The Gramsci of these pre-prison writings would probably surprise readers whose acquaintance with Gramsci’s thought is only casual, however much they may quote one of two of his bon mots (“pessimism of the intelligence, optimism of the will”; “the old is dying and the new cannot be born”) or even however much they deploy the concepts associated with him, from “hegemony” to the “subaltern” or the notion of “organic intellectuals” and so on. In fact, it may well turn out that the vast majority of those who quote Gramsci are casual acquaintances at best, who might be unpleasantly surprised if they were ever to read a little more. This in itself need not of course damn either Gramsci or even those concepts. As I suggested previously, it is hard to see Gramsci as a particularly systematic thinker (which is not to say that he didn’t see himself as such), and maybe that’s a good thing, too. We could take what we want from him, without having to buy into everything else that might come with it. Indeed, at this point perhaps that’s the only way to read Gramsci productively: selectively, unfaithfully, even treacherously. Rather than trying to reconstruct “what Gramsci thought” by careful attention to history or philology (this is the approach of many of the faithful few careful readers of his work), he merits rather something of a smash and grab raid. Or, as Deleuze famously said of his critiques of the philosophical tradition (Hume, Nietzsche, Kant, Leibniz, etc.), it would be a matter of taking him “from behind and giving him a child that would indeed be his but would nonetheless be monstrous.”
The biggest surprise in this early Gramsci is, I think, his emphatic economic determinism. It may be that this shouldn’t surprise us… he is a Marxist, after all! But given especially that our Gramsci is so much shaped by cultural studies and particularly by Laclau and Mouffe, who explicitly champion him for going the farthest (if not, for them, far enough) in renouncing all determinisms–this, they tell us in Hegemony and Socialist Strategy, is the basis of their theorization of hegemony, whose history they chart in terms of a tendency to renounce the priority of the economic–the bluntness here of Gramsci’s economism is surely a bit of a shock.
At the outset of his essay “The Factory Council” (of June, 1920), for instance, Gramsci gives us what is essentially a version of Marxism 101, which is worth quoting at length:
The proletarian revolution is not the arbitrary act of an organization that declares itself to be revolutionary, or of a system of organizations that declare themselves to be revolutionary. The proletarian revolution is an extremely long-term historical process that manifests itself in the emergence and development of certain productive forces (which we may sum up by the term “proletariat”) within a certain historical context (which we may sum up by the terms “regime of private property, capitalist mode of production, factory system, organization of society in a democratic-parliamentary State”). At a certain point in this process, the new productive forces are no longer able to develop or organize themselves in an autonomous fashion within the official framework of the human community of the time. It is in this phase that the revolutionary act occurs. This consists in a violent effort to smash apart this existing framework and to destroy the entire apparatus of economic and political power within which the revolutionary productive forces had been trapped. It consists in a violent effort to shatter the machinery of the bourgeois State and to construct a new kind of State within whose framework the newly liberated productive forces can develop and expand; whose organization provides them with strong defences and the necessary and sufficient arms to eliminate their enemies. (163)
There is not much of the “war of position” or the struggle for “hegemony” on the terrain of “civil society” to be found here! And again, I wonder how many of today’s “Gramscians” would happily sign up to this description of the revolutionary process (if indeed they would sign up to any notion of revolution), which Gramsci simply presents as established fact.
As for politics, Gramsci similarly gives us what he himself describes as a “fundamental (and elementary) canon of historical materialism,” that “Any form of political power can only be historically conceived and justified as the juridical apparatus of a real economic power” (168). “Real” power is always and only economic. It is, to use Marx’s famous formula in his preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, the base or “real foundation, on which arises a legal and political superstructure, and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness.” The economic is primary; the political is very much secondary. Hence (back to Gramsci) “the revolutionary process takes place on the terrain of production, in the factory” (164). The revolution will not come about by political decree: “Communism as a system of new social relations [. . .] cannot be introduced by legislative or administrative means” (177). There is little if any room for any autonomy of the political.
