Rediscovering Gramsci

In recent years among the Anglophone Left, there has been something of a rediscovery of the work of Italian Marxist, Antonio Gramsci, whom Eric Hobsbawm once called the twentieth century’s greatest thinker. This seems an odd enough thing to say (I’ll return to this strangeness) for there have been at least two waves of Gramsci studies  – one in the 1960s and 1970s, and the second in the 1980s – which have seen his concepts permeate almost all intellectual disciplines. Most famous of these is, of course, the notion of ‘hegemony’, though it’s by no means the most innovative.

Gramsci’s life story was tragic and all too short. Born into the lowest levels of poverty in Sardinia, Gramsci developed a hunched back after, apparently, being dropped as an infant. It was an affliction that left him lonely and contributed to his ongoing ill health. Moving to Turin before World War One, Gramsci became active in the socialist youth movement. Younger than the generation of the Russian revolutionaries (Lenin, Trotsky and others), Gramsci’s intellectual formation occurred outside the bounds of the international organisation of Marxists, the Second Socialist International. As a result he rejected the passivity and mechanical determinism of much of the socialist theory of the time.

When the Russian Revolution occurred, Gramsci heralded it as a ‘Revolution against Capital,’ by which he meant a revolution that disproved that mechanical determinism that suggested that socialists would have to wait for capitalism to develop in a backward country like Russia. The postwar crisis saw a mass upsurge in Turin and the development of councils that quickly took over the everyday running of the factories. Gramsci became one of the instigators and central theorists of these councils, primarily through the newspaper L’Ordine Nuovo.

Later, Gramsci became one of the founders of the Italian Communist Party (PCI) and its central leader in the mid-twenties as Mussolini was consolidating his fascist dictatorship. During this time, he instigated the ‘united front’ policy, advocating that the party unite in action with other forces to struggle against fascism. Despite being a member of parliament, Gramsci was arrested in 1926 and the judge at his trial announced that ‘For twenty years we must stop this brain from functioning’.

Plagued by ill health – suffering from terrible headaches, his teeth falling out, often unable to eat – Gramsci set out to do something ‘fur ewig’, as he put it – for forever. In arduous circumstances, he wrote a series of notebooks on a vast range of subjects including politics, economics, popular culture, the Italian Risorgimento, and contemporary literature and journalism. As Carlos Nelson Coutinho explains in the latest offering from the Historical Materialism book series, the excellent Gramsci’s Political Thought:

Were it possible to summarise in one single question the problem that the Notebooks try to solve ‘fur ewig’ … the question would be as follows: why, in spite of the serious economic crisis and the apparently revolutionary situation in a large part of Western Europe in the period that immediately followed the First World War, was it not possible to successfully repeat the victorious experience of the Bolsheviks in Russia?

As Coutinho notes, Gramsci took as his starting place comments by both Lenin and Trotsky that, ‘the greater complexity of Western societies would make it hard to take power, demanding a longer process and an ability to “do politics” far greater than what had been required in Russia.’ From this starting point, Gramsci investigated the sources of this difficulty and developed a number of new interrelated concepts that made him, in Coutinho and Hobsbawm’s minds, the Marxist theorist of politics. These concepts included: the extended (or integral) theory of the state; passive revolution; hegemony; wars of position and manoeuvre; organic and traditional intellectuals; organic crisis.

Luciano Gruppi  (who is quoted in Coutinho) sums up Gramsci’s political strategy of hegemony thus:

This is what hegemony is: to identify the peculiar features of a historical condition, of a process; to become the protagonist of the demands of other social strata, and of the solutions to these demands, uniting around oneself these strata, allying oneself with them in struggle against capitalism and this isolating capitalism itself. The Italian working class becomes the leading class when it makes the southern question a national question. For Gramsci, to deal with the question of working-class hegemony means to deal with the question of the national role of the working class.

Here the ‘southern question’ relates to the relationship between the working class of the north of Italy and the poor peasantry and rural workers of south, a question that absorbed Gramsci his entire life.

There is much to this strategy of ‘war of position’, which included but was not limited to the ‘united front.’ For the working class to become the national class it must overcome its ‘corporate’ interests, champion the needs and demands of other groups. In the ‘west’, this would require taking into account the array of ‘hegemonic apparatuses’ of the elite, including both the high realms of the state and the low levels of government, the array of media, journals and other publications, the various political parties. It would require charting a course which could draw into the socialists’ counter-hegemony the vast array of other social movements and independent organisations including unions, student bodies, political organisations such as ethnic or women’s groups, independent publications, cultural and theatre groups, and so on. This required a rejection of crude ‘workerism’, which attempted to limit the demands of socialists to the demands of the working class only. A socialist party must act politically, drawing the demands of its allies into one hegemonic project.

