The great labor historian Michael Denning reflects on what Antonio Gramsci’s work has to tell us today.
A mural of Antonio Gramsci in Rome, 2015. (Nicholas Gemini / Wikimedia Commons)
Italian communist leader and theorist Antonio Gramsci is perhaps more referenced than actually read. But his work is worth wrestling with. As an organizer, Gramsci developed a method for doing politics as a communist militant leader and intellectual, and then as a prisoner under Benito Mussolini, where he wrote what became his famous Prison Notebooks over the last decade of his life.
Gramsci provides us not with historically determinist, iron laws of capitalist life and development, but rather with tools to analyze our moment and to think through what sort of politics, ideology, and organization might be required for the working class to overcome it and rule.
For the Jacobin podcast the Dig, Daniel Denvir spoke about Gramsci to historian Michael Denning, a professor in the American Studies Program at Yale. You can listen to the conversation here. It has been edited for length and clarity.
Who was Antonio Gramsci, and how did he, imprisoned for eleven years under Italy’s fascist government, end up filling three thousand notebook pages with such remarkable analysis and theorization around the sorts of politics that communism required in the twentieth century?
Gramsci is one of the major political thinkers of the twentieth century. Gramsci would think that’s an unreasonable and inaccurate reason to look at him. But that’s not really the interesting way to talk about him. In fact, the way of thinking about intellectual history as a series of great thinkers is one of the points that Gramsci wants to challenge throughout all of this.
One of the most intriguing moments in the Prison Notebooks is when he writes a whole set of notes on how one might think about Marx. Both very detailed things in saying, yes, we should pay very close attention to the biography. We should figure out which things Marx was writing that were meant for a public audience and which were correspondence, because one might say things in correspondence that one wouldn’t say in a public audience. What are the things that are then put together by the inheritors later? And on the other hand, wanting to say, what’s the relation between Marx and those that are his inheritors of Gramsci’s own generation, like Lenin? So the question of how one thinks about such a figure is one of the key questions for Gramsci.
But the first question to be asked is, where do our conceptions of the world and where do our norms of conduct come from? And how do they change? One of his powerful arguments is to say that the philosophy of praxis, Marxism, is a historic change in our conception of the world, not unlike the Renaissance or the Protestant Reformation. For him, Marx is not unlike Martin Luther, a figure who is not just a great thinker, but is an emblem of a major transition in intellectual, philosophical, and political action.
Gramsci says that a modern Reformation will probably take centuries, as indeed the Renaissance and the Reformation did.
That’s the way that Gramsci reads Marx and wants to understand how the philosophy of praxis is the Renaissance and the Reformation combined for the modern world, and why he will return to a Renaissance text, Machiavelli’s The Prince, in trying to write his own book (never finished), The Modern Prince. Gramsci himself says that a modern Reformation will probably take centuries, as indeed the Renaissance and the Reformation did.
He is of that remarkable generation of artists, intellectuals, writers, and thinkers that we refer to as “modernists.” Most of them, including Gramsci, came of age in the late 1910s at the time of World War I and the Russian Revolution of 1917. From 1914 to 1945, World War I to World War II, with the Great Depression in between them — that was the moment of Gramsci’s life.
He was born in 1891 in Sardinia, a Mediterranean island off the Italian coast, part of that newly united Italy — a nation only since the 1860s, thirty years before his birth. He was the child of a petty bureaucrat. In fact, the family’s fortunes went downhill when his father was imprisoned, either rightly or wrongly, for embezzlement. He was not a peasant as he grew up, but he was living in an overwhelmingly peasant society.
Antonio Gramsci in 1922. (Wikimedia Commons)
Gramsci was speaking a dialect. Across Italy, many people speak many different versions of Italian. There is no national language. Many of his comments about dialect and national language are actually accounts of his own experience.
When he went to northern Italy, to Turin, in 1911, Turin was kind of the Detroit of Italy. It was the center of the new auto industry. Fiat is based there. So he moved from a very rural, agricultural island on the periphery of Italy to the most modern, Fordist part of the Italian peninsula to study at university there. It was an industrial metalworking center of the new technologies of the day, which were fashioned around the automobile: steel and oil and rubber and the assembly line, all being brought together. That was the world he came into.
Gramsci was studying language and philology. One of his linguistics professors was always asking him, “How do they say these things in Sardinia?” He was the native informant from the provinces who came to Turin and very strongly felt his outsiderness, as a Sardinian in northern Italy.
