Along with the Georg Lukács in spired-genre of critical and revolutionary Marxism, followed by the thinkers of the Frankfurt School, there is no single thinker that has inspired the arts and the humanities in the 20th century, from radical politics and culture theory to historiography, more than Antonio Gramsci. It was in the late 1970s that Chantal Mouffe had said that “if the history of Marxist theory can be characterised by the reign of ‘Althusserianism’, then, we have now, without doubt, entered a new phase: that of “Gramsciism” (1979). Yet this new age of Gramsciism is itself caught in a problem. After all, so Antonio Santucci says in his intellectual biography of Gramsci, Antonio Gramsci, that the International Gramscian Bibliography, compiled by the American historian John Cammett, has more than 10 thousand titles in various international languages, from Afrikaans to Turkish (p 161). Yet we are caught in a bind, for as Santucci says, “something new must be said about Gramsci” (ibid).
So what is this “new” that we learn from Santucci’s little book? Now we are all familiar of the “old”: what Gramsci did was that it retrieved Marxism from the mechanical materialism, economism and fatalism that were dominant in Marxism since the times of the Second International and made into scholarly theory by Nicolai Bukharin. We know that Gramsci rescued Marxism from not only the fatalists, but also from the dogmatic almost theological-like edifice that the Soviet Union had turned Marxism into, where communism existed, as Santucci rightly notes, “only on paper” (p 172). We also know that Gramsci’s philosophy of praxis made a philosophical turn in the history of Marxism, in the sense that it moved from the theory of iron laws of history to understanding Marxism as historicism and humanism, not to forget his theory of the modern capitalist state as the New Prince. And from the scholarly articles written in journals like Telos and New Left Review, we learnt that Hegelian dialectics became the fundamental question for Gramsci’s idea of the revolution. Consider Gramsci:
In a sense, moreover, the philosophy of praxis is a reform and development of Hegelianism; it is a philosophy that has been liberated from any unilateral and fanatical elements; it is a consciousness full of contradictions, in which the philosopher himself, understood both individually and as an entire social group, not only grasps the contradiction, but posits himself as an element of the contradictions and elevates this element to a principle of knowledge and therefore of action (1987: 404-05).
The Leninist Gramsci
What Santucci does is that he combines the personal aspects of Gramsci’s life with the intellectual and political developments where we see how Gramsci’s idea of the moral and intellectual reform became the necessary conditions for the communist revolution. In this sense Gramsci follows the perspective of the young Marx who had talked of “the reform of consciousness which consists only in making the world aware of its own consciousness…(and) in explaining to it the meaning of its own actions” (Marx 1975a: 144). This deeper cultural revolution reminiscent of the European humanist and revolutionary movement is shown by Santucci to be the essence of Gramsci’s thought. He quotes the young Gramsci who, even before becoming a communist, noted the discontents of bourgeois civilisation:
Many say that by now whatever mankind had to achieve, in matter of freedom and civilisation, has already been achieved. There is nothing else to do other than enjoy the fruits of his struggles. On the contrary, I believe that there still is very much left to do. Mankind is just varnished with civilisation. If merely scratched, the wolfs’ tough skin will appear at once. Instincts have been tamed but not vanquished, and the right of the mightiest is the only accepted one. The French revolution eliminated many privileges and raised the oppressed many, but it did nothing more than replace one oppressing class with another. However, it left us a great teaching: privileges and social differences, being the product of societies and not nature, can be overcome. Mankind needs another bloodbath to remove many of these injustices. Let the oppressors then have no regrets for having left the masses in such a state of ignorance and slavery as they are now! (p 50).
It must be noted that whilst there has been a plethora of Gramsci studies from Palmiro Togliatti and Eurocommunism to Ernesto Laclau, Martin Jacques, Stuart Hall, Ranajit Guha, and the Indian subaltern school, there is a form a social democratic co-option of Gramsci as the Leninist philosopher of praxis to a respectable academic. Santucci’s little book – with a preface by Eric Hobsbawm, foreword by Joseph A Buttigieg and editor’s note by Lelio La Porta – is different from the respectable academic interpretations of Gramsci as the avant-garde philosopher of the superstructure. Just as Lenin (1977a: 476) had once said that “politics is the most concentrated expression of economics”, so too Santucci brings forth the dialectics of economics and politics as the best form of expression of the revolution.
