Grappling With Gramsci

This was a draft chapter intended for a book on major theorists and their implications for (distance) education. Personally, I have been more influenced by Adorno than by Gramsci, but Gramsci was the editor's choice. The book never materialised in the end

'To tell the truth,  to arrive together at the truth, is a...revolutionary act'  Gramsci. L'Ordine Nuovo, 1919 (Hoare 1977)


Antonio Gramsci (1891--1937) has probably been the most influential of the "western' marxists, certainly in Britain. His work has inspired a whole productive tradition called '(British) Cultural Studies' (or, less commonly, gramscianism), for example, which has led to work in a wide range of fields, from the analysis of youth culture, through media studies, to accounts of modern politics, and work in the 'applied fields' of education, social policy, and community and youth studies.  As almost all the commentators have noticed, however, Gramsci's own work was developed in unusual circumstances, in the context of the great struggles in Italian politics in the 1920s and 1930s, a period which began with unprecedented social changes and industrial upheavals associated with the effects of World War 1, saw the rise of the Italian Socialist and Communist Parties, the events of 1917 in Russia, revolutionary upsurges in Hungary and Germany, worker occupations of the Fiat complex in Turin, and the eventual rise of fascism, and which ended in Gramsci's imprisonment and death. Gramsci's famous Prison Notebooks were themselves written under Italian prison regulations, with censorship and without access to a library, which partly accounts for their occasional theoretical lapses, their opacity, the frequent use of euphemism, and the absence of actual concrete referents.

Theory and Practice

It was once common to long for some sort of unity between theory and practice, of course, and several kinds of unity were pursued. In the social science traditions in which I was trained, 'theory' used to refer to a parsimonious framework of 'deep' underlying principles or axioms about the world, for example, sometimes with a body of more tentative hypotheses generating empirical or other types of research programmes, and also with a body of legitimating beliefs or ideologies about the world and about research itself. One persistent belief among these was that the correct theory would deductively generate a properly grounded practice of some kind. Some versions of social science, often deployed in educational studies, hoped to find some undeniable principles which could be used to develop correct practice - some definitive 'theory' of learning, for example, which could be used to guide course design.

More politically  radical versions have seen theory as source of principles to guide a definite interventionist politics, as did two at least of the 'founding fathers' of European Sociology  (see Crook (1991) on Durkheim and Marx). A number of critics have argued forcefully that this kind of direct deductive, algorithmic, or even dialectic link between thought and action is unattainable, at least without a good deal of special pleading, dogmatism and incoherence, and that even the attempt to read theory as a template for action is a serious self-misunderstanding. I first came across this kind of argument in Adorno (1973), but it has been made more fashionable again in the writings of the 'postmodernists' like Lyotard (see Dews 1987 for a discussion). ( see my discussion too ) Instead, far more fuzzy, fragmented or rhetorical links connect theoretical and practical discourses or experiences, although these are often glossed in plausible narratives of science.

Gramscian theory tends to be used in several linked ways, in my experience. There was indeed a serious and sustained effort to read Gramsci either 'on his own' or as a wider project involving other marxists (especially Althusser --  quick intro ) and certain sociolinguistic theorists (Levi-Strauss, Barthes and later Volosinov or Pecheux) in order to lay bare the central crucial concepts and axioms that would form a privileged base for applied analysis. This sort of work led to the centrality of concepts like 'hegemony' and its derivatives (hegemonic and counter-hegemonic struggle, a way of reading social history as a pattern of settlements and crisis in an underlying hegemonic struggle,  and so on, or, later, the concept of 'articulation' (and various double articulations), used to explain the connections between, say, youth cultures and social class (Hall and Jefferson 1976), or between terms (Englishness, social change, racism) in various political discourses (Hall et al 1978, Hall and Jacques 1989), or between identity- forming experiences in rapidly changing urban societies (Hall in Donald and Rattansi 1992).

This sort of effort is detailed in Harris 1992, and, to cut a long story short, it became increasingly clear that even this huge and erudite reading exercise could never winnow out the central concepts in sufficiently rigorous a form. 'Hegemony' was used in inconsistent ways, according to one set of critics, for example (Jessop et al 1984), and the concept tended to generate circular, predictable or sentimental analysis (Rojek 1993). 'Articulation' seemed to apply sometimes to events and sometimes to discourses about  events, and it was unclear whether its principles were empirical or logical, so to speak (Geras 1988). More generally, after two decades or so of development, the whole approach looked exhausted, or, worse, 'closed' (Johnson in Education Group II 1991), formula-like or 'lazy' (Hall in Donald nad Rattansi 1992), or 'banal' (Morris 1988). For me, the work of Bennett and Woollacott in media studies (1987) illustrates the tensions at the most general level - in their struggle to grasp the specificities of the effects of (James Bond) films, Bennett and Woollacott get driven further and further from the old 'centred' readings that saw Bond as a central figure in hegemonic struggles over class, capitalism and gender, until it becomes clear that the old concepts simply cannot be stretched any further ( try Bond file ).

