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Gramsci and Us

Andrew Pearmain

Antonio Gramsci (1891-1937) was born and brought up on the (then) remote Italian island of Sardinia. His family was cast into dire poverty by the imprisonment (on probably trumped-up charges) of their father Francesco when Antonio himself was still small. Disabled from infancy, Antonio excelled at his studies and eventually won a scholarship to Turin University in 1911. He began writing articles soon after for socialist journals and newspapers, and in 1916 left university to work as a journalist for the Socialist Party newspaper Avanti!

He was swept up in debate and agitation over the First World War, then the insurrectionary upheaval that peaked in the Soviet Revolution. The highpoint of the Red Years in Italy was the wave of factory occupations in 1919. The biggest and best organized were in Turin, where Gramsci helped to found the weekly Ordine Nuovo to direct and coordinate the struggle. In the wake of defeat by the employers’ organizations, and amid bitter recrimination, the Italian Socialist Party split in 1921. Gramsci, already a convinced and committed Marxist, joined the newly founded Communist Party.

Soon after, he became a member of the Communist International Executive and spent much of 1922/23 in Moscow, where he met his wife Giulia. Back in Italy, the ex-socialist Mussolini and the Fascists seized power and began harassing the Communist Party and arresting its leaders. Gramsci returned to Rome in 1924 as party leader and elected MP with parliamentary immunity, leaving his wife and two sons in Moscow. Two years later, after much agonized debate on the left about whether its response to fascism should be democratic or revolutionary, Mussolini established effective and lasting dictatorship. Gramsci and other communist leaders were arrested or forced into exile.

Gramsci spent the remaining 10 years of his life in various fascist prisons, often in ill health and appalling conditions. In that time, he wrote 33 tightly packed notebooks of reflections on the history of Italy, Europe, the USA and the Soviet Union, on Marxist and liberal philosophy, and much else besides. He was, for obvious reasons, preoccupied with the defeat of proletarian revolution in Western Europe, and with the ways in which the ruling classes had managed to restore or maintain their rule. He also maintained regular, insightful, and often deeply moving correspondence with his wife, sister-in-law, sons and other relatives and friends, though he never saw his wife and children again (his younger son was born after Gramsci’s imprisonment, and never met his father).

The notebooks were smuggled out of Italy on Gramsci’s death in 1937, and published in Italy in 1948-51. The PCI had emerged from the war a mass party, with enormous influence and prestige, and a commitment (partly based on Gramsci’s analyses) to democratic majority rule, and struggle on every front – not just economic or industrial, but cultural and political, and at every level of society. Within the international communist movement, this was a highly unusual approach, leading towards an explicit anti-Stalinism and what became known as “Eurocommunism”. The PCI was able to survive the Cold War, and remained through the 1960s and ‘70s a major force in Italy. Gramsci’s legacy survives, despite Berlusconi and the various modern incarnations of fascism and reaction, in the “Olive Tree coalition” and the rich political culture of the Italian left.

Gramsci in Britain

There has been more interest in Gramsci in Britain than any other country outside Italy, partly because of the strong historical parallels between the two countries, most obviously their partial “bourgeois revolutions”, which left them with sizeable aristocracies incorporated into their ruling “historic blocs” (the French just chopped their heads off). The first English translations of Gramsci appeared in the 1950s, but interest in Gramsci really took off in the 1970s, with the publication of Selections from Prison Notebooks, brilliantly translated, edited and introduced by Quintin Hoare and Geoffrey Nowell Smith. In the aftermath of “1968 and all that”, there was an appetite for the kind of open-minded, libertarian Marxism Gramsci seemed to offer. He was untainted by Stalinism and Trotskyism (ironically because of his imprisonment by Mussolini, early in the tormented life of the Communist International), and insistent upon the importance of cultural, social, political, ethical and ideological “superstructures” alongside the classically Marxist economic “base”.

