U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Gramsci, Our Contemporary (Guest Post by Kurt Newman)

[Editor’s Note: With this post, Kurt Newman begins a six-week guest posting gig for us.  Kurt is a Ph.D. candidate at UC Santa Barbara: he works primarily with Nelson Lichtenstein, George Lipsitz, and Alice O’Connor. His area of concentration is history of capitalism/labor history, with equally divided interests in their cultural, intellectual, and legal dimensions. His dissertation is entitled “The Multiplication of Everything: Intellectual Property, Cultural Work, and Pragmatist  Thought in the Golden Age of Analog.” He came to intellectual consciousness as a teenager during the raging Theory Wars of the 1990s, and has maintained an active interest in the vicissitudes of Marxism, psychoanalysis, feminism, deconstruction, post-structuralism, and Queer and Critical Race Theory ever since. He tells me that he’s hoping to use his posts at the USIH blog to track the eccentric fortunes of post-’68 Big Ideas, with an eye to what may be useful for intellectual historians. — Ben Alpers]

USIH blogger Robert Greene and I have been talking offsite a bit about Antonio Gramsci, so it struck me that this might be a good venue for some reflection upon Gramsci, “our contemporary.” I hope this discussion will be legible and useful to both readers who have never read a word of The Prison Notebooks, as well as to those who have been thinking with Gramsci for some time. This will be the first of two essays: next week we will take up the question of how Gramsci’s central term, “hegemony” might remain useful in current research in intellectual and cultural history.

To begin—let’s locate Antonio Gramsci in time and space, and reconstruct a bit of the intellectual history surrounding Gramsci’s steady growth in stature and influence since the 1970s.

Antonio Gramsci was born in Ales (Cagliari, Sardinia) on January 22, 1891, to a petty bourgeois family. Gramsci won a scholarship in 1911 to study at the University of Turin. In Turin, he met Palmiro Togliatti, who was to become a key political ally, and to varying degrees––depending on the account one favors––his theoretical legatee (Togliatti would later become leader of the Italian Communist Party, or PCI).

While working towards a degree in linguistics in Turin, Gramsci began to synthesize the major intellectual influences that would later guide his thought: Machiavelli, Croce, Gentile, Sorel (a peculiar faculty for any Leftist, to be sure: what he took from these odd sources was a mixture of historicism, instrumental reason, and theorization of the popular will and “national myth”).

Gramsci’s political maturation coincided with the disasters and traumas of World War I. By 1917, Gramsci had become enthusiastic about Lenin’s leadership of the Russian Revolution. The emergence of a fascist counter-subversive movement in Italy was by war’s end clearly discernible in outline, a trend that sharpened the political instincts of activists who had previously assumed that resistance to socialism in the West would take a more or less liberal form.

In 1920, Gramsci was further radicalized by the militancy of autoworkers in Turin who launched a general strike and set up workers’ councils in defiance of Party leadership. Some of Gramsci’s earliest important pieces wax rhapsodic about these neo-syndicalist experiments; somewhat confusingly, “syndicalist” would later become a term of opprobrium in Gramsci’s shorthand: a synonym for “labor aristocracy.”

After the war, Gramsci spent several years in Moscow, working within the official structure of Soviet Communism. While Gramsci was abroad, Mussolini came to power; a wave of arrests of Gramsci’s PCI comrades followed. After returning to Italy, Gramsci himself was arrested in November of 1926. At his sentencing in 1928, the prosecuting attorney Michele Isgro is famously rumored to have said: “We must stop this brain from working for twenty years.”

Gramsci began writing his prison notebooks in 1929. In declining health, the 1930s saw Gramsci write most of his most influential essays, on subjects ranging from the divergence of the Eastern and the Western fronts in the war against bourgeois capitalism, the political philosophy of Machiavelli, new historiographical notions of the “conjuncture,” the “national-popular” and the “historic bloc,” and the American-style capitalism of “Fordism.”

In April of 1937, Antonio Gramsci died. Following his death, bits and pieces of the prison notebooks were released, often with additional editing by Left trustees of his literary estate. By the 1950s, better editions of The Prison Notebooks began to be published in Italy. In the mid-1960s, the New Left Review began to publish English translations of Gramsci’s work. The CPUSA’s International Press published the classic Quintin Hoare and Geoffrey Newell-Smith translation of Selections from the Prison Notebooks in 1971.

