Thursday, 9 February 2017

Pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will - remembering Gramsci with Stuart Hall

On February 10, 1891, Antonio Gramsci, one of the most remarkable Marxist thinkers of the twentieth century, was born in Sardinia.  Gramsci spent much of the last decade of his life in Fascist jails, but it was in prison that his extraordinary, fragmentary, exhaustive notebooks were composed.   Frequently brilliant jottings, musings, prolegomena, speculations, historical outlines, theoretical analyses, book plans, unfinished essays, anticipated books - on historical issues, political problems, philosophical and philological themes - the Quaderni del carcere constituted a trove and a labyrinth for generations of leftwing scholars and activists coming in Gramsci's wake - endlessly useful and suggestive by virtue of their unfinished character, but also ripe for controversy and contestation.  Perry Anderson, often invoked and admired on this blog, has two books coming out this spring, both of which spring from his longtime interest in Gramsci.  Anderson's booklength essay, 'The Antinomies of Antonio Gramsci', originally published in the New Left Review in 1977, was an important appropriation and explication of Gramsci's thought in Britain, coming after the publication of Quentin Hoare and Geoffrey Nowell-Smith's seminal collection Selections from the Prison Notebooks in 1971, and displaying a crucial underpinning for the essays on British history developed by Anderson and Tom Nairn: the 'Nairn-Anderson theses'.   Now Anderson is reissuing this essay in book form, alongside fresh work on the genealogy of the term 'hegemony', which was developed and manipulated in virtuoso terms by the Italian communist.

Gramsci's most famous insight was that in Western liberal capitalist democracies, the socialist revolution faced not the brittle redoubts of a quasi-feudal imperial dynasty, and a disorganised peasantry, as had been the case in Tsarist Russia.  Rather, in the great industrialised powers of Europe - Britain, France, Germany, Italy - any revolutionary effort would find itself confronting richly variegated and textured societies, whose cultural, educational, religious and civil structures themselves reinforced the more openly coercive machinery of the state.  The revolution could not progress simply by seizing the state apparatus, but must rather prepare a long war of ideological contest and the creation of a new weltanschaung, or a new 'common sense'.  This ideological leadership Gramsci called 'hegemony' in its status quo form - the revolution, to be successful, needed to elaborate a 'counter-hegemony'.  

Gramsci's powerful sense of civil society as a battleground where, in Foucault's words, 'discourse is the power to be seized'; his intuition that culture must be understood as itself a kind of material force in society where traditional and new identities are made and unmade, was particularly important for the brilliant Jamaican sociologist and theorist Stuart Hall, most especially in his analyses of Thatcherism in the 1980s.  Hall recognised the striking success of the Conservative Party in 1979 and its basis in an exceptional hegemonic bid, where Mrs Thatcher and her confederates were carried to power on a substantial working-class vote - a vote where a major bloc in British proletarian society was ideologically captured by its enemies, and persuaded to vote for them.  In the Trumpian moment in America, Hall's deployment of Gramsci's insights finds a renewed pertinence.  Here is a section of Hall's book The Hard Road to Renewal, excerpted on the Verso website:

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