Gramsci was consistently “anti-positivist”, which in a Marxist context set him against any notion of the “historic inevitability” of socialism. He insisted on the primacy of political action – this was Gramsci’s most obvious common ground with Lenin, though Gramsci was plainly uncomfortable with Bolshevik vanguardism. He also consistently criticized the “economism” and “corporatism” of exclusively trade union or industrial action, and the idea that “wage struggle” was somehow inherently revolutionary or even progressive. He did, however, retain a deeply humanist commitment to the idea of historical progress, and insisted that all political regimes (even fascism) embodied some progressive, constructive impulses.

Two “centres” of Gramsci studies emerged in the ‘70s in Britain, around New Left Review and the “Eurocommunist” wing of the Communist Party, offering quite different and sometimes conflicting interpretations of Gramsci’s writings. The Prison Notebooks in particular can be cryptic and internally contradictory, largely because of the circumstances of their composition, but also because Gramsci was unusually open to other, non-Marxist traditions and prepared to change his mind. Into the 1980s and ‘90s, interest in Gramsci waned, along with the fortunes of all wings of the British Left. Until recently, Gramsci only seemed to feature as a passing reference on Cultural Studies courses. There are signs now of a revival of interest in Gramsci across academia, especially in history and development studies, and in the wider world.

Certain key Gramscian concepts have proved especially resonant in Britain, though they’re not always properly understood and deployed. Gramsci is more often bandied about than read in the original. In particular, the term hegemony is far richer than simply electoral defeat of your opponents, but represents a whole system of domination and collaboration which reaches into every aspect of life and human society. Crucially, it relies on the consent as well as coercion of subordinate or subaltern groups, and through a subtle blend of encouragement and intimidation, constructs a common sense about the way the world is, and how it can and cannot be changed. Custom, tradition and culture are central elements of this hegemonic “common sense”, which assembles a dominant historic bloc of social and political forces. The leading British Gramscian Stuart Hall made much use of the term national-popular, to demonstrate how such successful historic blocs invariably connect to patriotism.

The role of intellectuals is crucial to the process of hegemony – both traditional intellectuals undertaking traditional intellectual functions in education, the law, religion and so on, and organic intellectuals, who take upon themselves responsibility for organizing change, and provide a crucial point of contact between ruling elites and the masses. Periods of history are characterised either by war of movement, where change occurs rapidly and at particular points in society (the Soviet revolution was Gramsci’s most obvious example), or by war of position, where change is much slower, broader and deeper, and less dramatic. This is the more typical situation in the west, with its relatively developed and established (less “gelatinous”) economic, political and cultural systems.

Finally, optimism of the will, pessimism of the intellect, which became a kind of Gramscian watchword or motto in the 1970s, and has helped to see more than a few of us through dark times. In fact, the phrase was coined by the French author Romain Rolland, and appreciatively appropriated by Gramsci. I’m sure it helped him not just to endure imprisonment, but to keep working whenever he was physically and mentally capable. We could do with some of his endurance and determination, ruthless honesty and reasoned hope, right now in these, our ever darker times.    

Why Gramsci? Why now?

Gramsci, over all other left wing theoreticians, helps to explain the political defeat of popular forces and the restoration and maintenance of ruling class “hegemony”, especially in advanced, democratic, complex capitalist societies like our own. What changes and what remains effectively the same? What is truly significant (“epochal”) and what is contingent or trivial (“conjunctural”)? What action is best conducted through “civil society”, and what should be done to or by the state?

Gramsci has, I’m aware, been cited by some of its luminaries as an inspiration for New Labour. His name and ideas pop up in the strangest places, from Radio 4 profiles of government ministers (the briefly communist John Reid) to published memoirs (Philip Gould makes pivotal use of the term “Conservative hegemony” in his seminal New Labour text “The Unfinished Revolution”). There is a tenuous thematic connection between Gramsci and New Labour, via the latter-day Marxism Today and the “New Times” analysis of “post-Fordism”, but I would argue that Gramsci offers a means of making sense of rather than for New Labour.