Indeed, any political organization may call itself Communist or revolutionary all it likes, but so long as its activity is not premised on the economic base, specifically what is going on in the factory (as the most advanced expression of material forces), it hinders rather than furthers the goal of real social change. This, then, is the point at which Gramsci breaks from the Italian Socialist Party, as he criticizes all such organizations–even “revolutionary” organizations–that “have grown up on the terrain of bourgeois democracy and political liberty, as affirmation and developments of this political liberty” (164). Here, “the traditional structure of the Socialist Party is no different from that of any other party which has grown up on the terrain of liberal democracy” (174). It is, as such, overly invested in politics, in that its “lifeblood” is “the desire to win a majority in the popular assemblies [. . .] and to win this majority by the method that is proper to democracy–by reeling off generic and muddled policies to the electorate (and swearing to put them in practice at all costs)” (174-5). Politics, in short, is part of the problem; the effort to win over an electorate is a distraction from the real matter at hand. It is retrograde and even barbaric: “The Assembly[,] the form of political association that corresponds to the State based on territorial boundaries [. . .] is a continuation of the arrangements of the barbaric peoples who expressed their sovereignty by beating their pikes on the ground and howling” (175). If anything, any true revolution will be a revolution against politics, certainly against any politics that is not immediately rooted in the economic and material base.
Gramsci’s position thus far seems far from what is usually taken to be the struggle for what will become known as “hegemony” (a term that Gramsci is still not using at this stage), which tends to be identified not only in practice with the construction of electoral coalitions but also in theory with political autonomy and what Louis Althusser will come to describe (in part, following what he saw as Gramsci’s lead) as “overdetermination.”
In fact, the revolutionary process that Gramsci describes here often (if intermittently) has more in common with posthegemony than hegemony. Beneath consciousness and evading representation, it develops “in the darkness of the factory and in the darkness of the minds of the countless multitudes [delle moltitudini sterminate] that capitalism subjects to its laws. The process is not something that can be controlled or documented at this stage” (164). It comprises, moreover, “feelings, desires, habits, the stirrings of initiative and a new way of life [i sentimenti, le velleità, le abitudini, i germi di iniziativa e di costume]” (164). Affect, habit, multitude. Almost all the elements are here. Moreover, “initiative” in the essays of this period tends to replace the notion of “spirit” that, in his earlier writings, indicated the expansive movement of something like constituent power.
In fact, Gramsci refers explicitly to a constituent impulse in an article on “Two Revolutions” that is perhaps the most interesting piece in the collection so far, and which also contains the germ of what will come to be a theory of hegemony. For it is here that the Communist Party is described as something more than an appendage to forms of organization that arise, quasi-organically, within the factory. Here, indeed, the party’s role is to bind together the “two revolutions” of this article’s title. The first of these revolutions is political, or even anti-political in that its energies are directly primarily against political institutions. It “tends to be prevalently anarchic and destructive in character: to take the form of a blind explosion of rage, a tremendous outpouring of furious undirected passions” (169). But it is not solely destructive: it may lead to a “constituent assembly”; “it may go so far as to create soviets, the autonomous political organization of the proletariat and the other oppressed classes” (169). Yet this is not enough. For this merely political revolution is not yet the Communist revolution, whose shape is determined by the relations and conditions of production. It is this second revolution that establishes the factory (not the assembly) as “the basic unit of the new State” and “build[s] the new State in a way that reflects the industrial relations of the factory system” (170). And it is then the Party’s role to articulate these two revolutionary impulses, the political and the economic: to “create the conditions in which the revolution as destruction of the bourgeois State can be identified with the proletarian revolution, the revolution that is to expropriate the expropriators and initiate the development of a new order in the relations of production and distribution” (171). And surely this then is the struggle for what will become known as hegemony, the project to “create the conditions in which the proletarian revolution may be identified with the popular revolt against the bourgeois State” (171). Neither strictly speaking political, nor the direct emanation of economic forces, it is the role of the Party as would-be hegemonic power to bind economics to politics.
I will leave to one side how faithfully this is later transcribed or translated in the early work of Laclau (in Politics and Ideology in Marxist Theory) into an articulation between the “people-power bloc contradiction” and the more properly economic contradiction between proletariat and bourgeoisie. But suffice it to say that the necessity for this articulation reveals a problem in the basic assumptions of the base-superstructure model that Gramsci otherwise never questions. For the Party, and its hegemonic project, appears as a supplement that does not derive fully from the economic processes inherent to the new forms of organization within the factory system. Gramsci can neither live with determinism nor can he relinquish it. Ultimately, Laclau’s path will be to drop any priority of the economic, to usher in a vision of the world in which everything is politics (and all politics is one modality or other of popular revolt). But surely there are other options.
If we are to recover a posthegemonic Gramsci, perhaps a first step would be to refuse the dichotomy that he asserts between politics and economics. After all, it is only because he sees such a stark distinction between the “two revolutions” he describes that he feels the need to call upon the Party to suture that gap. But it may be even more to the point to observe that the “feelings, desires, habits, the stirrings of initiative and a new way of life” are neither fully political nor fully economic, though they may be both the consequence and condition of politics and economics alike.