Gramsci’s Afterlives

Gramsci’s stock steadily rose over the course of the 1970s and 1980s. Perry Anderson wrote an ostentatiously erudite review, “The Antinomies of Antonio Gramsci,” for the New Left Review in 1976, announcing: “Today, no Marxist thinker after the classical epoch is so universally respected in the West as Antonio Gramsci.” Anderson pointed to just-published works of British Marxist historiography and Cultural Studies that owed significant debts to Gramsci’s thought: Raymond Williams’s “Base and Superstructure” (1973), Eugene Genovese’s Roll, Jordan Roll (1974), Eric Hobsbawm’s The Age of Capital (1975), E.P. Thompson’s Whigs and Hunters (1975). To that list, we could surely add Douglas Hay’s edited volume Albion’s Fatal Tree: Crime and Society in Eighteenth Century England (featuring contributions from Thompson and a young Peter Linebaugh), and many, many other books as well.

Despite the sophistication of these works, a popular understanding of Gramsci as theorist of “hegemony” (rendered synonymous with something like “the theory of how power doesn’t just work through violent coercion but also through consent”) began to take root in the humanities and social sciences. This take on Gramsci is so prevalent that some readers may be moved to ask: wait, isn’t Gramsci all about telling the story of how power manipulates the consent of the subordinated in systems of political and economic domination?  The answer, I think, is: no.

Readings of “hegemony” as “the theory of how power doesn’t just work through violent coercion but also through consent” began, in the United States, with Eugene Genovese. Searching for heterodox Marxist theories with which to come to terms with the internal dynamics of the slave South, Genovese became an enthusiastic reader of Gramsci in the 1960s. As Tim Barker brilliantly describes in a paper delivered at the recent S-USIH conference, Genovese was uniquely situated to serve as broker of Gramsci’s ideas to the American Left: both because of Genovese’s fluency in Italian as a member of a Brooklyn Italian family, and because his own experiences in the Communist Party led him to seek out a critical heritage in opposition to Stalinist orthodoxy.

But, as Barker further demonstrates, Genovese’s Gramsci was a very specific Gramsci. Genovese used Gramsci to buttress paternalist readings of history that Gramsci himself would likely have disliked. Genovese’s deployment of this distorted and compressed Gramsci as a guide to the history of slavery easily shaded into neo-Confederate nostalgia (which is where, as we all now, Genovese rather pathetically ended up). Transposed from the antebellum South to the modern US, Gramsci-as-theorist-of-consent became just another prophet of “false consciousness.” Workers did not even recognize, in this formulation, that their formal freedoms and quests for regular paychecks were integral mechanisms in the maintenance of their oppression. As an autoworker asked a Left political scientist who had shown up to lead a union education workshop in the 1970s, having pre-distributed some readings for homework: “Professor, what the fuck does H-E-G-E-M-O-N-Y mean?” This is a “Gramsci” with whom I think we can happily dispose.

From other directions, Gramsci became hot again in the 1970s and 1980s. As interest grew in operaismo, or Italian autonomist Marxism, New York publishing house Semiotext(e) released the volume Post-Political Politics (1980), which included substantial discussion of Gramsci’s continuing relevance and influence. The British post-punk band Scritti Politti took its name from a corruption of one of Gramsci’s book titles, and achieved that rarest of accomplishment, the successful agitprop pop song, with the Gramscian single “Hegemony” (1979).

Gramsci also became an inspiration for many of the most sophisticated Left studies of race and racism. Stuart Hall’s edited volume Policing the Crisis: Mugging, the State, and Law and Order was published in 1978; many of the contributors sound Gramscian themes in their analyses of British racism and diagnoses of the coming Thatcherite disavowal of “society.” In the early 1980s, Michael Omi and Howard Winant completed their Gramscian re-situation of the politics of race, Racial Formation in the United States, while Hall’s “Gramsci’s Relevance for the Study of Race and Ethnicity” was published in 1986 and soon became a pivotal text for Critical Race Theory and cultural studies.

Within the US Left, at the dawn of the Reagan Era, Genovese’s short-lived journal Marxist Perspectives was launched as a self-consciously Gramscian project. The American Left historians most influenced by Gramsci—Mike Davis and Michael Denning–– began to publish articles that anticipated their respective Gramscian syntheses: Davis’s Prisoners of the American Dream (1986), and Denning’s Mechanic Accents (1987) and The Cultural Front (1996).

