The revolutionary ideas of Antonio Gramsci

Submitted by Daniel_Randall on 9 December, 2009 - 10:47 Author: Peter Thomas

Peter Thomas is a Marxist writer and author of The Gramscian Moment. He gave a presentation about his research into the thought of Antonio Gramsci at Workers' Liberty's Ideas for Freedom winter event, 28-29 November 2009.

I’ll start by talking roughly about what motivated me to write this book, and then talk briefly about some of the theses, particularly related to questions of political strategy and political organisations.

Gramsci is today one of the most widely-known theorists from what we might call, in abbreviated form, the “golden age” of Marxism. I hesitate to use the term “classical Marxism”, but I’m speaking in terms of the early years of Marxism through the Second International and into the early years of the Third International. He is one of the authors who has survive the last period of negative, anti-Marxist sentiment in universities and in culture more generally – certainly more so than Engels and probably even more so than Marx himself. He’s taught on university courses in a whole variety of areas, from the humanities across to social sciences and political theory, history, philosophy, sociology, anthropology and literary criticism; for many young people today, I expect Gramsci is one of the first Marxist authors they’ll encounter. There are positives and negatives involved in this process and this reputation of Gramsci.

One of the reasons that Gramsci is so widely known today and has survived a long period that many other Marxist authors did not is because of a particular interpretation of Gramsci that was developed in the 1970s and associated with the Eurocommunists in particular, and later with certain tendencies that flowed into what you could the New Labour culture here in Britain and internationally. That presented a very contentious picture of Gramsci, which was namely the idea that Gramsci represented a break with what you could call a certain Leninist heritage, or the heritage associated with the October Revolution, and that Gramsci focused on questions of culture, of ideas, of superstructure and neglected some of the themes – particularly the critique of political economy – that had been central for earlier Marxist theorists.

That was the fundamental image I received as a young student when I first started reading Gramsci. But from my own reading of Gramsci, and from comments from older comrades who remembered different times, I had some sense that there was something not quite right with this picture. Something didn’t quite work. I became very interested in exploring Gramsci’s thought further. That set me off on a long path of research into many different areas of Gramsci’s thought, which has finally resulted in the publication of this book. To sum up the fundamental thesis of this book, I’d say that in my view, we need to reach the conclusion that Gramsci remains a thinker committed to a particular current that emerged from the October Revolution and attempted to reformulate a very sophisticated version of Marxism – both in terms of a theory of political activity and in terms of Marxism as what we could call, in the terms Gramsci uses, a broader “conception of the world.” This book, in some sense, was aimed fundamentally to contest a very widespread image of Gramsci as representing a break with the Leninist tradition, or at least one element of a certain Leninist tradition.

One element of this study was critically confronting some of the perspectives that were presented in a very important and influential article by Perry Anderson in New Left Review in 1976. Anderson’s argument in this article was that the Eurocommunist appropriation of Gramsci’s thought which had occurred in the preceding years and continued well on to the 70s and 80s was a betrayal of Gramsci’s thought, but was not entirely unwarranted on the basis of the notebooks that could be found that Gramsci wrote when he was in prison. That is to say, Anderson proposed the thesis that while in prison, and writing his most well-known work the Prison Notebooks, Gramsci had undertaken a slow slide in which various difficulties to which he was subjected in prison had led him to forget some of the fundamental insights of Marx, Engels and Lenin regarding the nature of state power , the nature of the capitalist state and the necessary forms of political organisation of a proletarian movement. When I first read this study, I was very impressed with the depth and the vision that was offered of Gramsci’s thought. Anderson’s argument depended on tracking a certain transmutation in Gramsci’s thought over his years of incarceration, particularly regarding the concept of hegemony. Anderson tracks a steady transformation by reading the critical edition of the Prison Notebooks, which had just been published in 1975, whereby Gramsci forgets the nature of the coercive power of the bourgeoisie and instead of conceives of “hegemony”, which is posited in a neutral sense, merely as a technique of political organisation that either the bourgeoisie or the working class can adopt, which is really a conceptual power which is not in any real sense political, but occurs only at the pre-political level of civil society.

As I read further into the critical Notebooks, however, I noticed certain discrepancies to do with the basic philological infrastructure of this reading. For example, the sequence of texts that Anderson analysed appear to be in chronological order. But when one goes further into the Notebooks and sees the way in which Gramsci had written them, under very difficult conditions, one realises that in fact some of the texts Anderson posited as coming later had come before the initial texts that he quoted. Therefore, the very sequential narrative that was recounted didn’t hold. We needed another way of trying to understand the development and progression of Gramsci’s though.

