If we take this opportunity to criticise Gramsci’s "thought", it is because it is back in fashion with layers of intellectuals dedicated to reworking socio-political "categories" that Gramsci's idealism left as a legacy to his followers.
The capitalist crisis is advancing, while the antagonistic1 part of the "bourgeois left" still clings to the thoughts of Gramsci.2
The right wing and the bourgeois left have only one concern: getting capitalism out of the crisis that grips it. But should we, internationalist communists, perhaps contribute to restoring strength and vigour to this? There is only one answer for communists. Our duty and aim is to give organisation and strength to the "real movement that abolishes the existing state of things". And in this context part of our task consists also in critically commenting on the facts and misdeeds – past and present – of this infamous society, dwelling on the "remedies" that the thinkers of a certain "left" formulated yesterday and reproduce today.
Two years ago, the "expert" economist, Savona3 announced that: "Italian GDP can grow by 3%". Then it was the turn of Prime Minister Conte: "2019 will be a beautiful year", followed by Deputy Prime Minister Di Maio (from his balcony ...): "we have abolished poverty! 2019 will be the year of the economic boom". Since then, the actual economy has sunk into the quicksand of official recession: important factories closed, layoffs and unemployment (especially youth), waiting for companies to replace the hundreds who retire by hiring thousands of young people! (According to official data, 30 to 100 is the ratio between new hires and those volunteering for retirement!)
Meanwhile, the national debt has increased by another 160 billion Euros while the major powers prepare for the tariff war, and the threat of the possible bursting of a new financial bubble, although since 2008, in the G20 countries, almost 1,200 measures have been introduced to limit not only trade in goods but also restrictions on capital movement. The most distinguished heads of the bourgeoisie wave their reformist recipes: the patient, however, not only rejects the miraculous medicines proposed, but drags his own rescuers with him down into a deepening pit.
Ideas which were once Gramsci’s and which still attract the Reformists
Aware of a situation close to a collapse, and certainly not a “recovery", the ideological disarray of the various ranks of supporters (direct or indirect, the latter even wrapped in the flags of a false anti-capitalism!) blather about phantom interventions even as far as the structural level... Rediscovering – and this is the subject we are dealing with here – even some of the thoughts that took hold of Gramsci in the Fascist prison, with his fanciful hypotheses of "trenches" to be built in bourgeois society and of "fortifications" to be erected within "public and private" institutions. (The superstructures of civil society were considered by Gramsci akin to the trenches in the First World War, a military tactic which would be profoundly changed later…)
The Shadow of the Party as Prince
To direct the manoeuvres for the application of his "philosophy of praxis", Gramsci looked to the "party that wants to found the State, the party-prince", which with its "organic intellectuals arouses a national-popular collective will" and puts into practice "an intellectual and moral reform, a superior form of modern civilisation" that takes place in the superstructures. Gramsci also referred to "a previous economic reform", but his "ideological-political" focus was mainly on that "structure of civil society" which he believed could withstand (this was his obsession) the economic crisis. It was enough then to introduce progressive elements within the capitalist economy itself... and it was in the superstructures that one had to support – democratically – the disputes between capital and labour. Therefore, this was a perspective always animated by the desire to get the system of capitalist accumulation out of trouble, avoiding violent collapses. An attempt, ideologically, to give a theoretical form to an engagement with bourgeois reformism, after the revolutionary thrust provoked by the 1917 Red October had been diluted and that Moscow in the following years was to completely block.
The Hegemonic Apparatus
If we take this opportunity to criticise Gramsci’s "thought", it is because it is back in fashion, not only here with us but above all (more or less explicitly) among the "leftists" of Latin America, where large scale rural areas and rural realities still survive, with layers of intellectuals dedicated to reworking socio-political "categories" that Gramsci's idealism left as a legacy to his followers. And we read recently, right here with us, ruminations that revive the passionate Gramscian idealism (passed off as "philosophy of praxis" to total deformation of Marxism, see Gramsci Today, No. 0, May 2017).
