Morbid symptoms

What did Gramsci mean and how does it apply to our time?

This article is based on a presentation given at an April 2017 conference on the eightieth anniversary of Antonio Gramsci’s death in Cagliari, Sardinia, organized by the Gramsci Institute, the University of Cagliari and Sassari, and the municipality of Cagliari.

A quick search on the Internet shows that, in the past few years, a spike occurred in the frequency of references to Gramsci’s famous quote about “morbid symptoms”: “The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.”1

I myself have contributed to this spike by borrowing the phrase “morbid symptoms” for the title of my 2016 book on the counterrevolutionary phase that followed the Arab Spring, and by quoting the whole sentence as epigraph to the book.2

The obvious reason for this spike in uses of the quote is that it provides a clue to the emergence on the

global scale, in recent years, of various phenomena that are unmistakably “morbid” from a progressive perspective: from the sad fate of the Arab Spring to the so-called Islamic State, to the reinvigoration of the European far right, to Donald Trump, and so on and so forth. However, before dwelling on the relevance of the above sentence to our present condition, it is appropriate to start by making sure that we correctly understand what Gramsci meant when he wrote it. For this, we need to reinsert the quotation in the text from which it was lifted and replace this text in its own historical context in order to grasp Gramsci’s intention, which may be different from what we instinctively attribute to him in retrospect.

Deciphering Gramsci’s text in historical context

Gramsci did indeed mean something quite different from the interpretation of his sentence that is commonly held at present. The text to which this sentence belongs is an entry of his Prison Notebooks, in Notebook 3 of the year 1930.3

What was the historical background then? The Wall Street crash of October 1929 had ushered in the Great Depression, the most severe crisis of capitalism to this day, giving a strong impetus to the rise of a European far right already emboldened by the Fascist power grab in Italy in 1922. In the world Communist movement, the ultraleft turn that began in 1928 with the Third Period of the Communist International (Comintern) had intensified, along with the termination of the New Economic Policy (NEP) and the beginning of rural collectivization in the Soviet Union in November 1929.

Most importantly for Gramsci, the Italian Communist Party (PCI) had followed suit by adopting in March 1930, under pressure from the Comintern’s leadership, an ultraleft perspective predicated on the impending collapse of fascism and the imminence of a proletarian revolution in Italy, thus discarding as inadequate a democratic perspective in the fight against Mussolini’s rule. It is well known and undisputed that Gramsci rejected this left turn most vehemently and was very much upset by its political and organizational consequences.4

Let us now decipher the language of the Prison Notebooks, which Gramsci had to encrypt for obvious censorship reasons, and read his 1930 entry in the light of the historical circumstances. It starts as follows:

The aspect of the modern crisis which is bemoaned as a “wave of materialism” is related to what is called the “crisis of authority.”

If we relate this apparently enigmatic reference to a “wave of materialism” to Gramsci’s forecast later in the same entry of an “unprecedented expansion of historical materialism,” it appears clearly enough that he was referring not to some new improbable trend in popular culture, but to the ongoing expansion of the Communist movement (the official political holder of “materialism” and especially “historical materialism,” i.e., Marxism) in the context of the polarization between radical Left and radical Right that developed during the interwar crisis. The expansion of Communism was naturally linked to a crisis of capitalist legitimation, i.e., a weakening of the consent dimension of capitalist hegemony, “what is called the ‘crisis of authority.’” Gramsci goes on:

If the ruling class has lost its consensus, i.e., is no longer “leading” but only “dominant,” exercising coercive force alone, this means precisely that the great masses have become detached from their traditional ideologies, and no longer believe what they used to believe previously, etc.

Referring here apparently, albeit indirectly, to the PCI’s assessment (“if”) of the loss of popular support by capitalism in general and the Fascists in particular, Gramsci deploys his well-known categories of leadership, which he also called hegemony, based primarily on consent, as opposed to domination based on coercion alone.5 If leadership has been replaced with domination, in the Gramscian sense of both terms, this obviously implies that “the great masses have become detached from their traditional ideologies.”

However, it does not mean by the same token that the situation has become ripe for a Communist-led revolution. To come true this last development would require political conditions—the adoption by the great masses of the Communists’ political perspective—that were not yet met in Gramsci’s view. His next sentence summarizes his assessment of the situation, and what he sees as the consequence of that historical deadlock.

