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American Engineer, German Philosopher & French Politician: Gramsci’s Ideal Blend for the Modern Leonardo da Vinci

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Our conversations take us wherever they like so before talking about my instructional experience in Russia I’ll present a few passages by Antonio Gramsci (1891 – 1937) written in the 1930s while he was in prison.

Gramsci is considered the father of democratic communism [a thing, to say the truth, that remained in his mind and was never realised.]

All his works, and notably his Prison Letters and Prison Notebooks, are not only amazingly valuable for their intellectual & moral depth – acute analyses of Italian & European history, literature, theatre, philosophy, linguistics, political strategy etc. -, they have also been recognized since their appearance in 1947 as masterpieces of our language and literature.

His powerful brain was feared by both the Fascists and the Russians, and it pained me so much to learn that his Russian wife Julka or Julia Schucht (see her below with their sons, Delio and Giuliano,) together with her sister Tatiana Schucht, were probably spies for the Gpu (Kgb.) [Also a few of Gramsci's and Julka's descendants confirmed that.]

[Magister and Gramsci were the mentors who saved me from being a savage - although I am still a bit: you migh read here]

I was surprised to find the words – Gramsci’s words -, that to me best describe the importance of classical education in our country – ie the connection to our roots, this blog’s theme -, in the inspiring web pages of a certain Max Gabrielson, a Latin & Greek teacher at the Wilton High School in Wilton, Connecticut, considered one of Connecticut top performer schools according to the Wikipedia.

With such words from his Prison Notebooks Gramsci refers to the classical education delivered in the Italian Ginnasio and Liceo that, compared to his school days, had been changed a bit by the first important reform of Italian education (Gentile‘s & Croce‘s, 1923) after the unification of Italy 60 years earlier (1860-70.)

[An education that didn't change much even until my days and my daughters' days. No change at all? Well, it progressively became comprehensive mass education (with its pros and cons) so that its solidity, like a merum from the ancients, was diluted in the years - the wine being still there, but its inebriating effects having almost dissolved]

Let us listen to Antonio Gramsci describing the deep meaning of such education:

“In the old school the grammatical study of Latin and Greek, together with the study of their respective literatures and political histories, was an educational principlefor the humanistic ideal, symbolized by Athens and Rome, was diffused throughout society, and was an essential element of national life and culture. Even the mechanical character of the study of grammar [criticised by Croce and Gentile, MoR] was enlivened by this cultural perspective. Individual facts were not learned for an immediate practical or professional end. The end seemed disinterested, because the real interest was the interior development of personality, the formation of character by the absorption and assimilation of the whole cultural past of modern European civilization [...] Pupils learned Greek and Latin in order to know at first hand the civilization of Greece and Rome — a civilization that was a necessary precondition to our modern civilization: in other words, they learnt them in order to be themselves and know themselves consciously.

‘In order to be themselves, to know themselves consciously …”

ψ

Gramsci criticises in 1932 the multiplication of vocational schools that in his view aimed at perpetuating social differences. Moreover, a true democracy needed adequate people:

“The labourer can become a skilled worker, for instance, the peasant a surveyor or petty agronomist. But democracy, by definition, cannot mean merely that an unskilled worker can become skilled. It must mean that every ‘citizen’ can ‘govern’ and that society places him, even if only abstractly, in a general condition to achieve this. Political democracy tends towards a coincidence of the rulers and the ruled (in the sense of government with the consent of the governed) …”

As for K-12 education we see today a tendency to focus on 3-4 subjects only in countries such as Great Britain with students aged 15, a big mistake in my view especially now that we have to compete with lands that do most of the basic manufacturing to the extent that we need extra added-value creativity in our products.

Gramsci would certainly have agreed. Born to a backward Sardinian peasant milieu, with big family and health problems, his intellectual success influenced his view that a more comprehensive education of the working class was possible.

He was in fact irritated by his wife’s inclination to guess specialised interests in their 2 very young sons (one time she thought Delio could become an engineer, another time a poet etc.)

