Alessandro Carlucci. Gramsci and Languages: Unification, Diversity, Hegemony. Leiden: Brill, 2014. 272 pp. $141.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-90-04-23111-5.
Reviewed by Neelam Srivastava (Newcastle University)
Published on H-Italy (March, 2016)
Commissioned by Matteo Pretelli (University of Warwick)
A New Study on Gramsci
As Alessandro Carlucci notes in his important new book, the sheer number of publications dedicated to the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci between 1922 and now testify to the fact that Gramsci is one of the very few Marxist thinkers whose influence has not declined since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 (close to twenty thousand works on him have been published to date). Moreover, his work has been central to a dizzying array of disciplines within the humanities and social sciences, from political theory to sociology, from literary studies to cultural studies, from historiography to postcolonial studies. He is also one of the most widely translated Italian authors of all time. Carlucci laments the fact that Anglophone commentators rarely draw on the untranslated works—especially his articles for the journal of which he was editor, L’Ordine Nuovo, the full range of his letters, and those parts of the Prison Notebooks that have not yet been translated into English (the major oeuvre that he wrote while imprisoned by the Fascist regime between 1926 and 1937, the year of his death). Carlucci can be said to be part of a new generation of Anglophone scholars who adopt a much more holistic approach to Gramsci’s writings than previously, connecting his earliest articles and manifestoes written during WWI, to the mature writings in his prison years. By drawing on a vast amount of secondary sources in Italian, Carlucci also helps to acquaint the Anglophone reader with this other tradition of scholarship, much of which has not yet been translated into English. The future of Anglophone Gramsci scholarship, then, clearly lies with bilingual critics, or at the very least critics willing to engage with his untranslated works.
Carlucci’s study is a meticulous and at times brilliant exploration of Gramsci’s relationship with the linguistic question—a theme that is tackled quite broadly by the author, with reference to many aspects of Gramsci’s thinking that link to language. Carlucci draws attention throughout to the profound connection between Gramsci’s political thought and his reflections on language issues, arguing that his attention to the latter in fact influenced the development of the former. Carlucci’s focus on Gramsci and language builds on important previous scholarship in Italian (Franco Lo Piparo, Stefano Selenu, and especially Tullio De Mauro), and in English (Peter Ives in particular)—the so-called linguistic turn in Gramscian studies. Carlucci is careful to point out that Gramsci was by no means a professional linguist, nor can his writing be said to amount to a “linguistic theory,” especially since he never published his work in any systematic fashion (and the Notebooks in particular were never intended for publication). But his attention to and interest in language issues was constant, and Carlucci presents a largely convincing case for reading Gramsci’s nondogmatic (even, as Carlucci suggests, antidogmatic) and unique form of Marxism as a result of his lifelong interest in the diversity of the spoken and written word: “by looking at Gramsci’s lifelong interest in language, we can better explain the originality of his Marxism” (p. 16).
At the center of Gramsci’s focus on language was a tension between diversity and unification. Carlucci convincingly shows how Gramsci delved deep into the realities of linguistic variation; this was not merely an academic interest, but one profoundly connected to his political militancy. Gramsci was very conscious that Italy had no widely spoken common language in the first half of the twentieth century, a fact that impeded the cultural unification of the country. The subaltern classes in particular spoke a variety of different dialects, so that in order to mobilize them politically, it was necessary to address them in a familiar language. In this sense, Gramsci was in line with Russian attitudes to language—an openness to the linguistic diversity of the proletarian masses (both urban and rural) was at the heart of the early Soviet project to disseminate the message of socialist and Marxist revolution (though such pluralistic attitudes would later change under Stalin). In order to reach the people, you had to speak the language of the people—this was the message at its most immediate level.
Carlucci adopts a tripartite approach to his exploration of Gramsci’s relationship to language: an attention to biographical information, to the pre-prison writings and letters, and to Gramsci’s multiple sources, “both in language studies and in other fields linked to the political handling of languages and language-based conflicts” (p. xiii). The aim is to “provide a language-oriented interpretation which aims at casting light on Gramsci’s work in toto, and not just on his ideas on language inappropriately separated from his politics” (p. 2). However, Carlucci concludes that this cross-fertilization between language and politics had a more significant impact on Gramsci’s politics than on his linguistics (p. 7).
Some of the most fascinating parts of the book are where Carlucci explores Gramsci’s relationship to his Sardinian language background—he demonstrates that Gramsci not only knew Sardinian well, he also used it instrumentally for political purposes. During the factory worker uprisings in Turin towards the end of WWI, Gramsci spoke Sardinian to the Sardinian troops who had been ordered to quash the insurrection, with the purpose of winning them over to the workers’ cause. Carlucci draws on a wealth of pre-prison writings and biographical data culled from a variety of different sources to show that Gramsci had a great respect for his own dialect and for the value of retaining knowledge of local idioms, which was in part influenced by his university teacher, Matteo Bartoli. Gramsci had begun a thesis in linguistics at the University of Turin before leaving his studies in order to pursue full-time political activity.