The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying but the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.

A comment on Gramsci’s use of the medical metaphor “morbid” is in order here with regard to the historical context explained above. Standing in opposition to the ultraleft turn of his party, it is quite certain that Gramsci bore in mind Lenin’s characterization of “left-wing” Communism (or “Leftism”) as an “infantile disorder.”6 Thus, rather than referring to the surge in far-right barbarism in the context of the capitalist crisis and the gap between its depth and the weakness of the working-class forces that could replace capitalism with socialism (the “historically normal solution” that is mentioned below), it is quite likely that “morbid symptoms” was actually referring to the ultraleft symptoms that emerged against this backdrop.

And yet, Gramsci did not want to sound defeatist. Just because ultraleft optimism is not relevant does not mean that the capitalist order will necessary prevail, as he explained right after.

The problem is the following: can a rift between popular masses and ruling ideologies as serious as that which emerged after the war be “cured” by the simple exercise of force, preventing the new ideologies from imposing themselves? Will the interregnum, the crisis whose historically normal solution is blocked in this way, necessarily be resolved in favour of a restoration of the old?

In unencrypted words: can the postwar popular disaffection with the dominant capitalist ideology be overcome solely by the coercive means of Fascism in such a way that Communism would be successfully prevented from taking over? In that case, would the present Fascist transitional period necessarily lead to a restoration of pre-Fascist traditional bourgeois rule? Gramsci replied:

Given the character of the ideologies, that can be ruled out—yet not in an absolute sense. Meanwhile physical depression will lead in the long run to a widespread scepticism, and a new “arrangement” [combinazione in the original] will be found—in which, for example, Catholicism will even more become simply Jesuitism, etc.

In unencrypted words: the character of the capitalist ideology and its Fascist variant in Italy are such that a simple return to pre-Fascist traditional bourgeois rule can be ruled out. Instead of such a straightforward restoration, the economic depression will lead Fascism in the long run to dilute even more its own principles and type of rule into increased adaptation to traditional bourgeois rule—as Jesuitism was a dilution of stricter Catholic ethics.

From this too one may conclude that highly favorable conditions are being created for an unprecedented expansion of historical materialism.

In the context of the ongoing economic crisis, the weakening of Fascism—the variant of capitalist ideology that captured growing mass discontent and deflected it from opposition to capitalism—should create highly favorable objective conditions for an unprecedented expansion of Communism. This last sentence may sound very “optimistic” to our ears, but compared to the Comintern’s and the PCI’s ultraleft optimism in 1930, it was actually a typical display of the “pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will,” the famous maxim that Gramsci first borrowed in 1920.

Back to the twenty-first century

Does the above explanation of what Gramsci most likely meant with his oft-quoted sentence imply that the present spike in the frequency of references to that same sentence is but an instance of widespread misuse of a quote due to misinterpretation? Such is actually not the case.

Gramsci was writing at a time when Fascism had already been eight years in power in his country and a time when the Communist movement was expanding from a level of strength that was already far above that of any form of organized radical left in our time. He misjudged the period, focusing solely on his country and the alleged crisis of Fascism there, as perceived through his party’s assessment. He did not, and probably could not from his prison, realize that Third Period Communism was a far more serious morbid condition than the “infantile disorder” that Lenin had criticized in 1920: not a manifestation of political impatience by young revolutionaries, but an ultrasectarian orientation serving to consolidate the Stalinist bureaucratic control of the Soviet Union and of the Comintern, a historical development whose consequences will be instrumental in allowing the Far Right to triumph in Europe—most fatally in Germany.

However, the central idea in Gramsci’s famous sentence belongs to the appraisal of any transitional phase during which an old order is already dying, but a radically different new one is not yet able to be born—an appraisal that was key to Marx’s analysis of Bonapartism. Gramsci and his fellow Italian Marxists could not fail to find in it a clue to their own analysis of Fascism, which is indeed a degenerate form of Bonapartism. In Marx’s words,

The Empire, with the coup d’état for its certificate of birth, universal suffrage for its sanction, and the sword for its sceptre, professed to rest upon the peasantry, the large mass of producers not directly involved in the struggle of capital and labor. It professed to save the working class by breaking down parliamentarism, and, with it, the undisguised subserviency of Government to the propertied classes. It professed to save the propertied classes by upholding their economic supremacy over the working class; and, finally, it professed to unite all classes by reviving for all the chimera of national glory. In reality, it was the only form of government possible at a time when the bourgeoisie had already lost, and the working class had not yet acquired, the faculty of ruling the nation.7

