Vol. 2 No. 14 · 17 July 1980

Tom Nairn continues his examination of recent attempts to find in Gramsci’s writings a basis for left-wing opposition to Communism

5756 words

The value and interest of the three examinations of Gramsci which I began to discuss last week in the first part of this article is that they concentrate upon his view of politics: nobody concerned with such problems can avoid finding almost every page of Gramsci and Marxist Theory1 and Gramsci’s Politics2 absorbing; as for Gramsci and the State,3 while it is undeniably a repository of some of the obscurest paragraphs ever written about the man, the reader will also discover the most monumental and exhaustive analysis of his life and ideas in relation to Third International Leninism. It is probably the most important book yet to appear in the dissident-Communist perspective. Fortunately David Fernbach’s translation makes it accessible (apart from a few Volapük lapses like ‘genial’ for génial) and copes ruggedly with the steeper philosophical faces.

The perspective itself is questionable, however. Without objecting for a moment to the ‘new conception of socialism’ which is the overriding aim of these studies, one can still have large doubts about their method and assumptions; and consequently (to some extent) about their final presentation of that conception. By the end of this century Gramsci may well have replaced Machiavelli in the political Pantheon. But Gramscism will probably be as dubious a phenomenon as Machiavellianism has always been. Machiavelli’s ideas were, after all, kept in a sort of irrepressible life by the diabolical legend woven by generations of bien-pensant enemies. Gramsci has not been so lucky. He has too many friends, falling over one another to exalt him. Euro-mummification might be as deadly as the peninsular variety practised for so long by the PCI.

The new vision of socialism depends upon an equally new idea of the party or movement that will take us there. So much is common ground to all three authors. But Anne Sassoon’s analysis focuses much more exclusively on this aspect than the others. Her difficulties with the elusive figure of il Principe moderno may reasonably be taken as typical of the whole approach.

Machiavelli’s original ‘prince’ was a principled fantasy. He entertained no illusions about Borgia himself. On a legation to Rome he had witnessed the great man’s decline and fall, and vented his disappointment in no uncertain terms. Cesare’s father, Pope Alexander VI, had died. That and the withdrawal of French support left him a pricked bladder of indecision and conceit. Every trace of virtu drained out of it, the celebrated handsome countenance which had dazzled so many courts was now permanently contorted with self-doubt and drink, and able to contemplate little more than flight (which before long he resorted to, deserting the stage of Italian politics for good).

Machiavelli chose to extol him in Il Principe, nonetheless, because some facets of his career of conquest remained exemplary for anyone trying to establish a serious dynastic state. With better luck, a more perfect and unflinching embodiment of virtu might do the trick. He retained a general faith in what – in modern terminology – would be called the subjective factor, the ability of conscious will-power to shape the course of historical events in a more than small-scale way. ‘Optimism of the will’ was not disqualified by ‘pessimism of the intelligence’. How often this motto of Gramsci’s is quoted nowadays! But its specific Italianate resonance is rarely grasped: a world of objective difficulties so huge that only superhuman amplification of the subjective forces can push things forward. ‘Politics’ is the concentration at fever pitch of both the leonine and the vulpine traits of human nature, and their knowing manipulation to get the maximum leverage in each historical situation. Marxist Machiavellianism translates this into the collective mode. The aim of all Gramsci’s reflection, claims Ms Sassoon, is ‘to enable the practice of the party to fulfil its potential at every moment in the struggle’.

The Party she argues, is the ‘decisive element’ in all respects. With the perfect Party (thanks to Gramsci) democratic centralism can be made to prevail over the other sort, and a real social majority can be won over to the cause: ‘hegemony’ rather than the ballot-box arithmetic social democrats deal in. That victory in turn – with its implication of having brought the public mind to reason – will enable a new form of socialist state to be made, free from the bigoted repression of most ‘actually existing socialism’. The actually existing Communist and Socialist Parties correspond in this scenario (one must suppose) to the concrete, raddled, nail-biting presence of Borgia, which Machiavelli contemplated with such distaste. Though something can be learned from their disasters – above all from the still commanding PCI – they would be eclipsed by the rise of the authentic modern Prince Gramsci strove to construct and then, when exiled from active politics, to plan in the Prison Notebooks.