When I delved further into Gramsci’s pre-prison writings, about his period of activity in the Italian Communist Party, I began to believe that the period of time he spent in Soviet Union and his attendance at the fourth Congress of the Third International was decisive for his political development, which progressed through the 1920s and reach a certain composition under very difficult conditions while in prison in the 1930s; fundamentally, this was the perspective of the united front.

So when Gramsci visits the Soviet Union and attends the fourth Congress of the Third International, he encounters a particular conception of the united front which is very different from the various explanations of the concept which occur. This enables him to grasp the nature in which a mass basis of politics becomes the precondition for any genuine revolutionary movement in the West. I also began to think that the way Gramsci had been presented as a “Western Marxist”, a break with the Leninist tradition, was not in fact reflected in the texts themselves. Many of the themes emerging from the Prison Notebooks could be found in the discussions of Lenin and Trotsky. I therefore attempted to think through Gramsci’s theory not as a supposedly “Western” response to an “Eastern” or “classical” Marxism, but rather as the attempt to translate – a term that Gramsci, who was trained initially at university at a linguist, uses himself – some of the theoretical gains that he found in the practical politics of the post-revolutionary period in the Soviet Union. He was attempting first to translate them into a principle for understanding the rise of bourgeois hegemony, and secondly to then attempt to think through some of the principles of political action he found in Lenin’s though that he could develop into a theory and practise of what I call in the book “proletarian hegemony”.

This also leads into quite a lengthy discussion of the status of Marxism in relation to philosophy. This may not be focused on political questions, but I think that, in terms of Gramsci’s thought, it’s important to emphasise this element. It connects very closely with the way he develops the concept of hegemony. Philosophy for Gramsci was not concerned with particular technical questions; the tradition he’d inherited from Italian Marxism, and also from Italian bourgeois philosophers such as Benedetto Croce, meant that he was very concerned with practical philosophy as a conception of the world; in Marxist terms, an ideology. Not as an illusion, but as a system of ideas that are used and organised to achieve certain practical effects.

Gramsci therefore comes to be convinced, during his period in prison, that there’s a need to elaborate Marxism as a philosophy of praxis. This was not a word he used simply as a code-word to escape the eyes of the censor; he had substantive reasons for doing so. He became convinced that one of the forms in which the bourgeoisie had been able to establish its dominance had been a pre-eminently philosophical process in which there was a continuing separation of organisation and association – that is, organisation from above by a very restricted class, and the association of the masses from below. Gramsci thinks that, to confront this type of split in culture – which occurs on a global scale and is a product of capitalism’s innate requirement for a split between those who manage and appropriate, and those who work and associate – there was a need to challenge the underlying conception of philosophy and human thought with a philosophy of praxis. This would emphasise that philosophy and ideas – instances of organisation, if you like; very complicated conceptual linguistic forms – need to be understood themselves as practical activities. We don’t have metaphysics on the one hand and the sullen terrestrial terrain underneath it, which is given its truth by theology. Instead we need to be thoroughly secular and bring truth down and posit truth itself as a practical element in the organisation of social relations. So that’s a very direct attack precisely on the division of labour that’s organised as a class relation in the production process.

Gramsci develops this conception of Marxism to combat what he sees as possible bureaucratic deformations in the development of Marxism throughout its history and particularly in the period which he’s writing. He then builds this into his analysis of different forms of hegemony; he sees bourgeois hegemony as fundamentally dedicated to the organisation of particularly coercive layers of consent. He talks about consent being coercively extracted from what he calls the “popular layers” of society – if you like, ordinary people, the working class. This is done precisely in order to pacify them. Gramsci links this very closely in his discussions with the critique of political economy. This involves both a historical discussion – including a discussion of various elements of the legacy of Ricardo, which he conducts with his friend Piero Sraffa – as well as very close attention to some of the debates in Marx’s political and economic theory at the time. He is also very concerned to work out what would be a genuine proletarian hegemony. Certain indicators and signposts in the Prison Notebooks are hard to decipher. We’re not so much subject to censorship either by Gramsci himself or an external censor; Gramsci was not in fact that restricted in what he could write in prison. We’re more subject to the nature of these writings being notes that he hopes to elaborate later. His health didn’t permit him; he died shortly after release from prison.

