International Gramsci Society Newsletter
Number 9 (March, 1999): 42-45 < prev | tofc | next >  

Gramsci and the So-called 'Linguistic Turn' (A Discusscion and Dissertation Abstract

Peter Ive

One of the great intellectual 'regrets' of my life is the deep wound I inflicted on my dear professor at the University of Turin, Bartoli, who was convinced I was the archangel sent to destroy the neo- grammarians once and for all...

Antonio Gramsci (March 19, 1927)

In 1976, Perry Anderson complained that "Nothing reveals the lack of ordinary scholarship from which Gramsci's legacy has suffered more than this widespread illusion" that the concept of hegemony is "an entirely new coinage -- in effect, his own invention." [1] This is as true today as it was then, but not, as Anderson would have it, because of ignorance of this term's history in the Russian Social-Democratic movement. Instead, it is due to the lack of attention paid to the connection between 'hegemony' and Gramsci's studies in linguistics. This is the basic impetus behind my recently completed doctoral dissertation, "Vernacular Materialism: Antonio Gramsci and the Theory of Language."

Of course, this general argument is not unique. Franco Lo Piparo provided a convincing argument two decades ago that 'egemonia' [hegemony] was a term that Gramsci would have been familiar with within the linguistic methodologies that he studied at the University of Turin. As Lo Piparo demonstrates, 'egemonia' was being used synonymously with the terms 'fascino' [fascination or attraction] and 'prestigio' [prestige] to investigate why some words, phrases or entire languages were adopted by certain populations whereas in other circumstances such linguistic influences faced greater resistance and various degrees of mutation. Lo Piparo illustrates the extent to which these ideas are at the root of Gramsci's concern with the role of intellectuals, important aspects of his views on Italian history and, most importantly, his development of 'hegemony.'[2]

While Lo Piparo's work is often footnoted as the important work on Gramsci and language, his argument has, in effect, been relegated to one discreet area of Gramsci's many interests. Besides a follow-up article by Lo Piparo in 1987,[3] the implications of his thesis have not been explored. The content of his analysis has been neither challenged, affirmed nor expanded. This is especially surprising given that the so-called 'linguistic turn' has been proclaimed as the most prominent transformation in social theory of this century and received [END PAGE 42] enormous amounts of attention outside the realm of Gramscian studies. The particular lacuna around language in Gramscian scholarship seems to be one indicator of the extent to which Gramsci's thought remains isolated despite the superficial ubiquitous appearance of his name.

That Lo Piparo's work has not been more influential is, at least partially, due to the fact that it has not been translated into English. Moreover, he is primarily a linguist and his analysis is couched accordingly. We could also add the usual difficulties that face reading Gramsci, the fragmentary character of his work, his tendency to use historical Italian examples that have now passed into obscurity, or the lack of English translations of much of his work (currently being alleviated). But I would speculate that this lack of attention paid to Gramsci's early studies in linguistics, his attention to la questione della lingua and sustained interest in language throughout his prison writings is a symptom of more profound confusions around the 'linguistic turn' itself and our own hidden assumptions that language is necessarily separate from the material world to which historical materialism applies.[4]

While my dissertation does not attempt to make such a wide argument about the entire nature of the 'linguistic turn,' I do suggest that this label is misleading since it implies a 'turn' towards language, presumably from a state where language was absent. This metaphor tends to conceal the role of language in social theory before this so-called turn. It seems to me that the label, 'linguistic turn,' conflates langauge as a topic with structuralism as a theoretical perspective. That structuralism has its roots in Ferdinand de Saussure's synchronic linguistics is, of course, crucial, but as the importance of linguistics in the Italian questione della lingua and the whole political problem of unifying Italy as a nation-state, language was hardly absent in social theory or political discussion before the so-called 'turn.' Yet, both the proponents and detractors of the 'linguistic turn' seem to neglect the role of language in social theory prior to Saussure's Course in General Linguistics.

In order to illustrate Gramsci's pertinence to these questions of the linguistic turn, three of my four chapters use the writings of other Marxish theorists who have had a greater impact on the 'linguistic turn,' in order to explicate important aspects of Gramsci's theory of language. After an initial chapter explicating the consistency of Gramsci's writings concerning language from his newspaper articles on Esperanto, Alessandro Manzoni and 'standard' Italian to his last prison notebook on grammar,[5] my second chapter explores the question of 'unity' in Gramsci and the Bakhtin Circle. The first part focuses on the astounding parallels between Gramsci and Valentin Volosinov's criticisms of their contemporary trends in linguistics. Both launch double-pronged critiques against Crocean, Idealist linguistics, on one hand. And, on the other hand, both address the problems of what Volosinov calls 'abstract objectivism' which he finds in Saussure and which Gramsci, I argue, finds in the Neogrammarians (with whom Saussure had studied). I also note some of the similarities between Gramsci and Pavel Medvedev's assessment of Futurism. These [END PAGE 43] similarities raise the question, if Gramsci and the Bakhtin Circle come to similar critiques of contemporary trends in linguistics, how do we explain the discrepancy between Gramsci's advocacy of a national Italian language and the Bakhtin Circles rejection of the creation of national languages in general? This inquiry leads me to an analysis of Bakhtin's Rabelais and His World in order to emphasize Gramsci's rejection of 'bureaucratic centralism' and to suggest that 'polivocality,' to use Bakhtin's term, might be necessary for the type of truly 'democratic centralism' that Gramsci is attempting to construct.

