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The Frontiers of the "Prison Notebooks"

Asok Sen
The paper argues in what sense we can trace the frontiers of the "Prison Notebooks" in its abandonment of
'materialist' reductiomsm, in the logical and historical implications of the passive revolutions, and in a tension
between the levels of mediation analysed by Gramsci. It follows that the frontiers can then be suggestive of historical
forces and their strength yvhich are not necessarily anchored in an adequate development of capitalism and its
nexuses of civil society.
THE "Prison Notebooks"' were nor meant
to be a new manifesto for the communist
movement. Gramsci's entire political experience sharpened his disbelief in the collapse of capitalism under the pressure of its
own economic crisis. While the Second
International's perspective of waiting for an
inevitable natural collapse was falsified by
the Bolshevik revolution enacted under
Lenin's' leadership, the rest of Europe found
no ready means of revolutionary proletarian
seizure of power through the same route.
Gramsci's own efforts to build the base of
Soviet power in factory councils and to integrate them with the organisation of a party
on the Bolshevik model had little success in
the Italian context. This was so despite
Gramsci's correct emphasis on the workerspeasant alliance against the Italian bourgeois
order characterised by the north-south structural duality; .
Amidst such circumstances of history,
Gramsci saw that much remained to be done
by way of reexamining the forms and content of bourgeois power before one could
signify the social and cultural identities adequate for the struggle to abolish capitalism.
Further, such identities do not present preconstituted characters who are bound to act
according to the project of the mediator. I,n
the very nexus of exploitation, the oppressed are subject to the dialectic of acquiescence
and protest. It would then be futile to affirm the proletarian will to power, and yet
to expect that the same might emerge just
from their suffering or from the enlightened determinations monitored by the
mediator. The necessary engagement of the
oppressed in the liberation process can go
from strength to strength only when their
consciousness becomes the key force in the
struggle to free themselves.
This concern was repeatedly articulated
in Gramsci's reflections on hegemony, duality of coercion and consent, the role of
subaltern groups and the historical reality
of a passive revolution. In all this he problematised many received ideas of the
marxist tradition. This marks no departure
from the core of Marx's critique to change
the world. Gramsci strived to be a contemporary both with the past of Marxism
and its necessary confrontations with the
present as history. Some of the fragments
of the "Notebooks", which were neither conceived, nor structured by Gramsci as a book,
are even suggestive of going beyond the more
apparent.framework of his argument. Such
strains and stresses, while betraying the unEconomic and Political Weekly

finished nature of Gramsci's reflections, certainly reveal some vital'insights which still
remain to be reconstructed as further
development of creative Marxism. This is
what we may properly regard as the frontiers of the "Prison Notebooks".
For example, the concept of hegemony
was not at all new in a Marxist discourse on
class struggle and power. The point-about
leading the allies and dominating the
enemies is also reminiscent of Lenin's emphasis in "What is to be done", on the mass
tasks of social democracy opposed to both
reformism and sectarian" terror. Gramsci
begins with a distinction between civil society and state as the spaces of consent and
coercion respectively.2 This difference is
then displaced by assigning to the state a role
in the generation of consent as well.3 Further, Gramsci affirms the fusion of state and
civil society in the reciprocity of consent and
coercion constituting the totality of a ruling order.4
Gramsci proceeds through different levels
of abstraction to comprehend the reality of
state power both in its molecular and total
significance. It is misleading to characterise
the different positions as antinomies.5 The>
are not so on the same ground that Marx's
reflection on abstract, collective labour in
"Das Kapital" is not an antinomy of Engels'
narrative of the working class conditions in
The need for molecular understanding
had critical relevance when the classicial
Marxist message of smashing the bourgeois
state appeared to lose its way. The problem
was posed by the persistence of mass illusions about the scope of self-deterrnination
provided by the bourgeois system of formal
equality. Gramsci identified how such a legal
system could influence the toiling masses to
conform to the bourgeois order. He
The previous ruling classes were essentially
conservative in the sense that they did not
tend to construct an organjc passage from
the other classes into their own, i e, to enlarge
their class sphere "technically" and
ideologically: their conception was that of
a closed state. The bourgeois class poses itself
as an organism in continuous movement
capable of absorbing the entire society,
assimilating it to its own cultural and
economic level.6
Marx and Engels sharply distinguished
between the form and content of bourgeois
law. They insisted on the full use of opportunities permitted by bourgeois legality. It

