Gramsci goes global

Issue: 118

Bob Fotheringham

Adam David Morton, Hegemony and Passive Revolution in the Global Economy (Pluto, 2007), £18.99

Antonio Gramsci used the concept of “passive revolution” to explain the process leading to the unification of Italy in 1861. The relative backwardness of the country provided the impetus for this process, known as the Risorgimento. Despite the popularity of the Italian struggles for unification and independence, the Risorgimento was essentially a top-down revolution, in which ordinary Italians played little part. The outcome was a compromise between the rising industrial class and old feudal aristocracy with the “radicals” ultimately conceding ground to the “moderates” based around the monarchy of the Piedmont region. Capitalism was then able to gain a foothold and grow, mainly in the north, with a state that was neither feudal nor bourgeois.

Gramsci also used passive revolution to explain the reorganisation of Italian capitalism that took place in the 1930s under Benito Mussolini. Under the impact of a capitalist recession and a falling rate of profit, the Italian state took it upon itself to introduce new methods of production using modern assembly line techniques, which Gramsci referred to as “Fordism”.

How do Gramsci’s ideas fit today? Adam Morton argues that the concept of passive revolution, along with other ideas closely associated with Gramsci such as hegemony and uneven development, has an important role to play in our understanding of the contemporary world, including the role of the state.

His standpoint comes from the “neo-Gramscian” school of international relations which has developed in recent years in opposition to the more right wing and American centred view of world affairs. However, in my view, Morton offers a superior perspective in comparison to some of his fellow neo-Gramscians. This is because he makes a serious effort to understand the development of Gramsci’s ideas within their historical context. He also maintains that Gramsci’s beliefs can only be understood as part of Marxism, and he presents the Prison Notebooks as a continuation of Gramsci’s political practice as an active revolutionary.

The first section, making up more than half the book, goes through a process of “engaging with Gramsci”. He considers how Gramsci’s ideas on passive revolution developed. He then looks in detail at Gramsci’s use of hegemony to explain the continuing domination of Italian society by capitalism after the failure of the revolutionary struggle around the factory council movement of 1919 to 1920 (the Biennio Rosso) to lead to a successful workers’ revolution. Unfortunately, Morton’s discussion on hegemony completely ignores the fact that Gramsci’s use of the term was, at least partly, as an argument against “third period Stalinism”. In this period, from 1928 to 1934, Communist Parties outside Russia were told to break from the policy of the united front and pursue an “offensive” strategy, with little regard for the conditions they were operating in.

In the opening section of the book Morton uses the theory of uneven development as a starting point to explain how the state in a backward country can play an essential role in developing the capitalist mode of production. He makes reference, as part of this discussion, to Leon Trotsky’s idea of combined and uneven development. However, a major difference is that Gramsci’s theory of passive revolution and uneven development recognises a distinction in how capitalism develops not just on an east/west basis but also on a
north/south divide.

This did not simply mean that Italian economic development was weak and the state vulnerable to foreign intervention from more powerful neighbours. It also meant industrialisation took place mainly in northern Italy with cities dominating the countryside. This led to the compromise between the old feudal aristocracy and the rising industrial class which was the outcome of the Risorgimento.

How useful are Gramsci’s views in understanding how global capitalism works today? In my view, there are limitations. Gramsci never fully developed an understanding of imperialism, and there is a limit to how much can be gained from simply looking at the Italian process of transformation. Having said that, I do think that Gramsci and by extension Adam Morton have a point. The process of state intervention and top-down transformation to restructure capitalism was not just confined to Italy in the 1930s. It also happened in counties as diverse as Soviet Russia and the US. Similar processes took place in China and India. The concept of “passive revolution” would therefore seem to be one that can potentially have many different applications in the present day.

The rest of the book explains how Gramsci’s ideas can be applied to the modern world. It starts by looking critically at how Gramsci has been used by the “neo-Gramscian” school to explain developments in international relations. The notion of a “transnational state” is considered by the author and rejected. The restructuring of the state and the application of neoliberal economics is appraised, with Mexico in the 1980s used as an example of uneven development and passive revolution. Counter-hegemonic struggle and resistance to neoliberalism are studied, with the Mexican Zapatistas given as a case study.

Finally, the book concludes with a chapter entitled “Conclusion against the Prison Notebooks”, which includes a rejection of the “Modern Prince” (Gramsci’s term for the revolutionary party) as playing a positive role of leadership in struggles against global capitalism

There is much in Morton’s book that is both thought provoking and leads to greater understanding of how capitalism works today. By focusing on uneven development and passive revolution, a good balance is stuck between capitalism as a global system and the continuing requirement for it to exploit and grow in specific locations. The role played by the state is therefore given proper recognition both as a facilitator of capitalist accumulation, and as a mechanism of domination and control over subordinate classes.

However, there are, in my view, major weaknesses. Discussion of the role played by imperialism and the economic development of capitalism, particularly since the onset of crisis in the mid-1970s, are completely missing. This is acknowledged by the author, but these omissions mean the reader is left with useful but abstract insights into how global capitalism works, without any great overview. How, for example, can you explain the recent apparent hegemony of American “neoliberal” capitalism without examining the collapse of the so-called Communist states of the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe in the early 1990s?

The Mexican case studies also left me wondering how useful the notion of passive revolution is in understanding what took place there in the 1980s. There are local peculiarities to the Mexican example, but it seems to me that this is an instance of capitalist restructuring that took place at the same time in many other countries.

However, there do seem to me examples of where Gramsci’s idea of passive revolution does have a concrete application. For example, the process taking place in Venezuela under Chavez raises the potential for revolutionary change, but, despite important social gains, the country remains an essentially capitalist state with a popular, radical president introducing top-down reforms.

I think Tony Cliff’s concept of deflected permanent revolution is worth a mention. Cliff developed this in response to those Trotskyists who wanted to use Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution to explain the social changes that took place in China and Cuba. These were essentially national revolutions, with those leading them using the language of Marxism but without the active participation of the working class.

Cliff’s theory shares many similarities with Gramsci’s concept of passive revolution—revolution from above, state restructuring and the important role played by intellectuals. However, Cliff’s purpose was to rescue Trotsky’s original theory from those who had essentially rejected the idea of active working class participation in the revolutionary process. In Adam Morton’s book working class struggle is almost completely missing. Gramsci wrote the Prison Notebooks under the watchful eye of the prison censor. He could not make direct reference to the struggles of Italian workers or the strategy and tactics of the Italian Communist Party. No such limitations exist for Morton.

One final criticism of Morton’s book needs to be made. I found some of his language obscure. Words such as ontology, intersubjectivity and homoficence may have a common usage in university departments and among the followers of the neo-Gramscian school, but they are certainly not part of the language used by most political activists. If his ideas are to be discussed by the “organic intellectuals” who make up today’s anti-war, anti-capitalist and socialist movements, they have to be presented in way that can be readily understood. This point is all the more important because I think Morton’s book, while it has major flaws, does contain some important and interesting ideas that deserve consideration.