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 heritage 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 pragmatist recasting of the Marxist theory of ideology which anticipates many of the themes of contemporary post-structuralism while embedding the realm of ideas firmly in the social practice of different social groups.

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 proximity and the radical artistic movement, which included Chagall, and Malevich, had transformed these towns into centres of artistic experiment 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, however, 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 conceptual 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 language 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 reinforcement 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.’footnote1 This was, however, quite the opposite of what Croce had intended. In his enormously influential Aesthetic as Science of Expression and General Linguistic (1902) Croce had slammed positivist 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’.footnote2 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 creativity. 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.’footnote3 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 discourse, in expressive organisms, rationally indivisible.’footnote4

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 Marxism, 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 community exerted prestige over contiguous, subordinate communities’. With this move, Gramsci argued, linguistics became a historical science, charting the flow of innovations from the prestigious langue to the receiving one. Bartoli was, however, unable to develop his observations beyond the cataloguing of innovations, and turned to the ‘intellectually repugnant’ idealist Bertoni to develop a methodology. Neolinguistics was, however, dependent only on ‘historicism in general’, with no special reliance on Crocism, and was thus capable of being developed on a Marxist base.footnote5 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 production 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 particular 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’.footnote6 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 grammatical 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 potential 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 consecrates 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.footnote7 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 phenomenology were diametrically opposed to the thrust of Bakhtin’s philosophy and the expressive aesthetic of the avant-garde. The society described by 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’,footnote8 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.footnote9 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’,footnote10 was now abandoned in favour of ‘tickling our sensibility 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’,footnote11 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.footnote12 The chief encounter can be found in Voloshinov’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 positivistic conception of empirical data—a reverence for “fact” understood not in a dialectical sense but as something fixed and stable’.footnote13 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 orthodoxy, the most systematic exposition of which he found in Bukharin’s 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’.footnote14