Review of A Great and Terrible World: The Pre-Prison Letters, 1908-1926 by Antonio Gramsci


The final version of this review will be published in Political Studies Review, Volume 14 of the Journal, Issue 4, November 2016.

A Great and Terrible World: The Pre-Prison Letters, 1908-1926 by Antonio Gramsci (ed. and trans. by Derek Boothman). London: Lawrence & Wishart Ltd, 2014.

This volume is a collection of the early letters of Antonio Gramsci (1891-1937), the Italian Marxist political thinker and leader of the Italian Communist Party. Gramsci’s prison diaries, written during his long incarceration under the Fascist regime in Italy, appeared in English translation in 1994 and have since then become a reference point for theorists and historians alike. However, his earlier correspondence, dating from 1908-1926, have not yet been translated. The new collection offers therefore a much-needed addition to the English bookshelf of Gramsci’s works. During the two decades covered in this volume, Gramsci left his native rural Sardinia, discovered Marxism as a student at the University of Turin, and emerged on the national and international political scene as one of the key political leaders in Italy. As this volume reminds us, it is not sufficient to read the prison diaries to understand Gramsci’s thought. His social and political ideas were shaped while engaging actively in politics in Sardinia, as a student in Turin, as a founding member of the Italian Communist Party and its representative in Moscow, and finally in Rome. The collection includes two thirds of the known correspondence of Antonio Gramsci from his high school days up to his arrest, revealing his complex relations with his family, with his wife Julija Schucht, with other revolutionary activists like Palmiro Togliatti, Amedeo Bordiga, and with members of the Comintern in Moscow including Leon Trotsky.

As the editor and translator Derek Boothman suggests in his insightful introduction, the selection of letters sheds light on the evolution and continuities in Gramsci’s thought, tracing the early emergence through dialogue of key Gramscian themes like the nature of the superstructures of society, centralism and party politics, popular culture, passive revolution, hegemony and social alliances (49-50). Boothman’s introduction helps situate the letters in historical context, provides biographical details about Gramsci and his main interlocutors, and explains the conceptual meaning of the letters in the wider framework of his thought. The wide-ranging thematic scope of the letters – personal meditations, political commentary, policy plans for the Communist Party and theoretical reflections – offers a wealth of insights for scholars acquainted with Gramsci’s later writings as well as for first time readers of his work. The English translation from the original Italian is accurately and meticulously executed, paying attention to the different linguistic registers deployed by Gramsci in different periods in his life. Thus, this selection of letters represents a welcome addition to the English language sources by Gramsci and about his work.





Review of The Companion to Raymond Aron

Raymond Aron, 1966
Raymond Aron, 1966



Forthcoming in Political Studies Review, Volume 15 of the Journal, Issue 1, February 2017.

The Companion to Raymond Aron by  Jose Colen and Elisabeth Dutartre-Michaut (eds). Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015.

The Companion to Raymond Aron seeks to provide an overview of the works and ideas of the French sociologist, political thinker and commentator Raymond Aron (1905-1983). The main aim of the book is to ‘aid in the study of Aron’s political, sociological and philosophical thought and writings’ (1). It is especially directed at the English-reading audience, where Aron’s ideas remain less known and studied, often due to lack of good English translations of his works. The volume is divided into three parts, representing the main themes of Aron’s work: international relations, philosophy, and the history of ideas. The long list of contributors include French and international scholars of Aron’s thought, such as Serge Audier, Pierre Hessner, Perrine Simon-Nahum, Joel Mouric, Iain Stewart, Daniel J. Mahoney and Giulio de Ligio. The essays seek to shed light on Aron’s versatile and diverse intellectual production, ranging from historical analysis, political commentary and philosophical studies. Each part includes numerous essays on various aspects of Aron’s thought, from totalitarianism to the Cold War, from the philosophy of history to theory of democracy, from Machiavelli to Marx. Furthermore, the volume includes an essay by Aron’s biographer, Nicolas Baverez, and a detailed bibliography of his works by Elisabeth Dutartre-Michaut.