January 30, 1988

would historically enable the proletariat to

be conscious of the illusions of real equality in the world of capitalist exploitation. The
economic laws would cumulate the contradictions of the capita! relation. Thus, the
war between capital and labour was bound
to be openly avowed and clearly understood
by the proletariat and its mass allies.
During the period of the First World War,
Italy had some experience of state-sponsored
organisation of capital and labour to keep
up the levels of industrial production. Subsequently, corporatism emerged as the most
powerful institution of Italian fascism to ensure industrial advance and to avert labour's
revolutionary opposition to capitalism.' It
projected an ideology of no distinction between proletarians and capitalists reminiscent
of pre-capitalist guild production. Corporatism was really the Italian fascist
manoeuvre to serve the interests of big
monopoly capital. However, it helped in the
advance of production forces and also succeeded in disguising the class conflicts between capital and labour. Thus, in terms of
both forces and relations of production, corporatism could sublimate the contradiction
that was supposed to press for the collapse
of the bourgeois order.
For Gramsci, during his entire experience
from the Turin days to the rise and consolidation of fascism in Italy, socialism was
never merely a project of construction after
the seizure of political power. He emphasised
that the process of political victory over the
bourgeois order had to be rooted in the projection of a proletarian alternative within the
capitalist social formation. This constituted
his calling of ethico-poiitical mediation of
proletarian values and for a new cultural
totality in making. Thus, it was necessary
for Gramsci to distinguish between .civil
society and state, hegemony and domination, coercion and consent and also to affirm their fusion in the totality of a politicoeconomic order.
All this points to the nature of relation
betVeen the party, its class and the broader
masses. The mediation of collective will requires an extremely minute, molecular process of exhaustive day-to-day work. The
bourgeois apparatuses of cultural control,
the sovereignty of the market and its contagion of consumerism, and above all the
atomistic faith in self-determination evoked by bourgeois legalityall this works
through relentless processes of molecular
diffusion in capitalist society. Gramsci
recognised this source of bourgeois power


and its manifold means of mass cooption

both in their liberal and totalitarian variants.
He stressed the need for counter-hegemonic
initiative on the part of the proletariat.
Gramsci reflected on vital issues, although
he did not work out the practical directives
of a new programme, a line of march for his
'modern prince'. Indeed, the course of world
capitalism since the days of Gramsci has immensely accentuated the tendencies of
engineering an economy of armaments, consumerism and waste to reduce the working
people to a prolonged acceptance of the
bourgeois order. The central problem posed
by Gramsci has assumed enormous dimensions in contemporary capitalism. However,
it still remains a complex question to answer
how ethico-political mediation can make a
The central issues of Gramsci's reflections
on state, civil society and hegemony pertain
more to the contexr of advanced capitalism'
where capitalism responded to its own
economic crisis through a self-conscious
restructuring of its own apparatuses of
reproduction and social control. The class
struggle of the proletariat had to face new
complexities engendered by the innovative
forms of interlocking of the state and the
economy. Gramsci also made a distinction
between the west and the east to indicate that
a direct move for revolutionary seizure of
political.power would be more realisable in
the latter because of its conditions of immature civil society and incomplete
bourgeois hegemony.
However, the realities of uneven capitalist
development were analysed by Gramsci in
a much broader historical context ranging
from the Italian Risorgimento to the
phenomenon of Americanism and Fordism.
This is where the different senses of the
category of passive revolution, as used by
Gramsci, can be taken together as a critical
corollary of the marxian problematic of
transition. We can then look for a global
interpretation of the involvement of politics
in the elimination of a mode of production.
And, 'If we take the study of politics of transition to consist in a critical analysis of the
dialectic between historical bloc and institutional forms, then passive revolution emerges
as "a general principle of political art and
Significantly, Gramsci takes note of two
specifications of the Marxian paradigm to
signify the point of departure of a passive
revolution. Such specifications relate to the
nexus of productive.-forces and relations
stating that (a) no social formation disappears as long as the productive forces which
have developed within it still find room for
further advance and (b) social transformation can happen only when material conditions for its emergence have matured within
the old society itself.
Gramsci gives two major examples where
the politics of the transitional state critically modified the necessity and sufficiency of
those conditions. He shows the limitations
jf mechanistic-economistic understanding

of the Marxian position. Firstly, Gramsci

cites the case of Risorgimento in Italy where
the bourgeoisie came to a compromise with
pre-capitalist classes and thus moved in a
reformist way to achieve its own goals. In
this connection, Gramsci noted the
phenomenon of transformismo 'whereby the
so-called "historic" Left and Right parties
which emerged from the-Risorgimento tended to converge in terms of programme during the years which followed, until there
ceased to be any substantial difference between them.. .'9
Thus, the Italian bourgeois revolution was
passive because of the politico-cultural
disorientation of the bourgeoisie to lead a
radical transformation and to unify the people. The national economy remained
relatively underdeveloped and was subject to
the gross duality of the north and the south.
The bourgeois order did not clarify either
the conditions of its accumulation dynamics,
or the homogeneity of its production relation for the whole country.
The other example of a passive revolution
is provided by Gramsci's analysis of
Americanism and Fordism. This is the case
of effective state intervention to prevent a
downfall of capitalism under the pressure of
advancing productive forces. The active element of advancing production forces is subject to an involution that thwarts the other
active force of proletarian revolution,
although its material conditions have
matured within the capitalist mode of production. The capitalist state, both in its
democratic and totalitarian forms, evolves
ways and means of participation in the very
process of economic reproduction through
various forms of restructuring and coordination, which accord with the supremacy of
monopoly capital. The solutions are
manoeuvred to secure political support
among large sections of the petty bourgeois
and even toiling masses. This is the passive
revolution of capital which can thus incorporate the potential forces of socialist transition into a kind of 'planned' survival of
Indeed, the concept of passive revolution
initiates some important principles of
understanding the dialectic of the economic
and non-economic forces in the course of
any historical transition. The point need not
be confined to Gramsci's examples only. No
bourgeois revolution in history has ever been
completely free from such passive tendencies. Viewed in terms of the global experience
of uneven and combined development of
capitalism, the concept of passive revolution
can serve as some kind of genera! model of
bourgeois transitions' in the midst of enormous structural dualities.
In such historical circumstances, the formula of capitalist advance of production
forces provides no adequate criterion for
identifying a progressive historical
phenomenon. The point is inherent in
Gramsci's idea of 'transformism' as one
variant of the passive revolution in capital.
It is characterised by ways of domination in

