Antonio Gramsci was one of the 20th century's most original Marxists. Chris Nineham reviews a new study that argues his ideas matter for anyone fighting for a better world today
Peter Thomas has done the left a big favour by shining fresh light on Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks, one of the most important works of Marxist theory of the twentieth Century.
Though he argues his case in sometimes obscure academic terms, Thomas’s conclusions are important for anyone trying to map the revolutionary road in the twenty first century.
Amongst the book’s most important achievements are to illuminate the relationship between state and civil society in the Notebooks, to show that Gramsci’s stress on hegemony came from a critique of ‘economism’ not a retreat from revolution, and to successfully defend Gramsci’s conception of Marxist philosophy as a ‘philosophy of praxis’.
Gramsci was one of the leaders of the factory council movement that helped bring Italy to the brink of revolution in 1920.
The movement was crushed for want of a national network of revolutionaries. He helped set up the Italian Communist Party in 1921 but found himself isolated from the mass of Italian workers by the sectarian nature of the Communist split from the Italian Socialist Party.
The resulting fragmentation of the left allowed the Mussolini to lead the fascists to take power. Gramsci was arrested by the fascists in 1926 and imprisoned until near his death in 1937.
During these years of painful isolation Gramsci struggled with the lessons of his own experience and the strategic problems of taking on modern day capitalism. The Prison Notebooks are the extraordinarily rich and penetrating result. Thomas defends the unity and coherence of Gramsci’s work against critics who claim it is muddled, and he places Gramsci back into the tradition of revolutionary Marxism, and particularly the Leninist tradition, from which many have tried to extract him.
In the process he uses the results of a recent flurry of Gramsci research to clarify a number of Gramsci’s key ideas and arguments and demonstrate their superiority to alternatives. Notably he explains why Gramsci’s understanding of Marxism as the ‘philosophy of praxis’ (‘praxis’ means active practice), is preferable to the ‘practice of philosophy’ of one of his main Marxist critics, Louis Althusser.
Gramsci has already been effectively defended against those who tried to claim him as a theorist of outright reformism in the 1970s and 1980s. Thomas takes the defence of Gramsci the revolutionary a step further by disproving claims that confusions in his central concepts inadvertently leave the door open to reformist interpretations. Crucially he takes apart the argument that Gramsci believed there was a qualitative difference between the social formation of capitalism in the East and the West.
The dominant view on the left, largely established in the English language by Perry Anderson, is that the Prison Notebooks contain a huge number of important insights but no coherent overall framework. Partly this is regarded as a product of prison conditions, Gramsci’s isolation and his need to encode his work to evade censorship. But the problems concerned fundamentals not just presentation. In particular Anderson argues that in his analysis of how capitalism sustains itself Gramsci exaggerated the seperation between ‘soft power’ and coercion. The argument runs that he regarded soft power through consent as decisive in the West and coercion as essential in the East and particularly Russia. The result according to Anderson was implicitly to endorse a reformist approach in the West.
Civil society and the state
Anderson view was that Gramsci works with conflicting descriptions of the relations between ‘civil society’, ‘political society’ and the ‘state’. Through a close reading Peter Thomas shows that in fact the confusion was Anderson’s. The state for Gramsci is the coercive element in class rule, political society the explicitly political process while civil society includes apparently more neutral institutions.
Gramsci developed a sophisticated view of these three as separate ‘moments’ or aspects of the way the ruling class maintains its power, its ‘hegemonic project’. Civil society, political society and the state are distinct but mutually reinforcing elements of the superstructure. So the state, which organises force when necessary, and appears independent of politics, in fact influences and ‘educates’ civil society and politics. Political society operates on a terrain that is shaped by the state but functions as the ‘mind of the body’ of civil society.
Thomas argues Gramsci’s claims that the state is one aspect of civil society, and that civil society also functions as part of the state, are not contradictory at all. The various elements of state and civil society appear independent but are in fact interdependent. This dialectic approach takes us away from pedantic discussions about which institutions fall in to which category. So for example the media appears as separate from the state narrowly defined but in many ways operates as a wing of the state. One of its jobs is to air different perspectives within the ruling class, a central function of the state. More generally the opinions it promotes are entirely supportive of the state’s core values, but its apparent independence helps to legitimise the state by suggesting this support is spontaneous. There is too a symbiotic relationship between the media and the political classes which helps to select and limit the range of opinion regarded as acceptable.
