Too many Antonio Gramsci biographies are either too unwieldy for the non-specialist or overuse his letters to contextualize the man’s life (rather than using the man’s life to contextualize the letters). Here is one that commits neither sin, with a perfect balance of detail with brevity in clear if sometimes clunky prose. (But then, what’s clunkier than early-20th-century Italian politics?)
The author, Jean-Yves Frétigné, is a lecturer on early modern Italy at the University of Rouen in Normandy, with a stable of biographies on the father of Sicilian socialism, Napoleone Colajanni; spearhead of Italian unification Giuseppe Mazzini; and Louis-Philippe, the last French king. It shows. To Live Is to Resist: The Life of Antonio Gramsci is his first book in English. The translator, Laura Marris, has previously translated Camus’ The Plague (2021); its lesser-known influence, Louis Guilloux’s Blood Dark (2017); and Géraldine Schwarz’s memoir of Holocaust complicity, Those Who Forget (2020).
The structure of To Live Is to Resist is graceful, economical, and matter-of-fact. The foremost question which obsessed Gramsci in his physically deformed (he suffered from a spinal-tubercular form of Pott’s disease) and materially impoverished childhood (his ex-con father was a minor clerk and heroically bad entrepreneur) was the cause and cure for poverty. To reconstruct his deprovincialization from an upbringing in Sardinia, regarded by the rest of Italy as a peripheral province of lazy, physically and morally deficient shepherds, Frétigné reconstructs the peninsula’s early 20th-century political history. He presents Gramsci’s life as a defiant displacement from prison to prison, between the bodily, the economic, the ideological, and the literal.
In each, necessity conditioned and contradicted his will. Action which enabled life beyond mere survival was an action that enabled self-government; for Gramsci, a liberating act was always political. He conceived our modern term “hegemony”; it denotes one group’s ideological dominance over another “subaltern” (also Gramsci-coined). Hence, he viewed resistance as ideological, and thus a cultural process.
He tried it in Turin; first as a sickly and solitary student, then as a wartime journalist for Socialist dailies. At a time when Italy embraced conservative nationalism and Socialism was rent between pacifist reformism and revolutionary syndicalism, Turin was its largest industrial city and a laboratory for trade-union and World War I demonstrations. Gramsci perceived that the only force sufficient to subvert the domination of southern landowners and northern industrialists was an alliance of southern peasants with the northern proletariat.
As head of the Italian Communist Party in the mid-1920s, he conceived a popular-front form of Marxism irreducible to economic determinism on the one hand and political sectarianism on the other. Resistance to the petit-bourgeois base of Fascism depended upon a historically-aware united front from below.
While the monarchical sympathies, clientelist networks, and anti-unitarianism of southern Italy rendered it an enclave for constitutional, often liberal resistance to Fascism, this very class structure promised a Fascist storehouse: if workers are unorganized, they look to the reactionary, separatist petit-bourgeoisie. Gramsci was among the first theorists to distinguish two currents of Fascism: a hardline break with the old legal system, and a conservative attachment to traditional appearances.
With his illegal arrest in 1926, the Italian Bolshevik became the prison philosopher whose works revolutionized modern political thought/theory well beyond the Communist sphere. To Frétigné’s un-overstatable credit, he devotes less than 15% of the book to Gramsci’s prison stint and contextualizes most of this beyond bars—from anti-Communist power-plays among the Fascist officials who reviewed his case, to comrades’ attempts to free him, to those who linked him with the world (predominantly his de facto wife’s sister, Tatiana). In true Gramscian fashion, Frétigné details the material conditions of the militant’s insight and influence while shirking historical determinism and abstract idealism.
There is an illuminating discussion of Gramsci’s letters: he was allowed to send two a week, and only to family. Each comprised a personal part (which Tatiana copied and sent to family) and an analytical part (which she copied and sent to the party). This habit structured much of the Prison Notebooks. Why notebooks, a medium he hadn’t needed since his school days? They were easier to control than paper sheaves, each cover stamped with prison authorization and each page numbered to prevent hiding from fanatically sadistic guards.
In the Notebooks, Gramsci penetrated the confluence of Americanism, Fascism, and Stalinism in the first half of the ’30s like no other figure. He was among the first Italian intellectuals to discern that Fascism was not merely a sword arm of elite capital but the result of the power of petit-bourgeois interests over this elite; hence Fascism’s extension of the Taylorist factory model and Fordist production-consumption model to society en masse.
The form of Fascist command was totalitarian, its political success a matter of social conformity. This is to no reader’s surprise now and much old-guard Communist consternation then (as the critique would apply, at least superficially, to Stalin’s command of the USSR as well). I note these not to flood the interested reader with Gramsci’s achievement, but to represent Frétigné’s own achievement in rendering his influence so clearly. This book had me discern that, far from merely enduring, Gramsci’s thought has grown more pertinent in a century.
No wonder Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks continually define intellectuals—denoting those who promote a liberating and worthy popular culture—as “permanent persuaders”. There is no better model than this for his famed maxim “pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will”: pessimism because permanent persuasion implies permanent resistance; optimism because it implies an ever-changing meld of act with thought. But thought must perceive the injustice it seeks to end. There is no better case for the relevance of Gramsci’s perception of present injustice than Frétigné’s.