Letters From Prison
Letters From Prison
THE LITERARY WORK
A collection of letters written mainly to Gramsci’s relatives in Italy from 1926-1937; first published in Italian (as Lettere dal carcere) in 1947, published in part in English in 1973, in full in 1994,
Cramsci’s letters: portray the life of an anti-Fascist in prison; the letters also convey a series of personal, political, literary, and philosophical thoughts.
Political thinker, philosopher, literary critic, and writer, Antonio Gramsci (1891-1937) was one of the major intellectuals in early-twentieth-century Italy. He was born into a lower-middle-class family’s in the rural community of Ales in southern Sardinia. In 1911, a scholarship enabled him to leave the sheltered rural area to attend university in the industrial city of Turin. There, Gramsci witnessed the living conditions of the working classes, joined the Socialist Party, and abandoned his university studies to engage in political activism. A prolific journalist, he wrote articles that influenced the political struggle of northern Italian workers, inspiring the formation of “Factory Councils” (a network of worker-led revolutionary cells that, during the general strikes of 1920, mobilized more than 50,000 workers in Turin). In 1921, Gramsci helped found the Italian Communist Party, going on to serve (1922-1923) in Moscow as an Italian delegate to the Communist International. In 1926, while serving as general secretary for the Communist Party, Gramsci was arrested and later sentenced to more than 20 years in prison for conspiratorial activity against the state, instigation of civil war, incitement to class hatred, justification of crime, and subversive propaganda. He spent more than a decade in prison, largely in solitude, during which he read extensively and produced an impressive array of writings. These include both the wide series of notes, monographs, translations, and commentaries later collected in the Prison Notebooks and several hundred messages (to both relatives and friends), posthumously edited under the title of Letters from Prison. Deteriorating physically during the long confinement, Gramscidied in 1937. His life remains one of the most famous examples of repression during Italy’s Fascist dictatorship, and his writings figure among the most influential in early-twentieth-century Italy. Gramsci’s Letters from Prison is both a first-hand account of the slow murder of one of Fascism’s key opponents, and an exceptional work in Italy’s time-honored epistolary or letter-writing tradition.
From a Fascist dictatorship to the Fascist state
Gramsci was arrested in Rome in 1926 at a crucial point in the history of the Fascist regime. Conventionally, historians identify the beginning of the Fascist dictatorship with October 1922’s insurrectionary March on Rome, in which some 50,000 armed Fascists helped Benito Mussolini (1883-1945) take control of the government. In the early 1920s, a time of transition in which the Fascists transformed Italy into a totalitarian state, they perpetrated violent acts against their opponents. Yet, at least nominally, the Fascist government still operated with the cooperation of different political parties, and Mussolini led with authorization from the parliament and the king. This changed dramatically in 1924.
On May 30, 1924, the Socialist Party deputy, Giacomo Matteotti, delivered a stirring speech against Fascism and its manipulation of the April 1924 elections. A few days later, Matteotti was kidnapped; his body was found a few weeks later. Everyone knew that the Fascists were behind the murder. After this episode, opposition deputies withdrew from parliament (their political protest is known as the Secessione del l’ Aventino, or Aventine Secession) and began an intensive campaign of public denunciation of Fascist violence. But instead of restoring democratic debate, the protestors’ withdrawal gave the Fascists full control of parliament. A new wave of intimidation and violence, mainly against anti-Fascists, ravaged Italy. On January 3, 1925, in a speech delivered to the Chamber of Deputies, Mussolini assumed responsibility for the violence and mayhem that was sweeping the nation. His opposition was powerless to prosecute him for any of the crimes. A few months later, a series of laws known as the Leggi Fascistissime (”ultra-Fascist laws”) was approved. From this point onwards, the head of the government was not accountable to parliament, and only the king retained the power to revoke Mussolini’s mandate. Furthermore, no law could be submitted to parliament unless previously approved by Mussolini. The “ultra-Fascist laws” marked the end of parliamentary debate as the foundation of Italian government and almost totally eliminated political dissent. Italy became a totalitarian state centered on Mussolini’s personal dictatorship; formally, Mussolini governed with the authority granted him by the monarchy, but his rule was enforced and strengthened by the legal and illegal action of the Fascist militiamen. A series of laws were promulgated against the freedom of the press, while the major newspapers fell under Fascist control. In 1926, the right to strike was abolished and women were excluded from the workforce and suffrage. All other political parties were dissolved, and the Fascist National Party (PNF) became the only legitimate political party in Italy. To be eligible for public work, membership in the Fascist Party was required.