The apparent autonomy of civil society creates a sense of freedom and formal equality. But in reality civil society is shaped by capitalist hierarchies which are endorsed by politicians and from time to time backed up by state force. This is important because civil society is often regarded as a level playing field for the left or the movements to contest. Theorists of the anti capitalist movement particularly have tended to regard civil society as an open terrain or a series of ‘public spaces’ which can be taken over by movement forces and used as bulwarks against state power. Reformist readings of Gramsci too have ignored this interpenetration and promoted strategies of gradual takeover in academia, the media and various other ‘civil society’ institutions.
In general Gramsci’s approach is helpful because it embeds the notion of hegemony in the structure of society and takes us beyond simple ideas of propaganda or brainwashing. But it also shows the potential for crises of consent. In a situation of stress these different ‘moments’ which have to have some autonomy in order to function can collide. There is a particular risk of crises when an imbalance develops between the coercive and non coercive elements of hegemony. Gramsci explains the revolutionary crisis at the end of the First World War in these terms. The War on Terror has generated an ideological crisis in a lower register but for similar reasons. There are less dramatic cases. There is a consensus for example in British civil society in favour of the right to protest. The police are privately less keen on the idea, trained as they are to be the thin blue line against civil disorder. As we saw in 2009 at the G20 protests these tensions can erupt in public and create real problems of legitimacy.
Hegemony, politics and the united front
The main practical conclusion Gramsci drew from his analysis and his experience was the importance of politics in any project to change the world. Faced with this series of mediations structured in to the very fabric of social life, spontaneous struggles, even highly developed workers struggles, can’t on their own dislodge the capitalists from their position of control. A theory of change focusing on workers’ struggles on their own will not succeed. It would mean‘the transformation of the subordinate into the ruling group will is excluded’ either because the question will never arise or because it will only be posed as a spontaneous leap from a class regime to a state of perfect equality. 
One of the main tasks of revolutionaries is to help provide the strategies and structures that can develop and generalise resistance.
Thomas makes clear that far from advocating the infiltration of mainstream institutions, Gramsci’s counter hegemonic strategy had two connected poles; an independent centre of gravity in the working class but also the ambition and the reach to break up the ruling classes hegemonic apparatus. This was the reason that Gramsci, well before his imprisonment, came to see the united front as ‘the only possible form’ of revolutionary strategy in modern capitalism. Gramsci’s main concern in the Prison Notebooks is to develop what had been seen as the ‘tactic of the united front into a determining strategic perspective’.
This is one of the reasons Thomas argues that the Notebooks form a continuation, a development of Leninism rather than any kind of break from it. As we have seen an influential reading of Gramsci suggests he saw the Bolshevik experience as being inapplicable in Western conditions. This perceived distance from Bolshevism is one of the reasons for Gramsci’s position as the most popular Marxist in academia.
Gramsci was convinced of the need for separate revolutionary organisation by 1921.
Thomas shows that Gramsci regarded his later work as a deepening of the strategic approach taken by Third Congress of the Comintern at which Lenin and Trotsky had launched the argument for the united Front as a vital complement to separate political organisation. They were responding partly to the setbacks suffered by the revolutionary movement and partly also to the recognition that it is unlikely to be possible to ‘catch the bourgeoisie by surprise’ in the more advanced capitalisms as it had been in Russia. At the same time Lenin pointed out at the congress that the Bolshevik party, though relatively small, had pursued its own hegemonic strategy, its own united front policy;
We were a small party, but we had with us in addition the majority of the Soviets of Workers’ and Peasants’ Deputies throughout the country…We had with us almost half the army, which then numbered at least ten million men
Gramsci’s solitary masterwork was an attempt to think through the way the revolutionary process opened by October could go forward in a changed frame of reference, and how the key strategy of the Bolsheviks, the establishment of proletarian hegemony,could be applied in the west.
The dialectic of the ‘philosophy of praxis’
Writing in the 1970’s Althusser argued that Gramsci’s philosophical method collapsed historical materialism back in to immediate reality. Gramsci put too much emphasis on the way the’philosophy of praxis’ emerges from lived experience and the extent to which it developed out of of popular common sense.
