Pre-Prison Writings I

Cross-posted to Infrapolitical Deconstruction.

Antonio Gramsci’s reputation on the Left, the academic Left at least, is surprisingly solid and enduring, especially when compared to other figures within Western Marxism (Lukács? Adorno? Althusser?) who may once have been much cited but who are now marginal tastes at best. Other names that have similarly withstood the vagaries of time and the fickleness of fashion are perhaps Walter Benjamin and Raymond Williams, and what Gramsci shares with them (Benjamin in particular) is the fact that his writing is quite varied and even fragmentary, permitting a wide range of interpretations and re-readings in different circumstances and for diverse purposes. Indeed, famously this is particularly the case for Gramsci: his most important and influential work by far is the Prison Notebooks, an unfinished textual labyrinth of historical investigation and political creativity produced under the extreme conditions of incarceration and fascist censorship, that was not published until after his death and has still not been fully translated into English. From this cauldron of often ambiguous and sometimes obscure enquiry, many Gramscis or Gramscianisms have subsequently been reconstructed, informing bodies of thought and activism as diverse as the Eurocommunism of the 1970s, Anglo-American Cultural Studies in the 1980s and 1990s, and more recently a “neo-Communism” that pledges, at times more convincingly than others, to employ philological tools to be more faithful to the supposedly systematic character of Gramsci’s original thought. But it is in the nature of the form in which that thought has come down to us that there is much room for dispute and divergence.

gramsci_pre-prison-writingsSome claim, especially in reaction to the version of Gramsci popular in Cultural Studies (for which a term such as “hegemony” can come to mean both everything and nothing), or to his “post-Marxist” appropriation by Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe, that turning to his pre-prison writings reveals the truer, more pragmatic and political, essence of an unadulterated Gramscianism. And no doubt Gramsci was at vastly more liberty to speak and write his mind before he was arrested and imprisoned by Mussolini’s police and judicial apparatus. Moreover, for the most part these comprise texts that were published, often in venues over which Gramsci had some measure of editorial control, and that as such appeared in something like finished form. It is here that we can read Gramsci the organizer and agitator, the Leninist Gramsci who threw his support behind both the Russian Revolution and the Turin Factory Council movement that sprung up in its wake.

Yet these early texts hardly resolve the Gramscian enigma. For one thing, it is evident that Gramsci’s restless mind was continually developing, experimenting, and trying out new ideas even (perhaps especially) once it was locked up in a prison cell. We have no reason to assume that he thought the same way about things in 1929 as he did in 1919. For another, this corpus is no less fragmentary than the Prison Notebooks, consisting as it does on the whole of short pieces written to a deadline on topical debates for the socialist press. If anything, prison gave Gramsci the freedom to work more consistently and coherently on the key concepts and underlying concerns that mattered to him. Finally, it is not as though censorship and, perhaps above all, self-censorship did not shape and constrain these articles that he knew would see the light of day, by contrast to the long labour of the notebooks that had no immediate audience. After all, throughout this period from 1914 to 1926, Gramsci was quite self-consciously (and unabashedly) engaged in a project of what he himself would call propaganda.

Take for instance Gramsci’s paean to the Bolshevik state, published as “The Price of History” in June 1919. Here he tells us that “The Russian communists are a first-class ruling elite. [. . .] Lenin has revealed himself as the greatest statesman of contemporary Europe [. . .] a man whose vast brain can dominate all those social energies, throughout the world, which can be turned to the benefit of the revolution” (92). Hence “the State formed by the Soviets has become the State of the entire Russian people” thanks to “the assiduous and never-ending work of propaganda, elucidation and education carried out by the exceptional men of the Russian Communist movement, directed by the lucid and unstoppable will of the master of them, Nikolai Lenin” (93-94). In short, “Russia is where history is; Russia is where life is” (95). Yet for all that this article manifests Gramsci’s undoubtedly heartfelt belief in the priority of state-building (“A revolution is a genuine revolution [. . .] only when it is embodied in some kind of State” [92]), one does not have to be an egregiously suspicious reader to wonder whether the hyperbole understandably directed to praise of the leaders of the first successful workers’ revolution might not extend also to the subsequent affirmation that “Society can only exist in the form of a State” (93). What, after all, has happened here to the Gramsci who is famously the champion of organizations of “civil” society, relatively autonomous from or even hostile to the state apparatus?