There is much here for socialists today to contemplate.

That Gramsci has been undergoing something of a revival seems an absurd statement. The Notebooks have, after all, been considered classics for forty years or more. As I said, there have been at least two waves of Gramsci studies: the first during the 1960s and 1970s, when Gramsci become the inspiration for the Eurocommunist parties, those Communist Parties which sought a new peaceful and parliamentary road to socialism; the second, in the 1980s, saw him become ubiquitous in the academy across a startling range of disciplines including cultural studies, international studies, film studies.

The rediscovery, however, is now taking place in a particular part of the Anglophone Left, the last part standing as the various communist parties slowly dissolved or voted themselves out of existence. What remains, then, descends, or was influenced by, from the Trotskyist tradition.

Part of the reason for Gramsci’s extraneousness, for at least this part Anglophone Left, must lie at the feet of Perry Anderson’s ‘Antinomies of Antonio Gramsci.’ With his typical erudition, his wide imaginative range, his Olympian cast of mind, and perhaps most importantly his mesmeric style, Anderson set out to challenge the Eurocommunist interpretation of Gramsci as a latter-day Bernstein, the theorist of reformism, in which socialism would be slowly developed in the interstices of capitalism through a project of ‘radical democracy.’ Yet, even as Anderson challenged this interpretation of Gramsci, he unwittingly reproduced it, having misread almost all of Gramsci’s fundamental concepts. Anderson’s Gramsci ended up ‘slipping’ into reformism, despite his best efforts. It seemed that, for many on the Left, the book was closed on Gramsci.

The Gramsci that has emerged in recent years is of a different cast, at least in part due to the work of the decade-old Historical Materialism group, who run a journal of obvious vitality and a publishing program of considerable merit. The Gramsci who has reemerged – mostly due to Peter Thomas’s comprehensive The Gramscian Moment, which step-by-step refuted Anderson’s reading – is a theorist returned to his revolutionary roots, yet who is something more than a latter-day Lenin or Trotsky.

Brazilian Carlos Nelson Coutinho’s Gramsci’s Political Thought – first published in Portugese in 1999 – comes in the wake of Thomas’s book and with much of the same reading. As an introduction, Coutinho’s is the shorter and more easily assimilated of the two – since, stylistically, Thomas’s book shows the imprint of the academy and requires serious work to comprehend.

Like Thomas, Coutinho is at pains to insist that Gramsci works in the Marxist tradition. Coutinho is especially successful in showing us a Gramsci who is neither broken from his Marxist roots and yet is inassimilable to any other thinker. Moreover, he is at pains to affirm Gramsci is a part of the in the Leninist lineage.

This question – Gramsci’s relationship to Lenin – is one of the most debated, and there have been a vast array of variegated responses to it. For some, Gramsci is simply a repetition of Lenin. For others, Gramsci’s Leninist origins are best forgotten. For Coutinho, Gramsci’s is a ‘relationship of dialectical continuity with/overcoming of Lenin’s categorical heritage.’ Coutinho knows Gramsci well enough to know that much of the Prison Notebooks were written in a dialogue with Leninism. Still, he views Gramsci’s theories as ‘a dialectical overcoming, in the sense that the mature Gramsi did not deny every achievement of Leninism, but rather maintained its central core, while at the same time developing it.’

For Coutinho, it is important for us to engage in a process of dialectical overcoming of Gramsci himself, and here he reveals his Eurocommunist affiliations. From Gramsci’s ‘war of position’, which occurs within civil society, Coutinho is eager to introduce the idea that this can occur also within the state itself. For Coutinho, Togliatti, Gramsci’s successor in the Italian Communist, and the later theories of Poulantzas further develop Gramsci’s themes in this direction.

The failure of the various Eurocommunist enterprises – from the PCI in Italy, to the Workers’ Party in Coutinho’s native Brazil (of which Coutinho’s was one of the main theorists) – should give us reason for pause. Their histories were not ones where parties changed the state institutions but ones where the state changed them. Still, to put these defeats in perspective, the Eurocommunist parties like the PCI were often mass parties with real roots in the working class, something that most Left organisations can only dream of today. Their histories are not ones of universal failure.

