International Gramsci Society Newsletter
Number 6 (August, 1996): 23-26 < prev | toc | next >  

Thoughts on Gramsci Studies

Carl Dyke

And Abstract of the Dissertation Indeterminacy, Irrationality, and Collective Will. Gramsci's Marxism, Bourgeois Sociology, and the Problem of Revolution

The dense tangle of insights about history, social order, collective action, and political commitment generated by the marxists of this century may always invite renewed exploration. But recent political events have created a temporary marxism amnesia in some circles, as both supporters and opponents of the Soviet empire digest the demise of the narrow version of marxism that served so long as the de facto procrustean legitimator of marxist political discourse and its antitheses. For the moment, marxism is politically a dead dog. This has, as it should, serious consequences for the reception of studies of marxism and figures usually associated with it. The importance of understanding marxism for those who wish to understand recent history is now far more relative and partial. And for those with concerns more in the present who still manage to resist the enchantment of the market as the mode for economic, social, and political association, the recovery of alternative traditions of marxism cannot at present stand alone in yielding the elements for a more deeply textured understanding of social and political life.

Antonio Gramsci has already shown signs of being a figure who can bridge the gap between pure recovery within and transcendence of the now-limited marxist frame. In particular, his celebrated theory of hegemony has been widely cited or appropriated, though somewhat less widely understood. Gramsci's thinking has proven to have that successful quality of providing useful insights at various levels of deep excavation and superficial exploitation. And while hegemony supplies a nuanced and flexible corrective to marxist economic determinism, it represents only one aspect of a rich and varied theoretical complex.

In the present climate, a consensus seems to be emerging that there are certain approaches to Gramsci that are frankly unpromising. At the moment, study of Gramsci-as-marxist is almost automatically an exercise in antiquarianism pitched to a very small audience of true believers. Yet, those of us familiar with any sizable portion of Gramsci's enormous oeuvre may not be entirely [END PAGE 23] content with his reception outside of the marxist frame. Pleasure and pain are mixed in the recent boom of a small American Gramsci industry, as the few scholars devoted to Gramsci in this country have been joined by crowds seeking to fill the gaps left by other continental theory- complexes (e.g. Althusser, critical theory, poststructuralism, deconstruction). Gramsci has done well in a tendentially postmodern intellectual climate currently devoted to theoretical eclecticism. His attention to a variety of modes of social, political, and cultural formation created a particularly rich source of usable insights. And the famously dispersed and unsystematic character of his written theoretical legacy, so daunting for attempts to teach Gramsci honorably to undergraduates, appears to authorize a pleasantly unrestricted grab-bag approach by more sophisticated academic readers.

Pleasure-pain though it may be to find Gramsci cited once or twice in the indexes of book after book to which a deeper appreciation of him would have been of value, only a priesthood could seriously decry such a situation. Rather, it marks an opportunity: a "foot in the door". To open that door, Gramsci studies must have more to sell than the pure article. Even for historians trained to appreciate past creatures in their past habitats the recitation of Gramsci's unique merits becomes wearisome. He needs now to tell us about more than just himself.

In September 1995 I defended my doctoral dissertation, written for the History Department at the University of California, San Diego and titled Indeterminacy, Irrationality, and Collective Will. Gramsci's Marxism, Bourgeois Sociology, and the Problem of Revolution. The dissertation is a project in comparative intellectual history that intersects the history of marxism, the development of the modern sociological imagination and theories of knowledge, and the formation of modern mass political culture and of theories attempting to account for it. Gramsci is at the center of the project, and at one level it certainly can be taken as a historical and theoretical rereading of Gramsci. But, in keeping with my introductory remarks here, the purpose of the dissertation is ultimately to shift Gramsci out of the impacted, self-referential field of focused marxism studies by shifting him into the context of the broader history of European social and political thought.

As a historian I am especially interested in the impact of emergent mass culture and politics since the French Revolution on European thinking about political motivation and action. I start with marxism because of its extravagant claims to have figured all of this out and its historical success in acting on these claims. The premise of the dissertation is that for a variety of reasons marxism entered the twentieth century as a revolutionary theory without an adequate theory of revolution. Despite the fact that the overthrow of capitalism and the creation of a new, classless society relied upon the class consciousness and collective action of the proletariat, marxists had done very little thinking about the complexity of the social elaboration of consciousness or its consequences in conflicting motivations and obstacles to solidarity. The first part of the dissertation considers the representative attempts of Bernstein, Sorel, Lenin, and Lukacs to cope [END PAGE 24] with the troublesome multiplicity of sociological consciousness. I argue that each of these theorists developed some theoretical device (what I call a space-maintainer) that allowed them to manage unruly collective action without understanding its "reasons".