From 1926 onwards, Fascism also developed an intense program of ideological propaganda devoted to the reorganization of daily life in Italy. This process (known as the fascistization of Italy) involved not only the use of rigid—often cruel—police repression. It also gave rise to a massive propaganda campaign waged through para-Fascist subgroups, created to achieve various social aims.
Fascism’s economic policies
The economic policy of Fascism can be roughly divided into four main phases:
- The liberalism of 1922-25 , a period marked by inflation, during which the state encouraged private enterprise and weakened workers’ unions and organizations. At this time, Gramsci devoted his energies to the threat to the worker’s movement of emergent Fascism, which he called the “white guard of capitalism against the class origins of the proletariat” (Dombroski, p. xvii).
- The protectionism of 1925-29 , when deflation benefited the big industrial concerns and the state increased customs’ duties. Small and medium industries were either damaged or absorbed by bigger conglomerates, yet the middle class and its savings were safeguarded to bolster support for the regime. As repressive laws gagged the opposition, extinguished political parties, and restricted trade, Fascism launched the ordine corporativo (”corporative order”) to combat economic depression and unemployment. This policy was conceived of as a “peaceful social revolution” to establish a “third way” between individualistic capitalism and collective socialism (such as that of Bolshevik Russia). A document called the Carta del lavoro (1927) held that work contracts should be regulated by associations of business owners and workers, called corporationi. In the end, however, these associations fell under government control. Corporation representatives were nominated by the Fascist elite on the basis of their loyalty to the regime and workers found themselves condemned to near servitude. The new order left them without any leverage to negotiate. Among other consequences, the working class suffered lower salaries (as much as a 16 percent cut in some factories of northern Italy).
- The strict state control of 1929-35 , during which the regime, in response to crisis and depression (the collapse of prices, unemployment, the reduction of import and export activity), subjected the national economy to tighter control than that of any other European country (including the Soviet Union). The state, as a shareholder of the main financial and industrial companies, promoted a large-scale series of public works—the construction of new roads, railways, and schools, the draining of marshlands, and the building of new cities, monuments, and infrastructure.
- The last period of autarchy (or national self-sufficiency) , which began early in the tenure of the regime but climaxed only in the late 1930s. The concept of autarchy, one of the themes of Fascist propaganda, pushed an image of Italy as an independent country struggling to restore its ancient prestige. In reality, the autarchy campaign benefited industrial corporations and won allegiance from the large landowners in the rural south of Italy, while adversely affecting other parts of the economy. While to a certain extent the autarchy program stimulated research (especially in the chemical, hydroelectric, and mechanical industries), it failed to achieve for Italy real national economic independence. In hindsight, the policy led to a shortage of raw materials that made Italy more and more dependent on the German economy.
The Lateran Pacts of 1929
When Mussolini came to power, he had to deal with a curious political situation that had existed for some half a century. Ever since the last Papal States (central Italian territories that the popes controlled from 756 to 1870) were finally wrested from the Catholic Church, the popes had proclaimed themselves “prisoners in the Vatican,” refusing to recognize the validity of the new Italian state. To guarantee himself wide-ranging authority and popular support, Mussolini entered into negotiations with Pope Pius XI. Mussolini’s interests in the matter were clear; the Vatican, for its part, saw in Fascism a barrier against communism, liberalism, and socialism. The Lateran Pacts, or Treaty of February 11, 1929, recognized the sovereign power of the pope over his own state—Vatican City. The Pacts also compensated the Church (to the tune of some $85 million) for state actions (loss of the Papal States), gave the clergy ample privileges, and protected Catholic structures throughout the country. In exchange, the Church publicly recognized the boundaries of the Italian nation and the establishment of Rome as its capital city. The Pacts furthermore designated Catholicism as the nation’s official religion, awarding civil recognition to Catholic marriage and instituting the teaching of Catholic doctrine in public education (which would continue until 1985).