This would not be there later, but the young Gramsci even had his first political experience as a kind of Sardinian nationalist, interested in autonomy and the independence of Sardinia. But he became an activist in the Socialist Party. He was in his twenties, a Socialist Party activist and theater critic, and he never got his doctoral degree or anything. He was revealing a precarious life with letters home — always “send more money,” which they didn’t have very much of. At the same time, he was involved in organizing, going to the theater, writing reviews in the newspapers, editing little newspapers of his own with his friends.
Then the war had a tremendous impact. Many of the military metaphors you find in Gramsci’s notebooks come out of living through or battling over World War I and Italy’s involvement. But the events that most structured Gramsci’s life would be after the war, when Italian workers occupied the factories. Gramsci was involved in it. He was visiting those factories, he was organizing in them. He was editing a journal called The New Order.
That moment right after World War I was a remarkable moment of political and social and labor upsurgence, and Gramsci was a key part. That really shaped him.
He and the workers were also receiving news of the Bolshevik Revolution, the Soviets or councils from Russia in 1917 and on. There was a number of postwar — in 1919 — attempts to create councils, to create factory occupations and general strikes. There was one in Seattle. That moment right after the war was a remarkable moment of political and social and labor upsurgence, and Gramsci was a key part. That really shaped him.
That was the great moment — indeed, a great tragic moment, as there was a split in the socialist movement between those which remained the main socialist parties in most places on the one hand, and on the other, the emergence of new communist parties allied in one way or another with the hopes of the new Bolshevik Revolution. Gramsci was part of that split in the Italian party and became one of the founders of Italy’s Communist Party; he was elected to parliament in the early 1920s. He also went to Moscow and was for a number of years the representative of the Italian party to the Communist International, in those early years of debate and controversy before Lenin’s death in 1923 — before Stalin’s takeover of the party apparatus and the purging, isolation, and eventual killing of figures like Bukharin and Trotsky.
The Italian trajectory went slightly differently, because at that moment there was an explosion of new labor movements, new socialist movements, new syndicalist movements, new communist movements on the Left. It was also the seedbed of a new fascism. One sees that in the early fascist organizations of Hitler in Germany and, in this case, Mussolini’s March on Rome and coming to power. Early on, Gramsci became one of the key figures in the opposition to fascism.
In 1926, he was only thirty-five years old. He was arrested, and at his trial, a prosecutor said, “we must prevent this brain from functioning for twenty years,” because Gramsci had become such an important leader of the Italian left at that point. So from 1926 to 1937, he was in prison. At the very end, he ended up in prison hospitals and was eventually released. But by then, his health had deteriorated so much that he died in 1937. It was about those ten years when most of the notebooks were written. It was a long, hard process. The physical notebooks were protected and saved from destruction by the fascists and were then published after World War II.
I think the most interesting thing to finish on with this is that Gramsci’s writings before 1925, when he was a young activist, are quite interesting, but mainly to scholars and historians of that particular period, because these works were always written for the moment. They are newspaper articles about this particular issue, this particular strike, this particular debate in parliament or whatever. One of the things that happened when he got into prison — and after a year or more of actually fighting to have paper and pen to be able to write, and then later to actually have some books and newspapers — was that he decided that he wanted to write for eternity. He could no longer be engaged in day-to-day politics.
All of a sudden, his writing changed. He was actually asking questions. Why did things go wrong? Why did the factory occupations not win out? Why did those organizations not take root? Why did fascism win? What were the roots of Mussolini’s popularity? How do we see this in the roots of contemporary politics in the long history of Italy and Italian politics? How do we understand how we get our conceptions of the world, how we get our norms of conduct, and how do those change?
The Prison Notebooks continue to fascinate. They go back to first questions.
And as a result, the notebooks that he wrote in — literally in those black school notebooks that schoolchildren had, thirty-three of them — ended up being the thousands of pages later published, edited, and understood. In some sense, they were written for us, for posterity, in the way that the journalistic articles of 1917 or 1922 were not. Thus they continue to fascinate. They go back to first questions. They’re interesting, often more for the questions that they ask than for the answers that they provide.
How did the conditions of prison writing make for a very particular style rife with euphemism and code words, at times somewhat enigmatic?