That other Gramsci, of what we might in shorthand call “society against the state” is indeed visible in these writings. Perhaps most interestingly, he can be found for example in a piece entitled “Socialism and Italy” in which he condemns “liberals, conservatives, clerics, radicals, republicans, nationalists, reformists” (27) as being, precisely, creatures of the state but not of society, or at least not of the Italian nation. Indeed, he offers here a hint of a counter-history of Italian nation formation, not as a process driven by Cavour and the Piedmontese bourgeoisie (who established a relationship to the Italian South that still remained, Gramsci repeats several times, “colonial”), but as the product of Italian socialism: over the course of what he calls a “plebeian Renaissance,” “Italy has become a political unity, because a part of its populace has united around an idea, a single programme. And socialism, socialism alone, was able to provide this idea and this programme” (28, 29). In other words, there is society despite the state, and in the face of the state’s resolute provincialism and particularism. This is “the history of the Italian people [that] has yet to be written–its secret, its spiritual history” (28). And maybe this is the history of the Russian people (and the Russian revolution) that also has yet to be written, even by Gramsci himself.

Again, none of this is to deny the strong statist tendency within Gramsci’s thought. There is no doubt at all that he saw the political objective of the working class movement in terms of the construction of (to borrow the title of the journal he co-founded in 1919) a “new order” premised on a new state guided by the Communist Party that he would also end up co-founding. As he put it even when he was, previously, a member of the Socialist Party of Italy, “The Party is a State in potentia, which is gradually maturing: a rival to the bourgeois State, which is seeking, through its daily struggle with this enemy, and through the development of its own internal dialectic, to create the organs it needs to overcome and absorb its opponent” (4). This is what will later be cast as the struggle for hegemony.

And yet there is also a tension here evident even in the thought of this early, manifestly Leninist, Gramsci. It is a tension perhaps best characterized in terms of two concepts that he continually employs that are both perhaps dissonant to our contemporary ears: “spirit” and “discipline.” As a party man, Gramsci is a great believer in discipline, which is a function of political leadership and education. Italians above all, he tells us in the few pieces that are dedicated to what we would now recognize as “culture” (articles on sport, for instance, and drugs), are a disorderly lot. Their preference for card games, for example, full of “shouting, fists slamming on the table and often in the faces of opponents,” reveals a country that is “backward economically, politically and spiritually” (73, 74). And yet it is precisely this spiritedness that indicates an alternative (and maybe posthegemonic) history, far from the rigidity and farcicalness of the state form. For sure, in Gramsci’s view, these “disorderly and chaotic energies must be given a permanent form and discipline” (97). But without them, without spirit, Italy is nothing.

The Gramscian Moment

Peter Thomas, The Gramscian Moment

Peter Thomas’s The Gramscian Moment is probably the highlight to date of a revival in studies of the Italian Marxist philosopher that has been gathering pace for the past twenty years or so. This revival has been accompanied (and enabled) by Joseph Buttigieg’s edition of the Prison Notebooks, translated into English for the first time in more or less unexpurgated, uncondensed form. The third volume of this massive effort only appeared in 2007. Hitherto, the Anglophone world had to rely mostly on Quintin Hoare and Geoffrey Nowell Smith’s Selections from the Prison Notebooks (1971), plus a few other collections. Given the immense influence that some of Gramsci’s key concepts–not least, the notion of “hegemony”–has had on so many fields, it’s amazing that it has taken so long for his work to be fully available. Or to put this another way: never perhaps has any cultural critic been cited so much and yet been read so little.

Not, however, that the full publication of the Prison Notebooks resolves all the many obstacles to interpreting the text. For they are indeed “notebooks,” famously fragmentary, with numerous repetitions and rewritings, compiled in the most arduous conditions and left unfinished (if indeed by that time there was any thought that they could be completed) at Gramsci’s death. As Buttigieg notes, then, the temptation is to try to “reconstruct” the final text that Gramsci may have written had he been able to do so:

Whenever this takes place, the notebooks become a happy hunting ground from which one picks what is ‘important’ and discards what is deemed ‘incidental’–and, of course, everyone accuses everyone else of not having identified the ‘right’ fragments and the ‘correct’ relations between them. (“Introduction.” Prison Notebooks Vol. 1. 63)

And through Thomas quotes approvingly from Buttigieg on this point (and many others), arguing that Gramsci’s work is necessarily incomplete, he is equally keen to assert that the notebooks “have a fundamental coherence” (46) and cannot simply be harvested willy-nilly for any and every project on the Marxist or post-Marxist Left.

