Gramsci rendered whole

Issue: 127
Posted: 25 June 10

Chris Bambery

Peter Thomas, The Gramscian Moment: Philosophy, Hegemony and Marxism (Brill, 2009), £104

So much quoted, less read and even less understood, Antonio Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks must be one of the most cited works by any Marxist. Peter Thomas has produced a fine book, which readers of this journal should beg, steal or borrow to obtain a copy, placing Gramsci firmly, not just in the revolutionary camp, but as a Leninist rooted in the early, revolutionary years of the Communist International. The Gramscian Moment is an extended polemic with the late Louis Althusser, who praised the Sardinian only then to try and bury him, and the former editor of New Left Review (NLR), Perry Anderson. In 1977 Anderson published a seminal article, “The Antinomies of Antonio Gramsci”, in issue 100 of the first series of NLR.

Anderson cast Gramsci clearly within the revolutionary tradition, which was important when Eurocommunism was trying to use Gramsci to justify the shift of the Communist Parties towards classical social democracy. But Anderson also argued that in the Prison Notebooks Gramsci gradually moved away from stressing the coercive character of the bourgeois state, instead highlighting the consent the ruling class exerted over the exploited and oppressed through its ideological and cultural hegemony institutionalised in the private associations making up civil society. According to Anderson, Gramsci moved from the view that civil society represented the earthworks defending the central citadel of the state to the converse.

I’ve re-read the article many times but this section has always left me somewhat puzzled. Now Thomas argues convincingly that Anderson’s attempt to chart a chronology of this shift was faulty and that Gramsci was trying to develop and extend an analysis of the bourgeois state and how the ruling class rules which he took from Lenin, Trotsky and his participation at the Fourth Congress of the Communist International in 1922. Thomas argues that this analysis can provide a guide to achieving proletarian hegemony through political action.

Rather than contrasting the state and civil society, Thomas argues, Gramsci develops the theory of an “integral state” in which both become merged. The consent which flows from the ruling class’s hegemony over the oppressed and exploited is not contrasted to the state’s repressive power by Gramsci but is complementary. Gramsci credited Lenin (“the greatest modern theoretician of the philosophy of practice”) with constructing “the doctrine of hegemony as a complement to the theory of the State-as-force”.

For Thomas the state is a repressive force and a network of social relations for the production of consent in which both are united and distinct. Consent implies the coercion of its opponents or doubters. This “integral state” rings bells in neoliberal Britain. Consent is a mixture of fear (about Muslim terrorists, paedophiles, “feral” youth and crime) which leads to higher levels of state repression (ASBOs, police stop and search, CCTV and terror raids). The media still has impact but traditional forms of civil society such as the established churches, political parties, local councillors and so on play little role in daily life and even the local council operates increasingly at arm’s length or has hived off services.

One of the strengths of Anderson’s article is that it traces the concept of hegemony and consent back to debates within the Bolshevik party pre-1917, between Karl Kautsky, Rosa Luxemburg and Lenin in the wake of the 1905 Russian Revolution and within the Comintern.

At the Third Congress of the Communist International in 1921 Lenin and Trotsky led the rout of those who had argued for the “revolutionary offensive” and identifed the notion of an “epoch of wars and revolutions” as necessitating a constant revolutionary war of “manoeuvre” and rejecting any alliances with social democracy. At the Fourth Congress (which Gramsci attended), Lenin and Trotsky argued the ebbing away of the immediate post-war revolutionary tide meant the new Communist Parties, all minorities within the working class, needed to fight a “war of position” to win majority support in the class. That centred on the united front strategy. Trotsky was waging a similar argument within the Red Army where key leaders argued for “revolutionary warfare” at all times.

The Italian Communist Party (PCd’I) was a botched creation. The far left of the Socialist Party centred on Amadeo Bordiga had ignored Lenin’s advice to unite with the rest of the left, who supported joining the Comintern, in order to oust the reformist minority and create a mass, revolutionary party. Rather Bordiga walked out of the Socialist Party’s Livorno congress with a small minority, in reality some few thousands. Bordiga opposed the united front policy in principle.

