You are on page 1of 16

Craig Brandist

Gramsci, Bakhtin and the

Semiotics of Hegemony

Antonio Gramsci and Mikhail Bakhtin were very different types of

thinkers. While the former spent the 1920s maximally involved in the
Italian revolutionary movement as leader of the Communist Party, the
latter, living in Petrograd at the time of the revolution and throughout
the second half of the 1920s, reflected on the experience in religious and
philosophical rather than political ways. In the 1930s, while Gramsci
languished in Mussolini’s prison, theorizing the process by which the
revolutionary party could achieve hegemony and seize political power,
Bakhtin was internally exiled in Kazakhstan where he taught in an
obscure pedagogical institute and wrote erudite essays on the anti-
hegemonic potentialities of the novel in the cultural arena. At first
glance little appears to promise a productive comparison. Yet when one
looks more closely, continuities of theme, approach and theoretical her-
itage abound, suggesting a more widespread and deeper meeting of
Marxism and idealist philosophies of language than has hitherto been
acknowledged. Out of the respective critiques of positivist-dominated
social science and romantic aesthetics emerges a strikingly similar prag-
matist recasting of the Marxist theory of ideology which anticipates
many of the themes of contemporary post-structuralism while embed-
ding the realm of ideas firmly in the social practice of different social
While Gramsci was involved with the Turin factory council movement
and studying historical linguistics at Turin University, Bakhtin and his
friends, who included Valentin Voloshinov and Pavel Medvedev, were
involved in the revolutionary artistic scene and studying neo-Kantian
philosophy in the Byelorussian towns of Nevel and Vitebsk. Though
usually sleepy provincial places, the civil war took place in close proxim-
ity and the radical artistic movement, which included Chagall, and
Malevich, had transformed these towns into centres of artistic experi-
ment and intellectual debate. The major intellectual influences on
Gramsci at this time were the work of the Italian idealist philosopher
Benedetto Croce and the Marxism of the Third International, while for
Bakhtin, Husserlian phenomenology and the work of the Jewish neo-
Kantian Hermann Cohen played major roles. By the mid 1920s, how-
ever, both Gramsci and the Bakhtin school had identified language and
ideology as objects of analysis and were attempting to forge a Marxist
theory of ideology and its relationship to language. The crucial concep-
tual link was an encounter with the works of Saussure through the
neolinguistics of Gramsci’s research supervisor Matteo Bartoli and the
works of the Russian Formalists respectively. In each case language was
seen to be a social given which structured consciousness, demanding a
reconsideration of the idealist conception of consciousness common to
both neo-Hegelian and neo-Kantian philosophy.
Gramsci had become dissatisfied with the Crocean conception of lan-
guage after the 1923 Education Act, following Croce’s contention that a
normative grammar was impossible, made no provision for the teaching
of normative Italian. The result was, according to Gramsci, the reinforce-
ment of class divisions by leaving the ‘subaltern classes’ illiterate and
trapped within provincial dialects: ‘Thus we are going back to a division
into juridically fixed and crystallized estates rather than moving towards
the transcendence of class divisions.’1 This was, however, quite the oppo-
site of what Croce had intended. In his enormously influential Aesthetic as
Science of Expression and General Linguistic (1902) Croce had slammed pos-
itivist social science and linguistics for their elitism, noting that ‘among
the principal reasons which have prevented Aesthetic, the science of art,
from revealing the true nature of art, its real roots in human nature, has
been its separation from the general spiritual life, the having made of it a
sort of special function or aristocratic club’.2 Art and language needed to
be identified, they are the creative self expression of the individual and
the national-popular masses and as such cannot be subject to the abstract
schemas of grammarians, which serve to limit and restrict popular cre-
ativity. Language, for Croce, was the flow of unique intuition-expressions,
ceasing to exist outside works of art. Every utterance is a work of art, for
‘the limits of the expression-intuitions that are called art, as opposed to
those that are vulgarly called non-art, are empirical, and impossible to
define.’3 Through the expressive objectivization of impressions, that is
artistic activity, mankind liberates itself, raising itself above those
impressions and driving away passivity. Grammar, on the other hand,
stresses language as ‘isolated and combinable words, not in living dis-
course, in expressive organisms, rationally indivisible.’4
A Historical Science
This combination of Romantic philosophy and egalitarian politics was
very attractive to those, like Gramsci, who sought to break out of the
deterministic laws of Social Darwinism and Second International Marx-
ism, but the reactionary adoption of Croce’s philosophy now demanded a
significant reformulation of the problem. This was being undertaken by
Bartoli, who had developed a ‘spatial’ analysis of language that owed a
lot to Saussure’s langue, and sought to trace how ‘a dominant speech com-
munity exerted prestige over contiguous, subordinate communities’.
With this move, Gramsci argued, linguistics became a historical science,
Antonio Gramsci, Selections from the Prison Notebooks, Q. Hoare and G. Nowell Smith, eds,
London 1971, p. 41. See also Selections from Cultural Writings, Forgacs and Nowell-Smith,
eds, London 1985, pp. 165–7.
B. Croce, Aesthetic as Science of Expression and General Linguistic, London 1953, p. 14.
Ibid., p. 13.
Ibid., p. 151.

charting the flow of innovations from the prestigious langue to the receiv-
ing one. Bartoli was, however, unable to develop his observations beyond
the cataloguing of innovations, and turned to the ‘intellectually repug-
nant’ idealist Bertoni to develop a methodology. Neolinguistics was, how-
ever, dependent only on ‘historicism in general’, with no special reliance
on Crocism, and was thus capable of being developed on a Marxist base.5
This had to be developed through a critical engagement with Crocism,
and particularly with reference to the works of the German philologist
Karl Vossler, who shared significant common ground with both Croce
and Bartoli.