Sassoon insists this is no idealist stance, and cites Gramsci’s analysis of the French Jacobins in her support. He saw Jacobinism as the prototype of modern revolutionary movements, and the embodiment of that popular, active revolutionism absent from Italy’s Risorgimento. But, she goes on, Gramsci also showed how the Jacobins were ‘realists of the Machiavelli stamp and not abstract dreamers’, because they understood so lucidly just how the collective will should be wielded, there and then, to obtain ‘the most vigorous assertion of the intervention of the subjective forces in an organic crisis’ (as she puts it).

Could anything underline more cruelly the snare in this kind of theorising? Machiavelli was splendidly realistic in his exposure of the motives and doings of rulers, to the point of never being forgiven for it. But his vision of the Prince-Saviour was a doomed cry for help. There was regrettably no chance of such a superman emerging from among the Italian tyrants, with or without the assistance of a peasant militia (the Florentine’s equivalent to the soviets or factory-councils which are always invoked in the contemporary version). The ‘organic crisis’ under way was not such as to favour or even permit that solution, however assertive the subjective forces chose to make themselves. Why? Alas, for drearily economic causes of the sort once associated with Marxist thought: the dry-rot of feudalism provoked by the very ascendancy and wealth of the trading city-states, and that kind of thing.

Is there any greater possibility of present-day conditions in Western Europe and North America fostering the rise of a ‘Modern Prince’? Perhaps there is. However, the reader can come away from all three of these Euro-communist treatises without the slightest notion of why, or how, in any concrete sense. They remain encamped upon that plateau of ‘theory’ which the structuralist mode rendered both invulnerable and futile. There, hard-fought scientific triumphs are obtained which – by proud self-definition – have no cashable relationship to such accumulations of contingency as ‘the Basque Country’, M. Marchais’ betrayal of the Programme commun, or the place of Europe between the super-powers.

Thus, Anne Sassoon defends her own and Gramsci’s view of Jacobinism against the obvious objection: the Jacobins are known for having wiped out the opposition as well as for healthful-sounding things like ‘the creation of widespread popular consent, as a result both of an ideological struggle and a concrete programme of reforms’. The ‘new collective will’ employed the guillotine, and attempted to terrorise the remains of the old state-formation out of existence. Why should any future hegemonically-based power be different, or better? Because, fortunately, in Western circumstances ‘the proletariat has an object which is historically novel: to transform politics and to overcome the division between leaders and led.’ Guided by the Prince-Party, it will ‘expand the area of hegemony until the area of coercion eventually disappears’. That Party (as compared to the objects before us) will be subject to ‘continuous reorganisation and development’ to the point where its authority will, somehow, be quite compatible with the pluralist system of opposition and criticism. Chantal Mouffe makes the same point in the introduction to Gramsci and Marxist Theory: ‘The Gramscian conception of hegemony is not only compatible with pluralism, it implies it; but’ – she adds, for fear of being considered a mere liberal – ‘this is a pluralism which is always located within the hegemony of the working class.’

To the class-enemy, all this good news will look like evasion. What about the opposition desirous of locating itself outside ‘the hegemony of the working class’? How long is ‘eventually’? Just how is the socialist moyen sensuel (never mind the man in the street) meant to imagine Leninism as a way of life, rather than as an assault-course for a chosen few? If there are good answers to such questions, they involve some reference to pimply particularities such as the history of Yugoslavia, the Czech reform movement, Cambodia, Rudolf Bahro’s analysis of Eastern socialism, and so forth. And (of course) to grimy Western home-truths like Sir Harold Wilson and Santiago Carrillo. But all that lies far under the alto-cumulus of theory upon which these arguments proceed.

Christine Buci-Gluckmann’s Gramsci and the State unfolds on the highest stratum of this theoretic realm. In spite of its vast range of reference, its vitality of observation and commentary (both of which easily support the author’s erudition), a conclusion is always sought on the plane of pure theory. She seeks to convince the reader that a gnoseology of politics was the real kernel of the Quaderni del Carcere, and that this vein of true science leads Gramsci to a ‘Theory of the Apparatus of Philosophical Hegemony’. Armed with proper understanding of the APH (the required algebraic form of the concept), the Modern Prince will be able to take culture away from his enemy, the nation, and instil it, suitably transformed, into the working class. ‘What changes with Gramsci is the very form of Marxist theory, its connection with politics and culture,’ she ends, visualising the same dramatic ‘expansion of political practice’ as Sassoon. It is this omniscient growth which will ‘take charge of the specific conditions of the “war of position”, those of the road to socialism in the West’.