Gramsci, who suffered a nervous collapse after the containment and defeat of the 1919-20 Bienno Rosso (the Red Years), went along with Bordiga, despite his better judgement, because the Neapolitan had been correct on one fundamental issue— the need to create a Communist Party, the missing link in the revolutionary crisis of those years. In Moscow, as Thomas points out, Trotsky seized on Gramsci as the weak link in the PCd’I, subjecting him to stinging criticism. In the long term it worked but it created what Thomas describes as love-hate feelings towards Trotsky in the Italian.

The Prison Notebooks can only be understood, in my opinion, within the context of Gramsci reassessing his position during the Bienno Rosso and defending the united front approach Gramsci had fought for within the PCd’I, summed up in the 1924 Lyons Theses. In contrast to this the party leadership argued after 1929 (the so-called “Third Period”), in line with Stalin, that a global revolutionary situation existed and the party needed to take the offensive and eschew alliances with the social democrats and other anti-fascists. One weakness in Thomas’s book is not connecting the Notebooks to Gramsci’s earlier writings.

For Gramsci the historic task of the working class is the capture of state power, and the creation of a “state of a special type”, similar to the Paris Commune and Soviet Russia in its early, revolutionary years. The working class finds its identity through its struggles, must aim to create proletarian hegemony and for Gramsci and Thomas that centres on a united front strategy.

Thomas also argues convincingly that Gramsci’s “philosophy of practice” is not simply a code for Marxism designed to beat prison censorship but is an extension of Gramsci’s opposition to mechanical Marxism. The philosophy of practice equalled for him “philosophy—history—politics” but politics is, as Peter argues, “first among equals as the transformative moment immanent to the others”. In other words politics is the necessity of revolution. For Gramsci the new organic intellectuals of the working class central to constructing proletarian hegemony were not academics or “pure” orators; they had to be a “constructor, organiser, ‘permanently active persuader’”, rooted in “latent aspirations” and “the development of real forms of life”. Peter Thomas is very clear that this equals the construction of a Leninist, revolutionary party.

Gramsci’s adult life involved a rejection of mechanical Marxism. He was repulsed by the PSI’s effective dismissal of the peasantry and rural labourers (and their acquiescence in Prime Minister Giolitti’s repression of rural strikes and uprisings).

I feel Peter Thomas fails to place Anderson’s article within the context in which it appeared. During the 1960s and early 1970s NLR had done sterling work in promoting Gramsci’s writings in the English speaking world (as had this journal and other components of the anti-Stalinist left). Anderson’s essay was written in 1976 at a time when he had moved to identifying with orthodox Trotskyism in the form of Ernest Mandel’s United Secretariat of the Fourth International. NLR 100, in which it appeared, also featured an extended
“political interview” with Mandel in which Mandel expressed his view that the political upturn which had begun with the May 1968 events in France, and had recently reached its highpoint with the 1974-75 Portuguese Revolution and the defeat of the US in Vietnam, would continue.

The strengths of Anderson’s piece are missing from Peter’s book. First, Anderson had access to the full version of Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks, even now not available in English, and to Gramsci’s earlier political writings, only published in English in 1977. He was able to prove that Gramsci’s earlier fight to re-orient the PCd’I on the basis of a sustained united front approach continued into the Prison Notebooks as a polemic against the “Third Period” line of the Comintern and the PCd’I. That continuity within Gramsci’s writings after he was won over by Lenin and Trotsky while in Russia and after his jailing is something Anderson is right to stress and something without which the Prison Notebooks cannot be fully understood.

Anderson draws a parallel with Trotsky’s opposition to the crazy position taken by the Third International in the late 1920s. Not just with Trotsky’s stress on a strategic united front approach, but on his belief that, if Mussolini’s dictatorship fell, the likelihood was that it would be succeeded by a period of democratic rule rather than an immediate working class challenge for power. Gramsci argued similarly and looked at how in such a period revolutionaries could re-arm the working class by establishing the basis for factory councils.

Anderson was also re-asserting the vital importance of Trotsky within the revolutionary period, above that of Gramsci, though in no way diminishing the Sardinian’s importance. Coming from the editor of NLR this carried no small weight.

Finally, Anderson’s essay took its readers back into the refreshing debates within the revolutionary movement in the first two decades of the 20th century. Yet none of this detracts from the excellence of The Gramscian Moment, which is a crucial addition to the revolutionary arsenal.