A Gramsci, therefore, that aimed (idealistically) at the formation of a "hegemonic apparatus" which should have created "a new ideological terrain" within which to bring to completion "a reform of consciences and methods of knowledge". The PCI (then still in being after having "ousted" the Left) would have become "the governing party in the democratic sense" and therefore capable – as a "collective intellectual" – of inspiring a "collective will in the lower classes" and a "degree of homogeneity". Here the "historical subject", the new ruling class can be formed, ready in its turn to become the ruling class (this was the "verb" that circulated among the "organic intellectuals"), "democratically" conquering political power with the consent of the new "historical block"... In short, the hegemonic struggle had a precise objective: "the conquest of state power". Here then is the formation of a new identity and the "political conscience" of change, after "education in the art of government", with the political party that is a "school of state life". Objectives, in their current farcical version, still pursued within the walls of the buildings of the capital, Rome, by those – with their "organic intellect" – who believe they discovered them. We allude to those who, snubbing what is considered a nineteenth-century "philosophy" pursued by Marx, try to convince the "people" that in the State, "political society" (the space of government and therefore of domination, coercion and force) and "civil society", would come together and fuse, i.e. the area where Gramscian thought maintained there could be formed (within the material and "spiritual" domination still exercised by the bourgeois class) a space within which to grow another hegemony and a corresponding consent to the new "historical bloc".
For Gramsci it would have meant the possibility of a "passive revolution" aimed at the "reformist transformation of the economic structure from an individualistic model to an economy according to a plan (direct economy)". And here Gramsci launched himself in free flight in the vision of the
"advent of an 'intermediate economy' between the purely individualistic one and the integrally planned one allows the transition to more developed political and cultural forms without radical and destructive cataclysms of an exterminating kind." (Notebooks, pg. 1089)
As stated above, a peaceful "reform" would have been enough instead of a radical, violent and "exterminating" revolution, with the danger of a possible catastrophic outcome for all…
Another important consideration: when Gramsci wrote of "hegemonic apparatuses of the State", he did not explain what gave substance, character – and above all force and violence – to these predominant apparatuses. He merely wrote that they belonged to civil society (which would then be the State), but they were to be considered "private". In fact, Gramsci always wrote that "by State is to be understood not only the governmental apparatus, but also the ‘private’ one of hegemony or civil society". Above all, the (public and private) domain of capital.
The State above Classes
The "conquest of state power" was aimed at the hegemonic struggle, and Gramsci aimed his "tactics" at forming a "new identity" and a "political conscience" of change, through an "education in the art of government", with political party that makes a "school of state life". A political-cultural "phenomenon" that was to be formed – despite a material reality that philosophical abstraction masked! – despite the presence of an economic as well as social and ideological hegemonic apparatus, built by the bourgeoisie by virtue of the relations of production imposed by capital, the same that have predominantly shaped (and still do so) the existing state apparatuses.4 Gramsci circumvented the obstacle, and in what he called "public apparatuses" he saw the possibility – always and only with the contribution of the "organic intellectuals" – of achieving a "passive revolution" or rather a reformist programme. This would have paved the way for a "mixed economy". Prudence required, given the mood in Europe and in Russia (as well as in America), that it was better to remain each within the confines of one's own national state and abandon certain nineteenth-century ideas, such as the socialisation of the means of production and proletarian internationalism! Today the "sovereignists"5 take this view again…
And here, still today, desiring a "quiet life" between capital and labour, some nostalgic of that "national-communism" that went on to mix the "ideas" of Gramsci with those of Togliatti, look with nostalgia to the times of trade union collaborationism, to Di Vittorio6 in the post-WW2 period, again caressing the idea (already in circulation at the time of the Botteghe Oscure7 of a "work plan" and an "economic planning" that keeps intact the constraints of the capitalist mode of production). A "plastic" example is that offered to us a short time ago by a certain Bruno Casati (“Il lavoro tra operai digitali e cottimisti del voucher” on the website sinistrainrete.info):
"In short, there is an economic Italy, of Work and Enterprise, which, if it does not want to remain a colony, must be rebuilt. To do this it is necessary to recover the spirit of post-war reconstruction, the one that led to the definition of the Constitution based on Work (and, at least for the Togliatti communists, founded on workers) and then led to Di Vittorio’s CGIL Work Plan. But, now as then, it is necessary for the Union to fight for it, for it is all but vanished, and a Great Labour Party, which is not there and must also be reconstructed from the rubble."