which the capital relation does not lay the

conditions of a clarified civil society, nor
does it eliminate the labour forms which remain subject to pre-capitalist constraints
and exploitation. Even then the strength of
bourgeois political power may succeed in
combining some elements of hegemony with
its apparatus of coercion. There lies the
significance of molecular changes working
through the curming of capital.
For Gramsci, the concept of passive
revolution was necessary to indicate the complexities of understanding the 'stage'
paradigm of historical materialism. The examples were critically relevant to his experience. But the general implications of his
idea were not followed up in any clear statement on multi-linear directions of history.
The weaker links of capitalism in the
cumulative course of uneven global development had more definite recognition in
Lenin's analysis. Earlier, in the Narodnik
correspondence, Marx admitted the possibility of socialist transition in Russia
without antecedent capitalist development
on any notable scale. With his theoretical
tools of state and civil society, Gramsci
emphasised the distinction between the west
and the east. In his first reaction to the
October Revolution, Gramsci appreciated
that Russia had passed on to socialism
before the growth of a western-type
However, his reflections on passive revolution took either the necessary emergence of
capitalism or its maturity as the points-of
historical reference. Such a position was linked to the proximate experience and its tasks.
His own initial understanding of the
southern question in Italy was formulated
along entirely Leninist lines. Gramsci could
have indicated how the October Revolution
was a triumph over the passive revolution
of capital in Russia. Such an analysis would
be an apt complement to the critique of the
Risorgimento. Indeed, as a target of counterhegemony in the world today, the concept
of passive revolution has more practical
relevance for countries in the peripheries of
capitalism than in its core lands of the west.
This is an invaluable point to have in mind
when we want to look beyond the frontiers
of the "Prison Notebooks".
In this emphasis on the party's role in
building up a national popular collective will
Gramsci strove to counteract the tendency
of increased bourgeois politicisation of the
masses. Such tendencies were widespread in
the stage of monopoly capitalism. Lenin saw
the same in the incipient phenomenon of
bourgeois mass politics that he could identify in Lloyd Georgism. It was from this
growing mass base that the bourgeois order
worked out a new challenge to proletarian
The communist movement in Italy ignored this crucial problem. By 1920 the
fascist action squads began attracting
students, disgruntled idealists, demobilised
soldiers, misfits and even working class
youngsters. As observed by Togliatti. we

Economic and Political Weekly

January 30, 1988

didn't see the deep-going social causes determining it; we didn't understand that the exservicemen, the misfits, were not isolated individuals but a mass, and represented a
phenomenon having class aspects, we didn't
understand that we could not simply tell
them to go to the devil!'.10
Much of this confusion was again a
creature of the belief that the tendency to
liquidate the democratic forms merely expressed the acute crisis of the capitalist
economy. Such crisis wasihere. But it would
not follow that the growth of the fascist
movement was necessarily correlated to the
emergence of a revolutionary confrontation
between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat.
The fascist experience called for serious
rethinking of the determinations assigned to
the dialectic of production relations and
forces in the concept of the mode of production. In its management of capitalism in
crisis, fascism was not necessarily regressive
in its effects. Notwithstanding all its reactionary political and social features, fascism
was definitely associated with capitalist industrialisation in Italy. Thus, judging by the
criterion of production forces/relations,
fascism was in no way extraneous to the
specific course of Italian capitalism. It. was
rather an expression of the many stresses and
tensions which the same capitalist development had generated in Italian society."
In his idea of 'collective will', Gramsci
moved away from the base/superstructure
dichotomy and projected ideology itself as
an organic totality relating the positions of
all its subjects within a historical bloc.12 A
historical bloc describes the way in which
different social forces relate to each other;
Gramsci placed vital emphasis on the inseparability of structure and superstructure
that articulates the ability of a fundamental class to form an alternative historical bloc
opposed to the ruling order.
While the fundamental class fulfills the
criterion of a progressive role in social production, authentic mediation becomes a
ceaseless process to bring together various
subject positions in encounter, participation
and collective praxis. It is nurtured by the
relationship between the intelligentsia and
the proletariat. No less important is the
ability of the party to comprehend the common sense, spontaneity and strivings of
numerous subaltern groups on their own
terms so that the ideological bond of the
historical bloc can extend to those positions
without extraneous monitoring. The project
is no external manipulation but a creative
overflow from within the subjects themselves. The 'modern prince' is not a preconstituted instrument of the fundamental
class; it is an organism growing with the
people and among them. It is in this sense
that the party is the 'anti-state' of the
historical bloc led by the fundamental class.
The point is noted in Gramsci's reflections
on subaltern groups who are not unified and
cannot unite until they are able to become
a 'state1.13 In a sense, the idea of subalternity is not absent from rMarx's underEconomic and Political Weekly