Carlucci’s attention to biography is motivated by his belief that the life of a political theorist is central to the development of his thought—and this is perhaps particularly true of Gramsci. Carlucci argues that exploring Gramsci’s relationship to Sardinian as a socially and regionally restricted linguistic tradition is important in order to gauge the potential conflict with his idea that a cohesive national language is “politically progressive” (p. 22). Gramsci grew up in a bilingual environment, and he strongly believed that people should be able to have access to both their local language (he used the term “dialect” and “language” interchangeably to describe Sardinian), and to the national language. Gramsci showed a keen awareness of the link between the formation of Italians and a knowledge of Italian—such a knowledge would allow the population to move “beyond dialect” (oltre il dialetto) and achieve a real national unification under the banner of Marxism, unlike the one that had been imposed upon the population in the course of the Risorgimento (p. 35). But moving “beyond dialect” did not mean overcoming it—Gramsci was conscious that dialect could serve an important purpose in the political mobilization of the Italian masses who did not speak Italian.
Carlucci also shows that Gramsci regularly interspersed his Italian with Sardinian words and idiomatic expressions—his use of Sardinian was thus a marker of identity, in line with current theory that all acts of linguistic communication are acts of identity. Carlucci is at pains to point out that Gramsci never renounced his Sardinianness, contra those critics who see him as dismissive of dialect and regional culture. Developing this point further in terms of Gramsci’s attitude towards culture and philosophy, Carlucci argues that he did not see languages in hierarchical or overly deterministic ways. Gramsci’s famous dictum that “every individual is a philosopher” means that everyone has some sort of view of the world, and “at a very basic level, the expression of this implicit worldview merely consists in using a linguistic code” (p. 60). Carlucci quotes a passage by Gramsci where he says that “every social group has a ‘language’ of its own, yet one should still note that … there is a continuous adhesion and exchange between popular language and the language of the cultured classes” (quoted, p. 60). In other words, Carlucci locates Gramsci’s notion of a national language within a linguistic and philosophical continuum, characterized by a constant tension and exchange between unification and diversity. These concepts closely resemble Mikhail Bakhtin’s theory of national language as an open-ended system, which oscillates between centripetal and centrifugal tendencies. Carlucci places Gramsci’s reflections on language in the context of Marxist linguistics, especially with reference to the more pluralistic attitude to language use that characterized the pre-Stalin era of the Soviet Union.
Language planning and policy were central to Bolshevik ideology, but Gramsci believed in the efficacy of language planning only to a limited extent, as he saw language as primarily shaped and directed by its speakers, so there was little point in a centralized, authoritarian imposition from above. By examining Gramsci’s views on language policy, Carlucci offers an interpretative key of Gramsci’s nondogmatic Marxism, best expressed in his original elaboration of the concept of hegemony. According to Carlucci, because Gramsci’s notion of hegemony mainly focused on the importance of consensus building, he distanced himself from the more authoritarian version of Marxist ideology that was applied throughout the Soviet Union under Stalin.
At the basis of Gramsci’s understanding of the relationship between national language and dialects was a sense that the latter could serve to enrich the former; indeed, for a nation to develop a truly common language, the richness of its linguistic diversity needed to be drawn upon. This has a clear correlation to Gramsci’s valorization of “national-popular culture” as central to the development of a revolutionary nation. He felt Italian intellectuals of his era suffered from “fragmentation”: “A fragmentation that is a consequence of their separation from the people-nation and of the fact that the ‘emotive’ content of art, the cultural world, is disconnected from the deep currents of national-popular life, which itself remains fragmented and without expression. Every intellectual movement becomes or returns to being national if a ‘going to the people’ has taken place.” The need for the revolutionary intellectual to “go to the people” is reflected in Gramsci’s attentiveness to actual language variation, both in social and in class terms.
Carlucci also explores Gramsci in relationship to the famous Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure, identifying three similarities in their approach to language: 1) the radical arbitrariness of the sign, whereby signifier and signified are indissolubly linked (i.e., there are no fixed or universal concepts outside of language); 2) language as a system of interrelated values that is historically and socially constructed by its speakers; 3) a cautious approach to language planning (Saussure stated that “of all social institutions, language is least amenable to initiative,” quoted, p. 78). Of these three, the first comparison is the most intriguing; Carlucci quotes several passages in the Prison Notebooks which demonstrate that Gramsci was suspicious of “fixed universal languages,” and that he privileged metonymy (the synchronic relation of a word with others in the same linguistic system) over metaphor (the comparison of a meaning of that word with similar meanings in other languages), though to my mind Carlucci is somewhat exaggerating what are implied, rather then explicit positions of Gramsci on this point. Gramsci may have been familiar with Saussure’s work; or more probably, during his time in Russia he absorbed the ideas of several Russian linguists who had been influenced by Saussure’s Cours de linguistique générale (1916), which was published posthumously by two of his students who had collected the texts of his lectures (somewhat like Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks, which were also published posthumously).