Croce’s romantic populism was also very close to the dominant produc-
tion aesthetic of the Russian avant-garde which, especially in the works
of Andre Bely and the Futurists, viewed art as the absolute adversary of
positivism. The so-called zaum (trans-rational) poetic movement in par-
ticular aspired to the creation of an absolute ‘language in the making’
that could never be fixed in print, hence the slogan of the Cubo-Futurists,
‘After reading tear to pieces’.6 Aesthetic activity and cultural artefacts
were treated as antipodes that parallel the bifurcation of language into
energeia, vital, living discourse, and ergon, the static system of grammati-
cal rules, now finding its modern expression in Saussure’s langue. In
developing this absolute poetic discourse, the poet would be able to raise
the speech of the masses to new heights, releasing their expressive poten-
tial and forging a new communal culture, what the Symbolist Ivanov
called sobornost’. To some extent Bakhtin’s early work can be seen as a
phenomenological investigation of this process, examining how the
author recontextualizes the intention of the hero, and in so doing conse-
crates the existence of that hero. Without the aesthetic activity of the
author, the hero would be condemned to live in a stream of consciousness
the meaning and significance of which would remain shrouded in a thick
fog. By recontextualizing the intention of the hero, the author reveals the
connectedness of the utterance to the immediate situation or event and,
beyond this, the interconnectedness and open-endedness of human
development. When cultural products are isolated from the purposeful
activity of life then that culture will develop immanently according to
impersonal, logical laws reminiscent of Social Darwinism.7 Thus those
doctrines which treat the ergon of culture apart from the energeia of the
creative process are not only mistaken but also dangerous.

It is not surprising, therefore, that the Bakhtin school should react with
such hostility to the Saussurean system which stressed the autonomous
system of signs as the key factor in structuring social consciousness. The
terms of the Saussurean claim to the ground occupied by phenomenol-
ogy were diametrically opposed to the thrust of Bakhtin’s philosophy
and the expressive aesthetic of the avant-garde. The society described by
Gramsci, Selections from the Cultural Writings, p. 174.
Michel Acouturier, ‘Theatricality as a Category in Twentieth-Century Russian Culture’,
in Kleberg and Nilsson, eds Theater and Literature in Russia 1900–1930, Stockholm 1984,
p. 17.
On this see K. Hirschkop and D. Shepherd, Bakhtin and Cultural Theory, Manchester
1989, pp. 6–8. Perhaps the clearest example of this by a member of the Bakhtin school is
Matvey Kagan’s 1923 essay ‘Judaism and the Crisis of Culture’ in Minuvshee 6, Moscow

Saussure’s langue, as Hirschkop notes, is ‘a bureaucratized world . . . in
which every subject behaves according to formal rules, to be obeyed
without reference to ends, values or mitigating circumstances’,8 while
Formalist critics, at least initially, responded to Saussure’s linguistics by
rigorously separating the literary and wider social spheres, device and
motivation. Consequently, stylistic and ideological factors were treated
as autonomous spheres which, like the arbitrarily coincident signifier
and signified, had no necessary connection. Poetic ‘defamiliarization’, as
Medvedev noted, nihilistically strove to destroy the already established
connection, or meaning, without establishing a new, positive meaning.9
The absolute discourse for which the Symbolists and zaumniki strove,
revealing the creative process in language was, according to this account,
a hedonistic play of the signifier revealing the relativity of language. The
traditional demand of the Russian intelligentsia that literature should
‘teach us how to live’, ‘that is, to pervade our being, to affect our deepest
impulses and our most intimate reactions; to shape our sensibility; to
transform and organize our vision—and thus ultimately to affect our
whole behaviour’,10 was now abandoned in favour of ‘tickling our sensi-
bility and providing us with pleasurable sensations’. The only other
alternative was the development of an ideologically didactic literature of
the sort advocated by the theorists of proletarian culture and later
demanded by the state in the form of ‘Socialist Realism’. These two
poles, the two ‘capital sins’ that result from inability ‘to transform’,11
were now legitimized with unrivalled cogency by the Saussurean
account of language. By the late 1920s both directions were becoming
politically unacceptable to Bakhtin’s group.
These political factors impelled the Bakhtin school to directly confront
the works of Saussure, and to do so meant an engagement with the
romantic philosophies of language developed by Croce and Vossler. As
representatives of the Europe-wide movement against positivism in the
human sciences, these theorists proved valuable allies, and had been
drawn upon by a large number of idealist philosophers in Russia in the
early part of the century.12 The chief encounter can be found in Voloshi-
nov’s 1929 book Marxism and the Philosophy of Language which the author
presents as an attempt to develop an area of Marxist theory dominated by
‘the category of mechanistic causality’ and ‘the still unsurmounted posi-
tivistic conception of empirical data—a reverence for “fact” understood
not in a dialectical sense but as something fixed and stable’.13 In effect,
Marxism was contaminated by the very elements that, the book goes on
to show, constituted the Saussurean conception of language. Gramsci
similarly turned to the ideas of Croce to overcome the importation of
mechanical materialism into Marxism under the name of Marxist ortho-
doxy, the most systematic exposition of which he found in Bukharin’s
Bakhtin and Cultural Theory, p. 8.
P.N. Medvedev, The Formal Method in Literary Scholarship, Baltimore 1978, pp. 59–61.
This was how Bakhtin’s older brother defined the demand some years later. Nicholas
Bachtin, Lectures and Essays, Birmingham 1963, p. 26.
Ibid., pp. 26–7.
On this see L.E. Blyakher, ‘Through the Ideas of Russian Humboldtism’, in I.
Malchenkova, ed., M.M. Bakhtin: Esteticheckoye naslediye i sovremennost’ (M.M. Bakhtin:
Aesthetic Heritage and Modernity), Saransk 1992, vol. 2.
V.N. Voloshinov, Marxism and the Philosophy of Language, Cambridge, Mass. 1973,
p. xiv.

