“Poor Gramsci, communist and militant before all else, tortured and killed by fascism and ultimately by the bosses who financed fascism-poor Gramsci was given the gift of being considered the founder of a strange notion of hegemony that leaves no place for a Marxian politics. We have to defend ourselves against such generous gifts!”
(Negri and Hardt on sententious interpretations of Gramsci’s theories, “Empire”, Cambridge, Mass.: Havard University Press, 2001, 452)
Antonio Gramsci (1891-1937) is one of Marxism’s most important political theorists. For many decades, his theoretical legacy has been an important argument in the left’s strategic debates all over the world. The name of this Italian communist has become a “floating signifier” of sorts, capable of endowing “revolutionary” legitimacy even to those interpretations of his ideas that he himself would have called revisionist. Obviously, there is no way to avoid a procedure of historization: in other words, it makes sense to look at the historical context of his theoretical practice in order to understand and use his ideas adequately.
As a thinker and politician, Gramsci is framed by the context of the socialist worker’s movement, and primarily, its revolutionary wing, which identified itself with Bolshevism and the Comintern. From 1924 to his arrest in 1926, he practically led the Communist Party of Italy (PCI) and implemented the policy of its “Bolshevization” under the conditions of the Italian state’s mounting trend toward fascism. His theories can be understood as a translation of the political practices of Russian Bolshevism into the “Western” (or, more precisely, into the Italian) socio-political and cultural context. Going against the dominant tendency of interpreting Gramsci’s theoretical legacy, one might say that the relationship between his theories and Lenin’s policies are a relationship of articulation, and not of discrepancy or rupture. The central problematic of the “Prison Notebooks,” written at a moment in which labor’s revolutionary offensive against capital had come to a pause, can be found in the concept of forming a “collective will.” It is this formative process that demands further development as a universal strategy; geared toward “breaking” the structures of domination (primarily, the apparatuses of state power), it is precisely this “collective will” that is capable of constructing new forms of collective life. However, this central idea – namely a well-considered universal strategy that might lead a revolution to success -has been driven out to the margins of radical thought by the critique of “power”, which is paired with the “expressive” practices of the contemporary Left. Turning back to Gramsci is a means of reexamining this central idea.
In his “Prison Notebooks,” Gramsci develops a series of flexible and open concepts (often using the concepts of hegemonial thinking, such as “civil society”, as “raw material”), whose function not only lies in examining the persistent relations of force that always-already mark the territory of political struggle (e.g. class, people, nation), but also in finding possibilities for their transformation. The analytical potential of these concepts has yet to be exploited in full. In the course of an unceasing polemic against the economic reductionism of Marxist dogmatics, as well as against the political science of his bourgeois contemporaries, Gramsci develops a multi-dimensional political analysis sensitive to the complexity of relations of force (in the context of class, regional politics, etc.) in the contemporary capitalist state, including those that emerge on the fields of culture and ideology. This type of analysis only becomes possible through a break with the “orthodox” Marxism that dominated the Second and Third Internationals with its view of theory’s goals and functional principle.
Initially, “orthodox” Marxism was able to find points of connection with subversive elements in the culture of the subaltern classes, and was used by the weak as means of self-assertion and intellectual-moral growth. But later, it became a professional ideology of the working class’ representatives and a religion for no less authoritarian ultra-leftist sects. Gramsci was one of the first thinkers who pointed out that this dogmatic branch of the Marxist tradition had reached an historical impasse by underlining Marxism’s radical historicism. (Antonio Gramsci.. “The historicity of the philosophy of praxis”. Selections from the Prison Notebooks, ed. and trans. Quintin Hoare and Geoffrey Nowell Smith. New York: International Publishers 1971. pp. 404-407) For Gramsci, breaking with the versions of Marxism that were dominant at the time entails the liberation of authentic Marxism, a “philosophy of praxis” instead of the hegemonial intellectual systems of the positivist type or those like the philosophy of the Italian liberal Croce. Both the ideas of Marx himself and the notions, images, metaphors, discursive genres, practices (“the philosophy of Lenin is to be found in his praxis”), and beliefs developed by revolutionary movements contain all of the components necessary to create an independent and integral conception of the world, which leads to the drawing of a clear line of separation between two antagonist camps, namely labor and capital. This conception can and must become hegemonial, i.e. it must convince a broad mass, exerting a transformative influence on its everyday life, and providing infallible points of orientation for collective action. Endowed with the potential for hegemony, Marxism attracts intellectuals, thus subverting “traditional” forms of cultural production (e.g. disciplinary walls between different fields of scholarly knowledge, art, and science, etc.).
