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July 02, 2007

Marxism's Trojan Horse? Antonio Gramsci's The Modern Prince and other writings

Posted by Lincoln Allison

The Modern Prince and other writings
by Antonio Gramsci
translated by Louis Marks
Pp. 192. New York: International Publishers, 1968

Italian versions in Antonio Gramsci, Gli Intellettuali
Pp. 282. Rome: Editori Riuniti, 1971

and Note sul Machiavelli
Pp. 475. Rome: Editori Riuniti, 1971

Still available, Modern Prince and Other Writings, (International Publishers, 2000), 8.95

"Ah, Lincoln, catching up as usual?" It was the 1970s when we were all talking about Gramsci. Thus my friendly neighbourhood Marxist on spying me with a volume of Gramsci. To which the answer must be that this is a retrospective review but also that the obvious influence of the Italian Communist thinker may have peaked in the seventies with "Eurocommunism" and the compreso storico, but his influence has gone rolling on through the political left and the academic study of society. Incidentally, it was very specifically the 1970s: the cover of my 1968 English language edition claims that Gramsci is "little known in the West". I have remarked on other occasions the extreme ignorance which seems to lie behind the comments on book covers and here is one who doesn't seem to know where Italy is!

As usual, for every person who has actually read Gramsci there are thousands (mainly students) who have summarised or quoted him. In this case I have some sympathy. Gramsci is not easy to read; nor is it easy to draw the often interesting and important main lines of his thought from his prose. He has a good excuse because most of the important things he said are in the notebooks he wrote in prison, the Quaderne del Carcere, between 1926 when the Fascists interned him and his death in 1937. Unlike the average student presentation on Gramsci (and I've listened to a few) the ideas in the Quaderne are lengthy and particular. Here we develop the idea that mankind is a work in progress, there we argue that Machiavelli has been mis-classified as a writer or compare Croce's philosophy with his politics.

In fact it is often both easier and more important to note what Gramsci is not saying than what he is. He is not saying that revolution is inevitable or that anything is decreed by the "forces of history" (p. 70 & P. 75):

. . . it is always necessary to show the futility of mechanical determinism, which, explicable as a naive philosophy of the masses, and only as such as an intrinsic element of power, becomes a cause of passivity, of imbecilic self-sufficiency, when it is made into a reflexive and coherent philosophy on the part of intellectuals . .

. . . With regard to the historical role played by the fatalist interpretation of Marxism, one could pronounce a funeral eulogy of it, vindicating its usefulness for a certain historical period . . .

He is not saying that "materialism" is any guide to truth since it means everything and nothing. And he is not saying that we can understand politics or the path to revolution "scientifically" because they are far too subtle for that (p. 101):
But it is the concept of "science" itself, arising from the "Popular Study", which needs to be critically destroyed: it is taken directly from the natural sciences as if these were the only science, or science par excellence, as has been decided by positivism.
(Note that these comments are made in response to Nikolai Bukharin's "popular" Soviet account of Marxism-Leninism, Historical Materialism - a System of Sociology, originally published in 1921.)

Nor is he saying that society can be understood as a conflict between two classes, the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. On the contrary, history shows us that class is very complicated, that there are numerous distinct classes of intellectuals (gli intellettuali) whose beliefs and actions are crucial in determining events. The idea that there are "productive" and "unproductive" members of society must also be dismissed (p. 125): Hence Loria's conception of the unproductive "worker" (but unproductive with reference to whom and to what mode of production?), which may be partly justified if one takes account of the fact that these masses exploit their position to assign themselves huge cuts of the national income.Above all, perhaps, he is not saying that revolution will come out of "immiseration" and the collapse of capitalism. On the contrary, he notes (p. 172) that the French revolution occurred in a period of economic growth. If there is one thing which Gramsci detests it is the idea that we must deliberately make things worse in order to precipitate the revolution. Revolutions are to be understood in terms of political authority (p. 174):

One speaks of a "crisis of authority" and this in fact is the crisis of hegemony, or crisis of the state in all spheres.
The Italian is:
Si parla di "crisi di autorita" e cio appunto e la crisi di egemonia, o crisi dello Stato nel suo complesso.
At this point we must take stock and list those things which have been despatched into the intellectual dustbin: the idea of "production" (and with it the concept of exploitation and the labour theory of value which depend on it), the inevitability of capitalism's collapse, the picture of a bi-polar class struggle, "scientific" socialism . . . Hang on, you are entitled to say, isn't this every single claimant to the essence of Marxism? Are we now talking about Marxism Lite, with all the ethically offensive and intellectually difficult bits removed - wine without the alcohol or the acid?

