The Gramsci enigma

Submitted by Matthew on 9 January, 2013 - 12:29

The legacy of the great Italian socialist Antonio Gramsci has been contested in hundreds of books and articles, particularly since the 1970s — so much so that these days university students are more likely to come across him than Karl Marx. But the Gramsci they encounter comes in a confusing variety of interpretations — a proto-Eurocommunist Gramsci, a liberal Gramsci, a revolutionary Gramsci and a radical democrat Gramsci.

Part of the explanation comes from the particular circumstances Italian Communism and Gramsci faced. The Italian Communist Party (PCI) was illegalised between 1926 and 1943. This meant that, apart from its exiled leaders, it was cut off from the struggles within the Communist International. It never experienced the Popular Front as a practical project during the 1930s and its members retained a self image as revolutionaries.

Gramsci was imprisoned from 1926 until shortly before his death in 1937, and his Prison Notebooks were written in a cryptic style that lends itself to different interpretations. Jail insulated Gramsci from the most corrosive effects of Stalinism. Although relations between Gramsci and the PCI leadership almost entirely broke down during his imprisonment, after the Second World War the PCI embalmed him as the prophet of broad alliances with anti-socialist forces.

Where other classical Marxists frequently tended to treat the state unproblematically as resting upon force in the form of “armed bodies of men”, Gramsci saw the state in western Europe as “an outer ditch, behind which there was a powerful system of fortresses and earthworks” composed of a wide range of social institutions and networks. Against this the workers’ movement was obliged to build a “hegemonic apparatus” capable of drawing into struggle other oppressed classes, while simultaneously acting as an educator and educating itself. Gramsci’s interpreters have seen this variously as conducting a revolutionary struggle in alliance with the peasantry, or as a vague process of “cultural diffusion” allied to slowly building centres of support within capitalist society such as local government.

This pamphlet is not an introduction to Gramsci’s thought so much as an exploration of some its key themes, and it assumes at least a working knowledge of his main writings.

It takes the form of an interview with and a presentation by Peter Thomas, author of The Gramscian Moment and a series of four articles by Martin Thomas. Peter Thomas makes a strong case for rescuing a revolutionary Gramsci, whose politics remained firmly rooted within those of the early Comintern, particularly the debates on the united front. On occasion he does so in such abstruse terms that it is very difficult to detect what he believes the “hegemonic apparatus”should actually do, so hidden are his explanations beneath a thicket of subordinate clauses:

We thus have in Gramsci not only the notion of a hegemonic apparatus, in the singular, but also of hegemonic apparatuses, in the plural — a whole series of hegemonic apparatuses that come together and are unified at the political level by the capacity of elements of a particular social group or class to draw into a dialogue, or, to use Gramsci’s term, to “translate” between, different hegemonic practices in different fields of the society.

Or again in his discussion of the Modern Prince (Gramsci’s synonym for the revolutionary party):

Gramsci conceived of the Modern Prince as a new type of dialectical-pedagogical political and social relation capable of being translated into different contexts and then, just as crucially, of being retranslated backwards, enriched by the dialectical pedagogical exchange and interchange. We have at the end a vision of the Modern Prince not as a particular geographical location in the society, or even as a pre-existing element, but as the result of all these relations, translations and re-translations, as they are constituted in an ongoing process.

At the risk of sounding philistine, this does sound like a Marxist version of the fable of the emperor’s new clothes.

That aside there is much in this pamphlet that is intellectually stimulating. Martin Thomas’s essays are in the main pithy models of clarity that examine a number of important aspects of Gramsci’s politics and philosophy. He takes issue with Peter Thomas’ description of the united front as a “determining strategic perspective” when compared to the lack of emphasis he places on the centrality of a revolutionary party. But surely the two are — or should be — interwoven. What were soviets in 1905 and 1917 if not, in Trotsky’s words, the highest form of the united front? At the very least the united front is a tactic with strategic implications.