The Lateran Pacts compromised the secular nature of the nation and ran counter to the liberal tradition that had inspired the Italian government since the unification of the country in 1861. On one side, the agreement attributed ample privileges to the Church and, on the other side, it gave Fascism, which could now point to the support of the Church, considerable propagandist strength on both national and international levels. Pope Pius XI, three days after the ratification of the Lateran Pacts, identified Mussolini as a leader who had been sent by Providence.
Fascist propaganda and the Ethiopian campaign
Alongside the enforcement of censorship, Fascism developed an intensive campaign of propaganda that used for its purposes the most modern means of communication (the press, the radio, and, to a certain degree, the movie industry). The regime also sponsored a number of photographic and public expositions (the most famous were on the Fascist revolution, the processes of land reclamation, the minerals extracted on national soil, and sports).
Fascist propaganda centered mainly on portraying Mussolini (who adopted the title II Duce, or “the leader”) as the man who would return Italy to the splendor and prosperity it had enjoyed in antiquity. Propaganda newsreels, radio programs, and audiovisual documentaries (often shown during cinema performances) emphasized Fascist values and pushed the regime’s central policies, notably its campaigns for a higher birth rate, the achievement of economic self-sufficiency, and the Italian expansionist policy. To encourage a strong sense of patriotism, the regime produced radio broadcasts of Mussolini’s speeches, lessons on the history of Fascism, commentaries on the achievements of professional athletes, and coverage of public ceremonies.
After the national reform of education in 1923, schools and educational institutions began to promote the ancient splendor of Rome and to glorify Mussolini’s regime. Beginning in 1931, all teachers and public officials were required to take a formal oath of loyalty to the regime.
Under the auspices of the regime, a number of Fascist and para-Fascist organizations disseminated ideology among the masses. Beginning in infancy, young Italians were organized into a series of gymnastic, cultural, and leisure organizations, such as the Figli della Lupa (Sons of the She-Wolf, for boys from 0-8 years of age) and the Giovani Italiane (Young Female Italians, for girls aged 13-18). University students were organized into the Fascist Groups of University Students (GUF). Other women’s organizations, such as the Massaie Rurali (Rural Housewives), were created to reinforce the myth of the prosperous countryside. The welfare role of the state was emphasized through the promotion of additional agencies such as the Opera Nazionale Maternitáe Infanzia (National Agency for Maternity and Infancy), which encouraged population growth, instituted merit fellowships for students, and promoted the building of seaside and mountain resorts for the children of the working classes. Newly organized after-work organizations (such as the Dopolavoro—a series of recreational clubs for working people) extended the Fascist practical and ideological control outside the workplace.
Fascist nationalist propaganda reached a climax around 1935 with Italy’s military campaign against Ethiopia. Italy’s expansionist policy was strongly advocated not only for international prestige, but also to stimulate industrial production and divert public attention from the internal problems of the country, above all the economic crisis. Propaganda presented the war as a crusade against barbarism and as a way to restore the prestige of ancient Rome. On October 2, 1935, Mussolini gave a famous speech calling on Italy to mobilize for war. The next day about 110,000 Italian soldiers began an invasion of Ethiopia from Italian Somaliland. Extremely violent, the war ended in May 1936, when the capital city, Addis Ababa, surrendered and Mussolini proclaimed Italy’s King Victor Emmanuel III the “Emperor of Ethiopia.” The move upset the more than 50 member countries of the League of Nations, prompting them to levy a series of economic and commercial sanctions against Italy. Many Italians were persuaded to believe the sanctions were an unjust penalty perpetrated against their country by foreign nations, above all the “plutocratic” (in Mussolini’s terms) powers of Britain and France.