The Theory of Historical Materialism (1921). For Gramsci, Croce had
‘translated the progressive acquisitions of the philosophy of praxis into
speculative language and in this retranslation is the best of his thought’.
The task now was ‘to redo for the philosophical conception of Croce the
same reduction that the first theorists of the philosophy of praxis [Marx
and Engels] did for the Hegelian conception’.14

The first move, for Gramsci and the Bakhtin school alike, was to chal-
lenge Croce’s romantic conception of the individual so that language is
no longer individual artistic expression but ‘the “material” of art, a social
product and the cultural expression of a given people’.15 Croce saw lan-
guage in the same terms as Bakhtin characterized the Symbolist poet
who ‘considers the word already aestheticized . . . transforming it into a
mythical or metaphysical entity’.16 Bakhtin’s and Gramsci’s critiques
closely followed on from that of Vossler who had chided the Italian for
his explication of the speaking subject apart from the linguistic environ-
ment. Croce’s abstraction, argued Vossler, was akin to the Hegelian
‘Absolute Mind’, ignoring the diversity of speech communities and
thereby profoundly monologic:
Everything that is spoken on this globe in the course of the ages, therefore,
must be thought of as a vast soliloquy spoken by the human mind, which
unfolds itself in untold millions of persons and characters, and comes to itself
again in their reunion. It follows from this that the human mind as such should
be or become, a single person.17

The Crocean individual had to be abandoned in favour of the concept of

person which, being indivisible from ‘persona’ and ‘part’, locates the
speaker firmly within a specific speech community. The ‘person’:
can claim some qualities of absolute mind and a certain unity; but this does not
include the possibility of an infinite number of parts played by one person . . .
Our desire for power and knowledge is essentially the same. It, too, yearns for
the infinite, but is baulked and opposed by reality in a different way for every-
one; for here also the concept of person with its claim to godlike unity in multi-
plicity is at work.18

The linguistic manifestation of this diversity is a multiplicity of styles at

individual and national levels which interact through the mediation of
translation: ‘Wherever and whenever we enter into the speech of some-
one else, or our own past speech, we are translating’.19 Croce had denied
the possibility of translation, arguing that any attempt to render a mean-
ing in another language was the production of another unique intuition-
expression, but Vossler now posed it as the essence of all human
communication. This point is adopted in its entirety by Bakhtin’s group,
as Caryl Emerson notes in her preface to Bakhtin’s famous Dostoyevsky
study. For Bakhtin the boundaries of national languages were only one
pole of the linguistic environment: ‘at the other extreme, translation
Quoted in T. Nemeth, Gramsci’s Philosophy, Brighton 1980, pp. 159, 48.
Selections from the Cultural Writings, p. 177.
M.M. Bakhtin, “Toward the Aesthetics of the Word”, in Dispositio vol. 4, no. 11–12,
p. 312.
K. Vossler, The Spirit of Language in Civilization, London 1932, p. 13.

processes were required for one social group to understand another in the
same city, for children to understand parents in the same family, for one
day to understand the next.’20

The Presence of Contradiction

The picture of the linguistic environment presented by Vossler, and

adopted in modified form by Gramsci and Bakhtin, is not, however, as
untroubled as Emerson suggests. Translation involves the transferral of
the inner form of language, ‘the tendency of mind towards a definite goal’,
across the borders of outer form, where it becomes differently embodied in
the receiving language. Moreover, the surety of meaning is disrupted by
‘interest, that faithless and ever changing thing’ which comes between
‘words and objects, between poetry and truth’ and undermines ‘the
whole permanence and the real value of languages’. As style coincides
with world-view (‘style and form tendencies coincide with the sentiment
and meaning of the speakers’) each language is threatened by the others,
compelling a language community to employ translation as a means of
self-preservation. ‘Taste’ stands guard over the boundaries of the lan-
guage, binding man aesthetically just as sentiment binds him ethically,
maintaining linguistic and thus ideological independence in the face of
attempts to ‘throttle’ and dominate the community. While the inner form
of language is present in all languages, a unifying (one might say cen-
tripetal) force impelling the word towards the extralinguistic object, the
plurality of outer form and interest cuts across and interferes with this
directedness. As a result language becomes a field of force where differ-
ent interests, ideologies and styles contend.21

The extent of Vossler’s influence on Bakhtin and Gramsci is rarely

acknowledged. In shifting the Crocean identification of language and
world-view to an analysis of style, Vossler implicitly acknowledged ide-
ologies as existing in social, semiotic forms and defined by their relation
to other competing ideologies. This is directly adopted by both Gramsci
and Bakhtin’s group in the late 1920s but reaccentuated so as to correlate
with the sociological stratification of society as defined by Marxism.
Vossler and the nineteenth-century philologist von Humboldt had
recognised the philosophical significance of the diversity of languages
but had seen language only as the expression of national spirit and the
utterance as the expression of individual spirit; Bakhtin and Gramsci
added the crucial extra dimension of social diversity. In doing this, how-
ever, both rejected the Marxian base and superstructure model in favour
of the Hegelian reduction of the social whole to the expressions of a
single essence interpreted, through Vossler (and ultimately von Hum-
boldt), in terms of the inner form of language. For Gramsci, a determinate
social group, thereby, has a conception of the world implicit in its social
practice and which is manifested in the language it uses. In Bakhtin’s
mature work dialogism, the relation between discourses, is taken to be the
expression of this single essence, running throughout all social interac-
tion and which the novel models. Heteroglossia, the socially stratified

Ibid., p. 182.
M.M. Bakhtin, Problems of Dostoyevsky’s Poetics, Manchester 1984, p. xxxi.
Vossler, The Spirit of Language, pp. 172–6.

