Buttigieg’s Introduction to Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks

It’s true, Pete Buttigieg’s dad was a Gramsci scholar. Joseph Buttigieg translated the first eight of twenty nine “prison notebooks.” Before spending the last 11 years of his life in prison, Gramsci was a journalist, public intellectual, active member in the Communist Party, and a member of parliament. He was arrested as part of a sweep picking up Communists after an attempt on Mussolini’s life. While in prison eventually Gramsci was given permission to write in his notebooks. His notebooks are unrefined notes, but they contain his best thinking.

Buttigieg’s introduction to the English translation of notebooks 1–8 includes some biographical information, but the primary focus is a description of Gramsci’s project, a description of Gramsci’s method for writing in the notebooks, a summary of the themes in the notebooks, and a warning against those who attempt to treat anything Gramsci says in his notebooks as Gramsci’s final word on any topic.

Description of Gramsci’s Project

Gramsci is known for his insights into hegemony, but his primary interest, according to Buttigieg, was the history of the Italian intelligentsia from Rome to Mussolini, the role of intellectuals in society, and the ways in which Rome’s intellectuals legitimized fascism. Gramsci defined the term “intellectuals” as those who solved the problems of a class, whether they be in the discipline of religion, economics, sociology, literature, journalism or philosophy. Fascism was not only legitimized by thinkers on the right, according to Gramsci. His notebooks document his research in which he analyzed the strands of lazy Marxists that unreflectively accepted the idea that science supported the belief that some people are inherently criminal. Buttigieg’s introduction does not expound on this, but we are to conclude that prejudice in the greater Italian population played into fascist narratives that violent oppression of a certain criminal segment of society was necessary for the survival of the nation and the integrity of the inheritors of the Roman Republic.

Gramsci’s method for writing in the notebooks

Gramsci wrote in 29 notebooks. He only had access to a few at a time. Initially his sister-in-law provided him with large notebooks, in which he documented notes on all of the sub-themes his project. The first few notebooks were scrambled. The later notebooks became increasingly organized. On many occasions Gramsci scratched out his original notes from the early notebooks, further articulating the primitive entries.

Summary the Subjects in the Notebook

The grouping of the themes Gramsci illiterates changes throughout his notebooks, but fundamentally the unifying theme, for the most part, is the role of Italian intellectuals throughout Italy’s history. Throughout his notebooks he reconstructs the list of subjects he is exploring. The following is a sample of the topics Gramsci wrote about:

  • The Philosophy of Benedetto Croce
  • Machiavelli
  • Problems of Italian National Culture. I: Popular Literature
  • Americanism and Fordham
  • Journalism
  • History of Subaltern Groups
  • Observations on ‘Folklore’
  • Lorianism

Gramsci’s Final Word

According to Buttigieg, Gramsci’s primary goal was to understand the ways in which Italian intellectuals contributed to Fascism’s legitimacy. He studied intellectuals in Ancient Rome, the Catholic Church in the Middle Ages, Machiavelli, and the period in which Italy became a nation in the nineteenth century. Buttigieg emphasizes Gramsci’s critiques of Lorianism. “Lorianism” is a term created by Gramsci in reference to Achille Loria and his followers. Gramsci’s critique of Lorianism was of particular importance to Gramsci because, as a Marxist, he held the Lorians, also Marxists, to a high standard. Gramsci held that education and critical thinking were central to liberation. The Lorians, according to Gramsci, turned Marxism into a universal formula, rather than an analytical tool. They extrapolated from particular sociological facts about the people of Southern Italy an inherent criminal nature. Marx’s whole project showed how such supposedly universal scientific claims actually reflected the hidden particular class interests of the intellectuals that reported them.

Buttigieg focuses on a short passage from Gramsci titled “Cuvier’s little bone” in which he states, presumably in reference to the Lorians, that “‘sociology’ … cannot be compared to the natural sciences. In it, arbitrary and ‘bizarre’ generalizations are much more possible (and more harmful to practical life).” Lorians, like Cuvier that reportedly could reconstruct the animal based off of a single bone, would jump to conclusions from a few details. Gramsci argued that sociology was not like the natural sciences. Buttigieg does not state explicitly, but one can read between the lines, that the implication is that Fascism was given legitimacy even by the Marxist Lorians by their positing that the Southern Italians were biologically lazy and criminal.

As the culmination of all of this, Buttigieg warns anyone against doing the same with anything written in Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks. He warns against anyone constructing an edifice of “what Gramsci actually believed” based on fragments written in the notebooks. On multiple occasions Gramsci explicitly commented in his notes that his notes were incomplete thoughts. For example, he jotted comments to himself throughout, flagging details that he intended to research further. Buttigieg’s introduction to his English translation of the Prison Notebooks, of which he only completed about a third before dying in 2019, ends abruptly on this sharp warning, but it is a great combination of Gramsci’s personal and intellectual biography.

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Elton L.K. is a writer and a worker. He says “Billionaires? No, thank you.”

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