In terms of international politics, the Ethiopian war led to the alliance between Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany. After their joint support of the Spanish Civil War—in 1936 both Mussolini and Hitler sent troops to back the Fascist counterrevolutionary forces in Spain—a pact of friendship was signed between Italy and Germany. The pact, identified by Mussolini as the “Rome-Berlin axis,” was transformed in May 1939 into the Patto d’Acciaio (Pact of Steel) military alliance, in which Germany and Italy pledged to support one another in the event of an international threat.
The persecution of opponents
The enactment of the Fascist Laws in 1925 entailed the establishment of a Tribunale Speciale (Special Tribunal) for the Defense of the State, whose members were chosen from among Fascist consuls and squadristi (squad members). This tribunal often worked in cooperation with a powerful branch of the police, OVRA (an acronym for Organizzazione perlaVigilanza e la Repressione dell’Antifascismo, or Organization for Vigilance and Repression of Anti-Fascism), which was devoted to the repression of anti-Fascist activity. With its assistance, the Tribunale Speciale arrested, imprisoned, and condemned hundreds of the regime’s opponents, including Antonio Gramsci. On mere suspicion, opponents could be apprehended, tortured, imprisoned, and deported. They would be sent to remote Italian villages (as in the case of Carlo Levi, who, after his confinement in southern Italy, wrote the novel Christ Stopped at Eboli), or to secluded islands such as Ustica, Lipari, or Ponza. Many opponents of the regime were murdered, while over 10,000 left Italy, becoming part of a phenomenon known as fuoriscitismo (”political exile”). Some of the exiles organized a campaign against the Fascist regime from abroad. Apart from Benedetto Croce’s Manifesto of the Antifascist Intellectuals (1925), only a few voices within Italy spoke publicly against Fascism. Nonetheless, the struggle of the regime’s opponents continued surreptitiously within the country. Until the outbreak of World War II, in fact, thousands of anti-Fascists manifested their dissent in various forms, from small-scale sabotage to acts of propaganda, attempts on Mussolini’s life, resistance to the authorities, or aid to fugitives trying to escape Italy. Anarchist organizations and the Communist Party, among other groups, continued their activities clandestinely. In retaliation, the Fascist militiamen beat, killed, or kidnapped hundreds of people.
Official justice institutions often operated secretly and arbitrarily, too. Between 1926 and 1929, for example, the Special Tribunal decided 4,805 cases. By the end of Fascism in 1943, 110,000 Italians had been registered as subversive, about 160,000 had been officially put under special police surveillance, and 17,000 had been confined. While capital punishment was enforced in only a very limited number of cases, the political prisoners of Fascism regularly faced conditions of brutal deprivation, strict isolation, and even torture in the course of their imprisonment. When these prisoners could communicate with outside society through letters, as in Gramsci’s case, they had to contend with and, if necessary, find clever ways to circumvent the prison censors.
The imprisonment of Antonio Gramsci is a classic case of Fascist repression. He had by 1926 established himself as a Marxist thinker and a Communist Party leader who spread his ideas through action and writings. Among other predictions, Gramsci had speculated that the Fascist regime might evolve into a brutal dictatorship. He was quickly arrested after the institution of the Special Tribunal. First confined on the island of Ustica, he was subsequently sentenced to long-term imprisonment. Gramsci spent the rest of his life in various facilities (the prisons of Regina Coeli in Rome, San Vittore in Milan, the penitentiary of Turi in Apulia, near Bari). In solitary confinement for most of this time, despite progressive physical and mental deterioration, he produced an impressive array of writings, from personal letters to philosophical and literary notes. Gramsci’s corpus of prison writings, besides expounding the thought of one of Italy’s leading intellectuals, testifies to a relentless determination on the part of anti-Fascists to live, think, and write as honestly as possible despite totalitarian repression and violence.