Gramsci’s wife, Jiulia Schucht, with the 2 sons, Delio (on the right) and Giuliano. She was – hideous detail – a spy for the Gpu (Kgb). Amazing how Giuliano resembles his father.

Gramsci wrote to her from his cell:

“To say the truth, I don’t much believe in such precocious display of tendencies and I haven’t much faith in your capability of discerning what professional aptitudes they might have. I should think that in both our sons, as in all children, there are likely to be found all sort of inclinations - the practical side, the theory and the imagination, and that it would consequently be more appropriate to guide them towards a more harmonious blend of all intellectual and practical faculties, since the time will come when specialisation in one or the other of these will occur on the basis of a personality vigorously formed and totally integrated.”

Gramsci then continues, expressing to her his humanistic faith in human possibilities and his 1930s ideal of the fully developed man:

“Modern man should be a synthesis of the qualities which are traditionally embodied in these national characters: the American engineer, the German philosopher and the French politician, thus recreating so to speak the Italian man of the Renaissance, the modern Leonardo da Vinci become ‘mass man’ and ‘collective man’ without sacrificing his own strong personality and individual originality.”

Post Scriptum. Gramsci reflected on many aspects of the American society (his notes on Americanism and Fordism are crucial) while he was quite worried about what was happening in the Soviet Union after 1930.

Differently from his mentor, Neapolitan Benedetto Croce, basically Hegelian, Gramsci was very much connected not only to German Kultur (he was into Hegel too and had a perfect knowledge of German – plus French, English, Russian, Latin and possibly other languages) but also to French culture: thanks to ascholarship won in 1911 he had studied in Piedmont at the University of Turin.

In 1921 he co-founded the Italian Communist Party. He then spent 2 years in the Soviet Union where in a sanatorium (his health was precarious) he ‘strangely’ met a beautiful woman, Jiulia (Julka) Schucht, who will become his wife. Back to Italy in 1924 he became head of the party. Being no orator but making use of a one-by-one-persuasion strategy he had won the majority of party delegates by totally fascinating them.

In the same year he was elected at the Italian Parliament. In the Fall of 1926, at the age of 35, he was arrested at 10:30 pm in his home located outside Porta Pia, a nice Roman area efficaciously depicted by the Italian poet Grabriele D’Annunzio. He will die at 46 after 11 years of prison.

Soon after the arrest he wrote to his wife:

“I am sure you will be strong and courageous, as you have always been. Now you will have to be even more than in the past, so that our sons may grow well and be in all worthy of you [italic is mine, MoR.]“

More on Antonio Gramsci:

Seven Aspects of Antonio Gramsci’s Thought
America, the Greatest Collective Effort Ever existed”. Antonio Gramsci
Is America Too Young to Maintain its Cultural Hegemony in the Long Run?

Related posts:

Democracy, Liberty & the Necessity of a Solid Education of the People
Culture, Kultur, Paideia
The Last Days of the Polymath

About Man of Roma

I am a man from Rome, Italy. I’m 60 and a Roman since many generations. In my blog, manofroma.wordpress.com, I’m writing down my meditations. The idea behind it all is that something 'ancient' is still alive in the true Romans of today, of which few are left.

30 responses »

  1. Your mentors had great and generous ideas. Another man, while in prison, wrote about the same, or almost same, subjects with the same generosity.
    The difference between your mentors and that man is that they never gained power and could keep propagating and defending their ideals.
    Napoleon III when he was empowered forgot his ideals. The rest is History.
    Unfortunately, today, the lofty ideal of a solid general culture and knowledge of the past have gone the way of the dodo. Some isolated individuals and small communities cling desperately to it. Let’s hope they will play the role of the Medieval Monasteries in preserving civilization until it can flourish again.

    Reply
    • zeusiswatching

      Louis Napoleon was an interesting man. He certainly doesn’t get a lot of good press (especially around May 5th), but his rule had a profound influence in a number of areas. Hippolyte Taine, Albert Guerard and Roger Williams didn’t exactly rehabilitate him, but are among a handful of historians and critics who have tried to give the man his due.

