Antonio Gramsci has enjoyed immense popularity in academia. More than any other Italian Marxist he has been held up time and again as a rich and relevant thinker. And yet, especially with someone writing over eighty years ago, we should ask ourselves what it is that accounts for this attractiveness. A cynic like myself might point to the importance Gramsci (1971: 340) ascribes to organic intellectuals, whose role as revolutionary elites is to educate the “amorphous mass element.” This paints career academics in a gratifying light, one might argue, making tenured professorship—a feudal vestige—appear pertinent and necessary for today’s struggles. But I think Gramsci’s influence extends beyond mere academic narcissism. His work has played a large and often central role in many of the disciplines that have emerged over the past few decades, including cultural studies, postcolonial theory, subaltern studies, critical pedagogy, to name a few (Saccarelli 2008: 12). In geography Gramsci is experiencing somewhat of a resurgence for those working in the field of political ecology. Of particular interest have been Gramsci’s writings on science as a social practice (Wainwright and Mercer 2009), his historical materialism as the basis for a moral ecology (Mann 2009), and of course the Gramscian notion of hegemony as a means of theorizing relations of power beyond state (political) institutions (e.g., Ekers et al. 2009; Peet 2002).
There’s something deeply ironic in all this. The tendency, as Emanuele Saccarelli (2008: 25) has noted, is to read Gramsci as a fellow academic and to interpret the Prison Notebooks as “theory”—one of many to choose from. Gramsci would have despised this. It makes him out, in his own terminology, as a traditional rather than organic intellectual: a thinker who considers him or herself socially autonomous. Indeed, pegged as a theorist of “concepts” like hegemony, civil society, and so on, Gramsci is violently wrested from his historical situation. What is not accounted for is Gramsci’s role as a party intellectual, inseparable from the Communist Party Italy (PCI) that he helped found with Amadeo Bordiga, from the rise of fascism in Italy, and from the shadow of Bolshevism and Stalinism. The latter, as scholars today often forget, is something that Gramsci critiques not once in the entirety of the Prison Notebooks.
Such historical blindness enables academics in geography and other disciplines to extract concepts from Gramsci’s writings as somehow neutral or nonpolitical, and to graft them onto subjects as foreign to Gramsci as climate change. This is not to say that Gramsci cannot or should not be used to engage present issues. It’s rather that his writings assume a certain politics that we should remain conscious of, and critique accordingly. For the act of grafting, like another other act, is never “pure.” It carries with it the dirty residues of history. Gramsci himself knew this. His “philosophy of the act is that of “the real ‘impure’ act, in the most profane and worldly sense of the word” (1971: 372). The use and development of theory is not exempt from this. It is always profane, which means it is always political.
This is not the space to flesh out a full critique of Gramsci’s politics. But it’s worth noting that most of the ideas he popularized—hegemony, organic intellectuals, war of position—imply what many ultra-leftists today would call “programmatism.” The journal Théorie Communiste (2010) defines programmatism as a theory and practice of class struggle in which the proletarian comes to discover, within itself, the blueprint for a future society. Such a blueprint becomes the “programme to be realized.” This realization is synonymous with the affirmation of labor, which is considered the means by which class society is overcome, somewhere down the line.
In Gramsci’s (1971) case, this programmatism involves the pedagogical creation of a “collective will” (p. 194) or “political party” that “proposes to put an end to class divisions” (p. 152). The goal is essentially a Leninist one: for a “progressive fraction” of the party to turn “the State apparatus to its own benefit” (p. 166). To enact such a program, no matter how spontaneous it appears to unfold, requires “conscious leadership” in order to transcend the “common sense” of the masses (pp. 196–197). Looming in the background of this leadership is the figure of the State. Whereas Lenin at least had a theory of how the state would eventually wither away under the dictatorship of the proletariat, Gramsci seems to hold on to the necessity of “State spirit” (p. 146) as a key ingredient in the creation of the historical bloc that would achieve revolution.
It’s pointless to judge the value of Gramsci’s politics from our historical vantage point. The programmatism that he advocates—the successful realization of the workers’ movement—was certainly a real historical possibility at the time of his writing. But it’s a completely different question when his concepts are revived in present scholarship. Is Gramsci really the best “theorist” for our historical moment? Does Gramsci, whose category of the subaltern refers arguably to both an industrial proletariat and rural peasantry (see Morton 2007: 96–97), really have much to offer a world where the global peasantry has been largely absorbed into the market and where the workers’ movement has on a whole been defeated? Where political struggles no longer center around the sphere of production, but around issues of reproduction and circulation (see Clover 2016)? Where cops kill unarmed blacks and ice caps melt somewhere to the north?
If recent riots have taught us anything it’s that the struggles that define our historical moment have very little to do with what Gramsci calls a war of position, with the slow, pedagogical buildup of counter-hegemony. Those who took to the streets in Ferguson or Baltimore were not following any party program or heeding the advice of some intellectual elite. Nor were they trying to produce any kind of “consent” (p. 12) or “coherent unity” (p. 324)—what Gramsci (1971) finds imperative for a philosophy of praxis. There was nothing “cathartic” (pp. 366–367) about the riots, at least in the Gramscian sense of dialectically producing a new ethico-political form. Quite the opposite. The riots hinged on that part of the dialectic that Gramsci underestimates and refuses to engage on its own terms: negation. Far from the productivist grammar of Gramsci’s war of position—the need to conquer and positively transform civil society—the riots in Baltimore and Ferguson stand for the rejection of civil society altogether. To purge everything. For it is from civil society that black bodies in the US are constantly barred, and rendered surplus, through immiseration, incarceration, and death.
The black subject clearly poses problems for Gramsci. Frank Wilderson (2003) has written an excellent critique along these lines, one that I won’t rehearse here. The point is that Gramsci’s work is seriously limited in its ability to grasp—and more importantly to transform—the present. Above all, his reliance on state/party structures and the creative potential he places in civil society remains deeply problematic for any attempt to revive a Gramscian politics today. In a future essay, I aim to show how this is the case in regards to how geographers have approached Gramsci’s work.
Clover J (2016) Riot. Strike. Riot: The New Era of Uprisings. London: Verso.
Ekers M, Loftus A, and Mann G (2009) Gramsci Lives! Geoforum 40(3): 287–291.
Gramsci A (1971) Selections from the Prison Notebooks. Translated by Q Hoare and G N Smith. New York: International Publishers Co.
Mann G (2009) Should political ecology be Marxist? A case for Gramsci’s historical materialism. Geoforum 40(3): 335–344.
Morton S (2007) Gayatri Spivak: Ethics, Subalternity and the Critique of Postcolonial Reason. Cambridge: Polity.
Peet R (2002) Ideology, Discourse, and the Geography of Hegemony: From Socialist to Neoliberal Development in Postapartheid South Africa. Antipode 34(1): 54–84.
Saccarelli, E. (2007). Gramsci and Trotsky in the Shadow of Stalinism: The Political Theory and Practice of Opposition. New York: Routledge.
Théorie Communiste (2010) Much Ado About Nothing. Translated in Endnotes 1. Available at: https://endnotes.org.uk/texts/endnotes_1/much-ado-about-nothing.xhtml
Wainwright J and Mercer K (2009) The dilemma of decontamination: A Gramscian analysis of the Mexican transgenic maize dispute. Geoforum 40(3): 345–354.
Wilderson F B III. (2003). Gramsci’s Black Marx: Whither the Slave in Civil Society? Social Identities 9(2): 225.