The volume provides valuable studies of Aron’s thought. The essays succeed in contextualising Aron in the intellectual horizon of the twentieth century and in shedding light on the nuances of his thought. The essays share a commitment to depicting Aron as an original liberal thinker who made a lasting, if sometimes under-appreciated, contribution to western liberal thought. Thus, the volume presents a complex, intriguing portrait of an important liberal thinker that goes beyond his stereotypical reputation as a ‘cold warrior’ and anti-communist. One of the underlying aims of many of the essays is to emphasise Aron’s relevance to contemporary thought, and to highlight his importance as ‘the greatest figure in French liberalism of the twentieth century’(3). It is doubtlessly true that, as the contributors to this volume ceaselessly argue, Aron’s impressive and original political analysis deserves a greater attention than it had so far received. Yet sometimes the reader is left with a feeling that a more critical rather than celebratory attitude would have helped some of the essays to do his work justice. Nonetheless, the volume makes an important and welcome contribution to the English-language literature on Raymond Aron.

Reflections on feminism for the International Women’s Day

Today I listened to a special broadcast on the classical music radio channel. An orchestra of women played a concert for international women’s day. The presenter introduced the soloists and said that for the benefit of those listening to the concert on the radio, he’d like to add that the musicians tonight are “stunningly beautiful”, and the first violinist is a “charming redhead”.

In a few words, he managed to make the whole event rather pointless.

This seemingly innocuous episode symbolizes in my mind some of the greatest problems women have to tackle today in order to realize their professional aspirations. The musicians in this orchestra were evidently successful, ambitious and talented career women who managed in their own way to break the ‘glass ceiling’ and attain a respectable and possibly stable job that reflects their abilities. Nonetheless, on the very occasion when their achievements are supposed to be celebrated, they are confronted again with the same typical stereotypes. An orchestra of women becomes in the presenter’s complementing words a flock of artistic amazons, a band of beautiful sirens that gathered to bewitch the culture aficionados. When have we heard that the male first violinist is a very handsome young blond? What presenter in their good mind would compliment a male conductor on his elegant hair cut? It is of course unimaginable.

After the International Women Day, which to me was just like any other day, I am inclined to believe that our educational efforts should not be pointed primarily at convincing women that they are as talented as man. Instead, we should aim at changing the social conventions of femininity and ‘re-conceptualize’ women in men’s mind as equal human beings. Every girl knows that beauty can open doors (and get you free drinks). But for the benefit of society as a whole, and our own professional ambitions, we should all take part in this mental change and demand that women should not be immediately associated with the same old feminine attributes like beauty, motherly affection, tenderness, patience and more.

women's day

It may seem a matter of little consequence. But to my mind, the different attitudes of society to men and women remain a real obstacle even if the legal and formal limits to gender equality have been lifted. In academia, we see a tendency to consider women as better teachers, administrators, welfare officers, but less as cutting edge researchers. Women are encouraged to explore ‘soft’ topics like gender studies or social history. A successful historian told me once that as a student in the 1960s she realized that if she was to be a professional academic she must specialized in political history and not gender or cultural studies because these were too feminine. This statement reflects both on what was considered scientifically serious, and what was deemed appropriate for a women historian. Perhaps today the situation has changed, but on the road to gender equality, women still face many difficult choices rising from new options available in the private and professional dimensions of their life. Moreover, new freedoms come with new burdens. Women are required to take life-changing decisions about having and taking care of children in the most crucial years for career-building. Men are relatively free, and perhaps oblivious of these concerns. This should be changed.

The point is that while the role of women has changed and expanded, social conventions have not really changed accordingly. A better society depends not only on  women’s achievements, but on society’s in general. Gender equality regards men as well. There is still a long way to go, but the change cannot come from a celebration of women’s achievements. Change will come when the barriers of social convention will be lifted and both men and women will understand their different qualities, mutual concerns and common goals. Then we shall have an International Humanity Day, rather than 1 Women Day and 364 Men Day. 