Everything was written with the prison censor in mind. So that leads to a long debate in Gramscian interpretation. I’ll give you two sides of it. One is that we should read all of the things as just code words. He couldn’t say “Marxism,” so he says, “the philosophy of praxis.”
On the other hand, it’s also arguable that the philosophy of praxis has a whole set of meanings and connotations for Gramsci that go beyond what would be done by just reducing it to Marxism. So there’s always a kind of double sense of whether one is reading a new concept as a disguise for an older concept. He’s so scathing about the dogmas of his own side, of his own party. One can see these as new concepts and ideas.
In the early 1980s on television, they weren’t allowed to swear. So there were characters who invented these extraordinary fake swears, fake curse words that actually were in their own ways a richer and more imaginative vocabulary than if they had actually used the words that were banned on television. One might think about Gramsci like that: since he couldn’t say the standard curse words, he had to invent new curse words. Some of them are just codes, but others are really new and imaginative ways of understanding — new metaphors for what we thought we already knew.
Hegemony, “Common Sense,” and “Good Sense”
The concept we should probably begin with is hegemony, which, for Gramsci, described the totality of forms of coercion and consent that a ruling group uses to govern a society. What does Gramsci mean by hegemony? And what is important about his insight that hegemony is secured and maintained through this combination of consent and coercion?
Let me challenge that. So I take what I like to think of as the Jeopardy! approach to social theory, which is to say: rather than try to define a term, give a term, and the question to which that term is the answer. In many ways, one of the difficulties in the US appropriation of Gramsci has been to try to figure out a half a dozen key concepts — hegemony, subaltern, organic intellectual or whatever — and get definitions of them, which are more or less accurate, and then use them in other kinds of places.
Yet one of the more interesting ways to go at this would be to consider, what is the question that Gramsci is asking, to which hegemony is some kind of an answer? Because one of Gramsci’s fundamental arguments is that new words don’t change things — “hegemony” itself can’t be an answer. An answer to a particular situation is a new situation, is a new politics. So the question really becomes: What are the sources of a new collective will? Where does a new political formation (or, we might call it, if we translate into American, the new social movement) come from?
One of Gramsci’s fundamental arguments is that new words don’t change things — ‘hegemony’ itself can’t be an answer.
What you’ll end up arguing is that in some cases, a social group that emerges to take leadership in a society has to have more than just economic and political power; otherwise it couldn’t have that leadership. But that’s fundamental. The group actually has to begin to conform the society to its ideas to win consent.
Remember, Gramsci’s time was before there was high school education for working people, when working people may have had only the rudiments of literacy and numeracy. If you wanted to build a popular party of working people, the party had to be an educational institution. So there were party schools. Gramsci was very interested in what the curriculum of those party schools would be. He says you should begin with the common sense of ordinary people — the spontaneous philosophy that people have gotten from their schools, but also from their work and churches. How does that add up to a conception of the world?
In fact, a philosophical education is an education that is a critique of that common sense. That common sense is also, he says, embedded in the people’s language — the words we speak carry with them a whole set of concepts that we don’t know. So one of his intriguing things will be to try to say, let’s take the words that we use, the language that we use, to shape that common sense.
This argument has implications for what has often been called “false consciousness”: the question of what to make of people holding beliefs that are contrary to their material interests or even their lived reality. Gramsci writes, “the contrast between thought and action, i.e. the coexistence of two conceptions of the world, one affirmed in words and the other displayed in effective action, is not simply a product of self-deception. It is, rather, an expression of profound contrasts of a social order.”
What’s this distinction drawn between holding that people are simply being duped, versus Gramsci’s notion that there are contradictions at play that are much deeper, expressing themselves on the level of what Gramsci calls “common sense”?
Let’s say instead the question of where we get our conceptions of the world from and how they change, because he’s actually quite skeptical of the sense that you could rationally persuade people to another position just because the facts are on your side. For the ordinary person, you can make a good argument to them and they’ll say, “oh yeah, I remember someone else who made the opposite argument, and I couldn’t answer it right now, but it was convincing to me at that point. And so I’ll remain on that side.”
Our common sense is built in part out of our faith in the other people in our social group who we have heard put things better than we did at various points. And those figures can range, as he said, from the parish priest, to businesspeople on the Chamber of Commerce, to a certain politician. Gramsci includes both, at one point, Stone Age traces of old folk beliefs and proverbs on the one hand, and on the other, knowing the most up-to-date science. Common sense is a kind of mix of both.