For Althusser Marxist philosophy (or any other for that matter) was different from non-philosophical conceptions of the world because of its specific relationship with the sciences. He understood society as structured from a series of relatively autonomous elements whose operation could be comprehended only by a correct philosophical method. This method implied no direct relationship with the struggles of emergent classes. For him, Gramsci, by rooting the emergence of a revolutionary ideas in the experience and self consciousness of the working class movement was reducing Marxism to subjectivity.
As Thomas points out, although Althusser’s full framework has been discredited, a soft Althusserianism is still influential, particularly in academia where his privileging of the role of the radical philosopher still flatters. The symptoms of this Althusserian hangover are a continuing suspicion of Marxism as a total system and of the idea that historical materialism develops out of the experience of real people in the process of trying to change the world.
Paradoxically, the image Althusser generated of Gramsci as a voluntarist who rejected determination altogether has also stuck. There is a widespread view that Gramsci was more interested in cultural struggle and researching the ‘microphysics’ of power than generating an total understanding of the system in order to overthrow it
Thomas effectively debunks both these positions. He shows that Gramsci’s main concern in the Prison Notebooks was to show the dialectical unity of theory and practice, not to collapse one in to the other. Gramsci’s view is that this interaction can only be judged historically by a self-analysis of the unfolding fortunes of a class that is trying to challenge for power, a class that has no interest in continuing oppression but has to transform the whole of reality in order to liberate itself. Given the complex structures of hegemony that underpin capitalist control correct theory will not develop automatically, but can only be a product of the active assessment of the experience of struggle. Revolutionary theory must be linked with the most decisive elements of resistance and do its best to ‘accelerate the historical process taking place, rendering practice more… coherent’ . This can only happen through socialist organisation which holds the interaction of practice and theory in motion and becomes the vantage point from which reality can be understood.
There is a great deal more that is valuable and challenging in Thomas’s book and a few problems too. I think it’s a mistake on Thomas’s part to contrast Gramsci’s approach in the Prison Notebooks with that of the Lukas of ‘History and Class consciousness’. Lukacs’ notion of the working class as the subject/object of history is consistent with Gramsci’s stress on the ‘struggle for objectivity’. Lukacs’ analysis of the way commodification itself both conceals the operations of the capitalist economy and generates rebellions against it is a necessary complement to Gramsci’s model of hegemony which concentrates on the way institutions shape consciousness.
Despite everything too there is also an odd ambivalence in the book about the role of Marxist philosophy. At times Thomas’s prose is impenetrable to all but trained or trainee philosophers. Although he points out the significance of his arguments for socialist strategy today he suggests a research programme for radical philosophers that sounds in danger of floating free from practice in a rarefied atmosphere of ‘a thousand Marxisms’. This doesn’t sit right in a study of a revolutionary activist who had a supremely concrete and practical view of theory and whose starting point was Marx’s famous thesis that ‘man must prove the truth, i.e. the reality and power, the this-sidedness of his thinking in practice’.
All the same Thomas’s actual argument confirms the coherence of Gramsci’s thought.
He makes clear that Gramsci’s stress on hegemony and the political was not a retreat from revolution but the opposite, an insistence that syndicalism - exclusive obsession with trade union struggle - will always be accommodated within the system.
He brings out the vital, permanent dialectic between struggle and theory which drove all of Gramsci’s thinking. Only by being immersed in the struggles of working people can Marxism avoid becoming frozen in to ‘an absolute and eternal truth’, but only if the accumulated theoretical insights of the past direct the present can struggle ultimately succeed.
Chris Nineham is a founder member of Stop the War and Counterfire, speaking regularly around the country on behalf of both. He is author of The People Versus Tony Blair and Capitalism and Class Consciousness: the ideas of Georg Lukacs.
More articles from this author
- Anti-capitalism reborn – why Genoa still matters
- 'Our motto is: strength in unity': how Hovis workers won
- Afghanistan: the humiliating end of the US’s longest war
- Wins on the bins: an organiser on the secrets of successful struggle - video
- Talking peace, making war: the dangers of Biden’s Iran gambit
- Culture under capitalism: Why art is alienated – The Dialectics of Art review
- Britain's war machine: imperial fantasies and the tilt to China