Gramsci, crisis, struggle

Submitted by Matthew on 20 February, 2013 - 8:40 Author: Adam David Morton

Following “year one” of the Russian Revolution, Antonio Gramsci wrote a piece for the newspaper Il Grido del Popolo [1918] in which he argued that”‘just as a poem exists in the fantasy of the poet before it reaches the printed paper, the advent of social organisation exists in consciousness and will . . . What is demanded is the external, printed paper.”

Here, in the crucible of revolutionary processes stretching across Europe, there was a striving towards a realisation and recognition of new organisational and political forms to achieve social transformation. The “Modern Prince”, as a qualitatively new form of political party, would become the epithet in the Prison Notebooks given by Gramsci to the revolutionary agent that would transform principles into practice, or consciousness and will into social organisation. A new pamphlet Antonio Gramsci: Working-Class Revolutionary, edited by Martin Thomas and published by Workers’ Liberty raises these questions of political organisation and more. It is well worth reading given the significance of the questions raised and it will go straight onto the reading list of my third-year “Gramsci & Global Politics” module.

The text is organised around a series of essays and interviews and its springboard is a set of key debates between the editor, Martin Thomas, and Peter Thomas, the author of the fantastic The Gramscian Moment. It should be noted that Peter Thomas was the winner of the Premio internazionale Giuseppe Sormani 2011 Prize, awarded to The Gramscian Moment by the Fondazione Istituto Piemontese Antonio Gramsci for the best book (or article) on Gramsci published between 2007-2011. Peter Thomas’ political engagement and Gramsci scholarship is pivotal to revitalising debates within and beyond Marxist politics. Moreover, The Gramscian Moment is the most significant book to have emerged on Gramsci for some years, which is reflected in its award-winning status.

As editor, Martin Thomas does a wonderful job in commencing the volume of essays and interviews with Peter Thomas by providing an excellent background introductory essay on “Gramsci’s Life”. This is a fantastically concise overview of Gramsci’s political and social biography that will satisfy beginners and experts. Despite reference to producing a “more loyal reading of the Prison Notebooks” — that raises numerous questions and problematic assumptions — the introduction leads one nicely to one of the main threads running throughout the text: that of political organisation and struggle. “The party”, Martin Thomas states, “must not be a walled-off sect whose special jargon serves to insulate from intellectual challenge from outside”.

The subsequent six chapters then tackle this issue and much more besides. These contributions include Peter Thomas on the “philosophy of praxis” at the heart of Gramsci’s conception of politics; an interview with Peter Thomas in relation to The Gramscian Moment; and then four essays by Martin Thomas touching on revolution and democratic philosophy, theoretical controversies, liberal pluralist appropriations of Marxism, and the relationship between Gramsci and Leon Trotsky.

The interlocutions with Peter Thomas are crucial to the volume and yield rich and valuable points for reflection, discussion, and political engagement. Peter Thomas wants to lead us into the “infrastructure” of reading Gramsci by recognising how Gramsci was attempting to “translate” theoretical gains deriving from the post-revolutionary period in the Soviet Union into principles for understanding bourgeois hegemony.

Significantly, he recounts that Gramsci was in the Soviet Union between June 1922 and November 1923, attending the Fourth Congress of the Third International and meeting figures such as Leon Trotsky, which was decisive for Gramsci’s political development in continuing V.I. Lenin’s legacy through the leadership of the Italian Communist Party.

Peter Thomas also brilliantly raises the spotlight on the concept of the “Modern Prince”, never a straight metaphor for the political party in Gramsci’s thought, to understand it as a concrete proposal for a different conception of political organisation. Indeed, the theme of the “Modern Prince” is a major feature in Peter Thomas’ forthcoming presentation in the Centre for the Study of Social and Global Justice’s seminar series in March 2013. For Gramsci, the “Modern Prince” was both a unitary and plural conception of a revolutionary agent based on dynamic social relations of critical pedagogy, linking the perspective of labour to organising, building, and living in a new society.

As Peter Thomas aptly summarises: “Gramsci conceived of the Modern Prince as a new type of dialectical-pedagogical political and social relation capable of being translated into different contexts and then, just as critically, of being retranslated backwards, enriched by the dialectical pedagogical exchange and interchange.”

Martin Thomas’ commentary on The Gramscian Moment concludes that “the book is structured at odds with the dialogic conception of philosophy which it argues”. Any such summary on a publication is always in danger of missing modes of political engagement and activism that transcend the text.

There could also be a missed opportunity in Martin Thomas’ dismissal of his namesake’s emphasis on the need to reconceive the dynamic and democratic pedagogy of new organisational political and party forms which can link everyday practices to how we live today. A tension on this issue permeates the exchanges in the text.

The current period is one of global economic crisis. This is overlain with crisis conditions in the rapacious destruction of the environment and social reproduction.

There is a global food crisis in which the surge in world food prices, linked to wider speculation on the global commodity futures markets, has triggered major food riots and revolutionary processes, not least in Egypt. Capital accumulation is advancing these crisis conditions across the social and natural substratum throughout the world in the form of neoliberalism. In Britain, the long march of neoliberalism is embarking on a far-reaching and destructive politics of austerity where work and labour is being eroded.

New class agents in the form of the “precariat”, shaped by changes in the organisation of capitalist social relations of production, may be on the rise, as noted by Andreas Bieler. Geopolitically, global militarism is generating ever-increasing and frequent imperialist interventions raised by the problems of overaccumulation and the crisis conditions of capitalism, in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, and Mali.

Crisis is everywhere. Unfortunately, there is little attention in the contributions from Martin Thomas to these multiple crises and how to engage the reader in contesting capitalist crisis or the crisis in capitalism. This is especially pertinent given that there is a crisis too in political and party organisation, most recently and notably engulfing elements of the radical left.

Writing in the Prison Notebooks, Gramsci himself stated: “It may be ruled out that immediate economic crises of themselves produce fundamental historical events; they can simply create a terrain more favourable to the dissemination of certain modes of thought, and certain ways of posing and resolving questions involving the entire subsequent development of national life.”

Peter Thomas’ insight in Antonio Gramsci: Working-Class Revolutionary, to reconsider different conceptions of agency and forms of political organisation, to build a new infrastructure of social relations in a dialogue of exchange and interchange, is therefore crucial.

Indeed, the external printed paper to realise the fantasy of the poem is needed more than ever, but the message as he at least acknowledges cannot remain the same.


Adam David Morton is Associate Professor and Co-Director and Fellow of the Centre for the Study of Social and Global Justice (CSSGJ) in the School of Politics and International Relations at the University of Nottingham.

He is the author of Unravelling Gramsci: Hegemony and Passive Revolution in the Global Political Economy (2007) and Revolution and State in Modern Mexico: The Political Economy of Uneven Development (2011). A version of this review was published on his blog, “For the Desk Drawer”.

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