Notes on: Anderson, P.  (1976-77) 'The Antinomies of Antonio Gramsci'.  New Left Review, 100: 5-81

[Serious revolutionary politics discussed here! I read it years ago -- there are some gaps]

'The price of ecumenical admiration is necessarily ambiguity' (5).  We need to discuss the problems raised by Prison Notebooks and other writings, especially in the context of the electoral success of communist parties in Italy, France and Spain [those were the days!].  NLR had discussed the influence of Gramsci in 1964, and there had been a response by EP Thompson in Socialist Register 1965.  This is a philological reading of Gramsci, covering the notion of hegemony and its connection with the ideas of wars of position and maneuver, or the notion of civil society as a series of trenches and so on.  The differences between east and west are also discussed. Permanent revolution is seen as an notion where the conditions are such that even civil society is unable to become a trench around the fortress.  A war of position leads to a policy of united front, and here, the State is the outer ditch. 

However, there are ambiguities about civil society and whether the economy is in it.  It is also not clear who is being addressed in these commentaries, possibly the Comintern? This would explain references to the united front policy at least.  The permanent revolution is seen as a Jacobin strategy before the emergence of the modern state, operative up to the end of the Commune.  Since 1870, the State has been balanced with civil society and has become the mere outer surface of a much more massive structure.

Hegemony, especially 'civil hegemony' is a concept belonging to the notion of war of position.  The term is not original to Gramsci, but was used by Russian Social Democrats to oppose economism (15) and to ensure the need to lead the proletariat.  It was picked up by Lenin in 1902 in What is To Be Done, where it is linked to problems of political organization and the formation of alliances, and after 1917 where the problem of hegemony involved smashing the bourgeois state.  Lenin contrasted hegemonic and corporate politics, and abolished the term and the contrast as Soviets were established—he began to talk about dictatorship of the proletariat instead.  However, there was still an international dimension, where the need was to assert proletarian leadership.  Nevertheless, the term was not used to account for bourgeois rule until 1922.

We find the gramscian use of the term appearing in Third International debates to refer to alliances with other classes and the emergence of the working class party exercising cultural leadership.  Here, the proletariat was to compromise with the peasants but dictate to the bourgeoisie (19).  A new emphasis for the term appeared in the discussion of forming the unitary blocs.  These obvious roots for the term were blurred by Gramsci's need while writing in prison to use 'floating referents'(20).  For example, talking about the dominant class could mean either the bourgeoisie or the proletariat, and there was a tendency to see both as equivalent.  The style did allow Gramsci to develop his original analysis, to extend Marxism to different structures in the west.  He did this through reading Machiavelli on power and this led to the general theory of political possibilities, for example whether to use force or consent, outright domination or hegemony.  It was not originally applied to options for proletarian rule but to the bourgeoisie, producing a new role for intellectuals to undertake investigations of the site of hegemony in capitalism.  There were still ambiguities, however—hegemony was the opposite of coercion, or a mixture of the two (22): if a mixture, it means hegemony is located in both state and civil society.

Slippages and aporia arise in the answers to these questions raised by ambiguity.  Some responses omitted economic power altogether, focusing on political or cultural power instead.  Some readings stressed binary oppositions between the economic and the cultural rather than complex concrete interrelations.  Different models emerged:

  • An east/west model, seeing cultural politics as the site of struggle in the west rather than a struggle with the state.  The state was seen as monopolizing force, while civil society monopolized hegemony.  The state could permit working class access to state power so the main problem lay in civil society.  On the other hand the parliamentary state is really an 'ideological linchpin' (28), offering a fictive unity of people, falsely universalized, with popular support resulting from this trick.  The legitimacy of the state became more important than economic growth or the other apparatuses of civil society.  The state was powerful because the masses believed in formal equality and in popular sovereignty as its principle (30).  There is no real account of this in Gramsci himself, though.
  • The balance model.  The state does hegemony not just civil society, through the education system and the law.  Civil society apparently offers no coercion any more—only the state does both coercion and consent.  Here, the term hegemony is too general and lacks specificity, arguing that for example laws and customs are not different in their effects [maybe, 32].
  • The enlarged state, incorporating both political and civil society, as a whole social formation.  State power is now emphasized.  This is the approach taken by Althusser, and it involves in effect an abolition of civil society.  However, the concept does appear in the 18th Brumaire, and is developed by Gramsci as a necessary intermediary between the economy and the state.  This is seen to correct Althusser's abolition of the term which had consequences for example in equating bourgeois democracy and fascism, and blurring the specific effectivity of different ideological institutions (36).  Interest in the Chinese cultural revolution emphasized this criticism.

