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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

The Isle of Man, from where author Zoe Gilbert hails. CREDIT: GETTY
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Zoe Gilbert’s original debut novel Folk feeds our new appetite for myth

Is Folk a novel? Its publisher says so, but I’m not sure.

I’ll put up my hands and make an admission: I don’t read many contemporary novels. Most of them seem, well, too contemporary. For a long time, much “literary” fiction has skated along the surface of modern urban life, engaging with the “interiority” of the middle-class mind and whatever cultural brouhaha is currently in fashion among the progressive literati.

The result is a kind of placid, smug dullness about which it’s mostly impossible to care: an Ian McEwan-isation of the soul. For years, writers shunned or simply ignored the old storytellers’ realms of mythology, image and the collective unconscious; the strange, magical depths which underlie all things, but which our society prefers to pretend is not really there.

But something is stirring. In recent years, novelists have begun to venture out beyond the shores of reason, beyond the city and sometimes beyond the human, too. The result is a small blooming of books, and of films and music, which are exploring this strange otherness again. Writers such as Daisy Johnson, Andrew Michael Hurley, Sylvia Linsteadt and Ben Myers are pushing the boundaries of what has been called “folk horror”. They, in turn, are drawing from a thriving underworld of eeriness, folk culture and myth that is perhaps unparalleled in Britain since the 1970s.

What is going on here? Well, people are hungry. Hungry for real meat, and missing what they don’t know they have lost. What we might call the “folk soul” still undergirds our vision of the world, however many gadgets we use to navigate it. Why else would the likes of Game of Thrones and Lord of the Rings continue to grip the popular imagination?

The surface is not enough. Our culture is starving people of spiritual and mythic nourishment. We barely even know what these words mean any more, so how would our writers know how to engage with them? Yet when our stories remain stuck in a permanent present, something is missing – something old, strange and sacred. “Fantasy” novelists such as Alan Garner, M John Harrison and the late Ursula K Le Guin, have long known this better than their “literary” counterparts.

In this vein comes Folk, the debut novel by Zoe Gilbert, a past winner of the Costa Short Story Award. It draws deeply from the old tales of the Isle of Man, from where the author hails, to give us a book which is genuinely original, disturbing, beautiful and gripping. It is both a joy to read, and –always a bonus – a tricky book to pin down

Is Folk a novel? Its publisher says it is, but I’m not sure. It has recurring characters, but no single storyline; each chapter could stand alone. So is it a collection of short stories? Yes, but no: the same characters recur throughout, popping in and out of each others’ tales and adding to the weight of the whole. That whole makes up a convincing world peopled with distinctive characters, a verdant, living landscape and a liminality of strange beings who regularly intrude upon the everyday lives of the humans.

Perhaps Folk is neither a novel nor a collection of stories; perhaps it is a map. Indeed, one of its attractions for me is that a map of Neverness, the fictional village in which the stories are set, is the first thing you see when you open the book. (I am a sucker for books with maps in the front: I grew up on fantasy novels, and the cartography was always part of the attraction.) Folk can be read as a map of the British mythic imagination: of the river under the river. Starkly original and expertly written, it draws you, like a faerie song, into a kingdom from which you may never escape, and may not want to.

Gilbert’s writing has shades of Le Guin and Angela Carter, and like both of those authors she knows that real mythology, real folk culture, has a core of darkness to it; a core that both repels and entices. True fairytales are not fluffy, and they often do not have happy endings. There is an undercurrent of earthy danger here; a raw sexuality too, unashamed of itself.

A young boy is burned alive in a gorse bush, seeing visions of angels; a girl’s father kills and skins her pet hares; a woman is kidnapped by a water bull and ravished beneath the waves; a girl drowns her father by mistake; a woman murders her sister to steal her lover. But the darkness is not revelled in or overdone; it is intrinsic to the book’s realism. “Realism” might seem a bizarre word to use about tales set in a mythic land in which men are born with wings for arms and women become hares. But in a book like this, it is imperative that the newly-minted world has an internal logic and consistency.

Folk succeeds triumphantly in this regard. Reading its chapters – which have titles like “The Neverness Ox-men”, “Fishskin, Hareskin”, and “A Winter Guest” – is like sitting by a fire with some old storyteller, listening to the strange tales of his people. The work that has gone into creating the world of Neverness has paid off. These seem like stories from a real place.

This is the marker of the novel’s success: that immersion in its world makes that world seem, for a while, more real than the one you are living in. More appealing, too. When you turn the last page, you may find yourself looking out of the window, or at the screen of your phone or laptop, with a pang of regret and a sense of loss. Then you might find yourself returning to Neverness, like the children return to Narnia. It beats what passes at the moment for “reality”, and it is more human, too. 

“Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist” by Paul Kingsnorth is published in paperback by Faber & Faber

Zoe Gilbert
Bloomsbury, 256pp, £14.99

This article first appeared in the 13 March 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Putin’s spy game