International Gramsci Society Online Report
December 2003

Conference Report

Images of Gramsci: Connections and Contentions in Political Theory and International Relations

Phoebe Moore and Jerine Thomas

Andreas Bieler and Adam David Morton co-ordinated two days of high profile workshops on 24th-25th October, which was attended by some of the most prominent authorities in political and international theory engaged with the thought and action of Antonio Gramsci. The event was hosted by the University of Nottingham’s School of Politics with funding from the same institution as well as the Department of Politics and International Relations at Lancaster University, the British International Studies Association (BISA), the International Political Economy Group (IPEG), and the Political Studies Association (PSA). Overall, eighteen speakers delivered new and innovative papers with the discussion animatedly pursued into the coffee breaks, lunch and dinner at the University’s Staff Club. Discussion revolved around two central themes: ‘Approaches to Gramsci’ and ‘World Order in Question’.

Within ‘Approaches to Gramsci’, the motif of connections and contentions was evident from the very first session, commencing with Anne Showstack Sassoon’s paper entitled ‘Gramsci and the Secret of Father Brown’, which focused on the details, serendipities, and connections in Gramsci’s writings to wider issues of philosophy, politics and practice. Building on this method, a critique of positivism was deciphered from G. K. Chesterson’s novel, The Secret of Father Brown whose approach to knowledge construction is preferred above and beyond the positivism evident in Arthur Conan Doyle’s character Sherlock Holmes. Joseph Buttigieg’s paper, ‘Revisiting Gramsci’s Concept of Civil Society’, was a challenge to mainstream understandings of ‘civil society’, which disconnect the state and economy from civil society. Instead, the construction of ‘public opinion’ at the point of contact between political society and civil society reveals the inseparability of economy and state and the role of ideological struggle. The Project for a New American Century precisely exemplifies the ‘corruption’ of civil society in the present era: how state and civil society are sights of strategic selectivity. Joseph Femia in his paper ‘Gramsci, Machiavelli and Political Realism’ furthered the debate by introducing Gramsci as a ‘realist’ thinker in the Machiavellian mould based on reflections about ‘effective reality’ whilst at the same time engaged with the normative realm. These papers sparked lively dialogue and immediately revealed the connections and contentions evident in the debates on Gramsci’s thought and action.

The dynamic of original contributions to existing debate was especially furthered by Bob Jessop and his discussion of ‘Gramsci as a Spatial Theorist’; by James Martin and his presentation on ‘The Logics of Hegemony: Gramsci and Post-Marxism’; and by Adam David Morton with his focus on Gramsci’s contribution to understanding the historical sociology of modern state formation in his paper ‘The Age of Absolutism: Capitalism, the Modern States-System and International Relations’. Maurice Finocchiaro’s ‘Gramsci, Wars, and Cultural Struggle’ examined in detail Gramsci’s early writings on war as a point from which to reflect on contemporary circumstances of conflict from the Bush administration’s ‘War on Terror’ to Berlusconi’s cultural warfare on difference as reflected within Islam. Randolph Persaud’s ‘The Spatial Logic of Hegemonisation’ ardently criticised the growing presence of liberal thought and practice within the US academy as reflected in the empty notions of ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ power, whilst the first day’s presentations fittingly closed with Randall Germain’s reflections on ‘Gramsci and the Historical Mode of Thought in IPE’, containing fresh insights about understanding the role of institutions, subjectivities, and historical knowledge in the contemporary global political economy of finance.

The second day of the conference focused on the theme of ‘World Order in Question’, began with Andrew Robinson’s paper, ‘Towards an Intellectual Reformation: The Critique of Common Sense and the Forgotten Revolutionary Project of Gramscian Theory’, by developing a vigorous challenge to the agendas of both political and international theorists alike. A. Claire Cutler in her ‘Gramsci, Law and the Culture of Capitalism’ invited the participants to think critically about international law and processes of juridification in constituting the terms of commodification and marketisation of culture. Mustapha K. Pasha declared that transnational hegemony occurs through national processes of internalisation with his ‘Islam, Orientalism and Empire: A Gramscian Re-reading’. Whilst there was a timely focus on emancipatory politics embedded within the ‘movement of movements’ of anti-capitalist resistance in Mark Rupert’s ‘Reading Gramsci in an Era of Globalising Capitalism’. Kees van der Pijl crucially traced the rise of middle class technical cadres, their role in the development of left and right political activism and their relevance to consolidating transnational capitalism in his paper ‘Gramsci and Left Managerialism’. Whilst Andreas Bieler then analysed the role of organic intellectuals in attracting other related social forces into the basis of neoliberal restructuring within processes of EU integration in his paper ‘The European Union and Global Capitalism: Historical Materialism and European Integration’.

The final session involved Mark Neufeld’s reflections on understanding the ‘three Ds’: “Dialectic”, “Double Movement” and “Democracy” in his paper ‘Democratic Socialism in the Global(-ising) Context: Toward a Collective Research Programme’, which drew from wider authorities including Rosa Luxemburg and Edward Said. Ngai-Ling Sum advanced the notion of cultural political economy as a realm of enquiry rather than the separation of culture and political economy in her paper ‘From “Integral State” to “Integral World Order”: Towards a neo-Gramscian Cultural IPE’. Whilst, lastly, William Robinson’s ‘Gramsci and Globalisation: From Nation-State to Transnational Hegemony’ brought the curtains down on the workshop by offering a bold statement on the transnationalisation of production and the state and the shift from hegemonic to imperialist practices within the present condition of world order.

The workshop achieved its objective: initiating new and original debate across political and international theory on the thought and practice of Antonio Gramsci in a way that avoided consensus and laid bare clear contentions for present and future discussion. Andreas Bieler and Adam David Morton are now planning to collaborate on an edited book from the papers to be published in the near future.

Phoebe Moore and Jerine Thomas are graduate students in the School of Politics, University of Nottingham. This report also appears in the November 2003 issue of the BISA Newsletter.

  ^ return to top ^