Gramscianism also functioned at another level, throughout, and, maybe still does so today. Analysts are committed to writers and their approach not exclusively by the cognitive power of their concepts, of course, but by certain inspirational, irrational, charismatic qualities in the work. Many of my students and some colleagues seem to have been inspired by Gramsci's slogans, rhetoric or personal example. We all need inspiring examples, but making Gramsci into a figure capable of speaking to us directly can involve a good deal of creative work too, often to cut away the original context of much of his work, and to replace it with a much vaguer sense of application.

It would be naive to insist on some sort of 'original' reading of Gramsci, of course, but the context of the work should make one cautious. A senior colleague, for example, would often admonish me with Gramsci's famous dictum that we should retain a 'pessimism of the intellect, [an] optimism of the will'. The context for our discussion was one of local, parochial institutional politics, as I developed a gloomy analysis of trends in local management, and the slogan served to express that colleague's support for what might be called 'British activism'. Gramsci used the phrase in quite different  circumstances, though - to encourage Communist militants to struggle for influence against Socialist delegates (in Hoare 1978), or earlier, to defend Socialist caution and marxist analysis against anarchist opportunism (Hoare1977:187). The earlier piece, incidentally, attributes the famous dictum to a certain Romain Rolland, originally, which hints at another context.

Gramsci's admonitions to the anarchists in that piece also seem to apply to the more populist analyses of British activism: 'To rely solely on the creative capacity of [the]... masses and not work systematically to organise a great army of disciplined and conscious elements...- this is complete and utter betrayal of the working class. It is the beginning of unconscious counter-revolution' (Hoare 1977:189). We shall return to the idea of revolutionary discipline when discussing education in more detail. Struggle itself can become an abstract slogan, if context is ignored. While Gramsci struggled to found and lead a socialist movement, and, later, a Communist Party that would act as a focus and 'furnace of faith' for the industrial and political upheavals in Italy, British gramscians have sometimes referred to their own attempts to secure their own privileges in universities as 'struggle', doubtless trying to capture some of the romance and legitimacy of the original. There was also that theoretical labour referred to above, to found an abstract theory of human struggle to incorporate the two kinds - an anthropology of 'Struggling Person', to take its place among other anthropologies (Man the Toolmaker, Homo Ludens etc.).

Cultural struggle is what intellectuals do best, of course, and there has long been an interest in playing one's part in a wider struggle by taking on the central ideologies of the ruling class at both 'scientific' and 'vulgar' levels, as, indeed, Marx himself did  for much of his life. Yet there is a tendency for cultural struggles to take on a life on their own, to become the concern of a mere clique of specialists, for a cultural politics to become a mere politics of culture. As Gramsci certainly knew, there is a danger that petit bourgeois culture critics may be judged as having 'raged and foamed because of a newspaper article, a caricature, a headline....[while]...The masses were spilling their blood in the streets and squares...' (Hoare 1978:18). Connecting up these struggles to those of proletarian militants involves more than just wishful thinking and a way with words, as we shall see in more detail below.

Gramsci's support for the Communist Party as one of the major coordinating mechanisms is clear, and this had to be managed and removed before Gramsci could be seen as a source for British activism in the absence of a strong CP. This was achieved largely by emphasising his earlier work with factory councils, or embryonic soviets, and by endorsing the once-dominant 'Eurocommunist' reading of Gramsci's legacy in 1960s and 1970s Italy. This kind of political reinterpretation was accompanied by a good deal of more general academic work to stretch Gramsci to fit all kinds of subjects and enter all sorts of debates which he had not addressed himself (such as feminism, media, popular culture, postmodern critiques), while down-playing some additional areas that seemed 'unfortunate'.

