International Gramsci Society Online Article
January 2004

The Subaltern can still speak:
A report on the Puebla Conference

Koichi Ohara, IGS - Japan

This is a brief report on the III International Conference of Gramscian studies which was held 7-10 October 2003 in Puebla, Mexico. Puebla is located about 120 km south of Mexico City. The historical and colonial down-town is characterized by numerous Spanish Catholic churches. Just in the middle of the city is the Autonomous University (BUAP), one of the joint-organizers of the Conference. With the presence of hundreds of students and graduate students of BUAP, the symposium was inaugurated at the Baroque Hall by Rector of the University, Dr. Enrique Doger Guerrero and by Professor Giuseppe Vacca, President of Institute Gramsci, the other sponsor of the conference.

About thirty Gramscian scholars and researchers from abroad were invited to present their research in three organized sessions: ways of reading Gramsci in the world, advanced studies in Gramscian concepts, and the study of international questions in Gramscian perspective. Practically the topics every speaker addressed in his/her speech and paper intersected these three formal categories. Obviously my report here is not to make a survey of the discussion as a whole, nor to comment on every speech delivered at the conference, but to present my personal viewpoint, even if it might be tendentious, and to draw some possible lessons from the whole of the discussions at the Puebla Conference.

I will, therefore, deal not only with some speeches delivered during the Conference, but also with my personal impressions and exchange of opinions I have had with my colleagues before and after the symposium.

First of all I would like to say that I was very satisfied with the discussion organized at the Puebla conference, particularly with the Subaltern question, which was one of the main topics of focus for many scholars at the conference. In his concluding remarks, Giuseppe Vacca took up the problem of subaltern social classes as one of the mains issues – along with the Gramscian concepts of Americanism, hegemony, passive revolution, and the changing implications of inter-dependence and nation-states, etc. – that should be further elucidated, deepened and developed in the present period of globalization. Vacca also told me that the subaltern question for Italian scholars of Gramsci is rather “new”.

Why has the Subaltern issue become one of the main topics? It seems that there are at least three reasons for that. The first reason is that the Conference was organized in Mexico, where the Zapatista indigenous movement in Chiapas has been calling for increased attention. Regrettably there was no speech delivered by any Mexican scholar in this regard during the conference. It was very impressive for me, however, that Dora Kanoussi, responsible for the Puebla symposium, dedicated full time to organizing and managing the conference, attentively following with her cute glasses every session’s discussion, without any intervention of her own. Some time before my departure for Puebla I read her brief essay entitled “The Zapatism and the politics of identity,” which she wrote as an introduction to the anthology “The Zapatism and politics” published in Mexico some years ago.[1] I found this essay very useful to better understanding her own interest of the Subaltern question in Mexico. So I have decided to publish a Japanese translation of her introduction in the Tokyo Gramsci Society’s quarterly Bulletin “La Citta’ Futura”.

The second reason for increased attention on the subaltern question is perhaps due to the fact that for the first time two scholars from Equator participated at the Puebla symposium. One of them, Professor Francisco Hidalgo Flor, delivered a paper on “The indigenous movements and the struggle for hegemony: the case of Equator.” In his paper, he quoted phrases from the Prison Notebooks related to Subaltern groups. His speech was helpful for me to understand the present situation in Equator.

The third reason is that some scholars from abroad, Peter Gran (Temple University) included, took up, naturally from their own standpoint, the Subaltern question. As is known, Marcus E. Green (York University) straightly dealt with this issue in his paper and speech, of which some excerpts will later be carried in this report. Long before the Puebla conference, Green and I exchanged information and opinions on the subaltern question several times. Thus, I had the opportunity to know and read his excellent essay “Gramsci Cannot Speak,” which Green sent to me himself.[2] The summarized version of Green’s essay has also been published in La Citta’ Futura No.28 along with Kanoussi’s essay (mentioned above).

