Antonio Gramsci: Imprisoned after death
|Arun Ramachandran G||March 9, 2012|
Antonio Gramsci's contribution has been a critical one in understanding the functioning of our society. One queer thing about his works is that it would find a place not only in the reading rooms of the Communist Parties, but also on the coffee tables of Sociology professors and postmodernists, who would lecture on the futility of class struggle, non existence of a universal truth and the impossibility of a common destiny for mankind. We have reverential figures of the working class movement like Eric Hobsbawm and EMS Namboodiripad1 deriving praxis for revolution from Gramsci on one side and eminent philosophers and political thinkers2 like Jean-François Lyotard and Partha Chatterjee deriving counterarguments to revolution from him.
Gramsci was an Italian communist leader who was imprisoned by the fascist regime of Benito Mussolini. Mussolini was scared as much by Gramsci’s thoughts as his actions. It was stated: "For twenty years we must stop this brain from functioning". He passed away on April 27th, 1937, just a few months after being released form prison. 75 years on after his death, Gramsci has been imprisoned many times over - by eurocommunists, by social democrats, by postmodernists, by post-colonialists, by post-marxists, …. Gramsci has to be freed from this imprisonment. His ideas have to roam free and become a weapon in the hands of the working class.
Postmodern theorists and neo-liberal intellectuals have imprisoned Gramsci by plucking out his concepts from their historical context to suit their own political ends.
One reason why this has been possible is that Gramsci wrote for most of his life from prison. There was a strict limit imposed on the number of notebooks that Gramsci could use for his works and he recorded his considerations on whatever book was available at hand. This resulted in a fragmentation of ideas. And to escape censorship by the prison authorities he uses codes for several words. For example here is a small list3:
- Communist Party as “Modern Prince”, “modern Jacobins”, “the elite”,
- The Party's press as “a group which wants to spread an integral conception of the world”, a “unitary cultural organism” and a “homogeneous cultural centre”.
- Historical materialism usually appears as “mat. stor.”
- Marxist economics as “critical economy”.
- Marx as “M.” or C. M. (Carlo Marx) and
- Marx and Engels as the “founders of the philosophy of praxis”.
|Any follower of social science or philosophical discourses would encounter several terms starting with ‘Post’. Postmodernism, postcolonialism, post marxism, and so on. Lets call this trend as post’xyz’ism for the sake of simplicity. What post’xyz’ism means is that the phase of xyzism has passed and can no longer be applicable today. Alter the fundamentals of xyzism and move on to a new phase. Lets see what has been done in Postmodernism. Split the word and you have post of modernity. Now, what is modernity? Modernity is often associated with the 'Enlightenment' project which originated in the 18th century. It espoused universal values of individual freedom, progress and rationalism. But after WW II, some claim that something drastically changed in our society. This change was in the nature of capitalism itself, hence a change in capitalist societies and the kind of politics that are appropriate for such societies.4 Post modernism questioned all the enlightenment values and rejected any philosophy or politics which was ‘universal’ and ‘totalising’ and dismissed these ‘totalising’ theories as ‘Meta-Narratives’. All grand narratives i.e. Meta narratives – liberalism, socialism or any universal theory – is rejected.5 Postmodernism manifests itself in myriad forms. A manifestation closer home is that of micro politics and identity politics. Caste based politics is one such example. According to identity politics, a person may have multiple identities but it is the identity which he or she perceives to be the defining one that determines that person’s identity. So a person may be male, a worker and a black. If he perceives his colour as the main identity, then that would be the identity by which he should be recognised. He is to be mobilised as a black person and not on the basis of his being a worker. According to identity politics, it is not the class that he belongs to which determines his identity. The postmodernists even claim that history is dead and in the Post Cold War era, Capitalism is the only ism possible. Well, this was claimed just after the collapse of the Soviet Bloc when the neo-liberal western intellectuals were on cloud nine. Long before the Capitalist crisis after the 2008 recession brought down them from the cloud into the dungeons of history.|
It is only natural that, postmodernists who want to refute every universal theory, took Marxism as a primary target. Why, because Marxism has been the most influential of universal theories in the history of mankind. Between the lines of Gramsci’s fragmented and ciphered prison notebooks, they found enough room to read their own stories. And they tried to establish the following:
- Gramsci has declared that class is dead.