As her title indicates, the thesis is that a concept of the state is the unifying, if often implicit, element in Gramsci’s writings. As well as the reborn Prince, they depict more than is generally understood of his essential task-to-be, building a communist state. What was this task? Unfortunately it is not easy to follow the thread, since (naturally) the inquirer is sternly discouraged from ‘the idea of a single and linear order of exposition’. Rather, Gramsci’s thought should be seen as ‘a tabular space with infinite ways in: a structure of networks’, around which one is supposed to rotate with due circumspection. An acute sense of giddiness is quickly induced by this, which some readers will be only too likely to identify with revelation.

In crassly linear résumé, the argument is that Gramsci rejected the then prevalent economic determinism, and formulated in stages a much subtler and more complex theory of the state. Economic Marxism had viewed the state as instrumental: a puppet of certain class interests and economic forces. It upheld these interests by thinly-veiled force and ideological imposture. While difficult in practice, the object of revolutionary socialism remained theoretically simple: to break this apparatus of coercion, and replace it with another representing the true interests of the working class, or popular majority. By contrast, Gramsci came to perceive and insist that the structure of power was far more robust and differentiated, at least in Western, bourgeois societies. These depended upon a kind of hegemony, or authority-in-depth, through which a great many organs and sectors of the social fabric (‘civil society’) apparently lent themselves to the state’s design. Such ‘consent’ was deeply rooted, and multi-faceted: it could not possibly be explained away in terms of gendarmes and school-room brain-washing (phenomena Gramsci was only too familiar with). Hence any realistic strategy of social revolution was much more complex and long-term than the old model had allowed for. Above all, socialists had to create what they could of their own alternative to the reigning hegemony, by contesting its influence on every level of culture and in civil institutions. They had to have a genuinely different world-view, articulated and combatively pressed home on all social fronts. Without that, there could be no real mutation of society; only farther ‘passive revolutions’, dire compromises like the Risorgimento, or worse, like Fascism.

Gramsci worked out this seductive conception before his imprisonment in 1926, claims Buci-Glucksmann, and then elaborated it in a number of directions in his prison writings. The gist of it was what she sees as ‘a deepening of the concept of the state’. The state means more, not less, when egemonia is correctly grasped and ‘freed from humanist interpretations’. For the fact is that authority-in-depth expresses the state’s cohesive grip of the whole social formation, even while not seeming to. Consensus is not really spontaneous, or civilly willed. Things hang together, and the state is the dominant element in the actual functioning of the social entity, within certain limits set by economic development.

Gramsci’s notion of the dense undergrowth of ‘hegemony’ led him to place previously unheard-of emphasis upon intellectuals. He thought them much more important in the social constellation than earlier Marxists did, and awarded them a correspondingly greater role in the revolutionary process. ‘Cultural revolution’ is the term for this mass conversion. But in the purified perspectives of Gramscism the concept receives a specifically Western meaning – any relationship with fairly recent happenings in China has become inscrutable, on the way to being forgotten altogether. These broad redefinitions hang together. ‘The Gramscian expansion of the concept of intellectual relates to the expansion of the concept of the state,’ comments Buci-Glucksmann in her methodological chapter: ‘there can be no theory of the intellectuals without a theory of the hegemonic apparatuses and a theory of the state, without a specifically philosophical work on the superstructures and on philosophy itself as a class issue in the hegemonic apparatus.’

The remainder of the volume attempts to execute this programme, in a spiral ascent finally depositing the reader on the peaks of APH. The ark of the revolution is up there. Philosophy, too, has a wider, all-pervasive sense stretching from the dronings in Rue d’Ulm to ‘common sense’ and the most tacit of presuppositions. As such, it informs the ‘hegemonic apparatuses’ we all inhabit, moulding them to the state’s requirements. This is why they are, as Althusser liked to label them, ISAs (Ideological State Apparatuses, or underpinnings of the state). The cultural revolution which Leninism entails in the West must understand and displace such mental mountains, in order to succeed: the Modern Prince has to be a movement of ‘intellectuals’ in the non-restrictive sense, diffusing ever more light and conviction around it. Only thus can it avoid turning into a crypto-bureaucratic sect, and distorting the revolution itself along these sinisterly familiar lines. By continuous self-transcendence, in fact, the party-movement could become the catalyst of authentic, active revolution-from-below resistant to tyrannical or inhumane degenerations. And this is Euro-communism’s road forward, beyond Stannism and social democracy.