Naturally enough I sent a copy of Green’s essay to Professor Hiroshi Matsuda of Ritsumeikan University of Kyoto and the other coordinating member of IGS Japan, because he was just about to draft his essays on the Subaltern problem, paying particular attention to Notebook 25. He attached much importance to Green’s essay and asked me to forward Green his first comments on the essay. Allow me to integrally quote from Matsuda’s comments, because I believe they will certainly be useful for those interested in the Gramscian concept of the subaltern.

I believe that your insights could further be deepened probably by more carefully reading and examining each paragraph of Notebook 25 (corresponding A, B, and C Texts included). For the time being, I would like to tell you my opinions as summarized below ;

  1. One can not understand correctly the importance of Notebook 25 if he regarded the study plan drafted at the top of Notebook 8 as the definitive and ultimate study plan of the author of the Prison Notebooks. Please see my article “Intorno al metodo di A. Gramsci, L’incantesimo della prefazione Gerratana” carried in the magazine “Belfagor”, n.330 ( 30 Nov. 2000 ).

  2. The Subaltern is not one of the “specific topics” of the study-plan of Notebook 8, but the “cross argument” that runs through all of the topics.

  3. As pointed out, the word “subaltern” should not be regarded as a “codeword” for proletariat (because of prison censorship or auto-censorship), but as a kind of controversial term used along since the dispute on the “Southern question”. In my opinion Gramsci used the terms of proletariat and class as historical matter of facts, but he did not use consciously the term of class as a methodological concept (for example in reductionist and substantialist or essentialist sense), but he instead used the term “groups”.

  4. In particular, a critical reading (lettura critica) of the eight C Texts of Notebook 25 and its relevant A Texts and B texts seems very important. My opinion is that the “Subaltern” concept had at first been dealt as forming a link connected to the “Southern question”, but during the time of Prison Notebooks, the concept of Subaltern had been enriched and further elaborated not only as the historical concept getting over the framework of the “Southern question”, but also as such concepts as autonomy, “subject” of counter-passive revolution, and methodological one.

  5. I think that Notebook 25 should be situated in relation to Notebook 12, Notebook 19 and Notebook 22, namely it is important for us to seize the organic relations between intellectuals and subaltern groups as well as the ties interwoven among Notebooks 12, 19, 22, 25, because the concept of subaltern is intimately connected with the question of how to produce a subject capable of overcoming the hegemonic concept of Americanism.

In my speech delivered at the Puebla conference, I also emphasized the importance of seizing the organic relations between intellectuals and subaltern groups as well as the question of creating a subject capable of “overcoming the hegemonic concept of Americanism”. I here quote the concluding part of my paper, which I originally read in Italian:

For Gramsci, “ideologies are anything but arbitrary; they are real historical facts which must be combated and their nature as instruments of domination exposed, not for reasons of morality and so on, but precisely for reasons of political struggle so as to make the governed intellectually independent of the governors, in order to destroy one hegemony and create another as a necessary moment of the overturning of praxis.” (EC, Q10, §41-XIIC, p.1319).

We can observe in these passages his fundamental formulation of another hegemony, that is a counter-hegemony of the governed opposed to the “ideology of passive revolution” of the governors.

The philosophy of praxis “is not the instrument of government of the dominant groups in order to gain the consent of and exercise hegemony over the subaltern classes; it is the expression of these subaltern classes who want to educate themselves in the art of government and who have an interest in knowing all truths, even the unpleasant ones, and in avoiding the (impossible) deceptions of the upper class and—even more—their own” (ibid, p.1320).

And today, although their expression is different from one region to another, from one country to another, tens of millions of subaltern groups in the world “want to educate themselves in the art of government and who have an interest in knowing all truths, even the unpleasant ones, and in avoiding the (impossible) deceptions of the upper class and—even more—their own,” and they persistently continue the fight against the hegemonic forces who are sophisticatedly armed with the “ideology of passive revolution.” The reality of the struggle in various countries, which Mexico - the organizing country of the present Conference - demonstrates eloquently all the fact we mentioned above. And it is a “subaltern social group” that will assume “the task to find an original way of life,” well-suited to the cultures and the traditions from every country and every region. For instances, in some of the experiences demonstrated in Central America, we can confirm the possibility of the achievement, the deepening and the development of organic and historical relationships between intellectuals and subaltern groups, comprised the indigene naturally.