standing of the proletariat. The. very fact of

being exploited implies domination of the
subject and also its protest against the same
state. It is both submission and protest. This
is not merely a matter of co-existence. All
the while they interact in the dialectical process to articulate the phenomenon of being
and becoming. What is more significant in
the concept of 'subaltern groups' is the effort to appreciate the same dialectic in more
opaque forms of labour, capitalist or precapitalist, as the case may be. Indeed, one
major concern of the "Prison Notebooks"
was to explore such situations that were
rather remote from the clarity of confrontation set forth in "Das Kapital" and some
other earlier Marxist writings. This was
necessary to grapple with the experience
Gramsci had from the Turin days to the
triumph of Fascism in Italy. Again, the idea
of subalternity becomes particularly-relevant
for historical circumstances where capitalism
has never been free from the ambiguities of
its genesis. Such ambiguities cannot but take
shape into politico-economic structures
which are replete with dualities, differentiation and numerous unclarified forms of
labour partaking of socio-cultural properties of both capitalism and pre-capitalism.
Such an understanding of subalternity is
germane to the distinction made between
spontaneity and consciousness, and/or between spontaneous and organised movements. While it is valid that spontaneous
protest requires mediation for a conscious
collective thrust towards coherent revolutionary goals, the mediators are no less
required to respond to the presence of a
distinct consciousness in the spontaneous
protest by the subaltern groups themselves.
Mediation is a process of changing the
world; it is also a process of learning to
change the world, that is of 'education of
the educators'.
Thus, the distinction between the 'spontaneous' and the 'conscious' that we consider
in demarcating the position of the Mensheviks from that of the Bolsheviks may not
signify what is spontaneous among the
subaltern classes. One can recall Gramsci's
emphasis on the incalculable value for the
integral historian to recognise '... every trace
of independent initiative on the part of the
subaltern groups...'. 14 Indeed, Gramsci's
'modern prince' is the potential state not by
virtue of its own advanced knowledge only,
but through constant learning of what goes
on in the mind and work of the people, in
their moments of subordination and their
moments of protest not necessarily separated
in time and space. History is both molecular
and totalising. And the two dimensions must
not be lost in a fallacy of composition.
This is where Gramsci's letters from prison
can help us further to discover the meaning
of 'collective will' in the "Prison Notebooks".
One important theme running through many
letters was his desire to comprehend the
ramifications of the creative popular mind,
in its various phases and levels of development. The allied questions ranged from fur-

January 30, 1988

ther elaboration of the southern problem to

serials on popular taste in literature. He emphasised the necessity for having 'immediate,
direct, living impression of the life of Tom,
Dick, Harry, of real living individuals since
'unless we know their lives we cannot
understand what has been generalised and
There are moments in the "Prison
Notebooks" which consider mediation not
to be a one-way transmission of consciousness from revolutionary intellectuals
to the world of the exploited. We note the
emphasis Gramsci places on fuller realisation of what the 'ignorant' and the 'spontaneous' may teach the mediator about their
own consciousness. However, his Jacobinist
orientation can only work on the bias of
enlightenment which identifies 'ratonal
knowledge' with power. The issues are more
complicated. While Machiavelli may stand
as a precocious Jacobin, the 'modern prince*
has to articulate a historical bloc of complex and variegated alignments.
There arises the necessity for reaching the
consciousness of the mediator to that of the
toiling masses. Indeed, the 'modern prince'
emerges from such a process of ceaseless
fusion. The link is not instrumental, it has
to be organic. For any project of collective
historic action, the mediators are required
not to act on their own understanding only;
they have to work with the meaning that toiling masses attribute to the project. It is not
that one subject knows the object and then
chooses to act. All beginnings are immersed
in inter-subjectivity and ihere is no end to
it. This is where Marxist mediation faces the
constant challenge of crossing the 'encyclopedic' to arrive at collective historic action.
Perhaps Gramsci stretches the Jacobin
analogy too far since the content of 'collective will' has to vary in accordance with the
historical situation of the different fundamental -classes and their allies. Indeed,
even in his reflections on passive revolution,
Gramsci's apothosis of Jacobinism ignored
the mixture of the 'active' and the 'passive*
elements in the French Revolution and its
course and trajectories through the subsequent century. All this reminds us of the
well known critique that in Marxism the
mediator does not place himself within his
own theory. 16 Although not in unambiguous terms, the "Prison Notebooks"
makes an attempt to see through to this still
concealed level of Marxism.
I mentioned the idea of frontiers. Perhaps,
it is now more clear. Firstly, Gramsci's reflections on state and civil society signify the
molecular and unified dimension of bourgeois power. It focuses on the need for a new
kind of anti-capitalist struggle that can
deploy ethico-cultural alternatives. The importance of an ideological bond obtains
supreme priority as the action parameter of
transformation. It is so crucial since capitalism succeeds time and again to assure an
existence of its slave within its slavery. This
frontier is situated on the line of complete
abandonment of 'materialist' reductionism.