So common sense is this weird combination, and the figures who help us shape our conception of the world are in the largest sense of the word “intellectuals.” They are the organizers of ideas in a society. For Gramsci, local schoolteachers and local priests are organic intellectuals of daily life — very fundamental ones in passing on certain folklore, certain knowledge.
One should also mention the division that he maintains between “common sense” and “good sense.” Common sense is basically that set of beliefs that you have that you think is what you believe and/or what your opinions are. Good sense, though, encompasses the practices and knowledge that come out of the work that you do. As far as I can tell by my colleagues, as professors, when they talk about politics, they have the same common sense as anybody else around. Some of them have a little bit better than the others, but it’s the same mix of received ideas that one gets out of the newspapers and all the other media or whatever. But if you ask them, “oh, how do you put together a syllabus? How do you teach this class?”, then they have a remarkable good sense that comes out of years of teaching students.
Part of Gramsci’s faith in ordinary people is that we are not simply prisoners of our common sense.
I had a cousin once who was a great conspiracy theorist about all kinds of weird stuff, and lots of people in the family wouldn’t even talk to him because he would go on to his conspiracies. But he was a dairy farmer. If you got talking to him about dairy farming, he was a fountain of good sense.
Part of Gramsci’s faith in ordinary people is that we are not simply prisoners of our common sense. Actually, all of us have the good sense that comes out of labor and the elaboration of that labor. “Elaboration” is one of his favorite words — the sort of working through of ideas, a labor of ideas. He wants to recognize and break down the division between mental and manual labor. So he basically says that there is no manual labor that doesn’t have a mental aspect. There is no mental labor that doesn’t have a manual aspect. He talks about the physical toll that it takes to learn how to sit and read for eight hours a day, how to take notes physically, and how there are ways in which the actual physical conditions of prison made him extraordinarily aware of how difficult even reading and thinking and writing are as manual, exhausting activities.
He is very dedicated to the study of classical languages, particularly Latin, in the sense that this is a kind of mental exercise that is necessary to develop the mind. His educational philosophy often seems very conservative in our terms, because he has this sense of the kind of necessity for forming activity of the body and mind.
Rooting Ideology in the Experiences of Everyday Life
Gramsci writes that a successful ideological movement can only come about “when in the process of elaborating a form of thought superior to common sense and coherent on a scientific plain, it never forgets to remain in contact with the simple. And indeed finds in this contact the source of the problem it sets out to study and resolve.” He continues, “it must be a criticism of common sense basing itself initially, however, on common sense.”
What is Gramsci arguing here? About rooting ideologies — not just rooting ideologies, but rooting the practical elaboration of ideologies that aspire to hegemony — in people’s everyday lives. And as you were just discussing, rooting them in the good sense that people have because of their practical activity in the world. And also, even seeding the growth of these insurgent ideologies amid the imminent contradictions of reigning ideologies.
The example that he sees as doing this most powerfully is the Catholic Church — the Jesuits are his example. Catholicism is, for him, a very powerful conception of the world, which he says always maintained a connection between the intellectuals, the theologians, and the ordinary people: you could never let the theologians get too far from the parish priests. Thus one actually had to have a conception of the world that could be translated back and forth between the top and the bottom.
For him, the challenge for the philosophy of praxis, for Marxism, for his Communist Party, is to create a conception of the world that is accessible both to the young militants, still barely literate, barely numerate, who are coming in because of the oppression of their daily life and daily work, and also the intellectuals who are contesting and battling. Throughout the Prison Notebooks, he’s got this double sense. We have two tasks: popular education and the combating of dominant ideologies at the highest level.
For Gramsci, the challenge for the philosophy of praxis, for Marxism, is to create a conception of the world that is accessible both to young militants and also to intellectuals.
It’s very hard to bring those two together. It’s arguable whether or not anyone has actually pulled that off in the socialist tradition. You can see moments, but that’s really the hope that Gramsci is trying to establish. Can one see the other side doing it? One could argue that if neoliberalism has become hegemonic over the last forty years, it is by the moving of notions of capital, of human capital, of entrepreneurship, of risk — of all of the images of the market — into the rest of our world.
More than many of his contemporaries, Gramsci seems attentive to the complex, diverse composition of the nonruling classes. It’s not just the capitalists and the proletariat. Beyond that Manichean divide, he seems to identify a more complex idea of social organization and therefore of how strategic politics might relate to that reality.
