Carlos Nelson Coutinho: Gramsci's Political Thought

By Roberts, Philip | Capital & Class, February 2015 | Go to article overview

Carlos Nelson Coutinho: Gramsci's Political Thought


Roberts, Philip, Capital & Class


Carlos Nelson Coutinho Gramsci's Political Thought, trans. Pedro Sette-Camara Brill: Leiden, 2012; xvi+198 pp: 9789004228665, 102 [euro] (hbk)

Brill's 'Historical Materialism Series' has been providing regular insights into Marxist theory developed in non-Anglophone settings, including two by Brazilian authors. This latest text, volume 38 in the series, complements Ricardo Amtunes's contribution, The Meanings ofWork (2012), and casts light upon the roots of the Gramscian tradition in Brazil.

Carlos Nelson Coutinho is recognised alongside Marco Aurelio Nogueira as one of the first to translate Antonio Gramsci's works into Portuguese. Working with the publishing house Civilizacao Brasileira, Coutino led the dissemination of Gramsci's thought in Brazil from 1966 onwards, in the process becoming the most renowned interpreter of his thought in the Lusophone world. Brazilian Marxism seized upon the categories offered by Gramscian analysis, not least due to the need to re-assess the strategies of the left following the military coup of 1964.

Prior to the coup, Brazilian Marxism had been consumed by the debate concerning the origins and development of Brazil's mode of production. The two sides of this conflict were crystallised in the texts Formafdo Historica do Brasil (1968 [1963]) by Nelson Werneck Sodre, and A Revolugao Brasileira (1966) by Caio Prado Junior. The Brazilian Communist Party (PCB) ultimately followed the line set out by Sodre, acknowledging the pre-capitalist state of the Brazilian countryside and asserting the need for an etapist (stagist) strategic alliance between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie. This Stalinist pact for bourgeois-democratic revolution was to precede a socialist revolution at the proper stage of capitalist development. When subsequently defeated and cast into disarray by the 1964 coup, Brazil's Marxists acknowledged the increasingly industrialised capitalist character of the national economy. The questions of the left therefore came to mirror Gramsci's own: namely, how to formulate a leftist strategy when frontal assault was no longer possible, and how to understand the role of the state in capitalist development. As a consequence, Coutinho's work has formed as much a part of the intellectual heritage of Brazil's modern Marxism as did the more widely recognised dependency theory which has A Revolufdo Brasileira as its forebear.

It would be unjust to relegate Coutinho to the role of mere translator or interpreter of Gramsci. Indeed, Coutinho not only provided tools for the renovation of Brazilian Marxism, but actively participated in its reshaping. This engagement with Gramscian thought formed the basis for an analysis of the specific conditions of Brazil's social struggles, and a political practice dedicated to the formation of a socialist alternative. With regard to the latter, Coutinho was one of the main theorists behind the formation of the Partido dos Trabalhadores (Workers' Party), which has held the presidency since 2003. Accordingly, the essays collected in Gramsci's Political Thought reflect both Coutinho's philological tracings of Gramsci's concepts and his application of this analysis to Brazilian politics. The text can be divided into two parts, with the initial eight chapters devoted to diagramming Gramsci's thought, and much of the remainder of the book directed towards applying Gramscian analysis to the Brazilian context.

Chapters 1 to 3 offer a biography of Antonio Gramsci, tracing the development of his thought from 1910-1926, with a particular focus on his gradual assimilation of Leninism. Subsequently, Coutinho attempts a thematic reading of Gramsci's ouevre, lucidly drawing out the concepts of the extended state, hegemony, passive revolution, the role of intellectuals, and the war of manoeuvre and war of position. In this aspect, the text sits well alongside works such as Peter Thomas's (2010) The Gramscian Moment. The author's reading is often insightful, and makes great use of comparison between the differing developments of classical Marxism offered by Gramsci, Georg Lukacs and Jurgen Habermas. …

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