- Gramsci does not believe in the revolutionary power of the working class and hence creates the concept of subaltern.
- Gramsci introduces the concept of civil society as a detour from Socialism.
Let’s see how.
The 'Class'-ic Question6
Eric Hobsbawm describes Benedetto Croce as the first Post-Marxist. Croce dumped the Italian communist movement in 1900 claiming that Marxism is dead. Gramsci in his prison writings conducts a careful criticism of Croce. And it is only unfortunate that hundred years later when Post Marxism has resurfaced, they are indebted to Gramsci's works. Foucault & Derrida, two poster boys of Postmodernist thought, have been said to have converged with Gramsci7. The works of the Post Marxists try to establish that struggles emerge from the different ways in which people can be grouped or identified - sex, race, caste, region, nation etc. They feel that class is dead and a narrow class-ist mentality is a barrier to any social change.
This has been argued to be incorrect and a gross misrepresentation of Gramscian thought8. Gramsci reflected that “one must take as one’s starting point the labour of all working people to arrive at definitions both of their role in economic production and of the abstract, scientific concept of value and surplus value”9. And in this search he discovered that society is divided into two main classes - the propertied classes and the propertyless classes. It soon became clear to Gramsci that one of these two main classes was, in fact, two classes, for there were in Italy not one, but two propertied classes —the capitalists and the landowners. These classes own the means of production10 and exchange11, possess the instruments of production and have an awareness of their power and mission. Their capacity to organize, coldly, objectively, meant that by the World War I, 60 percent of labour-produced wealth was in the hands of this tiny minority and the State. Cognizant of the conflicts between the propertied class on one hand, Gramsci pointed out that on the other hand they are connected in a number of ways - the interests, values and ideas they share. Around the time of WW I, a third propertied class emerges according to Gramsci - the rural capitalists. How do they emerge? During WW I, there were labour shortages, increasing capital intensity, and new divisions of land holdings. This newly emerged class derived its profit more from surplus value rather than rent and invested in huge tracts of land, used specialised equipment, fertilisers and wage labour to boost productivity.
That was about the propertied classes. Standing against them were the propertyless. A principle trait of this class was its subjugation to the laws of capitalism and their exclusion from the exercise of power and their propertylessness. According to Gramsci, revolution is produced by mass action; by organizing themselves around the industrial and rural proletariat, the popular masses are capable of carrying out a complete social and political transformation, and giving birth to a proletarian state. Even within the propertyless, Gramsci identifies 3 basic strata - the proletariat, the petty-bourgeoisie and the peasantry. To this he adds the agricultural workers as a separate class at a later stage. Of these, he felt, the working class or the industrial proletariat is the most politically educated and has the responsibility to win the trust of the other propertyless classes and construct a socialist state.
To sum up, in Gramsci's taxonomy, there were three types of propertied classes - the urban capitalist, the rural capitalist, and the landowners one one hand and four types of working classes - the (industrial) proletariat, the petty-bourgeoisie, the peasantry, and the agricultural worker. Gramsci's works abound with references to the class question. Class is the central basis of his works as are that of any Marxist. Far from abandoning class, Gramsci applies class analysis to understand Italian society.
According to him, workers are those employed in factories such as manual workers, clerical workers and technicians, as well as servants, coachmen, tram-drivers, railwaymen, waiters, road-sweepers, private employees, clerks, intellectual workers, farmhands, hodmen, cab-drivers and others, who together make up “the whole working class”. Workers enter into a relationship with the capitalists and are obliged to produce surplus value for the capitalist, a value which is more than what is equivalent to their wage. Without this appropriation of labour from the worker, the capitalist cannot create surplus value. This appropriation is a necessary condition for the workers’ existence as well. Class may not be the only form of oppression, but is the only form of conflicting social relationship which is based on the way in which the production system is organised in the existing society. Citing reasons for the intrinsic power of the working class, Gramsci says that they are indispensable, irreplacable and the most important factor of production.