Carlucci’s book is interesting not only for his analysis of Gramsci; it also sheds fascinating light on the core issues of Marxist linguistics, namely the links between language and nationality, and between language and social class. Carlucci spends quite a bit of time analyzing Lenin’s views on nationalism and language. Much like Gramsci, Lenin felt that unification and integration can only develop historically, and cannot be imposed. Lenin almost certainly influenced Gramsci in this acceptance of multilingualism. Gramsci was firmly opposed to the establishment of Esperanto as a “universal” language, advocated by prominent Soviet linguists, as he was at heart a historicist, with a keen awareness of the value and importance of language diversity for the formation of a truly national-popular language and culture.
Thus Gramsci was an advocate of linguistic freedom, a position which distanced him from the more totalitarian and authoritarian turn in language policy undertaken by the Soviet Union in the 1930s under Stalin (the study of Russian became compulsory in 1938). Regarding the ideal of linguistic and cultural unity of Italy, Gramsci believed that, although it was politically desirable, such unification could only be achieved by “guiding the development of existing historical processes” (p. 156). Gramsci’s sympathy to cultural and linguistic diversity, possibly owing to his origins in a marginal part of Italy, meant that he never let “his Marxist belief in the prominence of class relations” prevail over his interest in ethnic, cultural, and linguistic identity (p. 161). Carlucci’s strongest thesis is that “academic and political debates about language spread and unification gave Gramsci the opportunity to appreciate the complexity of immanent historical processes, as opposed to theoretical abstractions and crude revolutionary strategizing” (p. 173). In other words, Gramsci’s openness to political pluralism was due to his sensitiveness to language diversity. This might be overstating the case somewhat—one might also convincingly argue the reverse, i.e., that Gramsci’s endorsement of political pluralism influenced his views on language. Carlucci always warns us against considering Gramsci as someone who produced a systematic theory of language— on the contrary, there was a dialectic and ever-changing relationship between the values attached to unity and homogeneity, on the one hand, and those attached to multiplicity and diversity, on the other. It is not possible to arrive at an actual synthesis of either of these two linguistic and political ideals. This is also due to Gramsci’s position as a “thinker who was also a man of action”; his theory and his praxis were indissolubly linked, so his theoretical considerations were often made with a strategic aim in mind, that of seizing political power (p. 179). This is why the argument that his linguistics can provide a genealogy for his politics is not fully persuasive, given the unquestioned dominance that political militancy had over Gramsci’s life.
Perhaps the most useful parts of the book, for those generally interested in Gramsci (as opposed to professional linguists), are where Carlucci explicitly links his notion of hegemony to his notion of language: “his understanding of languages as socio-historical products reinforced his critical stance on the state and the formation of consent” (p. 180). Peter Ives had already done considerable work on the connections between hegemony and linguistic issues in Gramsci in his book Language and Hegemony in Gramsci (2004). Consent is neither fully spontaneous nor fully susceptible to state control—hence the semantic ambiguity of the term “hegemony,” which oscillates between consensus and coercion in his writing. In the Notebooks, Gramsci develops his critique of positivist Marxism and what he considered to be its excessive determinism in viewing revolution as a necessary event (as evidenced by the “messianic” versions of Communism that prevailed in the 1920s and 1930s). Similarly, linguistic change is rarely the result of rationally motivated innovations “knowingly adopted by single individuals” (p. 198); they are rather “the innovations of an entire social community that has renewed its culture and ‘progressed’ historically” (p. 198).
Carlucci’s book contains much interesting and in-depth scholarship, especially his work on Gramsci’s Sardinian background, providing a lively account of little-known facts. At times he perhaps overstates the originality and significance of his thesis on language in Gramsci; Ives and De Mauro in particular had already developed many of the insights presented here (though Carlucci duly points out their previous contribution and mentions how he differs from their approach). While the book is quite wide-ranging, it suffers from a slight lack of organicity, and there is a tendency towards repetition of guiding concepts and ideas, especially in the latter part of the book. But this is a very enjoyable and informative read for anyone passionate about Gramscian matters, and about language in a social context more generally.
. Antonio Gramsci, Notebook 8, §145, Prison Notebooks, vol. 3, ed. and trans. Joseph E. Buttigieg (New York: Columbia University Press), 318.
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Neelam Srivastava. Review of Carlucci, Alessandro, Gramsci and Languages: Unification, Diversity, Hegemony.
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