For those of us engaged in the broad project of a critical reassessment and reconstruction of both the central concepts and politics of the Marxian tradition there is, perhaps, no other thinker whose work is as important as that of Antonio Gramsci. For us, Gramsci embodies the best of the truly dialectical Marxian tradition as he provides a springboard away from the dogmatism and economism within the Marxist tradition--his essay "The Revolution Against Capital" comes readily to mind--while he remains committed to the broader Marxian tradition.
It is hardly surprising, then, that almost every issue of Rethinking Marxism features articles in which Gramscian concepts are used to produce understandings of political, cultural and economic issues. Our authors often take Gramscian insights and concepts (and often other than those with which the name of Gramsci is readily identified, such as, hegemony) as points of departure to, as Stuart Hall says, think in a Gramscian way. Such articles span an extremely wide range of topics, including: trade unions (Annunziato, 1988), philosophy (Wolff, 1989), sexuality (Moe, 1990), the language of politics (Showstack Sassoon, 1990), cultural imperialism (Lazarus, 1990), socialist education (Landy, 1991), and Dante (Bové, 1991). In addition, Gramsci's work figures in the ongoing discussions of post- Marxism and radical democracy (Landry and MacLean, 1992; and Graham, 1991), and with questions of cultural studies, widely understood (Hall, 1992; and Kennedy, 1988). What follows are comments on a few of these essays from the first four volumes of Rethinking Marxism.
Highlighting the interdependence between Gramsci's theoretical and more pragmatic work, Frank Annunziato's "Gramsci's Theory of Trade Unions" (1988), links Gramsci's theoretical anti-economism to an understanding of his analysis of trade unionism. Annunziato shows that Gramsci's break with a teleological theory of history and economism leads him to reject prevailing dogmatisms in which the trade unions were understood to be priveleged sites of politics, either socialist or petty bourgeois. Rather, Annunziato cites Gramsci, who claims that: there is no specific definition of a trade union, the union becomes a determined definition and, therefore, assumes a determined historic form when the strength and will of the workers who compose it, impress upon it a direction, and impose upon its actions those ends which are affirmed by their definition. (153) Trade unions, thus, are not posed as sites of reaction, vis a vis, the factory council, as others have argued, but as unique sites of struggle, with their own contradictions. As Annunziato notes, "The trade union becomes a site for socialist political work, not just because it is a workers' organization, but more importantly, because it must be transformed into a revolutionary organization." (153)
Marcia Landy's essay, "Socialist Education Today," stresses the contradictory and constructed nature of social reality, and, in particular, the "culture of consent," in order to develop a Gramscian way of thinking about socialist education today. She draws upon Gramsci's notion of common sense, arguing that knowledge is "fragmented and distorted,
derived as it is from a number of public and private discourses including law, religion, the family, schools and the media"; and she notes that "Gramsci's writings on education and mass culture provide a starting point for examining the more complex ways in which consent is shaped in late capitalist society." (17) [END PAGE 18]
After developing certain points of contact between Gramsci and post-structural theory on questions of the subaltern and the construction of identity, Landy offers the following as the parameters of socialist education today: what are the historical dimensions of the present that transform the subaltern from thing to "person"? It would seem that socialist education in a capitalist society, if one follows Gramsci, is a means toward this transformation; it would entail a rethinking of the notion of the subaltern in ways suggested by Gramsci's notion of the intellectuals, of common sense, and of history away from the sense of determinism but also away from the notion of a linear conception of progress toward the realization of revolution.
On questions of philosophy, Richard Wolff argues that Gramsci offers us a lesson on the importance of philosophical, and especially, epistemological questions for radicals. Wolff, via Gramsci, challenges the distinction, put forward by Perry Anderson, between "substantive and epistemological concerns," in which substance is presumed to be more important. He argues that questions of philosophy and epistemology were an integral part of Gramsci's theoretical and political work taken as a whole--that his discussion of the formation of knowledge and cultural practices is, in part, an epistemological investigation for it entails a critique of notions of science and truth which were very much part of the fabric of cultural life.