There is no space here to take up these issues. One of the most 'unfortunate' areas concerns education, so we can address that in some detail below. Just to allude to the political issues again, though, consider the effects of restoring some context to the quote at the head of this paper. Quotes like that one are morale boosters for radical academics, persuading us that we do matter, we are part of a wider movement struggling for justice and freedom, that we belong to a glorious tradition of European enlightenment, and that we can participate simply by going about our normal business in lectures and seminars. Yet replacing those innocent dots, for example, gives us:

'To tell the truth, to arrive together at the truth is a communist and revolutionary act'

Restoring the context still further, the whole piece in which this quote is embedded, and it is a piece written by Gramsci and Togliatti, in fact, is about building a network of 'workshops, socialist clubs, peasant communities' to become 'organs of proletarian power, replacing the capitalist', learning from the experience of the Russian soviets. We are really quite far from the warm glow of a pleasantly constructive sociology seminar in a church college in Devon, or from the radical hopes of former militants joining an open university. How far would recent support among gramscians for a 'modernised' British Labour Party square with Gramsci and Togliatti when it came to 'replacing the capitalist', especially replacing them with a Communist Party like the Russian one? The context does not exactly tie up either with the immediate specific interests we all have in expanding the formal education system and opening access to adult students while keeping intact our 'closed shop' professional status as pedagogues.

The final sense in which theory has been used in practice is implied in the discussion above. Gramsci's work has been elaborated, extended, symptomatically read, synthesised with the work of other critics, summarised and deployed as an academic text, 'applied' by academics as a means to develop their particular interests in managing ideas, constructing syllabi, organising working narratives for students. The gramscianism that resulted became an extremely successful form of academic practice, offering precisely the sort of material essential to found a number of research programmes, and their accompanying graduate institutes (like the CCCS), centres and publication networks, and, later a spectacular 'teaching object' (the famous Open University  course U203) which fixed the agendas for most of the new 'cultural studies' courses in the UK system for an entire generation. Ironically, then, gramscianism founded a new and popular academic field, and this was perhaps its most lasting achievement, persisting long after its theoretical golden age, and well past its political sell-by date (the British general election of 1991 with its fourth consecutive Conservative victory).

The concrete practices of academics are little studied, however, and certainly the gramscians have been rather quiet about their own, although we do know of some of the inter-faculty struggles (sic) involved in the establishment of the CCCS and of U203. My own work suggests that there is a story to be told here of how the dialectical concepts or ambiguities in gramscianism slowly shaped themselves into the familiar codes and conventions of the famous (highly codified) theoretical polarities of conventional teaching in social science: the old tensions between 'structure' and 'agency' can be managed nicely by a gramscian insistence on ' (counter-) hegemonic struggle' as some transcending middle term, for example. In skilled hands, gramscianism can lay out all the usual options in introductory social theory and then finally emerge, triumphantly, as a compelling 'last word',  as 'prime knowledge', or as a privileged underlying grasp of reality, complete with a 'right on' status to appeal to the idealism of the young.

Gramscians have performed skilled analysis of, say, media professionals  to reveal how the very professional independence of those groups serves only  to strengthen the position of the dominant groups; Bourdieu's work reveals exactly the same processes at work among modern educational professionals, of course, but many gramscians never got that close to home. As a design procedure and as an acceptable form of critical analysis, gramscianism represents the domestication of critique in higher education in Britain, in this view, as much as its successful diffusion (which is how its defenders might see it).

There have been some splendidly critical 'new left'; analyses of British education, of course, (Young and Whitty 1977, Whitty and Young 1976) although few examine university-level education. The best ones emanate from a phase known as the 'new' sociology of education, developed in the  early 1970s in Britain. Although one element in that  approach consisted of rediscovered marxist work, it was a rather unfocussed and ecelctic marxism of several different schools, and there were other elements from other critical sources, including American symbolic interactionism and social phenomenology, and even from Durkheim (via the work of Bernstein and Bourdieu).

Gramsci emerged eventually as the man most likely to organise and synthesise the insights of all the others while overcoming their flaws and permitting a little British activism. Hall's 'last word' summary in an authoritiative OU course (E202) mentioned above, and an editorial in a famous collection of 'new sociology' pieces (Whitty and Young 19796) end their reviews in gramscianism but Gramsci was still not the only contender, and a number of difficulties had already arisen in the 1970s with associating his work directly with British activism.

Entwhistle (1979), for example, had written an authoritative book based on a close reading of Gramsci's specific views on education, and had counterposed this reading to those of the 'new sociologists': Gramsci, it seemed, had long favoured an impeccably conventional academic education as the best grounding for radicals. Much of the debate, looking back after nearly twenty years, seems to have arisen in a specific context itself - the struggle between rival fractions in educational politics, fighting under the rather vague banners of 'traditionalists' and 'progressives'. This struggle was never purely a theoretical one, of course, but represented more general worldviews  and belief systems, and some quite specific professional politics.

