Gramsci, Lenin, philosophy and the future of working-class politics

Submitted by AWL on 19 January, 2014 - 3:55

1. Gramsci, Lenin and Western Marxism | 2. The Modern Prince | 3. The many Gramscis: Post-Marxism, contemporary philosophy and class politics ([Althusser]) | 4. Post-Marxism | 5. Anderson’s interpretation of Gramsci | 6. Gramsci and philosophy

This is a longer version of the article than in the printed paper.

Gramsci, Lenin and Western Marxism

Martin Thomas starts off his broad evaluation of Gramsci, through the prism of Peter Thomas’ instant classic The Gramscian Moment: Philosophy, Hegemony and Marxism (2009), with the accurate remark that Eurocommunist and Post-Marxist/New Labour/postmodern interpretations intentionally compartmentalise his writings in order to separate these from some of the most important contextual influences: the early Bolshevist intellectuals (p. 15).

Recent studies in the history of political economic thought make it abundantly clear that Bukharin, Preobrazhensky, Lenin and Trotsky made indispensable contributions to the research on imperialism and the modes of production, value theory or the development of social formations. The same acknowledgement did not happen towards Lenin or Trotsky when looking at the neo-Gramscian perspectives in political theory. However, Gramsci, as a young journalist or as the leader of the Italian Communist Party, always engaged with these illustrious Russians in order to analyse concrete problems such as the Southern Question, qualitative differences between Western and Eastern social formations or the concept of the modern party.

From the start of the October Revolution a rather artificial break had been propagated by several Marxists between the self-proclaimed heirs of Marx, social-democrats or Marxists, and the Bolshevist intellectual leaders. The best known critique came from Luxemburg, Kautsky, Pannekoek, Mattick and several Menshevist intellectuals. They adhered to the idea that Lenin developed a unique party model which diverted from West-European social-democratic parties and could be labelled as “authoritarian”, “voluntarist” or “conspiratorial”. Rightist polemists within the social-democratic parties and early Kremlinologists added orientalist prejudices regarding the Bolshevists’ theoretical sophistication and inner party decisions. But council-communist Paul Mattick also accused Lenin of confusing polemical commentaries with criticism on more theoretical level. This self-proclaimed break between “Western Marxism” and Lenin still haunts current debates on the political nature of Gramsci’s writings. By first presenting a short overview of different current interpretations of Lenin, I hope to show some similarities and parallels regarding the Lenin-debate and the Gramsci-debate. But the dominant idea about these two Marxists has been rehashed over and over again: Lenin is the proto-Stalinist, while Gramsci, together with Lukàcs and Korsch, is the protagonist of a generation of critical Marxists.

The heated debate regarding the differences between Lenin and Western Marxism was recently revived with the publication of a few innovating books: Lars T. Lih’s Lenin Rediscovered: What Is to be Done? in Context (2005) and the ensuing debates in the journal Historical Materialism, and the edited book of “Open Marxism” autonomists Bonefeld and Tischler What Is to be Done?: Leninism, Anti-Leninist Marxism and the Question of Revolution Today (2003). Lih presents Lenin’s early contribution to Marxist political theory in its historical and textual context based upon philological research, which helps to rebut the Stalinist party-school’s formalised interpretation and the post-war analysis of Kremlinologists in order to substitute their own suppositions about the Soviet-Union. Lih argues that Lenin never intended to publish this book as a definitive theory about party-strategy. He digs deep into the discussions between Lenin and his adversaries, and shows us that What Is to be Done? did not propagate the instalment of a vanguard party. Rather, Lih states that Lenin wanted to establish a Russian version of the Social Democratic Party of Germany and that he espoused the basic tenets of the Erfurt-program. What Is to be Done? was a defence of this program against the voluntarist remnants of narodniki-populists and social-revolutionaries, and also against the growing influence of Eduard Bernstein. Gramsci, Peter Thomas asserts, went beyond the Erfurt-program. He did not only concentrate on the centralisation of the hegemonic apparatus in the party, but conceived the “political constitution of the social” (p. 24). This means that this model possesses “transformative dimensions of a social formation or relations between social formations” which enables “ the possibility of intervention by various projects”. Without Lenin’s lessons, he never could have evolved to this point of view.

