Gareth Williams Installment II: Rough Notes on Antonio Gramsci’s Pre-Prison Writings, pp. 87-202 The New Order (June 1919-September 1920)

In “The Italian State” (7 February, 1920) Gramsci observes that “Marx has been just a saint to hang over the pillow, a name which means nothing except a medal, a postcard, a liqueur” (142). Gramsci is unsettled by the banal commodification of Marx by sectors of the Left. The question for us today is, if there is to be a Gramsci for the 21stcentury—that is, if there is anything to sustain a historically inflected re-evaluation of the tradition called “Gramsci’; if Gramsci is to be something other than just another saint to hang over the pillow of contemporary Leftism, then what questions do his writings lead us to ask, and to explore further? There is a challenge to 21st century Gramscianist revivalism, or to neo-Gramscian philology, when, in “The Communist Party” (1920), he himself observes that “every historical phenomenon . . . must be studied for its own peculiar characteristics, in the context of contemporary realities, as a development of the freedom that manifests itself in ends, institutions and forms that absolutely cannot be confused or compared (except metaphorically) with the ends, institutions and forms of historical phenomena in the past” (188). Instead of philology or revivalism, then, a reading not only of the limit called Gramsci(anism), but also the limits of, and internal to, Gramsci.

  1. Political theology

In my initial notes on his writings three weeks ago, I emphasized Gramsci’s orthodox Hegelianism (1914-1919), in direct relation to his definition of an emergent, specifically socialist, epochality:

“Spirit” is the moving forward of the new shape of the new era.  It is this glaring contradiction alone—between the claim to method and having decided on a prior conclusion regarding finality, or Absolute Spirit—that informs Gramsci’s understanding of a socialist epochality. While the proletariat is the determined negation of the bourgeoisie, the dialectical passage by which the proletariat ceases to be merely a negation of the bourgeoisie and becomes entirely Other is never really elucidated, other than by claiming the absolute reconciliation of the State-society relation at some point in the proletarian overtaking of the State and the full achievement of consciousness; the entirety of humanity coming into its own (humanity achieving its destinal completion)”.

Spirit” (which is a synonym for universal, de-territorialized equality, that is, for the end of differences in the human condition itself) is another name for the end of tradition, to the extent that the entire tradition of Roman law is dedicated to the question of inequality, difference, and pluralism. For Gramsci the proletarian revolution signals the destruction of tradition—the end of a certain destining of the West—and another beginning; the figure of the communist militant is a figure of that destruction and new beginning. We should keep this problem in mind, however. Last week Alberto pointed out that Gramsci provides a political theology at the time of the demise of political theology itself.  In “The Communist Party” Gramsci admits as much, and is perfectly ok with the idea of communist revolution being a humanist secularization of God: “The Communist Party is the only institution that may be seriously compared with the religious communities of primitive Christianity . . . one can hazard a comparison and establish a scale of criteria for judging between the militants for the City of God and the militants for the City of Man” (189-90).

In “The New Order”, Gramsci turns explicitly in the direction of the State and the organization (unions, councils, Party etc) of the revolutionary proletariat. He turns precisely to the question I signaled in my first set of notes regarding the means by which to guarantee causality in the relation between proletarian faith in the end of tradition, universal equality, and historical recommencement.  However, in his writings dating from June 1919 to September 1920, on two occasions Gramsci recognizes a problem of not insignificant proportions, that is, the means do not, and never seem to be able to, rise to the metaphysical level of the end. In “The Conquest of the State” he notes that “a lucid and precise awareness of the end is not being matched by an equally lucid and precise awareness of the means required, as things stand at the moment, to achieve that end” (113); and in “Syndicalism and the Councils” he displaces the idea of the union on the basis that its “means are not appropriate to the end; and, since the means are, in any case, nothing other than one moment of the end that is in the making, it must be concluded that trade unionism is not a means to the revolution” (128). The dictatorship of the proletariat, it appears, is unflinching faith in the end, that is, in metaphysics, in conjunction with the ceaseless critique of the insufficiency of the means, which are, at any given time, the end “in its making”.