Academic analysis often found itself at odds with the rather polarised and stereotyped positions in the debate, and sociologists in particular were often simply assumed to be on the 'progressive' side, even where their actual arguments tried to transcend the ideological limits of both positions (as in the OU course E282, or in one of its set texts Sharp and Green 1976). Eventually, radicals did force some kind of break with progressivism, and found themselves operating with smaller and smaller fractions of the 'progressive' camp,  with the Socialist Teachers' Alliance, for example, or with local militants in tactical alliances with other agitational groups. (Education Group II 1991).

Traces of this sort of partisan approach affected those struggling to be gramscier than thou. British activists, especially when engaged in a desperate attempt to join with progressive elements in teacher unions to resist the Thatcher Government's 'new right offensive' simply had to dismiss the more explicit references to the benefits of traditional education in Prison Notebooks as 'unfortunate' . These references seem to be fairly well entangled with the entire Gramsci project to organise counter-hegemonic struggle, however.

Entwhistle was able to point to many places in Gramsci's writings where there were grave doubts about the Italian fascist reforms in education, for example, and went on to suggest connections between those reforms and certain elements in the British 'progressive' programme - educating 'whole persons', involving emphasising the emotional rather than the cognitive or rational; valuing local knowledge and the immediately relevant rather than the codified academic knowledge of traditional subject areas, for example. Entwhistle's Gramsci would have none of these reforms, and expressed grave doubts about the likely conservative outcomes of them. Emotional rather than cognitive emphases, for example, played into the hands of fascist views of public opinion  as 'essentially a matter of emotion', (Entwistle 1979:83) while downplaying the cognitive rational aspects was seen as raising immediate experience over knowledge, autodidacticism over cultural transmission, 'miracle and mystery' over reason (Entwistle 1979:84). Serious educational efforts were needed to provide learners with the cognitive repertoires to liberate themselves, to winnow out the 'superstition and folklore' in the 'spontaneous philosophy' of the masses, to grasp and use the superior forms of philosophy currently in the hands of the bourgeoisie only, to escape the  typical 'conception...[of the world]...imposed by the external one of the many ...[dominant]... social groups' (Entwistle 1979:33).

What was needed instead was a programme of  teaching to make academic thought more accessible, via well-educated teachers thoroughly immersed in an understanding of the cultural contexts of their work: those educators did indeed need themselves to be educated, as Marx had argued, educated, that is, in terms of their own social locations and roles, and educated by contact with the experiences of the proletariat - but this was not to advocate relativism or a proletarianisation of the curriculum, but biculturalism. The idea was to expose, sympathetically, proletarian children to new, superior, more coherent, context-independent and logical ways of thinking, not to leave the learner as 'the prisoner of the present' (Entwistle 1979:83).

Entwhistle also reviews Gramsci's position on adult education specifically, and here, the points about factory councils and socialist networks, cited briefly above, reappear. The famous discussions of 'traditional' and 'organic' intellectuals locate intellectuals firmly in the overall hegemonic struggle, as well as insisting that every opportunity should be taken to pursue inquiry into current patterns of work or life on the spot, as it were. There is no support here for the view that 'education' is exclusively  that which goes on in formal schooling, or in universities, for that matter. Nevertheless, there is no shrinking from using the term 'intellectual' too, no need for false modesty, apology or euphemism about intellectual work, no intent to wish away differences in expertise or to conceal them under a phoney populism or a 'slippery pronoun'.

Gramsci advocated the recruitment of organic intellectuals from the working class itself, via a system of radical vocational education at the factory level, for example: workers were to learn not just the basic skills and competencies required to do their particular job, though, but to widen their knowledge of the whole productive enterprise, and then of the whole social, historical and cultural context of capitalism itself. This was the 'really useful knowledge' that lay behind demands for State education in Britain in the past, according to Johnson (in Hall et al 1980), and that some gramscians were to claim to be able to detect as a constant undercurrent in proletarian resistance to the narrowly vocational education that the State actually offered. The different conceptions of 'vocational' education can still be useful in modern debates, of course.

Non-proletarian intellectuals could also be won over, be engaged in political activity, get committed to working class hegemony, be prepared to meet and talk to proletarians at Party meetings, in factory councils, while at work (for those technical intellectuals), or via journalism. These intellectuals should not abandon their identity and 'go native', so to speak, but should remain separate and specialised, but as a vanguard rather than as an elite. And intellectuals and factory workers alike could share some experiences - both knew of the need for strong self-discipline and a work ethic, for example.

But the main educational policy issue still concerns the production of 'organic' proletarian intellectuals, operating at the more general cultural level, and the extent to which the different school or higher education systems can be seen to help to generate them. Gramsci's commitment to marxism as the science of the communist movement, as the guarantor of the truth of the claim to be marching with the tide of history, seems to lead him to conceive of organic intellectuals as figures rather like Marx, or like prominent marxists, or even like himself - able to take part to some extent at least in learned historical analyses of bourgeois culture, to penetrate the contradictions of classical economics, to isolate the dominant historical trends. This seems to lead clearly to support for a formal education of a decidedly modernist (easily translated as 'traditional') cast.