And among the working class, the industrial proletariat is hugely important because of the very nature of a factory system. The factory puts them in contact with one another and thus they can organise themselves. Gramsci also warns us that various sorts of hierarchical relations and degrees of indispensability in occupation and skill leads to friction and competition between different categories of workers and even to the formation of a labour aristocracy with its appendages of trade-union bureaucracy and the social-democratic groups and the possibility of co-option.
On the question of class consciousness and class alliances, Gramsci develops it thus. There are three levels at which class consciousness can be raised. Most elementary level is the economic-corporate level or the 'guild' or 'craft' mentality, where one tradesman feels obliged to stand by another tradesman. They realise the need to unite within the professional group but not outside. The second is a sense of the solidarity of interests among all the members of a social class and the struggle to advance the class’s interests within the existing fundamental structures. The third level is that in which one becomes aware that one’s own corporate interests, in their present and future development, transcend the corporate limits of the purely economic class, and can and must become the interests of other subordinate groups too.
Since, the propertyless belong to different strata, and since in the Italian case the Industrial proletariat was relatively small, an alliance with other toiling classes was utmost necessary. Only this alliance can break apart the propertied classes. The working class has to win the support of classes and strata presently swayed by hegemonic ideologies and beliefs, including that of Catholicism.
In order to challenge this authority successfully, the working class must overcome its own narrow “economic-corporate” consciousness and at times act even against its own immediate class interests in favour of those of the popular masses who bear the seeds of the new order. The bourgeoisie was winning the class struggles because the class alliances that they are building are aiding it. While building its own allies, the working class has to win some of the bourgeoisie allies - the petty bourgeoisie, the middle peasants, small manufacturers and neutralise them or better still, mobilize them against capitalism and the state.
But who would take the initiative for creating this class alliance of the propertyless? Gramsci told Mussolini and the Chamber of Deputies in May 1925, “a class cannot remain itself, cannot develop itself to the point of seizing power, unless it possesses a party and an organization which embodies the best, most conscious part of itself”. So the answer to the question is the Communist Party!
He felt that parties are the indispensable agents of change. They emerge and develop to “influence the situation at moments which are historically vital for their class”. He also warns that, the outcome is never predestined for they are not always capable of “adapting themselves to new tasks and to new epochs”. When this occurs, classes detach from them, and they are “no longer recognised by their class (or fraction of a class) as its expression”.
Why then do the postmodernists who worship Gramsci, smirk at the mention of the Communist Party? Let the Postmodernism argue for argument's sake that class is dead. But why say Gramsci is the murderer?
Another case in point to understand how Gramsci has been taken for a ride is the work of some of the Indian Postmodernists and their contribution in the area of Subaltern Studies.
'Subaltern' is a term which was first used by Gramsci in a non military sense. Trying to avoid the censorship of his prison guards, he used the word ‘subaltern’ when he meant ‘the working class’ or he used the formula ‘the fundamental class and other subaltern strata’ to mean ‘the proletariat and other exploited classes’13.
|Second book in the People's History of India series, edited by Irfan Habib, the prominent Marxist historian.|
The Subaltern Studies Group which was formed in India in 1982 by Ranajit Guha, an Australian based Indian historian, claims that the Indian society can be divided into two – the elite and the subaltern strata. Subaltern meaning oppressed groups. They believe that in countries which were colonies before, like India, history has been viewed only through the eyes of the colonizers and not through the eyes of the colonized. Surprisingly, they tend to forget altogether the efforts of Marxist historians who have always tried to present an objective view of history. They blame Marxism to be a "eurocentric way of viewing the globe", often forgetting that Indian Marxist historians have studied the history of India on their own. It was EMS who has told us that history should not be studied as the history of chieftains, kings and emperors, but it should be the history of the people, the struggle of the exploited and the oppressed. The works of Irfan Habib, Romila Thapar, D.D. Kosambi do not seem to get into their consideration at all14.