As we have emphasized in the last part of the paper relative to Notebook 25, that on the problem of the subaltern, all that Gramsci intended to draw out from the study of the same problem is still valid and effective in order to tackle and cope with the subaltern problem in the actual context of the 21st century. A draft of the tasks must be assumed for the formation of autonomous subjects that can come into action against the development of a “passive revolution” on world-wide scale: the creation of an organic collaboration between intellectual ranks and subaltern groups in the process of overcoming “subalternity” and the reorganization of the relationship between “the state and civil society.”

The philosophy of praxis, Gramsci explains elsewhere, “is still going through its populist phase: creating a group of independent intellectuals is not an easy thing; it requires a long process, with actions and reactions, coming together and drifting apart and the growth of very numerous and complex new formations. It is the conception of a subaltern social group, deprived of historical initiative, in continuous but disorganic expansion, unable to go beyond a certain qualitative level, which still remains below the level of the possession of the State and of the real exercise of hegemony over the whole of society which alone permits a certain organic equilibrium in the development of the intellectual group.” (EC, §9C, Q16, pp.1860-1861.) And for that the search of the subaltern problem constitutes an essential part of the hegemonic struggle, that is the contemporary “movement of position,” started in the international community. In so far as, Gramscian thought on the subject will be able today to provide a significant contribution to the development of collaboration and international solidarity between subaltern groups. For Gramsci, the subaltern being implies the fact that the subject can speak, that is the subject can be the protagonist in the fight for an alternative hegemony.

Current Gramscian thought does not have to be considered underrated, outdated, and limited only to the twentieth century. As long as subaltern social groups continue the fight for “integral autonomy” (EC, p.2288) and for “consciousness of their own historical personality” (EC, p.333), Gramscian thought and values will never become less important, but indeed, they will become more distinguished.

In his paper entitled “Gramsci’s Method and Analysis of Subaltern Social Groups”, Marcus Green has started his arguments by pointing out :

For Gramsci, one studies history in all its various facets with the purpose of informing historical-political analysis and formulating political strategy. Considered from this perspective, Gramsci’s method in relation to his analysis of subaltern social groups is radical in two senses: (1) he attempts to identify the root causes of subalternity, and (2) he attempts to theorize a strategy for radical social and political transformation. This dual radical purpose contains elements of empirical and normative theorizing and contributes to the foundation of a radical political science.

Concerning the interior correlation between the philosophy of praxis and subaltern analysis, he also argues:

Following from his general methodological approach, Gramsci’s interest in the subaltern is threefold: he is interested in creating a methodology of subaltern historical analysis, an integral understanding of subaltern history, and from these two projects he is interested in formulating a political strategy that is capable of liberating subaltern groups from their subordinated existence. In this sense, Gramsci is consistent with the doctrines of philosophy of praxis, for it is historical analysis that informs theory and theory which informs practice. For Gramsci, there is not merely a unity of theory and practice but a unity of historical analysis, theory, and practice.

Green continues:

In his approach to the study of subaltern social groups, Gramsci attempts to understand the subaltern as a historically determined category that exists within particular historical, economic, political, social, and cultural contexts. He attempts to understand the process, development, and lineage of the subaltern; how their social conditions were developed, how some groups survived at the margins of society, and how others succeeded in their ascent from a subordinate social position to a dominant one. In short, he wants to understand how the conditions and relations of the past influence the present and future development of the subaltern’s lived experience.