He writes, “although every party is the expression of a social group, and one social group only, nevertheless in certain given conditions, certain parties represent a single social group precisely insofar as they exercise a balancing and arbitrating function between the interests of their group and those of other groups, and succeed in securing the development of the group which they represent with the consent and assistance of the allied groups, if not out and out with that of the groups which are definitely hostile.”
What is Gramsci saying here about the inevitably coalitional nature of politics? And what role, then, does the political party play in that?
One of the real battles throughout is, who leads the labor movement? Who leads the opposition? Is the movement led by trade unions or by political parties? At that time, at the turn of the century, one tradition had basically said, let’s stay out of politics. Not even getting involved in electoral campaigns — abstaining from campaigns. Remember, there was no universal suffrage at this point. Politics looked like a battle of different elites. You were not going to win. The parliament was often what Gramsci called a “talking shop,” where people took positions but nothing actually happened. So workplace struggles were at the focus.
On the other side were those who said, hold on a second, no, it should be the party that rules. Particularly in the more democratic, parliamentary systems — we should be electing mayors. We have elected mayors in Bridgeport, in Milwaukee, in other cities around the United States. We should be running candidates for president.
Those two positions are not necessarily opposed, but that’s kind of what Gramsci was worrying about in what he called “economism” — as did Lenin, and those people on the side of the unions who basically said it’s all the economy. Whereas the other version was a kind of parliamentarism.
Both of those sides were in crisis under fascism. The factory occupations did not lead to the overthrow of that society. And the Socialist Party itself splintered. So in some sense, Gramsci was asking: How do we rethink this relation between the economic and the political — between imagining that everything is economic interests, and imagining that everything is political coalitions? Gramsci wanted to avoid either one of those. How does one build a vision of a national popular group, of a people, that is actually beyond economic interests?
Why, more generally speaking, is economism such a tempting perversion of Marxism, both then and throughout all history through the present? And what is it about Gramsci’s insight into the relationship between structures and superstructures that undermines this sort of economistic vision?
He says that it is a kind of wisdom that comes cheap, if basically one says, “Oh, well, this war is about oil” — well, yes, it is about oil in one sense or another. But does that really give you any new knowledge that actually allows you to organize, to change people’s minds? That reduction doesn’t really gain any new knowledge. He will then say, “hold on a second, though. People are not crazy to believe this.” So we have to understand why people do believe this. He is not anti-economist in that sense. There are other traditions in Marxism that basically say, we know that those kinds of things are wrong. But Gramsci never says that.
He says, “when you don’t have the initiative in the struggle and the struggle itself becomes eventually to be identified with a series of defeats, mechanical determinism becomes a tremendous force of moral resistance, of cohesion and of patient and obstinate perseverance.”
Exactly. When you’re losing and a social movement is weak, it is often drawn to more deterministic, more mechanical versions, like in that famous Fidel Castro speech, “History Will Absolve Me” — that sense that somehow, in the long run, we will win, even though it looks really bad right now. Gramsci uses examples from the history of religion: those Calvinists who most believed in predestination had a kind of mechanical determinism. They were the ones who were the most activist, because they felt like they could go out and act on the grounds of that.
You can’t leave people at that position of pure faith. A party that actually wants to turn people into self-determining rulers of their own society has to actually criticize that common sense.
But he says that’s not enough. You can’t leave people at that position of pure faith. A party that actually wants to turn people into self-determining rulers of their own society has to actually criticize that common sense, raise people in it, raise oneself out of that rarefied common sense, those Stone Age traces, and instead understand in the good sense: out of one’s experience of work, out of one’s experience of politics, out of one’s experience of one’s own household life and neighborhood life.
One upshot of economism, Gramsci argues, is that it can reduce politics to “a moralistic accusation of duplicity and bad faith, or in the case of the movement’s followers of naivete and stupidity.” What’s the relationship Gramsci is drawing between economism and a moralistic account of politics? And what then, is the danger of a moralistic account of politics? Because it’s something that I continue to see all around me constantly today.
It’s hard not to fall into either economism or a moralistic version of it. One place to see it is in Gramsci’s analysis of the Boulangist movement in 1880s and 1890s France. His thinking about this right-wing populist movement is a disguised way of his thinking about Mussolini, and it becomes a disguised way of us thinking about Trump. Basically, how does one understand a social movement of the Right?
