Question: How would you explain the worldwide interest in Antonio Gramsci’s Letters from Prison?
Frank Rosengarten: First, let me congratulate Columbia University Press on this splendid new paperback edition of the Letters from Prison, which makes the letters available at a reasonable price to a wider audience than did the previous 1994 hardcover edition. Concerning your question, I would say that these heartfelt, intellectually scintillating letters offer the reader unique insights into the mind and sensibilities of one of the twentieth century’s greatest political thinkers. It’s truly remarkable that this diminutive man, who suffered from several life-threatening illnesses throughout his imprisonment from 1926 to 1937, was able to overcome his disabilities and address so many complex questions with such self-discipline and rigor. But his other attributes attract many people to Gramsci: the subtlety of his mind; the freshness and originality of his views on society, literature, and culture; and what I would call the dialogic component of almost all his letters. These are qualities that transcend national boundaries and ideological preconceptions.
Q: What are the connections between the Prison Notebooks and the Letters from Prison?
FR: Prison Notebooks and Letters from Prison are complementary in subject matter and are mutually illuminating. One example of this interactive relationship can be seen clearly in what Gramsci had to say about the philosophy of Benedetto Croce, the foremost representative of Italian idealist thought in the twentieth century. Gramsci’s observations on the relation between Croce’s specific social and class affiliations and the nature of his philosophy is even more brilliantly expounded in the Letters from Prison than in the Prison Notebooks. Reading Gramsci’s prison letters that deal with Croce, which were written mainly in April and May 1932, is an education in how Marxist theory can be applied creatively, not dogmatically, to problems of intellectual interest.
Q: What would you say is the most memorable aspect of the prison letters?
FR: One aspect that remains vividly in my mind is Gramsci’s constant effort to connect his life as a political prisoner with the lives of people in the outside world about whom he cared in a deeply personal way. Let me cite just one example of this, drawn from a letter of June 15, 1931, written to his mother, who was a devout believer, while Gramsci wrote from the perspective of historical materialism. Yet he found a way to bridge this difference with his mother and say things that must have comforted her. After recalling several episodes in his early years in which his mother was the central figure, Gramsci had this to say about religious belief: “You can’t imagine how many things I remember in which you always appear as a beneficent force filled with tenderness for us. If you think about it seriously, all questions about the soul and immortality of the soul and paradise and hell are at bottom only a way of seeing this very simple fact: that every action of ours is passed on to others according to its value, of good or evil, it passes from father to son, from one generation to the next, in a perpetual movement. Since all the memories we have of you are of goodness and strength and you have given all of your strength to raise us, it means that you are already in the only paradise that exists, which for a mother, I think, is the heart of her children. You see what I’ve written to you? In any case, you mustn’t think that I want to offend your religious opinions and besides I think that you agree with me more than might be apparent.” This quote appears in volume 2 on page 40.
Gramsci found a way in his prison letters to establish a sense of mutual respect with his correspondents that allowed him and them to engage in meaningful dialogue. While ruminating on the global political and social problems of his era, he never lost sight of himself as an individual seeking points of contact with his interlocutors. Personal relations were, for him, an important thread in the larger tapestry of human affairs.