  1. Means

How, then, does Gramsci conceive of that transitional phase—and the gap—between means and end, or the (secular) event of (communist) paradise on earth? Chrisitanity “has gone as far as it can”, only The Communist Party can produce “a new set of rules for living” (187). What can be said regarding the means for achieving this nomic event capable of guaranteeing an unprecedented “emancipation” (even though what we are actually seeing is the grafting onto the terrain of a defunct metaphysics, of a new metaphysics)?

(In my first set of notes I highlighted that “Gramsci’s geopolitical world comprises Turin, Italy . . . Germany . . .  England . . .  France . . . and Russia”. In The New Order, the world of the Soviets is emphasized.  This socio-economic and political geography is not insignificant when we see how Gramsci conceives of the historical dialectical passage from means to ends. In the back of my mind is Hannah Arendt’s Crises of the Republic. Arendt pointed out in this work that the nineteenth century doctrine of progress had united Liberalism, Socialism and Communism into the “Left” (126): “The notion that there is such a thing as progress of mankind as a whole was unknown prior to the seventeenth century, developed into a rather common opinion among the eighteenth-century hommes de lettres, and became an almost universally accepted dogma in the nineteenth . . . Marx’s idea, borrowed from Hegel, that every old society harbors the seeds of its successor in the same way every living organism harbors the seeds of its offspring is indeed not only the most ingenious but also the only possible conceptual guarantee for the sempiternal continuity of progress in history” (127). But, she adds, such a metaphor is not a solid basis upon which to erect a doctrine of continuous progress. Progress, she says, is, and always was, an article of faith “offered at the superstition fair of our times” [130-1]).

The means toward the dictatorship of the proletariat in Gramsci, which uncovers the existence of a nomic countertype (a counter-metaphysics) developing and extending from within the nineteenth century doctrine of progress itself, involves different organizational forms (council, Party, union etc), certainly. However, more importantly, it involves an a priori claim to the legitimacy of a particular understanding of experience born directly from the perceived historical singularity of the socialist epoch:

  1. Historical Singularity:

In “The Price of History” (1919), the unification of the masses produces a translation into everyday life of the phenomenal reality of “Spirit”. Class unification allows for the transition to, and for the translation into reality from, Spirit, simultaneously. This marks the moving forward of the new shape of the new era (and this is made possible by the realization of a new orderability of humanity, which is also the end of tradition). The possibility of absolute uniformity of consciousness, “perfect unity”, marks the historical singularity that is socialist epochality from Hegel (1807) to Gramsci (1919).  Never before in human history has (European) humanity tended so naturally towards the perfection that is the One: “Humanity is naturally tending towards internal and external unity; towards an order of peace and tolerance which would permit the reconstruction of the world” (“Price” 95). It appears, then, that in the nineteenth century the forces of ‘the Left’ were able to claim legitimacy because they were able to define and reproduce the representative parameters of an order of experience that humanity had never imagined before. A new beginning for the idea and experience of experience itself is central to the history and legitimacy of the Left: “The experience of liberalism is not a useless one, and it is possible to progress beyond this experience only if we experience it” (“Conquest of the State”, 110). Perhaps the key to understanding the historical significance of the Left is to be located less in its challenges to the Law than in its ability to lay claim to a recommencement of collective experience on a ground other than that of bourgeois experience. It is this promise of a recommencement of experience that precedes the political theology of communist “consciousness”.

The contemporary Left can still stake a claim on the experience of exploitation, without doubt. However, it can stake no claim on a historically unique experience of a recommencement of experience capable of leading to emancipation of any kind, never mind the way Gramsci understood it. This, it seems to me, is no trivial matter.