The Boulanger types subscribed to ideas about a certain militarism, a certain populism, a certain nationalism. Gramsci says straightforwardly, there are very powerful capitalist forces who are backing this guy, and you could go and find who those backers are. Just as you could find the dark money behind Mussolini, and just as in, say, journalist Jane Mayer’s great work, you can see the dark money behind today’s far right. Gramsci never thinks that that is not important work to be done. But he says that’s not sufficient to understand why that movement actually begins to take power.
Gramsci both tries to understand the Left from the point of view of the Right and the Right from the point of view of the Left.
And the second half is to say, “all these people are duped. If they only knew it was Koch brothers money behind them, they wouldn’t do it.” This is equally wrong. He both tries to understand the Left from the point of view of the Right and the Right from the point of view of the Left, which is to say, “look at this social movement as if one was looking at our own social movement. What are the forms of identity, the forms of appeal that make this powerful?” Because then he also is saying to his own generation of communists: “Not only should we look at Mussolini’s followers for why they are fascists and what their actual beliefs are, in both their contradictions and consistencies. But then when we imagine building our own movement, we should actually be thinking in that same kind of expanded, hegemonic way of thinking rather than thinking in the strict economic way. If we add our own left-wing money, then we could do the same things that they do. If the money is all that is needed, then it would be just about finding those kinds of resources.”
It’s not quite as simple as what I just laid out, because in his political theory, he also does say that a movement that is based on people who have to work for a living every day can’t use the same strategies as the movement that has its own professional militias, its own professional politicians, its own money. There are moments when he actually wants to parallel movements to the Left and movements to the Right in understanding how they are reshaping conceptions of the world — how they are reshaping norms of conduct — but we can’t use the same strategies and tactics because we actually have a very different population that we are trying to mobilize.
No Ironclad Rules
There is, again, a certain acceptance of the inevitability and everyday practicality of, in this case, a moralistic account of the world, but also a recognition of its dangers. And today, I think we see moralism operating across the entire spectrum. We have certain moralistic forms of popular anti-elitism that became Trumpism when hijacked by reactionary currents, which blame a small cabal for capitalism’s depredations. And on the other side you see efforts to portray Trumpism as a simple story of rubes getting swindled by a snake-oil salesman and Koch brothers money, conveniently redirecting any sort of explanation for Trumpism away from the entire history of the mainstream political economic order that these accusers are deeply complicit in. On the Left, we see a very powerful movement among rank-and-file Bernie diehards, especially those not connected to socialist organization in this period of desperation and defeat, turning to extremely moralistic accounts of the Democratic Party establishment.
How does one square Gramsci’s resistance to a moralistic politics in the sense of a moralistic rhetoric and his quite passionate, positive sense that what a new politics requires is a moral reformation?
Gramsci again and again goes back and says, you can’t understand this in an abstract or mechanical way. You cannot reduce this to a set of sociological rules. You can’t turn it into a kind of Newtonian world where there are classes and class fractions that move around, like the planets in mathematical orbits. The densest sections for Americans of the Prison Notebooks are the notes on Italian history, which are his attempt to figure out in this way: What were the attempts to create an Italian national people and Italian national culture? Why did they succeed? Why did they not succeed? Why the paradoxes?
The densest sections for Americans of the Prison Notebooks are the notes on Italian history, which are Gramsci’s attempt to figure out: What were the attempts to create an Italian national people and Italian national culture?
I think we have still yet to approach American history that way. Is there actually a real history of the Democratic Party that tells us how the party of slaveholders from Jefferson and Jackson became the party of Roosevelt, let alone the party of Biden? Those kinds of reversals, what they mean, their relation to fundamental economic forces? After all, the slave plantation’s economy is a fundamental economic force. The rise of the railroads, of the great corporations in the late nineteenth century, right up until the rise of the Apples and the Microsofts and the platform industries of our own day — those are the kinds of questions that Gramsci again and again tells his readers, you have to ask that question.
Gramsci does argue that economism was behind “all forms of electoral obstructionism,” which was related to a “rigid aversion on principle to what are termed compromises.” Gramsci criticizes the idea of explicitly disavowing electoral politics, like not participating, but even also effectively disavowing electoral politics by using them exclusively for the purposes of propaganda.
We can’t look to Gramsci for a set of ironclad rules. What sort of questions, then, does his method insist that we ask when we think about things like reform and compromise?
