as Gramsci Contested: Interpretations, Debates and Polemics, 1922–2012. Translated by Richard Braude. Leiden, The Netherlands, and Boston: Brill, 2022.

  • Romano, Salvatore Francesco. Antonio Gramsci. Turin, Italy: UTET, 1965.

    It is an early biography in Italian that puts as much importance on Gramsci’s intellectual work as on his political militancy. It explores Gramsci’s family life and his experience in Sardinia in great detail but also stresses the importance of his departure from Sardinia. The book provides significant insight into Gramsci’s personal life.

  • Spriano, Paolo. Gramsci in carcere e il Partito. Biblioteca di storia  67. Rome: Editori riuniti, 1977.

    This is a historiographic investigation of Gramsci and his relation with the party during his prison years based on archival sources that include statements, messages, and letters to family and friend Piero Straffa. Though some parts of this book have previously appeared in Rinascita-Il Contemporanco and L’Unita, the chapter on Gramsci’s last years is a valuable entry. The appendices contain various correspondences including Togliatti’s letter to Bukharin and Gramsci’s appeal to Mussolini. Translated as Antonio Gramsci and the Party: The Prison Years. Translated by John Fraser. London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1979.

  • Tamburrano, Giuseppe. Antonio Gramsci. La Vita. Il Pensiero. L’Azione. Manduria, Italy: Lacaita, 1963.

    It is considered to be the first Italian biography of Gramsci. The book focuses on Gramsci’s early life, upbringing, his intellectual milieu, the phase of militant activism. It reads much of the Prison Notebooks as a debate with Croceanism.

  • Togliatti, Palmiro. On Gramsci and Other Essays. Edited and introduced by Donald Sassoon. London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1979.

    This book contains twelve essays, three of which are on Gramsci. The first essay (1957) translated by John Fraser speaks of Gramsci’s importance in the party as a theorist and mentor. The second essay (1958) was presented as a preparatory paper submitted at the Conference of Gramscian Study held in Rome, in January 1958. The third essay (1958) is also a paper presented in response to the ongoing debates in the said conference.

  • Togliatti, Palmiro, Giuseppe Amoretti, Giuseppe Ceresa, et al. Gramsci. Rome:Societa Editrice L’Unita, 1945.

    It is one of the earliest assessments of Gramsci in Italian done by his contemporaries. All contributors of the volume—Palmiro Togiatti, Giuseppe Amoretti, Giuseppe Ceresa, Giovanni Farina, Ruggero Grieco, Mario and Rita Montagnana, Celeste Negarville, Giovanni Parodi, Felice Platone, and Felio Spano were fellow Communists. The volume looks at Gramsci as a Marxist-Leninist, and a militant revolutionary with particular importance given to his Sardinian phase.

  • Vacca, Giuseppe. Vita e pensieri di Antonio Gramsci 1926–1937. Turin, Italy: Einaudi, 2012.

    It is a meticulously researched biography in Italian that reads the Notebook using Gramsci’s cryptic letters sent from prison and exchanges with compatriots like Piero Sraffa and Tatiana Schucht. Other letters such as the one written by Gramsci to Ruggiero Grieco throws light on his relation with PCI. Despite the letters forming the basis of Vacca’s work, the Prison Notebooks remain central to the reading of Gramsci’s political theory.

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