national language, is, however, subject to the power relations and hierar-
chy of society in which a dominant discourse imposes itself on others,
presenting itself as universal and ideal. This skewing of the linguistic
environment imposes different types of interaction between discourses
such that ‘within a single nation’, as Gramsci noted, ‘a new ruling class
brings about alterations as a “mass”, but the jargons of various profes-
sions, of specific societies, innovate in a molecular way.’22

The Saussurean langue, the unitary and normative grammatical structure

of the national language, is therefore, as Bakhtin put it in 1934, ‘not
something given [dan] but is always in essence posited [zadan]—and at
every moment of its linguistic life it is opposed to the realities of het-
eroglossia.’23 As Gramsci noted in rather different terminology:

Written ‘normative grammars’ tend to embrace the entire territory of a nation

and its total ‘linguistic volume’, to create a unitary national linguistic con-
formism . . . But it is obvious that someone who writes a normative grammar
cannot ignore the history of the language of which he wishes to propose an
‘exemplary phase’ as the ‘only’ one worthy to become, in an ‘organic’ and ‘total-
itarian’ way, the ‘common’ language of a nation in competition with other
‘phases’ and types or schemes that already exist (connected to traditional devel-
opments or to inorganic and incoherent attempts of forces which . . . act contin-
uously on the spontaneous ‘grammars’ immanent in the language).24

These ‘ideologically saturated’ styles or ‘grammars’ thus relate to each

other according to their position in the social structure. While the offi-
cial, dominant language is systematically articulated through a matrix of
institutional channels, the conceptions of ‘the people (the sum total of
the instrumental and subaltern classes of every form of society that has so
far existed)’ is by necessity ‘discontinuous and limited to local social
strata or local centres’. In this locality a certain ‘normative grammar’ is
established through ‘the reciprocal monitoring, reciprocal teaching and
reciprocal “censorship” expressed in such questions as “What did you
mean to say?”, “What do you mean?”, “Make yourself clearer”, etc., and
in mimicry and teasing.’ These are often directed ‘in opposition ... to
“official” conceptions of the world’ (or in a broader sense, the conceptions
of the cultured parts of historically determinate societies) that have suc-
ceeded one another in the historical process25 and constitute linguistic
folklore. The operations of this unofficial culture are exactly the same as
Bakhtin characterizes in carnival culture, parodying and deflating the
universalist pretensions of the official language and culture which, as
Gramsci noted, remains ‘somewhat fossilized and pompous’. When offi-
cial language approaches immediate reality and ‘tries to be informal it
breaks up into so many refractions of the dialects’.26 After 1934 Bakhtin
seeks to establish a continuum between this oppositional tendency in
popular culture and that of the novel.

While an extraordinary conceptual convergence between the works of

Selections from the Cultural Writings, p. 178.
M.M. Bakhtin, The Dialogic Imagination, Austin 1981, p. 270.
Selections from the Cultural Writings, p. 181.
Ibid., pp. 189, 180, 189.
Ibid., p. 172.

Bakhtin and Gramsci is clear, a difference in emphasis, and ultimately
political principle, emerged in the late 1920s and early 1930s. This
stemmed from the specific conditions in which the writers lived and to
which they responded. In Gramsci’s Italy, the fascist party had capital-
ized on the regional economic unevenness of the country which was
‘juridically fixed’ by the absence of a universally utilized national lan-
guage. The division of the national proletariat, and to a greater extent
peasantry, into regional dialect areas obstructed the formation of a
united, revolutionary class alliance of the sort that had facilitated the
revolution in Russia. Thus the process whereby the revolutionary party
could gain political hegemony was intimately tied up with the overcom-
ing of linguistic provinciality which ‘creates friction . . . in the popular
masses among whom local particularisms and phenomena of a narrow
and provincial mentality are more tenacious than is believed.’ Bakhtin,
on the other hand, was less concerned with forming ‘hundreds and thou-
sands of recruits, of the most disparate origins and mental preparation,
into a homogenous army capable of moving and acting in a disciplined
and united manner’27 than with popular resistance to the state’s authori-
tarian imposition of a pattern of social development and accompanying
ideological system. The Stalinist plan in many ways resembled the tyran-
nical shaping of society according to a bureaucratic schema legitimized
with reference to the word of the divinely chosen tsar that had character-
ized the rule of, most notably, Peter I.28 Furthermore, the establishment
and encodement of European literary languages, including Russian, in
the eighteenth century and the secret imposition of ‘Socialist Realism’
also found many fruitful parallels that permitted Bakhtin to plot a con-
stellation between the cultural policy of feudal absolutism and modern
Russia. The unified language thereby became a model of ‘the tyranny of
abstract ideas and dogmas over life’.29
Aesthetics and Politics Redefined
Bakhtin’s treatment of the question of unified language and of the rela-
tionship between poetry and the novel is one of the clearest modern
examples of the disguising of political questions as cultural ones, typical
of single-party dictatorships. As Gramsci noted, when the political func-
tion of a party is indirect, amounting to the exercise of ‘propaganda and
public order, and moral and cultural influence’, then political struggle is
shifted to the sphere of art and culture generally. In the absence of ‘real,
non-mystified political activity’ to resolve social and political contradic-
tions ‘the intelligentsia finds itself in constant “chronic” opposition’30 to
officialdom, like the novelist against the poet in the Bakhtinian scheme.
From 1934 Bakhtin sees the novel as an aestheticized version of popular
carnival, no longer limited to ‘islands’ of popular holidays ‘or in the fluid
realm of familiar speech’ but intensified and systematized so that ‘offi-
cial, serious culture’31 could no longer maintain a parallel and separate
Ibid., pp. 182, 184.
An interesting and contemporary literary exploration of this parallel is Andrei Plato-
nov’s ‘Yepifanskie shluzy’ (‘The Epifan Locks’) which can be found in English in Russian
Literature Triquarterly, 8, 1974.
Nicholas Bachtin, Lectures and Essays, p. 97.
Boris Kagarlitsky, The Thinking Reed, Verso, London 1989, p. 87.
M.M. Bakhtin, Rabelais and His World, Bloomington 1984, p. 96.

