Poor Gramsci

In 1987, the late Stuart Hall published an essay titled ‘Gramsci and Us’ in Marxism Today, then (still officially at least) the theoretical journal of the Communist Party of Great Britain.

In 1987, the late Stuart Hall published an essay titled ‘Gramsci and Us’ in Marxism Today, then (still officially at least) the theoretical journal of the Communist Party of Great Britain. In this short essay Hall describes how the writings of Antonio Gramsci – the Italian communist leader imprisoned by Mussolini’s fascist regime from 1926 until his death in 1937 – had helped him to make sense of Thatcherism, to properly grasp its historical significance as something much more than just a shift to the right in British electoral politics. Hall’s essay also stands, however, as something of a eulogy for a waning era of British Gramscianism, a period in which the Italian thinker’s work had a fairly remarkable influence on British politics and culture. David Forgacs has written that, aside from in his native Italy, “nowhere more than in Britain have Gramsci’s writings exercised so prolonged, deep or diversified an influence”. Yet the particularly ‘British’ Gramsci that first began to emerge in the 1950s – and who was seized upon with great earnest following the publication of the landmark Selections from the Prison Notebooks in 1971 – was a fairly uneven and imbalanced thinker, one whose work was often contorted to satisfy the desires of a marginalised and sectarian British left still coming to terms with the uncomfortable realities of Soviet communism.

This longing for an intellectual figurehead who could solve the problems of British Marxism was nevertheless at odds with the Gramsci of the fragmentary writings of the prison notebooks. What Hall had tried to emphasise was that Gramsci had never been a thinker who tried to offer a complete or general political theory. Having watched the great European proletarian moment ebb away from his fascist prison cell, Gramsci’s prison writings instead represent an attempt to understand the importance of the particular historical moment, rather than the general movement of history. “We mustn’t use Gramsci (as we have for so long abused Marx)”, Hall writes,

like an Old Testament prophet who, at the correct moment, will offer us the consoling and appropriate quotation. We can’t pluck up this ‘Sardinian’ from his specific and unique political formation, beam him down at the end of the 20th century, and ask him to solve our problems for us: especially since the whole thrust of his thinking was to refuse this easy transfer of generalisations from one conjuncture, nation or epoch to another.(p. 16)

It’s hard not to think of Hall’s words when reading Paul Mason in the Guardian, almost exactly thirty years later, claim that “Antonio Gramsci, the Italian communist leader who died in a fascist jail in 1937, would have had no trouble understanding Corbyn’s rise, Labour’s poll surge, or predicting what happens next.” There’s something particularly striking about Mason – a writer whose recent work has argued that contemporary capitalism is entering a new and unique historical epoch – invoking Gramsci in the present in such a historically unreflective way. While Mason’s article does gesture towards the uniqueness of the present by describing some recent changes in social composition (“the 20th-century working class is being replaced as the main actor – in both the economy and oppositional politics – by the networked individual”), rather than reflect upon what such changes might imply for the concepts Gramsci developed to think through the failures of the working class movements of the early twentieth century, Mason simply applies them as given to the current state of things. As a result, one of Mason’s key claims about the phenomenon of Corbyn’s success is that the process of disrupting ‘common sense’ – Gramsci’s term for our acquired and largely uncritical conceptions of the world – is simpler now, because of how easily “networked, educated people can see through bullshit.”

Yet for Gramsci, common sense is never simply about ideological deceit or indoctrination. Rather, the term acts as more as a guide for thinking about how the ways in which we come to understand the world around us, through our own intellectual activity, are shaped by hegemonic cultural and social forms, and how subordinate groups in society come to see the world in the same terms as those at the top, despite their divergent interests. Mason seems largely uninterested in dwelling too long on what a twenty-first century common sense might look like, preferring instead to emphasise the potentially disruptive potential of contemporary social and technological relations. Yet it is difficult to see why being highly educated (i.e. having gone to university), or having access to global communicative and information networks, would not be absolutely central aspects of the production and reproduction of common sense today, let alone offer some natural point of resistance to it. At the very least it seems remarkable that, as someone with a Twitter account, Mason would think that a heavily networked society tended to reduce the amount of bullshit circulating.

