Gramsci and the Frankfurt School — II

January 26, 2020

Gramsci and Frankfurt intellectuals’ open condemnation of enclosed ideologies was the reason that both have sustained their relevance

My last column incurred certain comments that I must address in this piece. The first pertains to the ‘context’ in which Gramsci resorted to invert the Marxian prescription.

The two-tiered model of Karl Marx had consisted of ‘base’ and ‘superstructure,’ the former holding precedence over the latter. ‘Base’ dealt with economic/material production, which went on to fulfill basic human needs. The superstructure concerned with the culture, traditions and social values that included religion.

Gramsci inverted Marxian model and riveted his focus on ‘superstructure’ rather than the base. Why had it become imperative for Gramsci to put it upside down was the question. Then there was an inquiry into Gramsci’s possible nexus with the Frankfurt School was made because like Gramsci, Frankfurt School, too, is classified as Neo-Marxist. Was there an affinity between the two was a very pertinent question.

While responding to the first question, one may hark back to the days when World War I (1914-1918) had posed a formidable challenge to the existing International order, inexorably defined by capitalism. As a historian, I can safely assert that the first great war was the manifestation of the inherent contradictions that the capitalist forces of production had very strongly identified with. The sense of competition was at the very heart of capitalism, which became intense and resulted in a deadly war.

Capitalism came quite close to extinction, vindicating Marx’s prophecy that capitalism would wither away, thus making a way for socialism to proliferate in the industrial European economies. Unluckily, however, when the great war concluded in 1918, Fascism acquired traction in Central Europe from the early 1920s onwards. This culminated into National Socialism, generally known as Nazism.

It is interesting that several fascist ideologues were, at one time or the other, inspired by Karl Marx and his ideology. Benito Mussolini himself, when young, had been a staunch follower of Marx. The first part of Marx’s prophecy more or less transpired but its part dealing with the entrenchment of socialism and the dictatorship of the proletariat went awry.

That was the context, which persuaded, as it seems, Gramsci to accord primacy to culture, instead of economy. Gramsci weaned away from economic determinism that Karl Marx had so emphatically advocated. The unhinging of the economic order might bring fascist dispensation as it did in the case of Italy. The dominant forces cultivated the ‘consent’ and ‘common sense’ through cultural means, therefore, Gramsci emphasised culture as an instrument of resistance against the dominant.

Another factor that ought to be borne in mind is the importance of Hegel’s dialectic that had considerable bearing on Italian communist ideologues while interpreting Marx’s conception. These ideologues are mentioned though briefly in the last column. I feel that much of Marxism, instructed around, shuns its Hegelian context altogether. Instead, Hegel has been perceived as Marx’s binary opposite. Gramsci as well as the Frankfurt School drew fresh insights from Marxian thoughts and propounded newer theories in which Hegel was not discounted altogether.

Now I come to the second question about a purported affinity between Gramsci and the Frankfurt School. But before going on to describe their respective intellectual positions, a brief introduction of Frankfurt school is in order.

It was founded during the European inter-wars period (1918–39), and included intellectuals, academics, and political dissidents who rejected the contemporary socio-economic systems (capitalist, fascist, communist) of the 1930s.

The Frankfurt theorists underlined the deficiencies in the contemporaneous social theory, which lacked the capacity to adequately explain the turbulent political factionalism and reactionary politics that ‘ostensibly liberal capitalist societies’ of that era, were fraught with. Horkheimer, Adorno and Marcuse were trenchantly critical of capitalism and of Marxism–Leninism as philosophically straightjacketed systems of social organisation.

Their critical theory pointed to alternative paths for the social development of a society as well as a nation. The Frankfurt School perspective of critical investigation was open-ended and self-critical and drew upon Freudian, Marxist and Hegelian premises of idealist philosophy. To address the omissions of 19th-century classical Marxism, which could not resolve 20th-century issues and social problems, they applied methods derived from the interplay of divergent intellectual streams like anti-positivist sociology, psychoanalysis, and existentialism.

Apart from relying on Marx, the School’s sociologic works drew on the thoughts of Kant, Hegel, Sigmund Freud, Max Weber, Georg Simmel and Georg Lukács. In view of the analysis given above, it is easy to conclude that Frankfurt School widened the contour of a super structure. Bringing in Freudian thought points to their radical approach against any ideological position. That is despite their adherence to Marxism, they did it on their own terms. Such derivations from the intellectual streams of various ages made their philosophical formulations extremely complex and at times turgid. Marcuse’ One Dimensional Man is a case in point.

All these years as Frankfurt School came into being and flourished, Gramsci was languishing in an Italian jail, with no inkling as to what had transpired in the world outside the four walls of the jail. By that time his Prison Notebooks must be in its initial stages. What the two have in common is their opposition to determinism. Both were antipathetic to Fascist/Nazi ideologies.

The Frankfurt School resisted such dictatorial regimes through the power of their academic prowess, which is a great lesson for Pakistani academics. Gramsci and Frankfurt intellectuals’ rejection of enclosed ideologies was the reason that both have sustained their relevance, particularly to the academia. If you talk about the discipline of history, E P Thompson and Subaltern School owe much of their existence to Gramsci’s thoughts. Social sciences and humanities got an added vigour because of these intellectual giants. It is important to deliberate on Gramsci’s thought in greater detail, which I will take up some other time.


Exploring Marxism through Gramsci and Frankfurt intellectuals’