existence. Bringing official discourse into contact with ‘immediate real-
ity’, through narrative, facilitates its break-up into socially specific
dialects; as it enters the realm of recontextualization and experiment the
ideological structure, or in Vossler’s terminology the ‘spirit of the lan-
guage’, is revealed. Carnival culture is, however, not so much counter-
hegemonic as anti-hegemonic, at its extreme threatening the very
concept of discursive truth, but always orientated against the fear-inspir-
ing official, ruling stratum. Maximally tied to material reality, the peas-
antry of medieval Europe were maximally imbued with becoming, with
the vital inner form of language, and thus spurned the crystallized offi-
cial language in favour of a Dionysian anti-systematic revel. It takes the
novelist to organize and systematize this popular critical impulse into an
analytical organ that tests the validity of discourses against extra-discur-
sive reality.

The authorial function, always endowed with a political significance, has

now begun to sound like a fully-fledged political function. When the
source of ideological difference has been located within the matrix of
productive relations (which Voloshinov had established in the 1929
study of the philosophy of language), then attempts to complete and
organize those ideologies into a whole looks very like political organiza-
tion. Indeed the relations between author and hero, artist and society
become distinctly reminiscent of the relation between the vanguard
party and the working class in Lenin’s formulation. This was certainly
not overlooked by Gramsci, who applied the terms of Croce’s aesthetics
to the workings of the revolutionary party, and could scarcely have been
overlooked by any members of the Bakhtin school:

Political intuition is not expressed through the artist, but through the ‘leader’;
and ‘intuition’ must be understood to mean not ‘knowledge of men’, but swift-
ness in connecting seemingly disparate facts, and in conceiving the means ade-
quate to particular ends—thus discovering the interests involved and arousing
the passions of men and directing them towards a particular action. The
‘expression’ of the ‘leader’ is his ‘action’.32

Even in his earliest works Bakhtin sees aesthetic activity as expressing

the connection between language and human purpose and capable of
translating philosophical abstractions into ‘concretely obligating utter-
ances’.33 Later, the novel is seen as dedicated to unmasking discourses as
socially specific and interested and thereby debunking the authoritative
claims of ruling discourse.

Thus where Gramsci recast aesthetic activity in terms of the relationship

of the political party to the ‘common sense’ of a nation, Bakhtin posed
the relationship of author to the diversity of social discourses. In the
Dostoyevsky study the author’s own worldview, manifested in his lan-
guage, is seen as less significant than his ‘form-shaping ideology’, the
way in which other discourses are approached and organized. Bakhtin
sees a ‘monologic’ approach taken by writers who simulate a struggle

Selections from the Prison Notebooks, p. 252.
Hirschkop and Shepherd, Bakhtin and Cultural Theory, p. 8.

between discourses but in reality are only providing the means by which
‘his own direct or refracted word might ring out all the more energeti-
cally’.34 This Gramsci sees as constitutive of ‘bureaucratic centralism’ in
which the organization is ‘technically a policing organism, and its name
of “political party” is simply a metaphor of a mythological character’.35
In each case here, any apparent dialogue and debate is merely a means for
the acceptance of the perspective emanating from the centre; the result is
known in advance, ‘all accents are gathered into a single voice’. In
Dostoyevsky’s ‘polyphonic’ novel, however, the authorial design is the
‘most extreme activization of vari-directional accents in double voiced
discourse’ rather than the subordination of these to ‘the verbal and
semantic dictatorship of a monologic, unified style and unified tone’.36
For Gramsci, similarly, a party is ‘progressive’ when it functions accord-
ing to ‘democratic centralism’, keeping previously dominant forces
‘within the bounds of legality and [raising] the backward masses toward
the level of the new legality’.37 Voices usually drowned beneath ‘louder’,
authoritative voices, are raised to an equal level where all compete freely
according to their intrinsic merits rather than the authority they wield.
If each discourse articulates a world-view and discourses struggle to
establish their superiority as a necessary corollary of the class struggle,
then a discourse becomes hegemonic when one social class’s world-view
is accepted as kindred by other social classes. This does not mean the
struggle for hegemony consists merely of a conflict between two pre-
formed ideologies but a conflict of hegemonic principles. Discourses seek to
bind other discourses to themselves according to two basic principles:
either by establishing a relation of authority between the enclosing and
target discourses or by facilitating the further advancement of the target
discourse through the enclosing discourse. In ‘Discourse in the Novel’
Bakhtin terms these hegemonic principles ‘authoritative discourse’ and
‘internally persuasive’ discourse respectively. The former:
[D]emands that we acknowledge it, that we make it our own; it binds us, quite
independent of any power it might have to persuade us internally; we
encounter it with its authority already fused to it. The authoritative word is
located in the distanced zone, organically connected with a past that is felt to
be hierarchically higher. It is, so to speak, the word of the fathers.38

This is termed the monologic and the poetic approach to another dis-
course. Behind the enclosing discourse lies a power that is is impossible

Rabelais and His World, p. 204.
Selections from the Prison Notebooks, p. 155.
Rabelais and His World, p. 204.
Selections from the Prison Notebooks, p. 155. Bakhtin’s treatment of the novel as a ‘legality’
of languages is a development along the lines of semantics, from the aesthetic of Hermann
Cohen, who proposed a ‘juridical’ model of Greek tragedy, and Ivanov’s notion of Dostoy-
evsky’s novel as a ‘novel-tragedy’. A similar approach is taken by another member of
Bakhtin’s group Lev Pumpiansky in Dostoyevsky i antichnost’ (Dostoyevsky and Antiquity)
Petrograd 1922, while in a preface to Turgenev’s Nakanunye (On the Eve) he notes that
‘judgement [sud] is inseparable from literature’: Turgenev, Sochineniye (Collected Works),
vol. 6, Moscow 1929, p. 9. Cohen’s conception is outlined in Voloshinov’s 1926 essay
‘Discourse in Life and Discourse in Poetry’, in Shukman, ed., Bakhtin School Papers, Essex
1983, p. 25.
The Dialogic Imagination, p. 342.