However, Gramsci practices Marxism, rather than simply applying it. In his view, the Marxist tradition (with “teachers” and a “legacy”) continues to develop due to the continued existence of the antagonism between labor and capital, but at the same time, it needs to be reinvented in each given historical moment. In other words, Gramsci understands Marxism as a reflexive project that is open to the future and inseparable from the living experience of mass movements. This project has no ontological guarantees such as the “natural-historical” laws drawn up by “scientific socialism.” This has important implications for both political practice and the practice of theory. It alters the very mode of knowledge production (or, in a broader sense, the production of representation, including artistic representation), which now becomes a project of the party with radical democratic traits: effective theories, analyses, and programs are developed in (co)operation and dialogue with the concrete participants of the mass movement, based on the needs of this movement. According to Gramsci, a compact political articulation of Marxism should be analogous to Machiavelli’s “Prince”, i.e., it should both examine the conditions under which a “collective will” emerges and foster this emergence through its form and its content. Gramsci’s “Modern Prince” is meant to supply provisional points of orientation in constructing a new society. Needless to say, this process is inextricably linked to the activity of “breaking” the structures of class domination. Gramsci’s political concepts, such as “state,” “hegemony,” “party,” or “the intellectual” always entail the possibility of their own transformation. In this sense, they can be understood as practical utopias that sketch out new social forms. By dislodging the traditional opposition between “utopia” and “scientific socialism”, Gramsci unlocks the activist, political component of Marxism.
Gramsci’s Key Political Concepts
Following Lenin’s thesis that politics take precedence over economics during times of crisis of old social formations and the emergence of new ones, Gramsci begins to develop an understanding of politics as an “independent, self-sufficient science,” free of economic reductionism. In a characteristic way, he constructs an “ontology” of the political. “Politics-history”, Gramsci writes in the “Prison Notebooks,” is impossible without passion, which arises on the fertile ground of social antagonism. (Among other things, this includes the emotions connected to the identification-drama of the revolutionary intellectual’s ambivalent relationship to the “people”.) However, Gramsci, who argued with anarchists and syndicalists throughout the 1910-20s, has enough good sense to refrain from reducing politics to passion. It is impermissible to reduce or replace politics with some “pure” affect of negativity (“In the beginning is the scream”), which – in the contemporary ideology of anarchism – guarantees the “authenticity” of resistance, which constantly runs the risk of being distorted by resentiment and by parties or any form of institution whatsoever. The entire point of conscious intervention – politics – is that it prepares and anticipates the birth of a community based on a common experience of subalternity (in factories, villages, military units, urban space, the educational system…), a community that then overcomes this subalternity together. Gramsci describes this moment through the notion of “catharsis,” which entails the clarification of the elemental passions – hardly understood as “pure” emotions – that feed mass protest, and their transition to concern with a common cause. Politics, which begins with difficult and painstaking work (in institutions, theory, art, etc.) on a micro-level, requires inner concentration, the subordination of goals and means, strategic thinking, tactical agility, and a readiness to adjust to changes in tempo.
The latter is especially important because the process of socialist revolution entails an unpredictable alteration between different phases, between a “war of maneuver” – direct confrontations and attempts at taking over coercive state apparatuses or the “political community” – and a “war of position”, or working in civil society, i.e. in a sphere relatively free of state coercion or control through capital. This view of revolution is connected to Gramsci’s experience as a political activist in the 1910s-20s, through which he understood that the modern capitalist state is far more complex than traditional Marxism assumes. The state does not only function as a repressive force, but also takes on the function of educating an obedient population in the framework of national or other boundaries. This function is realized through civil society (parties, mass media, trade unions, educational institutions, the family…), which are partially (re)constituted as the ruling classes’ answer to the challenge of subaltern classes. Where liberals see a necessary counterbalance to the state, Gramsci sees hegemony, constituted through subtle, invisible mechanisms of domination that construct the consensus of the subaltern classes. He also sees the fragility of civil society in a capitalist state, the historical mobility of its boundaries and its connection to an apparatus of coercion. Nevertheless, in creating nations, citizens, public spheres, parties, and politics, the bourgeoisie have laid the groundwork for toppling their rule. According to Gramsci, the tactic of a “war of position” entails both the capture of key positions in bourgeois civil society and the struggle to broaden its boundaries radically. It also entails creating and expanding alternative spaces for political subjectification, a process that ultimately erases the boundaries between base and superstructure, state and civil society, or the public and the private.