The final three chapters of Gramsci’s Political Thought are given over to essays. The first is an examination of ‘General Will and democracy’ in Gramsci, Hegel, and Rousseau. The second interprets Brazil’s neoliberal turn in relation to the Gramscian concepts of Passive Revolution and counter-reformation; the third offers a fascinating history of the Brazilian left, as seen through the eyes of Gramsci’s thought. Each adds something of their own, and each is also contentious.

Altogether, Gramsci’s Political Thought is a valuable addition to the recent Gramsci revival. It also introduces the Anglophone left to an influential scholar  – the Latin American Gramscian – who played an important role in the Left of his own continent. Whatever its flaws, Gramsci’s Political Thought is an excellent introduction to the greatest Italian Marxist, a man who suffered so greatly and offered us so much.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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Rjurik Davidson is a writer, editor and speaker. Rjurik’s novel, The Stars Askew was released in 2016. Rjurik is a former associate editor of Overland magazine. He can be found at rjurik.com and tweets as @rjurikdavidson.

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  1. Ah yes, ‘left communism’. Never really convinced me, I’m afraid. In what way is it more useful, do you think?

  2. This is not a very useful summary of Gramsci.
    You write:
    ‘In the ‘west’, this would require taking into account the array of ‘hegemonic apparatuses’ of the elite, including both the high realms of the state and the low levels of government, the array of media, journals and other publications, the various political parties. It would require charting a course which could draw into the socialists’ counter-hegemony the vast array of other social movements and independent organisations including unions, student bodies, political organisations such as ethnic or women’s groups, independent publications, cultural and theatre groups, and so on. This required a rejection of crude ‘workerism’, which attempted to limit the demands of socialists to the demands of the working class only. A socialist party must act politically, drawing the demands of its allies into one hegemonic project.’
    Actually, that was common coin among the Marxist left. The German SPD would have described its project in exactly those terms. There’s nothing Gramscian about it.

    • Bystander, I’m not convinced it was ‘common coin’ as you say. Many of the classical Marxists – Lenin, Trotsky, Luxemburg, etc – don’t show that much sensitivity to this. Take Lenin, for example, surely the most influential of the theorists. His conceptual arsenal is fairly limited: party, soviet, trade union (smaller and mostly post-dating the party), movement. Like the others, this is not his fault. He’s working mostly in Russia, after all. Still, the policy of the United Front (1921-22) was a significant shift in those affiliated to the Comintern; it was a recognition that a socialist party could not just assume that the masses would flock to the revolutionaries on their own, but that they had to be won.

      Gramsci’s position, then, would have serious ramifications for today. For example, how would a socialist party relate to movement groups like Friends of the Earth, independent journals like Overland, or to organisations like the Asylum Seeker Resource Centres; or to the Atheist Society? If you came from a solely Leninist background your might (though not necessarily) see these as simply distractions from the real organisation, as things to win people away from. In my mind, a Gramscian attitude would be rather to see them as concrete realities, things to perhaps (depending on the group/organisation) ally oneself with in common action in order to bring them into a counter-hegemonic block. Leadership must be won, not assumed.

      The thing which differentiated the German SPD was of course its reformism, its integration into the state apparatuses rather than its confrontation of them – something different altogether. It was, in essence, a precursor of Eurocommunism, which I discussed briefly above.

      In any case, it’s not clear what you are suggesting: that Gramsci has an originality that I’ve missed?; that we should not bother reading him but go back to the strategy of the SPD?; some third position?

  3. I am saying that the way you have presented Gramsci in relation to earlier thinkers is very misleading. This is Lenin in 1905:
    ‘The question arises, what should political education consist in? Can it be confined to the propaganda of working-class hostility to the autocracy? Of course not. It is not enough to explain to the workers that they are politically oppressed (any more than it is to explain to them that their interests are antagonistic to the interests of the employers). Agitation must be conducted with regard to every concrete example of this oppression (as we have begun to carry on agitation round concrete examples of economic oppression). Inasmuch as this oppression affects the most diverse classes of society, inasmuch as it manifests itself in the most varied spheres of life and activity — vocational, civic, personal, family, religious, scientific, etc., etc. — is it not evident that we shall not be fulfilling our task of developing the political consciousness of the workers if we do not undertake the organisation of the political exposure of the autocracy in all its aspects?’
    Yes, Lenin in Tsarist russis wasn’t relating to the kind of civil society that existed in the west (though he clearly thought he should insofar as it existed). But in that pamphlet he never claisms orginality. He is seeking to imitate Kautsky, who belonged to a party with far greater links to social, cultural and political organisations that any group could claim today.
    As I said, such ideas were widely endorsed prior to Gramsci. The real question is not whether a socialist group should establish hegemony but how it goes about doing it, especially when it’s on the utter fringes of society.

