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Why Antonio Gramsci is the Marxist thinker for our times

The late Italian philosopher's concept of hegemony was startlingly prescient.

At the trial of Antonio Gramsci in 1928, the prosecutor declared: “We must stop this brain from working for 20 years.” Gramsci, the former leader of the Italian Communist Party and a gifted Marxist theoretician and journalist, was sentenced to two decades’ imprisonment by Benito Mussolini’s fascist government.

Yet confinement marked the flowering, rather than the decay, of Gramsci’s thought. He embarked on an epic intellectual pursuit with the aim of an enduring legacy. His Prison Notebooks, as they became known, comprised 33 volumes and 3,000 pages of history, philosophy, economics and revolutionary strategy. Though permitted to write, Gramsci was denied access to Marxist works and was forced to use code to evade the prison censors. In 1937, having long been refused adequate health care (his teeth fell out and he was unable to digest solid foods), Gramsci died, aged 46.

Yet he has achieved the intellectual afterlife that he sought. Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks were smuggled out by his sister-in-law Tatiana and published in Italy from 1948-51. After Gramsci’s work was translated into French, German and English in the 1970s, he became the foremost influence on the anti-Stalinist Eurocommunists. Gramsci is now quoted routinely by commentators who recall his most memorable aphorism (“pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will”) and his description of the 1930s: “The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.”

In a 2013 speech, Michael Gove, then education secretary, cited Gramsci in defence of his emphasis on traditional teaching methods (“the ideology he [Gramsci] so feared in inter-war Italy was what we have come to call – with tragic inappropriateness – progressive education”). Gramsci was even claimed by the French far-right group Nouvelle Droite and its Belgian counterpart Vlaams Blok. What accounts for this strange, contested legacy?

The defining Gramscian concept is that of hegemony. This denotes a level of political domination that extends beyond control of a state or a parliament into the realm of culture and ideas. Gramsci was preoccupied by the question of why the 1917 Russian revolution had not been followed by others in western Europe. He located the answer in the persistence of capitalist ideas among civil society institutions (political parties, trade unions, churches, the media). As he wrote: “The state was only an outer ditch, behind which there stood a powerful system of fortresses.”

It was insufficient, Gramsci argued, for revolutionaries to merely wage a “war of movement” (as the Bolsheviks did with their seizure of the Russian state), they had to fight a “war of position”: a long struggle on the terrain of civil society with the aim of changing what the writer called “common sense” (or the “philosophy of non-philosophers”).

In the late 1970s, it was through the prism of hegemony that the magazine Marxism Today analysed the rise of Thatcherism. Former editor Martin Jacques and the late cultural theorist Stuart Hall recognised that the new right was engaged in a project not just to win electoral power but to redefine “common sense”. As Jacques told me: “Most political leaders don’t seek to establish hegemony. The Thatcher experiment was extremely unusual.”

Hall noted the movement’s incessant popularisation of “competition and personal responsibility for effort and reward, the image of the over-taxed individual enervated by welfare coddling”. As Thatcher herself remarked in 1981: “Economics are the method; the object is to change the soul.” Though the right has since made use of the flexible and durable concept of hegemony, Gramsci’s own politics were unambiguously Marxist. The working class Sardinian did advocate a rigorous education in Latin and grammar, but with profoundly different ends in mind to those of the conservative Gove.

Right-wing commentators such as Melanie Phillips and Peter Hitchens have long warned that the left is engaged in a Gramscian march through institutions such as the BBC, universities and schools, trying to effect cultural change. But though New Labour advanced liberal causes such as gay rights, it accepted rather than challenged Thatcherite hegemony.

In Jeremy Corbyn, however, the Conservatives face the first sustained challenge to their intellectual domination. Like the new right before them, the new left aspire not simply to defeat their opponents at elections but to overturn their most cherished ideals. When Corbyn and his allies refer to themselves as “the new political mainstream”, they are, in Gramscian terms, seeking to redefine “common sense”. As Jacques said: “Corbyn is quite unusual in this context. At the last election he was fighting on the high ground; he was revisiting the ground on which the left lost to Thatcherism.”

Gramsci would have admired the activist group Momentum and its festival The World Transformed (which included sessions on such Gramscian themes as lifelong education and political theatre, and a Stuart Hall reading group). As the Prison Notebooks advocated, Momentum seeks full spectrum dominance and engages at the level of civil society and popular culture.

In an era of social media, viral videos and mass higher education, Gramsci’s concept of hegemony feels startlingly prescient. Indeed, he ever more appears not merely a Marxist thinker for our times, but perhaps the thinker.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 02 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The Great Migration

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“I want the state to think like an anarchist”: Dutch historian Rutger Bregman on why the left must reclaim utopianism

The Dutch thinker advocates global open borders, a universal basic income and a 15-hour working week. 