Peter Thomas writes that: “From 1926 onwards, at the very latest, Gramsci was quite clear on the nature of what had emerged in the Soviet Union and the ongoing process of Stalinisation and bureaucratisation.” Martin Thomas is more nuanced, stressing that Gramsci’s wrong-headed critique of the Left Opposition as favouring the kind of “strategy of the offensive” more properly associated with Zinoviev undermined his opposition to Stalinism. Martin Thomas’s short essay comparing Gramsci and Trotsky strikes the balance very well.

While Gramsci’s opposition to Stalinism lacked the rigour of Trotsky’s, he also didn’t embrace the kind of catastrophist perspective Trotsky had adopted by the late 1930s, in which small propaganda groups would attempt to resolve the “crisis of leadership” and thereby the “crisis of humanity”. Martin Thomas writes: “Against the sectarian posturing — not Trotsky’s, but in a certain sense Trotskyist — Gramsci has much to teach us.”

What then of Gramsci’s relevance today? Clearly the nature of the non-proletarian “subaltern classes” — in Gramsci’s day, mainly the peasantry and the urban petty bourgeoisie — has greatly changed in the 75 years since he died.

Peter Thomas claims that “in some so-called advanced capitalist countries the percentage of the population that could be defined as working class in the broadest terms approaches 70 or 80%, if not more”. This is almost certainly an optimistic exaggeration and a warning of where the politics of “the 99%” can lead.

Such a figure in Britain could hardly be reached even if you added in every last member of the self employed, placed a university professor in the same class as a poverty stricken teaching assistant, and disregarded private wealth, particularly in the form of homes often worth in excess of £500,000. But if it were true, it would not mean that the issue of “proletarian hegemony” would have ceased to exist. Even within sections of society that are more clearly working class, the challenge is to unite what has become a very stratified class behind a single banner. Beyond that, it is to reach out to other sections — principally the professional middle class — to build alliances. To that extent, the problem of hegemony remains to this day in a country like Britain.

In attempting to formulate a revolutionary programme that included the mainly peasant and very poor south of Italy, Gramsci was breaking with the Marxist orthodoxy of his time, which had frequently paid little attention to the rural population. In France, Italy and Spain, the left managed to build rural strongholds. In Germany, the left was almost entirely disinterested in the problems of the non-proletarian rural poor, with the result that they remained hostile to the urban working class and a reservoir of support for the reactionary, and ultimately fascist, right.

While the proportion of those who work the land has fallen dramatically across Europe in recent decades, there are still strong echoes of the north/south problematic in Italy in the campaigns of the Northern League. In this year’s French presidential election, Sarkozy won the rural vote, but there was strong support in some areas for both Hollande and Le Pen, and even the Front de Gauche’s Jean-Luc Mélenchon won in a few dozen rural communes. If nothing else, it shows that there is everything to fight for in the French countryside. In a very different context, the troubled relationship between the left and France’s five million Muslims also poses problems of hegemony.

We can surely draw much from Gramsci’s analysis of how capitalist society gains “coercive consent” to its rule. How else are we explain why millions of American blue collar workers, under the whip of recession, voted for Republican candidates who represent their worst enemy?

And what would the construction of a “hegemonic apparatus” look like in Britain today? I can’t help remembering that when I lived in Islington 35 years ago there were, within a radius of a mile, four left wing bookshops (one Stalinist, one Trotskyist, one anarchist and one pacificist); a radical community newspaper; a thriving fringe theatre scene; federations of tenants and squatters, a short-life housing co-op, and a women’s centre. Not infrequently, councillors in one borough were trade union convenors in another. And this infrastructure flourished even under the hegemony of the old right wing of the Labour Party.

We have slipped a long way backwards from this kind of left wing culture. New media cannot entirely substitute for this, since to a significant degree they remain a dialogue of the middle class with itself.

Gramsci was scathing about the kind of left wing politics that boiled down to shallow exposés of capitalist scandals and exhortations to action. You can’t imagine him chanting ‘One solution, revolution!’ This pamphlet is to be welcomed, because it can not only stimulate discussion upon the philosophical aspects of Gramsci’s thought, but it can also force socialists to think more deeply about their relationship to the rest of society, and how to transform it.

• Antonio Gramsci and revolutionary Marxism today, an AWL dayschool, from 12 noon, 26 January at The Waldorf, 12 Gore Street Manchester M1 3AQ.

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