[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 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.
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).