Rescuing Gramsci 
from his misinterpreters

The Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci wrote his Prison Notebooks from 1926 to 1937 while imprisoned by Mussolini. A veritable cottage industry has churned out countless analyses about this work, making it one of the most written about texts in the Marxist tradition. Political and intellectual tendencies with little in common have laid claim to Gramsci’s writing. The Euro-communists from the late 1960s through the 1980s used it to justify a turn to reformism and electoralism, while academics in disciplines as diverse as sociology, international relations, and literary theory use his analysis of hegemony today, for example, often divorced from any conception of working-class struggle. 

Why such varied views of Gramsci’s writings? Part of the problem is that they were not written as a single, continuous project. As the title suggests, these are notebooks, not written for publication. Because Gramsci’s first audience was always the prison censors, the writing can be deliberately indirect or obtuse, and therefore difficult to read. Gramsci often had to break off writing for a time and return to his theme later, giving his analyses a disjointed quality. Luckily, Peter Thomas’s Gramscian Moment offers the clarity needed, often using Thomas’ own translation of the text, to rescue the Prison Notebooks from dead-end interpretations and places them firmly in the revolutionary Marxist tradition.

Thomas roots Gramsci’s Notebooks in the working-class movement, specifically the debates and ideas flowing out of the Communist International (Comintern) around the time of the Russian Revolution. As a leading member of the Italian Communist Party he attended the meetings of the Comintern in the early 1920s. Much of what Gramsci writes about the working class’s struggle for hegemony (that is the struggle for leadership of the oppressed classes and for dominance against the ruling classes), the “war of position” versus the “war of maneuver,” and his theories of the state are part of his attempt to adjust revolutionary strategy in the period after the major revolutionary wave of 1917 to 1923 had ebbed. 

Gramsci was convinced by the idea put forth by the Russian revolutionaries, particularly V. I. Lenin and Leon Trotsky, that the capitalist world had stabilized and that what was needed was a more protracted struggle that did not involve the working class immediately taking state power. He was won to the United Front strategy that the Russians advocated, in which socialists allied with working-class parties and other “subaltern,” or oppressed, classes to fight for immediate demands. Gramsci was also influenced by Lenin’s ideas of the fight for hegemony put forward at the meetings of the Comintern and codified in Left-wing Communism: An Infantile Disorder.  

Thomas shows that Gramsci did not abandon this idea of the fight for hegemony using the United Front while in prison. Much of the Notebooks’ emphasis on the protracted nature of the struggle for hegemony is an implicit critique of the “Third Period” strategy then prevalent in the Stalinized Comintern and Soviet Union, which claimed that international working-class revolution was back on the table and that socialists should avoid alliances with reformist working-class organizations, even going so far as to call social democracy and fascism two sides of the same coin. Gramsci’s writings on the fight for hegemony should be seen as his intervention in these concrete debates in the socialist movement about the nature of the period and, in turn, what strategies were best for the working-class movement in the struggle against capitalism, not mere abstractions. 

Thomas begins the book with responses to two major critiques of Gramsci, one by the French Marxist philosopher, Louis Althusser, the other by British Marxist, Perry Anderson. I will leave aside the engagement with Althusser because his work on Gramsci is actually quite limited. Anderson’s The Antimonies of Antonio Gramsci is much richer and likely to be of more interest to readers of the International Socialist Review; it is a valuable contribution to understanding Gramsci. 

Thomas does, however, correct a flaw in Anderson’s analysis, which is that Anderson views Gramsci’s development of his ideas in the Notebooks as proceeding chronologically. So when looking at the capitalist state, Anderson believes Gramsci is saying that the state has moved away from ruling by coercion and toward ruling by consent of the masses, which the ruling class achieves through ideological and cultural institutions like schools, universities, churches, and the media. Gramsci’s term for these institutions, still in common use, is “civil society.”  Anderson sees this as breaking away from the Marxist idea of the state being a coercive force, which he illustrates by quoting Lenin, who refers to the state as being comprised of “bodies of armed men, prisons, etc.” 

Thomas disputes Anderson’s claim that here Gramsci has moved away from the classical Marxist analysis. In 1930 Gramsci introduced the idea of the “integral state.” This conception of the capitalist state integrates “civil society,” the aforementioned means of hegemony, with the coercive elements of the state. They are separate methods and functions but are part of a single integrated whole. 

As Thomas writes, “Hegemony, then, emerges as a ‘consensual’ political practice distinct from mere coercion (a dominant means of previous ruling classes) on this terrain of civil society; but, like civil society, integrally linked to the state, hegemony’s full meaning only becomes apparent when it is related to its dialectical distinction of coercion.” Bourgeois society has moved away from mere coercion in how it rules—but its hegemony is always backed up by force. When ideological and cultural means fail to keep the population in line, the police, the military, and other repressive means are always waiting just offstage. 

This view fits well with the politics of the United States today. The criminalization of African Americans and people of color generally is used to justify increased policing and imprisonment of minority communities and poor people. Demonizing Arabs and Muslims as terrorists serves as justification for the surveillance state and its gradual chipping away of civil liberties. And when the Occupy movement, with its class-based rhetoric, began to create cracks in the state’s capitalist ideology, it was crushed by force. Thomas’s highlighting of Gramsci’s “integral state” is an important corrective to Anderson’s view and shows Gramsci’s theory of the state as an extension of the classical Marxist tradition. 

The utility of Gramsci’s theory of hegemony was not limited to his simply analyzing the dominance of the ruling class, however. He also applied it to the working-class movement. The working class, through its political parties, struggles to achieve hegemony among the oppressed classes (the subaltern) and in its struggle with the ruling class. As Gramsci put it, “A class is dominant in two ways, that is, it is ‘leading’ and ‘dominant.’ It leads the allied classes, and dominates over the adversarial classes.” 

