Adam David Morton Unravelling Gramsci: Hegemony and Passive Revolution in the Global Political Economy Pluto Press, 2007, 254 pp. ISBN: 978-0745323848 (pbk) £18.99 ISBN: 978-0745323855 (hbk) £60
To propose to unravel Gramsci's work, as the title of this book does, is to imply that it has become entangled. No doubt this is because Gramsci has been read by people who come from a variety of differently formed perspectives. Most of those who have commented on Gramsci's work have come to it from their own developed and diverse versions of Marxism. That diversity covers a wide range; and Adam Morton has set himself the task of sifting through the way this variety of perspectives has either appropriated or criticised Gramsci. His aim in doing so has not been to define the real Gramsci, i.e. to discover Gramsci-in-himself and for-himself. He is trying, rather, to capture Gramsci's process of thinking as a way of approaching and acting upon the world-not a doctrine, but a method.
Historicism is the key to distinguishing the Gramsci method; and historicism is a word that itself needs to be disentangled. One version of historicism thinks of history as proceeding according to inner laws-that there is a 'logic of history'. This is the historicism against which Karl Popper railed in The Poverty of Historicism. It is derived particularly from Hegel, and was absorbed by Marx in the theory of stages in the dialectic of history. That kind of historicism was set aside by Gramsci, for example, when he referred to the Bolshevik Revolution as the revolution against Marx's Das Capital-a revolution that took place contrary to the supposed 'laws of history'.
There is another meaning of 'historicism' to which Popper's argument is completely irrelevant, and that is to think of people's thoughts and actions as being bound up with the material conditions of their existence. In this kind of historicism, history is the evolving relationship of mind to society. There can be no final truth; no completed system of thought for understanding the world; no 'end of history'. All thought is conditioned by the circumstances in which it is formed. Thus Gramsci would understand Marx's thought as being inspired by the historical context of Marx's own time. And Gramsci would apply the same reasoning self-reflectively to his own thought. That is what Gramsci meant by absolute historicism.
In the Prison Notebooks, Gramsci linked his thinking to what he called the 'philosophy of praxis'. This may in part have been in order to avoid writing the word 'Marxism', which might have provoked the prison censors. But it was also indicative of his particular approach to Marxism. Gramsci was concerned with the here and now and how to change it, and specifically with how to mobilise the widest possible alliance of social forces in the cause of revolution. Praxis-or how to make things happen in the realities of the time-rather than any illusion about historical inevitability or the 'logic of history', directed his intellectual energies.
Marx's thought guided Gramsci's approach to understanding society; but two other philosophical mentors shaped his sense of praxis, neither of whom figures prominently in Marxist literature. One was Giambattista Vico, a Neapolitan writer of the early eighteenth century. The other was Georges Sorel, a French thinker of the late-nineteenth century. Adam Morton does not give much emphasis to Vico and Sorel in his book; but he did give them greater space in an article he published in 2003 (see Morton, 2003). Vico saw class struggle as the motor of history. He was historicist in seeing all aspects of life-law, culture, language and economic organisation-as interrelated and continuously evolving through a process of corso e ricorso, i.e. periods of creative innovation followed by the decline into decadence, which led in turn to the possibility of a new creative revival. The key problem in history was how a new creative era could come about in a decadent society. …