Pointing to more continental theoretical adoptions of Gramsci, in 1979 Routledge published Chantal Mouffe’s edited volume Gramsci and Marxist Theory. In the introduction, Mouffe wrote:

For some years now we have been witnessing an unprecedented development of interest in the work of Antonio Gramsci and the influence of his thought is already very extensive in several areas of Marxist enquiry. This phenomenon, which has developed in the wake of the events in 1968, is certainly linked to a renewal of interest amongst intellectuals in the possibilities of revolutionary transformation in the countries of advanced capitalism. Following a period of pessimism which had caused intellectuals to turn to the countries of the Third World, seeing these as the weakest link the imperialist chain and the natural starting point for the revolutionary process, there is now emerging some sort of consideration of the specific conditions in the West. More recently, the rise of ‘Eurocommunism’ has played a very important role in the extension of this phenomenon, though we have to acknowledge that opinions are very divided on the legitimacy of attributing the theoretical paternity of this movement to Gramsci, as the debate currently taking place in Italy on hegemony and pluralism would suggest. This divergence concerning the political significance of Gramsci’s work is by no means the first to arise. In fact, since his death in 1937, Gramsci has been subject to multiple and contradictory interpretations, ultimately linked to the political line of those who claimed or disclaimed him.

Mouffe’s analysis points to several perhaps obvious but nevertheless extremely important reasons for the Gramsci vogue of the 1970s. The Western Left had been East-obsessed for decades (not coincidentally, Edward Said’s strongly Gramscian-flavored Orientalism was published in 1978). Serial-monogamist romances with first Soviet and then Chinese Communisms had occasioned a certain forgetfulness among Western Marxists vis-à-vis the need to theorize local political formations. With the “Eurocommunist” moment approaching––that is, in the most optimistic formulations, the surprising opening in the late 1970s of a “parliamentary road to socialism”––Gramsci’s writings on “war of position” versus “war of maneuver” seemed to many to offer the most coherent itinerary (allowing myself a bit of license to editorialize: I think “war of position” and “war of maneuver” are Gramsci’s least novel, and least profound, contributions to the Left lexicon: they also lend a needlessly macho militaristic tinge to discussions that would be better served by softer sensibilities).

Intriguingly, writing in 1979, Mouffe does not emphasize the feature of Gramsci’s thought that would animate the controversial arguments in her coauthored text with Ernesto Laclau, Hegemony and Socialist Strategy: Towards a Radical Democratic Politics (1985).  In that text, in maddeningly inelegant prose, Laclau and Mouffe propose several operationalizations of Gramsci’s thought that, if translated into plain language, are actually very useful—especially for historians.

Most provocatively, Laclau and Mouffe apply Jacques Lacan’s idea of the node de capiton or “quilting point” to Gramsci’s cultural analysis, as a way of squaring the circle of Marxist foundations with a poststructuralist anti-foundationalism. Lacan’s “quilting point” is an easy and useful metaphor: it comes from the world of furniture-making. As Bruce Fink explains, there is a certain way of gathering together the stuffing in a pillow and, in effect, securing it to itself: this is called a “button-tie,” and it gives shape to a cushion; it stops the stuffing from moving aroun

This is what Lacan had in mind as a model for language, which is otherwise a system of endlessly sliding signifiers and signifieds. We might think of two parallel tracks: vowels and consonants, inflections and accents, speeding along on a top level; ideas and referents speeding along on a bottom level. To make this sliding stop, one needs a “button tie.” Lacan suggests that this is the function fulfilled by the “master signifier” (let’s say, “Father” as the fixed point around which a paternal order might be built: a “master signifier” that in a language like French, stops a certain sliding around of semiotic substance by fixing the relation of certain marks and sounds and meanings. We would probably all agree that there is no “French” without this “button tie”). For Laclau and Mouffe, “hegemony” is entirely coextensive with the business of working with these “button ties.” (Parenthetically, we should note that this Gramscian articulation of Lacan’s idea of “quilting point” is the conceptual core of the political philosophy of Laclau and Mouffe’s younger colleage Slavoj Žižek).

A perfect example is found in a passage from The Southern Question (1930), a text in which Gramsci meditates on the political problem of the historical division of the Northern proletarian and Southern peasant, and urges a cultural initiative to unite the two exploited sectors against the landed gentry, the urban bourgeoisie, and, in the South, the Catholic Church.

Gramsci describes the following scenario: certain peasants from the Italian South, members of a military unit called the Brigata Sassari, have been brought to Turin in 1917 to quell a strike. A tannery worker approaches one of these soldiers and asks: “Why have you come to Turin?”

