Reclaim Gramsci, The Revolutionary!


Amit is a history researcher in University of Delhi.

On 122nd birthday of Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci (Jan 22, 1891–Apr 27, 1937), it becomes very important to understand what Gramsci stood for. The contemporary bourgeois thinkers are busy appropriating Gramsci and various Gramscian ideas. From a cultural theorist, micro-narrativist to a post-Marxist philosopher, Gramsci is made to serve the very ideas which he opposed through his life from the days of forming labour councils till his last days in the dungeons of fascist regime where he ultimately died. The time is for the radical left to say, that before anything Gramsci was a Marxist Revolutionary who lived and died for Revolution. Time is to say that yes, like Marx and Lenin, he interpreted and theorized global capitalism, but it was not to save it, but rather for its doom.

Gramsci developed Marxist theory into a ‘politically-strategic’ Marxism which didn’t wait for the ‘immutable historical laws’, to change the course of history by themselves, but stressed on the importance of human activity. He thought of humans, as creative organisms capable of changing society towards the larger emancipation of mankind as well the whole universe. He denounced static, mechanical and fixed formulas as useless and didn’t suggest waiting for the ‘capitalist contradictions’ to explode by themselves. Global capitalism is already sitting on amber. Marx, Lenin and Gramsci have provided us with the spark of their ideas to ignite it and blast it. Here I will deal mainly with three most important ideas of Gramsci which have been manipulated in more than one way by the bourgeois thinkers.Gramsci2

1.The Communist Party or The Modern Prince

Though people have assigned many ideas to Gramsci, which no doubt he richly deserves, but one has to see his theory and ideas through the lens of a radical social transformation. And in this regard, the most important aspect which Gramsci discussed and wrote about was the organized communist party, which he called ‘The Modern prince’ (probably to escape the eyes of the jail authorities). For him, like Lenin and Marx, communist party remained the vehicle which will carry the revolutionary ideas. He was clearly not against any spontaneous movement of workers or general masses, but what he stressed was the channelizing of this enormous energy towards the revolutionary road. He wrote,

 “This element of ’spontaneity’ was not neglected and even less despised. It was educated, directed, purged of extraneous contaminations; the aim was to bring it into line with modern theory (i.e. Marxism) – but in a living and historically effective manner… This unity between ’spontaneity’ and ’conscious leadership’ or ’discipline’ is precisely the real political action of subaltern classes, insofar as this is mass politics and not merely an adventure by groups claiming to represent the masses.’’[i]

Democratic centralism, dictatorship of proletariat, and many other concepts which one finds in the writings of Marx, Engels and Lenin, keep coming in the Prison notebooks of Gramsci. Thus it also contradicts those who would have like us to believe that Gramsci was a sort of break from Classical Marxism with an over-emphasis on ‘superstructure’, and who decided to focus more on culture, language, art etc. and ignored or side-lined the base ‘the economic foundation’. As Engels had cleared this confusion already in one his letters to J. Bloch, Gramsci simply reiterated that there is no one way process and both base and superstructure remain in a dialectical relation, often moulding each other. Thus Gramsci was very clear that there has to be a communist party based on democratic centralism to lead the revolution. He wrote,

“The most accurate name would be democratic centralism…” where there is “a continual insertion of elements thrown up from the rank and file into the solid framework of the leadership apparatus which ensures continuity and the regular accumulation of experience.”[ii] 

2. Organic Intellectual

But Gramsci didn’t stop here, if communist party was so important, then what kind of party will it be, and who will be the part of this party. Here Gramsci brings his another important concept and that is the idea of an ‘organic intellectuals’; very much like, but still a step forward than Lenin’s ‘professional revolutionaries’. Again bourgeois intellectuals have taken this idea out of its contexts and everyone pretends to be an ‘organic intellectual’. Anyone writing about ‘people’s history’ ‘people’s art’ claims to be a leftist thinker under the garb of Gramscian ‘Organic intellectual’. But is it what Gramsci meant by an Organic intellectual? Certainly not! The first important criterion, which Gramsci had set for an ‘organic intellectual’ was questioning one of the basic features of the modern capitalist world i.e. the division between mental and physical labour. And it’s not only in theory (as it doesn’t mean anything) that one has to accept this basic premise, but one has to put it into practice. This is how Gramsci called Marxism as ‘theory of praxis’. You cannot only say things, because it doesn’t mean anything. Your ideas and practice must in an organic dialectical relation. Gramsci wrote,

“The mode of being of the new intellectuals can no longer consist in eloquence, which is an exterior and momentary mover of feeling and passions, but in active participation in practical life, as constructor, organizer, ‘permanent persuader’, and not just a simple orator.”[iii]

But, what else did Gramsci expect from an ‘organic intellectual’? Along with a belief for a revolutionary transformation of the society, Gramsci expected that an intellectual must avoid elitist, obscure, jargonized and alienating mode of communication. (Gramsci himself was a promising philologist, before he left university at the time of war and took up journalism.) He/she doesn’t only have to understand things in their entirety, but also convey them in the language which belongs to that very historical moment.

In this context Spivak, Ranajit Guha or even Partha Chatterjee might seem to be the best of intellectuals today, but its Charu Majumdar, Comrade Vinod Mishra and to a large extent academicians like Sumit Sarkar, etc. who fall under the category of an ‘organic intellectuals’. Gramsci expected the organic intellectual not to only mechanically apply the Marxian theory rather he had to continuously link the revolutionary theory with the contemporary situations, where the theory will lead to the change the society and new circumstances will further enrich the theory. He had to be an artist who didn’t practice ‘art only for the sake of art’ but rather for ‘revolutionizing the society/working class ideas’.

