Seven Aspects of Antonio Gramsci’s Thought

Andreas Kluth, the Hannibal man, asked me to write something about Gramsci in 300 words. I failed. These are 795 words.

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I studied Gramsci in my twenties and he surely helped me greatly. I think important to say his thought to be:

1) in progress, more formative to me than any sedentary conclusions, building up upon a list of themes & reflecting on them in fragmentary notes from thousands of different viewpoints and within a dreadful context – fascism arising, jail isolation, uncertainty for his own life. All so compelling and mind expanding;

2) dialogic and dialectic.

Dialogic.
G’s ideas bounce on one another also in relation to other authors’ even-opposite ideas – Gramsci ‘discusses with the enemy’ so to say. A solitary dialogue though, since jail solitude brought him to solipsism, which creates like a tragic, bewitching (and a bit claustrophobic) atmosphere.

The many ‘tools’ he created such as ‘cultural hegemony’ (close to ‘seduction’), or his notion of ‘intellectuals’, stem from such inner dialogue, which can be baffling to people used to clear definitions – I well understand – but, such brain storming is contagious and the attentive reader is taught to form his / her mental dialogues on anything he / she researches.

Dialectic. It refers to Heraclitus & Hegel, implying that all in history is ‘becoming’ & a contradictory process with actions, reactions, conciliations etc. Gramsci’s dialectic is concrete, anti-idealistic. For example, the Rousseauesque pedagogy – the ‘laissez-faire’ of ‘active’ schools – was seen by him as a reaction to the coercive Jesuitical schools, so not good or bad ‘per se’. But he tried to favour an education where both the elements of discipline and fascination were present.

Antonio Gramsci’s ashes in the Protestant ‘Cimitero degli Inglesi’ in Rome

Any idea had to be seen in its historical context and was hence transient (Marxism included.) When the Russian revolution burst he wrote it was a revolution ‘against the Capital’ (ie against Marx’s theories,) a scandal within the Comintern.

In many respects he considered America much more progressive than Stalin’s Russia;

3) polymathic. Gramsci is wide-ranging, like the men of the Renaissance. Besides there are similarities between his ideas and Leonardo da Vinci’s, and their writing styles too;

4) anti-platonic. Nature is ruled by blind forces, with no intelligent design. He follows the Italian tradition of Lucretius, Vico, Leonardo, Machiavelli, Leopardi, in contrast with the Platonic (and hegemonic) tendency expressed during the Renaissance by Marsilio Ficino and Pico della Mirandola;

5) anti-élite. Anti-chic, and certainly not the ‘smoking Gitanes and wearing black turtlenecks’ type of intellectual – to quote Andreas -, to him knowledge & refinement are not classy and must be spread to everyone. Born to a backward Sardinian peasant milieu he had succeeded in becoming a great European intellectual, which made him believe that everyone could be a philosopher at various degrees, and that a solid education of the working class was possible;

6) greatly written. Croce, Gramsci, Gobetti, Gentile were all great writers, like Hegel and Marx were. G’s texts are like permeated by a Hölderlin’s Heilige Nüchternheit (sacred sobriety.) As Giorgio Baratta observes, “his style, sober and exact, opens wide spaces that make the reader fly, but the flight is not grandiloquent.” His works have been recognized since they were first published as masterpieces of our language and literature. His Prison Letters have the depth of Tolstoy, an author close to him in many respects;

7) historic. Italian, European and world history are considered, from the end of the ancient Roman Republic onwards, and innumerable aspects are analysed. For a young Italian like me it meant an invaluable know-yourself experience. What I had passively learned at school could finally bear some fruit, also the teachings of my father, that I could fully appreciate only after reading Gramsci.

Gramsci’s history is as close to us as family’s history can be. It’s his magic. It touches the soul deeply.

It is also the concrete history of ideas circulating in the various socio-economic groups at a given time, with catalogues of magazines, newspapers, movements, intellectuals (often categorized with humorous nicks: it’s his peasant culture showing now and then), with the aim of understanding the currents and exact mechanisms of cultural hegemony.