Thus, we are claiming a "right to work", which Marx indicated as “the first clumsy formula wherein the revolutionary aspirations of the proletariat are summarized [...and he then commented as follows:] But behind the right to work stands the power over capital; behind the power over capital, the appropriation of the means of production, their subjection to the associated working class and, therefore, the abolition of wage labor as well as of capital and of their mutual relationships.”
Here – Engels commented – the "modern working class socialism is [...] sharply differentiated [...] from all the different shades of feudal, bourgeois, petty-bourgeois, etc., socialisms." And with regard to the request that had been made by "a few wiseacres in England" for the "means of distribution" to pass to society, Engels wrote:
"It would be difficult for these gentlemen to say what these economic means of distribution are, as distinct from the means of production and exchange; unless political means of distribution are meant, taxes, poor relief, including the Sachsenwald and other endowments. But, first, these are means of distribution now already in collective possession, either of the state or of the commune, and, secondly, it is precisely these we wish to abolish."
The emphasis is ours, to show that for Marx, Engels and us, it is fundamental that above all the means of production and exchange are in the hands of the proletariat. After having destroyed trenches and fortifications built by the bourgeoisie and its "progressive factions"…
We conclude with the claims put forward today by this pseudo-left at the service of a hypothetical survival of capitalism, to obtain from capital – democratically and in exchange for the maintenance of our wage slavery – a series of concessions that can – at least formally – alleviate the suffering of the “current ‘valley of tears’ with an increase in the salaries of public and private employees, support for a recruitment plan in healthcare (there is already a shortage of thousands of doctors), in education, in welfare. The state should even reduce military spending by 20%, cut the 16 billion of harmful environmental subsidies, put a 1% wealth tax on the richest 1% of the population (20 billion of revenue), launch the decent ‘web tax’ and ‘Tobin tax’8 "... And all this programme of maximum protest, would be feasible – for those who designed it – not by revolutionizing this mode of production and distribution now historically in decline, but simply by "a change of direction away from that of the current government."
With such an "opposition" (in some cases even proclaiming itself "antagonist"...) capital can enjoy a relatively quiet night’s sleep, if it were not for those falls of the rate of profit that shake its foundations and begin to crack the walls of its private buildings... Some of the public constructions are already in obvious ruin.
- 1The “antagonisti” is a wide category ranging from various forms of leftists including anti-fascists, similar to black blocs on demos and members of base unions.
- 2For a more in-depth critique of Gramsci’s thought, see our translation of Onorato Damen’s Gramsci: Between Marxism and Idealism, published in 2019 (leftcom.org).
- 3Paolo Savona, a former banker and industry minister, until recently the Italian Minister of European Affairs under the government of the Five Star Movement and Salvini’s Lega.
- 4It was Lenin who reminded us that "bourgeois ideology is far older in origin than socialist ideology, that it is more fully developed, and that it has at its disposal immeasurably more means of dissemination. [It is] most widespread (and continuously and diversely revived).” (What Is To Be Done?). Over the oppressed and exploited proletarian masses, bourgeois conservative ideology exerts a suffocating influence, enclosing it within the logic of capital, and keeping it tied to the veiled power and interests of capital.
- 5The “sovereigntists” are nationalist populists defending the political independence of the nation.
- 6Giuseppe Di Vittorio, a former anarcho-syndicalist and then member of the Communist Party, who after the war would become the leader of the re-founded CGIL and launch the “Work Plan” which called for nationalisations, creation of public works and public housing.
- 7A literary journal published and edited in Rome by Marguerite Caetani (Princess di Bassiano) from 1948 until 1960.
- 8From Wikipedia: “A Tobin tax was originally defined as a tax on all spot conversions of one currency into another. It was suggested by James Tobin, an economist who won the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences. Tobin's tax was originally intended to penalize short-term financial round-trip excursions into another currency. By the late 1990s, however, the term Tobin tax was being incorrectly used to apply to all forms of short-term transaction taxation, whether across currencies or not. Another term for these broader tax schemes is Robin Hood tax, due to tax revenues from the (presumably richer) speculator funding general revenue (of whom the primary beneficiaries are less wealthy). More exact terms, however, apply to different scopes of tax.”