Happy Birthday Gramsci!

Gramsci was born January 22nd, 1891. I wanted to use the opportunity to correct three common misperceptions about Gramsci.

1. Gramsci’s concept of “hegemony” is important because it allows Marxists to talk about “culture.”

The truth is the other way around. Gramsci did not so much provide a way for Marxists to think about culture as he sought to ground the study of culture in Marxism. That is to say, his work was a critique of idealist philosophy which viewed language and culture as having their own internal logic separate from that of political economy. His work was an attempt to ground the study of these subjects in a Marxist history of the Italian state.

The concept of hegemony is very much rooted in the history of Italian class relations and can’t be understood without talking about what Gramsci termed “The Southern Question” which referred to the internal colonization of Italy’s agrarian South by the industrialized North. The central argument being that the hegemony of the Italian state is based on the principle of divide-and-conquer: dividing the working class from the peasantry. Watch Visconti’s masterful films “La Terra Trema” and “Rocco and His Brothers” to get a sense of what he was talking about. One can see very similar dynamics at work in Mexico and China. (The U.S., on the other hand, the working class has largely been divided on ethnic lines, as has South Africa.) Gramsci saw such divisions as explaining the failure of Communists to win power.

I would thus argue that for any account of “hegemony” to be properly Gramscian it needs to be similarly grounded in a theory of the state. All too often it seems to be little more than an excuse for cultural studies types to avoid discussing political economy. Gramsci is evoked as a means of legitimating a self-indulgent obsession with Buffy rather than the kind of historically grounded work Gramsci was actually doing.

2. Gramsci’s work is too fragmented to make any sense.

This might have been true for English speakers a few decades ago, but as more and more of his work has been translated from the Italian and more and more secondary literature has been written about him, it has become clear that there is a solid and coherent core to his ideas.

What is difficult is his historicism. Without a decent grasp of Italian history it can be difficult to follow his arguments. And because of his emphasis on local history (he was very concerned with arguing about why the Italian Communist experience was different from that of the Russians) his ideas may not seem to have wide applicability. I would argue, however, that there is a clear methodology to his work built upon a few core ideas. In this respect he is very much like an anthropologist, with all the strengths and weakness of a historical ethnographer.

3. Gramsci is primarily important for understanding intellectual history since all the important lessons of his work have already been incorporated and surpassed by later scholars.

I think this impression comes from the first two myths I’ve already discussed. When people use Gramsci’s concept of hegemony in a way divorced from his work and fail to engage with the original texts, his ideas do seem moribund; however, I have consistently found that scholarship which actively engages with Gramsci’s work to be some of the best and most stimulating scholarship around.

I think there is no better way to make my last point then to link to some excellent work on Gramsci:

Gramsci, Culture and Anthropology by Kate Crehan.

The sociology of political praxis: an introduction to Gramsci’s theory by Leonardo Salamini.

Gramsci’s Politics of Language: Engaging the Bakhtin Circle and the Frankfurt School by Peter Ives.

And many, many more. See the amazing list of recent publications posted by the International Gramsci Society.

Happy Birthday Gramsci!

3 thoughts on “Happy Birthday Gramsci!

  1. Nice one, Kerim. Just to add to the filmography, I’ve found the Taviani Bros. useful to illustrate and think the Southern Question, especially “Padre, padrone” and “Kaos.”

  2. Gramsci was the central theoretical model for my Honours thesis on the Mayan cultural influences on the Marxist inspired Zapatista revolution in southern Mexico. It didn’t start out that way. I was interested in the topic first, and read widely to find a paradigm within which to fit what I was finding.
    Gramsci’s notion of hegemony, and the correlation of an industrialised western north and indigenous peasant south in Mexico were a good match. The political economy, in particular the tension between formal and subsistence economies, and the advent of the North American Free Trade Agreement (‘NAFTA is great – great if you’re a gringo!’) was central to this.
    On your second point, I didn’t find his work fragmented: there was a certain staccato quality to his prison diaries, necessarily as a result of how and where they were written, but the central themes are constant, and if anything, there are reminders along the way for his own benefit, which also reinforce the readers’ own comprehension. And I did find he wrote more like an anthropologist rather than a polemicist.

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