He does that as for Italy, other European and non European countries. He analyses the elements that, in his view, make the United States the ‘hegemonic force’ in the world and also identifies like some cracks in this hegemonic structure, in their being too virgin and too young as a nation, with a melting pot of too many cultures.

Too long a story. Americanism in Gramsci is so crucial I’m thinking of a post where, in a dialogue occurred in the 30s, a few fictional European characters try to explain to readers their view of America, ie Gramsci’s view.

The United States – as Gramsci put it – are “the greatest collective effort ever existed to create with unheard of rapidity and a consciousness of purpose never seen in history a new type of worker and man.”

Note. An inspired introduction to Gramsci is Giuseppe Fiori’s Antonio Gramsci: Life of a Revolutionary (1970).

PS. Gramsci and Croce are well known in the English-speaking countries. The British ex prime minister Gordon Brown said Gramsci was one of his mentors. No idea if this is complimenting Gramsci or not… 🙂

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More on Antonio Gramsci:

American Engineer, German Philosopher & French Politician: Gramsci’s Ideal Blend for the Modern Leonardo da Vinci
“America, the Greatest Collective Effort Ever existed”. Antonio Gramsci
Is America Too Young to Maintain its Cultural Hegemony in the Long Run?

Related posts:

Democracy, Liberty & the Necessity of a Solid Education of the People
Culture, Kultur, Paideia
The Last Days of the Polymath

Democracy, Liberty & the Necessity of a Solid Education of the People

An interesting discussion over the dangers menacing our democracies was kicked off by our latest postWill Fascism Come Back? Easy, a Bit is There Already.

Most participants asked themselves whether democracy is at a turning point in many countries.

I am fortunate to have such great commentators.  I’m also glad I received additional insight on the American mind I always found fascinating also because elements of it are not that easy to be grasped by Europeans (the collectivism vs individualism thing, for example.)

I’ll freely transcribe here a few sentences of the said dialogue where the dear-to-me topic education in a democracy stands out a bit.

A scene from Videocracy, by Erik Gandini, an Italian Swedish film director

The idea behind this is a follow-up post on a work experience I had in Russia where I was sent in the year 2000 in order to carry out a TACIS* financed educational project for the integration of military personnel into civil society.

It seems very much to the point since it regards the topics discussed in the said conversation, ie individualism, collectivism, education in democracies or in flawed (or almost non existent) democracies.

[*TACIS was a programme financed by the EU for “grant-financed technical assistance to 12 countries of Eastern Europe and Central Asia”]

MoR: Is fascism coming back in a way or another? We see “the contempt for the composed reason replaced by the reason of those who shout louder, by the hubbub that rages every evening in the televised debates etc.”

Paul: I’m afraid [fascism] has never been very far below the surface. [Paul’s blog]

Douglas: “I cannot think of any true democracies. Republics, yes, but democracies, no. [Douglas’ blog]

MoR: I agree. Demo-cracies are often aristo-cracies, ie the rule of the happy few. There is in fact a prerequisite imo for a democracy to work correctly: a solidly educated people. Without such prerequisite, demo-cracy degenerates into dem-agogy, ie a rule manipulative of the people via their emotions, fears, bias etc. The health care debate in America is an example of that I presume. Berlusconian Italy a much bigger one.

Andreas: Nobody actually fears fascism will win in America. But the rancor, the shrillness, the animosity obscuring reason and thought: that is everywhere. [Andreas’s blog]

Cheri: On both sides of the aisle, I might observe. [Cheri’s blog]

[Everybody seems to agree that it is not a Left or Right thing. The attack to freedom after all has historical roots in political ‘churches’ of any colour, and often in churches tout court (and, alas, especially in one Church)]:

ZeusIsWatching: Fascism is the kissing cousin of communism, the similarities are clear enough. [Zeus‘ blog]

Sledpress: Fascism [will live] with us as long as authority and submission are considered vital components of human culture … conditioning from birth onward … [cult of] “strong leadership” … We’ve all seen people bounce from Catholicism to Communism or whatever. [Sledpress’ blog]

Douglas: [he gets back to the educational thing] Do you really believe, MoR, that any country will produce a solidly educated people? …I think that as long as education is in the hands of the government ….there will only be people educated to support that government.