The same type of historical deadlock between the “already” incapable bourgeois rule and the “not yet” capable working-class rule, which produced Bonapartism, can also most naturally generate revolutionary impatience on the part of radical activists acting on behalf of the workers and seeking shortcuts to the revolution. This had already happened on a large scale during the revolutionary situation that started unfolding soon after the outbreak of World War I in several European countries, which became thus confronted with a situation in which “the bourgeoisie had already lost . . . the faculty of ruling the nation” but “the working class had not yet acquired” this same faculty.8

The gap between “already” incapable bourgeois rule and “not yet” capable workers’ rule constitutes likewise a fertile ground for the rise of another serious disorder: not of socialist orientation, but of bourgeois politics in the form of the Far Right. The rise of the latter typically happens when traditional bourgeois rule starts losing legitimacy (consent, hegemony) on a backdrop of socioeconomic crisis while the anticapitalist left is not yet strong enough to take the lead of the people (the nation). As with the “infantile disorder” of radical left politics, the far-right disease of bourgeois politics can take the shape of mass movements, but also engender terrorist fringe activities when the former fail to arise.

Our present global conditions are, to be sure, very different from those of 1930. Except for the initial shock, the Great Recession ushered in by the 2007–08 financial crisis has not been as acute and dramatic as the Great Depression of the 1930s. It came however on top of decades of neoliberal unravelling of the post-1945 “social contract” upon which liberal capitalist hegemony was established. Unfolding since the 1980s at a time of deep crisis of the Left globally in what turned out to be the last decade of the Soviet Union, the “fatherland of socialism” of a bygone age, the neoliberal destabilization and precarization of the global socioeconomic conditions nurtured a global retrenchment behind identity markers (religion, race, nation) along with a sharp drift to the right. Together, these developments led to what I called, in the aftermath of September 11, 2001, a “clash of barbarisms”9—the reality behind what Samuel Huntington misdiagnosed superficially as a “clash of civilizations” because it had the appearance of a cultural antagonism along global civilizational fault lines, whereas it was in fact a clash between the worst tendencies emerging within each cultural sphere.

The Great Recession was a culmination and dramatic acceleration of this creeping regression. However, the difference in tempos between the interwar socioeconomic crisis of capitalism and the recent one meant that the political crisis is far from being as severe nowadays as it was in the aftermath of World War I. Only in the Arab countries did the crisis in 2011 reach the level of a revolutionary situation. But that was not an outcome of the generic crisis of capitalism; it was instead the outcome of a specific crisis of the rentier-patrimonial system of states characterizing that part of the world.10 Thus, except for the tragic convulsions of its dreadful agony in the Arab countries, it is more of a slow death that the old order is dying in most countries, while the new cannot be born and does not yet seem to be able to prevail soon.

Yet, the “new,” i.e., the perspective of a progressive societal change, is coming again into view after a long plunge: we have started indeed to witness a revival on the left. To be sure, the condition of anticapitalist forces in our time bears hardly any resemblance to what it was in the interwar years of the past century: then, the Russian Revolution had freshly triumphed, tremendously boosting working-class radicalization across the world; now, the grievous discredit of the very idea of socialism, brought about by the demise of “really existing socialism” as embodied in the Soviet Union and its satellites, is only starting to be overcome a generation later and only in a few countries until now. Overcoming the abysmal failure of twentieth-century Communism and its derivatives will not be easy.

Nonetheless, the emergence of a new left is manifest enough to allow us to identify a global left-right polarization of politics fostered by the Great Recession on a backdrop of deepening crisis of the old order in all its different political forms, from democratic to despotic. We have entered again into a situation where the old is “already” dying and the new can “not yet” be born. The hitherto weakness and fragility of the forces of progressive change have meant that the accelerating crisis of global capitalism’s socioeconomic and political conditions has until now mostly benefitted the rise of the Far Right around the globe. It is hence on the far right of the political spectrum that we are witnessing at present the most spectacular “morbid symptoms” produced by the degeneration of capitalist politics.

