Marxism in the 1960's and 1970's

Submitted by Matthew on 5 February, 2014 - 10:51

Jelle Versieren’s generous review of Antonio Gramsci: working-class revolutionary (Solidarity 311) offers a wealth of background information and context-setting.

A central assessment, however, seems to me skewed. He writes that the “new wave of energy” in the intellectual affairs of the left over the whole long period from 1956 (Khrushchev’s denunciation of Stalin, and the consequent turmoil in the Communist Parties) through the turmoil of the late 1960s and early 1970s to the early 1980s (when “Eurocommunism” mutated into a drift towards plain bourgeois liberalism) produced two main “paradigms” for social investigation, “Gramscian” and “Althusserian”.

There has been, I submit, much that does not fit into the box of either “paradigm”.

In the mid-1960s, about halfway through Versieren’s “new wave” period, ferment in the Communist Party student section in France — unprecedented since the rise of Stalinism, and, as it would turn out, without comparable sequel too —saw a clash between “Italians” and “Chinese”.

The “Italians” admired the Italian Communist Party’s approach, which they saw as more open and flexible than the French. In 1968 the Italian CP would condemn the Russian-led invasion of Czechoslovakia sharply, while the French CP mumbled only about its “surprise and disapproval”. In the Italian approach, the “Italians” saw a democratic spirit and a creative initiative which they took to be derived from the writings of Gramsci.

A volume of Gramsci’s “selected works” translated into French had been published in 1959; the Prison Notebooks would appear in French translation between 1978 and 1996.

The “Chinese” admired the militant-sounding talk of the Chinese Communist Party, and the (in fact reactionary and destructive) “Cultural Revolution”. Philosophically, they admired Althusser. Some of their chief leaders had been Althusser’s students.

The “Italians” were crushed. In later years some of them turned in the editorial office of the social-democratic daily LibĂ©ration. The “Chinese” split from the CP in 1966 to form the UJCML, which, with the other “Maoist” groups which came out of it, was briefly a big force on the French left.

So: “Gramscians” on one side, “Althusserians” on the other. But both currents ran into the sand very quickly.

Althusser’s ideas remain a force in a sub-section of US academia. In Latin America, they were very influential for a few years thanks to a popularisation by Martha Harnecker.

In Britain, New Left Review had a very brief enthusiasm for Althusser. At the end of 1971 the Althusserians round Ben Brewster quit the NLR editorial board (on the grounds that it criticised Chinese government policy and rejected the doctrine of “socialism in one country”) and NLR soon published a sharp critique of Althusser by Norman Geras. The Althusserians published a short-lived magazine, Theoretical Practice, and then scattered, some of them like Paul Hirst becoming well-known social-democratic academics.

And there was a third current in the 1960s challenging the orthodoxies of the old Communist Parties. It was the Trotskyists. Since the mid-1940s they had been marginalised into tiny circles, but they had held on, educated themselves, and trained activists. In France, a sizeable group expelled from the Communist Party student organisation in 1965 formed the Jeunesses Communistes RĂ©volutionnaires, and Trotskyist groups grew elsewhere. This third current of thought has informed not only activism but also Marxist research over the last 40-odd years.

In 1974 French Trotskyists (renamed LCR) published a book entitled, unambiguously, Against Althusser. In a later edition of that book (1999), Daniel Bensaid looked back:

“Antoine Artous and I studied [Althusser’s books] Pour Marx and Lire Le Capital passionately in the winter holidays of 1965-6, in the little schoolhouse at Gages where Antoine’s mother was the teacher...

“Our conclusion was definitive: we were definitely not Althusserians. The reasons for our stance were in the first place political. Althusser seemed ‘in the last instance’ to offer a sophisticated cover for the leadership of the [Communist] Party...

“We also had theoretical reasons. Animated by a will for battle which was not shy of voluntarism, we had the feeling [in Althusser’s writings] of a horrible burying of the subject in the structure.

“In the enthusiasm of the moment there were plenty of misunderstandings and approximations. But in hindsight, I do not regret our attitude. Politically, Althusserianism has aged badly. It has, above all, nourished through its ambiguities two disastrous illusions: by sustaining long beyond it made sense the idea of a possible return to the right road of the Communist Party, and by encouraging a Maoism haunted by Stalinist nostalgia”.

The Trotskyists knew that there were, as Jelle Versieren puts it, “many Gramscis”. There was no one “Gramscian paradigm”, but there was much to learn from Gramsci. Jean-Marie Vincent, for example, wrote in 1962 a long and appreciative review of the 1959 volume of selected translations into French from Gramsci.

More generally, the Trotskyists tended to see themselves as “Hegelian”-leaning Marxists. Vincent also studied and wrote about the “Frankfurt School”. Across the world, it was likely to be Trotskyists who studied Korsch, Lukacs, Benjamin, Sartre. The small Trotskyist milieu had few people who ventured to write about philosophy as such, but the few who did were also “Hegelian”-leaning: Roman Rosdolsky in his Making of Marx’s Capital, some of the ideas of which were well summarised in Ernest Mandel’s The Formation of the Economic Ideas of Karl Marx; C L R James and Raya Dunayevskaya, who would influence the Italian “workerists” or “autonomists”, or at least their forerunners.

Bensaid’s Marx For Our Times (French original 1995), a wide-ranging review of philosophical questions, scarcely mentions Althusser in its index; Gramsci is there, but also Benjamin, Hegel, and the Analytical Marxists.

Other than on the margins, the Trotskyists understood that Marxist social research is not an enterprise ruled over monarchically by a “philosophy”, and they had no “party line” on philosophy.

Lucio Colletti’s influence would diminish almost to zero after his personal collapse in the later 1970s, which in old age took him as far as becoming an MP for Berlusconi’s party. But in 1974 he would describe “Trotsky’s analyses of the USSR in The Revolution Betrayed [as] exemplary”, praise Trotsky because he “insisted that the determinant force in any real socialist revolution would be the industrial working class”, and declare that “I am quite willing to be called a Trotskyist”. His pre-collapse writings were influential for a while, and in my view still more illuminating than all the texts of “Hegelian Marxism”.

In any case, there was a third current, anti-”Althusserian”, appreciative of Gramsci, but philosophically pluralist, appreciative of other writers too, and insistent on separating out a “Gramscianism” quite different from that of the Italian Communist Party.

Anderson’s account of Gramsci must be read, I think, as part of that third current. Anderson was finding a way out from both his earlier left social-democratic version of “Gramscianism” and his period of enthusiasm for a “Western Marxism” comprising mostly writings philosophically abstruse enough to enable their writers to stay in the ambit of the Communist Parties or avoid sharp clashes with Stalinism.

Other writers before Anderson had shown that Gramsci’s real thought had been different from the Italian Communist Party’s processed version. Anderson probed for the weaknesses in Gramsci’s fragmentary prison writings which had enabled the PCI to do its processing.

He pushed beyond examining Gramsci’s general philosophical approach to measuring Gramsci’s substantive statements against the realities of capitalist society in his day, and especially against the political realities of late 20th century bourgeois democracy.

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