An image from the Italian TV. Click for credits

MoR: I understand America is suspicious of any state intervention in society …continental Europe, and possibly French Canada, have a rationalist, non empiricist, tradition (‘reason’ moulds society or kinda) so that a state should be ethical enough to try help the ‘losers’ of societal Darwinian competition, ie the poor, the uneducated etc

Portions of the sotosay winners’ income – a widespread mentality here, not necessarily leftist – should go to the less wealthy, without condoning tho those who take advantage of such a system (many of course do, tons of money gets wasted to the extent of foolishness).

While (almost) not spending a euro I have an excellent medical care, I myself once was a state school teacher trying to do something for the uneducated in the poorest districts of Rome.

And in Russia, a great but nightmarish place where I worked in 2000 (a moment when ALL was crumbling down there,) the masses were nonetheless amazingly educated in S&T and were reading Tolstoy, Pushkin in second class trains. Education didn’t save them from many forms of tyranny, big and small, which they accepted as their tradition, but I’m sure after these 10 years they are still bearing their tyrannies but must have copied the worst from us and are now reading crap in trains as well, as we do in moronic Berlusconian Italy.

Ana Téran: [a Mexican writer I just met at Andreas’.] Public will is a powerful weapon. Why in the hell don’t we use it MoR?

Lichanos: The “masses?” I wonder what percentage of people were reading Tolstoy and Pushkin. On the other hand, I meet lots of technically educated Russians who are surprised to find that I, an American engineer, know their history and literature, as they know ours. So, clearly there is a difference. [Lichanos’ blog]

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The final twist of the conversation brings me then to talk about Russia a bit. A marvellous (but puzzling) place from any point of view. See you soon then.

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Related posts:

[The 3 posts below illustrate – with really ample discussions – the notion of ‘personal knowledge’ related to what I mean by ‘solid education’, ie specialisation plus general knowledge. There is for example a difference (diminishing, alas) between the Latin countries plus Germany and Austria, on one hand, and the Anglo-Saxon countries on the other hand.

As Magister wrote, before the young are inserted into specialised activities they should first attain “a certain amount of maturity, of capacity of autonomy, orientation, initiative.” The last 30 years have seen in Italy the debacle of any effective education – both the Left and the Right having responsibilities, but Berlusconi added a big cherry on the pie by the propagation of a degrading culture in which he sincerely believes, it seems. I invite you all to get a copy of Videocracy. Here is the film’s official web site.

We had good ‘general culture’ orientation according to Italian traditions (but less specialization, a flaw, ok,) but now we have none of the two. AND Berlusconi has now convinced many Italians that priority num 1 is a reform of the constitution that will give him the power of a French (or American) President without any French or US counterbalance. And the economy? And unemployment? If this is not manipulation ….]

Culture, Kultur, Paideia

The Last Days of the Polymath

American Engineer, German Philosopher & French Politician: Gramsci’s Ideal Blend for the Modern Leonardo da Vinci

Sex & the Anglo Saxons. What’s the Matter With You People Out There?

Christine Keeler, in an iconic portrait by Lewis Morley, was the key figure in the British Profumo scandal (1963) that sacked the Tories. Fair use – click for credits

Last night I watched Scandal (1989) together with my wife. It is a British film on the Profumo affair – a big political and sexual scandal in the 60’s UK -, well done and especially instructive to me in some way. I needed reflection and data. A few days ago I realised in fact how some readers of the MoR were like disgusted, or scared, by my earlier post “Decameron Reloaded. That the Fun begin“.