Nowhere, Wolff states, is Gramsci's emphasis on "the complex, mutual interaction between philosophy and epistemology, on the one hand, and politics and economics on the other" (141), more tellingly demonstrated than in the notion of constructing counterhegemonic cultural practices. Radicals need, argues Wolff, "a counterhegemonic philosophy of knowledge and truth--an epistemological position--as urgent as any of the other components of a successful strategy for social revolution." (43)
A number of contributions have taken often overlooked components of Gramsci's text--the specificity of his language, concepts of sexuality, and his comments on Dante, for example, as objects of analysis.
Anne Showstack Sassoon's essay "Gramsci's Subversion of the Language of Politics" (1990), for example, looks directly at the structure of Gramsic's texts and his complex use of language. She argues that Gramsci continually struggled with language and concepts (such as hegemony and the intellectual) because he resisted naming in a way that reduced social life to only one of its dimensions. Thus, we must recognize that "he produced an archetypal open text that the reader must recreate each time she or he reads it." (15) Reflecting on Gramsci's own struggles with language, Showstack Sassoon notes that Gramsci refuses to let language and its ideological power overcome him. Thus, if he corrupts or subverts them [words] or pushes them to their limits or argues that, as usually understood, they are meaningless . . . it is not simply because of political polemic. It is because he is convinced that in the era of mass politics, their traditional, historically constructed meanings are being superseded or tendentially so. (21)
Paul Bové, in his "Dante, Gramsci, and Cultural Criticism" strikes a similar note when he claims that readers have "an obligation to give careful and precise attention to langauge in retheorizing his thinking, his activity and his writing." (74) His reading of Gramsci's writings on Dante reveal some of how Gramsci reflects upon the problems of representation--semiotic and political--and also how these troubling theoretical
reflections find their place in the linguistic, the rhetorical and literary, formulations of his writing. (75)
Nelson Moe carefully examines Gramsci's comments on "the sexual question" in order to "open up these 'other' spaces to critical examination, seeking in them moments of anatgonism and resistance." (236) Moe finds, despite Gramsci's important focus on the processes through [END PAGE 19] which subjectivity is constituted, "an unusual moment of economism in Gramsci's thought" (226), in which sexual ethics are explicitly linked to new Fordist forms of production.
In addition, Gramscian language figures prominently in the ongoing debates about post- Fordism and post-Marxism which are important and consistent themes in Rethinking Marxism. Whereas Gramsci's legacy is often invoked as a route out of or beyond Marxism, the work published in Rethinking Marxism is a testimony to the importance of Gramscian concepts and strategies in the reviatalization and reconstruction of that very tradition.
Annunziato, F. 1988. "Gramsci's Theory of Trade Unionism." Rethinking Marxism 1 (Summer): 142-64.
Bové, P.1991. "Dante, Gramsci and Cultural Criticism." Rethinking Marxism 4 (Spring): 74-86.
Graham, J. 1990. "Fordism/Post-Fordism, Marxism/Post-Marxism: The Second Cultural Divide." Rethinking Marxism 4 (Spring): 39-58.
Hall, S. 1992. "Race, Culture and Communications: Looking Backward and Forward at Cultural Studies." Rethinking Marxism 5 (Spring): 10-18.
Kennedy, D. 1988. "My Talk at the Gramsci Institute." Rethinking Marxism 1 (Fall): 100- 130.
Landy, M. 1991. "Socialist Education Today: Pessimism or Optimism of the Intellect?" Rethinking Marxism 4 (Fall): 9-23.
Landry, D. and MacLean, G. 1991. "Rereading Laclau and Mouffe." Rethinking Marxism 4 (Winter): 41-60.
Lazarus, N. 1990. "Imperialism, Cultural Theory and Radical Intellectualism Today: A Critical Assessment." Rethinking Marxism 3 (Fall/Winter): 156-165.
Moe, N. J. 1990. "Production and Its Others: Gramsci's 'Sexual Question.'" Rethinking Marxism 3 (Fall/Winter): 218-237.
Showstack Sassoon, A. 1990. "Gramsci's Subversion of the Language of Politics." Rethinking Marxism 3 (Spring): 14-25.
Wolff, R. D. 1989. "Gramsci, Marxism and Philosophy." Rethinking Marxism 2 (Summer): 41-57.