William Reich, the Freudo-Marxist writing about 2nd world war explains this dilemma of intellectuals very powerfully when he says, “While we presented the masses with superb historical analyses and economic treatises on the contradictions of imperialism, Hitler stirred the deepest roots of the emotional being. As Marx would have put it, we left the praxis of the subjective factor to the idealists; we acted like mechanistic economistic materialists.’’[iv]gramsci_1923-12

3. Hegemony

And the most important concept which Gramsci gave and which has been twisted, turned upside down, and sometimes used judiciously also is the concept of ‘Hegemony’. The root of this concept lies in what Lenin had told to his West European comrades. Lenin had advised them that they should not simply copy Bolshevik revolution; rather they should rigorously study their own material conditions and then apply Marxism creatively. It was this idea that led Gramsci to differentiate between East and West. This division has again been quoted out of context and Gramsci is blamed to have divided the world in the usual ‘orientalist idea’ of east and west. But by East Gramsci meant Russian/Bolshevik experience of revolution and by West he meant material conditions for revolution in Western Europe.

While studying Western Europe, Gramsci argued that the situation was quite different than Russia, as in Russia state was very strong and all energies had to be channelized to fight the state and Czar. But in Western Europe which had a quite developed capitalist society, between the state and working class there had developed a large pool of ‘civil society’.  Gramsci argued that in a modern capitalist system like in Western Europe at that time the exercise of ‘class domination’ is very complex as it is intermediated by the ‘civil society’. He argued that here (developed capitalist system) class domination is in fact through ‘pervasive ideological control’ and manipulation which is not simply through coercion, force or by threat of it, but also by producing a ‘consent’ which is produced by ‘mass culture’ through all most every type of institution like education, entertainment, the media, popular social practices and beliefs, the law etc. This he called a ‘hegemonic control/rule’. Gramsci says, “’civil society has become a very complex structure and one which is resistant to the catastrophic ’incursions’ of the immediate economic element (crises, depressions, etc.). The superstructures of civil society are like the trench-systems of modern warfare”

For Gramsci the civil society acted as a shield and it was not easy to simply attack the state as it will be continuously defended by civil society. Gramsci in order to attack this ‘trench system’ argued for ‘counter-hegemony’. This is where again the role of organic intellectual revolutionaries comes. They have again and again hit the citadels till the outer guard crumbles. Every sphere argues Gramsci has to be taken up, and no ground should be left for the bourgeois thinkers who mobilize the opinions of the civil society. Zizek in fact uses the same tactics of Gramsci when he talks of ‘popular fronts’ which Gramsci himself called ‘Revolutionary Historical Bloc’. Civil society and bourgeois thinkers, argue both Gramsci and Zizek, are more interested in particular struggles. They say fight for wages, forget capitalism or fight gender discrimination forget sexism within capitalism or fight corruption but forget about its roots in capitalist mode of production. Gramsci argues that we have to be in all these struggles and not as some strategy, but as conscious political need and choice. But while being there, while questioning the state apparatuses, social norms, we have to make the revolutionary/working class ideology as hegemonic among other fraternal groups. While fighting with them in their particular struggles you have to continuously remind yourself and those who are fighting with you that these particular fights cannot be fully won until and unless we fight the monstrous system which created it all – Capitalism

Some scholars misread Gramsci and argue that he was the philosopher who laid the foundation of particular struggles. Gramsci’s concept of ‘war of manoeuvre/movement’ (where physically state apparatus is brought down and dictatorship of proletariat is established) and ‘war of position’ (where there is counter-hegemony at work and it remains more or less an ideological warfare) are often read as being either opposite to each other or follow one another. Some authors even argue that according to Gramsci, in West only war of position is applicable as there is in place a hegemonic state apparatus corroborated by civil society.gramsci

Gramsci was never arguing in suspending one position over the other, rather he was very clear that the two wars must go on simultaneously. Gramsci argues “In war it would sometimes happen that a fierce artillery attack seemed to have destroyed the enemy’s defensive system, whereas in fact it had only destroyed the outer perimeter; and at moment of their advance and attack the assailants would find themselves confronted by a line of defence which was still effective.”

The ‘perimeter’ here clearly is external ideological apparatus which a state creates through various institutions and Gramsci quite explicitly points to the fact that only destroying this external perimeter won’t help. Rather, while attacking the ideological apparatus i.e. through counter hegemony in the war of manoeuvre the Communist party should simultaneously keep attacking state through the ‘war of position’.

Practically it will mean that we will fight for the minimum wages, but workers have to be told that till capitalist system remains there they will be exploited, we will fight against ‘gender discrimination’ but till capitalism is there female body will be made and sold as a commodity, and we will fight corruption, but it will not go/end till the system that breeds it.

[i] Antonio Gramsci, The Modern Prince, Prison Notebooks, p.198

[ii] Antonio Gramsci, The Modern Prince, Prison Notebooks, p.188-189

[iii] Antonio Gramsci, The Modern Prince, Prison Notebooks, p.10

[iv] Wilhelm Reich, What is Class Consciousness in Carl Boggs, Gramsci’s Marxism, p. 57

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