Antonio Gramsci—Academic or Revolutionary?

Issue: 151

Bob Fotheringham

A review of George Hoare and Nathan Sperber, An Introduction to Antonio Gramsci: His Life, Thought and Legacy (Bloomsbury, 2015), £16.99

A central question confronted by the authors of this book is, what is Antonio Gramsci’s relevance today? It seems to me that there exist two parallel Gramscis—one is the Italian revolutionary activist and founding member of the Italian Communist Party who died shortly after leaving prison in 1937; and the other is the philosopher and theoretician whose prison writings have had a major impact on a wide range of academics trying to make sense of their world in their own particular field of study. It is not necessarily a bad thing that Gramsci’s writings have, as George Hoare and Nathan Sperber point out, influenced the thought of intellectuals in areas as diverse as post-colonial studies, cultural studies and international political economy. However, this should be done sensitively and with due regard to the life of the real Gramsci.

So how does Hoare and Sperber’s attempt fare? In my view it is a bit of a mixed bag. The book starts with an introduction detailing Gramsci’s life from his birth in Sardinia in 1891 until his imprisonment by Benito Mussolini in 1926. In a section that covers no more than 16 pages, it is difficult to see how the authors can do justice to the development of Gramsci’s thoughts and how this moulded his later thinking in prison. For example, while Gramsci’s involvement with the factory council movement in Turin between 1919 and 1920 is covered—how this experience played a central role in shaping his writings in prison is never discussed. There is no mention made of the Lyons Theses, written just before Gramsci’s arrest and just after he had taken over the leadership of the Italian Communist Party. Again, in my view little sense can be made of Gramsci’s prison writings without reference to his political development in the period prior to his arrest.

The second section, entitled “Thought”, looks at some of the major themes dominating the Prison Notebooks and discusses Gramsci’s ideas on culture, politics, philosophy and hegemony. This is perhaps the most useful section of the book and provides a helpful, though condensed, introduction to Gramsci’s writings. I found the section on education particularly interesting, as this is an area often overlooked in other books on Gramsci.

The book then goes on to look at “Applications” of Gramsci’s political theory. It is here where problems with the book begin to emerge. The section starts with a somewhat bizarre discussion of the use of the left/right split in politics and everyday life, detailing the history of this split and making an attempt to use Gramsci’s notion of “common sense” in a way that provides structure to people’s conception of the world and politics. On the surface this appears a reasonable thing to do. However, the authors’ abstract discussion of the issue totally ignores Gramsci’s understanding of “contradictory consciousness” where workers often understand the world in both reactionary and progressive ways at the same time. The role of “organic intellectuals” (the communist leadership of the working class) then is to develop the best aspects of workers’ ideas from “common sense” to “good sense” and in this way make ordinary people capable of changing the world for the better.

The purpose of removing Gramsci’s ideas from his life as a revolutionary activist becomes clear next when Hoare and Sperber extol the virtues of Stuart Hall’s use of Gramsci to explain the apparent move to the right in people’s thinking, brought on by “Thatcher’s Hegemonic Project”, in 1980s Britain. From my perspective Hall’s writings are a perfect example of the misuse of Gramsci. Gramsci’s writings on hegemony were a defence of the united front tactic in bringing together revolutionary workers and those with reformist ideas. They were also part of Gramsci’s attempt to understand how the experience of the Bolsheviks in Russia could be translated into a situation in the West where there was a much more complex interaction between the state and civil society. Hall used (or rather misused) Gramsci to present a grossly one-sided view that the working class in Britain were in thrall to Margaret Thatcher and right wing ideas. In fact, the reality was much more complex with workers’ views on the NHS, the welfare state and privatisation almost always to the left the Tories.

The book then goes on to contrast the election of the François Mitterrand government in France in 1981 on a radical socialist programme to the right’s domination in Britain. Under the impact of a gathering economic crisis it did not take long for Mitterrand to reverse his early socialist programme and embrace neoliberal economic policies while at the same time trying to maintain radical rhetoric. Hoare and Sperber apply Gramsci’s concepts of hegemony and the “Historic Bloc” to explain the divergent routes to the same end: Tory hegemony in the case of Britain, and in France a fractured historic bloc where the Socialist governments’ verbal commitment to socialism contrasted markedly with its economic policies leading to disillusionment and cynicism among the coalition of intellectuals and politicians who had supported its election.

Firstly, this is a highly dubious application of Gramsci’s concept of the historic bloc which for him was about the need for the Italian working class to construct an alliance with the peasantry—particularly in the South of Italy—if it was going to carry through a successful workers’ revolution. The second point worth making is that if you look at the development of the Labour government elected in 1974 instead of starting with Thatcher’s election in 1979, the picture that emerges is actually much more analogous to the French experience. Labour were elected on the basis that they “would squeeze the rich until the pips squeak” but, under the impact of a worsening economic situation, attacked working class living standards in a deal made with trade union leaders, the “social contract”. The examples of both France and Britain exposed the weaknesses of reformist political projects in drawing on the inherent potential strength of working class organisation and in confronting capitalism. Gramsci would have understood this situation only too well.

Since the publication of Peter Thomas’s 2010 book The Gramscian Moment it has now become fashionable to quote Gramsci’s philosophy in relation to its “absolute historicism”. It is more than a little ironic, somehow, that so little of the history that shaped and formed Gramsci’s philosophy is actually taken into account, and when his ideas are “applied” very little of what he was actually trying to achieve is truly considered.

For a student undertaking a university course where the thoughts of Gramsci are discussed directly, or applied obliquely to a particular discipline, Hoare and Sperber’s book will prove a useful, though flawed, introduction. Those of us, on the other hand, interested in what Gramsci has to offer in understanding and changing the world as part of a revolutionary strategy will need to look elsewhere.

Bob Fotheringham is a Socialist Workers Party member from Glasgow.