On the contrary: Thomas’s contribution is a battling intervention that seeks to rewrite and recast Marxist theory for contemporary times. Specifically, he plays off two antagonists: Louis Althusser, whose critique of Gramsci in the 1960s he describes (following André Tosel) as “the last great theoretical debate of Marxism” (8); and Perry Anderson, whose famous 1976 article “The Antinomies of Antonio Gramsci” he excoriates for its sequence of supposed misreadings.

Thomas clearly has rather more respect for Althusser than for Anderson, and the vehemence of his criticism of the latter is at times surprising and certainly excessive. The argument is essentially that Anderson blames Gramsci’s apparent incoherence for the subsequent rise of a form of Western Marxism that focuses on civil society rather than the state, culture rather than politics. This shallow, bastardized Gramscianism then posits hegemony as merely a matter of persuasion and ignores the continuing importance of coercion even in the West. Thomas argues, however, that this claim that Gramsci’s own hestiations and “antimonies” are to blame for the uses to which he is put rests on inadequate attention to the Prison Notebooks‘ complex textual history. At the same time he admits that “it could indeed be objected that there is a certain amount of pedantry” involved in his detailing Anderson’s supposed interpretative errors so exhaustively, not least “now, at a distance of thirty years” (82).

One might add that Thomas’s vehemence is even odder given that he and Anderson seem to agree in all the fundamentals. For they both have the same vision of what Gramsci might ideally have said: the only difference is that Thomas claims to have found it, whereas for Anderson it is sadly missing. And they both seek this “ideal Gramsci” in order to short-circuit the link that quasi-naturally gave us Eurocommunism on the one hand and the likes of Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe on the other. In other words, they both seek a Gramsci who is “posthegemonic” in so far as he would be clearly distanced from the appropriation of the term “hegemony” that has been dominant in cultural studies (and elsewhere) since the 1970s, and that I detail at some length in my own book, Posthegemony.

In fact, Thomas has very little to say about hegemony. And when he does come to define the concept, he hardly distinguishes himself from those with whom he is otherwise in such bitter disagreement: Hegemony, he tells us,

emerges as a new “consensual” political practice distinct from mere coercion (a dominant means of previous ruling classes) on this new terrain of civil society; but, like civil society, integrally linked to the state, hegemony’s full meaning only becomes apparent as the social basis of the dominant class’s political power in the state apparatus, which in turn reinforces its initiatives in civil society. The integral state, understood in this broader sense, is the process of the condensation and transformation of these class relations into institutional form. (144)

Honestly, I scarcely see (say) Stuart Hall, Dick Hebdige, Larry Grossberg, or any other proponent of cultural studies disagreeing with this characterization. What’s more interesting here is that, over the course of a few lines, what begins as a definition of hegemony swiftly becomes instead a description of the “integral state.” And, when it comes to politics, that is where Thomas’s interests lie: his is a Gramsci of the integral state and “passive revolution” far more than a Gramsci who would be the founding figure of hegemony theory. Consistently, systematically, Thomas downplays the importance of hegemony to Gramsci, and indeed of Gramsci to hegemony (stressing by contrast the term’s Leninist credentials).

But it is in the debate that he stages with Althusser that Thomas reveals the heart of his reconceptualization, and this is where the book is at its best and most intriguing. For whereas others have taken the Prison Notebooks’ description of Marxism as the “philosophy of praxis” to be a euphemism or (frankly, not very convincing) attempt to evade the Fascist censors, Thomas proposes to take the term with utter seriousness, and to reclaim Gramsci for philosophy. He wants, in short, to put the “philosophy” back in to the philosophy of praxis. And in that this was the terrain on which Althusser pressed most hard, it is here that Thomas fights hardest to redeem what he sees as the three key tenets of Gramsci’s thought: historicism, immanence, and humanism. For Thomas, Gramsci radicalizes and absolutizes each of these terms. And so he concludes, summing up the book as a whole:

This study has argued that the “Gramscian moment” of 1932 explored the themes of the Theses on Feuerbach by means of the concepts of ”absolute historicism,” “absolute immanence” and “absolute humanism.” These concepts should be regarded as the three “attributes” of the constitutively incomplete project of the development of Marxism as a philosophy of praxis. Taken in their fertile and dynamic interaction, these three attributes can be considered as brief resumes for the elaboration of an autonomous research programme in Marxist philosophy today, as an intervention on the Kampfplatz of contemporary philosophy that attempts to inherit and to renew Marx’s original critical and constructive gesture. (448)

It’s worth noting, however, two things. First, this return to the “Gramscian moment” is also undoubtedly a return to what Thomas himself terms the Althusserian moment that put concerns about historicism, immanence, and humanism on the map. Unlike Anderson (or Thomas’s version of Anderson, at least), Althusser proves a worthy antagonist and the serious engagement with his thought is one of this book’s highlights. In fact, hidden within what is often a ponderous and repetitious tome on Gramsci are the elements of a short but smart take on Althusser that reminds us of the French philosopher’s decisive contribution to our considerations of the relationship between philosophy and Marxism.

