Reading Gramsci Anew
Review of Peter Thomas, The Gramscian Moment.
Review of: Peter D. Thomas, The Gramscian Moment. Philosophy, Hegemony and Marxism. Historical Materialism Book Series, vol. 24, Brill, Leiden/Boston, 2009
What makes Peter D. Thomas’s book an important one is, first and foremost, the fact that it takes Gramsci’s thought beyond Italy and makes it accessible to a global audience, and in particular to an Anglophone one. Thomas’s work explicitly aims to open the debate on Gramsci within Anglo-Saxon Marxism, which is today a key site for the elaboration of Marxist philosophy. There is no need to add that in pursuing this aim, he develops a reading of Gramsci that is not only informed by the renewal of scholarship seen in the wake of the publication of the complete Prison Notebooks and of Gramsci’s letters during the mid-1970s, but that also addresses – and is enriched by the confrontation with – those major authors (Althusser and Anderson) who have, so to speak, represented the experientia crucis of Gramsci’s introduction to the Atlantic world.
Some observations on Thomas’ interpretation of Gramsci: I want to say right away that I am only partially convinced by the decision to engage with Gramsci via Althusser. Both the initial liquidation of Gramsci in Reading ‘Capital’ and the ambiguous rapprochement evident in the final phase of Althusser’s thought (that of the so-called “philosophy of the encounter”) occur within an epistemological framework that is typically French and linked to the critique of scientific language developed by the Canguilhem school; a framework alien to Gramscian Marxism. That said, Thomas does not dwell very long on the similarities between Gramsci and Althusser; on the contrary, he denies them outright. But then why compare the two at all? Because – so we are told by some Althusserians – this episode (the clash between Althusser and Gramsci) constitutes the “last great debate” on the definition of “philosophy” in Marx. But was this debate really so important?
I am far more convinced by Peter Thomas’ engagement with Anderson’s reading of Gramsci and by Thomas’ critique of Anderson. In his important 1976 essay “The Antinomies of Antonio Gramsci”, Anderson maintained that “Gramsci’s carceral researches were characterised by a series of ambiguities that gave rise to a progressive transformation and deformation of his theses, particularly those regarding the state and his central concept of hegemony”. According to Anderson, then, Gramsci’s approach is fundamentally flawed, and this explains the ambiguous variety of uses to which his thought has been put. In particular, the concept of “passive revolution” is indicative, on this reading, of the way Gramsci’s positions drifted more and more towards those of Kautsky. The concept of hegemony is taken to express an exaggerated insistence on the power of civil society, as opposed to state power (a hypothesis that was also endorsed, in a Hegelian manner, by Bobbio). And so on. It is not difficult (although certainly laborious) for Thomas to fend off these interpretations, which have however become established and widespread opinions in Anglo-Saxon thought.
Now, Thomas contests Anderson’s readings of these fundamental concepts both philologically (essentially by reference to the excellent work of Gianni Francioni) and politically, rearticulating Gramsci’s concepts into a model that is substantially new and powerful. He does so successfully. (It is worth pointing out in passing that this book reproduces, with the intensity and meticulousness of its argumentation, the great German and Russian Marxological tradition – which confirms its scientific value.) Let me pick out, then, some motifs of this work. It seems to me that the discussion Thomas provides of the concept of “passive revolution” is excellent and touches on issues that take us beyond the mere reconstruction of the concept and onto a terrain that is properly “biopolitical”. In other words, the bourgeoisie’s “passive revolution” is evident in molecular transitions that are consolidated and reconfigured over time – transitions that also (reciprocally, that is, dialectically) shape the structures and the subjectivity of the historical process. I find this definition of “passive revolution” especially stimulating – the concept being one that I myself employed, more or less consciously, in my effort to describe the genesis of bourgeois ideology between Descartes and Spinoza, between the primitive accumulation of capital, the constitution of the absolute state and the emergence of republican alternatives.
Thomas’s analysis of the concept of “hegemony” is no less powerful and comprehensive, to the extent that he establishes the concept’s originality by comparison both to the pre-revolutionary history of Russia and to the experience of Bolshevism in its constituent phase and up to the NEP period. This originality consists in a radical refusal to consider hegemony a generic theory of social power; instead, it is linked to the definition of the “state form” as it has developed in the Western world and its revolutions. Reborn in the form of the dictatorship of the proletariat, hegemony is a weapon to be seized and applied within the processual struggle for the realisation of socialism. Here too, Gramsci’s analysis includes elements characterised by an extreme degree of foresight, insofar as proletarian hegemony is taken to consist either in a rootedness within a biopolitical context (that resulting from the working class’s revolutionary experiences) or – on the contrary – as an expression of the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie, fascism, a hegemony that invests society starting from the state, such that society is configured as “biopower.” But it is only the first concept of hegemony, the class concept, that contains the constitutive power that renders it an ontological dispositif. It seems to me that in applying the categories of Foucault in this way, I am not doing violence to Gramsci’s categories. On the contrary, I believe that such references to Foucault can provide Thomas’ interpretive innovations with even greater topicality. (The time really has come for some scholar to survey the thought of Gramsci from the point of view of Foucault.)
Now, once he has completed the labour of reconstructing Gramsci’s concepts, and in so doing has gone beyond established interpretive traditions, Thomas seeks to compose a definitive figure of Gramsci’s thought. Allow me to quote a passage in which Thomas summarises the results of this endeavour:
absolute historicism, absolute immanence and absolute humanism. These concepts should be regarded as three ‘attributes’ of the constitutively incomplete project of the development of Marxism as a philosophy of praxis. Taken in their fertile and dynamic interaction, these three attributes can be considered as brief resumes for the elaboration of an autonomous research programme in Marxist philosophy today, as an intervention on the Kampfplatz of contemporary philosophy that attempts to inherit and to renew Marx’s original critical and constructive gesture.
It is thus on the terrain of an absolute reduction of concepts to history that there emerges the possibility of an open and translatable grammar for the hegemonic organisation of social relations. It is on the terrain of immanence, or of the rejection of every form of transcendence, that a given social practice can establish itself as theory, or rather stabilise the constitution of a mutual and productive correlation between theory and practice. And finally, it is only an absolute humanism that can establish the basis for the realisation of the dialectical-pedagogic project of hegemony – “in other words, the notion of a new form of philosophy as an element in the development of an alternative hegemonic apparatus of proletarian democracy.”
Just one remark in conclusion: Why should this Gramscian thought, reconstructed thus, still be represented as a “philosophy”? Or more precisely, can praxis and the thought that configures it within the parameters of historicism, immanence and humanism still be defined as “philosophy”? Does philosophy not rather become an untenable illusion, a useless instrument, once these criteria – historicism, immanence and humanism – have been adopted as categories of reflection within praxis? For what remains of philosophy once its references to the transcendence of the theologico-political and the residual themes of secularisation have been destroyed? In my view, which is confirmed by a Gramscianism like that of Thomas, philosophy now constitutes a – helpful or harmful – relic, a more or less reactionary variant of the bourgeoisie’s attempt to understand its own destiny. But if this is so, and once thought has been situated where Thomas situates it, why should one conclude by considering Gramsci a philosopher? Would Gramsci himself ever have cared to be characterised thus? The object of praxis is not philosophical; it is historical, immanent, human – therefore revolutionary. The Gramsci of “Americanism and Fordism ” stresses that “in America rationalization has determined the need to elaborate a new type of human suited to the new type of work and productive process”. It is the continual revolutionising of the human that praxis indicates to us.
Originally published in il manifesto, 19 February 2011, p. 11 and .
Translated by Max Henninger