The soldier answers: “We have come to shoot the gentry who are on strike.” “But it is not the gentry who are on strike, it is the workers and they are poor.” “Here, everyone is of the gentry; they wear collars and ties; the earn 50 lire a day; I know poor people, I know how they dress; in Sassari, there we have a lot of poor people; all us peasants, we are poor and earn 1.5 lire a day.” “But I’m a worker, too, and I am poor.” “You’re poor because you’re Sardinian.” “But if I strike with the others will you shoot me too?” The soldier thought for a minute, then placing his hand on my shoulder he said: “Listen, when you strike with the others, stay home!”

And yet, Gramsci writes, within a few years the Brigade was moved away from Turin, split up, and the older soldiers discharged. As they left Turin, “their songs, though still songs of war, no longer had the same content as the ones they sang on their arrival.”

This is the key, I think, to all of Gramsci’s thought: it is worth dwelling on for a moment. What has happened to the members of the Brigata Sassari is a new organization of perception around a new master signifier. Whereas previously “North/South” or “gentry/peasant” or “high income/low income” had organized the soldiers’ perception of social stratification, the work of the Party had created a new structure of meaning: organized, perhaps, around the master signifier of “exploiter/exploited” or “dominant/dominated.” “Hegemony” means nothing more than the cultural work of displacing an old master signifier and installing a new one. That, as I hope to demonstrate in my next essay, makes it a uniquely useful historiographical concept.

Works Cited

 Perry Anderson, “The Antinomies of Antonio Gramsci,” NLR, 1976.

Tim Barker, “War of Position: Eugene D. Genovese as Reader of Antonio Gramsci.”

Bruce Fink, Lacan to the Letter (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2004).

David Forgacs, ed. The Antonio Gramsci Reader (New York: NYU Press, 2000).

Antonio Gramsci, The Southern Question. Translated and Introduction by Pasquale Verdicchio (Boca Raton: Bordighera Press, 2005)

Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe, Hegemony and Socialist Strategy: Towards a Radical Democratic Politics (London: Verso, 1985).

Lucio Magri, The Tailor of Ulm: A History of Communism (London: Verso, 2011).

Chantal Mouffe, Gramsci and Marxist Theory (London: Routledge, 1979).

21 Thoughts on this Post

  1. this is great, and a worthwhile discussion to have.

    although it may be that hegemony is useful for historians above all as a description of a fact about a given discursive field, i would have thought that gramsci himself placed rather more emphasis on politics in its rawest state. isn’t there an equation somewhere in the Notebooks: state + ideology = hegemony ? i can’t dig through my old notes right now, and am doubtless comically wrong about the equation. but certainly the war of position vs the war of maneuver suggests a way of thinking about politics that is not so (simply) symbolic as Laclau and Mouffe frequently sound.

    also, glad you mentioned the southern question. interesting debate to have about gramsci as an anticolonial thinker–based on an colonized southern italy.

    looking forward to the next posts—-

  2. Thanks so much for this comment. Yes, Gramsci was certainly less of a proto-poststructuralist than Laclau and Mouffe or I have presented him here (L and M in fact borrow his image of scraping off “encrustations” of idealism in his early essay on Marx’s Capital for their own scraping off of “encrustations” of “economism” in The Prison Notebooks–and for “economism” we could substitute your felicitous phrase “politics in its rawest state”).

    I don’t agree with L and M that Gramsci errs in his “economism” or that there is anything necessarily problematic about his relatively conventional writings about classes, class struggle, the need for political leadership, etc. But the question for intellectual historians then becomes, again: why Gramsci? There were dozens of eloquent writers–including Trotsky himself–writing similar stuff at about the same time. This is the question I want to keep thinking about. (From the other direction, one might ask: why was Gramsci seen as the obvious pre-poststructuralist as opposed, say, to Ernst Bloch, whose “rediscovery” happened much more slowly).

    What you draw attention to is a key point about why Gramsci has been so popular: he is both a thinker of symbolic struggle around perceptual politics AND a more or less Leninist theorist of organized struggle towards socialist ends (in this latter respect, Gramsci’s great influence is surely Clausewitz). There is no question that the appeal of Gramsci to young activists today lies, to a great degree, in his orientation to the “reality principle”–he writes often of the need for discipline, virtue, self-sacrifice, etc. As ever, “wo es war soll ich werden” proves a winning formula.

  3. Kurt,

    Thanks a million for opening this discussion. I, for one, am quite happy that it’s occurring in this discursive space.

    I’ve read Genovese’s *Roll, Jordan, Roll* and the two Denning books. And I’ve read around Laclau and Mouffe in Guillory’s *Cultural Capital*. But, back when I first read Genovese and Denning, I was unprepared to absorb their Gramscian underpinnings (plus, I wasn’t then sympathetic to neo-Marxist thought—a story I plan on telling in my Thursday post). In sum, other parts of their works impressed me at the time.