      Reply
      • Still between what he wrote while a prisoner and what he did while being N III there is a huge gap and his Mexican adventure and his abandonmemt of poor and stupid Maximilian can’t be easily whitewashed.

        Reply
        • zeusiswatching

          Well put.

          Louis Napoleon is, in my mind, a part of the long process in European history, and French history in particular of progress towards secular, and generally more representative governments and improved education for increasingly large number of people. In his person and career is representation of both the successes and the steps backwards that seemed to occur almost simultaneously.

          In some respects, I think Gramsci too represents the same thing. A mind, a unique personality, a zeal, and an ideology as flawed as Bonapartism (and like Charles Louis, Gramsci develops a distinct strain of his ideology). Yes, these men do interestingly enough represent a type of man that can recognize important needs (in Napoleon III’s case state sponsored and much enhanced education for women being a big example) but these men are not the especially honored by history, and perhaps should not be lionized.

          They are flawed enough to be undeniably human, and their ideas imperfect enough to be relegated to a certain curious obscurity from which they are studied by future generations and the ideas applied quite differently.

          Reply
    • @Paul
      @Zeus (see a specific comment below)

      Napoleon III helped the Kingdom of Piedmont-Sardinia to unify Italy, but then he betrayed Piedmont. Generally speaking, he represents an example of Caesarism that in my view was no good.

      Paul, he certainly betrayed the ideals of his prison writings that were a bit socialist, whatever one can think of socialism.

      The way he changed Paris – according to his ‘not any more socialist’ ideas – I don’t like. He made all exaggerated, and I’m sure part of the charm of Paris has been destroyed forever. If there’s one thing in Paris I dislike – among the thousands of things I do like – is this grandeur I find ridiculous.

      In a way I am totally anti-Platonic as for ‘ideas’. I don’t believe in ideas good per se (within certain limits: democracy to me, however faulty, is always good, altho it takes a long historical process for a people to become democratic, and some folks will possibly never be democratic.)

      What I mean is, socialism, liberalism, or, generally speaking, collectivism vs individualism, are they good or not? It much depends on the epoch, and on the place. As for Caesarism – a Latin trait alas but not exclusively Latin – , I tend to see Julius Caesar and Napoleon I as good examples of it – they liberated positive energies etc. While Napoleon III I see as a bad example, he suffocated the people. I’ll try to better explain my point.

      In the first phase of European industrialism, where workers and even children were horribly exploited, it was a good thing imo to be a (democratic) socialist. While, as another example of my quasi-relativism, the leftist work unions in Italy (and elsewhere in Europe: the US may be different) while they played a good role in protecting the workers from the first phases of non human industrialism onwards, since maybe the 80s until today they became anti-flexibility ‘corporations’ protecting only their members (the people who had a regular job) thus causing young people’s unemployment (and desperate going off the rails).

      Reply
  2. Arrested for what, by the way? And found guilty?

    Fascinating man, whom I hope to get to know better through you.

    But surely the “American engineer, German philosopher, French politician” phrase is sadly dated nowadays.

    I picture collapsing bridges, banal platitudes and … Sarkozy. ;)

    Reply
    • Our engineers haven’t declined so much as our politicians and corporations refuse to pay out what is needed to get the job done right. I’ve been watching a bridge two miles from my house decay for 20 years because the state government can’t manage its priorities. We’ve been making informal bets.

      As for German philosophers… dangerous, you could get Heidegger…

      Reply
    • @Andreas

      Arrested for what, by the way? And found guilty?

      It seems the King wanted the communists to be arrested as a pre-condition for supporting the coup. On 31 oct 26 an alleged attempt made on Mussolini’s life was a pretext for repression. Gramsci, advised to leave Italy, refused (‘a captain must not leave the ship’ plus no one foresaw the development of fascism.) The charges: tentative armed insurrection. Sentence, deprived of legal evidence: 20 years.