    • Well, I do sort-of agree with you, but I also sort-of disagree. Yes, Lenin always claims to be applying or restating a prior-existing Marxism. He’s always claiming fidelity to Marx, or Kautsky or someone else – and yet at the same time he’s actually breaking from them, creating a political theory of real originality. So his claims to fidelity have to be taken with a grain of salt. In my opinion he is a real innovator.

      As for Gramsci, yes, I think that the notion of institutions of civil society did pre-exist him, but as with almost all of Gramsci, it’s a matter of emphasis, or more properly, those matters he considers central to his version of Marxism. For example, he uses the term ‘philosophy of praxis’. To read it as simply ‘Marxism’ would be an error. It’s a particular sort of Marxism, which stressed the active element, among other things. When you coalesce all these emphases/elements together, they form a particular and unique theory. In the piece above, I only really implied my own view of Gramsci’s place in the history (I explained Coutinho’s more openly), which I think is best considered as a reconstitution of Leninism with particular emphases. It is best understood as a theory in dialogue with Lenin (instead of Countinho’s position of continuity/overcoming) and Marx and Croce and Hegel and Bukharin. So, yes a lot of what Gramsci discusses pre-existed him (‘hegemony’ is another example), but he does something new with these elements.

  4. Thanks, Rjurik for an excellent article. Its basic point, that by ignoring Gramsci’s analytical tools the Marxist left has deprived itself of a very useful set of tools for understanding actually existing politics in developed capitalist societies, is well made, and overdue on the Australian far left. I think you’re right to situate Gramsci’s contribution as an attempt to (re)theorise Leninism in a way that is more immediately relevant to developed capitalism – and to assert his status as a contributor to the Marxist tradition of much more than passing relevance for us today.

    The two particular features of Gramsci that really strike me as most useful as a corrective to the weaknesses of the radical left in Australia are his emphasis on political society, and on the need for concreteness. By insisting on the importance of political society, of the mechanisms that envelop civil society and prevent it breaking apart under the pressure of antagonistic class and sectional interests, Gramsci offers some clues as to the far left in Australia’s weakness and isolation. By imagining that politics is about ideological debates which can be progressed separately to the mass dialogue about the direction of society that is often scornfully described as ‘mainstream politics’, the far left in effect places itself in a curious kind of bubble of irrelevancy. Gramsci offers us a critique of the collective weakness of the left which does not depend on the beige apologetics of ‘but we’re small’, placing the emphasis back on what we choose to do and the role that can play in change (or not, if we do silly things).

    But I think the thing that struck me the most reading the Notebooks, is the extraordinary attention to detail, to reviewing masses of empirical material and extracting the essential content from it. Gramsci presents theoretical schema, but unlike many on the far left does not stop there or imagine that these schema are sufficient to be simply superimposed on reality. Gramsci’s strategic conclusions about Italian society, including his particularly lucid treatment of the Risorgimento, shows in point after point the woeful inadequacy of applying general formulas received from writers in the Marxist cannon without creative reapplication and development, without examining the concrete forms in which they present and play out. The danger is, without a very immediate analysis, catechistic readings of Marxism will still get things wrong on the ground more often than right.


  5. Yes Marc, the emphasis on concreteness is really important. It makes me think of Gramsci’s point that the real task ‘is a national one’ and that one starts with the national and moves in a vector towards the international. It reminds me of schemas like the ‘turn to industry’ a lot of the small socialist groups took in the late seventies early eighties – uniformly around the world. Such a turn would have been very unlikely if Gramsci’s approach had been taken.

    Well, these are some thoughts, anyway.

    This relates a bit to your first point. The thing that strikes me is the way that much of the far left does hold on to generalities – and often has meetings about ‘general’ questions. You know the sort: ‘Reform or Revolutions?’ etc, etc. They wouldn’t necessarily be out of place on a university, as a university course. It is one of the thing that limits the groups to a composition of students (primarily), partly because people with jobs or who have sat through them a number of times are unlikely to want to keep doing it. The culture, then, is an abstract ‘intellectual’ one, not a practical one dealing with national specifics.

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