Skip to main content

To Live Is to Resist

The Life of Antonio Gramsci

Translated by Laura Marris
Foreword by Nadia Urbinati
This in-depth biography of Italian intellectual Antonio Gramsci casts new light on his life and writing, emphasizing his unflagging spirit, even in the many years he spent in prison.
One of the most influential political thinkers of the twentieth century, Antonio Gramsci (1891–1937) has left an indelible mark on philosophy and critical theory. His innovative work on history, society, power, and the state has influenced several generations of readers and political activists, and even shaped important developments in postcolonial thought. But Gramsci’s thinking is scattered across the thousands of notebook pages he wrote while he was imprisoned by Italy’s fascist government from 1926 until shortly before his death.

To guide readers through Gramsci’s life and works, historian Jean-Yves Frétigné offers To Live Is to Resist, an accessible, compelling, and deeply researched portrait of an extraordinary figure. Throughout the book, Frétigné emphasizes Gramsci’s quiet heroism and his unwavering commitment to political practice and resistance. Most powerfully, he shows how Gramsci never surrendered, even in conditions that stripped him of all power—except, of course, the power to think.

328 pages | 1 line drawing, 1 table | 6 x 9 | © 2021

Biography and Letters

History: European History, General History

Political Science: Political and Social Theory


“If, as Primo Levi so presciently warned us in 1974, ‘every age has its own fascism,’ it follows that every age needs its own Gramsci. And Jean-Yves Frétigné has given us a Gramsci for our perilous times. This lucidly translated biography traces an intellectual, political, and personal drama that passes through Sardinia, Turin, the Stoics, Spinoza, Machiavelli, Vico, Leopardi, and Marx. We come to understand the origins and explicatory power of Gramscian terms such as ‘subalternity,’ ‘hegemony,’ ‘organic intellectuals,’ and ‘pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will.’ The epilogue poignantly renders the pathos of Gramsci’s last years. Most importantly, the reader will be inspired by a life and mind that insisted on a participatory and permanent resistance against the seemingly natural order of things.”

Stanislao Pugliese, Hofstra University

“Gramsci’s political, personal, and prison lives are the source of renewed debate in the neoliberal postcommunist era, with archival finds, speculative conjectures, and ideological polemics. This fine translation of To Live Is to Resist offers a concise narrative of Gramsci’s life as well as an informed and balanced account of the biographical controversies.”

Michael Denning, Yale University

To Live Is to Resist carries the promise of something different, more akin to an intellectual biography that emphasizes ideas over events. . . . Gramsci urged us to look at bad detective novels and Jules Verne to understand our political reality, and To Live Is to Resist’s best moments are when it takes seriously the unserious.”

Jennifer Wilson | Bookforum

"In To Live Is To Resist, Jean-Yves Frétigné sketches the life of Gramsci. . . .   As Nadia Urbinati notes in her stimulating foreword to Frétigné’s book, Gramsci’s was ‘a life of prisons,’ beginning with his own infirm body, continuing with his early life of poverty and often marginal political standing, and ending in actual incarceration."

Richard Bellamy | TImes Literary Supplement

"Frétigné’s volume—a lucid, sober, and well-substantiated documentation and interpretation of Gramsci’s life and work—unquestionably stands apart. . . . It is exemplary for tracing the development of ideas against the backdrop of a life, preferring to plumb the depths of the uncertain and enigmatic rather than taking the easy way out. . . . After studying To Live Is to Resist, I am inclined to see Gramsci differently: as an inconvenient Marxist who truly doesn’t fit any of our received frameworks."

Alan Wald | Boston Review

"[Frétigné brings a] wealth of new material and welcome precision to his biography. . . . If Gramsci has aged better than many of his peers, it is in part because he became a thinker for a defeated, rather than a triumphalist, left. The ground of this inquiry may have shifted in the decades since his death, but the main battle lines remain the same, and this still makes Gram­sci a thinker worth turning to in our moment."

Thomas Meaney | The New Republic

Table of Contents

Nadia Urbinati
Part I           From Sardinian Gramsci to National Gramsci (1891–1915)
1                      In Sardinia (1891–1911)
2                      A Poor Student in Turin (1911–1915)
Part II          From National Gramsci to Internationalist Gramsci (1915–1922)
3                      A Socialist Journalist, Marginal and Original (1915–1919)
4                      From the Experience of L’Ordine Nuovo to His Departure for Moscow (1919–1922)
Part III        The Bolshevik (1922–1926)
5                      In the Service of the Comintern (May 1922–May 1924)
6                      At the Head of the New Communist Party of Italy (May 1924–November 8, 1926)
Part IV        The Prisoner (November 8, 1926–April 27, 1937)
7                      For Twenty Years, We Must Stop This Brain from Functioning (November 8, 1926–July 19, 1928)
8                      The Prisoner and the Philosopher (July 19, 1928–November 19, 1933)
Epilogue: November 19, 1933–April 27, 1937
English Editions of Gramsci’s Writings
Selected Chronology of Gramsci’s Life
Appendix A: Family Tree of the Schucht Family
Appendix B: Overview of Gramsci’s Visits and Visitors between May 1927 and His Death in April 1937
Translator’s Note and Acknowledgments


As a small child gifted with a sharp intelligence, Antonio was pampered by his family so he could overcome his illness and continue his studies. Nino was allowed special treatment—every morning, he had an egg beaten with sugar and marsala wine, a small piece of white bread, and coffee, while his brothers and sisters had to content themselves with a slice of black bread and a sad, barley-based brew. Because of his illness, Antonio didn’t start at the Sorgono school, which was run by nuns, until the autumn of 1898, when he was already seven and a half. Though his grades were excellent and he was always first in his class, he was forced to interrupt his studies for two years to help his brother in the surveyor’s office. He studied just as hard on his own, sacrificing hours of sleep so he could learn the basics of Latin. His mother always managed to support him, patiently reading over her child’s work. Later on, from prison, he remembered these late afternoons when Peppina would set aside her dressmaking tasks in order to correct one of his misspellings or tell him a story. For Gramsci, a staunch atheist, these moments of joy and goodness were “the only true paradise that exists,” since these moments represented a harmonious transmission of knowledge between generations.