      I picture collapsing bridges, banal platitudes and … Sarkozy. (…) Fascinating man, whom I hope to get to know better through you.

      Ah ah ah, you made me laugh. It is so many years I forgot Gramsci, but he’s coming back a bit since I blog. I will certainly talk about him, since his reflection on many things ancient is interesting.

      Reply
  3. But you could also get Nietzsche!

    Reply
    • “Goest thou to woman? Do not forget thy whip!”

      (Bertrand Russell said that Nietschze’s problem there was that “he knew nine out of ten women could get the whip away from him.”)

      Reply
    • @Cheri
      @Sledpress

      I am starting to consider Nietzsche seriously only now. I think he is a bit dangerous (like communism is dangerous) and the Nazis took some ideas from him, but his studies on the Dionysian I find stimulating.

      Sled, wth is this thing about the whip, I didn’t get it :-)

      Reply
      • Just one of Nietszche’s bursts of gender anxiety. I think it was in Zarathustra. People who are too preoccupied with Will and Herrenmoral and so on often seem to be very threatened by women, in a general way.

        Reply
      • Good! With due respect to Lichanos, many view Nietzsche as one of the most revolutionary thinkers of this day.

        He loved Emerson and Yeats loved him.

        I find Nietzsche’s ideas so rich that I can only read a paragraph or two at a time ( kind of like eating cheesecake…)
        :idea:

        Reply
        • He had style, and he was outré. No surprise that unconventional people liked him then. Provocative, yes. Revolutionary?

          Even granting him that, that was then, this is now. To me he seems dated, at best.

          I’m curious to know what ideas of his seem rich to you.

          Reply
        • He was a philosopher who allowed for the ecstatic in human experience, which is too rarely done; it seems to me that most philosophy runs aground on the irrational side of the human temperament. Bertrand Russell is a perfect example of the latter, so it was probably mean of me to allude to him, but that rodomontade about whips and women is a little chuckle-inducing.

          Perhaps that is why lichanos snaps to the phrase “overrated thinker,” since Nietsczhe seems stronger on the other spokes of the Jungian wheel of temperament — feeling, intuiting, sensing, all legitimate ways of engaging the world.

          Overall I am probably on shaky ground commenting anyway, because only a little of the philosophical writing I have read — the work of the Stoics, notably — has ever nourished me when I was actually faced with a real-life poser. The rest tends to put me into a light trance state.

          Reply
        • From a Gramscian point of view – my post is on Gramsci after all – whether Nietzsche is a great thinker or not is an idle question. He simply said (very well) things that had a huge following because they touched on the sensitive keys of that (horrible to me) part of Europe that refused reason and was preparing conflagration (and the annihilation that ensued: nationalism, racism, ‘lower races’ that justified their reduction to slaves: take the Nazis’ attitude towards the Slavs).

          That his influence was enormous does not prove his greatness – nor that he was a maniac like the Gestapo guys -, but only his being on the same wavelength with such terrible forces. So I think – if I well understood – that Sledpress is right. He was the terrible poet who gave rich motives to irrational impulses, which turned into action, or helped an action that was ready to start in any case.

          Another case, Nietzsche, of the tremendous force of German philosophy: whether with rationality (Kant, Wittgenstein, Hegel etc.) or with its contrary, these people are deep. And being deep, when they explore our dark sides, they of course cause damages. They moreover had a tremendous volonté de puissance – expressed by their music too – because they were strong but had arrived late: the French and the British had already eaten up the world cake. A lot of German philosophies are religions in disguise. Man’s fault, not the Germans': they powerfully shaped with their ideas a fanaticism and irrationality that are part of any of us.

          I like Nietzsche only for the contribution he gave to understand Greek irrationality (some of his thoughts I find disgusting.) And I think he is damn right when he says: if we don’t understand what’s behind Dyonisos – that one finds painted sculpted carved everywhere in Greece and Rome, much more than Apollo or Jupiter are – we’ll never understand the Greeks – hence a no small part of ourselves – and why they are so sunny, crystal clear, but, at the same time … so tragic.