Of course, there were problems with this approach, and we should never forget that the organic unity Gramsci worked for so hard failed ultimately as a political project compared with the mystical unities of common blood and destiny in fascism. Radical modernism has suffered a number of body blows from postmodernists too, of course in western intellectual circles at least ( leading in Baudrillard's case to a prediction about the obsolescence of the traditional university, of course). Entwhistle says that Gramsci himself was well aware of the dangers of incorporation of any working class intellectuals, of the difficulties under capitalism of breaking down the status divisions between mental and manual labour, and. above all of the problematic link between impeccably academic education and political radicalism - after all, says Entwhistle, the same school system produced both Antonio Gramsci and his brother (who became a fascist). Nevertheless, the project remained dedicated to bringing the fruits of academic education to the cause of the proletariat, and definitely against any policy of providing separate kinds of education for proletarians to have access to, whether this takes the form of 'progressive' primary, (capitalist) vocational education, or the (fascists') new 'Popular Universities', which were, apparently, 'somewhat like "pedagogical soup kitchens"' (Entwistle 1979:128).

The debate has a number of contemporary resonances, of course, and the issues are being re-run at the level of policy. Entwhistle's account seems to me to still serve as a useful source for my own continuing reservations about British 'progressive' practice, in terms of debates about widening access in particular. The recent sponsorship of  a version of 'activity' based pedagogy for the new students in British higher education, for example, has awakened a lot of anxieties about 'standards' among my colleagues, and particular anxieties about the future of higher education as critique for me. Some of the proposals seem to run the risk of turning into precisely what critics of Italian fascism called '...activity for activity's sake...the apotheosis of immediacy, of passing impulse, of uncriticised and uncriticisable self-assertion considered as synonymous with unlimited freedom' (Entwistle 1979:85). Similar echoes arose for me in the various debates about teacher education in my sector of higher education, where a rather narrow and uncritical form of vocationalism threatened the very attempts to introduce an awareness of context Gramsci saw as so crucial, and where proletarianisation or cultural separatism lurked as easy options to thwart those of us keen on the bicultural teacher.

The 'vocational turn' in my College's policy raised similar anxieties. Like Gramsci, and like other critics since (e.g. I.Bates et al 1984), I supported that sort of vocational education which prepared students thoroughly for work and also encouraged them to stand back from their immediate surroundings and explore the system of the division of labour itself. What seemed to be on offer, though, was something much more narrow and focused on specific competencies ('skills' to use the current jargon) and specific occupational requirements. While we were hardly in a position to hope to produce organic intellectuals, there seemed little attraction in churning out licensed functionaries.

Finally, I had been attracted to a marginal educational institution partly by the old radical dream of contacting more members of the proletariat (or at least the 'respectable' local 'scholarship person' fraction of them, and some occupationally experienced local adults). Overall, though, there seemed to be a danger that in the reorganisation, small colleges like ours would end up as junior colleges in the American sense, designed to offer a version of higher education to satisfy such low-status persons, as part of a policy of 'cooling them out' . Gramsci can even be dragged into service here too, and be made to possess foresight into later analyses of credentialism as cooling out, as in my own speculations about the effects of the OU's policy: junior colleges could be seen to be designed not merely to perpetuate social differences but to 'crystallise them into Chinese complexities' (Entwistle 1979:94) (we would need to dissociate ourselves from any political incorrectness in this
term, of course)

Nor were these entirely abstract issues. Like Gramsci, I worried about the education system in a personal way, in terms of how it affected my own son. With my partner, I was faced with the difficult analytical problem of trying to decide exactly where a 'progressive' approach to primary school teaching turned into a laissez-faire one, where support for local cultures turned into low expectations, how egalitarianism in practice differed from 'malicious egalitarianism', and where the difference lay between a concern for 'the whole child' and a busybody interest in disciplining all the cultural, social and personal aspects of my child, including his intra- and extra-curricular activities, in the name of an intolerant and sectional minority belief system.

I worry about similar dilemmas in my own practice with students, too. Of course, I drew upon a wide range of more recent critical work to help, as well as just Gramsci, as any modern critic must, I suggest (below).

Distance Education

I have argued before that the programme of the UK Open University never clearly enshrined any commitment to radical change in education or in the wider society  (see file) . The connection of the establishment of the UKOU to the 'progressive' side of the debate in educational policy seems to have been almost accidenta