Gramsci Redux

LeoCasey at LeoCasey at
Mon Oct 16 19:16:37 PDT 2000

Justin writes: << Well, Marx was one of the classical Marxist thinkers, and he was highly democratic. Gramsci is a complex and ambivalent figure. He adovated what he called a "totalitarian" party. He expressly adopts an extreme version of the Jacobin-Machiavellian (as he calls it) conception of leadership on which the masses are sheep to be lead by the sheep in the party, acting in accord with ideas they themselves cannot understand but which are formulated by clever leaders. That is not a highly democratic conception, although it may be a clear-eyed and realistic one. --jks >>

I think that Justin's comments above seriously misread Gramsci as a political theorist.

First, on the matter of his espousal of a "totalitarian" party. It is an error of ahistorical interpretation to leave the matter simply there, which Justin does, as if the conception invoked by Gramsci with the use of that term was self-evident to the contemporary reader. The common contemporary usage of totalitarian is a product of the early 1950s, and in particular, of Hannah Arrendt's work by that name. When Gramsci used the term in the "Prison Notebooks," he could not possibly have anticipated the Arrendtian meaning of fascist and Stalinist states and parties. Moreover, it is clear from the context of his usage that he had something quite different in mind. What Gramsci was suggesting that the party should have a hegemonic worldview, one which aspires to organizing the whole of society, the totality of society around its principles. Add to this question of historical context, the general problem Gramsci faced in writing in a language sufficiently opaque to evade the prison censor, as I suggested before, and it becomes clear that it is a very misleading enterprise to read Gramsci's terminology literally. One might want to make some criticisms of this conception, but it is clearly not, on the face of it, anti-democratic.

Secondly, Justin suggests that the Gramscian conception of the party follows the general lines of the crude formulations developed by Kautsky and Lenin (in _What Is To Be Done?_, where he praises Kautsky to the skies), in which the party is the repository of the correct line, of the theory of socialist revolution, on which it then instructs the passive, ignorant masses. He suggests that the Gramscian party, with its Jacobin and Machiavellian elements, is just a more elaborate, a more theoretically sophisticated version of the Kautskyian-Leninist party.

This is clearly wrong headed on a number of counts. First, it is worthwhile to note that the conception of party employed at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century was broader than the later conception of a political apparatus, as we now understand it. This is important for understanding the context of both the earlier essays in Lukacs' _History and Class Consciousness_ and of Gramsci's _Prison Notebooks_. Therein lies the significance of Gramsci's conception of the party as the organization of the organic intellectuals of a class -- and the communist party as the organization of the organic intellectuals of the working class. This is not a classical Leninist formulation, for Gramsci also has a very broad conception of intellectuals, as the practical organizers of social relations and culture; the category would thus include trade union organizers and journalists, social workers and teachers, doctors and lawyers, as much as it would men and women of letters, philosophers and political theorists and leaders; this is far from the notion of a party of "professional revolutionaries." For Gramsci, the party organizes hegemony by building a culture which embodies the collective interests of working people.

Secondly, when Gramsci invokes the Jacobin tradition in his discussions of the political party, this is not a simple adoption of the more extreme moments of the French Revolution, an incorporation of the politics of the "Reign of Terror." To the contrary, Gramsci is interested in a very particular aspect of the Jacobin tradition -- its organization of what he calls the national-popular will. That is, he is interested in how the Jacobins articulated a particular set of class interests as the expression of the national interest. He is arguing that only when a working class party can do the same will it be able to exercise hegemony and rule.

Thirdly, Gramsci's interest in and use of Machiavelli parallels his use of the Jacobins. Gramsci was, after all, a thinker who insisted upon the necessity of a political practice developed within and articulated to the specific national cultural context of the party and theorist, and Machiavelli is not simply one of the first modern students of politics, but also the preeminent Italian thinker of politics. Gramsci's Machiavelli is a political theorist concerned with republican - national unity, a central concern for an Italy so radically divided along the lines of North and South. His Machiavelli is definitely not the (caricatured) figure of contemporary popular culture, the theorist of amoral politics concerned with neither right nor wrong, but simply perpetuating the rule. Instead, he is an organizer of hegemony.

Now against this background, Justin would propose that Marx is a "highly democratic" thinker, one presumedly free of Gramsci's "ambivalence" on such matters. Certainly, at a the highest level of abstraction, Marx was very democratic, and his most utopian moments are also his most prosaically democratic. In his insistence upon "direct democracy," for example, he rooted himself in a philosophical critique of the unavoidable alienation of representative and represented in so-called "bourgeois democracy." But, upon closer investigations, it becomes apparent that this "democracy" remains at this very high level of abstraction, and there is no worked out theory of politics or of the state in his work. What one finds is an analysis of class struggle and exploitation as its exists in the current system, on the one hand, and a rather utopian conception of a conflict-less, transparent world of mutual cooperation and solidarity, on the other hand. Indeed, it is no exaggeration to say that this conception of communism is apolitical, conceived as it is as a world without politics or a state. There is no suggestion, no notion, no theory of politics of how one gets from what is to what should be; at best, there is a notion that there is a historical process, with class consciousness developing almost naturally from day-to-day class struggle, which leads inevitably in that direction.

The Kautskyist-Leninist conception of the party and of the state was developed precisely to fill in this gap in Marxist thought, but it did so in an authoritarian manner.

By contrast, Gramscian develops a theory of politics and the state which attempts, for the first time in the Marxist tradition, to "think" the peculiar problem of a radically democratic politics -- how does one establish democratic leadership, democratic authority? The concept of hegemony is, as Laclau and Mouffe pointed out so well, an index of that democratic politics, of a notion of leadership that is responsive to and tied to its base.

The most serious flaw in Gramsci's politics, I would contend, is a result of the extent to which he remained on the terrain of orthodox or classical Marxism. That is, he believed in a class essentialism that only fundamental social classes (capitalist class, working class) has the capacity to organize hegemony. I see no reason why this to be the case, and why other social formations and interests could not, singly or in combination, organize a hegemonic political bloc.

Leo Casey United Federation of Teachers 260 Park Avenue South New York, New York 10010-7272 (212-598-6869)

Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never has, and it never will. If there is no struggle, there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom, and yet deprecate agitation are men who want crops without plowing the ground. They want rain without thunder and lightening. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its waters. -- Frederick Douglass --

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