to question, any independent ideological perspective is necessarily
excluded. This is the mature form of Bakhtin’s ‘abstract whole’ that
operates at the expense of the specific, or what Nikolai Bachtin called the
‘Platonic attitude’ in which ‘perfection is conceived of as the liberation of
the higher from the lower: a refusal to cooperate with it.’ In the realm of
the mixed ‘we must consider as better that in which the positive imposes
itself forcibly on the negative, subjugates it, conceals, reduces it to
silence.’ Plato’s attitude is that of the intransigent reformer aiming to
‘cut and reshape the living texture of reality—by force, from outside—
according to some rigid and rigorous pattern.’

The other hegemonic principle is like the antithetical ‘Aristotelian atti-

tude’ in which ‘value is felt as inherent in reality, as the “indwelling”
design which life strives to fulfil. The higher is not a mere negation and
exclusion of the lower; it is a completion and fuller actualization of the
lower.’39 In discursive terms this means raising the partial insights of
another’s voice to new levels, organizing the mixture that is everyday
consciousness to facilitate new and productive verbal production and
inspiring ‘independent ideological life’:
Internally persuasive discourse . . . is, as it is affirmed through assimilation,
tightly interwoven with ‘one’s own word’ . . . Its creativity and productiveness
consists precisely in the fact that such a word awakens new and independent
words, that it organizes masses of our words from within . . . More than that, it
enters into an intense interaction, a struggle with other internally persuasive
discourses. Our ideological development is just such an intense struggle within
us for hegemony among various available verbal and ideological points of view,
approaches, directions and values.40

Thus the interaction of discourses in the novel is but the most thorough-
going manifestation of the interactions within the language community
itself. The polyphonic novel is the artistically heightened expression of
the progressive hegemonic principle which is always present within soci-
ety, while the monologic principle is akin to the workings of authoritar-
ian social forces.

In Gramsci’s prison writings the above divergent hegemonic principles

coincide with the exercise of hegemony by the bourgeoisie and prole-
tariat. In bourgeois society the ‘active man-in-the-mass has a practical
activity, but has no clear theoretical consciousness of his practical activ-
ity’, having ‘for reasons of submission and intellectual subordination’
adopted the conception of the dominant class. While ‘theoretical con-
sciousness’ and practical activity may be historically contradictory, this
does not make itself apparent in ‘normal times’ when the dominant con-
ception is ‘inherited from the past and uncritically absorbed’. The hege-
monic conception, like ‘authoritative discourse’, serves to conceal and
subjugate the conception ‘implicit’ in his social practice ‘to produce a
state in which the contradictory state of consciousness does not permit of
any action, any decision or any choice, and produces a condition of moral
and political passivity’. When the subordinate social group begins to act
in a unified fashion, however, the implicit conception begins to appear
Bachtin, Lectures and Essays, pp. 97–8.
Ibid., p. 345.

from within the dominating discourse with the dawning of ‘critical
understanding of self’ which ‘takes place through a struggle of political
“hegemonies” and of opposing directions, first in the ethical sphere and
then in that of politics proper, in order to arrive at the working out at a
higher level of one’s own conception of reality.’41 This process Bakhtin
very closely approaches in the 1934 essay on the novel, noting that
‘[w]hen thought begins to work in an independent and discriminating
way, what first occurs is a separation between internally persuasive dis-
course and authoritarian, enforced discourse, along with a rejection of
those congeries of discourses that do not matter to us, that do not touch
us’. With this separation begins the long process through which ‘one’s
own discourse is gradually and slowly wrought out of others’ words that
have been acknowleged and assimilated’.42

The development of ‘critical self-consciousness’ means, however, the

development of intellectuals who organize the process of differentiation
through the ‘conceptual and philosophical elaboration of ideas’. This
stratum finds its modern expression, for Gramsci, in the leaders of the
vanguard political party who through their political organization main-
tain contact with their mass base. Political parties, argues Gramsci, in a
passage extraordinarily close to Bakhtin’s characterization of the novel in
the 1934 essay, ‘work out the ethics and the politics corresponding to
these conceptions and act as it were as their historical “laboratory”.’ In
structuring and elaborating ‘implicit’ conceptions through the dialecti-
cal use of agitation and propaganda, parties are ‘the elaborators of new,
integral and totalitarian intelligentsias and the crucibles where the uni-
fication of theory and practice, understood as a real historical process,
takes place’.43 In Bakhtin’s aestheticized version of this coming to self-
consciousness the author, in the ‘crucible’ of the novel, subjects compet-
ing ideologies to fictional experiment (in the form of narrative events),
simultaneously revealing the ideological structure of those ideologies
and their conceptual adequacy. Outside the novel is only an eternally
sceptical ‘people’ and a repressive ruling stratum.