In particular, Gramsci helps us see the historical continuities of Labourism, the ruptures wrought by Thatcherism, and New Labour’s curious (if often unacknowledged) relationship with both (and for that matter with the past in general). These historical themes run far deeper than the daily doings of parliamentarians and journalists, what passes for the stuff of contemporary politics; crucially, they also condition what politicians can and cannot achieve in any particular time or circumstance. For us now, they help to explain why New Labour has turned out such a major disappointment and, arguably, missed historic opportunity.

A lot depends on how you see post-war British history. Stuart Hall and other prominent Gramscians have argued a consistent and (I find) compelling narrative. The post-war social democratic consensus of Keynesian economics and welfare statism was broken in Britain in the 1970s, because the trade-off between capitalism and the welfare state was no longer sustainable. Thatcherism set about its dynamic, destructive/creative project of “regressive modernization”, producing an entirely different political and economic, and above all ideological climate. This culminated in the domination of neo-liberal capitalism and its associated “politico-ethical” framework in Britain and much of the rest of the world.

Along the way, “national-popular” support was won for a whole range of measures, which would have previously been anathema, such as the sale of council housing, privatization of utilities, cutbacks in public services and benefits, and limitations on trades union power. This approach has been characterized as “authoritarian populism”. Certain key events served as intimidatory/educative jolts (recalling Gramsci’s pivotal couplet of coercion/consent) to public feeling, like the Falklands War and the 1984 miners strike, or the late-‘80s “big bang” of financial deregulation. Fundamental shifts took place in our social ethos - from the collective to the individual, from the public to the private, from society to family, from we to I, from production to consumption – and congealed into a new, all-embracing and almost incontrovertible (i.e. hegemonic) “common sense”. 

New Labour explicitly accepted this new settlement, and set itself the task of reshaping the people to suit the needs of the new global market economy, thus inverting the logic of orthodox social democracy. From privatization and deregulation, mass redundancy and unemployment, it was but a short step to Welfare to Work and MacJobs, via the popular folk-devil of the “scrounger” and the politer terms “underclass” and “dependency culture”, and now the darker-hued bogey of the “asylum seeker”. As such, New Labour represents a “transformist” or “molecular” adaptation of the continuing Thatcherite “passive revolution” (radical change imposed from above), to use particularly resonant and apposite Gramscian terms.
It remains to be seen what comes next, some kind of “new” New Labour or a “new”, Cameronian, Conservatism that proves a more comfortable political fit on the lingering, still vigorous ideological corpus of Thatcherism, even while rhetorically ditching the legacy of Thatcher herself. We are clearly due another transformist stage in what Gramsci always insisted was the dynamic process of hegemony. It will be especially interesting to see whether the electoral “winners” pursue Thatcherism’s more authoritarian or libertarian impulses, or forge some new national-popular combination (as the “high” Thatcherism of strong state/free market so effectively did). In the meantime, the democratic left could do a lot worse than take a close, hard look at our own recent history, see where we went wrong, and as Gramsci would insist, take full responsibility for our own (generally inglorious) failures.

In the meantime, dig out your dusty old copy of Prison Notebooks and have another look. Every reading of Gramsci yields some new insight. Here’s one of my current favourites, written about early 20th century Italy but so readily applicable to our own rather tired culture and society – “Hence, squalor of cultural life and wretched inadequacy of high culture. Instead of political history, bloodless erudition; instead of religion, superstition; instead of books and great reviews, daily papers and broadsheets; instead of serious politics, ephemeral quarrels and personal clashes” (PN, p.228).

Andrew Pearmain is a research student in History at UEA. He was a member of the Communist Party between 1975/85, and more recently a Labour City councilor in Norwich.

Suggestions for further reading

  • Selections from Prison Notebooks, A. Gramsci, edited by Q. Hoare and G. Nowell Smith London 1971 (Lawrence and Wishart).
  • The Antonio Gramsci Reader, edited by David Forgacs, London 1988 (Lawrence and Wishart).
  • Antonio Gramsci – Life of a Revolutionary, G.Fiori, translated by Tom Nairn, London 1970 (NLB)
  • Prison Letters, translated by Hamish Hamilton, London 1996 (Pluto)
  • The Hard Road to Renewal, Stuart Hall, London 1989 (Verso).