My introduction to Gramsci, decades ago, was when Stuart Hall returned to him to help us understand the ‘great moving right show’ of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan.footnote1 Considering the experience of the past decade, we might begin a reflection on Gramsci with those same sections from Notebook 13: one on the Boulanger movement, the other on crises of representation that generate Caesarist responses.footnote2 Both passages drew on Marx’s own reflections on the sequence of election and emergency, plebiscite and coup, that brought Louis Bonaparte to power. Both passages warned us against a simple economism that reduced the emergence of counter-movements on the right to narrow economic motives. But perhaps we have learnt that lesson well enough; indeed, Giuseppe Cospito has argued that, as the Notebooks developed, Gramsci himself came to find Caesarism a concept of limited value, noting that it ‘was introduced into the political language by Napoleon iii, who certainly was not a great political historian or philosopher.’footnote3 Here, I want to ask whether Gramsci’s conception of politics is useful for the resistance to these regimes and movements of the right, for our precarious work and life. After all, it has long been assumed that, as Eric Hobsbawm put it, Gramsci’s ‘major contribution’ is ‘to have pioneered a Marxist theory of politics’.footnote4
An initial glance might prompt a no. There have been two major forms of Gramscian politics and both seem exhausted. The first was the politics of those who re-imagined the communist party as the modern Prince; this generated, through Togliatti’s pci, a new kind of communist party that not only left an imprint on post-war Italy but decisively influenced the remakings of communist, socialist and workers parties across Europe and Latin America. I won’t try to assess the balance sheet of Gramscian communism, but it must be admitted that most of those new parties are dead or dying. The second form was the politics that took seriously Gramsci’s call for a war of position across the cultural organizations of state and civil society, elaborating a new national-popular collective will in education, journalism, popular culture and philosophy. As the social movements of the New Left invented new forms of ‘cultural politics’, his ideas were never far away, the ‘subaltern’ rather than the ‘party’ seeming the crucial concept. Again, I won’t try to assess the balance sheet of Gramscian culturalism, but it must be admitted that most of the forms of that cultural politics are also dead or dying. Perhaps this is not bad. We should remember Gramsci’s own warning about the habit of misreading Machiavelli as ‘the man of politics in general, as the “scientist of politics”, relevant in every period’. Rather, he maintained, ‘Machiavelli should be considered more as a necessary expression of his time’. ‘Machiavelli is a man wholly of his period; his political science represents the philosophy of the time, which tended to the organization of absolute national monarchies.’footnote5
Perhaps Gramsci’s ‘political science’ is likewise a ‘necessary expression’ of his time, the short twentieth century, an era now ended, the age of three worlds, divided between Fordist capitalism, bureaucratized communism and the postcolonial settlements of decolonization. If this is true, is there a future for Gramsci’s legacy? However, we should also recall the meaning of Gramsci’s ‘political’ turn. The radicals of 1848—including the young Marx and Engels—had intentionally turned away from political explanations of society and revolution, seeking the anatomy of civil society in political economy, taking us beyond the noisy spheres of markets and legislatures to the hidden abodes of production, transcending the limits of political emancipation in a quest for human emancipation: in a word, the generation of 1848 emphasized the economic as an emergent level of understanding, irreducible to states and sovereigns and constitutions. In contrast, it is said, Gramsci’s generation—the generation of 1917—mounted a critique of their inheritance, what they named ‘economism’, hailed a revolution against Capital, reasserting the specificity of the political, rethinking ‘state and revolution’, proliferating theories of the political party, developing a new art and science of politics, a new ‘political science’. If Marx founded a Marxist economics, we are told, Gramsci founded a Marxist politics.
In this essay, I want to challenge this sense of Gramsci the political scientist by making three arguments. First, I want to borrow and develop a proposal made by the Brazilian Gramscian Carlos Nelson Coutinho that, just as Marx began not from political economy but from a critique of political economy, so Gramsci begins not from political science but from a critique of it.footnote6 Second, I want to emphasize that Gramsci’s way of theorizing political activity—the political life of the popular, subaltern classes, the classes that ‘must work regular hours every day’footnote7—does not begin from the classic concepts of political science: state, party, sovereign. Rather, his critique of political science begins from a simple but profound idea: that everyone is a legislator.