For Gramsci, the historical singularity of socialist epochality in 1919-1920 is to be located in the promise of an experience of experience itself, which is capable of forging “iron-clad battalions of the politically conscious, disciplined proletariat”. If this image of the regimentation of mass experience is the singular experience of emancipation in potentia, the opportunity provided by the history of capitalism in the 19th century, and if this marks an epochal singularity that “perfects civilization”, as Gramsci puts it, then the academic Gramscians of the 21st century who wish to be something other than “dilettantes” out on “a romantic escapade”, need to consider what image the singularity of contemporary historical experience (if there can be such a thing) might uphold now. In the absence of such a thing, contemporary Gramscianism can choose to (a) romanticize and monumentalize (ie. use Gramsci as a saint to hang over the pillow, as a museum piece capable of ‘keeping us in touch’ with the socialism of the 19th-20th century, and nothing else); (b) extend philological exegesis in the name of uncovering something never before seen presumably in the hope of revitalizing the entire tradition from Hegel to the present, which it will never achieve; (c) Read and discuss in such a way that the singularity of the 21st century no longer conform to the conceptual world born from the Hegelian interpretation of European humanity and progress at the end of the 19th century.  Is there an event in Gramsci other than that of the counter-orderability of humanity understood as emancipatory end, and neo-Chrsitan metaphysics? Is there an event in Gramscianism? Clearly not. The notion of singular experience is still at stake (if there is to be a Left). I wonder, however, what Gramsci(anism) offers for our understanding of global techno-capitalism (surveillance capitalism, algorithmic capitalism, computational capitalism, the immediate extraction of value from the living itself, indeed, from death)? Clearly, the liquidation of the Left is guaranteed only by assigning Gramsci the value of a saint to hang over the pillow, which could also be called nihilism.

  1. End, European Humanity, Civilization

The dictatorship of the proletariat is the reconversion of the notion of historical singularity into experience (or faith), while also initiating the struggle for the nomic ordering of planetary consciousness. What form does the end—the dictatorship of the proletariat—take in these writings? What is the world picture, or Weltanschauung, in Gramsci?

He is very clear.  In “The Factory Worker”, (February 1920) he embraces the image of the world as factory: “The proletarian cannot live without working and without working in an orderly, methodical way. The division of labor has unified the proletarian class psychologically . . . the more he feels the needs for order, method, precision; the more he feels the need for the whole world to become like a vast factory, organized with the same precision and method and order which he recognizes as vital in the factory . . . projected out into [a] system of relation that links one factory to another, one city to another, one nation to another . . . it is only the working class now which retains a real love for labor and the machine” (152-3).

The dictatorship of the proletariat extends beyond the confines of Europe (Turin, Italy, England, France, Germany, Russia), and proposes, as end, the planetarization, the very Westernization itself, of European humanity (logos, techne, machinism). It is what Heidegger would refer to as a confrontation internal to techne, for mastery over planetary machination and calculation (“Society . . . dies if it does not produce” etc [Gramsci 153]). The planetary rationalization of existence, however, = “emancipation” in Gramsci, and European humanity becomes “the whole world” as a counter-type to the bourgeois mode of production, thereby raising the question of what constitutes a new beginning (see Nancy, Banality). One must wonder, then, how the whole world can be a counter-type, and how a counter-type can emancipate.

If we take seriously Gramsci’s insight that “every historical phenomenon . . . must be studied for its own peculiar characteristics, in the context of contemporary realities” (“The Communist Party”, 188)—then the understanding of communist emancipation uncovered in Gramsci’s early writings, as a relation between means and ends, uncovers the logocentrism of European humanity in its ultimate form, as a planetary [political-theological] counter-metaphysics. This counter-metaphysics is the on-going non-completion of the nineteenth century doctrine of progress, a doctrine, nevertheless, that has now succumbed to domination and destruction. Does Gramsci(anism) have anything to say about that problem, I wonder?

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