Having glimpsed the purport of Ms Buci-Glucksmann’s argument, the reader during his upward voyage will be on the look-out for the state. Annoyingly, the wretched object seems always just out of reach. There is a typical bourgeois state, lurking like a metaphysical Fifth Republic behind its seaweed of ISAs and APHs. But – all too plainly – this owes its wan existence to a famous fountainhead of 1970s aberration, Althusser’s essay on ‘Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses’ (translated in the volume Lenin and Philosophy, 1971). As for its successor, the new socialist state, all we really learn is that it will wither away. From being everything the state will become nothing, displaced by a self-regulating civil society. ‘This long-term perspective,’ states the author, ‘is present throughout Gramsci’s writings: the integral state establishes hegemonic apparatuses so as better to prepare its own withering away as a separate state (rather than preparing its reinforcement).’ Nine pages are devoted to this paradox – which is of course explained as dialectic – and to persuading one that it is not merely the old libertarian view in disguise.

All the resources of rigorism will not canonise such a platitude. Nor will the ritual excommunication of Hegel – found in all works of this school – hide the totally idealist tendency of the argument. Politicism, as one is tempted to describe it, is a well-meaning mystique of Marxism. Although only partly resident in Gramsci’s work, its substance is certainly Italian; with a Gallic-theoretical form, it has acquired European pretensions. Its endorsements of itself as the new scroll of Leninism, or the correct ‘class’ position of the 1980s, simply underscore its essential implausibility. Because of her thoroughness, her magisterial scholarship and deep devotion to Leninism, the expression of this contradiction attains its acme in Buci-Glucksmann’s study. After constant imprecations against ‘reductionism’ her perspective upon the most hopelessly human of 20th-century revolutionaries reduces him to algebra; historical materialism is sublated into philosophy, men and women into intellectuals, and society into an ectoplasmic state.

Gramsci was arrested in November 1926, and freed only on his death bed, ten and a half years later. A colleague went through his belongings in the flat in Rome, and discovered an essay, ‘already finished, written on small parliamentary notepaper’ (he had been a deputy in the token parliament permitted by the Fascists for the previous two years). Its title was ‘La Questione Meridionale’. It was not in fact completed, as Camilla Ravera thought, and did not appear in print until four years later, in an obscure exile journal published in Paris. Yet in the long run this fragment was to become possibly the most influential Italian writing of modern times.

Its cardinal significance was quickly understood after World War Two, and is reflected in the judgment made in Giuseppe Fiori’s Life of Gramsci (published in translation in 1971). ‘Gramsci’s Notebooks in prison,’ Fiori says simply, ‘are essentially the continuation and development of the essay on “The Southern Question”.’ This view has of course become the obverse of the new ‘European’ one. For the latter, the essay appears as just one phase (admittedly an important one) in the elaboration of a political philosophy which originated in 1919-20, in the pages of L’Ordine Nuovo, then deepened in the Notebooks. It loses its focal position, to become one more example of how promising the ‘earlier writings’ were. As Anne Sassoon puts it, the text ‘demonstrates his sensitivity to the manifold political nuances of the large variety of social and economic strata in an extremely differentiated social reality’.

What was this ‘Southern Question’? It was the crucial failure of peninsular historical development which had ruined the new Italian state, and made Fascism possible. And – at the same time – it was Gramsci himself. The old Southern intelligentsia were singled out and bitterly arraigned in his analysis, as a stratum which had sold out to the Piedmontese-Italian state apparatus. They had betrayed the Southern masses into a permanent internal colonialism, and made all-Italian unity possible only at the cost of festering internal corruption and chronically uneven development. ‘Politicking, corrupt and faithless’, they had not been content with bleeding the peasants dry and turning Vittorio Emmanuele’s new Kingdom into a Mafia: through Croce’s flatulent Neapolitan philosophy, they had also won a kind of spiritual stranglehold over the new era. La Filosofia dello Spirito cast a cloak of polite European liberalism over what was, in truth, ‘a monstrous agrarian bloc’ functioning as the overseer for Northern capitalism, and within which there existed ‘no intellectual light, no programme, no drive towards improvement or progress’.