Secondly, we reckon with the historical "

tendency toward passive revolutions in many
conjunctures of transition from both
. developed and underdeveloped capitalism.
It is no longer possible to associate fuller
development of capitalism with the arrival
of conditions for a socialist revolution.
Moreover, in the contemporary world, such
a passive phenomenon emerges as the
general experience of capitalism. This frontier is contraposed to any understanding of
historical transition merely in terms of the
contradictions of the economic base.
Thirdly, it is possible to discover a tension
between the levels of mediation analysed by
Gramsci. There is the problem of ensuring
perpetual coherence between the selfconsciousness "f the mediator and that of
the mediated. The frontier is reached in
Gramsci's resolute effort to co-ordinate all
the positions necessary for the emergence of
'collective will'. This frontier presses on the
need to fill up a critical gap in the approach
to mediation. The frontiers are significant.
They present problems which are not fully
resolved by Gramsci. But he sufficiently
reveals the main issues to emphasise the new
tasks of Marxist praxis in its revolutionary
struggles against the capitalist order. It
becomes misleading to interpret historical
development solely in terms of production
relations being outpaced by production
forces within a mode of production. Indeed,
a passive revolution can bring about the kind
of bourgeois transition which is unaccompanied by the political and socio-cultural
characteristics of the capital relation in its
classical theoretical format. Again,
technological advance can be directed to
create powerful obstacles to working class
unity, and more so for the composition of
hegemonic alliances between the workers
and the rest of the toiling masses.
Thus, the fuller growth of production
forces and the historical setting of problems
for which solutions are supposed to exist
may signify a field of possibilities which
various countervailing forces seek to utilise
in opposite ways. Further, the concept of
passive revolution takes distinct account of
the political form of transition. The state
and its apparatuses are then found to have
decisive roles in the historical transformations of society.17
In the course of his reflections, Gramsci
distinguished between civil and political
societies, the sub-spaces of consent and force
which interact in the consolidation of
bourgeois order. Indeed, most of Gramsci's
important observations on the critical roles
of ideology, hegemony, historical bloc and
war of position are connected with the
significance which, he assigns to civil society.
This leads to the differential stresses in
Gramsci's thought oh the social hegemony
of fundamental class and on the capture of
state power by the same class. But as
Gramsci moves to the frontiers of nonreductionism combined with the phenomenon of passive revolution, we can appreciate his concern over bourgeois mass

politics appropriate to monopoly power

under mature capitalism. No less important
are the political implications of a passive
revolution in historical conjunctures where
the bourgeois transition itself may manoeuvre pre-capitalist collectivities for its own
goals of control and power. This is how the
frontiers of the "Prison Notebooks" reveal
to us a creative view of Marxism whose
relevance is not limited only to the conditions of advanced western capitalism.
Such a creative view presents the need to
re-organise some ideas about class composition and its alignments in the struggle
against capitalism. The moment of class
unity or that of the larger historical bloc is
provided by no obvious sum of economic
conditions and their affinities. The moment
is political and its constituents render the
distinction between economic base and
superstructures blurred and problematic. In
a sense, this was pronounced by Marx's critique of political economy which put forward
the transitory and replaceable nature of the
science that was criticised. Further, the critique 'studies it as life but also as death and
finds at its heart the elements that will
dissolve it and supersede it without fail, and
it puts forward the "inheritor", the heir
presumptive who must yet give manifest
proof of his vitality.18
Yet the distinct significance of Gramsci's
questions and interpretations of the 'philosophy of praxis' can be realised when we
consider the degrees of articulation of some
pairs of vital categories in Marx's own
writings. Take for example the couples of
production forces/production relations and
base/superstructure which were prominent
in Marx's economic works and also in his
analyses of the mode of production. On the
other hand, the state/civil society couple was
more prominent in Marx's historical and
political analyses of social formations. Such
categories were not combined in simultaneous articulations to provide us with
adequate clarification of the ideas of state
and nation in Marx's theory. Gramsci's
reflections on the 'national-popular', the
organic relation of a fundamental class to
the 'people-nation', and on the problematic
of social hegemony open up explorations of
those critical areas of Marxism.
No ready answers are available to specific
questions of hegemonic politics merely from
a general awareness of the frontiers of
Gramsci's reflections. While it is necessary
to eliminate capitalist relations of production, mere state ownership of the means of
production cannot ensure the abolition of
the bourgeois order. The very fact of passive
revolution can make for a conflict between
two types of endeavourone aiming at
social hegemony based on mass support to
do away with the structural and ideological
control of the bourgeoisie and the other to
gain significant parliamentary strength
within the existing order. Indeed, such
dualities of strategy are also found to conform to a stalemate of communist advance
which holds out not a very encouraging