What does it mean to say this? I will suggest—as my final point—that Gramsci’s insistence on this, an idea as fundamental to his work as the parallel assertion that everyone is an intellectual, allows us to elaborate an alternative way of understanding Gramsci’s legacy to politics: neither a specific model of a political party nor simply an understanding of the centrality of culture to politics, but rather a conception of politics as organizing. This may have particular resonance in North America where the ideology of organizing and the ‘organizer’ has a long history from the legendary Swedish migrant, Joe Hill of the Industrial Workers of the World, to the present.
In considering Gramsci’s relation to political science, it is worth recalling the ambiguity of Marxism’s relation to economic thought. From the work of the Ricardian socialists like William Thompson who influenced Marx to that of David Harvey, Moishe Postone and Anwar Shaikh in the present, critical political economy has veered between, on the one hand, demystifying the forms of reductionism and ahistoricism in economic thought and, on the other hand, appropriating the knowledge embodied in the economic analysis of capital and labour. Marxism has been at once the rejection of an economic view of life, a rejection of homo oeconomicus, and an alternative or heterodox economics: sometimes the critique of political economy and other times ‘the political economy of the working class’, a ‘Marxist economics’. There is a similar ambiguity in the critique of political science that Gramsci inaugurated. Just as Marx saw political economy as the leading new science of capitalism, so Gramsci, writing in the midst of the formation of what we think of as the modern ‘social sciences’, saw political science as a central form of knowledge: ‘political science means science of the State’, he wrote in Notebook 15, ‘and the State is the entire complex of practical and theoretical activities with which the ruling class not only justifies and maintains its dominance, but manages to win the active consent of those over whom it rules’. As a consequence, despite the ‘rise of sociology’ with the ‘success of evolutionary and positivist theories’, he insists that ‘everything that is of real importance in sociology is nothing other than political science.’footnote8 One can see why Gramsci often appears to be a political scientist developing a new science of the State.
However, Gramsci was exceptionally conscious of the distinction between classical economics and Marx’s critique—‘Classical economics has given rise’, he wrote, ‘to a “critique of political economy”.’ ‘The “critique” of political economy starts from the concept of the historical character’ of the ‘market’, ‘whereas pure economists conceive of these elements as “eternal” and “natural”’; the critique ‘puts forward the “transitory” and “replaceable” nature of the science being criticized.’footnote9 It is clear, then, that he understood his work as an analogous ‘critique of political science’. Indeed, he suggests, ‘the basic innovation introduced by the philosophy of praxis into the science of politics and of history is the demonstration that there is no abstract “human nature”, “fixed and immutable”.’footnote10 As Coutinho has persuasively argued, ‘if Marx did not believe’ in ‘homo oeconomicus, whose actions would be guided by a “calculating” cost-benefit logic, neither did Gramsci believe in the “natural” existence of a homo politicus, whose main characteristic—according to bourgeois “political science”, from Hobbes to Weber—would be an innate “will to power” or to “prestige”.’footnote11 Nonetheless, just as Marx never completely escaped the world of classical economics, so Gramsci never fully escaped the new political science. ‘The question of politics as an autonomous science, of the place that political science occupies or should occupy in a systematic (coherent and logical) conception of the world, in a philosophy of praxis’ is, he wrote, ‘the first question that must be raised and resolved in a study of Machiavelli.’footnote12 Similarly, in his critique of Bukharin’s popular manual of historical materialism, Gramsci wonders ‘what status could be accorded to political science in relation to the philosophy of praxis: whether the two’—political science and Marxist critical theory—‘are identical’. He immediately insists that this is ‘something impossible to maintain, except from the most crudely positivist viewpoint’.footnote13