Second, as Thomas engages with Althusser, his own account comes closer to what we associate with French structuralism and post-structuralism, with curious effects on his account of politics as well as philosophy. For instance, he has increasing recourse to Spinoza as justification for his construction of Gramsci’s immanentism and historicism–and yet it is Althusser, rather than Gramsci, who is most associated with the Dutch marrano. Moreover, mentions of “hegemony” fall away even more markedly than before, replaced by invocations of “the molecular, individualizing logic of disaggregation endemic to the passive revolution” (424) or of the logic of habit and personhood, of “states of mind or ‘beliefs’ that are as strong as material facts” (404), that remind us still more of Foucault and even Deleuze and Guattari.

In sum, Thomas’s points us towards a Gramsci that would be a curious beast, but not unwelcome for all that: a posthegemonic Gramsci that returns us to seminal French debates of the 1960s and 1970s but also indicates perhaps new ways of conceiving politics as well as philosophy now that civil society is definitively withering away.

missing a trick

Gramsci, Selections from the Prison NotebooksI had decided I wasn’t going to reply to Adam Morton’s further intervention in this to-and-fro sparked by my blog post on Althusser’s Machiavelli and Us. Some debates are more productive than others, and I’m not sure that this one is getting anywhere in particular. Largely, his latest contribution, “The War on Errorism”, confirms this impression. For once again, Morton doesn’t engage with my reading. By which I mean (if that’s not obvious) that he merely, rather sweepingly, reiterates his own reading and asks, with an air of surprise, how could anybody see things any differently. And he gestures towards a mountain of secondary literature that supposedly confirms his view.

But I do feel now compelled to respond. Because it turns out that Morton is right. I did make an error, albeit not one that he noticed. And I feel somewhat embarrassed about it. Time therefore to make a mea culpa and set the record straight.

Of my brief reading of Gramsci, in which I point out that the couplet consent/coercion sets up a hierarchical relationship between the two, Morton asks, with rhetorical outrage, “Really? Can we have some reference to Gramsci’s texts here please? I find it difficult to conclude that Gramsci treated concepts in a primary/secondary relationship of hierarchy.” I was surprised by these questions from Morton because there clearly is a reference to Gramsci’s texts–and there was from the start, in Posthegemony–which he has now excised twice. Let me quote from the beginning of Posthegemony at more length:

No power can subsist on coercion alone. Hence Antonio Gramsci’s famous distinction between “hegemony” and “direct domination”: hegemony is “the ‘spontaneous’ consent given by the great masses of the population to the general direction imposed on social life by the dominant social group,” and direct domination is exercised by “the apparatus of state coercive power which ‘legally’ enforces discipline on those groups which do not ‘consent’ either actively or passively.” Hegemony, in fact, is primary: for Gramsci, power is grounded in consent, and force is employed only secondarily, “in moments of crisis and command when spontaneous consent has failed.” Coercion supplements consent, rather than vice versa. (1)

The last of these phrases, “in moments of crisis and command when spontaneous consent has failed” was quoted also in my previous blog post. But here comes the error. I have misquoted Gramsci. Whether this has a material bearing on my reading is another matter, but there is indeed a mistake of transcription here. And I apologize. Here is the full (and rather famous) passage from Gramsci:

The intellectuals are the dominant group’s “deputies” exercising the subaltern functions of social hegemony and political government. These comprise:

1. The “spontaneous” consent given by the great masses of the population imposed on social life by the dominant fundamental group; this consent is “historically” caused by the prestige (and consequent confidence) which the dominant group enjoys precisely because of its position and function in the world of production.

2. The apparatus of state coercive power which “legally” enforces discipline on those groups who do not “consent” either actively or passively. This apparatus is, however, constituted for the whole of society in anticipation of moments of crisis of command and direction when spontaneous consent has failed. (Selections from the Prison Notebooks 12; my emphasis)

In short, in place of “moments of crisis of command and direction,” I put “moments of crisis and command.” This is a mistake. An error. I got it wrong. Once more, I apologize, and am embarrassed.