perspective for- the eventual socialist

One view is current that the crucial limitations of the traditional left perspective lies
in its attempts to determine a priori agents
of change and privileged points and
moments of rupture. It is however necessary
to confront the emergence of a plurality of
subjects, whose forms of constitution and
diversityit is only possible to think about
if we relinquish the category of 'subject' as
a unified and unifying essence. And, 'The
equivalentia! articulation between antiracism, anti-sexism and anti-capitalism, for
example, requires a hegemonic construction
which, in certain circumstances, may be the
condition for the consolidation of each one
of these struggles. The logic of equivalence,
then, taken to its ultimate consequences,
would imply the dissolution of the
autonomy of the spaces in which each one
of these struggles is constituted, not
necessarily, because any of them become
subordinated to others, but because they
have all become, strictly speaking, equivalent
symbols of a unique and indivisible struggle.'19 The plurality of subjects is associated
with the numerous relations defining the
hegemonjc components of civil society.
Gramsci contrasted between the voluntary,
autonomous element of organisations constituting civil society and the coercive, mandatory character of state organisations. The
spheres of civil society range over a large
variety of organisations like those bearing
upon religion, family, trade unions, cultural
bodies, mass media and educational institutions. They have their own contradictions
accounting for various struggles and popular
aspirations. Such struggles demand .the
specific attention of any fundamental class
which strives for hegemony in civil society.
While the relations of civil society interpenetrate with the nexus of the mode of production, it is misle'ading to reduce one set
of relations to the other in terms of any
mechanical cause and effect determinacy.
The autonomous spaces of equivalent
articulation spread from within the levels of
development of civil society. Gramsci cited
the historical experience of Russia as an instance of primordial and gelatinous civil
society and considered that the central issues
of social hegemony could be relevant for the
west a proper relation between state and civil society. He stressed that
the latter's sturdy structure" would have a
critical role in buttressing the power of the
ruling order.
We cannot deny the necessary connection
between civil society and the stage of
bourgeois economic-cum-political culture
and ideology that would draw a social
matrix of autonomous, self-determining individuals with their passions and aspirations
for fulfilling the pursuit of self-interest. But
in Gramsci's project such reflexes are subject to numerous forms of domination and
exploitation. Indeed, in the distinction between the corporate-economic and the hegemonic moments of a fundamental class,

Economic and Political Weekly

January 30, 1988

Gramsci adopted the criterion of convergence on a universal plane of the economic,

political, intellectual and moral aims of all
subaltern groups.
The reality of a passive revolution, as
Gramsci elaborates it with several examples,
opens up questions about the nature and role
of capitalism in history. Its progressive role
in making for the pre-conditions of a
socialist transition no longer appear to be
self-evident. Gramsci's reflections on the
forms of bourgeois subjection go considerably beyond the limits of a strict modeof-production analysis. History abounds in
examples where the dynamics of the capital
relation cannot compose.all labour into one
homogeneous form of social existence. No
less significant are Gramsci's ideas on the
mechanisms of their subjection and their
coherence within the bourgeois apparatuses
of exploitation and domination.
However, Gramsci had his own immediate
experience of the terrors and depredations
of fascism in his own country. And so his
strategy of counter-hegemony had reasons
to conceive of the democratic verities of the
kind of capitalist development with its
clearer demarcation of civil and political
societies. Amidst the reign of fascist terror
a radically individualist conception of
freedom and democracy and its sphere of
civil social autonomy can support a meaningful thrust against the politicisation of the
masses for despotic goals and authority.
But the same individuality also endorses
that the rational pursuit of self-interest per
se would require no further consideration of
cqrnmon good to achieve the goals of social
justice. Thus, in the centrality and autonomy
that capitalism ascribes to the economic
man, the social sphere of the economy
supersedes all traditional priorities of
morality and its community obligations.
Because the conception of the individual
depends for its legitimation on this essen
tial ethic of capitalism, it can hardly be
adopted for grounding the social identity of
the human agent for socialism.
Such problems of reconciliation imparted
elements of analytical innovation to the
"Prison Notebooks". They are more pronounced at the points which 1 have indicated as
the frontiers of the same text. Firstly, the
structure-superstructure relationship is
enforced in newer complexities through
Gramsci's rejection of reductionism and in
his critical elaboration of civil society as a
distinct space of bourgeois order. It follows
that the struggle against capitalism can never
be a matter of merely smashing the state. It
calls for the achievement of counterhegemony in civil society. Indeed, such
hegemony is often implied as a pre-condition
for the building of a historical bloc to go
for the seizure of state power.
Again, Gramsci's concept of the passive
revolution and its several examples point to
the complexities of historical response on the
part of a ruling order in pervasive crisis. We
have instances of state intervention making
up for the deficient role of the bourgeoisie
Economic and Political Weekly