Gramsci himself, of course, was a deviant by-product of this group. His father Francesco was a minor state functionary, caught with his hand in the till by a rival clique of intellettuali. That and his accident had obscured Antonu’s own career-prospects. Yet had it not been for the war and post-war upheavals in Turin, he would almost certainly have found a new niche somewhere in the academic branch of this deplorable machinery of hegemony. Saved from it by his communism, Gramsci retained an intense hatred for Mezzogiorno decadence and its effects. Southern Italy – which in this use means ‘backward Italy’, and includes areas of the unredeemed Centre and North – ‘represents a great social disintegration’, the decay and resubjection of the old, pre-unification societies by another alien state. Only surface remedies had been provided for Machiavelli’s chronic ailment. It had survived the centuries to become the main problem for Italian Communism. And its viruses constituted the very intellectual personality, the innermost drama of the founding father of the new revolutionary movement.

The ‘Southern Question’ notes are read in the left-wing political perspective as a plea for social revolution. This they certainly were: Gramsci’s strategic point was that only a new kind of alliance between the Northern working class and the Southern peasantry would ever furnish a basis for a genuine revolution. However, the Southern Question was also the National Question. It was – in effect – the task of this novel hegemonic bloc to constitute an Italian nation and state. The proletariat had to accomplish, by revolution, what the bourgeoisie of the Risorgimento had – as his essay showed so powerfully – failed to do. On its home ground, the spirit of Mazzinian nationalism had been utterly betrayed by Cavour and the Moderati. Everything had been done from above. A rigid, centralised French state-model had been imposed upon peoples who, because of the failure of peninsular absolutism, had never enjoyed any period of slow maturation towards civil homogeneity.

At the 1977 Congress of Gramsci Studies in Florence, Eric Hobsbawm argued that ‘Gramsci’s strategy derived from his concept – wholly original in Marxist terms – of the working class as part of the Nation. As a matter of fact, I am convinced,’ he said, ‘that up to the present he is the only Marxist thinker to give us a basis for integrating the nation, as a social and historical reality, into the framework of Marxist theory. He puts an end to the usual habit of seeing the “national question” as something external to the working-class movement, something towards which we are obliged to define our position.’ Chantal Mouffe does note this prescient observation in her introduction, and concedes that in the past Marxists have been abysmally neglectful of nationalism. But neither she nor her fellow contributors attempt seriously to develop the point, which is also ignored in Gramsci’s Politics and Gramsci and the State.

When given the importance it deserves, Hobsbawm’s insight suggests the following interpretive criteria. Secular Italian problems are crucial for understanding Gramsci the Sardinian-Italian man, and Gramsci the theorist. Neither the post-war PCI totemisation nor the more recent theoreticist and ‘European’ readings have really coped with this, and sometimes they have positively fled from the issue. Closer historical appreciation is, however, a prerequisite for any endeavour to extract a theoretical kernel from the Prison Notebooks. The reasons for this are plain enough, and abundantly, if unwittingly, demonstrated by the studies considered here.

All Gramsci’s key notions, like ‘hegemony’, ‘passive revolution’, ‘the intellectuals’ and so on, were valiant efforts to wrest Italian dilemmas into some kind of theoretical sense. Though brilliantly inventive (and indeed shaming to most of what passes for Marxism), these struggles were only partially successful. Methodologically, their exploratory and uncertain character led to persistent conceptual ‘slippage’, or over-extension, whereby too much was crammed under one or the other heading. Commentators have always underlined the obvious causes of the gnomic aspects of the Notebooks: arduous prison conditions, censorship, and Gramsci’s desperate physical state and personal problems. However, these factors may also have served to amplify certain inherent difficulties of the Gramscian intellectual project. The national realities sketched in ‘The Southern Question’ were imperfectly understood: the Marxist theory brought to these realities was still primitive and defective: it is not surprising that even a theoretical genius, striving to remake both things at once, occasionally tied himself in knots.

Theory must, of course, proceed through such moments of indeterminacy in order to advance. But Gramsci’s own progress was halted by his death. The resultant legacy of a decade of ‘notes’ inevitably poses excruciating problems for anybody anxious to disengage a more finished message or theory. These are not diminished by such moonbeams as ‘antihumanist’ interpretations in terms of ultra-purified ‘problematics’. Judged by Buci-Glucksmann’s example, problematics may be every bit as shifty as people. Those Gramscian ‘expansions’ of the concepts of intellectual and state, which lie at the heart of her argument, were also tentative, searching equivocations upon which it is probably fatal to try and build theoretic structures. In one (Italian) sense they denote too much: in another (theoretical) sense far too little. This is true above all of the concept chosen as foundation-stone for these exercises: egemonia.