History consists of the impossible becoming the inevitable. Universal suffrage, the abolition of slavery and the welfare state were all once dismissed as fantastical dreams. But in the Western world, politics today often feels devoid of the idealism and ambition of previous generations. As the mainstream left has struggled to define its purpose, the right has offered superficially seductive solutions (from Brexit to border walls).

One of those seeking to resolve what he calls a “crisis of imagination” is the Dutch historian and journalist Rutger Bregman. His book Utopia for Realists advocates policies including a universal basic income (a guaranteed minimum salary for all citizens), a 15-hour working week and global open borders. Since its publication last year, Bregman’s manifesto has been translated into more than 20 languages, establishing him as one of Europe’s pre-eminent young thinkers.

“I was born in 1988, one year before the fall of the Berlin Wall, and people of my generation were taught that utopian dreams are dangerous,” Bregman recalled when we met for coffee at the London office of his publisher Bloomsbury. A softly-spoken but forceful character, dressed casually in a light blue jacket, jeans and Nike Air trainers, Bregman continued: “It seemed that the age of big ideas was over. Politics had just become technocracy and politicians just managers.”

Bregman’s imagination was fired by anarchist thinkers such as the Russian philosopher Peter Kropotkin. He identifies with the left libertarian tradition, which emphasises individual freedom from both market and state domination. Another formative influence was Russell Jacoby, Bregman’s history professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, whose book The Last Intellectuals (2000) lamented the decline of the polymath in an era of academic specialisation. Utopia for Realists, a rigorously argued and lucidly written work, fuses insights from history, politics, philosophy and economics. Bregman echoes Oscar Wilde’s sentiment: “A map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth even glancing at.”

Such romanticism partly filled the void left by Bregman’s loss of religious faith at the age of 18 (his father was a Protestant minister in the church opposite the family home in Zoetermeer, western Netherlands). “Maybe utopianism is my form of religion in a world without God,” Bregman mused.

For him, utopia is not a dogma to be ruthlessly imposed but a liberating and inclusive vision. It would be “completely ludicrous”, Bregman remarked, for a Western politician to suddenly propose global open borders. Rather, such ideals should animate progressive reforms: one could call it incremental utopianism.

“History will tell you that borders are not inevitable, they hardly existed at the end of the 19th century,” Bregman observed. “And the data is behind me.” Economists liken the present system to leaving “trillion-dollar bills on the sidewalk” and estimate that allowing migrants to move to any country they choose would increase global GDP by between 67 and 147 per cent.

The thoughtful Conservative MP Nick Boles recently objected to a universal basic income on the grounds that “mankind is hard-wired to work. We gain satisfaction from it. It gives us a sense of identity, purpose and belonging”.

Bregman did not dispute this but argued for a radical redefinition of work. “A YouGov poll in 2015 found that 37 per cent of British workers think their own job is absolutely meaningless,” he noted. Rather than such “bullshit jobs” (to use the anthropologist David Graeber’s phrase), work should be defined as “doing something of value, making this world a little more interesting, richer, beautiful – whether that’s paid or unpaid doesn’t really matter.”

In Utopia for Realists, Bregman decries “underdog socialism”: a left that is defined by what it is against (austerity, privatisation, racism), rather than what it is for. How does he view the ascent of Jeremy Corbyn? “Most of the ideas are sensible but they’re a bit old-fashioned, it felt like stepping into a time machine,” Bregman said of the 2017 Labour manifesto (which majored on renationalisation). Yet he recognised that Corbyn had expanded the limits of the possible. “All this time, people were saying that Labour shouldn’t become too radical or it will lose votes. The election showed that, in fact, Labour wasn’t radical enough.”

“We need a completely different kind of democracy, a society where you don’t think purely in terms of representation,” Bregman explained, citing the Brazilian city Porto Alegre’s pioneering experiments in participatory democracy (citizens’ assemblies, for instance, determine public spending priorities). “I call it the anarchist state. The anarchists want to abolish the state; what I want to do is to make the state think like an anarchist.”

Rutger Bregman has a fundamentally optimistic view of human nature: “People are pretty nice” (his next book will challenge “the long intellectual history in the West that says, deep down, we’re all animals, we’re all beasts”).

He dismissed those who cite the 20th century – the age of Stalinism and fascism – as proof of the ruinous consequences of utopian thought. “People are always yearning for a bigger story to be part of, it’s not enough to live our own private lives. If you don’t give them [people] hope, they’ll go for something else.” 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 15 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The polite extremist