The Subalternists divide the whole of Indian society into the elite and the subaltern strata. And being subaltern is a fluid state. You can be elite in one case but then become a subaltern in another case. Landowning peasantry is elite compared to the poor but subaltern to big landlords or the bourgeoisie. More interestingly, there were two domains of politics in India - domain of the elite and the domain of the subaltern. And the Subaltern Studies Group wanted to write the history from the domain of the subaltern.
Essentially, subalternism is not only a postmodernist approach, but the ideas espoused by the Subalternists are a direct rejection of Marxism. It rejects the idea that
- that economy is the backbone of any society,
- that the classes that are fundamental to the working of a capitalist system are the fundamental social forces of that society,
- the idea that class struggle is the motivating force of history around which other kinds of struggles are shaped, and
- the idea of the proletarian revolution itself.
At a later stage they also reject the following ideas:
- that there is a common humanity, beyond race or ethnicity or even nationality, which is exploited under capitalism,
- that the proletariat cannot really emancipate itself without emancipating society as a whole and thus emerging (in Marx’s words) as ‘a universal class,’
- that what we have so far had is capitalist universality (or ‘globalization’) and it cannot be overturned with anything less than a socialist revolution which itself will have to be, eventually, universal (global), and
- that identities and ethnicities, important as they undoubtedly are, involve, in each instance, only a small part of humanity, whereas exploitation is what is ‘universal’ for the vast majority of humanity, beyond identity etc.
We have seen in the earlier section (The ‘Class’-ic Question), how class is a central aspect of Gramsci’s work and far from rejecting the role of the working class or diluting the concept of class, Gramsci studies the functioning of class forces in detail and develops it further.
The irony is that Gramsci, a Marxist in all senses of the word, who devoted his life for establishing socialism, coins a phrase to escape the eyes of prison guards. The postmodernists reads that word as if it is a rejection of Marxism and put up Gramsci's poster on their walls and claim his lineage.
Concept of Civil Society
Civil society is a term Indians are quite familiar with by now, thanks to the anti-corruption hoopla.
So what is this civil society really? The definition that World Bank provides is:
...the term civil society refers to the wide array of non-governmental and not-for-profit organizations that have a presence in public life, expressing the interests and values of their members or others, based on ethical, cultural, political, scientific, religious or philanthropic considerations. Civil Society Organizations (CSOs) therefore refer to a wide of array of organizations: community groups, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), labor unions, indigenous groups, charitable organizations, faith-based organizations, professional associations, and foundations.
There have been debates on what civil society is and what its role in the society is from the times of Aristotle. But in recent history, the term became in vogue after the political transformation of the Eastern European countries and the dismantling of the Soviet Bloc thanks to some intellectuals from these countries and many journalists and commentators from the West. The dissolution of these power blocks leading to the end of the Cold war left many in the sociological domain quite perplexed.
They, especially the neo-liberal think tank, looked all around to find a suitable explanation which would uphold the Western model of society and at the same time throw water on the Marxist ideology. One such person they turned to was Gramsci. Those who looked into Gramsci's works for some insight that would shed light on the events that transpired in Eastern Europe zeroed in on one brief passage:
"In the East the state was everything, civil society was primordial and gelatinous; in the West there was a proper relation between state and civil society, and when the state trembled a sturdy structure of civil society was immediately revealed"
Civil society is a term Indians are quite familiar with by now, thanks to the anti-corruption hoopla. |
Photo: Rediff News
On a first reading, it appears as if Gramsci is taking the Soviet Union to be East and the capitalist bloc to be the West. And that a lack of a strong civil society led to the collapse of the Soviet bloc countries. And the existence of a vibrant civil society in the West kept it going and prevented the collapse of the state. This was argued by Flora Lewis in an article in NYTimes in 1989. She says: “For him (Gramsci), 'civil society,' meaning all the social structures outside the state, was the 'hegemonic' force capable of 'turning necessity into 'freedom.'”