Antonio Gramsci did not intend to publish his letters, and these cannot be considered a conventional work of literature for several reasons. First, since outgoing messages from prisons were censored, Gramsci avoided discussing personal issues in detail or addressing political matters explicitly in the letters. Secondly, prisoners could write only on given days of the week and in very limited amounts of time. Consequently, Gramsci could not review or edit his letters, and much of his epistolary work seems to be a first draft. Finally, while he was a very prolific writer of essays, articles, and notes, as well as a tireless editor of newspapers and journals (such as Ordine Nuovo and L’Unitá), Gramsci never published or collected his writings during his lifetime. The posthumous publication of his letters appears to be the product of an editorial effort on the part of scholars, friends, and comrades.
Written over ten years, the corpus of Gramsci’s letters consists of about 480 documents. A chronological reading of the letters makes it possible to outline the different stages of his imprisonment.
The first days of imprisonment
Following his arrest on November 8, 1926, Gramsci spent 16 days in the Regina Coeli prison in Rome before being transferred to Palermo, Sicily. We have very few letters from this period.
In a letter addressed to his “dearest Mother” (Gramsci, Letters from Prison, vol. 1, p. 37) just a few days after the arrest, Gramsci declares his determination to resist the adverse effects of imprisonment and isolation. “I’m tranquil and serene,” Gramsci states, because “morally I was prepared for everything. Physically too I will try to overcome the difficulties that may await me and to keep my balance. You know my character and you know that at the bottom of it there is always a quantum of cheerful humor: this will help me live” (Letters from Prison, vol. 1, p. 37). Of course, Gramsci did not know at the time of the forthcoming hardships related to his long-term confinement in isolation, nor that he would ultimately die without ever seeing his loved ones again.
The confinement at Ustica
On December 7, 1926, Gramsci was transferred from Palermo to the island of Ustica, off the coast of Sicily. Here he spent six weeks in confinement with hundreds of other political and common prisoners. As Gramsci wrote after his arrival on the island, the total population of Ustica was “about 1,600 inhabitants, 600 of them detainees” (Letters from Prison, vol. 1, p. 49). There, Gramsci could write freely, but he did not send out many letters. In those he did send, he asked for books, medicines, toiletries, and other “small things that it is impossible to find here in Ustica” (Letters from Prison, vol. 1, p. 56). He was mainly moved in these messages to reassure his loved ones.
Imprisonment at San Vittore in Milan
On January 27, 1927, Gramsci was transferred from Ustica to the prison of San Vittore in Milan. Here he spent a year and a half waiting for evidence to be gathered against him. In Milan, Gramsci was relatively free to write. About 100 missives stem from this part of the detention.
In a famous letter dated March 19, 1927, and addressed to his sister-in-law, Tatiana (”Tania”) Schucht, Gramsci states that he will continue his intellectual work to overcome feelings of loneliness and despair. Besides attesting to its author’s tenacity, this document shows Gramsci’s determination to carry out a systematic project of scholarly study in prison:
My life still goes by always with the same monotony. Studying too is much more difficult than it might seem. I’ve received some books and I actually read a lot (more than a book a day, besides the newspapers), but this is not what I’m referring to, I’m talking about something else. I am obsessed (this is a phenomenon typical of people in jail, I think) by this idea: that I should do something, für ewtg [for eternity]. … In short, in keeping with a preestablished program, I would like to concentrate intensely and systematically on some subject that would absorb and provide a center to my inner life.
(Letters from Prison, vol. 1, p. 83)
The same letter contains a first outline of the main themes Gramsci wanted to address in his scholarly work:
- An inquiry into the “Italian intellectuals, their origins, their grouping in accordance with cultural currents, and their various ways of thinking” (Letters from Prison, vol. 1, p. 83).
- A study of comparative linguistics (to repay a debt he felt he owed to the academic world, which he had abandoned to take up politics).
- Scholarly research on the theater of Luigi Pirandello and the transformation of Italian theatrical taste (see Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author , also in WLAIT 7: Italian Literature and Its Times).
- A study of serial novels and popular taste in literature.