I also received 8 mails expressing total dissatisfaction, to put it mildly, AND a few people on the other hand – following my invitation to write stories with some ‘licentia’ – sent me a few original porn stories (2 of them very well written) I will not publish because my blog is not a porn site.

Man of Roma is puzzled. His public is mainly from the English-speaking countries. Given the culture (society) MoR is in, he’s therefore willing to raise his voice a bit and say:

“What’s the matter with you people out there? Why the hell sex is so scary?”

Of course, in the said post some innocent, playful fun between humans and bears occurred, true, but it’s not that I believe people think I find polar bears sexy. No. I am puzzled for the lack of any in-between thing so far arriving to my mailbox, eg, outrage, dissatisfaction etc. – or porn. Nothing outside that.

Frankly, this to Man of Roma is strange.

While I am waiting from some insight from my readers, I guess it’s high time for ‘Sex and the city (of Rome). Season 2‘ new posts. We need some explaining, in other words.

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I did by the way receive an interesting e-mail from a very nice US student of archaeology, complimenting me for my blog and all and asking me thought-provoking questions, such as:

[Your opinion about] “the different ways that Roman sexuality is viewed by Americans and Europeans”. For some Americans especially – she argued – “the ancient Romans and modern Italians become the same people. When telling a friend of a friend about all the ‘sexual’ souvenirs that could be bought — replicas of herms and phalli, calendars and postcards featuring Pompeii’s erotic art — the woman’s reaction was something along the lines of ‘What kind of people would sell those sorts of things,’ to which I was quite taken aback.  But she clearly viewed the ancient Romans as sexually deviant, and thus by association modern Italians.”

I replied to these and other questions with 2 (3?) LONG letters that will provide materials for the new Sex and the city (of Rome) season. I didn’t though focus on erotic art only (of which I know so little). Being a dilettante polymath, I am afraid I have totally confused (plus disappointed) her.

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Related posts:

Sex and the City (of Rome). 1
Sex and the city (of Rome). A Conclusion
Sex and the city (of Rome). Season II. 1

Also:

Caesar, Great Man (and Don Juan)

The Last Days of the Polymath

An earlier post kicked off an interesting conversation on the meaning of the word ‘culture’.

Dev, Lichanos, Andreas Kluth, the Commentator, Paul Costopoulos, sledpress, Rosaria, zeusiswatching – all were so nice to participate.

Being ‘cultured’ – we discussed – does it make any sense today? Why does it call up “stuffy, out-of-date rich people in drawing rooms?” in the English-speaking countries (Lichanos,) while it is still (a bit) appreciated in Italy France or Germany?

Apart from any possible European snobbery, elitism – being a ‘man of culture’ is not bad in my view and it is not elitist in that it can now be extended to the great number, this great number now watching realities – while they could buy a library only kings could afford in the past: something like a failure to me, not many doubts about it.

Only less than a century ago the Marxists, in their utopian folly, desired the totally developed man for everybody, which Antonio Gramsci adapted with his mass Leonardo da Vinci concept, that I always found fascinating.

The problem now is that a modern (mass or non mass) Leonardo is less viable because we know a lot more in so many more fields.

So the big gurus or maîtres à penser, providing the big picture people are so hungry for, are disappearing. Void is advancing and people, more and more confused, fall into the hands of organizations like Scientology and similar.

However, is this trend really inevitable, one may wonder?

Here is a conversation over at Lichanos’ – Journey to Perplexity.

It is about the death of the polymath and it started around Lichanos’ excellent review of “2001 a Space Odyssey” by Stanley Kubrick.

Lichanos. Dev, thanks for the kind words, and I am very happy that you find my reviews interesting! I am a civil engineer – no connection to the film industry at all, but I came to my profession by way of studying philosophy and art history, so I am not, so I am told, a “typical” engineer.

Such a background used to be unremarkable for engineers, say, 60 or 100 years ago, but today, at least in the USA, it is unusual.