She goes on: “...in the American concept, society reserves for itself all that is not expressly delegated to the state, not the other way around. Government is to be defined by its limits; it has only the powers conceded to it...... Americans don't talk about civil society because they take it for granted. It is the society.”
A little reading of Gramsci is enough to understand the falsity and the malintentions of these liberal intellectuals who in turn act as fodder for the postmodern thought. In the above passage, the oriental state that Gramsci referred to was the Czarist Russia. And Gramsci's analysis of civil society is concentrated on the western states and what the role of civil society is in a so called democratic country like the US. On the question of east & west, when these words are treated in isolation, it can be twisted to appear as if Gramsci is criticising a Socialist country with a state controlled economy.
Gramsci expanded Karl Marx's Base-Superstructure theory, and here is where he brings in the term 'civil society'. Karl Marx taught that all societies consist of a 'base' and a 'superstructure'. The base consists of production relations, i.e the economic relations between exploiting and exploited classes, which relations are determinant 'in the ultimate analysis.' The superstructure that arises on the basis of these economic relations consists in the state's legal and political apparatus. This is erected by society's dominant class in order to ensure its control over the entire social life, and in order to provide guarantees for the economic exploitation by this class.
Gramsci regarded civil society as an integral part of the state. In his view, civil society, instead of being hostile to the state, is a very resilient constitutive element. The most immediately visible aspect of the state is the political society. It is with the political society that the state is very often mistakenly identified. He was also convinced that the intricate, organic relationships between civil society and political society enable certain strata of society not only to gain dominance within the state but also, and more importantly, to maintain it, perpetuating the subalternity of other strata15
Gramsci on Civil Society16
In order to understand Gramsci's concept of Civil Society we must dispel certain assumptions of the neo-liberal school, assumptions that hinder our understanding of Gramsci.
These assumptions begin with the identification of the 'state' with the 'government' or 'government apparatus'. According to this line, state is the 'embodiment of power' which exercises its power by enacting laws and regulations and enforces them. The activities of the state must be kept in check, otherwise it is a threat to individual freedom. But at the same time, we cannot wish away the state because that will lead to anarchy and threat from internal and external enemies. The private sphere, according to them, is the terrain where freedom is exercised and experienced. It is based on this logic that we hear the usual diatribes against big governments and the demands for transfer of public services (not only transportation, communications, and utilities, but also health care, education, and even the incarceration of criminals) to the private sector. The reasons cited are – efficiency, greater freedom from government control and greater freedom for individuals. It is also commonly assumed by them that freedom and democracy mean the same thing. These words have become synonymous to them - civil society (private sphere), free market, democracy, free society, free country, etc. These assumptions creates a prejudice: Since Marxist (or socialist) theory is categorically opposed to laissez-faire in the economic sphere, socialism favors the installation of an omnipotent state; therefore, socialism would suppress the private sphere (i.e., civil society) and hence erase the terrain of freedom.
|Gramsci’s approach towards civil society is a critical method to understand how the state and the forces that control the state uses non-repressive means to control the society. It could very well be used to analyse how the Indian bourgeoisie or the Indian feudal class exerts its control.|
It must be realised that Gramsci's vision of getting rid of cooercive state power is not a departure nor an abandonment of the socialist ideal. Gramsci also recognizes that coercion and domination by force (Repressive apparatuses of the state) are not the only means of control and subordination of the society. It is here that he explores the role of civil society. The political society (the government) and the civil society (the private sphere) aid each other for the benefit of certain sections of the society. Thus civil society is a sphere of hegemony and not freedom. This hegemony is dependent on consent, a consent that is manufactured through an extremely complex process. Gramsci using Marxist theory, exposes the power at work in civil society and in this process the nexus between the political society and the civil society. He does not ask us to repress the civil society, but asks us to develop a revolutionary strategy (war of position) that would be employed in the arena of civil society, so that the repressive apparatus of the state would be disabled and a consensual society can be created.