In Chapter Three, I use the writings of Walter Benjamin to highlight Gramsci's use of 'translation' as a metaphor for political analysis and revolution. Both Gramsci and Benjamin overturn the "common sense" understanding of translation as the presentation of the same thing in a different language. Translation for them, as for some contemporary theorists of translation, is not a question of equivalence, nor is it the overcoming of the problems created by linguistic diversity. I demonstrate how translation links a whole set of Gramsci's concerns, including cross-cultural analysis and his interpretation of Marx and Engels's equation of German philosophy, French politics and English political economy. This approach enables me to redefine the terms on which Gramsci scholars have debated the extent of his Leninism.

The second part of this chapter uses theological themes in Benjamin's work to broach the question of Gramsci's analysis of faith, religion, science and objectivity. An emphasis on language as a self-referential system of signs has raised the charge of relativism and subjectivism in the context of post-structuralism. By delving into Gramsci's epistemology, I further clarified how language, for Gramsci, is not referential in relation to a non-linguistic, 'real' world, since, for him, the entire separation between human history and the natural world is an unjustified abstraction. I illustrate the importance of Gramsci's argument that traditional 'science' and Judeo-Christian religion both participate in an idealistic abstraction of some non-human, 'external' world, be it God or nature.

My concluding chapter broaches the question of reason and rationality central to debates about so- called post-modernism. The possibility of reasoned consent is often seen as one of the mainstays of distinguishing consent from forced coercion. This chapter investigates Gramsci's position relative to Adorno and Horkheimer's critique of Enlightenment reason and bourgeois subjectivity. Certain similarities notwithstanding, especially parallels between critical versus traditional theory and organic versus traditional intellectuals, Gramsci's perspective has similarities with Habermas's criticisms of Horkheimer and Adorno around language and mimesis. But, as opposed to Habermas's notion of 'communicative action,' which rests on some of the same presuppositions about emancipatory potentials embedded in language (and reason), I argue that Gramsci provides a more materialist theory of language. This final chapter enables me to show why it is so important that Gramsci sees linguistic activity as 'praxis.' [END PAGE 44]

Through these engagements between Gramsci and other thinkers, I hope to have shown how Gramsci sees language as one important element in social and cultural analysis, and also uses linguistic metaphors to analyze political forces. In distinction to other Marxish theorists, I have attempted to illustrate how thoroughly Gramsci conceives of language as a historical institution that is created by human labor. In agreement with structuralist and semiotic theories of meaning, Gramsci also sees that language is not a collection of words that represent objects in a non- linguistic, 'material' world. Instead, he views language as a system of signs that derive their meaning from the system in which they are imbedded. This does not, for Gramsci, lead to a denial of human agency, the importance of economic conditions and class positions or a retreat from politics, as has been the case for some post-structuralist perspectives. On the contrary, I argue that Gramsci provides a consistently Marxist theory of language.


1. Perry Anderson, "The Antinomies of Antonio Gramsci," New Left Review 100 (November 1976-January 1977), pp.13-5.

2. Franco Lo Piparo, Lingua, intellettuali, egemonia in Gramsci (Bari: Laterza, 1979).

3. Franco Lo Piparo, "Studio del linguaggio e teoria gramsciana," Critica Marxista 2, no.3 (1987): pp.167-75.

4. My dissertation also addresses the more technical reasons for disregarding Gramsci's early studies in linguistics most notably the common perspective that Gramsci was fundamentally Crocean during his university years and that his linguistics is unimportant to his historical materialism based on his critique of Croce.

5. A section of this chapter providing a detailed analysis of Gramsci's 29th Notebook has been published as Peter Ives, "A Grammatical Introduction to Gramsci's Political Theory," Rethinking Marxism, vol.10, no.1 (Spring 1998), pp.34-51.

I would greatly appreciate any comments or feedback. I can reached at or 1627 E. Georgia St., Vancouver, BC, V5L 2B1, Canada.   ^ return to top ^ < prev | tofc | next >