in civil society. On the other hand, a

bourgeois transition, which is initially weak
both in its civil and political thrust, can work
out the processes of molecular diffusion to
achieve a kind of transformism leading to
cumulative capitalist domination. This is
where the market institutions can wo.rk as
both conscious and unconscious tools of
capitalist expansion. Moreover, at a stage
when capitalism is more advanced, technological growth (i e, advance of production
forces) may help in sustaining the bourgeois
production relations.
In brief, Gramsci's analysis of the passive
revolution indicates, among other things, the
obstacles which capitalism can put up,
through a concord with elements of precapitalist power and notwithstanding the
advance of production forces, to thwart the
working people's struggle for .socialism. It
is as if the cunning of capital can merge in
a critical and continuous confusion the
prime question of composing the historical
bloc for an effective assault on the bourgeois
This was the crucial context of Gramsci's
calling for ethico-political mediation. I have
noted already how Gramsci's ideas on
mediation mark out an important direction
beyond the frontiers of the "Prison Notebooks". Gramsci elaborated the position
and tasks of his 'modern prince' in great
detail. His explanatory reflection cared most
for the problems which occupy the other
alignments of the frontiers already noted
by us.
In the previous section; I have indicated
some critical implications of Gramsci's commitment to Jacobinism which was associated
with such ideas of the Enlightenment that
knowledge would suffice to bring about the
liberation of mankind and to end the great
social evils of the day. There was the inseparable link between the driving force of
the Enlightenment with its conceptual
freedom of all trans-individual obligations
and the historical thrust of the market
economy, which constituted the social basis
of capitalist development in history.
While Marx's critique of political
economy, a vital sub-set of the corpus of the
Enlightenment, revealed the logic of history
moving beyond capitalism and also its
socialist perspective, the problem of mediation was fraught with numerous complexities
of finding the proper unity of knowledge
and praxis. In his Theses on Feuerback,
Marx indicated the split which had to be
overcome in the educaton of the educators.
It could also be clear that the split was a
grand epistemological manoeuvre of the
bourgeoisie to assimilate the world of science
to its social norms of property, exploitation
and private enrichment.
We need not enter here into the instances
of Marx's own revolutionary experience, or
that of Lenin and Mao for an elaborate
discussion of the bourgeois strategies in
history to counteract the initiative and goals
of Marxist mediation. Such a discussion
could also indicate how the level of abstrac-

January 30, 1988

tion in the stage paradigm of historical

materialism had often been wrongly applied
to estimate the nature and role of capitalism
in particular conjunctures of transition.
We can cite a few examples of the continuity, contradiction and learning of Marx
himself.20 His evaluation of the Paris Commune never admitted the unter.ability of
such a revolt in view of the corresponding
stage of capitalist development in France.
Marx affirmed that the Commune's greatest
measure was its own organisation proving
its life by its vitality, confirming its theses
,by its actions which embodied the aspirations of the working class of all countries.
Again, in the drafts of his letters to
Zasulich, Marx expressed an analogous concern 'with the centrality of the state of
capitalist development, on the one hand, and
the appropriateness of the obshchina as a
communal form through which labour can
further its own emancipation, on the other.
Marx is again counterposing commune
against state. He fastens upon a contradictory dualism within the Russian village community, between private, and collectivist
tendencies, which permits alternative possibilities for its social development depending entirely upon the historical environment'.21 Marx was categorical in his emphasis on the collective strength to achieve
socialism notwithstanding the stage of
capitalist development in Russia.
I have mentioned the problem of illegitimate abstraction in the use of historical
materialism. The two examples from Marx
show the critical priority which he assigned
to forms capable of advancing the emancipation of labour over such invalid abstractions. Gramsci clearly stressed the importance of the southern question in Italian
history. It aopeared to him as the consequence of a bourgeois transition characterised by the concord of capitalist and precapitalist forces. The politics of such a
transition .was featured in the absence of
Jacobinist revolutionary thrust on the part
of the bourgeoisie. Its economics revealed
what is now understood as the dualities of
an unclarified and incomplete bourgeois
Gramsci was born in Sardinia where he
lived the first two decades of his life. The
duality of Sardinia and Piedmont was writ
large over Gramsci's understanding of the
task of Marxism in Italy. In a significant
sense 'he was a product of the west's most
remote periphery, and of conditions which,
half a century later, it became fashionable
to call "Third World". No comparable
western intellectual came from such a background. He was a barbed gift of the backwoods to the metropolis, and some aspects
of his originality always reflected this
Quite apart from ny consideration of
Gramsci's own background, we must
acknowledge that capitalist transformation
in history is found to belong to various combinations of power and ideology. Even the
central demarcation between civil and