    I’m in the middle of a theoretical revamping that involves Critical Theory. It’s a renovation that has been in the works for some time, but only now am I finding the space to do it thoroughly. As such, I’m wondering if you plan to cover what, if any, relationships developed between Critical Theorists and Gramsci’s thought in the 1950s, 60s, 70s, and onward. Did Habermas incorporate Gramsci in his work? Perhaps ‘hegemony’ is part of the link between the two camps of thinkers? I know that late Critical Theory (Horkheimer, Adorno in the 1940s/1950s) abandoned praxis. But I’m curious which of their descendants picked up that ball again, and perhaps had Gramsci as a lead blocker? (Aside: Apologies for the football analogy; I’m still trying to assess how my KC Chiefs are going to beat Denver the next time around!).

    Thanks again for the post, and thanks in advance for what will follow. – TL

  4. Tim, thanks so much for this wonderful comment. I love football analogies, but I regret that as a Canadian, they will all be reformatted to a slightly different aspect ratio and every team will be called the “Rough Riders.”

    As far as Critical Theory goes, this is a great question. I wonder if any of Martin Jay’s students could be deputized to ask Jay about whether post-WWII Frankfurt School thinkers read or wrote about Gramsci. I have a comrade who studied with Emanuele Saccarelli at SDSU, probably the best working Gramsci-ologist in the US, and I will ask him, too.

    In general, I think that one often discovers a surprising lack of trans-national reading among Leftists and deep commitments to national political/theoretical conversations. (Thus, even in Canada, a certain anti-Americanism, as often a reactionary as a progressive impulse, can often be found on the intellectual Left: “American Theory” is dismissed because it is “too American,” i.e. flamboyant, careerist, loud, arrogant, etc., leading to the substitution of mediocre Canadian alternatives).

    Foucault, I think, confessed to not getting around to Adorno, et al, for a long time because he was reading other things. The French theorists mostly read Gramsci mostly because Althusser had made him a proto-structuralist Marxist in several essays. The exception to this rule can be found in certain sectarian movements: thus US Trotskyists often read Cornelius Castoriadis, and French Maoists read German Maoists, etc.

    As far as praxis goes: this is such a complicated question. The theorists who stuck with “praxis,” if I am getting your usage right, were the ones most connected to libidinal politics, like Marcuse. Gramsci would not ever be their guy: too rationalistic, pragmatic, and comfortable with the idea of the Party.

    In many ways, the intellectual who might be most interesting to you vis-a-vis your current thinking is Göran Therborn, the Swedish political sociologist and Cambridge professor. His What Does The Ruling Class Do When It Rules? remains a very interesting synthesis of theory and praxis.

  5. yes! particularly about Althusser and Foucault. Although the latter has his own sort of critical theory, and in particular his own relation to Kant and Hegel.

    I stopped back by because I’ve been thinking of “ostentatiously erudite” as a description of Anderson’s Gramsci essay, which I read first as “ostensibly erudite.”

  6. Kurt,
    A great and illuminating post! What strikes me as equally important to the story you have sketched–a witty and thorough reception history–is where Gramsci did not especially take hold. Perry Anderson, I think, in his book about Jameson (The Origins of Postmodernity, which he calls a book about postmodernism but is really about Jameson), points out that in his book on Western Marxism, Marxism and Form, Jameson completely neglects Gramsci. In fact, I’m not sure Jameson has ever written an essay entirely devoted to Gramsci.
    What separates Jameson from most of his generation and from most of the following generation is precisely his openness to the concept of totality, and it seems to me that we can see in the embrace of the concept of hegemony (and, incidentally, in a concept I have often imagined as hegemony’s pair, Raymond Williams’s over-used phrase “structure of feeling”) a side-stepping of totality, a totality without tears. It seems to me that historians’ use of Gramsci, as of Williams and in a not dissimilar manner Foucault, in the 1970s and 1980s was grounded above all in an aversion to the totalizations of an older Marxism that had become entirely associated with Stalinism (as you indicate above).
    I’m really looking forward to your next post! Are you going to talk about Lears’s Gramsci essay?

    • Thanks so much for this comment. Absolutely spot on re: totality. That is the feared object around which so many Gramscians were dancing in the 1980s. Nowadays, I don’t get the sense that anybody is especially afraid of totality, which is an interesting turn.