As in his theory of the state, ideological struggle and physical struggle are not counterposed here—as those who attempt to claim Gramsci as advocating reformism would claim—but are two strategies whose utility depends on the historical period at hand. While the capitalist world was in a period of stability, the working class would have to take a long-term perspective toward its struggle for hegemony, all the while keeping as its goal the eventual conquest of state power.  To separate the struggle for hegemony from the latter goal is to distort Gramsci’s thought and rob it of its revolutionary content, according to Thomas. 

Also, within the long-term struggle, coercive methods such as strikes, pickets, and street battles would be necessary: in other words, physical struggle. Thomas elaborates on Gramsci’s point: “A class’s ability to lead, to secure the consent of allies . . . also relies upon its ability to coordinate domination over the opponents of this alliance, just as its capacity to exert such coercive force depends upon its prior securing of the consent of such an alliance.”

The struggle for dominance by the working class within the movement of the oppressed classes isn’t just about ideas. In his chapters about the “philosophy of practice,” Thomas is very clear that Gramsci did not think that anything about the struggle for hegemony was automatic. He was strongly opposed to the determinism of Stalinism, which reduced Marxism to a series of historical stages through which societies inevitably passed. By contrast, Gramsci argued that class struggle was the motor force in history and that socialists had to consciously intervene in movements—not as preachers from the sidelines but as an integral part of the class struggle. 

Gramsci calls such socialists “philosophers.” But he is not thinking of the ivory-tower types the term brings to mind:

For the intellectuals organically linked to this hegemonic project, it no longer suffices to make “individual ‘original’ discoveries”; rather, their role is much more one of becoming “permanently active persuaders,” engaged in demonstrating the capacity of the practices of proletarian hegemony to form the basis for a new society. These permanently active persuaders find their intellectual resources not in the “perennial questions of philosophy,” but precisely in their organic integration with the masses, in a reciprocal relationship of “democratic pedagogy” in which those “intellectuals” with the “social function” of an intellectual are at least as often “the educated” as “the educators.” They are intellectuals who are “organically the intellectuals of these masses,” working out and making coherent the principles and problems which the masses have posed in their own practical activity. 

For Gramsci, the “permanently active persuaders” should be organized in a working-class party that functions as an “organization of struggle.” Thomas mentions that of the “themes explored in the Prison Notebooks few are as little discussed today as Gramsci’s theory of the working-class political party.” This is an important and still relevant discussion; Thomas deserves credit for focusing on it when most Gramsci scholars fail to. 

There is much more to The Gramscian Moment than a review of this size can do justice to. It is a rich text that deserves multiple readings. Indeed, and this is fair warning, it might take many readers multiple readings to get through it. The early chapters are not the easiest of reads, and the book assumes some familiarity with the subject matter, which can make it difficult for those new to the subject. It took me until chapter 4, “Contra the Passive Revolution,” to realize that the book was going to deserve the praise of this review. 

Not all of this is Thomas’s fault: he has to engage with the scholarship on the subject and with Gramsci’s difficult writings. But the effort involved in trying to crack the early chapters might dissuade some readers from engaging with a book that is well worth the effort. There is an inherent contradiction in a book that aims to reinvigorate Gramsci’s thought as firmly rooted in revolutionary class struggle and its less than accessible format. 

You do not need to “dumb down” the concepts. Some ideas are difficult to grasp for various reasons. Many of Marx’s writings are difficult because of the subject matter or antiquated concepts that are hard for a modern reader to understand. As mentioned, in writing about Gramsci you do need to engage with some difficult writing and novel concepts, both by Gramsci himself and by those who write about him. 

However, Thomas tends to err on the side of using language in a way that will alienate those who would really benefit from reading the book. For example, activists in movements against international capital, where versions of Gramsci’s writings have some sway through the lens of theorists like Hardt and Negri, should read Thomas’ explanation of Gramsci’s view of the “passive revolution” and the “integral state.” Unfortunately, the book often reads as if it is meant for specialists in the field, not for the wider audience who could benefit most from this rich text.  

In addition, despite Thomas’s much-needed corrective of Perry Anderson’s essay, he sometimes seems to invent criticisms of Anderson even when their approaches have more in common than not. Lastly, while he does mention Gramsci’s sometimes inconsistent and confusing formulations, he downplays the role of these formulations in allowing for the distortions he wants to dispel. Gramsci was dealing with censors and did not intend to publish the Prison Notebooks, true, but when divorced from its much-contested context, some of what he writes can be problematic. For example, Thomas’ takes Anderson to task for viewing “Gramsci’s definition of the state, oscillating between three alternatives:

State contrasts with Civil Society

State encompasses Civil Society

State is identical with Civil society.

Thomas’ argument that these are not oscillations but concepts within one “integral state” is convincing. But a reading of the Prison Notebooks in the places that Anderson cites do easily give the impression that Gramsci was, in fact, describing different concepts. This is certainly a view that I held until reading Thomas’s contribution. I was very excited to be convinced that I was wrong about Gramsci’s weakness on the theory of the state. The ease of which some of the distortions are made and gain currency are, at least in part, Gramsci’s doing because of his circumstances in prison. 

These are relatively minor criticisms, however. Even if you do not agree with Thomas’s interpretations completely, The Gramscian Moment is a book with which anyone who wants to take Antonio Gramsci seriously will have to engage. Thomas has done the Left, and socialists in particular a great service in rescuing a great revolutionary’s thought and legacy from a multiplicity of distortions.  

Issue #103

Winter 2016-17

"A sense of hope and the possibility for solidarity"

Interview with Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
Issue contents

Top story