Antonio Gramsci, Selections from “Prison Notebooks”

Antonio Gramsci, Section III.1 from The Prison Notebooks, “The Study of Philosophy.”

Everyone is a philosopher. By this Gramsci does not mean that everyone has the social role of the professional philosopher, but rather that philosophy happens in the practices of everyday social life like language, folklore, and “common sense.” Philosophy cannot be the preserve of a few experts, but must be a concrete, collective activity. The professional philosopher must always remain engaged with people’s “common sense” convictions—building on them, critiquing them, and working with them to spark a socialist revolution from the bottom up. This does not mean capitulating to common sense when it is wrong, but it means that philosophy’s criticism needs to remain embedded in concrete social relations and everyday life.

Common sense: generally accepted ideas. Good sense: “a conception of the world with an ethic that conforms to its structure” (660).

Philosophy must be politically engaged: “Since all action is political,” he writes, “can one not say that the real philosophy of each man is contained in its entirety in his political action?” (631-632).

Religion is more than just the opiate. For Gramsci, religion offers a prime example of how ideas can embed themselves in practical action and create a socialist common sense that spans between professionals (clergy/philosophers) and non-professionals (laity/the masses): “religion has been and continues to be a ‘necessity,’ a necessary form taken by the will of the popular masses and a specific way of rationalizing the world and real life, which provided the general framework for real practical activity” (647). According to Gramsci, religion offers stability and community to “the masses.” Marxism needs to become a little more like religion, providing a way of thinking about real life and offering a framework for practical action. He defines religion as “a conception of the world which has become a norm of life” (657-658). Marxism, a conception of the world, needs to become more like religion.

There is no such thing as human nature. Gramsci describes the human as an “ensemble of social relations” (680).

Marx, “Theses on Feuerbach” (1845)

Karl Marx, “Theses on Feuerbach” (1845). Online version.

Marx’s Theses on Feuerbach offers eleven short critiques of Feuerbach’s dialectical materialism. In the dialectical philosophies of Feuerbach and Hegel, he argues, “materialism” appears usually as inert objects or as (objects of) contemplation. For them, real human activity happens in the mind—the material serves as mind’s dialectical opposite. But for Marx, all human activity (including subjectivity and thought) must be theorized as practical, material, and social. Even “religious sentiments” are social products according to Marx; more still, the “abstract individual” who holds “religious sentiments” emerges only under particular material and social conditions (#7). Thus, Marx rejects the idealists’ claim that the essence of human subjectivity resides in the individual mind. He insists that any theory of human society must be aware of the material conditions under which such particular notions of subjectivity emerged: “the human essence. . . . is the ensemble of social relations,” not an “abstraction inherent in each single individual” (#6).

Marx demands that theory must engage in revolutionary political activity. In the most famous thesis (#11), he writes, “Philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the real point is to change it.” This is no vague inspirational quote about “changing your world” by being a nice person or liking the right cause on Facebook. For Marx, change happens at the level of social structures and the material conditions that structure the way people think, experience, and live in the world.

-Review by A.T. Coates