Long in gestation within autonomist circles, Bonefeld and Tischler’s collection of papers reinforces the thesis of Bolshevik party usurpation and substitution of the working class struggles. They radicalise the critique of the Mensheviks and Luxemburg which states that modern forms of party models are outdated because these cannot capture the social substance of any revolution and failed in the prime task of emancipation of the people. In this edited book Cajo Brendel regards Lenin as a proponent of a conspiratorial party, because Russia only had a proletarian struggle in a very small measure. Leaving aside the Leninist heritage, in Brendel’s opinion, means to embrace new possibilities to organise counter-hegemonic forces in a late-modern day and age. But in fact, as Lih has shown, Lenin already propagated the final break with the old methods of conspiracy in What Is to be Done? in the same way that Gramsci denounced Bordiga’s organic centralism and its invariant theory. For Lenin, the choice for a new model was very clear: the party had to prepare itself to propagate the socialist message among the masses. Lenin, like Gramsci, did not retreat to a pessimistic outlook which would have resulted in falling back to failed old recipes, but was furious at the Mensheviks for not taking the chance to create a mass organisation. Lenin condemned the Mensheviks, in Gramscian terms, to be nothing more than traditional intellectuals lacking organic ties with the masses. These ties enabled Lenin to detect changes in the class configuration and political situation of the Russian social formation. Furthermore, Lenin, like Gramsci, wrote insightful thing regarding the limitations of a purely corporatist trade-unionist ideology in the workers’ struggle. This ideological outlook prohibited to having a socialist perspective on changing society in its totality. But both Western-European and Russian reformists and contemporary autonomists spread the idea that Lenin had nothing more to offer than Leninism, which they regarded as embryonic Stalinism. Reformists emphasised the deep rift between Western Marxism and “Leninism”, whilst for the autonomists Lenin is the most important agent of the misinterpretations of Marx himself.

During and after the war Lenin attacked Kautsky numerous times for lacking the intellectual and political honesty to admit that he had deviated from the principles of his pre-war revolutionary aspirations. Lenin and Gramsci both realised that the pre-war social-democratic leaders refused to give an account of what went wrong in order to avoid future political mistakes and to redesign the faltering ideological and theoretical framework. The Bolshevist success was the immediate and concrete negation of the Kautskyan course during wartime. But Lenin and Gramsci also negated the philosophical tenets of the Second International. Lenin was, so to say, born and raised in the positivist, neo-Kantian and mechanical evolutionary thought of Kautsky and Plekhanov, which always referred to Engels’ Anti-Dühring. This dominant influence resulted in a non-dialectical materialist and positivist epistemology which can be read in Materialism and Empirio-criticism (1909). But the war changed everything. In the midst of one of the greatest disasters for the international proletarian movement, Lenin singlehandedly rediscovered the critical potential of Hegelian thought. Kevin Anderson discerned Lenin’s appreciation for Hegel’s methodology in his book Lenin, Hegel and Western Marxism (1995). In his wartime notebooks, Lenin took a deep dive into the Logik, rediscovering the fundamental conceptual and dialectical framework in which the relations between form and content, existence and essence, necessity and contingency, universality and particularity, and the material moment of praxis assisted him to scientifically grasp the very nature of interaction between men within their living world. Among other reasons, the fact that Lenin, among other reasons, did not have access to Marx’ Grundrisse, he did not fully integrate Hegel’s concept of the subject within the dialectical model of knowledge acquisition as a reflective mode of praxis. Nonetheless, Lenin did underscore the importance of Hegel’s connection between a subjective and an objective logic, which brings together the outlook of intersubjectivity with the mediation of self-identities. These notebooks place Lenin between the early contributions of Labriola and the first “Western Marxists” Lukàcs and Korsch.