Departing from the experience of class struggle in Italy, and most importantly, the experience made in the factory council movement in Northern Italy during 1919-1920, Gramsci attempts to imagine the possibilities for a fundamentally new type of hegemony, which he was only able to imagine as the hegemony of the industrial working class at the time. To Gramsci, the urban industrial proletariat, endowed with a consciousness of its historical “mission” and capable of uniting other subaltern classes on the basis of a nationwide program, was not an a priori scheme, but a palpable, “concrete-historical” reality.
So what are the distinctive features of this new hegemony? While the bourgeoisie hammer their (meta)national community together “mechanically,” proletarian hegemony produces an “organic” unity. This new hegemony realizes itself through a network of asymmetrical relations (of “power), flexible and multi-dimensional, reminiscent of the reversible relations between a teacher and his student, based upon emotional affinity and “active consensus.” Instead of falling victim to any sterile fixation on the problem of “power,” Gramsci suggests that one consider how to articulate a form of political praxis that constantly dislocates the oppositions between “leaders and followers”, “the intelligentsia and the people,” or “theory and everyday consciousness”.. This would, for instance, include considering a party structure that might guarantee a “continual circulation of individuals between leaders and followers” or by circulating ideas that might work against the rebirth of authoritarian leadership in small groups of activists.
Thus, the creation of a new hegemony demands a great deal of mastery, but its rules and skills can be mastered by everyone. While bourgeois hegemony is constituted through exclusions, the non-disclosure of “rules of fair play,” and conspiracies, this new hegemony is open; its discourse need to demonstrate its own structure – just as Machiavelli “naively” demonstrated the rules of politics by inviting the popular masses into this sphere, which was closed to them. The effect of this new hegemony is to revolutionize subjectivity, which is geared toward infinite multiplication through words and deeds. In revolutionary theories, programs for action, and the biographies of party activists (“organic intellectuals”), one can read the history of the collective overcoming of a subaltern, passive state of non-subjects otherwise absent from political life.
Accomplished hegemony – catharsis – leads to the foundation of a new, egalitarian state. The mode of this state’s functioning are already contained in the event that marks its beginning, namely an “explosion within” its representative machines: everyone speaks and acts for everyone else. For Gramsci, the October revolution, always remained a paradigm of “accomplished hegemony,” which he primarily welcomed as a revolution in the consciousness of the popular masses. In the “Prison Notebooks,” he develops this idea: the state that arises as a result of the proletariat’s seizure of power should become the catalyst for a process of grandiose “cultural reform” of the masses’ lives, their modes of thinking, their world view. This movement of this process is to be driven from the bottom up. Apparently, Gramsci imagined the new state as a socialist alternative to the advancing Fordism of the epoch. He saw it as a rational, egalitarian, and extremely mobile social order, based on the broad circulation of knowledge and the combination of education and scientific research with production.
Finally, the apparatus of his new hegemony can be found in the party of working class (“the cell of the new state,” “the entire complex of the collective will, “the Modern Prince”.) In the “Prison Notebooks,” this concept is not reduced to any concrete organizational form, supplying them with a rather post-Fordist degree of flexibility: for example, Gramsci writes that an editorial committee or even independent individuals can play the role of the party under certain historical conditions. (One could say that the party always “tries to play ahead of the game,” calling for a new hegemony which does not yet exist.) However, the point of departure for Gramsci’s thinking is still the party of the Leninist type. This type of party is disciplined and ideologically cohesive, but at the same time, it is also an open mass movement, an organization that it constantly expanding, present in the everyday life of the proletariat, and penetrate key fields of civil society. As such, it should coordinate or direct the spontaneous manifestations of the masses, confronting them with the “key question” of state power. This model of an avant-garde party corresponds to a new mode of knowledge production, as well as a system for the democratic selection and education of the working class’ organic intellectuals. In this party, which carries on its ceaseless war against the state, the oppressed (or the subaltern) jointly learn how to ask questions in universal terms and to speak about what they are not supposed to be speaking about at all, namely “politics.”
Ildar Rismukhamedov (born 1976) is a sociologist, translator, and activist. He lives in Petersburg.