Sorel is a fascinating case because it never occurred to him to question the "reasons" of proletarian action in any way as long as action was occurring. For the others, the shared premise was that given a picture of correct class consciousness based on a universalist/rationalistic assessment of class interests as a function of the relations of production, i.e. given marxism, the sociological consciousness of the working masses looked nothing like what "socialist reason" would demand. In fact, it was characterized by radical fragmentation. As good socialists, it never occurred to any of them that the fragmentation of sociological consciousness was anything but an artifact of a "transitional" moment in world history. It was not something to be respected and understood, it was something to be transcended. The question was, what technique to use, given that the masses were temporarily sociologically blocked from acting on their true interests for themselves.

Marxists of the early 20th century operated on the indeterminacy of the social by compressing the multiple levels of social discontent to the single issue of class struggle, and then using the resulting compressed political practice to hold complexity at arm's length until the masses developed the proper understanding. (In general the reduction of politics to class was in the service of enabling a political practice that could stimulate socialist consciousness.) The gamble was that the technique chosen to maintain the space in the theory voided by the failure of sociological consciousness to conform to socialist consciousness would be successful in bridging the gap between the manifest irrationality of observable actions and the socialist reason by which "freedom" was to be made possible.

Because of his unusually strong commitment to collective liberation and willed community, Gramsci was driven to push beyond this sub-sociological shortcutting. In chapters on Gramsci's participation in the Italian socialist movement and his exposure to the intellectual tradition of machiavellian republicanism, I argue that Gramsci was unusually successful in absorbing the rich variety of theoretical and practical approaches to questions of political formation and organization that were available within the intellectual milieu of early 20th century Italy. In response to this spectrum Gramsci developed a distinctive sensitivity to the need for revolutionary theory to account substantively for the sociological reality of collective motivation and action far from any single standard of rationality (e.g., class consciousness).

By the time he began to write his Prison Notebooks, Gramsci was treating the formation of class consciousness and the emergence of socialist political culture as complex problems of contingent social construction rather than as natural products of historical development. In the "meat" of the dissertation I argue that this shifted him out of the familiar categories of marxist [END PAGE 25] certainty (including the infamous structure/superstructure dichotomy) into a conceptual space in which social and political identities and actions could be seen as locally rational responses to a variety of contingently decisive factors. In chapters comparing Gramsci to "bourgeois" social theorists Emile Durkheim and Max Weber, I develop an argument that all three were doing what I call "the sociology of rationality": exploring the ways in which the criteria of rationality, knowledge and action are not fixed but variably shaped by a constellation of experienced realities including class but also religion, tradition, education, occupation, history, general and particular cultures, durable institutions, and so on (we might now wish to add race, ethnicity and gender to this list). I believe that our understanding of Gramsci's place in European intellectual history can be entirely reframed on this basis, particularly in light of the recent "postmodernism" debates. The insights of postmodernism, I argue, are not new; but figures of the early 20th century like Gramsci, Durkheim, and Weber (not to mention later figures like Arendt, Camus, and Merleau-Ponty) shared a moral imperative to resist the deconstructive logic of the postmodernist imagination with some attempt at a reconstructive gamble.

Building a passionate yet stable participatory politics out of plural formations was Gramsci's goal, one he understood to be enormously complicated and difficult. Hegemony was the theoretical instrument that allowed Gramsci to hold the disparate bundle of intricate social reality together. In a short conclusion on "peeling the hegemonic onion", I argue that in effect Gramsci's theory of hegemony yields layers without a center and thus tends to escape the class reduction of marxism altogether. The result is that Gramsci's revolutionary theory is built on a principle of contingent, uncertain construction (or production) of political unity in which only struggle is assured.

I hope to continue to develop this project by deepening my understanding of early 20th century Italian intellectual and political culture (a most gramscian objective) and by extending the substantive comparisons beyond Durkheim and Weber to illuminate what I see as a more general European "pre-history of postmodernism". I welcome comments and suggestions.   ^ return to top ^ < prev | toc | next >