Gramsci’s reconstruction of Marxist philosophy did not have that explicit Hegelian overtone, because Hegel was already present in the concepts of Italian philosophers such as Croce and Gentile. Peter Thomas reconstructs the result in three fascinating chapters referring to “absolute historicism”, “absolute humanism” and “absolute immanence”. With these three concepts “the philosophy of praxis, therefore, redefines the previously established fields of knowledge not as “component parts” but as “moments” of its own dynamic overdetermined constitution. It is the ‘unitary synthetic moment’ of the new concept of immanence that makes such relations of translation possible, for it was only by means of such a method grasping the theoretical significance of “relations of force”, subsequently “universalised” in an adequate fashion to the whole of human history … Each moment is now internally related to the other; that is, they are immanent to each other, because the social practices they sought to comprehend are recognised as determined by the same relations of forces … Insofar as it is a conception of the world defined by on-going relations of translation between different theoretical and practical moments that are immanent to each other, the philosophy of praxis can never attain to the closed systematic form of supposedly “classical” philosophical doctrines (lusted after by Diamat and its numerous inheritors).” Lenin and Gramsci sought to revitalise Marx’s break with older philosophical traditions, because they realised that history, in other forms and for other practical-concrete reasons, was at risk of repeating the same mistakes in thought and in praxis. The making of a revolutionary organisation also meant to regaining the unique philosophical vitality of Marxism.

The Modern Prince

The concept of the “Modern Prince”, the party-type which enables the proletariat to change society by political means, is the practico-philosophical nexus between politics proper, social practices and its related organic ideologies, and philosophical investigations. The Modern Prince aims to assume leadership of the working class and linking together other subaltern strata of society. While Gramsci tried to find an answer to the question of how to establish this leadership against the bourgeois hegemonic apparatus against the rise of fascist coercive forces with a focus on the peculiarities of the West-European history, Lenin, after making the assessment of the success of the Bolshevist political leadership during the revolution, needed to find answers how to posit “a political programme that could reshape the social relations inside a social formation devastated after the civil war” (p. 21). Peter Thomas, with occasional references to Badiou’s theory of truth throughout his book, states that Gramsci and Lenin stressed the importance of a philosophy of praxis as speaking the truth. Because only speaking the truth about the contradictions of society can lead to the efficient transformation of that very society.

Hegel made it clear that truth is not a static given being, but something that has to be constructed within the dialectic of a subjective and objective logic. Understanding is inadequate because thinking is part of the living totality. Gramsci translated this Hegelian historicist dialectic into an immanent social dynamic, emphasising the fusion of history and philosophy in order to “correct” history itself. The Modern Prince is not only a party-model, but the laboratory of this immanent social dynamic. A specific set of social relations can be transformed through the pedagogical process between subjects in different contexts that dialectically construct the truth. Knowledge and the social are both elements of the same immanent process, which imputes political action with the good sense. Peter Thomas calls this a dialectical dialogue that encompasses “relations/translations/re-translations”, and as a result the Modern Prince itself becomes an active social relation (p. 25). Each subject is a philosopher who becomes aware of his position at the crossroads of politics and history. Philosophy is therefore “the shared, social conception of the world that actively worked to organise it, a particular mode of coherent organisation” (p. 38).

The many Gramscis: Post-Marxism, contemporary philosophy and class politics

Peter Thomas’ book is also a work about myths and detours in Marxist thought. After the first years of the shock generated by the unseen atrocities of the Second World War, analysed by Sartre and Adorno, the ensuing Cold War again put the presumed differences between Western Marxism and Lenin at the forefront. The destalinisation-debate of the fifties and sixties and May 1968, culminating in the fragmentation of the student movement and the failed reorientation of the communist movement under the banner of eurocommunism, released a new wave of energy throughout the philosophical field. Besides the interpretations of Marx through the prism of Hegel, Spinoza or Leibniz, two “moments”, as Peter Thomas describes it in a Hegelian fashion, became the methodological touchstones of future research concerning social formations: the Gramscian paradigm and the Althusserian paradigm.

Martin Thomas, in his discussion of Peter Thomas’ appropriation of the Althusserian legacy to get hold of the contemporary Marxist paradigm, denies the importance of this detour (p. 41).