Dev. I know what you mean. I think that’s unusual every where in the world nowadays. Even considering the fact that all science and engineering had it’s foundation in philosophy earlier. I mean many scientists in the earlier times were originally philosophers.
But, I’m sure you are a very good civil engineer too.
Should I tell you that I studied Electronics Engineering in my undergrad too. 🙂
But I never worked as an engineer..
Anyways, I look forward to go through many of your earlier posts -especially the film/literature related ones- in the coming days.

Man of Roma. Lichanos, you are definitely not a ‘typical’ engineer. Dev, I don’t know you enough to say something.

We are shifting from Kubrick, but you are both evoking the polymath, he who knows a lot about a lot. This essay The Last Days of the Polymath is a good read (though Western-centric) and describes how the polymath is disappearing.

We Europeans had always the impression that this prevalence of specialization is due to America and her big influence. Although it may be simply necessary, with a corpus of knowledge so greatly expanding.

It seems clear, Dev, that by today’s standards many scientists of the past were polymaths.

Polymath is an English term. In Italy we say ‘tuttologo’ etc. Polymathy is still a bit ingrained in the Latin countries curricula. The ‘Liceo classico’ in Italy still educates the young in this way, probably because the universal-man ideal, the ‘homo universalis’, was developed during the Italian Renaissance – one example, I like to think, where being provincial could be an advantage.

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I was hit in fact some time ago by a review on a book, Genes, Peoples, and Languages by Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza. The review was written by Jared Diamond, an American I think. Cavalli-Sforza is an Italian who started at Stanford a revolution in human genetics from the 1960s onward and basically proved that ‘races’ do not exist.

“It would be a slight exaggeration – argues Jared Diamond – to say that L.L. Cavalli-Sforza studies everything about everybody, because actually he is ‘only’ interested in what genes, languages, archaeology, and culture can teach us about the history and migrations of everybody for the last several hundred thousand years.”

The Indians should be naturally born polymaths, due to their holistic approach, although today, with the speed of their economic development, they seem somewhat obliged to imitate the Westerners and be monomaths as well. But there are so many polymaths over there!

Man of Roma. My comment was not a paean to my country. It was a paean to the Greek Paideia and the Roman Humanitas, where the Renaissance man comes from.

Polymathy as a tendency is also dangerous, it encourages flitting around, dabbling, people who cannot stick at anything (I know it too well), Giacomo Casanova (mentioned in the essay) being a high-level example of it: he was good in mathematics, in philosophy and theology, but not too good.

A metaphor in the said essay that I liked: flirting, promiscuity – they are no good. It’s the real polygamy, the numerous & deeply lived marriages that make a real polymath.

I digressed. I’ll then add Kubrick was a genius and had a tendency towards polymathy, as the amazing variety of his films attests – Spartacus, Lolita, Dr. Strangelove, 2001, A Clockwork Orange etc. – as well as his passion for music, photography, he also being a great producer & marketing man (I heard at the radio he used to commercialize all the gadgets of his movies by himself, the heart-shaped glasses Sue Lyon wore, for example.)

Lichanos. Dev, MoR: No need to apologize for digressing here! If not here, where can we let our minds and conversation wander?

I love that word tuttologo!! Better than polymath, which sounds so dry to my ear. As for being spread too thinly, comme une dilettante, in English there is a saying, “Jack of all trades, master of none…” Still, the culture of the amateur and the dilettante are attractive to me as long as there is not too much superficiality.

I recall reading a critique of Voltaire once, I forget by whom, that railed against him: “The man has opinions on everything!” The implication was that he was flippant and felt the need to pronounce on all topics, even if he was formulaic. The size of his collected works was presented as evidence. Perhaps something there, but he was quite deep enough of the time to redeem himself, perhaps.

Regarding the engineering profession, I must say, 1st: I never could understand electrical circuits beyond the most basic. I understand water systems, and everyone says that they are similar, but not for me! 2nd: My father, retired, is an electrical engineer. He once drove me past an old industrial building in downtown Brooklyn where he said he worked at one of his first jobs after WWII. They build a computer there and had to knock down an exterior wall to get it out!