To conclude his paper Green points out:

Ultimately, Gramsci’s study and conception of the subaltern is transformative. Gramsci is undoubtedly interested in a historical, political, social, and cultural transformation that will produce human liberation, and he sees this transformation occurring from below, meaning that subaltern groups, who are subordinated and do not hold any socio-political power, will attempt to overcome their subordination through a broad struggle that will affect every aspect of society and in turn their social being. Because political power rests within the state but is reinforced within social and cultural practices, Gramsci views the struggle for subaltern transformation occurring in a hegemonic fashion, in which a new conception of society is not only presented in politics but throughout the superstructural realms of ideology, culture, philosophy, literature, etc. Thus, in Gramsci’s analysis, he attempts to capture the totality of subaltern existence. He is interested in the integral relationship between their economic, political, and social positions; the stages of their development in history; their significance in cultural forms; how they are represented in literature, etc. Gramsci’s study of the subaltern reveals not only the difficulties involved in subaltern analysis but also the many factors that contribute to group marginalization and the elements which prevent groups from overcoming their marginalization. Gramsci’s concept of the subaltern does not only create a new terrain of struggle but also a methodological criterion for formulating such a struggle founded upon the integral analysis of the economic, historical, cultural, and ideological roots of everyday life.

The research of the Gramscian concept of the subaltern, marginalized in the traditional studies of Gramscian thought, has only begun. It is in this sense that the Puebla symposium has had epoch-making importance for the further development of Gramscian studies.

It goes without saying, however, that the Gramscian concept of the subaltern requires further elucidation and deepening. At the same time, we – as Gramscian scholars – are faced with a responsibility that should be taken into more serious consideration, that is the consideration of the different ways of receiving and utilizing the Gramscian concept of the subaltern in various countries, including Japan.

In this regard I would like to point out that, on the one hand, the notebooks from the Formia period, including Notebook 25 ( so-called the Subaltern Notebook ), have so far been slighted or neglected particularly in Italy, where the subaltern question had been formulated and elaborated by Antonio Gramsci himself, while critical readings of the Gramscian concept of the subaltern following the original texts has been belated and obstructed among Gramscian scholars and study groups working in different countries; and consequently, on the other hand, the various “hybrid” concepts of the subaltern, in spite of being more or less inspired by Gramsci, have a-critically infiltrated into the different countries, Japan included. Seeing some partial fragments and even translated parts of the Gramscian texts “used” and “appropriated” in different arbitrary manners, just as Joseph A. Buttigieg correctly pointed out seven years ago in his essay “About the Subaltern category in Gramsci”.[3]

So we are in a situation in which many parrot that the word “subaltern” comes from Gramscian terminology, but the Gramscian concept of subalternity itself and Gramsci’s corresponding texts are rarely known nor read. In other words, some kind of “distortion” has been produced. Particularly in Japan, India, and the United States of America one cannot overlook the discourse of Gayatri Spivak – the author of the essay “Can the Subaltern Speak” – on the subject of the subaltern.[4] We may say that some type of hegemonic struggle for the Gramscian concept of the subaltern is now being waged.

To conclude, it is an imminent task for Gramscian scholars to correct these types of “distortion” in the reception and utilization of Gramsci’s concept of the subaltern and to further enlighten all actualities of Gramscian thought. That is why I consider it opportune to call for an organized international discussion on the question of the Subaltern, because in fact the subaltern speaks and acts all over the world.


[1] Dora Kanoussi, and Jesús Antonio Machuca Ramírez, El Zapatismo y la Política, (Mexico, D.F.: Plaza y Valdes, 1998).

[2] Marcus E. Green, “Gramsci Cannot Speak: Representations and Interpretations of Gramsci's Concept of the Subaltern,” Rethinking Marxism, vol. 14, no. 3 (Fall 2002), pp. 1-24.

[3] Joseph A. Buttigieg, “Sulla Categoria Gramsciana Di ‘Subalterni’,” Critica marxista, no. 1 (January-February 1998), pp. 55-62.

[4] Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, “Can the Subaltern Speak,” in Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture, ed. C. Nelson and L. Grossberg (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1988), pp. 271-313.

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