I happened to come across a piece on Jacobin called “Gramsci Comes Home,” which I think—once again—presents Gramsci in a far better light than he really can be.
Here are some very quick notes on why the Gramscian revival might require a more explicit statement on (what should be) some fairly obvious questions. How critical are readers and adherents of Gramsci prepared to be, and openly so?
I don’t doubt that for some of those engaged in returning to Gramsci there may well be a sense that it opens up a new path of inquiry, beyond the old and tarnished brands of Lenin and Trotsky. Gramsci talked about feelings, after all. But more on that below.
However, I would suggest that people read the originals of the authors mentioned here with a more careful and critical eye, and not simply through those who are engaged in filtering them for the purpose of reconstructing a new Trotskyist-Leninist brand.
I am not suggesting that there is nothing that can be gained from reading Gramsci. Though I would say that about reading anyone, if truth be told.
The question here is far less about reading lists than: Why the personality cult of Gramsci?
I happen to think a critical analysis of the politics of intimacy, everyday life and, indeed, homes and households is crucial. Using the same words, however, does not imply a shared politics, only a similar conjuncture.
Fascists, neoconservatives and libertarians have all been preoccupied with the household, in their own ways. Indeed, the history of those preoccupations is why I’ve argued that it makes more sense to talk about oikonomia rather than economics. But reading the Jacobin piece in particular, I found myself wondering why Gramsci is being mentioned in this context and now, as a call for “common sense” around “the home.”
When Gramsci discusses the “home”—and that is not very often— it is in order to renounce the ways in which capitalism has damaged a man’s experience of his apparently otherwise natural and peaceful repose in it. In other words, he explicitly laments the presumed degradation of men’s enjoyment of the home, which he characterised as a refuge from and compensation for their experience of labour outside the household.
Is this the “common sense” that we should be giving credence to?
Secondly, and with regard to an understanding of ‘nation as home’: Gramsci (following Sorel) strongly believed in a contest over national representation, and not a critique of nationalism. There is a difference.
Gramsci’s claim of a degeneration of moral authority (an argument that he borrowed from Sorel) is, by definition I would say, reactionary. Gramsci’s version of syndicalism also comes from Sorel. This is the path that Mussolini explicitly traveled when he moved out of nominally marxist circles to become an outright fascist.
As to what the cult of Gramsci’s sexual politics are and might be, perhaps some clarification is required. I’d actually like to know. Because the revival of the Gramsci brand, of course, has also been undertaken by various people in (and who have since split from) the Socialist Workers’ Party in the UK. Let’s be blunt here: why are the SWP—and in particular those who split from the SWP—taking their cue from a specifically Machiavellian revision of Marx? Is it really that easy to pretend that Machiavelli’s exemplar of constitutional foundation and political strategy was not a rape fantasy? The only way in which it becomes possible to imagine otherwise is if gendered violence is defined as being beyond the bounds of politics—which would be an odd thing to claim, since Machiavelli argued precisely for the centrality of intimacy and the emotions to politics.
(As an aside, I know of two people already who think even mentioning Machiavelli’s sexual politics in Contract & Contagion was, on my part, a form of political treachery. Sorry, but I think that begs the question about their political attachments and not mine.)
But, back to Gramsci …
The last great Gramscian revival was in the 1980s, when debates within and around various communist parties turned around three key issues: understandings of ‘structure and superstructure,’ concepts of history, and the role of (intellectuals in) the Party. What it enabled then, and does so in a slightly modified way today, is a shift in emphasis toward the politics of feelings, myth and passions along with a renewed adherence to Leninist dogma on theories of history, intellectuals and the Party-form.
In other words, while Gramsci insisted that the “intellectual’s error consists in believing that one can know without understanding and even more without feeling and being impassioned,” he nevertheless clearly marked out a distinction between leaders and masses in so doing. The role of leaders is one of imposing discipline on and steering the emotions the masses.
Here is the longer fragment from which that previous quote is taken:
The popular element ‘feels’ but does not always know or understand; the intellectual element ‘knows’ but does not always understand and in particular does not always feel. … The intellectual’s error consists in believing that one can know without understanding and even more without feeling and being impassioned … that the intellectual can be an intellectual (and not a pure pedant) if distinct and separate from the people-nation, that is, without feeling the elementary passions of the people, understanding them and … connecting them … to a superior conception of the world, scientifically and coherently elaborated — i.e. knowledge. One cannot make politics — history without this passion, without this sentimental connection between intellectuals and people-nation.
That is, Gramsci’s argument regarding the passions is part of an instruction manual for an effective hegemonic strategy. It is an approach he explicitly derived from Machiavelli and Sorel, hence Gramsci’s ode to Machiavellian strategy in “The Modern Prince,” and the persistent recourse to a Sorelian—which is to say: self-consciously mythical and deeply affirmative—rendition of nationalism.
So, sure, Gramsci discusses feelings, affects and the passions—but so too have Spinoza, Hobbes, Hitler, Ronald Reagan and thousands of others. But what feelings and whose? Gramsci was preoccupied with the feelings of men and enhancing their ‘will to power’ through nationalist myth.
That said, I may well be overstating the extent to which those those who refer to themselves as Gramscian are in fact (prepared to be) critical of any of the above.
There’s a definite sense in which the revival of Gramsci takes place explicitly as a reaction, as the consequence of a perception among Trotskyists that ‘pomo’—or some vague conglomerated threat of queer theory, autonomism, feminism, poststructuralism and other approaches which do emphasise a critical politics of intimacy and affect—have drawn people away from the true consciousness of Leninist parties.
In that context, perhaps it’s true that various people believe that spreading a love of Gramsci (or any other iconic marxist) is deemed more important than actually requiring that anyone reads Gramsci (and Machiavelli and Sorel), either to the letter or with a critical eye.
If, ultimately, it is true that Gramscians are attached to organizational forms which pivot on a “tenacious perseverance in the iron discipline of labour” and an insistence that their party “cannot have competitors in the intimate world of work,” then I suppose we should all stop pretending that the Gramscian revival is something other than the resurrection of a stridently nationalist authoritarianism (with its own personality cult) on the far Left.
Still, I don’t agree with Gramsci (or Sorel or Lenin) that the most important struggles take place at the level of consciousness. I’m not an idealist (in the Hegelian sense), I don’t put much stock in liberalism’s ‘battle of ideas’ or think that everyone repeating the same slogans indicates more than a desire for conformity.
But I do think that the Gramscian revival is a mark of how emotionally appealing reactionary politics can be for some, even on what passes for the Left. I’d be happy to be proven wrong. But, as yet, none of those who have argued for a return to Gramsci have addressed themselves to any of these questions, as far as I’m aware, preferring to pass over them in determined silence.