He never had the chance to develop his notes into a full study. Looking closely, though, you can see indications of how these ideas begin to link up with his earlier experiences from the fourth Congress. He seems to have understood that the word “hegemony” had undergone a transformation from the pre-revolutionary situation, where it had been developed by Lenin in particular to indicate a leading relationship of the industrial working class in relation to the peasantry. This relationship was decisive to the success of the revolution in the Soviet Union. It becomes very different in the period of the New Economic Policy and assumes very complicated forms. Gramsci believes that the cultural politics of Lenin at the time of the NEP are very interesting in terms of conceiving of a mass base for a united front, which could draw together – from the base- not only the exploited classes but also the oppressed classes; the “popular layers”, all those who were not capitalists or exploiters or aristocrats.

What he sees in this in particular is the attempt by what we might call the “last” Lenin to develop a political culture in which participation was an available possibility for all members of the society, within the very severe limits that had been imposed by the years of the civil war. Lenin’s support for literacy programmes after the civil war is now tragically forgotten, but it was one of his main concerns for precisely political reasons – that is, to enable a mass base for participation in post-civil war reconstruction. It was also about developing a political consciousness for what remained of the industrial working class of the need to provide a genuine leadership to society that enables masses of people previously excluded from public life to participate actively in decision-making processes.

Gramsci grasps upon this as a form of “active” hegemony. It is not simply coercive, in the sense of extracting consent from people, but wins their active support and in so doing makes them more active. There’s a certain energising element to what Gramsci posits as a possible dimension of proletarian hegemony.

One of the other elements that this all ultimately flows into is something which also goes against one of the most dominant images of Gramsci. That is that all of Gramsci’s researches begin with a concern for forms of political organisation. As he develops his thoughts, and turns in his studies to considering the very radical nature of Machiavelli’s political theory, he begins to develop the notion of “the modern prince”. This becomes, according to some people, merely Gramsci’s codeword for “the political party”, however understood. But in the context of what Gramsci is trying to do, considering the way he tries to reconnect to the level of democratic pedagogy in Lenin’s political theory both before the Russian Revolution and also under very difficult circumstances in the period after the civil war, we can see that “the modern prince” for Gramsci is not merely a euphemism for actually existing political parties but becomes Gramsci’s concrete proposal for the type of political party that would be needed to continue what we might call the Leninist challenge. The “modern prince” becomes the central element of his thought, and we cannot present a picture of Gramsci – who is essentially killed by the fascists for being the leader of a working-class organisation – as somehow representing a break with forms of political organisation and drifting off into a vague cultural or pre-cultural critique or merely dissent.

Gramsci sees the figure of “the modern prince” as the type of organisation that would allow for the debates that need to happen, the points of disagreement, the composition of alliances and new perspectives – an ongoing process, as it were, of self-education, of people engaged in forms of organising themselves rather than being organised by others. There’s a break with a bureaucratic conception, which Gramsci himself had been susceptible to, and Gramsci’s attempt to think through the way the political party in his period could be conceived not as a instrument of bureaucratic control or command but becomes a space or site in which a new civilisation of values are developed. For Gramsci, this means concrete activity of organising in different forms.

This goes a long way beyond the type of things to which politics has been reduced in our own period, largely due to the lack of the mass base that would be needed to make these ideas meaningful in a concrete sense. Gramsci is talking about developing an entire infrastructure of social relations that would prepare the way for the self-education of the working classes to participate actively in politics.

Ultimately, against the image that I received as a young student of Gramsci as a departure from a directly political Marxism, we need to reaffirm that deepening of a conception of politics and political organisation – and linking that with a Marxist critique of political economy – remains at the absolute centre of Gramsci’s project the entire way through. The ultimate legacy he gives us is then trying to conceive of the ways in which political organisation are theoretical in their own forms, and also the ways in which theory are forms of political organisation. There’s a strong red line of emphasis on the primacy of politics that runs through Gramsci’s thought, which doesn’t in any sense negate the fundamental principles of the materialist conception of history. There’s an attempt to rethink the concrete forms in which the materialist conception of history and the critique of political economy can move from being the preserve of small groups of people to becoming the base for a genuine mass culture and civilisation.

That, for me, is why Gramsci remains a point of connection to the past of the Marxist tradition as well as a fundamental point for trying to reorganise and recompose a Marxism that can take this position, and that can flourish and grow as a genuine culture in wider society.