Kitchen Notebooks: Gramsci and... Kafka (?!?)

Like Antonio Gramsci found himself confined to Mussolini's dungeons, having to jot down short lines of thought in small notebooks, I at times find myself confined to the kitchen table, by a laptop, forced by an uncontrollable impulse to comment on something I have seen or read, to write a few short lines about some subject.

I recently aquired a (Norwegian language) copy of Franz Kafkas “Letters to Milena” [1], collecting some of Franz Kafka's letters to Milena Jesenská from 1920 to 1923.

As I gazed upon the iconic black and white Kafka-portrait that adorned the paperbacks cover, I could not help but think about the similar iconic portrait of Gramsci, and it sort of got me thinking. Were there similarities in the life and thought of Kafka and Gramsci? At first the idea seemed absurd, but us humans being pattern-recognizing animals, sure enough after thinking about it, I did find a few connection points.

Kafka (1883 – 1924) and Gramsci (1891 – 1937), lived and did their most important works in the tumultuous early decades of the 20th century. They were both great minds, who revolutionized their respective fields. Kafka naturally in literature where his dark and claustrophobic style has brought him to the top of many a “Greatest Book of the 20th century”-list, Gramsci in political philosophy, with his extensive writings on culture, hegemony and the importance of the superstructure (in Marxist terms) to understand power relations in modern societies.

But it is not only in excelling in their fields their lives bare resemblance. Kafka was hardly recognized in his own time, and his most famous works were published posthumously. Gramsci was on the other hand well known in his lifetime, but more as a politician than a political philosopher. His Prison Notebooks - his most important works who rose him up to one of our times most important philosophers - were published only long after his death, in the 1950s.

Gramsci and Kafka both had to fight racism in their lives. Kafka was Jewish, not a undividedly pleasant experience in central Europe in the early 1900’s. His perhaps most famous short story - The Metamorphosis - explores questions of dehumanization, so central for racism, both then and now. Gramsci was a Sardinian in an Italy where many, particularly in the North, saw them as an inferior race. (Racism from northern Italians toward their southern countrymen is a current phenomenon as well, being an important part of the basis for the racist Italian party Lega Nord.) Gramsci analyzes the colonial status of the southern parts of Italy, in relation to the North in "Some aspects of the southern question" [2].

Both Kafka and Gramsci suffered great illness through their lives - Kafka with tuberculosis, Gramsci with a more complex set of illnesses. They both met early deaths because of their diseases (all though in Gramsci’s case, harsh conditions in fascist prisons is an important reason for his health problems). It is not improbable that this condition has influenced their thoughts somewhat.

But how about politics? It is relatively well known that Kafka was a socialist, and influenced by anarchism, but whether this has influenced his writing is contested. His early death naturally did not make it possible for him to experience the tumultuous period of the late 20’s and 30’s, with the rise of fascism, and the Stalinization of the Soviet Union. Similarly, Gramsci’s imprisonment from 1926 onwards, greatly hindered his possibilities to engage in active political work and debate, perhaps contributing to turning him more over to more principal and philosophical subjects.

Kafka’s translator, correspondent and romantic interest, Milena Jesenská, on the other hand, joined the Check Communist party in 1931, but was repulsed by the Moscow trials in 1936, and lost faith in the communist party. (She was then excluded on the typical grounds of Trotskyism.) [3]

This is naturally not the same process Gramsci went through. Being imprisoned, and nearing his death, he did however express disbelief in the accusations against Zinoviev, in one of his last political comments. [4]

Gramsci did however have time to take another kind of ideological showdown with Moscow. His thorough critique of Nikolai Bukharins 1921 “Historical Materialism"[5], showing that history is not Newtonian physics (a simple A->B->C process), is perhaps one of the most important insights in early 20th century Marxism. [6]

So there were definitely similarities in the lives of Gramsci and Kafka. Underneath both their writings we can see the depressing social structures of an authoritarian European society. As I see it, there is however one fundamental difference. They may have shared a natural pessimism, but Kafka lacked the optimism of the will.

[1] Franz Kafka, Brev til Milena, Ka Forlag 2005
[3] From the brief biographical note in, Franz Kafka, Brev til Milena, Ka Forlag 2005
[4] A. Davidson - Antonio Gramsci, London 1977 p.269, according to Chris Harman at
[6] Kritiske merknader til et forsøk på “Populær innføring i sosiologi”, in Kalberg (ed.) Gramsci i utvalg, Universitetet i Oslo, 1992

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