What these topics have in common, Gramsci states, is that they display “the creative spirit of the people in its diverse stages and degrees of development” (Letters from Prison, vol. 1, p. 84).
IN FAILING HEALTH, WITH A TRIUMPHANT SPIRIT
“I‘m four years older, I have many white hairs, I’ve lost my teeth, I no longer laugh with gusto as I used to, but I believe that I have become wiser and that I have enriched my experience of men and of things … as long as we want to live, as long as we have a taste for lite and we still want to attain some goal, we succeed in withstanding all misfortunes and all illnesses.”
To his mother 4 years after the arrest, on December 15, 1930. (Letters from Prison, vol. 1, p. 367)
A few months later, Gramsci started working on the first of his notebooks—a school exercise book, ruled, and marked with the prison stamp. By the end of his life, Gramsci completed over 30 notebooks containing brief notes, short essays, monographs, translations, and other fragments. In the end, he dealt not only with the topics he originally intended but with so much more, including Machiavelli’s political treatise The Prince , as it might be read both in historical context and with respect to contemporary Italy (also in WLAIT 7: Italian Literature and Its Times). Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks, edited and published after World War II, are now regarded not only as a masterpiece of political writing, but also as one of the major modern-day works in the study of contemporary interpretive thought.
The trial and the years in Turi
In May 1928, Gramsci was transferred from Milan to Rome in order to attend his trial. On May 28, the first day of the proceedings, Gramsci is reported to have turned to the judges and said: “You will lead Italy to ruin and it will be up to us Communists to save her” (Letters from Prison, vol. 1, p. 6). On June 4, 1928, at the end of the trial, the Special Tribunal sentenced Gramsci to twenty years, four months, and five days in prison.
A month later Gramsci was transferred to the Casa Penale of Turi, near Bari. Here, his physical condition started deteriorating dramatically. Between 1931 and 1933 he suffered from haemoptyses (the coughing up of blood), hallucinations, and ravings. Nevertheless, he managed during this time to write the major part of his Notebooks as well as approximately 300 letters. Due to prison censorship, he seldom wrote to his political comrades or other members of the Communist Party. Still, with the help of his wife’s sister, Tania, he managed, to a certain degree, to participate in political and cultural debate.
Tania, in particular, served as an intermediary between Gramsci and Piero Sraffa, a world-renowned economist who had been Gramsci’s friend since their student days in Turin. By arrangement, Tania hid Sraffa’s messages in her own letters to the prisoner. In turn, when she received his responses, Tania transcribed and forwarded Gramsci’s messages to Sraffa. In early 1932, at Sraffa’s suggestion, Tania wrote Gramsci and pretended she had to produce a review of Benedetto Croce’s influential work, The History of Europe in the Nineteenth Century. Gramsci responded with a series of six letters (dated April 18 and 25; May 2, 9 and 23; and June 6, 1932) that articulate briefly his own response to the work of Croce’s—one of the major European philosophers of the time, commonly referred to as the founder of neoidealism—and express Gramsci’s famous understanding of the historico-political concept of “hegemony.” Briefly, “hegemony,” as Gramsci uses it, means the system of ideological (as opposed to physical) control that a dominant group exercises throughout society. These six letters constitute a single message that the author was not able to complete in one session because he was allowed to write only a limited number of pages per week.
Sraffa’s effort to smuggle out Gramsci’s views did not pass unnoticed. The prison censor believed that Tania’s request for help with writing a review of Croce’s work masked an attempt to publish Gramsci’s thoughts abroad. Gramsci suffered for it, undergoing interrogations and searches and experiencing in general a worsening of prison conditions.
The last phase: Civitavecchia and Rome
While Gramsci was being consumed by Pott’s disease, pulmonary tuberculosis, hypertension, angina, and gout, an international movement arose on his behalf. French writer Romain Rolland and the Archbishop of Canterbury, among other major figures, made public statements and vehemently protested Gramsci’s imprisonment. The pressure on the Italian government resulted in Gramsci’s sentence being reduced.