In 1926, shortly before he was arrested by the Fascist police, Gramsci wrote an important essay on the southern question... Later, in his Prison Notebooks, he returned several times to the social, economic, and cultural conditions of the populations living in Italy’s Mezzogiorno, and particularly in Sardinia. It’s not the scrutiny of a seasoned and committed intellectual that interests us here, but rather the sentiments of this twenty-year-old young man at the moment he was leaving the region in which he’d always lived. He wasn’t like the writer Gavino Ledda (born in 1938), the author of the best-selling Padre Padrone: L’educazione di un pastore. In the film version that the Taviani brothers took to the big screen, the protagonist urinates on the ground of his native land from the truck bringing him to the ship that will carry him to the continent. But Gramsci loved his native land. All the same, he thought it resembled a prison, with walls made of superstition and primitivism…

For Gramsci, Sardinia is the land of childhood. An arid, austere, and majestic countryside that the Sardinian writer and 1926 Nobel Prize winner Grazia Deledda (1871–1936) describes in her most famous novel, Reeds in the Wind, as a land whose beauty and purity contrast with the harshness of elemental human passions in the relations between men and women, fathers and sons. Isn’t that what the young Sansoneddu (“little Samson,” the affectionate nickname Antonio’s playmates gave him because his hair was so abundant) felt with an absent father who, as he learned from these playmates, was absent because he had been imprisoned?

Antonio took long walks in the arid countryside around Ghilarza, and after reading Robinson Crusoe, he was never without a few seeds and sulfur matches in his pockets. Sardinia was his mysterious island, where he learned to notice the animals in the fields: the hare, the fox, the snake, the sparrow hawk, and his favorite, the hedgehog. For several months, he kept a whole family of hedgehogs in the Gramscis’ garden. He recounted these experiences as charming little stories and fables in the letters he wrote to his two young sons, Delio and Giuliano. His political activism and then his imprisonment kept him from knowing his first son for more than a few months. He would never meet his second son...

When he was very young, he realized his mysterious island was also a land where poverty reigned while wealth was concentrated within a narrow elite. In response, he liked to recall the story of the wandering monk and the bean, which went as follows. A beggar monk who owned only a bean entrusted it to a peasant. But the peasant’s rooster devoured the legume, and to compensate for this loss, the monk left with the rooster. Our monk then entrusted the rooster to the good care of another woman so that he could go to church and perform his prayers, but the rooster was eaten by her pig. So the monk left with the pig, and in making his way like this, became master of the country, reigning over a mass of poor people whose meager belongings he had stolen. That was the image of Sardinia in the mind of this young child: a world that was divided between those who had to earn their bread to study and those who could frequent the school benches without having to lift heavy registers for the surveyor, such as the sons of Ghilarza’s butcher, pharmacist, and cloth trader.

To the adolescent living in Cagliari, the image of Sardinia was that of his squalid, damp room, which he had no way of heating. As a middle schooler, and then as a high school student, Antonio began to formulate an answer to the questions raised above: why this poverty, and what could remedy it?

Though the Gramsci family respected the authority of the Kingdom, and Antonio’s father carefully kept a portrait of King Victor Emmanuel III (1869–1947), a gift from his officer brother, in the best room of the house, Francesco and Giuseppina were not indifferent to the popular Risorgimento tradition embodied by the luminaries Giuseppe Mazzini (1805–72) and Giuseppe Garibaldi (1807–82). All the same, Francesco refused to let Socialist ideas into his house.
However, he couldn’t prevent his eldest son Gennaro from being won over by new ideas from the cohort of young European officials sent to Sardinia to revise the old land survey maps. Gennaro, who eventually became treasurer of the Cagliari Chamber of Labor, encouraged Antonio to frequent Socialist circles in that city.

By the end of the first decade of the twentieth century, the two brothers were pro-Socialist. They read Avanti!, the daily of the PSI (Partito Socialista Italiano, the Italian Socialist Party). Francesco hated this paper and would tear up any issues he could get his hands on. Antonio, with the help of his sister Teresina and the complicity of the postman, had to devise a strategy to steal the mail before it was brought to his father. However, it would be wrong to imagine that Socialist ideology had already given young Antonio a precise intellectual diagnosis of the problems of Sardinian poverty, since he experienced this poverty during his childhood and adolescence. Moreover, Socialism in Sardinia was still in its embryonic phase.

Before he left for Turin, Antonio Gramsci knew almost nothing about Karl Marx. As a high schooler, he was unaware of problems in political economy, preferring to throw himself into idealist philosophy. From age fifteen on, he made a habit of carefully saving newspaper clippings, filing the articles by Gaetano Salvemini and Benedetto Croce with extra special care. Even if this passion for the historian from Bari and the Neapolitan philosopher was shared by young people his age, it must have especially resonated with this young Sardinian, since his enthusiasm signified a desire to “deprovincialize” himself and join with broader national and European culture as a result…

As he left his native island to become a student in Turin, Antonio Gramsci expanded his consciousness to become an Italian citizen and a militant Socialist.

Be the first to know

Get the latest updates on new releases, special offers, and media highlights when you subscribe to our email lists!

Sign up here for updates about the Press