One of the hardest things to understand about Gramsci is: What’s the relation between the state and civil society, and what makes up the state? Is the state the legislature? Is it the executive branch? Is it Biden? Is it the Pentagon, the military? How many school boards are there and school systems in the United States? What about the state employees (one of the biggest unions in the country is that of state, county, and municipal employees)? Those are all state apparatuses in a certain kind of way. So all the different levels of what the state is, where we even think of electoral politics, are up for grabs.
In Gramsci’s time, there were many fewer state employees, and most of them were on the far right. Because they were military employees or state bureaucrats, they were often associated with forms of fascism. We’re now in a situation where a large part of the population working for the state in various forms are public employees. And one of the major divides in the labor movement is between public employees and private employees: the different kinds of union access they have, the different kinds of access people have to pensions, the struggles that have taken place as actually pitting one part of the working population against another. Those private employees who don’t have union rights, who do not have guaranteed pensions, feel like they are being cheated, having to pay taxes for that — all of those kinds of issues are fundamental to the class politics of the present United States.
Even among the state public employees, public employee unions still remain relatively liberal. On the other hand, you have prison guards and police officers who have a very different kind of politics — let alone a whole set of employees that appear to be private, but are working for defense contractors of one sort or another and so are actually working outsourced from the state.
I remember, from the early days of the antiwar movement, not paying your taxes in protest. Was that a form of left resistance to a military state, or was that a kind of anarchist indulgence to not actually pay your taxes to a welfare state? The line between the welfare and warfare state is a tricky one in thinking these things through.
I would say that today, maybe the most fundamentally unhelpful divide on the Left is that pitting electoralism against mutual aid, or people who say only electoral and legislative struggle against those who say only mass organization. Reading Gramsci makes me feel confident that the answer has to be that we do all of the above, but that only a close study of the present moment can tell us what sort of combination of efforts would be most strategic, and that none is inherently the most valuable or strategic front.
On the Left, we could all have more compassion for each other following one’s own gifts and abilities, rather than guilting people into doing things that they don’t necessarily have gifts for.
I think that Gramsci does lead one to not think that one position is guaranteed to be the central position. People should fight in struggles where they feel they can be most effective and most powerful and where their own talents are, as opposed to a certain tradition — and I remember it from my own youth — of people of my generation thinking they would go off into the factory in order to organize factory workers, even though they had never worked in a factory a day in their life. For some of them, that was a crazy decision. Others actually ended up becoming factory workers, finding a life, doing what was part of a kind of new labor movement. So it wasn’t like that was right or wrong, but it does seem to me that on the Left, we could all have more compassion for each other following one’s own gifts and abilities, rather than guilting people into doing things that they don’t necessarily have gifts for.
On the other hand, I think it is always worth it, even when one feels like Gramsci is endorsing or helping support one’s own position, to remember that his own positions came out of particular historical moments. His own resistance to economism and to syndicalism and to that electoral abstentionism was partly because he had been so deeply involved in the factory occupation movement and was then worried about why it had failed.
His bending of the stick to the party was in part feeling like, well, maybe we didn’t put enough attention on the party, we didn’t attend to things outside the workshop. And he says most of the people in Turin didn’t work in factories. They were in individual households, they were working on the street, they were informal workers, they were in tiny workshops. We had these huge occupations of the giant factories, but we didn’t touch most of those people. The second thing he says is that most of the people on the Italian peninsula don’t live in Turin, and until we figure out how to reach the people in the south, the people in Sardinia that Gramsci had grown up with, we’re not going to make any progress.
So there was always Gramsci’s sense of his own excitement, of the electricity of those moments which he thought were greater than strikes. After all, he says that at one moment in a strike, all one is asking of people is: endurance, loyalty, passivity, stay out, don’t work, suffer, go without a salary. But in contrast, with the factory occupation, he says it’s like: take over, continue producing, continue to work, continue to contribute to society. Run it yourself. We don’t need the bosses. He said he couldn’t believe how old workers, worn down by years of struggle, were actually taking a new leadership position, were involved in factory theatricals, in games after work.
So how do we do justice to both of those senses? On the one side the Gramsci who was present at moments of extraordinary political struggle and was electrified by that, and on the other the Gramsci who says, “Wow, there were a lot of places that weren’t Seattle 1919, there were a lot of places that weren’t Paris 1968. Those struggles are meaningful too.” That is one of the things that makes just reading and engaging with Gramsci and with that tradition so important.Original post