Gramsci: the second incarnation of Marx — I

January 19, 2020

When it comes to figuring out the most influential socio-political theorists, Gramsci undoubtedly is one of them

“Today, no Marxist thinker, after the classical epoch, is so universally respected in the West as Antonio Gramsci. Nor is any term so freely or diversely invoked on the Left as that of hegemony, to which he gave currency.” It is very hard to dispute Perry Anderson’s assertion despite the fact that he made that observation in 1976, in New Left Review.

It still rings as true as 44 years ago. When it comes to figuring out the most influential socio-political theorists, Gramsci undoubtedly is one of them. Since 1950s, when his book was translated into English, Gramsci’s influence in the academic circles has been increasing steadily. By 1970s, his impact was palpable, making him the foremost proponent of Neo-Marxist ideology.

His importance as a philosopher and theorist, who has been central to various intellectual movements and discourses around the world has endured. Unfortunately, in Pakistan’s academia, Gramsci remains peripheral despite the seminal importance that his ideas hold around the globe. This column aims at drawing attention of Pakistan’s academics of social sciences to Gramscian formulations.

An Italian Marxist theorist and communist politician, Antonio Francesco Gramsci (January 22, 1891 –April 27, 1937) wrote on the themes like political theory, sociology and linguistics. His work resuscitated Marxist ideology in Europe and beyond. Gramsci was one of the idealists who squandered everything in his quest to realise his dreams embedded in the philosophy that professed materialist conception of history and society.

The protagonist of this column was born in Ales, in the province of Oristano, on the island of Sardinia, the fourth of seven sons of Francesco Gramsci (1860–1937) and Giuseppina Marcias (1861–1932). As a boy, Gramsci suffered from health problems, particularly a malformation of the spine that stunted his growth (his adult height was less than 5 feet) and left him seriously hunchbacked.

After a childhood marked by poverty and ill-health, Gramsci managed to enter the University of Turin where he was said to be a good student of language-related subjects. However, because of continuing poverty and his zeal for politics, he had to quit the university in 1915 after four years of study but without completing his degree.

He was among the founding members and one-time leader of the Communist Party of Italy (established in 1921) and was imprisoned during Benito Mussolini’s Fascist regime. He was still in prison when he died in 1937. Gramsci accorded primacy to culture instead of economy which to him was the key instrument of establishing hegemony over the oppressed and the disenfranchised.

Gramsci wrote more than 30 notebooks and 3,000 pages of history and analysis during his imprisonment. His Prison Notebooks are undoubtedly original contribution to the 20th century political theory, which gave a new inflection to the Marxist ideology. He also contested economic determinism, the central postulate of traditional Marxist thought and so is considered the most significant neo-Marxist.

Gramsci drew insights from other than Marxist sources, like thinkers Niccolò Machiavelli, Vilfredo Pareto, Georges Sorel and Benedetto Croce. The Prison Notebooks encompass a wide range of themes, including Italian history and nationalism, the French Revolution, fascism, Fordism, civil society, folklore, religion and high and popular culture. These are the ideas and concepts that made Gramsci a pivotal figure in the debates in the circles of Marxist Social Scientists in the 1970s.

Nicos Poulantzas, a Greek-French Marxist political sociologist and philosopher (1936-1973) was among the first to use Gramsci’s ideas to develop his political sociology.

The downside of the Prison Notebooks is that it is obtuse and obfuscated, thus, a difficult read. Anderson goes to the extent of saying that “no Marxist work is so difficult to read accurately and systematically because of the peculiar conditions of its composition.”

To start with, Gramsci underwent the normal fate of original theorists, from which neither Marx nor Lenin was exempt: the necessity of working towards radically new concepts in an old vocabulary, designed for other purposes and times, which overlaid and deflected their meaning.

Just as Marx had to think many of his innovations in the language of Hegel or Smith, Lenin in that of Plekhanov and Kautsky, Gramsci could not do without producing his concepts “within the archaic and inadequate apparatus of Croce or Machiavelli.” This familiar problem, however, is compounded by the fact that Gramsci wrote in prison, under atrocious conditions, with a fascist censor scrutinising everything that he wrote.

As hinted at the beginning of this write-up, Gramsci is best known for expounding the theory of cultural hegemony, which spells out how the state and ruling capitalist class bring cultural institutions into use to consolidate and maintain power in capitalist societies. The bourgeoisie, in Gramsci’s view, develops a hegemonic culture using ‘ideology’ rather than violence, economic force, or coercion. It is important to underline here that ‘ideology’ as a theoretical category was given a wider currency as a Gramscian construction.

In the case of Pakistan, ‘ideology’ was borrowed from the Left and re-arranged in the light of religious idea. Besides, ideology was fostered and disseminated by coercive mechanism. But in Gramscian sense, ‘ideology’ was supposed to be deployed to tame people and not to coerce them. More importantly, hegemonic culture, according to Gramsci, professes its own values and norms so that they become the “common sense” values of all and, thus, maintain the status quo.

Hegemonic power is, therefore, deployed to maintain consent to the capitalist order, instead of coercive power using force to maintain order. This cultural hegemony is produced and reproduced by the dominant class through the institutions that form the superstructure. It will not be out of place to give a brief description of ‘superstructure’ and its relationship with ‘base’ for those having no initiation into Marxism.

Base and superstructure are two inter-connected theoretical constructs, which are extremely vital in Marxist ideology. Base refers to the production forces, or the materials and resources that generate the goods necessary for the needs of the society. Generally speaking, it deals with the material production which, according to Marx, forms the basis of human relationships.

Superstructure encompasses all other aspects of society.A society’s superstructure includes the culture, ideology, norms, and identities that people adhere to. More so, it refers to the social institutions, political structure, and the state — or society’s governing apparatus. Marx argued that the superstructure is contingent on the base and reflects the interests of the ruling class. As such, the superstructure justifies how the base operates and defends the power of the elite. Neither the base nor the superstructure is naturally occurring or static. They are both social creations or the accumulation of constantly evolving social interactions between people.

(To be Continued)

Gramsci: the second incarnation of Marx — I