      It is intriguing to note that many of Jameson’s students–like Michael Denning––would have been knee deep in Gramsciana when they were studying with Jameson. (It occurs to me that, given what I know about your own academic work, you might be in a position to find out for us 🙂 So it must have been in the air and the subject of debates…

      But if it turns out there isn’t a mention of Gramsci in the Political Unconscious, that would be a big thing to notice. Especially since Jameson wrote that essay on Kenneth Burke in 1978, and Burke’s 1935 American Writers’ Congress speech was, in essence, a mild-meld with Gramsci (though AG and KB were no doubt unaware of each other’s existence)

      That also makes Jameson’s love of Deleuze very strange, though, doesn’t it? Or does it just make Jameson, like Badiou and Zizek, part of a camp that wants to insist on Deleuze as a secret totalist… hmm, very interesting.

      And yes, (a critical take on) Lears on Gramsci, as well as (a celebratory take on) Guha and the Subaltern Studies folks, should be part of part two, I hope.

      • There are two index entries in Political Unconscious to Gramsci (and 1 in Marxism and Form, 2 in Postmodernism), but all are negligible–just grouping Gramsci with or opposing him to other Marxists with whom Jameson deals in greater detail. It’s an odd absence, and I’ll have to think more about it. (Or maybe I’m just missing a key text that explodes this line of thinking.)

        I can try to find out more of the story, but my guess about Denning is that he came to Yale (and thus to Jameson) with a firm grounding in Gramsci already laid by his time at Birmingham’s CCCS and with Hall.

  7. I have nothing insightful to add to this lovely discussion, but I had to ask — if explaining Gramsci to those in the sciences, it would seem to me a useful metaphor to say, “the button-tie is like the Higgs boson of language,” no?

    • Thanks so much for this comment, and at risk of excessive clubbiness, I hope I may be allowed to express admiration for and agreement with your recent posts.

      Higgs Boson might be a very good analogy, but I am too science-dumb to say for sure! My only question about HB is whether it doesn’t have a kind of substantiality that a “master signifier” usually doesn’t. On the other hand, it has a very similar function: once “proven” via Lando Calrissian Collidor or what have you, it remains for most scientists a fantasy object–to the extent that it isn’t “re-checked” every time a theory is worked on or taught.

      I think, science-dumbness caveats fully stated upfront, that Kuhn’s Copernican Revolution book describes the process of “button tying” beautifully; and in a different sense, so does George Caffentzis’s writing on the 17th and 18th century Royal Society and the parallels between Newton’s scientific research and economic work (which is a nice way to talk about overseeing the torture of counterfeiters). Why did Newton posit a particular vision of the physical universe and fear counterfeit currency? If there is a connection between the two–and other dimensions of the post-Restoration weltanschauung, as well–then all this mumbo jumbo about master signifiers and the politics of perception might be historiographically useful.

      Finally: for a scientifically minded skeptic who was nonetheless open to Marxist discourse theory (this is a person I would like to meet!), I might recommend set theory as the privileged analogy; see e.g. :http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zermelo–Fraenkel_set_theory and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paul_Cohen_(mathematician)

      Set theory is Alain Badiou’s favorite example of what we might call “hegemonic articulation,” and though Badiou is not a Gramscian, he wants to use Paul Cohen’s mathematical notion of “forcing” in set theory in a manner that could easily be seen as complementary to Laclau and Mouffe’s “button tie” metaphors (which makes sense, because Badiou, Laclau and Mouffe are all Lacanians of one sort or another).

  8. Fantastic post, Kurt. It is interesting to see your defense of Gramsci at a time when scholars in my field, literary studies, have all but abandoned Gramsci (and with him, Laclau and Mouffe), turning to more fashionable theorists like Deleuze, Agamben, Badiou and Zizek (who broke up with Laclau over the latter’s embrace of a populism for the left, which Zizek decried as just another form of lefty liberalism. There are other significant differences between the two beyond this, of course, especially Laclau’s investment in the demos as a subject of transformation). My problem with Laclau, which is commonly raised, is that his descriptive analysis of hegemony becomes prescriptive in his work, as if it could be inherently linked to a project of radical, participatory democracy instead of an authoritarian, paternalist state. This issue in Laclau is embedded in the history of Argentine political culture, especially the heterogeneity of Peronism, which has had both left and right-wing orientations. In fact, Laclau’s critique of Cristina Fernández, whom he supports and has assisted as advisor, is that she is actually not populist enough.