Martin Thomas rightly remarks that Althusser never extensively engaged with Gramsci, but he fails to see the bigger picture. Althusser is not only a political question. First of all, Althusser’s endeavour to reshape Marxism as a scientific analysis of history, historical materialism, was intended to discard the theoretical contaminations of Stalinist politics. Hence his emphasis on the relative autonomy of science. In the 1960s and 1970s any debate about the revitalisation of Marxist thought referred to his radical point of view, especially regarding epistemology and the mode of analysis of historical, economic or sociological practices. Whether he was right or wrong, Althusser forced any Marxist to rethink his own scientific or ideological presuppositions. Althusser wanted to correct the theoretical practice because he wanted to invent a new political practice. Furthermore, Althusser is a key figure in the promulgation of post-Marxist thought in the critical human sciences. As Jacques Rancière has shown in his book La Leçon d’Althusser (1974), Althusser gave his readers new tools for reinterpretations of the history of thought in order to understand history as social change, but post-Marxists – the same happened with Althusser himself in the late writings about “aleatory materialism” – drew different conclusions. For the later Althusser, aleatory materialism has the potential to bring about a shift in the use of the Hegelian category/concept of necessity, or rather the elimination of this very concept, in favour of particularity and contingency. This message has been greeted with much enthusiasm in the post-Marxist circles.

Before making certain contextual and methodological assertions about post-Marxist interpretations of Gramsci, it is important to emphasise the fact that, since Althusser, the role of critical philosophy as a public interrogation of the existent political and social structures has changed significantly. Martin Thomas laments the “PhD mill of today’s universities”, which disciplines the researcher in his speech and goal-setting (p. 41). I fully agree with Martin Thomas that Peter Thomas’ book belongs to the realm of theoretical practices. It still needs to interact with the common sense of the working class (p. 46). Although the “academisation” of critical thought resulted in a further political division of labour between intellectuals – organic intellectuals occupying traditional professional positions - and counter-hegemonic organisations, it is important to turn to another urgent problem: the dwindling of philosophy as the gateway to the good sense. Since the 1980’s a new generation of young turks have taken over the French opinion pages as “meta-commentators” on social events. Armed with high profile university degrees, they put themselves in the limelight of the mass-media, writing a hollow prose and narrating the tendency of the day. In a book called Mediocracy: French Philosophy since 1968 (2001) Dominique Lecourt analyses the origins of their compelling common-sensical ideas. The “Nouvelle Philosophie” – Finkielkraut, Lévy, Glucksmann, Ferry and Renaut – reacted against the recalcitrant leftist academia. In doing so, they ironically combined a critique of the Marxist tradition, showing a profound lack of in-depth knowledge of the subject, with the proliferation of the neoliberal agenda of individualism and free-market policy. In order to attract attention of the higher-educated middle class, they tend to do this by using a strategy of mixing jargon with utterances of elitist discourse. Lecourt states that these “columnist-philosophers” have the pretention to present themselves as “transcendental journalists”, but instead they vitiated critical journalism by a rightist agenda. Any event is being judged by their own subjectivist ideological preferences.

Post-Marxism

Post-Marxism did not lower the bar for the interpellation of social phenomena. But it replaced the theoretical-practical nexus of working-class politics with the notion of “radical democracy” (p. 57). Contrary to the “Nouvelles Philosophes” these post-Marxist thinkers did not make an extreme turn to the right. Citing Ellen Meiksins Wood’s The Retreat From Class: A New ‘True’ Socialism (1986), renowned authors like Mouffe or Balibar “remain committed to egalitarian goals or to some kind of social justice, have not entirely escaped this contradiction between emancipatory aspirations and the repudiation of any moral or political foundation to support them”. But their detours, via Schmitt (politics-qua-politics), Heidegger (post-metaphysical existences), Nietzsche (genealogical methodology) or Wittgenstein (language games), end up in a one-way street. This detour likewise happened with Gramsci’s concept of hegemony, which serves as a platform for postmodern political theory. While Althusser tried to add something to the theoretical moment of class politics and the post-capitalist transition, Mouffe believes in the emancipatory power of a radicalised democratic practice within a class society. The theoretical practices of the new social movements within this radical democratic framework underscore identity politics and cultural issues as being just as important as the opposition between capital and class. This results in a tendency to autonomise the scattering of ideology and politics. Following Fredric Jameson in his work A Singular Modernity (2002), this autonomisation is in fact nothing more than a late-modern proliferation of a series of breaks within the practices and discourses of contestation groups, because these only subjectively reflect and copy the alienated feeling of social disorientation, loss of political coherence and a fragmented life-world. In reality the dialectic ontology of capital vis-à-vis labour did not change. This situation, commonly known as postmodernism, results in a defeat for real emancipatory goals of the old socialism and the disconnection with class politics, although the initial purpose entailed a critique of reductionist economism under the pretence of countering hegemonic techniques in the political sphere (pp. 60-63). Although post-Marxist thinkers unerringly pointed out the importance of other social and political struggles, they did not retroactively reconnect these issues with the opposition between labour and capital.

