Gramsci And The Pseudo-Left

Who is Antonio Gramsci?

Antonio Gramsci (1891-1937) was a leading member of the Communist Party of Italy during the 1920s. The Communist Party split from the Socialist Party of Italy in 1921. During the First World War, and the subsequent dissolution of the (Second) Socialist International the Socialist Party took an anti-war position and  supported the Russian Revolution of October 1917. The SP participated in the early communist Third International. Tensions between reformists and radicals inside the SP eventually brought about a split, resulting in the formation of the Communist Party which became the sole Italian representative of the Communist International.

Italy experienced political turbulence in the aftermath of the war, despite being among the victors and gaining territorial concessions from the broken up central power Austria-Hungary. Isolated worker revolts flared in industrial centers, such as Turin. Concurrently, the Fascists, a nationalist-populist movement led by Bentio Mussolini (a former member of the Socialist Party of Italy)  was gaining traction among the middle classes. The Communist Party mainly stayed aloof from strikes and armed struggle against the Fascists. The policy of the Communist Party remained strictly opposed to conciliating in any way with the Socialist Party, those segments of the liberal capitalist parties, the spontaneous anti-fascist movement in the cities and the rural masses who did not support Mussolini’s movement. This is because the CP considered this opposition to pose more of a threat to the preparation of a proletarian revolution than Fascism did.

Gramsci was a member of the Communist Party’s cultural elite, and was one of the writers for a left-wing cultural paper, the Ordine Nuovo. He lent support to proposals to the Communist International in the early 20s which articulated an abstentionist position in relation to a united front against Fascism. The policy of the Italian party in these years was largely inspired by ultra-leftist Amadeo Bordiga. These policies were accepted in practice by the Comintern at the time, though it was poorly informed of Italian development and its instructions to the Italian party were contradictory. Even after the Fascist entry to power in October 1922, Gramsci concluded a 1924 article with the slogan “Neither Fascism nor Liberalism: Sovietism!” This coincides with Bordiga’s insistence that Fascist rule was ultimately indistinguishable from earlier liberal or parliamentary forms of capitalist rule.

Gramsci became the elected leader of the Communist Party in 1924. Gramsci was imprisoned in 1926 by the Fascist regime. The last decade of his life was spent in Fascist prisons, and he died after years of declining health in 1937. Gramsci’s prison writings were discovered in the postwar period and popularized among left-wing academics, who cited Gramsci as an inspiration for attempts to revise Marxism.

His writings in prison are usually compiled together under the title The Prison Notebooks.These notes were scattered and in great disorder when they were discovered after the Second World War. The notebooks were reassembled by academics and translators into a semi-coherent text.

The Notebooks

Gramsci spent his years in prison reflecting, most essentially, on why the Communist Party had failed and fascism had triumphed. He speaks as someone who has been isolated from world events. The notebooks mostly were written from 1930-33, during which the Comintern became heavily ossified. Gramsci appears to be virtually unaware of the evolving Stalinist line or the ludicrous stature that Stalin had attained. Gramsci exists in a time capsule of the mid 20s, echoing attitudes and characterizations once put forth by Bukharin and Zinoviev in the period of the conflict with the Left Opposition inside the Soviet Union. His understanding of Leon Trotsky and the Left Opposition’s criticisms of policy in the Soviet Union is limited to the unoriginal belief that Trotsky and his Theory of Permanent Revolution represented an ultra-left deviation from Marxism which unrealistically attempted to force Communist Parties to adopt an uncompromising maximum in theory and politics regardless of their specific situation, from a narrow working class basis and with top down directives. As we shall see, this characterization of Trotsky’s thought is in a sense for Gramsci, like many of the various subjects he pondered, a metaphorical mirror of his own misgivings about what he felt were his own party’s mistakes and doubts about the legacy of the Russian Revolution.

Gramsci writes extensively on the failures of the French Revolution to ward off peasant-monarchist alliances. The French Revolution, which began in 1789, is a metaphorical stand in for the Italy of Gramsci’s time, and its parallels are largely attempts to prove a point about contemporary Italy. In addition to the French Revolution, he makes sweeping characterizations of the Revolutions of 1848 and the unification of Italy in the 19th century as substitutes for ideas he has developed in regard to his own era. Gramsci employs odd replacements for and omissions of Marxist terms and works, perhaps with the conviction that these changes would protect him from the scrutiny of the prison censors, or because they seem more appealing to him. This being said, his line of thinking is obvious to the critical reader:

  • Marxism and the Marxist movement must win over the bourgeois intellectuals, have elevated a significant number of workers to the level of the bourgeois intellectuals to influence the former. The workers movement is to have decisively penetrated the entire culture and civil society of a nation, conquered its cultural apparatuses, and infused all of these with its world view — before any practical revolutionary action is possible
  • Gramsci talks of “passive revolution,” turning into a military maneuver at the point where the social revolution is already won and there is no possibility for any section of the population to seriously oppose the workers movement. Such a movement would be toppling a ruling class who had lost “civil society,” and would be deposed by “maneuver” and certain acclamation.
  • Gramsci’s oft-cited catchwords “war of position” and “war of maneuver” were devised by him to label his schema for how a Marxist party is to overthrow capitalism. The war of position is a passive, intellectual and rhetorical effort which strives to take over all the social and cultural aspects of a nation currently controlled by or dominated by the bourgeoisie. He believes capitalism would be then reduced to only a judicial-military existence. At that point, a maneuver would complete the overthrow of the critically isolated and discredited bourgeoisie.
  • Gramsci sees the French Revolution as an imperfect example of his passive revolution turned finally into a war of maneuver. The aristocracy and the clergy, the first two estates, had lost the cultural battle and was consciously regarded as reactionary and archaic by broad sections of the population, especially the intelligentsia, which was bourgeois and secular. Still, the French Revolution was too extreme for Gramsci, because its ultimate leaders, the Jacobins, made the mistake of advancing a radical program that facilitated the Vendee peasant counter-revolution. The Jacobins should have maintained a populist-nationalist rule which would have appeased the most backward sections of the population. Gramsci complains that the Jacobins instead went beyond historical possibilities, alienating and therefore creating their enemies, and turning their historical mission into a “utopia.” Gramsi holds that It was only when the French Revolution retreated from its radicalism that it began to practically consolidate the revolution and move away from unproductive idealism. Napoleon, for Gramsci, represents the actual vanguard for the revolution and Jacobinism an idealistic detour . He discusses the “Jacobin attitude” running through all subsequent revolutions. He derides the aspiration of the workers in the 1848 revolutions as “fourty-eightism,” a simple reiteration of Jacobinism in the 19th century. He even characterizes certain bourgeois factions of the Italian unification as Jacobin. Finally, he attributes Jacobinism to the character of Trotsky and his theory of permanent revolution.
  • Gramsci underestimates Fascism. His theorizing is most primitive here. He considers it a less extensive form of Bonapartism or the rule of Bismark, that is to say, he characterizes Bismark/Bonapart type governments as the independence/political power of the military and the cultivation of a military spirit of service in bourgeois nations. He concludes that Fascism is something more like a bourgeois government plus a more powerful policing apparatus bolstered by people of all classes frightened of the coming revolution. He terms the situation Caesarism, probably because he is trying to compare it to the Roman Republic having to elevate a unifying figure above its pre-established political order. He talks in all these cases, of “the individual.” Mussolini then, is a dictator in the most simplistic and ancient sense of the word.

So why is Gramsci treasured by the Pseudo-Left? Clearly, his arguments can be turned against Bolshevism, yet he died some kind of Communist, apparently. He did not experience the Comintern in its most Stalinist years, so he lacks the stereotyped speech and references of a contemporary Stalinist. He is superficially objectivist in his writing, but almost always psychologizes events and tendencies instead of offering a materialist theory of them. His dredging in obscure histories (he goes through a constant scholastic recitation of his knowledge of Italian history) gives him places to find archetypes that can be applied everywhere, no matter the class or period. The late Ernesto Laclau, a major pseudo-left figure, is also fond of this, pondering over obscure populist struggles in Latin America, rather than examining revolutions in Russia or the West. The difference between Gramsci’s thought and that of the pseudo-left is that the pseudo-left has cemented the way Gramsci thinks by combining it with Freud and some later-day disciples of Freud.

It is still true though, that Gramsci, who leaves little of substance here, is simply a touchstone for a “post-Marxist” tendency without a real history or heritage. His ideas are confused and grasping – potentially delusional (in the sense of grasping at straws), but the utilization of this confusion and the standing of Gramsci as a martyred Communist is the responsibility and conceit of the comfortable academics in the 70s, 80s and today. He is like Che Guevara was to those who idolized him. Guevara was an icon, without substance, but useful to those who once advocated drawing down socialism in the West and advancing it in the Third World. Gramsci is similarly useful to pseudo-leftists who advocate a turn away from the working class in the west. They found the Marxism they like in Marxism in retreat. In truth, Gramsci’s observations on the more troublesome difficulties of revolution were written better by more talented men, earlier than Gramsci. Martov for example. Gramsci tends to start to make a straw man out of revolution, so much so that he begs the question of knocking it down if he had continued writing. From Marx to Trotsky there is a rich tradition of weighing and describing how a vanguard should assess revolutionary situations by determining the correlation of forces, preparing for developments and laying the groundwork for an actual and conscious claim on social power by the masses, in all its aspects. Gramsci seems to want to forget about this, forget even about social democracy, and wonder how to keep the intellectual elite, the media and the backward sections of the population on the same side as whatever he conceives of as a Marxist movement. He calls this dream “Hegemony” of the working class, which of course, must come before revolution or any “war of maneuver.” He does not explain how the change from an apparent “Hegemony” of the bourgeoisie to a “Hegemony” of the proletariat is to be effected. Apparently this has been left to the likes of Zizek, who keeps in lockstep with the bourgeoisie in general to maintain legitimacy among them.


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