The Struggle for Hegemony

It was Vossler who had first analyzed the struggle between languages in
terms of the aesthetically regulated acceptance of one worldview by
another. Yet Vossler also made a distinction within the world of signs
between languages with a hegemonic potential and those whose status is
less secure. In terms of language, therefore, as of politics, there are lead-
ers and led. For Gramsci and Voloshinov it is only the bourgeoisie and
proletariat who can develop a thoroughly differentiated and united dis-
course by virtue of their structural positions within the relations of pro-
duction. Proletarian hegemonic language is Marxism, which can unite
economic, political, intellectual and moral conceptions, but must be
developed ‘to the point of it becoming the hegemonic exponent of high

Selections from the Prison Notebooks, pp. 327, 333.
Rabelais and His World, p. 345.
Selections from the Prison Notebooks, p. 335. As the editors point out, ‘totalitarian’ here is
in the sense of ‘simultaneously “unified” and “all absorbing” ’ rather than the modern

culture’, a development which is simultaneously ‘the struggle for the
cultural unification of the human race’.44 The ideologies of other social
groups are akin to Vossler’s conception of ‘doubtful national languages’:
In doubtful cases a national language is like a church—one can belong to it,
and also change it. That language binds us into nations is a natural historical
fact, but not a law of nature.45

The status of the social discourses of the peasantry and other intermedi-
ate groups is akin to that of dialects in relation to a national language
with universal aspirations. In a modern context we could mention the
‘spontaneous’ discourses of different oppressed groups like gay libera-
tion, feminism and black nationalism which remain limited to their own
group concerns. Those discourses which are unable to develop beyond
this stage must seek alliances with other, potentially hegemonic dis-
[A] language that is merely individual, merely ornamental and national, and
remains fixed in its particular provincialism, will degenerate into a mere
dialect. Above all, in the iron grip with which the language would try to retain
its national aspect, the language itself would crumble.46

Crushed by political, economic and cultural factors, a language is

attracted to or repelled by other languages according to the degree to
which the external form of the ‘would-be hegemonic’ language conforms
to the ‘inner form’ of the ‘doubtful case’. In Crocean terms this is intu-
ition, in Bakhtin ‘socially evaluative accent’ and in Gramsci the practice
of a social class. The distinctive feature of Marxism is that it can be devel-
oped to a point where it actualizes all that is valuable in ‘subaltern’, ‘frag-
mentary’ conceptions and thereby can become constitutive of the new
order. The choice of with which languages to ally depends upon aesthetic
factors. Vossler argues:
An aesthetic element is concerned in every act of suggestion of the will.
Whether we call the gate through which an alien will enters into us ear or eye
or nose or touch or sensibility or the power of perception, the spirit on guard,
who opens and closes the gate and lies awake behind the eyelids, is an aesthetic

Thus identification with or rejection of another’s viewpoint is an aes-

thetic action. Gramsci, following Bartoli’s development of this point,
termed this fascino-prestigio (attraction-prestige). The proletariat and
bourgeoisie have the ability to become hegemonic and generate prestige
enough to win the leadership of other social groups. Aligned to each of
these classes is a group of intellectuals who articulate the most system-
atic and advanced version of the hegemonic discourse, winning leader-
ship of the class to which they are aligned. While the relations of
intellectuals and social group, party and class, are dialectically recipro-
cal, the positions are not interchangeable; thus Gramsci can write that ‘it

Ibid., pp. 442, 445.
The Spirit of Language, p. 120.
Ibid., p. 135.
Ibid., p. 191.

is necessary to reject vigorously as counter-revolutionary any conception
that makes the [proletarian] party into a synthesis of heterogeneous ele-
ments.’48 In Bakhtin’s formulation this is not clearly defined. As
Hirschkop notes, the role of author in consecrating the existence of the
hero implies a God to person (irreversible) relationship, while the deriva-
tion of these roles from everyday experience suggests a person to person
(reversible) relationship.49

The novelistic structure in the 1929 Dostoyevsky study facilitates not

only reflection by the author on the hero, but the self-reflection of the
hero on himself. When translated into the Hegelian terms of the 1934
argument, this self-reflection is that of culture on itself. The new casting
of this argument in ‘Discourse in the Novel’ shows the novel to be litera-
ture’s ‘organ for perceiving the heterodox nature of its own speech’. Pre-
existing social dialects, in and through the novel, are seen to become
self-conscious: they are ‘dialogically implicated in each other and begin
to exist for each other’.50 Yet Bakhtin simultaneously argues that the
novel is shaped by its monologic opponent, poetry, which aims to domi-
nate other languages with its own favoured language. The extent to
which the novel is simply the self-consciousness of discourse, which
many ‘Bakhtinians’ stress, however, the less able it is to challenge the
domination of the poetic. It merely shows the fact that there are many
discourses in society that relate to each other rather than a single dis-
course that relates to reality alone. Posed in such a way, as Bakhtin him-
self recognizes in the Dostoyevsky study, the effectivity of the novel is
denied since ‘relativism and dogmatism equally exclude all argumenta-
tion, all authentic dialogue, by making it either unnecessary (relativism)
or impossible (dogmatism).’51 To be politically effective the novelist
must organise other languages against the authoritative language. In
this sense the novelist, like Gramsci’s party leader, ensures the structure
‘remains united and consistent in its on-going activity’, fixing ‘the limits
of freedom of discussion and propaganda’.52 Bakhtin’s novelist, in his
most political role ‘builds a superstructure over these languages made up
of his own intentions and accents, which then becomes dialogically
linked with them.’53 The limits imposed by the leader and the novelist
‘should not be conceived of in the administrative and police sense, the sense of fixing the direction of cultural policy.’54

Perhaps the biggest problem with Bakhtin’s analysis is an all too com-
plete translation of a political problem into the terms of an artistic form.
The institutions within which literary production and reception are
realized and controlled disappear from view and their effects are felt
only in terms of linguistic forms whose relevance largely depends upon
that institutional framework. Perhaps the clearest example of this is
Bakhtin’s entirely negative attitude to the avant garde poets’ attempt to