What one finds in Santucci is the reaffirmation of this revolutionary dialectic and the critique of the ideologues of academic scholasticism – Gramsci (following Julian Benda) called these “scholars”, “clerics” who ceased to be the “custodians of justice and naked truth” when they put their scientific, philosophic and artistic activities at the service of bourgeois interests (p 166) – who wrote treatises in the name of Gramsci (namely, Gramsci devoid of Lenin, if not Gramsci devoid of Marxism itself), as if Marxism had missed out the dialectics of the base and superstructure to opt for a theory of economism and vulgar materialism, and presto Gramsci the philosopher of the superstructure and advocate of understanding “civil society” corrected this mistake of economic reductionism to create a theory of the magical superstructure. Let us after all recall that we were told by the academic socialists, that one can change the world without taking power (Holloway 2005). We are also told of the “terrible explosive lie at the heart of Leninism” (ibid: 232). According to this logic, Gramsci advocates “passive revolution”, “hegemony”, “politics as an autonomous science”, the “transition from War of Maneuver to War of Position”; but never of the terrible Leninist lie of the dictatorship of the proletariat. We heard that one face of the exposures of this Leninist so-called lie was the Frankfurt School, whilst the other was Gramsci.
To understand Santucci’s biography of Gramsci, this little context of understanding Gramsci is necessary, in fact understanding this Leninist Gramsci, who refuses to become not only a part of what is recently been called “an amalgam of sheer empiricism and abstract theory” (Gohain 2012: 75), but also refuses to become part of the discourse of what Lenin once called “graduated flunkeys” who “stultify people by their torturous ‘idealism’” (1977b: 320). Santucci’s work is contrary to the above culture theorists. It is bereft of this torturous idealism. Santucci’s rendering of Gramsci, in this sense, is a critique of what Lukács once called “government socialists” (1973: 41).
This book has four chapters besides Santucci’s own introduction: (1) “The Political Writings”, (2) “The Letters from Prison”, (3) “The Prison Notebooks”, and (4) “End-of-century Gramsci”. Besides these it also has two appendixes: “Biographical Chronology” and “Biographies of Main Political Figures”. The book stands out for two reasons, one that we may call after Žižek that it speaks the “politics of truth”; and second, that it speaks, what we call, the “politics of simplicity”. It is also important as Lelio La Porta notes in this volume to recognise Santucci as “the most important philologist of Gramsci’s texts” as well as “Gramsci’s major interpreter”. And it is this method of philology that makes this book an important contribution in Gramsci studies. As against the academic socialists who oppose Lenin to Gramsci, those who claim that Leninism involves domination, whilst Gramsci involves hegemony, we learn that Gramsci did not create the concept of “hegemony”, but we learn how he learnt the dialectics of hegemony from Lenin (p 104). As Santucci quotes Gramsci, “to push the text”, or to make the “texts say more than they really are….is reproachable” (p 46).
The book is contextualised by its simplicity beginning with Gramsci as a journalist. Gramsci is recalled as a person who “was never a professional journalist, who sells his pen to those offering more money” (p 44). Instead Gramsci “reveals a new type of journalism, one whose aim is the building of a truly new society” (ibid). This book refuses to become scholastic. Instead it is biographical, essentially political in the Marxist sense; it combines what Santucci calls, after Togliatti, the “rebellious instinct” with “humanitarianism” (p 49). The book traverses the political journey of Gramsci from his socialist days in Sardina where he learnt the philosophies of Marx along with the political theories of Benedetto Croce and Gaetano Salvemini.