Gramsci's position was influenced by philosophers like Croce, who saw the State as a higher entity.  Although this concept was materialized, it is still responsible for his notion of the extended state.  With this notion, Gramsci's appeal widened, especially post - War, since the concept appeared to be able to offer analysis of both fascist and parliamentary states.

However, does the power of the capitalist state lie in cultural hegemony?  If so, parliamentary reformism is the way forward.  However, if the State and culture is connected in more complex ways,  further research is needed.  Similarly, what if there is domination by culture and determination by coercion simultaneously?  Normal conditions might involve cultural domination, but there could still be a silent background force of coercion, while in crisis, coercion is both dominant and deterministic.  Overall, the relation between proletariat and bourgeoisie is unlikely to ever just be cultural, but this is obscure in Gramsci.  There is one implication too which is never allowed in Gramsci -- that the proletariat can gain cultural domination over the bourgeoisie before they seize power.  However, some people have seen this is a possibility, again showing the ambiguity and confusion in the term hegemony.  Such a view would lead to an argument that there was no need to smash the State, that it was possible to evade military operations [as in Autonomism?] . 

Gramsci certainly overstated cultural moments of rebellion (48), and also underestimated the feudal nature of the Russian State, which rather ruins his apparent list of comparative options.  This failure was, of course, matched by Bolshevik inability to grasp the notion of western states.  The result was a simple polarity or oscillation between power and consent.  Bordiga's analysis is better -- the state in the west is also more efficient at coercion!

The notion of the war of position has also had an effect on strategy.  The concept assumes that revolution is on the cards by 'abstractly affirming the revolutionary character of the time itself' (56), a mistake also made by Lukacs.  This lead to partial armed struggle by the German Party, as an adventurous version of Second International reformism, believing that a 'revolutionary offensive' would provoke a crisis and win over the proletariat.  What it led to was ill organized fighting in Germany, defeat and demoralisation (57).  This tendency was 'corrected' by Trotsky and the Third International, and this led Gramsci to suggest the notion of war of maneuver, which actually specifically referred to this fighting.  The eventual advocacy of a united front instead reflected the Comintern line, based on Lenin's speech, on the necessity to work with other groups, including the army.  However, Gramsci and others had rejected this strategy for Italy.  The Comintern itself took an ultra left turn in 1928 and this sponsored a new adventurism in Italy, and this led to Gramsci reactivating the notion of the united front when in prison (60).  The notion of a war of position was intended to be applied generally in this situation.

The background again is relevant, especially the debates between Kautsky and Luxemberg.  Kautsky's position was similar to Gramsci's [on united front?] (62), and ended in Fabianism—Luxemberg's reply said that the whole strategy really concealed a hope for electoral victory.  These dangers were unknown to Gramsci, though, but his policy never integrated insurrection firmly into the war of position, and there was no real account of escalation to a revolutionary state.  He should have specified that the war of position would lead to armed assault, but because of his generalizations between civil society and state, the war of position became a strategy for the whole revolution (70).  Economic crisis was seen as an indication of the near victory of the war of position, and a sign that hegemony was developing within the revolutionary bloc. 

However, this argument contained shades of authoritarianism and the need for discipline [and patience] inside the working class.  The real revolution would arise instead from proletarian democracy and experience.  The war of position is really a stoical adjustment to defeat rather than a strategy, a sign that Gramsci's thought had lost its way, although he was always a militant personally.  Trotsky was better, in advocating united front and military action, combining wars of position and wars of maneuver in real wars.

Gramsci neglects to discuss open coercion by the state and insurrection by the working class.  Insurrection must divide the State, win over troops and go on to fight militarily.  Real worker democracies provide experience of the limits of bourgeois types, and only then would a united front be possible.  Overall 'the imperative need remains to win the working class' (78).

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