    Nevertheless, it should be noted that the theoretical engagement with hegemony in Latin America has been quite pronounced (after all, Laclau is Argentine). I recommend that you check out Jon Beasley Murray’s Post-Hegemony: Political Theory and Latin America. It is one of many recent works that seek to go beyond Gramscian understandings of the body politic. Part of this critique has to do with how hegemony is framed as a signifier of national / nationalist culture, limited to the “people,” how it cannot take into account other social formations that have developed in the contemporary world, whose relations with the state and capital are not constituted through ideology. In
    Without History: Subaltern Studies, the Zapatista Insurgency, and the Specter of History, José Rabasa has developed a friendlier critique of Gramsci, directed mostly at his political vanguardism. Through the example of the Zapatista movement, Rabasa focuses on the spontaneity of subaltern culture as a way out of hegemony.

    • Thanks so much for this amazing comment! I have already made a note to get my hands on these texts.

      I had hoped to use Bosteels’s book on Marx and Freud in Latin America as a way to bring in the Argentinian angle, but he doesn’t dwell on the Laclau/Gramsci relation at length–though he does suggest that Laclau’s thought is powerfully shaped by more local debates about the lumpen, and that the rather appalling antipathy of Marx and Engels themselves towards the lumpen motivated Laclau’s rethinking of orthodox class analysis. I will talk a bit more about Laclau next week–in the context of Stuart Hall and the theory of “articulation” (Hall always cites Laclau as his theoretical inspiration for the notion of “articulation” as the key to postmodern formations of what I guess we would today call “intersectionality”). “Articulation” still really appeals to me as a term and a framework.

      Thanks again for the wonderful suggestions and help.

      • Ha, I use articulation a lot myself too. And it’s great you will delve more deeply into Laclau next week, I confess I sympathize more with his theoretical analysis–alongside that of the other post-Althusserian biggie, Balibar–than with the Zizeks and Badious of the world. Mouffe’s ideas on antagonism have also been quite valuable too, let’s not forget her (I liked that you quoted from that volume she edited, sometimes we forget she had her own individual career before teaming up, intellectually and romantically, with Laclau). And yes, Laclau seeks to revalorize the lumpen, but he doesn’t really take into account Marx’s rethinking about it in relationship to the French Commune (same thing goes for Laclau’s ungenerous reading of Fanon). This is all in The Populist Reason, a book in which Laclau wields a big axe. Specially against Hegel (he even says “forget Hegel” at one point!)…this is mainly the reason why Zizek got all hostile against him, Hegelian idealist that he is.

  9. Wonderful introduction to Gramsci, Kurt–I look forward to next week’s essay. Sorry I’m a bit late to the conversation (I was enjoying hanging out with LD in St. Louis), but did I miss where Lears’s essay on cultural hegemony comes in, or shouldn’t it?


    That was how I was introduced to Gramsci, via Susan Curtis. Curtis’s A CONSUMING FAITH remains one of the most interesting Gramsci interjections into American religious history.

    • Thanks so much for the comment, and for the recommendation of the Curtis book–I will check it out immediately.

      As far as the Lears essay goes: I will discuss it next week, but not at any great length.

      I should have put it in this week’s reception history, certainly. My bad. To be honest, I am not crazy about the essay. The main points are covered, I hope, in my discussion of Genovese and the de-Marxified standard-issue understanding of hegemony as “how people collude in their own oppression.”

      Lears spends a lot of time on the questions of Gramsci’s renovation of vulgar Marxism and base and superstructure, which I think are just boring, scholastic problems… I want to encourage people to take radical theory seriously, if only to dismiss it with more nuance, and I don’t want to put anybody to sleep with yet another go-round of determinism and economism, structuralism and culturalism, etc.

      So, perhaps, there is a polemical edge to the exclusion.

      Why I really don’t care for the 1986 essay is that it says, in essence: “let’s abstract and remove this philosophical project just enough from its original moorings so that it can become the source for unanswerable existential questions–agency vs. accommodation, structure vs. power”–that I think, on pragmatist grounds, historians should stop asking. They are wastes of time.

      They also represent failures to really try to think, patiently, with the thinkers we draw upon–a duty that I take seriously in an old-fashioned way.

      We have to figure out what problems Gramsci was trying to solve–and they were not the problems of “overcoming orthodoxy.” The problems *required* that Gramsci overcome orthodoxy, or try to–but the technical questions were external to the discourse: such as: how to knit together a political body from North and South in order to articulate Italian identity in a socialist, rather than fascist, version of solidarity.

      Lears’s methods in that essay seem comparable to me to a historian saying, e.g.: let’s take Antonin Scalia seriously as an intellectual, and try to operationalize the idea of “constitutional originalism.” Now, sure, it has some political coloration, but we need not be conservatives to get something out of the procedure of focusing solely on the search for the Founders’ “original intent.”