Political realism and history

Last month I participated in an Italian conference on political realism. A group of fifty-strong Italian academics and researchers, we spent three days, 8 hours per day, in a beautiful monastery in Perugia debating the meaning of political realism. The line-up was ambitious: we were each given 15 minutes to make our original and insightful contribution to thinking about political realism. Topics ranged from Thucydides to Strauss, from Mosca to Machiavelli, from Hobbes to Aron, via many other thinkers who contributed more or less to shaping the idea of ‘political realism’.

My talk focused on political realism and geopolitics. When my turn to speak arrived, at the end of the first day, the audience seemed a bit fatigued by the day’s intense intellectual labours. To brighten up the discussion, I argued that we, as historians of political thought, should reconsider the usefulness of ‘political realism’ as a category of political analysis. Possibly, ‘political realism’ is too vague and general a category to provide any insightful, instructive and innovative historical and conceptual knowledge. Many past thinkers embellished their arguments with the title of ‘political realism’. But among this diversified group of realist thinkers – even the ones we’ve discussed at the conference – there was a plurality of incompatible arguments and conclusions.

For example, in mid-century American geopolitics, many claimed to speak for ‘political realism’ in their geopolitical writings. Both Owen Lattimore and Nicholas Spykman argued that they were realists because they based their political proposals on empirical observations of the geopolitical world and power relations within it. However, Spykman thought a realist political theory should recognize the real power relations in the world: American political global supremacy. Lattimore similarly thought political realism should be based on reality, which for him meant a plurality of communities, societies and states. Spykman’s world order aimed at accommodating the new American world power, while Lattimore’s aimed at safeguarding the world’s diversity and pluralism. It is easy to judge – anachronistically – whose ideas were more realistic, in sense of political realization and practicality. But this is beside my point. I was interested in showing how ‘political realism’ could mean anything and nothing, even for people who write at the same time and place in similar academic environment. Thus, perhaps we should be wary of using the term too generally, without grounding it in historicised definitions and intellectual context.

Despite the late hour, my intervention ignited a long debate. Some were concerned with giving up on ‘political realism’ – it seemed like a basic concept in politics which should not be abandoned so easily (not to mention the possible implications for the whole conference, whose topic and title were now at risk). Others were relieved to find that many shared their doubts about the viability of ‘political realism’ as an eternal, cross-cultural and cross-temporal category. Perhaps instead of one ‘political realism’ there should be many diverse realisms, not necessarily compatible with each other.

Yet not everyone was keen to give up, and some started to look for a mega-definition of political realism. One proposal went along the lines of ‘political theory based on observation of reality’, which, in its turn, seemed to some too vague as to include almost any attempt at thinking about politics, including Thomas More’s Utopia and Kant’s Perpetual Peace which emerged as a critique on reality of their times. If it wasn’t for dinner, we would have gone on and on forever.

At the end of the day, it was a stimulating and diversified conference exploring ideas from different places, times and contexts. Intentionally or not, the uncovering of the thousand aspects of ‘political realism’ showed that it could never be assigned one clear meaning.


Reflections on history and theory

The first day of our Oxbridge Conference ( was an interesting and stimulating exchange of ideas not only between the two universities but also between two disciplines, Political Theory and History. Our aim was to bring together these two ways of thinking about the global. And I feel we did create a conversation between researchers who use different methods to look at the same problem – how to think about the global  – from distinct viewpoints. Yet I could not but notice, despite everyone’s enthusiasm and curiosity, that the encounter remained somewhat of a challenge. The historians readily accepted the need for a more theoretical background for their research, and the political theorists welcomed the historical background for theirs. But some differences could not be bridged. The theoreticians demanded that at the bottom line should be a reflection on ‘political relevance’, on what practitioners and politicians could do with the historial narrative to move beyond the present towards a better future. For the historians, of course, the questions ‘what is this good for’ is misguided. However, for me, the debate between history and theory persists as an underlying current in both disciplines. History should not necessarily be prescriptive, and theory does not need historical grounding to be inspiring. But both would benefit from a closer interaction, not to justify and legitimize an intellectual trajectory, but to find stimulating problems and inspiring paths towards new ideas.

I look forward to our second day, 7 June in St Antony’s college in Oxford, to continue this reflection on the interaction between the history and theory of the ‘global’.