The appeal of Gramsci for post-Marxists is very evident: his historicist project of a renewed integration of politics, political economy, ideology and cultural phenomena eschewed any reductionist orthodox economism. But, as already mentioned, the postmodern superstructuralism not only autonomises every practice, but also refuses to properly deal with Gramsci’s strategic questions regarding the global social processes of emancipation by political means. After Mouffe’s plea for a radicalisation of bourgeois democracy, a new generation of autonomists altogether avoid the state debate, because, according to Richard Day’s sympathetic book with the suitable title Gramsci is Dead: Anarchist Currents in the Newest Social Movements (2005), they want to explore the possibilities of new forms of social relations outside the hegemonic sphere accordingly to the Deleuzian nomadic figure. This kind of voluntarist self-organisation lacks a dose of necessary realism, although other autonomist political philosophers like the younger Picciotto and Holloway at times modified the displacement of the state as the nexus of class struggle – the state as a social form of class relations, but they continuously reiterate the old orthodox idea of the state as a relation of force. Peter Thomas and Martin Thomas should be commended for tackling the question of the state firmly within a Marxist framework in which the question of hegemony is being analysed in ideological and political terms.

Anderson’s interpretation of Gramsci

A word on Anderson’s interpretation of Gramsci. Peter Thomas and Martin Thomas agree that Anderson’s article “The Antinomies of Antonio Gramsci” still remains ubiquitous in bibliographies. And they both agree with Anderson’s perspicacity that the Eurocommunist interpretation is an instrumentalisation and deformation of the carceral writings. Nonetheless, Peter Thomas states that Anderson was wrong to suppose that: a. these writings do not possess a clearly defined and fundamentally coherent project b. his reconstruction by detours of other thinkers elucidated Gramsci’s theory in a structural way c. his temporal reconstruction of the philological development of the concept of hegemony was correct d. Gramsci developed a simple opposition between the West and the East deriving from a generic state model e. Gramsci developed a simple and absolute differentiation between civil and political society in order to explain the state-form f. Gramsci did not fully understand the specific political conditions of the Russian social formation and at one point blurred the differences between the political and civil society g. Gramsci’s portrayal of the political conditions of the West resembles Kautsky’s analysis of the West-European parliamentary states h. the Western bourgeoisie already conquered state power before possessing ideological dominant power.

