Imprisoned by a regime that, by 1930, enjoyed a wide consensus, Antonio Gramsci had an overarching concern while writing the Prison Notebooks: he wanted to understand why it was that Italian workers supported some strong-jawed dictator, someone who offered the greatness of the country again, Benito Mussolini, thus behaving against their own class interests. Such a question is still relevant – indeed, critical – today. Gramsci was unsatisfied with the strict economic determinist framework espoused by some of his comrades within the Communist Party and identified in culture a key determinant of the political subjectivities of the masses. In doing so, he resonated with the analysis of his contemporaries in Germany, at the Frankfurt School, who grappled with similar questions in relation to the rise of Nazism. However, while the Germans nurtured a hopeless vision of their contemporary societies, Gramsci – an optimist of the will – thought that change was possible: it was a cultural and educational project that was to inform all political action. Hegemony, that strange cocktail of consent and coercion, which is Gramsci’s legacy in the lexicon of social theory, required changing people’s mindsets; addressing the question of how to legitimately and effectively to do so was paramount for the Italian thinker.
Adopting a ‘pedagogical framework’ to look at concepts such as hegemony, historical bloc, philosophy of praxis, catharsis–key Gramscian concepts–like the authors of Antonio Gramsci: A Pedagogy to Change the World do, is not to force the historical reality; Gramsci had what Giuseppe Vacca has defined as a ‘pedagogical obsession’, which is evidenced in his reflections and notes on the pastoral care and intellectual development of children, on education policies and school reform plans, on adult education in a variety of non-formal settings, and on the pedagogical role that he wished the Communist Party to have vis-a-vis the Italian working class.
Gramsci’s background in an impoverished small town and among a backward and illiterate peasantry, made him particularly concerned with the question of educating the children of the working classes. Furthermore, as someone who was able to complete his education thanks to hard won scholarships, Gramsci came to advocate the idea of creating the conditions for the individual to develop an autonomous capacity to learn, sustained by a willed effort. Thus, when, as an adult in Turin, he embraced Socialism, education and pedagogy, as well as culture, came to occupy important places in his agenda to transform politics and eventually representing the key to human emancipation. The claim of the book, articulated in different ways in the several chapters, and applied in some cases to concrete historical situations, is that Gramsci’s pedagogical obsession is crucial to the understanding of his thought as a whole and should not be the province of educational specialist only.