Here, Buci-Glucksmann and the others have less excuse, from a straightforward scholarly point of view, since one of the most masterly critiques of the Gramscian inheritance yet written was concerned with precisely this idea. It has the additional peculiarity of having been written in English, and published in London. Those ‘weaknesses in the study of Gramsci in the Anglo-Saxon world’ mentioned by Mouffe and Sassoon are less pervasive than they indicate; nor is their own approach free of naivety and unconscious provincialism. Perry Anderson, in his essay ‘The Antinomies of Antonio Gramsci’, provided an extensive etymology of the concept of hegemony, as well as an analysis of the various meaning-shifts in Gramsci’s adaptation of it. ‘The debt that every contemporary Marxist owes to Gramsci can only be acquitted if his writings are taken with the seriousness of real criticism.’ he concluded, and the truth is that ‘in the labyrinth of the Notebooks, Gramsci lost his way.’

Anderson’s essay appeared in No 100 of the New Left Review (January 1977) and is, most unfortunately, not available in book form. In her Preface to the English version of her book, dated 1979. Buci-Glucksmann devotes only one line of reproof to Anderson’s thesis. This is aimed at a secondary point, and is in any case misplaced. Chantal Mouffe and Anne Sassoon resort to a series of smouldering footnotes, where he is repeatedly told to stand in the corner for ‘reductionism’ and other lapses from the problematic. There are (it may be more relevant to note) political undercurrents in operation here, as much as among the various items in Gramsci and Marxist Theory. One might say, in this case, between a latitudinarian Trotskyism and leftwing Euro-communism.

Does the refusal of Gramsci’s prophetic status condemn him to a merely historical and national importance? Is it ‘reducing’ him finally, like a wine sauce, into an ultramontane oddity? Those vexed by the thought should turn to John Davis’s collection of historical essays, Gramsci and Italy’s Passive Revolution.4 It is concerned with aspects of Italy’s failed revolution, in both the 19th and the 20th centuries. Mr Davis’s lucid introduction emphasises how essential this context remains for reading Gramsci. A propos the Southern Question, above all, ‘Gramsci the historian cannot be separated from, or contrasted to, Gramsci the political theorist or Gramsci the revolutionary.’ Here lay the primary nexus of ‘hegemony’, in the new domestic colonialism of a weak, belated state anxious to establish its place in the European sun. Lay nationalism and forced anticlericalism were ideological compensations for weak industrial development. ‘It was,’ as Davis points out, ‘the sons of the Southern gentry who filled the law courts, the schools, the universities and the political institutions of the liberal state, and it was they who provided the most effective evangelists of the ideology of the state,’ under Croce’s grandisonant guidance. Through this bourgeois ‘cultural resolution’ the real one was contained, and the ‘Cities of Silence’ (or pre-capitalist cities) obtained a historical revenge on the forces disturbing them.

In his own contribution to the volume, Davis carries this analysis further by criticising Gramsci’s famous essay. It is not really accurate to state that the South-North polarity was comparable to the relationship between countryside and city, he argues. This was a post-unification retrospect which even Gramsci had become the victim of In reality, there had been two ‘different and divergent’ economies, the Southern one much less closely related to the North than is now remembered. Great Britain had been its main trading partner, not Piedmont and Lombardy. During the first half of the 19th century the Bourbon state pursued its own fitful programme of modernisation, like the Hapsburgs and Romanoffs but with less success. The resultant crisis discredited that state with devastating completeness, and made the Southern gentry willing to contemplate union. However, this meant that ‘the economic unification of the two regions was the product of a political rather than an economic process.’ There was no complementarity between South and North, as apologists of post-1860 Italy pretended.

Once again, politico-cultural will prevailed over socio-economic realities. The Southern ruling groups abandoned their own society en masse, and attached themselves greedily to the new state apparatus. Hence (concludes Mr Davis) ‘the problems of the South were transposed into an economic and political context in which the need to find solutions was outweighed by the advantages of preserving and exploiting those very weaknesses.’ Without autonomy, deserted by its ruling class, the South was helpless before the predatory capitalism of the North. It became ‘backward’, in short, while at the same time the toxins produced by the disintegration of its ancient regime permeated the new order, in the form of the intellettuali above all.