In November 1933, Gramsci was transferred from Turi to Civitavecchia and then to a clinic in Formia, near Rome. Tatiana was permitted to come to aid him now, since his health had by this time worsened considerably. In August 1935 he was transferred to the Quisisana clinic in Rome, which was run by Swiss nuns. Here Gramsci could write freely, but his physical ailments made his pieces shorter and less regular. In one of his last messages to his son Delio, Gramsci minimizes the gravity of his situation. While asking for information about his son and giving him advice for the future, in this fragment Gramsci summarizes his own conception of history (which he had discussed extensively in the Notebooks and in other letters) and reiterates his understanding of man in general as a “historical formation” (Letters from Prison, vol. 1, p. 302). The letter to Delio is characterized by the profoundly loving tone of a father who addresses his son knowing that there is but a very slim chance of ever seeing him again:
I am feeling a bit tired and cannot write a lot. Write to me always and tell me about everything that interests you in school. I think you like history just as I did when I was your age, because it deals with human beings. And everything that deals with people, as many people as possible, all the people in the world as they join together in society and work and struggle and better themselves, should please you more than any thing else. But is it like that? I embrace you. Papa.
(Letters from Prison, vol. 2, pp. 383-84)
Gramsci died in Rome on April 27, 1937, only three days before his scheduled release.
Domination and hegemony
Gramsci is perhaps most famous for his development of the idea of hegemony, which he distinguishes from domination. According to Gramsci, domination refers to physical coercion or force while hegemony indicates ideological control. It entails a consent that permeates social institutions (unions, schools, churches, and families) and collective thought (shared values and beliefs—e.g., what makes “common sense”).
In Gramsci’s view, when hegemony encourages sacrifice and deprivation for the sake of the system, it promotes political passivity and encourages the idea that people have no control
During his imprisonment Gramsci wrote to relatives and friends. The most important correspondents are:
- Giuseppina “Peppina” Marcias Gramsci (1861-1932). Gramsci’s mother, a native Sardinian who died while her son was imprisoned. Remarkably, Antonio did not write any letters to his father.
- Julca “Giulia” Schucht (1896-1980). Gramsci’s wife. Starting in the early 1920s, her health deteriorated and she suffered several nervous breakdowns (probably caused by a form of epilepsy), with her condition worsening after her husband’s arrest. She spent most of her life, including the years of Gramsci’s imprisonment, in Moscow.
- Delio “Delka” Gramci and Ciuliano “Julik” Cramsci . Sons of Antonio and Julca. Dello was born in Moscow in 1924. Giuliano was born in 1926, and his father never met him in person.
- Tatiana Tania” Schucht (1887-1943). Sister of Julca. Besides writing extensively to Gramsci and transcribing his messages to other recipients, Tania visited Gramsci in prison and directly assisted him in the last phase of the imprisonment. She was present at his death.
- Piero Sraffa (1898-1983). World-famous economist and friend of Gramsci since their student years in Turin. He served as Professor of Economics at the Universities of Perugia, Milan, and Cagliari before being appointed lecturer at Cambridge University (1927-31) and then Fellow of Trinity College (1939-83). Sraffa authored a series of studies on David Ricardo and Karl Marx and wrote a famous letter, printed in the Manchester Guardian in October 1929, against Gramsci’s imprisonment.
- Gramsci also sent letters to his siblings Carlo, Grazietta , and Teresina Gramsci , and to his former Roman landlady Clara Passarge . Other letters are addressed to Communist militants like Virginio Borioni (in prison with Gramsci in Rome) and Giuseppe Berti (confined in Ustica).
over events. Political revolution in such an environment is impossible unless a crisis occurs to disrupt the ideological hegemony. It follows that socialist movements must create just such a crisis—must spread through society a “counter-hegemony” that will break the system’s ideological bonds and penetrate the false world of established appearances. Only in this way can new, “liberated” ideas and values be established. So working people must unite, constitute themselves into a class (the proletariat), lead the nation, and eventually found a new government. In other words, they must engage in a struggle for hegemony under the auspices of the Communist Party (seen by Gramsci as an organized revolutionary avant-garde). The struggle, taught Gramsci, ought to be waged by way of a new politically engaged person, rather than the highly theoretical and highly specialized intellectual.