Yet when we saw that Gramsci’s understanding of Marxism as historicism and humanism broke the hegemony of the fatalist mindset of the Second International to create a radical philosophy of praxis, there is another hidden problem that arises. Consider the following: historical materialism (for Gramsci) is to be re-seen as not a theory of natural law, but as the philosophy of will (p 62), such that “the cannons of historical materialism are not as rigid as might have been thought” (p 63). This seems to be fine.
Yet when Gramsci saw the Bolshevik Revolution as a “revolution against Capital” (Gramsci 1977: 34-37) and when he said that Capital
was a critical demonstration of the necessity in Russia first to form a bourgeoisie prior to bringing about a capitalist era and establishing a western type of civilisation, before the proletariat could revolt…(whereby) the Bolsheviks disown Marx (p 63),
Gramsci did not seem to take into account Marx’s own critical accounts of non-western societies where these societies could actually skip the entire capitalist mode of production. After all, Marx’s Ethnological Notebooks were only published in 1974 (by Lawrence Krader) and Gramsci was totally oblivious to this text. But did Gramsci also miss out Marx’s 1877 letter to Mikhailovsky and the 1881 letter to Vera Zasulich where he talked of putting the logic of the “iron laws” of history under the radical politics of suspicion? Remember that Marx did not talk of the unilinear theory of history determined by the fictitious “iron laws”, but a multilinear historicism where one need not pass “through all the dreadful vicissitudes” of capitalism to get to socialism, and that there is a “theoretical possibility of such an evolution” (Marx 1970: 153). Santucci’s version of Gramsci misses out this point.
The drawback of Santucci is that he does not go into the silent and lesser visible layers of Marxism, nor see that Marx’s historical materialism had two rigorously defined sites: that of the deep structure that Marx talked as the “pure form” (1975c: 40) or “classical form” (1970: 152) and the surface level which he designated as the chaotic form (1974: 100). By “pure form” Marx means the phenomenon occurring in “typical form”, “most free from disturbing influence” (1983: 19). For one must understand that never in the real world does history function solely in manner of the static building-like metaphor where a passive superstructure stands on an active economic base that Marxism inherited since Plekhanov. Engels’ letter to Josef Bloc clearly notes this problem (1975b: 682-83).
Santucci misses out this methodological point. Therefore for him (he is quoting the 1859 “Preface” to Marx’s A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy): society can “shorten and lessen the birth-pangs…(but) can neither clear by bold leaps, nor remove by legal enactments, the obstacles offered by the successive phases of its normal development” (p 65). According to him, Marx remained a positivist and naturalist (ibid). He then claims that Marx himself embodied German idealist philosophy thereby creating a “fatalistic interpretation of the historical process” (ibid). What Gramsci did (according to Santucci), was that for the laws of history, he substituted the “subjective element of the will” (ibid).
If Santucci did not talk of Marx’s Ethnological Notebooks and the alternative understanding of history, he also does talk of Marx’s Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 (which was published only in the mid-1920s by David Ryzanov) where the humanist theory of alienation was spelt out by Marx as the most fundamental aspect of modern capitalism. Instead Gramsci rescues Revolutionary Marxism via Hegel, Gentile and Croce where he seemingly anticipates Marx’s Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844:
“ Humanity and reality, the instruments of labour, and the will are not separate, but are connected through the historical act” (pp 65-66).
Genealogy of the Marxist Party
For Gramsci it is this historical act that can solve the problem of fatalism and parliamentary cretinism. And it is the Party as the bearer of the Cultural Education and Intellectual Reform that would realise this historical act. So just as Žižek’s politics of truth – Santucci calls this the “recovery of truth in politics” (p 171) – goes directly to the Leninist theory of the Party, Santucci’s important contribution is locating the genealogy of the Marxist Party in actually existing history: from the Protestant Reformation to German Classical Philosophy. Whilst the dialectics of German Classical Philosophy created the discourse of the “public spirit”, what historical materialism did was transform this discourse of the public spirit that exited only idealistically to the level of “true renewal and progress such as to cover all society down to its deepest roots” (p 170). Gramsci’s “intellectual moral bloc” where the “national popular” played the role of the reform of politics (p 169) is brought by the Party:
The problem extends to the most fundamental political element, the party, which, in turn, ‘must and cannot be but the announcer and organiser of a moral and intellectual reform. In sum, this means preparing the ground for further developing a national popular collective will toward the fulfillment of a higher and complete reform of modern civilisation’ (p 170).
