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

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 Theory[1] and Gramsci’s Politics[2] 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.’

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[1] Gramsci and Marxist Theory edited by Chantal Mouffe. Routledge, 288 p., £9.50, 22 November 1979, 0 7100 0358 7.

[2] Gramsci and the State by Christine Buci-Glucksmann. Lawrence and Wishart, 470pp., £14, 7 February, 0 85315 483 X.

[3] Gramsci’s Politics by Anne Showstack Sassoon. Croom Helm. 261 pp., £12.95, 24 April, 0 7099 0326 X.

[4] Gramsci and Italy’s passive Revolution edited by John Davis Croom Helm. 278 pp., £12.50, 22 November 1979, 0 85664 704 7. Another recent work deserving serious attention is H. Entwistle’s discussion of Gramsci’s ‘anti-Rousseauism’, Antonio Gramsci: Conservative Schooling for Radical Politics, Routledge, 207 pp., £3.95, October 1979, 0 7100 0354 X.