          Reply
          • … expressed by their music too…– because they were strong but had arrived late: the French and the British I don’t understand your tendency to evaluate people on the basis of their nationality. Perhaps a European thing? (See, I do it on the continental level…) All those cultures jostled together? Seems weird to me.

            A lot of German philosophies are religions in disguise.
            I would say that this is true of many intellectual systems in a variety of fields. It was one of the great disillusionments of my youth to realize this: academics and intellectuals have big egos, and they are passionately devoted to their systems, often because they satisfy deep emotional and spiritual needs, regardless of their objective truth.

            I like Nietzsche only for the contribution he gave to understand Greek irrationality…
            This was certainly an important contribution of his philological work. We focus too much on Plato and Pericles, not enough on the Bacchantes and Alcibiades, right?

            …but only his being on the same wavelength with such terrible forces
            I don’t know about this. Certainly, his more lunatic enthusiasts took his work out of context to shore up their stupid and vicious ideas. Of course, his style and content make that really easy to do. His sister, whom he despised, was an early supporter of the Nazis, but that doesn’t reflect on him. Despite my criticism of his work, I think he gets a bum rap a lot because of his moronic epigones.

          • I don’t understand your tendency to evaluate people on the basis of their nationality. Perhaps a European thing?

            Yes, a European thing (stereotypes again lol?), the nation thing being here very strong. Even with ‘nations’ that unified recently (19th century) like Germany and Italy, the identification and the roots come from afar (while France, Spain and the UK: OMG!).

            As for us, Caesar, and later Dante, have created the idea of Italia. The Germans, they have a big tradition and psychological identification too. Check Herman for them. Ambiorix for Belgium etc. It may be hard to grasp for New World people. Ethnicity here has a terrible, paralysing effect (the ‘Old’ world, no?).

            Nations are melting pots of course (unifying diverse Italians, French etc., the older the nation the more effective the melting pot).

            It’s not only a 19th century ‘nation’ ideology (of course those 2 ‘national heroes’, Ambiorix and Herman, belong to 19th century nationalism). There is more than that, but it is very complicated. Why the hell ww1 and ww2 exploded? “Be sure your sins will find you out”.

            All this “the British, the French, the Spanish, the Italians, the Polish, the Germans etc.” thing is getting more and more mean and neurotic (it suffice to read the papers about Greece), and we are sinking – or, to use Paul Costopoulos’ lovely phrase, going the way of the dodo.

            As for Nietzsche I guess we basically agree.

  4. @Zeus

    Napoleon III … Gramsci …these men are not the especially honored by history, and perhaps should not be lionized.

    Allow me to disagree a bit, plus the 2 are too different to be compared. Gramsci is a great scholar. Napolen III was not. Certainly, G’s love for Marxist ideas was a flaw and a personal failure (since Marxism IS flawed), but nonetheless we must understand why Gramsci is the only thinker linked to Marxism whose influence in the world has expanded, and not diminished, since 1989.

    “According to the on-line, updated version of the Bibliografia gramsciana [University of London, Institute of Germanic & Romance Studies, see *here* and click on 'Gramsci'] , 6,480 publications on Gramsci appeared worldwide between 1989 and 2007 (including new editions and translations of his writings). This figure corresponds to approximately one third of all the works published on Gramsci since 1922, the total number now nearing 20,000.”

    This success and honour – pls allow me dear Zeus – oddly mostly occurred in the 20 years of worst communist ideas debacle. The explanation imo is simple: Gramsci is ‘useful’. He gave a concrete, non ideological contribution to many fields – literary criticism, social sciences, international relations, linguistics, music, theatre, historical studies, folkore etc., a dominating figure in Italian culture in the second half of the 20th century, like Benedetto Croce was of the first half of it.

    Considering for ex. folklore (peasants’ cultures – magic etc. – a milieu where G came from btw) he wrote very few (5 maybe?) pages on folklore recognized as an original contribution to academic folklore studies, appreciated, if I recall well, also in India and Japan.