Selections from the Prison Notebooks, p. 363.
Hirschkop, ‘The Author, the Novel and the Everyday’, Times Higher Education Supple-
ment, 1 May 1992, p. 27.
The Dialogic Imagination, p. 400.
Rabelais and His World, p. 69.
Selections from the Prison Notebooks, p. 341.
The Dialogic Imagination, p. 409.
Selections from the Prison Notebooks, p. 341.
reintegrate art into a transformed social life by creating a ‘special “lan-
guage of poetry”’. This, as Nikolai Bachtin noted some years later, was
not a poetic gesture in Bakhtin’s terms but an intensely novelistic attempt
to ‘release and gather the latent powers of folk-poetry and popular speech
and, investing them with new functions, build up a new medium of
poetic communication’.55 It was precisely the absence of social transfor-
mation, dependent on the internationalization of the revolution, that left
the artists as simply artists and transformed their project into ‘a typical
utopian philosopheme’.56 The degeneration of the mass popular festivals
of 1918–19 in which the avant-gardistes had organized huge carniva-
lesque pageants and public performances, was typical of the bureaucrati-
zation of the institutional and social orders that left the avant garde
beached. The Stalinist eulogization of Mayakovsky and demand for ten-
dentious literature deliberately obscured the changes in the context of
poetic production between the 1930s and the revolutionary era, and
Bakhtin’s ambiguity over the poetic as type of discourse and stance
towards other discourses is undoubtedly a symptom of this. As a result
the generic in itself appeared reactionary rather than the specific condi-
tions of performance that imbued poetry with its social value. The novel
thereby often appears an anti-genre concerned with the purely anti-hege-
monic work of the carnivalesque rather than a counter-genre.57
The meeting of Bakhtin and Gramsci alerts us to these problems in
Bakhtin’s analysis but also shows the incompatibility of Bakhtin’s work
with that of the liberal establishment’s ‘literary critics’ who have tried to
enlist his work in their struggle against the more radical versions of post-
structuralism. From the work of the ‘post-marxist’ idealists of the first
twenty years of the century both Bakhtin and Gramsci fashioned a politi-
cal aesthetics which aimed to organize the deconstructive impulses of the
‘subaltern classes’ into a force for revolutionary change. Furthermore,
Bakhtin, at his best, supplies a welcome corrective to some aspects of
Gramsci’s work which led the latter into a partial accommodation with
Stalinism and moreover does so without sliding into the void of the post-
structualist ‘hors texte’. This chiefly refers to Gramsci’s relatively unde-
veloped understanding of the systematic nature of language which has
allowed writers to advocate the complete separation of the notion of
hegemony from ‘classism’, based on a post-structuralist philosophy of
language in which meaning is solely the unstable effect of shifting rela-
tions of difference.58
Croce believed that the subject could intuit reality before its translation
into the linguistic terms which became its social embodiment. Gramsci
similarly believed that through the synthesizing activity of social prac-
tice workers could have a pre-verbal, semi-consciousness of their position
in productive relations which could then be translated into discourse
given favourable historical conditions. Reminiscent of Lukács, Gramsci
seems to be suggesting that the standpoint of the proletariat is the basis of a
Lectures and Essays, p. 37.
The Dialogic Imagination, p. 288.
In certain cases, however, the Soviet novel does exactly that. The works of Bakhtin’s
close friend Konstantin Vaginov and certain works by Daniil Kharms are examples of this.
See especially Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe, Hegemony and Socialist Strategy, Verso,
London 1985.

class consciousness that is synonymous with truth and that the revolu-
tionary party, in providing the highest expression of that consciousness
would have extra-discursive access to reality. Hence his comment that
the party ‘takes the place of the divinity or the categorical imperative’.59
It is, however, left unexplained as to exactly how a conception of the
world can be implicit in the practice of a given social group, especially
when we consider language as the ‘articulated structure which makes
contact with reality only at the periphery’60 which Saussure’s work
demands. While Gramsci’s anti-realist epistemology allowed him to
break with then dominant ‘false consciousness’ Marxist theories of ideol-
ogy, facilitating the development of an account of ideology as something
continually reorganized in the face of the struggle between classes, it
often led him to reduce the social to the subject’s consciousness of it.
While Bakhtin’s failure to account for the material determinants of
heteroglossia frequently led him into the same reduction, he did more sat-
isfactorily examine this weak area than did Gramsci.

In rejecting Gramsci’s suggestion of an unmediated link between eco-

nomic class interest and political ideology, some have gone on to argue
that there is no correlation at all between discursive meaning and the
economic organization of society. As Ann Jefferson notes:

[D]ialogism is positively activated by intensifying mimesis at every turn . . .

whether one begins with reference or with dialogism, the two concepts prove
to be inextricably linked . . . There is a kind of complementarity whereby repre-
sentation necessarily entails the active heteroglossia of dialogism, and dialo-
gism necessarily leads back again to questions of representation.61

Mikhail Bakhtin’s theory of the novel was an attempt to reintegrate the

work of the cultural critic with contemporary problems of social justice
after these Bohemian excesses, and he did so in the most difficult circum-
stances one can imagine. Bakhtin’s novelist and Gramsci’s ‘modern
prince’ both structure and maximize dialogism so as to intensify repre-
sentational adequacy; drawing on the valuable observations of the last
generations of ‘post-Marxists’, they both served to enrich historical
materialism but to do so they had to completely dismember the method-
ology of those theories. Today, too, Marxism cannot advance by simply
absorbing the post-structuralist method but can learn from the inade-
quacies of that method and its valuable observations. To move beyond
mere intellectual dissent, however, we still need the ‘modern prince’.

Selections from the Prison Notebooks, p. 133.
Michael Dummett, Frege: Philosophy of Language, London 1973, p. 529. This point is
made very well in Alex Callinicos, Marxism and Philosophy, Oxford 1985, pp. 147–53.
‘Realism Reconsidered: Bakhtin’s Diologism and the “Will to Reference”’, in Austral-
ian Journal of French Studies, vol. 23, no. 2, 1986, pp. 182–3.