Book Review: Antonio Gramsci – Towards an Intellectual Biography

Alastair Davidson
Antonio Gramsci – Towards an Intellectual Biography (Brill, Historical Materialism, 2017)

Reviewed by Peter Beilharz (Sichuan University)

(This is a prepublication version of this review. The published version appears in Thesis Eleven Journal, available on the T11 Sage website)

Into the eighties there was talk of a Gramsci boom. What this really indicated was the discovery of Gramsci by Cultural Studies, and the subsequent naturalization of Gramsci as an Englishman. There were some fine results here, especially via transmission in the hands of writers like Stuart Hall. There was also some movement in the USA, around Telos, and even in Australia, where we had been reading Gramsci since 1968, thanks to the work of Alastair Davidson. In 1977 I was working under the supervision of Davidson at Monash University, in Politics. Thesis Eleven was almost emerging, but not yet. Davidson’s reputation was as the Gramsci Man. In that moment, he delivered Antonio Gramsci – Towards an Intellectual Biography. We read it in manuscript, then in the Merlin edition when copies arrived in a box by sea. This was a formative moment for Thesis Eleven, and for me.

Forty years on The Historical Materialism project of Brill has seen fit to republish it, with a new preface, and introduced again by his old friend Norberto Bobbio. How does it scrub up? Were our youthful enthusiasms for Davidson and his subject, our hero, overdetermined by the roseate aura of those early, radical days?

The short answer is no, or only a little. The book ages beautifully. It still reads splendidly, from the beginning call to that which is truly contingent, ‘towards’… . For like its subject, it is written into its own historicity. Gramsci’s life was, in the beginning, framed by a triple disability. He was a hunchback; his father was framed, imprisoned, the family shamed; and they found themselves in Sardinia, as beautiful as it was backward, in the literal sense – life too often nasty and brutal , given to the cruelty and superstition of extreme suffering and poverty. This was not directly Gramsci’s world, but he nevertheless found himself in it. It was his home. Gramsci knew about suffering, in the sense that Kant had requested, combining Theory with Experience. From an early age he was well acquainted with both common sense and good sense and their various admixtures.

Davidson’s procedure is classical in approach. The chapter titles map this out. A Country Boy; Making the Country Boy into an Italian; A Philosophy of Praxis; An International Figure? A Revolutionary Theory. Time, place, class and standing are everything. Yet there is also will. Gramsci also makes himself. He takes himself north, to Turin, to study linguistics. There, he is in the crucible of Italian modernity, Fiat and the occupation of the factories. Yet he also maintains the mentality of the outsider. Alongside key early texts such as ‘The Revolution Against Capital ‘, there is the solid rock of The Southern Question. As has been observed many times, there is a Gramsci before Gramsci, which is to say before Hegemony and its adoption and adaptation by the English New Left into the eighties. What made Western Marxism different, for Gramsci, was the moment of self organization exemplified in the workers’ councils. This is ultimately why he chose to identify momentarily with Lenin, projecting his own defining enthusiasm for the soviets onto the author of What is to be Done. As Davidson shows, this was a moment of revolutionary exhilaration, in which every activist had their own Lenin, because none of them outside the Soviet Union really knew Lenin at all. Lenin became an icon of the idea of Revolution, until the story began to play out fully tragically .Was Gramsci a Leninist? ‘One inference is clear. Even in August 1920, Gramsci envisaged a renovation of the party which did away with its leading role.’(151)

Gramsci begins as a defensive provincial, discovers the world system, the power of the local, and then the national popular. Cosmopolitan by taste, he is nevertheless a great left populist, not least because of the realization that Mussolini, his erstwhile comrade in the PSI, has got there first with the March on Rome. Left to itself, history tells us that the bad guys will win. Ergo hegemony, and the need to counter it in all its manifestations.

So how well do we know Gramsci, these days? There are still relatively few English biographies of Gramsci – Fiori, Cammett, a handful more. No big new revisitations as we find for example in the Polity series, for Weber, Durkheim, Levi –Strauss, Adorno, Derrida. There was a flurry of writing into the eighties, and then a solid raft of work sponsored by the Historical Materialism project, most outstandingly in the work of Peter Thomas in The Gramscian Moment. In this context, it is timely to read Davidson’s essai, attempt, again at leisure. How good it is to have it available again.

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