political society which receives critical

emphasis in Gramsci's reflections cannot
necessarily-be identified as distinct processes
of historical change. The distinction is
extremely relevant for an appreciation of the
molecular components and the overall
apparatus which sustain the rule of law
under capitalism. But in real history
Gramsci's classic model of Jacobinism also
had its reign of terror, and the belated
growth of bourgeois social hegemony in
France cannot be separated from the passive
revolution of Bonapartism.
Such examples are necessary to caution us
against a misunderstanding of Gramsci's
notes. It was not his object to demonstrate
the inevitability of the historical processes
which concerned him. The crucial points are
to recognise the interrelations between the
key identities and their contradictions in a
manner that would unite the signifier and
signifed to act in the proper direction of
making history. Gramsci's 'philosophy of
praxis' emphasised that 'Prediction reveals
itself thus not as a scientific act of knowledge, but as the abstract expression of,the
effort made, the practical way of creating a
collective will'.23
Thus, in his ideas on mediation, Gramsci
saw the limits of acting from a sum of
knowledge which could be taken to have
sufficiently informed the mediator about the
object. He goes beyond the boundaries of
the Enlightenment not to look upon the
sphere of human sciences as another study
of external objects alone. The mediator's
task consisted in full awareness of the
ipteraction between his own subject position
and the world of other human subjects.
There lies the significance of Gramsci's
efforts to link the elements of spontaneity
with that of consciousness. The same concern is revealed again in his ramifications of
common sense as containing both the
elements of subordination and dissent.
No less pertinent is what Gramsci says
about the contradictory elements in folk
culture, its tendency of surrender, and
contrarily its signs of intransigence having
the potential for conversion into revolutionary consciousness.
In all this, Gramsci often reflects on conditions which do not seem to be confined
to subjects with clear positions in a civil
society. So the "Prison Notebooks" go far
beyond the specific questions relating to the
stage of clarified capitalism. The idea of
hegemony may then have elements and
implications which can be true of Gramsci's
gelatinous and primordial civil societies. In
an important sense, the southern question
is analysed to indicate the potential of a
historical bloc which consists of a wide range
of subaltern classes having the features of
both capitalist and pre-capitalist socialexistence forms. Such a historical bloc has
the strength of achieving national goals
which the bourgeoisie of the Risorgimento
failed to achieve from above. The frontiers
of the "Prison Notebooks" can then be suggestive of historical forces and their strength

which are not necessarily anchored in an

adequate development of capitalism and its
nexuses of civil society.

1 Quintin Hoare and Geoffrey Nowell Smith
(ed and tr). Selections'from the Prison
Notebooks of Antonio Gramsci, London,
1971 (SPN).
2 Ibid, pp 12-13.
3 Ibid, p 258.
4 Ibid, pp 160, 261.
5 Perry Anderson, 'The Antinomies of Antonio Gramsci' in New Left Review, No 100,
London, November 1976-January 1977
pp 5-78.
6 SPN, p 260.
7 Palmiro Togliatti, Lectures on fascism, New
York, 1976, pp 87-103.
8 Christine Buci-Glucksman, 'State, Transition and Passive Revolution' in Chantal
Mouffe (ed), Gramsci and Marxist Theory,
London, 1979, p 210.
9 SPN, p 58ff.
10 Togliatti, op cit, pp 5-6.

11 Paul Coner, 'Fascist Agrarian Policy and the

Italian Economy in the Inter-War Years' in
John A Davis, Gramsci and Italy's Passive
Revolution, London, 1979, p 269.
12 Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe,
Hegemony and Socialist Strategy, London,
1985, pp 65-71.
13 SPN, p 52.
14 Ibid, p 55.
15 Alstair Davidson, Antonio
Towards An Intellectual Biography, London, 1977, pp 244-45.
16 Alvin Gouldner, 'The Two Marxisms' in For
Sociology, Harmondsworth, 1975, p 419.
17 Chantal Mouffe (ed), op cit, pp 12-13.
18 SPN, p 411.
19 Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe, op cit,
p 182.
20 Derek Sayer and Philip Carrigan, 'Late
Marx: Continuity, Contradiction and Learning' in Teodor Shanin (ed), Late Marx and
the Russian Road, London, 1983, pp 77-93.
21 Ibid, p 89.
22 Tom Nairn, 'Antonu Su Gobbu' in Anne
Showstack Sassoon, Approaches
Gramsci, London, 1982, p 161.
23 SPN, p 438.


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January 30, 1988