In more than one way Santucci claims that Gramsci does not want to play the hermeneutics of suspicion to the question of the Party. Gramsci does not want to be tied down in the “empiricisation effect” (if we may be permitted to use this term) with the Party question. He does not think it necessary to get bogged down in the debates that were prominent in the early part of the 20th century, namely, the debates between Rosa Luxemburg and Lenin. Instead he goes into another problematic: of ethics and politics, and how ethics is created not by the ruse of a subjective mind where an individuated individual like Immanuel Kant writes the moral law. Instead we have the “intellectual and the moral” which are the “adjectives that indicate the sense of Gramsci’s hypothesis on cultural, political, and economic reform” (ibid).
Santucci brings forth this Leninist Gramsci, a Revolutionary Marxist who whilst refusing to be tied down to the spurious logic of fatalism and determinism, also refused to accept voluntarism. Gramsci was no “workerist” (p 79). Instead he saw the worker as “intellectually lazy” (ibid) who did not “want to see beyond the immediate” (p 80), despite his claims that “everybody is a philosopher” (p 141). For Gramsci, “it is not possible to conceive of any human who is not a philosopher, who doesn’t think, because thought is proper to humanity as such, or at least to any human who is not a pathological cretin” (Gramsci 1987: 347). This complexity of the ideas of the “philosopher’s philosophy” where the “professional philosopher thinks systematically” (p 141), along with his ideas of “common sense thinking”, the “traditional intellectual” and “organic intellectual”, made Gramsci a theoretician of council communism who at the same time “did not give in to the easy demagogy of the moment” (p 80).
Santucci’s work is philosophical in the sense that it goes back to the very basic Marxist question:
How does German Classical Philosophy bequeath to the world, the algebra of the revolution in the quest for the ‘true’, the ‘good’ and the ‘beautiful’, and then transform these into the question of the revolutionary proletariat?
Santucci’s Leninist Gramsci turns to another perspective. The communists have to separate themselves from the reformists who create “proletarian aristocracies” that “rotted away within state parliamentarism” (p 83). Instead they have to understand how the national popular lifts itself to the level of the Party, the Party that is not only closely bound to the masses, but is realised as the philosophical actualisation of the masses in ferment. This binding of the masses and the Party is in Hegelian language the binding of the particular to the universal. The Party is not the one which concocts the revolution as a form of a transcendent “Event” dependent “exclusively on the existence of an ‘official apparatus of functionaries who closely adhere to the official line’” (p 92). The party cells, the party centre and the masses are bound together not in terms of hierarchy, but where the “Russian Communist Party, with Lenin as its leader, was so bound to the entire development of the Russian proletariat, and thus to the development of the entire Russian nation, that it is not possible to imagine one without the other” (pp 93-94).
The apparent false binaries, party/factory committees, party-centre/party-cells that we seem to have uncritically borrowed from the Stalinist counterrevolution yet haunt us. Break this opposition and we free ourselves from the traps made by Stalinism and liberal democracy. It is this philosophy of praxis, this insurrection as art (to recall Lenin once again) that heralds the revolution, in fact the revolution with a revolution.
It was Žižek who once said that speaking of Lenin is not fashionable (2002). One may speak of Marx as the “poet of commodities” singing at Wall Street, but not Lenin who dreamt of zombie ideas like the dictatorship of the proletariat. Santucci in this sense presents Gramsci not as the poet of commodities who sings at the Wall Street but as the zombie, and consequently as a humanist and revolutionary par excellence who constantly reminded us that:
Communism is the near future of human history, and the world will find a unification in it, not through an authoritative, monopolistic one, but through spontaneity, with nations organically joining (p 162).
Murzban Jal (firstname.lastname@example.org) is with the Indian Institute of Education, Pune.
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