Invoking Gramsci to retreat from revolution

The problematic legacy of a Marxist thinker

Thomas Hirschhorn, Gramsci Monument a 2013 art installation at Forest Houses housing project in the South Bronx, New York. PHOTO: via Daniel Creahan for Art Observed
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Antonio Gramsci was a hero of the workers’ movement and a leading Italian Communist who died under fascism. He was “discovered” in the ’70s by a world looking for new answers to brutal and seemingly invincible capitalism. Now, more than 80 years after his death, Gramsci is having a resurgence. What are his core ideas? How are they being used in the 21st century?

Forged under fascism. In 1920, Gramsci helped lead massive strikes in Turin and establish soviet-like workers councils, which were quickly defeated as Mussolini rose to power. Arrested in 1926, Gramsci spent the rest of his life and failing health in fascist custody.

Gramsci’s main work, The Prison Notebooks, is 3,000 pages of wide-ranging essays and notes. Often intentionally ambiguous to evade destruction by censors, his writings were smuggled out of prison, but not published until the 1950s, and not in English for two decades more.

In the Notebooks, Gramsci grapples with why uprisings in Germany, Italy and Hungary failed while Russia’s revolution succeeded. He agreed with Lenin that the stronger countries of Western Europe would be harder for working people to topple. Gramsci concluded that the key difference was that the Russian Tsarist state relied on military force and physical coercion which could be attacked head on. But, he argued, the ruling class in developed capitalist countries relies less on state force and more on the institutions of civil society: schools, churches, media, family, etc. These organizations appear to act on the basis of voluntary agreement, of social consensus.

Cultural hegemony is the term Gramsci coined when the ruling class dominates by infusing all aspects of life with its values. Rulers’ pervasive ideology becomes the “common sense” values adopted by all, even when these work against self-interest. One such argument, for example, holds that Microsoft’s Bill Gates deserves his gazillions as the company’s originator, while worker bees merit only their tinier paychecks.

Gramsci thought that the working class must counter the rulers’ ideology through a “war of ideas,” such as convincing people that massive corporate pay gaps are unfair. He argued that gaining working-class dominance requires accommodating differing political persuasions within and outside the system. This would largely precede contending for state power.

Latter-day theorists reinterpreted Gramsci to assert that attaining workers’ hegemony — that is, leadership and dominant social influence — would be a peaceful, gradual cultural ascendancy. This concept was used to justify the sweeping rightward shift of Eurocommunism in the 1970s and ’80s, where Communist Parties openly abandoned revolutionary politics.

Playing to the politics of pessimism. Chaining the hope for socialism to gradual reform gained more traction during the political downturn of the ’90s. The collapse of the Soviet Union disoriented the socialist movement. Decades of neoliberal privatization and the reintroduction of profit-making in workers states like China added to the despair. A growing number of leftists concluded that the capitalist state couldn’t be overthrown but could only be slowly eroded away.

The concept of “post-Marxism” emerged, bringing Gramsci to yet another incarnation heading into the 21st century. His work was cited by those who reject class struggle and advocate working within the system — with disastrous results.

Greece’s Syriza, Spain’s Podemos and Brazil’s Workers Party of Lula da Silva all claim Gramsci’s legacy. These parties joined the status quo, wheeling and dealing with business elites while supposedly representing their working-class base. Syriza and the Workers Party ended up governing capitalist states, a far cry from dismantling them.

These misleaders crushed the working-class movements of rebellion that put them in power. Greek workers are ground into the dirt as European bankers salvage their investments. Spain’s anti-austerity struggle is strangled with parliamentary politics-as-usual. The labor-led Brazilian upsurge is stunned as its Workers Party is ousted and its leaders charged with corruption.

In the U.S., Gramsci’s influence is evident among post-Marxist “progressives” like journalist Chris Hedges and economist Richard Wolff. Both spoke on Gramsci at the 2017 Left Forum in New York City. Both reject revolutionary vanguard parties, with Hedges saying that Gramsci was opposed to their Leninist “iron control.” Wolff promotes the Green Party, a party which is not anti-capitalist but blends radicalism and reformism. This is the same model of multi-tendency party formed by Syriza and Podemos.

Today’s Gramscians argue that it’s not feasible to tackle the state while civil society is dominated by ruling-class values of consumerism, glamorization of wealth and violence, and the permanence of capitalism. They call for building a culture in which working-class lives and values dominate in schools, on TV, in literature, theater, workplace and community organizations — throughout civil society.

It’s true that cultural rebellion constantly breaks out in art, film, rap music and far more. But it’s completely unrealistic to think these efforts, however vibrant, can rise to dominance while the ruling class holds the purse strings and the power.

A revolutionary alternative. Neo-Gramscians see gaining cultural supremacy and building cross-class alliances either as a substitution for workers’ power or as a lengthy preparatory stage.

There is another lens through which to look at the relationship between civil society and the state: the theory of Permanent Revolution developed by Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky.

Trotsky asserted that in our epoch, revolution is a continuous, interwoven process seeking to transform all levels of society: ideology and individual beliefs, culture, the media, education and the organs of government. Revolutionaries must challenge the armed state while striving to transform civil society. Just as the bourgeois state interweaves coercion and consent, so must our class ceaselessly confront all mechanisms of capitalist rule.

Further, this process unfolds on an international plane. Socialism can’t be built on a national basis, separate from the rest of the world. Socialism-in-one-country, trumpeted by Stalin, was tried and failed in the Soviet Union, in Cuba, in China.

This understanding of Permanent Revolution connects movements for justice with workers’ struggles and liberation efforts around the world. It breathes optimism and forward motion, not defeatism.

Marxism now more than ever. Whether Gramsci was contradicting Marx and Lenin is the subject of endless debate. But no matter what he originally intended, today he is the go-to theorist for a Left that is in retreat, and entrenching itself in counter-revolutionary practices.

Permanent Revolution doesn’t stop. People continue to struggle against injustice. They deserve and need Marxist leadership with a history and experience, grounded in a scientific understanding of societal forces. A leadership that aims to topple both capitalism’s armed power and its cultural obscenities. The battle to end oppression depends on the understanding and confidence that socialist revolution is possible and worth fighting for — here and now.

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