These symptoms are bringing to a peak the global drift to the right set in motion by the neoliberal regression since the 1980s. The Great Recession crucially accelerated this drift, which bears at present the faces of Donald Trump and his former “chief strategist,” far-right publicist Stephen Bannon, as well as those of a vast range of people across the globe from the West to the East—the likes of Nigel Farage, Marine Le Pen, Viktor Orbán, Vladimir Putin, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Benjamin Netanyahu, Narendra Modi, and Rodrigo Duterte.

The fate of the Arab Spring presents a sharp illustration of this emergence of morbid symptoms. The regional system of states is dying, but the progressive forces that initiated the regional uprising proved to be no match to the task of leading the needed change. As a result, symptoms of acute morbidity developed within the Islamic forces that were also challenging the old order. They produced ultrareactionary groups that clashed with the old regional order most brutally: violence rose to extremes on both sides, leading to a “clash of barbarisms” within various countries—as illustrated most tragically in Syria with the Assad regime on one end and ISIS/Al-Qaida on the other. And yet, the fact that the region has gone in 2011 through the most spectacular regional revolutionary shockwave since those of the end of World War I and the end of the Cold War, this very fact is a reason for hope in the future.

At the onset of the Great Recession, there was hardly any reason for hope. Nowadays there is certainly much more ground for it, provided hope is taken as an encouragement for the optimism of the will, not as a substitute for the pessimism of the intellect. For at present, the most powerful incitement to struggle remains not hope, but the reactionary “morbid symptoms” themselves as harbingers of a possible dreadful future. As Rosa Luxemburg so rightly indicated in 1915, the conscience of the disaster that would happen if we don’t act is the primary reason that should incite us to act. The ultimate historical alternative is indeed: socialism or barbarism.

  1. Antonio Gramsci, Quaderni del Carcere, vol. 1, Quaderni 1–5 (Turin: Giulio Einaudi editore, 1977), 311. English translation quoted from Selections from the Prison Notebooks of Antonio Gramsci, ed. and trans. Quintin Hoare and Geoffrey Nowell-Smith (London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1971), 276. In the Italian original, Gramsci says fenomeni morbosi, literally “morbid phenomena.”
  2. Gilbert Achcar, Morbid Symptoms: Relapse in the Arab Uprising (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2016).
  3. Gramsci, Quaderni del Carcere, vol. 1, Quaderni 1–5, Q 3, § 34, 311–312; Selections from the Prison Notebooks, 275-276. In what comes next, quotes from this entry will not be referenced and will all be italicized.
  4. For concurring, albeit different, takes on Gramsci’s reaction on this issue, see Giuseppe Fiori, Antonio Gramsci: Life of a Revolutionary, trans. Tom Nairn (London, New Left Books, 1970; rpt. London, Verso, 1990), Alfonso Leonetti, Note su Gramsci (Urbino: Argalia, 1970), and Paolo Spriano, Antonio Gramsci and the Party: The Prison Years, trans. John Fraser (London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1979).
  5. A more accurate and literal translation would give in the above quote: “the dominant class has lost the consent”—la classe dominante ha perduto il consenso in the original—instead of “the ruling class has lost its consensus.”
  6. Vladimir Lenin, “Left-Wing” Communism: An Infantile Disorder (1920), first published in English under the literally-translated title of The Infantile Sickness of “Leftism” in Communism.
  7. Karl Marx, The Civil War in France (1871), in Karl Marx Frederick Engels Collected Works, vol. 22 (London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1986), 330 (emphasis added).
  8. Lenin’s famous comment on objective and subjective conditions during a revolutionary situation—Vladimir Lenin, “The Collapse of the Second International,” in Collected Works, vol. 21 (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1964), 213–14—informed his critique of “left-wing communism” a few years later.
  9. Gilbert Achcar, The Clash of Barbarisms: The Making of the New World Disorder, 2nd augmented ed. (Boulder, Co: Paradigm Publishers, and London: Saqi Books, 2006; 1st ed. 2002). My preface to the recent third French edition of this book is available in English on the Jacobin website,
  10. For my analysis of this specificity, see Gilbert Achcar, The People Want: A Radical Exploration of the Arab Uprising (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2013).

Issue #103

Winter 2016-17

"A sense of hope and the possibility for solidarity"

Interview with Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
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