A more general context for this fatal ‘passive revolution’ is furnished by Paul Ginsborg, in an essay on Gramsci and ‘The Era of Bourgeois Revolutions’. He looks at Gramsci’s categories of ‘active’ and ‘passive’ revolution critically and comparatively, before trying to reassess their significance for Italian history. While lamenting (justifiably) the absence of a satisfactory typology of bourgeois revolution, Ginsborg himself suggests some elements for it. ‘It is impossible to say that any substantial Marxist critique of Gramsci’s historical writing has emerged.’ he observes, attributing the deficiency to a mixture of fideism and polemical need to answer pungent bourgeois critics such as Rosario Romeo. For this reason his own essay is all the more important. It supports Gramsci’s general picture by independent critical scholarship, and suggests new ways of setting Italy in European historical perspective.

It is hard to recommend this and Mr Davis’s two contributions too highly. The rest of Gramsci and Italy’s Passive Revolution does not measure up to them. Although the standard is impressive, the other pieces wander away from Gramsci into very specialised and limited topics. The editor apologises for the lapse into academicism, admitting that the view offered is ‘too narrow to provide the basis for any thorough revision of Gramsci’s arguments’. They are in fact investigations of some aspects of the background to the rise of Fascism, in certain zones of the Centre and North. Even here there is a consolation, however, for the concluding essay by Paul Corner on Fascist economic policy is brilliant and iconoclastic. He questions the ‘stagnationist’ interpretation of the regime’s economics, and traces the development and motives of state intervention after the rhetoric of laissez-faire was left behind. Although Gramsci is scarcely referred to, the theme is relevant. It is instructive, for instance, to compare this picture, tentative as it is, with the theoretical dogmatics on the ‘integral state’ in Buci-Glucksmann and some chapters of Chantal Mouffe’s book.

What alternative vision of Gramsci’s significance is suggested by Davis’s approach, and other work of a similar kind? Only theoretical pulpiteers will sniff reductionism or historicism. In fact, another theory is present, one which locates both Gramsci and politics differently in relation to the mainstream of historical materialism. According to the latter, while certain economic factors or trends are indeed common and generalisable in capitalist history, their political correlates remain far more diverse and sui generis. This is not to be ascribed to anything mysterious about ‘politics’ imagined as an autonomous realm. It is the crassly uneven eruption of modern capitalist societies which is to blame. Modernisation has attacked societies as they were, with utterly divergent pasts, customs and languages; hence it has precipitated state-forms which can only be ‘irrational’ fusions of old and new. The national-particular element, as Hobsbawm says, has remained internal to all subsequent general social development, and crucial to politics. Nineteenth-century liberals and 20th-century socialists pretended that it was some sort of excrescence, always on the way out. In truth – as the last few years have demonstrated conclusively – it will remain intrinsic to all foreseeable socialist development, as well as to the better-known capitalist sort.

In this perspective, Gramsci’s location within the Italian dilemma is his universal significance. It is his marvellous exploration of that particular antagonistic reality which provides the model for socialists elsewhere – not what can be distilled out of it as abstract political theory or revolutionary strategy. He is the greatest example of unyielding, all embracing struggle within one specific field of forces. But we are all in such particular fields. Those plagued with cosmopolitan delusions are no exception, and would do well to turn to Gramsci’s analysis of the Vatican and phoney universalism in Italy’s cultural past.

Gramsci was a man of the abyss. His personality, and the essence of his marathon fight with destiny, were made from the clash between Sardinia and Piedmont, between the most unredeemed, alien South and the feral new capitalism of the North. One could say, rhetorically, that this was a ‘typical’ plight of modern development, even on the world scale. But it means very little in political practice or theory. In practical terms, the abyss is bridged differently everywhere, by a contingent state-form and political system: and there can be no easily abstractable ‘theory’ of these, nor any philosophical ‘strategy’ for transforming them. What counts, therefore, is following Gramsci’s example within one’s own society, employing the innumerable clues and inspiration of the Prison Notebooks to do so. Though not a counsel of despair, this is (obviously) one of caution and patient building. If there is an Age of Gramsci, it will be achieved by transfusing his pessimism of the intelligence into other places and movements. Optimism of the will, like the ‘Modern Prince’, should be left to take care of itself.

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