Sean Mahoney on how the revolutionary Marxism of Antinio Gramsci can provide solutions to some of the predicaments of Europe and the US today.
Michele Filippini, Using Gramsci: A New Approach (Pluto Press, 2017)
In late 1926 Antonio Gramsci wrote an unfinished manuscript with the working title ‘Some aspects on the Southern Question.’ As with other essays by Gramsci it takes a local, narrow and perhaps niche issue and transforms it into an argument that is expansive and of universal interest, not only for the world of 1926 but for the world today.
The ‘Southern Question’ as considered by Gramsci focused on the unification of Northern industrial workers and Southern peasants, a unification that would be required in order to overcome the bourgeoisie. ‘For the proletariat to become the ruling, the dominant class, it must succeed in creating a system of class alliances which allow it to mobilise the majority of the working population against capitalism and the bourgeois state.’ The heart of the Southern Question is the concept we all associate with Gramsci – Hegemony. Gramsci sees the western ruling classes as holding power by the depth and breadth of their initiatives and activities which all tend to the same end – the dominance of political, social and cultural life to support them. In the face of such hegemonies, Gramsci’s texts asks for an internationalist, cross-border solidarity, the kind that is needed once again today.
For a long time after his death Gramsci was seen as the West’s hope for something like a non-Soviet communist future. A philosopher-politician with no debts to settle, Gramsci the philosopher was applied to a wide range of social sciences. No longer just another revolutionary Marxist, he became a form of cultural critique, a distinct school of intellectual studies. It is this Gramsci who appears in Michele Filippini’s new Pluto Press book Using Gramsci A New Approach. The Gramsci we find here is the one for whom time and place created an analytical framework as applicable now as it was then, as suggested above.
Filippini considers Gramsci across a range of themes. What for example is the role of ideology for Gramsci? How does, or indeed why does, the philosopher of hegemony spend time on ideology, asks Filippini? The Gramscian concept of ideology we are left with is from the background of political struggle, a precursor to the wider coercive hegemonic framework. Filippini’s Gramsci sees ideology as central to any understanding of a western revolution. His analysis of ideology, like his Marxism, focuses on wider social relations rather than narrow economic determinism. Understanding society and ideology unlocks the role of the ideological skin covering the bones of the entrenched state.
Another key topic is the idea of civil society or social consensus. For Gramsci, Civil Society paints a dark and powerful interface between individuals/groups and the state. Filippini sees this as a fairly fluid concept, since Gramsci’s concern with the coercive elements of political society and structures illustrate the manufactured role of consensus (or civil society). Civil Society reinforces power through social institutions and constraints. At times of potential tension, it shapes the way people think and perceive the world around them. The capitalist state is not just the coercive arm of the Government. It is integrated into every aspect of our daily lives. Wrestling change at the political level becomes pointless without having created change in civil society:
“The bayonets of Napoleon’s armies found their way already cleared by an invisible army of books and tracts.”
The crisis facing the west (and beyond) after World War One has many similarities to the crisis facing the west 100 years later in 2017. The weakened liberal state creates discontent, but how this can become an opportunity is the key. Of course that the crisis is similar is self-evident if you take Gramsci’s own position that crisis is not necessarily a point of collapse or a crescendo of chaos, rather that the capitalist social order has been a continual crisis. When considered in that sense we can always see crisis, even at moments of relative calm. Filippini neatly summarises that – for Gramsci – crisis is a process not an event. It has remote origins that do not alone explain its development and is an inherent feature of the capitalist mode of production.
So how exactly in our current ‘crisis of authority’ – the weakening of political ruling classes – does Gramsci the revolutionary help us? How do we use Gramsci? An organised counterweight for the side “not in the know “ is needed. Is this a Leninist vanguard? Probably not. Gramsci aims for a revolutionary force that is active where it needs to be and is more effective than a battering ram. For Gramsci, the future can only be guided by human agents, while he doesn’t provide tactics or laws for revolution he does outline the pre-conditions. One of these pre-conditions is to penetrate civil society in the “war of position”. Revolution would still be activated by the cracks in the capitalist system, but for the revolution to be substantial and successful it has to follow civil society change. This will require a broad hegemonic bloc, this “national-popular bloc” stretches well beyond class interests.
At his trial in May 1928, the prosecution claimed “ we must stop this brain from functioning for twenty years “. That his opponents didn’t succeed is firmly evident in the rafts of Gramsci studies still being produced, of which this book is a welcome and powerful addition. Having finally wrestled Gramsci’s legacy away from the Italian Communist Party, anyone wanting to jump in to understanding his relevance might like to start with this excellent ‘Reading Gramsci’ series and there is no better place to start than Filippini’s book. Those looking for a practical step towards revolution may need to hold their nose and hold hands with those that oppose the ruling hegemony. Irrespective of differences, we’re all on a long march and a Gamscian solidarity is needed more than ever.
Sean Mahoney lives in New Zealand. He has attempted a range of projects and careers, all with limited success. He has published writing on a wide range of things from the Agrarian Socialist Thomas Spence to the England Cricket teams disastrous 1986 tour of the West Indies. His political and cultural analysis can be found here.