While it is perhaps unfair to pick solely on Mason here, his article nevertheless provides an interesting point from which to reflect upon the status of Gramsci – or perhaps more specifically, a certain style of Gramscian thinking – within Corbynism, both as a project itself and in attempts to make sense of it. Something which immediately needs to be considered is the illocutionary effect of invoking Gramsci himself today. Mason himself gestures towards something on this point when he states that “Labour has, quite rightly, tried to keep Karl Marx out of the election. But there is one Marxist whose work provides the key to understanding what just happened.” Here, Mason appears to be saying that Gramsci is both a better guide to making sense of this recent election than Marx, and is a less politically toxic name to publicly call upon. While the latter seems unremarkable, the two points are closely related — the ease with which Gramsci’s work can be called upon to make sense of a variety of phenomena, in an often quite starkly un-Marxist fashion, is a large part of the reason why Gramsci’s name circulates so less encumbered than Marx’s. The fact that Gramsci appeared as an idiosyncratic internal critic of orthodox Marxism was a large part of his appeal throughout the twentieth century, beginning with the reconstitution of the Italian communist party under Palmiro Togliatti. Yet an emphasis on Gramsci’s apparently anti-Marxist tendencies has led to his thought being enthusiastically adopted to a wide variety of ends, from the ‘post-Marxist’ discourse analysis of Chantal Mouffe and Ernesto Laclau, to the modernization-fetishising proto-Blairite tendencies of the later Marxism Today. As certain events during the second Corbyn leadership election hinted at, there remains a certain intellectual and moral authority granted to Marxists seen as willing to turn their criticism towards the left.

The danger here is that merely invoking Gramsci’s work can lend a certain radical intellectual gloss to unimaginatively reformist or even reactionary politics. One thing Mason’s piece makes clearly visible is the way in which a certain cut-and-paste use of Gramscian concepts can simultaneously generate both an unhelpful cautiousness and a wildly buoyant enthusiasm, thoroughly unbalancing the oft-repeated Gramscian aphorism “pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will”.1 Thus, while Mason states that the left “must eschew hubris” and “must reject the illusion that with one lightning breakthrough we can envelop the defences of the British ruling class”, he also claims, presumably in all seriousness, that Corbyn “has publicly destroyed the logic of neoliberalism – and forced the ideology of xenophobic nationalist economics into retreat”.

Here it’s worth turning to Gramsci himself, who wrote in The Modern Prince that “[a] common error in historico-political analysis consists in an inability to find the correct relation between what is organic and what is conjunctural” — that is, between the ‘deep’ forms of crisis and the efforts being made to defend or contest the existing order of things.2 Gramsci warned that failing to get this relation between organic and conjunctural right risked producing either “economism”, where too much weight is given to economic forces while neglecting politics; or “ideologism”, in which the historical roles of “top political leaders and personalities with direct governmental responsibilities” is similarly overemphasised.3 Hall lamented that the left, caught in the hubris of thinking it understands what really causes historical change, had failed to grasp the significance of Thatcherism as an attempt to solve the crisis of the 1970s through the construction of a new ‘historical bloc’ and a new common sense: “…though those transformations are changing the political terrain of struggle before our very eyes” Hall writes, “we think the differences don’t have any real effect on anything. It still feels more ‘left-wing’ to say the old ruling class politics goes on in the same old way.”(p. 16)