According to Gramsci, all those who have attained prominence in civil society should contribute to the creation of counter-hegemony. Intellectuals, in particular, should give voice to the needs and ideas of other, potentially revolutionary sectors of society (especially the working class and the peasantry) and in this way become “organic” agents in the development of civil consciousness.
Sources and literary context
The tradition of epistolary (or letter) writing is strong in the history of Italian literature. The letters of Saint Catherine of Siena (1347-80) were the first to be recognized for their literary merit; the epistolary texts of several other Italian writers (including Machiavelli and Galileo Galilei) were also widely published and studied alongside more conventional literary works. From the end of the eighteenth century, the epistolary genre assumed a primary importance in Italian culture, as indicated by the highly popular novel The Last Letters of Jacopo Ortis (also in WLAIT 7: Italian Literature and Its Times).
As we can infer from the Letters and the Notebooks, Gramsci had a wide knowledge of Italian and international literatures. His main literary models ranged (according to a letter sent to his son, Delio, in the summer of 1936) from Homer to Aeschylus, Dante, Shakespeare, Goethe, and Cervantes. Gramsci refers to Tolstoy as one of the few writers in the world “who has attained the greatest perfection in art and has aroused and continues to arouse torrents of emotion every-where, even in the worst translations, even in the men and women who are brutalized by heavy toil and have an elementary culture.” In the same document Gramsci admires Chekhov, calling him a “progressive” writer who “has contributed to the liquidation of the middle classes, the intellectuals, the petty bourgeois as the standard bearers of Russian history and its future” (Letters from Prison, vol. 2, p. 360).
The first Italian edition of the Letters from Prison was published by Giulio Einaudi in 1947—ten years after Gramsci’s death and four years after the demise of the Fascist regime. The book consisted of a selection of 218 letters and met with an enthusiastic popular response. After having sold 12,000 copies in just a few months, the book was awarded the Premio Viareggio (one of Italy’s highest literary awards) for nonfiction.
The Viareggio prize committee recognized the artistic value of the letters, finding in Gramsci “a lucid affirmer and witness” of the human condition (Repaci in Gramsci, Letters from Prison, vol. 1, p. 1). The most influential literary critics of the time likewise recognized the importance to Italian literature of Gramsci’s published letters. Benedetto Croce reacted in 1947 with the observation that “as a man of thought Gramsci was one of us, one of those who in the first decades of this century in Italy devoted themselves to forming a philosophical and historical habit of mind adequate to the problems of the present” (Croce, p. 86). Other Italian critics, such as Carlo Bo and Italo Calvino, stressed the universality of Gramsci’s testimony and spoke of the desire for life that courses through the text. Finally, in his introduction to the letters, Paolo Spriano sizes them up with a poetic flourish, dwelling on the collection’s personal impact:
Gramsci’s letters constitute both a human and a literary monument. Taken together, they pace the rhythm of his captivity, and constitute a tragic tale that becomes gloomier and gloomier, to culminate in a sort of farewell to life in the 1936 notes to his far apart children.
The reader enters a tunnel, and the light at its end gets dimmer and dimmer and eventually dies out.
(Spriano in Gramsci, Lettere dal Carcere, p. xvii; trans. S. Ovan)
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Croce, Benedetto. Review of Le lettere dal carcere, by Antonio Gramsci. Quaderni della Critica 8 (July 1947): 86.
Dombroski, Robert. Antonio Gramsci. Boston: Twayne, 1989.
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—. Letters from Prison. Ed. Frank Rosengarten; trans. Raymond Rosenthal. 2 vols. New York: Columbia University Press, 1994.
—. Selections from Cultural Writings. Ed. David Forgacs and Geoffrey Nowell-Smith; trans. William Boelhower. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1985.
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