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Tuesday, September 8, 2020

Selections from the Prison NotebooksSelections from the Prison Notebooks by Antonio Gramsci
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Without writing a book on this book (and believe me, I'm tempted) I'm going to try to keep this simple.

However, this classic working-Marxist text is anything but simple.

The first more-than-half of it has enough variations on political principles to make an Ism out of Isms, going into vast detail about enough 1910-1930 Italian politics INCLUDING the rise of Mussolini, post-revolution Russia political movements, and even some French.

As for me, I know enough history to be slightly dangerous, but trying to follow THIS Trotskian/Italian Fascism/polemical nightmare without having BEEN there and STEEPED in the times makes me realize that I am out of my depth. Slightly. BUT these Selections from the Prison Notebooks come with a pretty awesome bonus.

It has commentary. Whew!!!

Getting something out of the almost Naturalist descriptions, all the play-by-play political dealings of all these countries as they undergo a Marxist transformation, is more of a matter of letting the IDEAS sink in rather than hearing a formal statement. Indeed, the text is full of short maxims that felt more like reading Nietzsche than anything resembling a Social Science.

However, for me at least, none of THAT was as impressive or thought-provoking as what came in the second half of his writings.

The rest is philosophy. Fine philosophy that tries to drag the study of massive social movements out of the realm of art and into the realm of science. I swear, he was probably trying to pull a Wittgenstein on his logic, but really, I know he was just pulling a Hegelian argument.

Here's the weird thing about Gramsci: most of the later Marxist thinkers love the hell out of him, but first they had to pour over his overly complicated text to root out those rare nuggets of wisdom like pigs hunting for truffles. There is nothing overly clear about anything he has written.

Almost ALL of my understanding of Gramsci comes from the (much) later commentaries.

Some exceptions exist, however.

I got the clear impression that Common Sense, in the parlance that he uses it, is the core of any nascent or growing political theory. But Common Sense, as he uses it, is often very uncommon and is almost ALWAYS used to drive the unthinking masses into positions that may not (or likely probably not) be in their best interests. It's the idea that if you want to drive the people to do what you want, then first you must convince them that YOUR ideas are simple Common Sense whether or not it has anything to do with whether it BENEFITS them or not.

A common modern example is using any or all of the moral foundations See Here to whip a people into a frenzy (Pro-Life, for example,) and use this as a COMPLETE platform to push through a wide set of policies that will probably drain the constituents of all their self-respect, drive them to perform horrendous acts of racism, or even steal their money -- but it's perfectly valid because at least the prime tenet of (Pro-Life) is kept sacrosanct.

As Gramsci would put it, you must never get so intellectual that you lose the heart of the argument, and never be so emotionally riled up that you lose the core intellectual awesomeness. In other words, you always need to find that sweet spot and change tactics for your audience. (Gramsci was never so straightforward, however. We get our modern concepts of this from him, distilled over time and use.)

Another great (or disturbing) feature of Gramsci is the full, detailed descriptions of how Fascism came to its rise in Italy. How it could convince so many people to dehumanize and create enemies out of the other side.

It is a slow, painstaking process, but please refer to the Moral Foundations Theory I linked to above and couple it with massive, massive repetitions. This is the core of changing the basic Common Sense of a people. If you change the dialogue, if you change the fundamental NARRATIVE, then you can drive people to believe and do ANYTHING.

As people in Italy used to say, "Eh, I hate fascism, but at least they got the trains to run on time."


After all, a little intelligence can get any train to run on time. It doesn't take fascism to do anything except have a whole people eat itself.

All in all, this is some pretty interesting food for thought. And trust me, I barely scratched the surface. I hope I piqued your interest, however.

If we don't know our history, we will always be doomed to repeat it.

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