      That would be nuts, wouldn’t it? On the one hand, it would be redundant: historians already do that–there would be no need to announce and come to terms with a theoretical innovation (just as “hegemony,” as is commonly used, is part of every political theory of sovereignty since Hobbes and also most versions of common sense). Scalia, et al, were intervening and saying: we should study this and just this–and therein lies the differentia specifica.

      On the other hand, such an application of Scalia would wish away the very antagonisms that drove the “originalists” to come up with their ideas in the first place, and it would obscure the stakes of choosing, say, a progressive, instrumentalist, pragmatist jurisprudence as opposed to a minimalist and conservative one.

      Anyways: thanks again for the comment, and apologies for the Castro-esque length of the response. I am happy to have fleshed out this critique (which may be very idiosyncratic–a lot of people love that essay) here. It will allow me to accentuate the positive, as I try to do as an optimist of both intellect and will, in my next post, I hope.

      • Thanks very much for this, Kurt. I’ll repeat, I’m really looking forward to learning more about “our contemporary.”

  10. Lears’s methods in that essay seem comparable to me to a historian saying, e.g.: let’s take Antonin Scalia seriously as an intellectual, and try to operationalize the idea of “constitutional originalism.” Now, sure, it has some political coloration, but we need not be conservatives to get something out of the procedure of focusing solely on the search for the Founders’ “original intent.”

    FTR, the primary “originalist” dynamic is “original meaning,” the text as understood by those who ratified the Constitution. As Madison himself notes, the “intent” of the Framers [preferable to “Founders”] is, well, in his own words

    “As a guide in expounding and applying the provisions of the Constitution, the debates and incidental decisions of the Convention can have no authoritative character.

    However desirable it be that they should be preserved as a gratification to the laudable curiosity felt by every people to trace the origin and progress of their political Institutions, & as a source perhaps of some lights on the Science of Govt. the legitimate meaning of the Instrument must be derived from the text itself; or if a key is to be sought elsewhere, it must be not in the opinions or intentions of the Body which planned & proposed the Constitution, but in the sense attached to it by the people in their respective State Conventions where it recd. all the authority which it possesses.”—Letter to Ritchie, September 15, 1821

    Of course we wouldn’t take Antonin Scalia seriously as an intellectual, and try to operationalize the idea of “constitutional originalism.” But if we were tempted to, it would be along those lines.

      • With all due respect, Scalia is not Limbaugh or “a” Limbaugh, although I suppose from some locations on the political spectrum, such people all look alike. Ahem.

        And though I see where you’re going with this, I’ll be a good sport and not ruin your punchline, Kurt. Rock on. ;-P

  11. Kurt,

    Great post. I remember reading Gramsci in a class with Mike Rogin, who to my mind is one of the great Marxist cultural critics/historians of the late twentieth century. I was surprised at how hostile he was to Gramsci. Basically, he questioned how unorthodox a Communist Gramsci really was. For example, he interpreted “organic intellectual” in Gramsci’s terms to mean simply a member of the Communist Party, which accepted that the party was the sole legitimate representative of the working class.

    Rogin was coming from a socialist tradition always vigilant about “Stalinism” in any guise. But I wonder if you think he might have had a point. That is, if you want to view Gramsci in his historical context, he was part of an international party led by Stalin, however revisionist his Marxism. It certainly seems that this question was skirted by Gramsci’s admirers in the late twentieth century.


    • Dan,

      Thanks so much. (Real insiders know that the only reason I find myself writing for this website or studying history, even, is a serendipitous friendship with a brilliant UVA Left-intellectual historian when we were both undergrads…. well. I was technically a prematurely anti-undergrad).

      What a valuable recollection of Rogin, also my favorite Left historian of his generation, and a provocative set of questions about Gramsci and Stalinism. I wonder if Gramsci’s imprisonment and death pre- Hitler-Stalin Pact are biographical facts that allowed for his recuperation without the stain of Stalinism? Have the interventions of Gramscians like Denning put to rest the question of whether the Left political formations of the 1930s in the US were unduly “Stalinist”?

      At a more local level, it makes me wonder what Rogin had to say about, say Gramsci or Togliatti’s writing about fascism, vis-a-vis Rogin’s work on McCarthyism. My sense is that Rogin maintained continuing interests–like Nelson Lichtenstein, on whose committee I think Rogin sat–in the question of “American fascism” or whether there was ever a “fascist door” open?

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