I fully agree with Peter Thomas’ emendation of Anderson’s appraisal of Gramsci. It has the merit of avoiding the pitfalls of Anderson’s reading on Gramsci as the generally accepted point of view. At the same time, he provides a critique of the Post-Marxist “subalternity” reading. Martin Thomas partially remits Anderson’s attempt to avoid the Eurocommunist appropriation of Gramsci, which can also be read in Gregory Elliott’s book Perry Anderson: The Merciless Laboratory of History (1998). Elliott underscores the fact that Anderson tried to reinvent the Marxist revolutionary tradition in a time of discredited sovietism and failing Eurocommunist trajectories. “Noting that Gramsci had utilized the concept of “hegemony” … to essay a differential analysis of the structures of bourgeois power in the West, Anderson sought to dispel the left social-democratic “illusions” created by one of the models of hegemony decipherable in Prison Notebooks.” In the eyes of Anderson, Gramsci’s notebooks could lead to a Eurocommunist interpretation when not rectified by other Marxist philosophers. His alternative is complex to pinpoint, because he simultaneously had to revaluate his old reformist illusions (p. 47). The result was eclectic: Anderson's reiteration of Marx's anatomy of the liberal-representative state in The Jewish Question does not subscribe to the “dominant ideology thesis” characteristic of Western Marxism (it does not discount the “dull compulsion of economic relations” referred to by Marx in Capital). It does, however, identify the ideology of the bourgeois democracy present in the West … as the cultural dominant of capitalist class power and therewith it repudiates the prioritization of consent in civil society in Problems of Socialist Strategy. An alternative model of Gramsci's, assimilating “civil society” to the state, was likewise considered by Anderson to misconceive the uniqueness of the West and to induce political aberrations - of either a reformist-Eurocommunist genre or an ultraleftist Maoist variety - insofar as the classical notion of political revolution, directed at the state apparatus, was therein dissolved into “cultural revolution”.” Anderson’s greatest concern was the Eurocommunist “culturalisation” of the state, which in fact inverted the old idea of state monopoly capitalism. In both cases the political moment has been reduced to state apparatus or civil society. He also wanted to go beyond the symmetrical ideological relation between the political and civil society in Western Marxism. Martin Thomas, fully agreeing with Anderson and Elliott, warns about the consequences of the conflation between the state and civil society, because the liberal ideological values of the state concerning freedom of speech and freedom of press are also positive values in a proletarian state (p. 51). But Peter Thomas rescinds Anderson’s binary model solution, elucidating Gramsci’s unique elaboration of the state-form. Gramsci also understood ideology as a material, semiotic and therefore social practice which runs through this state-form. Gramsci underscored the fact that ideology could only be as effective as the mechanisms for wielding power over the state. But, on the other hand, regarding their respective political coordinates, Martin Thomas asserts that the “scope of disagreement between Anderson and [Peter] Thomas is limited.” Peter Thomas is wrong to suppose that Anderson’s misconceptions arose from his Eurocommunist sympathies (p. 50). Thus, Peter Thomas is right in negating Anderson’s conceptual framework, while Martin Thomas and Gregory Elliott are right in emphasising the Marxist political motivations.

Gramsci and philosophy

The central question lurking behind Peter Thomas and Martin Thomas’ contributions is the following: what is the secret of Gramsci’s success in his continuous appeal to leftists as a guide for political action in uncertain and interesting times? Writing about this subject is reason enough to read both authors. Martin Thomas correctly recalls Gramsci's attention to the understanding of the differences between bourgeois and proletarian historical dialectic of association and organisation as political-cultural material practices (pp. 16-17; pp. 22-23). Working-class politics does not solely aim to question and contest the hegemonic ideology nor does it have to copy the bourgeois form of association. Rather, it needs to posit truth as a practical principle of organisation that channels the potential power of the proletarian association to reconfigure the social relations. Both Gramsci and Althusser realise that ideology is not purely a matter of thought, but consists of a material quality in the social practices, relations and institutions. And both understand that the bourgeois hegemony consist of multiple layers of consent or multiple practices within numerous institutions.

Post-Kantian thought still reigns in the philosophical realm: this construal of critique focuses on the epistemological conditions of knowledge and the limitations of understanding. Subsequently the mapping of the cognitive faculties determines the ontological foundations of reality. The philosophy of praxis, dependent on the Hegelian-Marxist tradition, consists both of a critique of past philosophies and a new philosophical practice – the practice of searching the truth and the politics of truth (pp. 37-38). Post-Kantians do not aim to actively reform the institutions. Gramsci goes beyond the concept of understanding. As already mentioned, the foundations of philosophy can only be changed by the dialectical-pedagogical process between subjects in which the everyday practices of the common sense forms a moral-intellectual bloc with the basic tenets of Marxism. This unity of differences between theory and praxis can integrate the concreteness of daily life, while Post-Kantians still try to find the perennial philosopher’s stone behind their desk.

Martin Thomas’ edited essay compilation completes Peter Thomas’ monumental reconstruction of Gramsci’s unique research project. Thomas and Thomas realise that Gramsci will be a constant inspiration for future critical philosophers and political activists. Marxist thought will always have a “Gramscian moment”, because the Italian offers us the necessary tools to interpret and change the world in crisis.

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