Now, there is much that can be said about this short passage in Gramsci. For what it’s worth, I don’t think that my mistake alters the text substantially so as to invalidate my reading. But perhaps it is symptomatic, in the way that Gastón Gordillo suggests. As I said before, I find his critique productive and helpful.

But the point is also this: we find such errors by engaging with the readings at issue, and returning to the text. By all means let us wage war on error (if not “errorism”), but we need to be still more ruthless about it. I do find it intriguing that Morton apparently both missed the fact that I was quoting Gramsci–asking “Really? Can we have some reference to Gramsci’s texts here please?”–and also missed the fact that I was unfortunately misquoting Gramsci. For all his grand gestures and lectures about reading and accuracy, for all his attempts to hunt down purported errors in what I have written, he seems to be missing a trick when it comes to a real, bona fide mistake that he would have spotted had he read my text, and Gramsci’s, with a little more care and attention.

not nearly far enough

Adam MortonAdam Morton continues the discussion prompted by my reading of Althusser’s Machiavelli and Us. (See also his earlier post and my response.) Again, he’s less concerned to engage with my reading of Althusser per se than to give me a somewhat heavy-handed lecture on how to read in general. But I don’t find his purported distinction between “interpreting, appropriating, or negotiating a text” (outlined also here) particularly helpful. It sounds to me like one of those irregular verbs: I negotiate a text; You merely interpret it; He, she or it has the nerve to appropriate it. Except that it turns out that there’s another twist to the declension: Jon Beasley-Murray goes so far as to “importune” the text. Quelle horreur!

To put this another way: I don’t claim any particular purity to my own reading of Althusser. All readings are messy. They are inevitably interested in some way or another, and mine is clearly informed by my own interests. There are no doubt elements of appropriation (if you want to use these terms) as well as interpretation and negotiation. But I do try to read Machiavelli and Us, and also the various texts discussed in Posthegemony, with care and attention, alert particularly to their tensions, slippages, and contradictions. This is because all texts “say more than they do” (to use Morton’s own symptomatically awkward phrase) and I’m interested precisely in this excess. Again, though, I find it especially productive to think of Althusser’s book with such slippages in mind, in part because this is the tack that he himself takes in approaching Machiavelli. As Althusser notes, “Machiavelli grips us. But if by chance we want to grasp him, he evades us: he is elusive” (4). In my terms: something always escapes. Which is why, in similar spirit, I make much of the revisions and changes that Machiavelli and Us underwent over time. Morton is apparently less concerned with such things; well, so be it.

Let me conclude with a word or two on Gramsci. Morton criticizes me for saying (in the prologue to Posthegemony) that for Gramsci “hegemony, in fact, is primary: [. . .] power is grounded in consent, and force is employed only secondarily’ (1). He tells me I “would have to be aware that coercion/consent [. . .] come as a couplet.” But I am of course quite aware of this fact. My point is that in any such couplet (including also the others indicated by Morton: “state/civil society,” and so on) there’s always a fundamental dissymmetry: one of the pair is primary; the other appears to be supplementary. More complications then ensue, but I was merely pointing out that for Gramsci it is hegemony (defined as “‘spontaneous’ consent”) that is primary. Coercion, then, is presented as a supplement: employed, Gramsci tells us, “in moments of crisis and command when spontaneous consent has failed.”

A rather more interesting critique of Posthegemony is that I don’t in fact spend half as much time on Gramsci as I should. Rather I focus, at length and for reasons I outline in detail, on the work of Ernesto Laclau (and Chantal Mouffe). But in his review, ”Affective Hegemonies”, my friend and colleague Gastón Gordillo upbraids me for what he calls my “masterful silencing of Gramsci.” By generally avoiding Gramsci’s work, concentrating instead on his neo-Gramscian avatars, he suggests I am ironically “perhaps paying oblique homage to the man who first thought about hegemony.” By contrast, then, Gordillo implies that it is time to “appropriate” Gramsci a little more thoroughly, to work harder at disrupting the banalities and superficial readings propagated as part of “the academic infatuation with Gramsci.” Indeed, Gordillo’s main criticism of Posthegemony (and it is a smart and attentive reading that he offers) is that it goes not nearly far enough in the task of “importuning Gramsci” for which Morton would otherwise condemn it.