For intellectuals who like to think of themselves as progressive, the relation
between the knowledge they produce as scholars and the world beyond the
academy is an ever- present question. This is a book about a thinker for whom
this question was central, the Italian Marxist and cofounder of the Italian com-
munist party, Antonio Gramsci. Paradoxically, it was his arrest in 1926 by
the fascist government of Benito Mussolini that led to his greatest legacy: the
prison notebooks he wrote while incarcerated. Condemned to twenty years
in prison, his life as a political activist cut short, Gramsci was determined to
continue his political engagement in the only way left open to him: a rigorous
program of study. Prior to his imprisonment, he had written a vast quantity of
journalism, but this he considered ephemeral, “written for the day,” as he put
it in one of the letters he wrote from prison (PLII, 66). Tellingly, he rejected
any attempts to publish his journalism in book form. Prison, he hoped, would
provide him with the time necessary for more in- depth, scholarly analysis.
As a scholar, he had exacting standards, but he also believed that the truly
important knowledge is knowledge that travels beyond the academic ghetto.
This is a very different attitude from that espoused by another celebrated the-
orist of power, Michel Foucault. By the end of his life, according to his biog-
rapher Didier Eribon, Foucault worried that his books were being circulated
too widely: “[T]oo wide a circulation for scholarly books was disastrous for
their reception, because it brought with it a multitude of misunderstandings.
The moment a book went beyond the circle of those to whom it was really ad-
dressed, that is, those scholars who knew the problems with which it dealt and
the theoretical traditions to which it referred, it no longer produced ‘effects of
knowledge’ but ‘effects of opinion,’ as Foucault called them.” (Eribon 1991, 292)
Gramsci has none of Foucault’s disdain for the effects of opinion. Indeed,
the shared “opinions” that inform so much of how people live their day- to- day
lives, and the processes by which they come to be shared, are one of the major
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