Discarding all this baggage does allow Gramsci to develop the beginnings of a thoroughly comparative and relativistic understanding of politics. This begins, naturally, with the perception that Italy is not Russia - nor is it some abstract capitalist state. In particular, from a revolutionary point of view, it is dominated by religion and by the North/South divide. What plays in proletarian Torino cannot be made to play in the South and the islands - and Gramsci was a Sardinian. We see the germ of his understanding of the problem in a story he quotes from a Sardinian leather worker in Torino in 1917. The worker addresses a fellow islander who is one of the Sardinian brigade of troops brought in to suppress the uprising in the city (p. 35):
"What have you come to do in Torino?"

"We have come to fire on the gentry who are on strike."

"But it is not the gentry who are on strike, it is the poor people and the workers."

"Here they are all gentry: they all wear collars and ties; they earn thirty lire a day. I know poor people and how they dress; at Sassari, yes, there are many poor people; all we country folk are poor and we earn one and a half lire a day."

"But I too am a worker and I am poor."

"You are poor because you are Sardinian."

"But if I go on strike with the others, will you fire on me?"

The soldier reflected a little, then putting his hand on my shoulder said: "Listen, when you go on strike with the others, stay at home."

(I don't have access to the original Italian version of this relatively obscure passage and I am assuming that "gentry" translates gente per bene rather than (say) piccola nobilita.)

This is Gramsci before Gramscianismo, but already, I think, one can see a determination to engage with the real states of mind of real people as opposed to the dismissal of "false consciousness". This generates the need for the concept of egemonia, the moral and cultural dominance of a people contrary to its interests, the kind of hold the authorities have over the Sardinian trooper as opposed to their coercive dominance of the Torinese worker. For Gramsci to engage with the "internalised" beliefs and values of ordinary people is both necessary and sufficient for revolution - and battering away with "correct" Marxist dogma may not be the best form of engagement (p. 83 & p. 85):

The orthodox, on the other hand, found themselves battling against religious transcendentalism, the philosophy most widely spread among the masses, and believed they could defeat it with the crudest, most banal, materialism . . .

. . . it was necessary for Marxism to ally itself to alien tendencies in order to combat capitalist hangovers, especially in the field of religion, among the masses of the people.

As a matter of curiosity I must point out that the crucial concept of egemonia achieves five syllables in eight letters, which is unusual. Also that it is subject to the Italian convention covering words of Greek origin which decrees that the emphasis should be on the third syllable: egeMONia.

More seriously, it allows for an analysis of politics which emphasises "culture" and sees cultures as essentially different. The ruthless, individualistic, efficiency and competition-obsessed culture of the United States - il Fordismo - presents completely different problems to the religious quietism and agrarianism of Italy. "Fordism" is made to sound brutal by later commentators but it is often presented very positively by Gramsci himself as something more advanced and progressive than European capitalism, much more capable of realising the benefits of technical innovation.

Indeed, at times Gramsci seems to be a vague progressive liberal. His views on free trade for example are orthodox laissez-faire (p. 154):

. . . it is undeniable that protection, especially in countries with a poor and restricted market, limits freedom of industrial initiative and unhealthily favours the origin of monopolies.
The Italian is:
e inegabile che il protezionismo, specialamente nel paesi a mercato povero e ristretto, limita la liberta di iniziativa industriale e favorisce morbosamente il nascere dei monopoli . . .
And on education, after stressing the need for basic skills in the curriculum, he says (p. 130):
. . . special attention must be paid to a side which is ignored today - "rights and duties", i.e. the first notions of State and Society as basic elements of a new conception of the world which conflicts with ideas derived from different traditional environments, ideas which belong to what may be termed folklore.
How far, we might ask, with ambivalent curiosity, is any of this from "New Labour" and "modernisation"?