Louvre Pyramid, Paris, by architect I. M. Pei. Click to enlarge and for credits

In the pre-WWII days, “patrician” familes were happy to send their sons to engineering school. Now they only become lawyers or MBAs. It was a status profession. Some say that the dominance of corporate industry after WWII succeeded in capturing the educational institutions and molding them to its own ends, i.e., the production of ready-made technicians in large supply to keep wages lower. There is something to it. Within my sort of engineering, there is still a sort of envy of doctors and lawyers who used to be seen as gods, and are still, on TV at least, seen as worthy of celebrity and dramatic presentation. They tend to earn a lot more too! On the other hand, architects, a definite prestige profession here, get paid much less than engineers and always cut each other’s throats competing for business. I think the solution to this economic, status “problem” is to make it harder to become an engineer, to require additional liberal arts training in addition to the technical curriculum. This would restrict supply, but this is not popular position. Thus, the griping about “low status” and complaints that “nobody really knows what engineers do,” go on.

I conclude with a favorite quote of mine from volume I of the Gulag Archipelago:

An engineer? I had grown up among engineers,and I could remember the engineers of the
twenties very well indeed: their open shining intellects, their free and gentle humor, their
agility and breadth of thought, the ease with which they shifted from one engineering field
to another, and, for that matter, from technology to social concerns and art. Then,
too, they personified good manners and delicacy of taste; well-bred speech that flowed evenly
and was free of uncultured words; one of them might play a musical instrument, another dabble
in painting; and their faces always bore a spiritual imprint.

Dev. MoR and Lichanos, wow, what a discussion and exchange of thoughts going on!

MoR: Thanks for sharing your views on polymaths. I agree with you that for most people trying to be polymaths is not a good idea. I mean one life is hardly long enough to do one thing properly, so dabbling in various things is never easy. But then, the best of the people have been, in some ways, polymaths. You are very right that Kubrick was in a sense a polymath. Each of his films were so different from each other in terms of genre, treatment etc. What made him special was that he was a chameleon. Nobody could really guess what to expect from his films. He was an excellent photographer and editor too. Plus, as you mentioned, he took great interest in the marketing of his films, even designing the promos and posters.

Lichanos: Nice to read your views. My father is a civil engineer and was a good one. Well, understanding circuits was never easy for me either. I guess I concluded it years back when I finished my engineering that most people are not ready to become an engineer at the tender age of 18. I somehow finished my degree in time and tried to get away from the engineering side of things as soon I got an opportunity. Not because I looked down at engineering, rather I thought it deserved so much respect and discipline that I’m not ready for it. Sadly, most engineering schools across the world just make assembly line engineers who can get decent jobs and raise a family. But, not really nurturing questioning/scientific minds.

Similar to what you quoted in the end, even when my father graduated in the late 60’s in India, they used to be proud of their engineering degrees; even more than the doctors or even the bureaucrats of those times. This is not really true anymore.

Man of Roma. Dev and Lichanos: you both then confirm that engineers are declining socially. Damn. My youngest daughter is graduating in civil engineering! 😉

Lichanos. Dev: On Engineers – yes, I think you hit it right on the head. BTW, I didn’t go to school to get an engineering degree until I was 23 or so. I NEVER could have made it at 18, even if I’d wanted to!!
MoR: I’m sure your daughter will do just fine. Everyone wants things built right! If she works in the field, on-site, it’s very much in demand, but a very demanding job! I could not stand it, I’m sure. I look out my window at the World Trade Center site and think, “How the HELL do they get everything to come together on time?” I’d have a nervous breakdown.

Capitoline She-Wolf. Rome, Musei Capitolini. Public domain

Previous installment:

Culture, Kultur, Paideia

Related posts:

American Engineer, German Philosopher & French Politician: Gramsci’s Ideal Blend for the Modern Leonardo da Vinci
Democracy, Liberty & the Necessity of a Solid Education of the People