Gramsci Redux

Mon Oct 16 19:47:03 PDT 2000

I couldn't disagree more--well, maybe I could, but I disagree pretty sharply.

Leo says that Marx was democratic in the abstract, but had no worked out theory of democratic politics. This ignores the highly articulated and very subtle democratic theory Marx developed over hundreds of articles on concrete politics, as laid out in rather scary detail in Hal Draper's multi-volume opus, Karl Marx's Theory of Revolution. I agree that only a rather sketchy and programmatic picture is what gets into the usual discussion, nicely summed up in ralph Miliband's short artivle on Marx's political theory, but even Miliband gave Marx a lot more credit in his book on Marxism and Politics. Another excellent source on Marx's democratic theort is Alan Gilbert's unfortunately little-read book, Marx's Politics. In saying all this I don;t say ia gree with all of Marx's theory. I am in fact a liberal democrat, and Marx was not. But abstract and schemetic Marx's theory is not.

Now as to Gramsci, I think the situation is also not as Leo represents it. G's theory is fragmentary and underdeveloped; it remains a series of essays, not all of which are consistent.And I didn't try to sketch the whole thing or to work out the puzzles, but only two highlught certain aspects. To go through Leo's points:

1. Gramsci's totalitarianism. G explicitly advocates a totalitarian party, while also implicitlt criticizing Stalinist repressiveness. Hi won political practice allowed for free-wheeling discussion. Of course, so did Lenin's before he attained power. Leo says we shouldn't read a Arendtish sense of totalitarianism into G, much less (I am extrapolating here) a Brzezinski0Huntington one, but be that as it may: G does say that the party should provide a total; worldview and all the moral and spiritual necessities of life; he suggests the Catholic Church--not exactly a democratic institution!--as a model. So this isn't Stalinist totalitarianism (prentend to bel;ieve or DIE!), but it is neither a pluralistic democratic view nor an attractive model for those of us who think that political organization ought to be rather more open-textured.

2. G on leadership. Yes, G does say that the leadership leads by moral and intellectual authority and not force--but so did Lenin in The State and Revolution. He says that one has leadership to aim at a day when there shall not be leaders and led, but so did Lenin in the S&R. I don't assimilate Gramsci to the Lenin of What Is To Be Done?, a book Lenin himself regardeda s superceded shortly after it was written, nor indeed to the Lenin of S&R, although Gramsci was clearly impressed by Lenin's thinking there. Nonetheless, G does have a transmission belt picture: there are creating ideologues at the top, including, he hoped, a healthly leaven or "organic" working class intellectuals; below them there are popularizers and implementers, and then there are the party masses, whose level of culture fits them at the time to take direction, but not to come up with ideas themselves. He hopes taht some of these will become educated and rise through the ranks. And that is just the party: the Party is the Modern Prince that states to the working masses as the Party leaderships does to the party faithful. G seems, like a good Leninist, to have regadfrd this situation as unfortunate but unavoidable in the circumstances.

3. G on the Jacobins and Machiavelli. In referring to these as his models, I agree that G did not intend to approve of the high terror of the French revolution or the most cold cynical of Machiavelli's suggestions. But the Jacobins did have a top down conception of leadership, a commitment to creatinga republic of virtue in virtue of their superior ethics and understanding, and G accepts this; likewise; it is misleading to say that G took Machiavelli merely as a prophet of national unity and republicanism as in the Discourses on Livy. It is not accidental that he calls the party the Modern Prince: in doing so, he evokes the model of calculating leadership presented in The Prince, and its disdain for the popular will insofar as that is in the Prince's view inconsistent with the goal.

4. Class. Leo rejects Gramsci's inistence on the leading role of the workinbg class in society and social change. He and I have been over this years ago, and whatever my apostasy from orthodox Marxism, I still agree with Gramsci on this. No other social group has the combination of interest in change, potential for realizing that interest, and social weight to bring it about. There will be no socialism unless the workers commit to it.

Nuff said for now.


In a message dated 10/16/00 10:19:04 PM Eastern Daylight Time, LeoCasey at writes:

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


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


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.


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