Michel Foucault once remarked that Antonio Gramsci is a figure much cited and little read. Once upon a time (in the 90s, when things seemed more dismal, then they really were) neoconservatives were warned that Gramscianism was conducting a "long march through the institutions": leftists of a freethinking and free-wheeling bent threw around "organic intellectual" as denoting indigenous members of collective subjects not quite proletarian, and wondered whether "hegemony" was being orchestrated by hip-hop provocateurs.
But in yet another retrenchment of yet another cruel decade, Gramsci has fallen off the map. The neocons wonder if Hillary Rodham Clinton is "angry" about things other than her man and Whitewater; the bohemian leftists wonder about Empire, or stay silent. Which is probably well enough, when it comes to the Gramscian corpus. For although this is the work of an ill-deserved confinement courtesy of one of the world's more notable totalitarian regimes, its stated aim is to be itself "totalitarian" in conception. Antonio Gramsci was something much more complex than a "freedom fighter", and his pronouncements regarding a multitude of subjects in this selection from his *Quaderni del carcere* deserve to be analyzed critically rather than sympathetically.
"Open Marxism" this is not: Gramsci has three major tasks, all of which are compatible with Leninist-Stalinist orthodoxy. Firstly, to analyze the "passive revolution" which has put forth another alternative to progressive political change yet left the productive forces of the economy modernizing with all due speed; secondly, to celebrate the fact of the Communist party's Russian dominance by studying not-necessarily-democratic "hegemony" as a form of political expression throughout modern history; thirdly, to advocate a form of Marxism thoroughly divorced from the materialist scruples of mechanics and keeping its eyes focused firmly on the historical here and now.
All of which are interesting projects, worthy of the best political science and historical ontology that the bourgeois world has to offer, but all of which compete with more explicitly liberatory ideologies (Trotsky's "permanent revolution", representative democracy, Encylopedic enthusiasm for a truly popular science) and offer nuance rather than redemption. Gramsci's communism is, cliched though it may be, somewhat Jesuitical and overly "disciplined" in the face of historical setbacks and core organizational shibboleths of the Comintern: we are offered only details filling out a party line we should believe in anyway, rather than a stirring defense of people power. This book is brilliant, rather than inspirational, and its theses should be troubling, if enlightening, for a member of the democratic left.