Gramsci is thus the rightful patron saint of those Bologna Communist politicians who used to sit in the finest restaurants entertaining potential investors in their city and of their Manchester Labour equivalents. Also of the "cultural studies" professors who live in million pound houses and slowly lunch their way to a civilised version of the revolution. Which is the saddest of ironies because the poor little bugger himself had the most wretched of lives - the crippled son of a bankrupt father who spent most of his adult life ill and imprisoned, unable to see his wife and children.

It is interesting to speculate - as with Orwell and Camus, both of whom also died at the age of 46 - what he might have been like had he lived his full span. If he had survived and been released in 1943 and lived to be 80 (in 1971) what might he have believed? I am inclined to think he would have been a progressive liberal and an anti-Communist. I think his epitaph has been the leader in the last ever edition of Marxism Today, "The End", written by Martin Jacques, which concedes that all is now a vague, progressive mush, origined in and sanctioned by the "Enlightenment", where it is impossible to tell socialist mush from capitalist mush.

So in a way I ought to be in favour of Antonio Gramsci. I have every sympathy with him for the horrible oppression from which he suffered. I regard him as a very clever man because he developed ideas of cultural power, of how ideas work, of how revolutions happen, in his lonely gaol cell and they are ideas which took others with far more resources a generation to understand and parallel. (Indeed, I am fond of joshing leftist academics when they want research grants and assistants by saying that if they were where they belonged, behind bars, they would do far better work.) Also, he was, was he not, a kind of Trojan Horse, undermining Marxism fro within more effectively than it could have been attacked from without?

But I am by no means entirely in favour of the man. As a full-on reactionary I would prefer my revolutionary enemy to have it out, here and now, like a man, to put his head above the parapet so that I can put a bullet in it. I don't fancy decades of nagging cultural struggle which we are likely to lose - the idea of Gramsci as a Trojan Horse works both ways. More profoundly, I must insist that Gramsci is part of a broad intellectual tendency which has replaced philosophising and ethical debate about good and bad societies by deconstructionist language games.

The Italian Communist Party under Berlinguer, when Gramsci's posthumous influence was at its height, made divorce its main issue, not because of the happiness or unhappiness consequent to the various marital arrangements, but because it was considered the best tactical option in combating the form of "hegemony" represented by Italian Christian Democracy. I agreed with their policy, but not with their mode of thought. Had he lived, I would have liked to have said to Gramsci, "Toni, there something I've always been meaning to ask you - Why do you think socialism is better than capitalism?"

Lincoln Allison retired from an academic career in 2004 to become a freelance writer and broadcaster. He remains Emeritus Reader in Politics at the University of Warwick and Visiting Professor in sport and leisure at the University of Brighton. His previous Retrospective Reviews can be read here.


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"Had he lived, I would have liked to have said to Gramsci, "Toni, there something I've always been meaning to ask you - Why do you think socialism is better than capitalism?"

I suspect that many people who were - in their time - important Marxist thinkers would have been quite impressed with the post-war European social democratic model - and particularly the scandinavian one.

Posted by: Paulie at July 4, 2007 04:55 PM
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Antonio Gramsci has become, over the years, the most beloved intellectual of left minded thinkers and actors. His views on 'hegemony', 'oreganic intellectuals' and his conceren for 'unity of theory and action' are considered his greatest contributions to the socialist/communist movements. Even left-popularism of these modern days can apply these views. Gramsci had a good slice of anarchism by distrusting the center of any organisation, political party and government. He is the father of democracy and communism. Modern majority worker-ownership movements can attribute their existence to Gramsci as well as Marshal Tito in the Balkins. The fascist dictator Mussoline had Gramsci imprisoned for 11 years in the 1920's and 30's where he continued to write in code as his health worsened.

Posted by: Allan at February 17, 2011 09:56 AM
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