Gramsci invokes Britain's example because he wants to stress the importance of enlarging the sphere of civil society. His thinking seems paradoxical on this point: on the one hand, he believes that in a country such as Britain where civil society is very developed and the coercive apparatus of the state remains for the most part, concealed, revolutionary aspirations tend to languish; on the other hand, he is convinced that the preparation that must necessarily precede a socialist revolution can only take place in the sphere of civil society and actually requires an expansion and an intensification of the kinds of activities that would enlarge and diversify the terrain of civil society.
What needs to be stressed over and over again is this: Gramsci insisted adamantly that the revolutionary transformation of society starts in civil society, and, ideally or theoretically at least, it is not fully accomplished until the extension of civil society is so complete that it no longer needs a coercive apparatus to protect it.
This view is against the view of some Socialists who say that the socialist transformation of mass consciousness could take place only after the Socialist Party acquired state power and through the dictatorship of the proletariat.
Gramsci’s approach towards civil society is a critical method to understand how the state and the forces that control the state uses non-repressive means to control the society. It could very well be used to analyse how the Indian bourgeoisie or the Indian feudal class exerts its control. But Gramsci’s conception of civil society is never a rejection of a socialist world.
Class is the central basis of Gramsci’s work and class cannot die for a Marxist until a classless society is established. Class may not be the only form of opression but is the most important form of exploitation on the basis of which our society is constructed. And in the war between the classes, the dominating classes use all means including the political society and the civil society to be in the dominating position.
Instead of wasting our time in misconstrued interpretations of Gramsci let us go ahead and devote our time in understanding what he really meant. Any sensible reading of Gramsci would tell us that these are what he stood for:
- The struggle for the hegemony of the working class.
- The necessity for a permanent organised class movement for the working class through the Modern prince (a.k.a Party).
- Insistence on the crucial importance of politics in the construction of socialism as well as the winning of socialism.
We could not rescue Gramsci from the fascist prison. Come, join hands with us to rescue him from the postmodernist prison!
- 1. EMS Namboodiripad, Antonio Gramsci - The Man and His Thougts. The Marxist, Vol XII, No.3, 1995.
- 2. In the original version Lyotard and Chatterjee were clubbed erroneously as philosophers and sociologists. Thanks to a private communication.
- 3. Gramsci, Class & Post Marxism by Mike Donaldson, Volume 1, Issue 1, International Gramsci Journal, 2009
- 4. *On Postmodernism* by Aijaz Ahmed, The Marxist, XXVII 1, January–March 2011.
- 5. *The Challenge of Identity Politics* by Prakash Karat, The Marxist, XXVII 1, January–March 2011
- 6. This section is mostly based on the article Gramsci, Class & Post Marxism by Mike Donaldson, published in International Gramsci Journal, Volume 1, Issue 1, 2009
- 7. Chantal Mouffe in Gramsci and Marxist Theory
- 8. Gramsci, Class & Post Marxism by Mike Donaldson, Volume 1, Issue 1, International Gramsci Journal, 2009
- 9. Surplus value is the difference between a worker's wages (exchange value) and the value of goods and services he or she produces (use value). Since use value is (or should be) always higher than the exchange value, workers produce a positive surplus value through their labor.
- 10. The tools (instruments) and the raw material (subject) you use to create something are the means of production.
- 11. currency
- 12. This section is mostly based on the article On Postmodernism by Aijaz Ahmed published in The Marxist, XXVII 1, January–March 2011.
- 13. On Postmodernism by Aijaz Ahmed, The Marxist, XXVII 1, January–March 2011
- 14. Note Towards a Marxist Perception of Indian History by Irfan Habib.
- 15. Buttigieg in Gramsci on Civil Society
- 16. Most of the analysis in this section has been taken from the article Gramsci on Civil Society by Joseph A. Buttigieg published in the journal boundary 2, Vol 22, No. 3, 1995.
|Essay, gramsci, gramsci-special-edition, marxism, Politics, postmodernism, Ideology|
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