    So I thank Magister for telling me: “Forget Marx and read Gramsci, it’ll help you attain your degree btw” which in fact happened swiftly.

    [mind you I'm put off by what yet is Marxist in him too, I am NOT a Marxist lol]

    Reply
    • zeusiswatching

      I don’t think we disagree much at all. I’m willing to acknowledge Louis Napoleon’s often lasting contributions but have no love for Bonapartism, which I consider a herald not of Fascism as Theodore Zeldin thought, but of war and oppression for “gloire” that certainly did contribute to a continuation of fallen man’s willingness to march under flags and mythology. That willingness was inherent in Marxism and Fascism because Marxism and Fascism are twin developments of that same self-destructive tendency.

      With Gramsci, we will never know if he would have condoned such violence, but I think he would have been swept along in it and probably eventually become a victim of it had Communism triumphed in Italy. As it was, the other type of socialism took him. I do think his ideas have outlasted him. He is a name heard on American university campuses at times.

      I do think that rigidity in any system tends to be poison. The rigid nature of social and political systems might have a purpose initially, but then serves only to insure the survival of the system itself and the participants of the system who are benefits of privileges that would go away were the system not left intact. I believe this is a problem with American society today. We may not have a de jure noblity, but privilege is real, generally destructive, and even injures the health of higher education, by bending it to serve a technocratic and generally amoral economic and political morass.

      Reply
      • Yes, we generally agree Zeus. Only a few notes.

        have no love for Bonapartism, which I consider a herald not of Fascism as Theodore Zeldin thought, but of war and oppression for “gloire”

        I think there was a good side of Bonaparte too: the culture of the enlightenment.

        With Gramsci, we will never know if he would have condoned such violence, but I think he would have been swept along in it and probably eventually become a victim of it had Communism triumphed in Italy.

        He would have condoned ‘some’ violence only if deemed necessary. Today’s statesmen are no different and Machiavellian too, condoning force against any rule if necessary but only in special cases. Gramsci theory of hegemony is the exact substitute of ‘force’ btw. Hegemony is ‘seduction’.

        Getting back to ‘force’, hasn’t any country for ex. its ‘intelligence’, which is an euphemism? I think Italy after 1968 didn’t have a communist government because of the CIA – many (non communist) historians believe that – since the US at that time feared any communism no matter if euro or non euro. Allende in Chile was a form of democratic communism but it was crushed, fearing the domino effect, which I agree was very dangerous (and it says all about what I think). The two blocs, cold war, very hard times.

        With Euro-communism I don’t know. Russia was dangerous ok, but our communist party was distant enough from Moscow. In any case in those dark days I was sent to a re-education military camp by my same relatives because I had been a euro-communist only for 2 years!

        I am glad communism didn’t win in my country. That doesn’t diminish Gramsci’s thought, which is fruitful in many fields, which is widely recognized (as it is recognized – see debate above – that Nietzsche wrote interesting things altho he objectively favoured Nazism and Fascism)

        Reply
  5. Wonderful tapestry of opinions here. I have my own but I just can’t seem to put down in writing these thoughts in any coherent manner. So, I’ll sit by and read and enjoy. My apologies.

    Whatever did become of his sons?

    Reply
    • No matter if you comment or just read, you are always welcome here. You have been amongst the best commentators I ever had.

      One became a pianist. The other one, I forgot. According to Gramsci’s descendants and KGB documents, the ‘two sisters’ were spying on him on behalf of Stalin. Stalin knew Gramsci well and feared him. But a lot of this stuff I have forgotten. The news about Julia and Tatiana was spread, I may be wrong, in 1999, after KGB archives became open to researchers.

      Reply
  6. Gramsci is considered the father of democratic communism..I do think the theory of democratic communism followers praise his work.

    Reply
  7. Pingback: Seven Aspects of Antonio Gramsci’s Thought « Man of Roma

  8. Pingback: Is America Too Young to Maintain its Cultural Hegemony in the Long Run? « Man of Roma

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