With Corbynism, however, the risk seems to come from the opposite direction. This is not to say that the consolidation of Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party and the result of the 2017 general election do not represent a quite remarkable and unexpected opportunity for the left in Britain – clearly they do. Rather, if we are to take something from Gramsci beyond the enduring “moral and intellectual legitimacy” his name bestows, it should be precisely on this question of the proper relationship between organic and conjunctural, between ‘deeper’ forms of historical crisis and the political contests that respond to them.4 What clearly needs to be resisted is the easy temptation to see the election of Corbyn as the social transformation in itself, and not merely one moment in a history that could still yet go a number of ways. As Alex Williams and Nick Srnicek rightly point out in Inventing the Future, “[the] event (as revolutionary rupture) becomes an expression of the desire for novelty without responsibility”5. Announcing that Corbyn has “publicly destroyed the logic of neoliberalism” is not only quite clearly false, but lets us off the hook for the (inevitably long and arduous) task of nurturing a new common sense capable of challenging the dominant forms of individualism that have endured since Thatcher.

This should by no means be read as a defeatist gesture, but rather a call to not be satisfied with any easy answers as to where the left goes now. In particular, a healthy scepticism towards the notion of a left populism (an idea which has become influential largely due to the work of one of the more contentious readers of Gramsci in Ernesto Laclau) is particularly vital. The success of Corbyn has so far relied on the composition of a novel and far from consolidated electoral bloc, and any declarations that Corbyn has constructed a new ‘people’ are undoubtedly premature. Yet it’s worth questioning whether such a project is a possible or even desirable one for the Corbynist left to pursue. Writers like Paul Gilroy have long questioned the separability of the notion of a British ‘people’ from a nationalism developed in empire and postcolonial resentment, while Hall has equally argued that “the force of history” of established associative connotations has long given the right the upper hand in constructing populist imaginaries.6 More broadly, however, the worry remains that Corbynism will become trapped in a certain quasi-Gramscian mode of thinking which sees hegemonic struggle as essentially a task of triangulation, of making gradual left-wing economic reform palatable to the kinds of people who want more police on our streets, more nuclear weapons, and so on. While Gramsci’s writings on hegemony focus attention on the necessity of the struggle over existing ideas in society, his work nevertheless reminds us of the persistent capacity of ruling blocs throughout history to recompose their rule in times of apparent crisis. We will not succeed in building a counter-hegemony in Britain today if we seek to make space within existing common sense, rather than attempting to build a new one. If we are to take any lesson from the Sardinian today, then, it should be to have the courage to resist intellectual complacency.

  1. Antonio Gramsci, Selections from Political Writings 1921-1926, ed. and trans. Quintin Hoare (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1978), 19. Often attributed to Gramsci, the line was originally one of French writer Romain Rolland’s. 

  2. Antonio Gramsci, Selections from the Prison Notebooks, ed. and trans. Quintin Hoare and Geoffrey Nowell-Smith (London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1971), 178. 

  3. Gramsci, Selections from the Prison Notebooks, p. 176. 

  4. In his vitriolic review of Laclau and Mouffe’s 1985 work Hegemony and Socialist Strategy, Norman Geras says, of a passage in the book discussing “the relative merits” of Gramsci, Bernstein and Sorel, that “[everyone] who knows where it’s really at these days, though, will know that Gramsci just has to win this part of the game: not because he towers over the other two as a thinker; but because, in a certain relevant left milieu, he confers a moral and intellectual legitimacy which they cannot.” 

  5. Alex Williams and Nick Srnicek, Inventing the Future: Post-Capitalism and a World Without Work (London: Verso, 2016), p. 177.  

  6. Stuart Hall, ‘Popular-Democratic vs Authoritarian Populism: Two Ways of “Taking Democracy Seriously”’, in Marxism and Democracy, ed. Alan Hunt (London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1980), 178–79; “In the meantime, there is more proof that English nationalism remains volatile material. Manipulative politicians should not play with it, even if they have persuaded themselves that they can harness its populist magic to benign and wholesome ends. Wherever nationalism is politically engaged, all the violent perversity of race thinking will not be far away.” Paul Gilroy, Postcolonial Melancholia, (New York: Columbia University Press, 2010), 111.