Antonio Gramsci's odd place in the minds of the American bourgeois literati
A reformed cultural Marxist takes a crack at analyzing the phenomenon
I haven’t subbed to the Chronicle in many years now, unwilling as I am to give them any money given the clear drift of the publication in the last few decades, but I still now and again look through their feed of what they consider interesting writing online.
The engagement of the American literati with Gramscian cultural Marxism (and, whatever Wikipedia says, “cultural Marxism” is an accurate term to describe the thing and not “a far-right antisemitic conspiracy theory”) is something I have long found intriguing. A good portion of the reason is that this is a cult in which I was once something of a member, even if I am quite certain that the Gramsci I admired and the one these writers today celebrate are not the same Gramsci. One of them, in my reading, is in fact not even Gramsci at all, but something an effete and (to use the lingo) bourgeois intellectual class turned him into in order to pursue ends that were not his.
I discovered the Italian Marxist philosopher Antonio Gramsci in my mid-20s. I read some selections from his Prison Notebooks in a grad seminar, then read the entirety of the text in another later course that compared Gramsci’s argument on culture and civil society with Hegel’s Philosophy of Right.
That latter course was taught by a very odd but incredibly learned man who lectured on a number of the UC campuses throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s (and perhaps later, for all I know). He never finished his thesis, the draft of which was in legend reported as thousands of pages long, acknowledged by every tenured professor working in his area as a mind of formidable power who perhaps knew too much and was too drawn to learning more to do the grunt work needed to get a degree and a job—you know, that kind of mythological intellectual character.
When I ran across Gramsci, I was a young person from the white underclass, the first in my extended family so far as I was aware to hold a four year university degree, struggling to make sense of my experience and to better understand the operation of the society into which I had been born.
I learned a great deal from my encounter with him. Indeed, his view of, to quote one of the thinkers who had greatly influenced him, “what is to be done” seemed to me at that time almost transparently true. He was a Marxian revolutionary, a Leninist to be precise, that is, a species of Marxist who recognized the need for a vanguard intelligentsia to lead the working class to revolutionary consciousness.
His writing often focused closely on the role of culture, revolutionary and reactionary. The former was what was needed to get the working class to effectively understand their predicament and its solution; the latter was the main barrier to the production of the former. The cultures of every Western society had been fully colonized by capitalism, in Gramsci’s argument. This meant that all the major cultural institutions of those countries disseminated a worldview in which capitalism, purportedly meritocratic individualism and the competition of all against all, and the legitimacy of class domination based on the idea that those on top had earned their way there were naturalized.
In such a cultural setting, the working class were effectively told to think of themselves as isolated atoms, not members of a social class with shared interests, who should have the aspiration of a bourgeois life, that is, of rising in the system through ascetic hard work, adherence to middle class values, and good luck. If individual members of the working class failed to rise, as necessarily many would, this was always to be explained as a personal failure, not as an indictment of the class system and its stacked odds.
So, class domination could be maintained without the constant recourse to force, through what Gramsci called cultural hegemony. Alternative cultural narratives concerning the class system and the fate of individuals were prevented from dissemination, especially if they had any pretense of revolutionary consciousness-raising, by monopolies on the media institutions and educational institutions.
If they did manage nevertheless to emerge and to be consumed by some, they could be systematically challenged and demonized by official cultural institutions. Hence, the need in capitalist societies always to morally impugn Marxists and Marxism in the most severe ways, with the express goal of influencing members of the working class to see those ideas as so far beyond the pale that they would never seriously consider them even if they did manage to encounter them.
[An aside on this: though I am now an opponent of Marxism, I am decidedly not of that camp on the right that hopes they can leap over the difficult but necessary project of figuring out what Marx thought by morally and personally denouncing him. Here is an example of this from my own campus, in which it is imagined that meaningful reflection on Marx’s mature thought can be gleaned by the fact that he described himself as “chosen for Hell” in a poem written when he was a teenager. Of course, such a trivial piece of juvenile biography can teach us nothing of any utility whatsoever about the Marxian analysis of capitalism. This is exactly the same thing those on the left are up to when they say “Don’t read X, Y, or Z—they’re just dead white racist heterosexual males.” Whatever that is, it is not an intellectual response. Whether one likes it or not, Marxism is a serious political philosophy that has exerted a tremendous influence on world politics. If one wants to have an intelligent position in that sphere, one must grapple with Marx’s ideas. If one does not, one cannot have an intelligent position. Period.]
The germ of this idea of the cultural basis of bourgeois domination, of course, was already present in Marx. The German Ideology states clearly that the dominant ideas in a given society are the ideas of the dominant social class. This is full materialist determinism, and classical Marxism should always be taught as a straightforwardly materialist philosophy. There is no nuance here. Material conditions of production are always the causes of what Marx referred to as the superstructure: the ideas, beliefs, values that people held by virtue of their position in the class structure.
As a poor kid who had grown up seeing a world depicted in the media that had almost nothing at all to do with the world in which I lived, this concept made immediate and profound sense, and I read Marx as a young man avidly, with a constantly nodding head.
Today’s revolutionary literati like to cite Gramsci, and even to write reviews of books about him, but my anecdotal evidence indicates that many of them have not understood him well.
These two pieces recommended by the Chronicle go on the pile of that anecdotal evidence. In all frankness, it’s not even obvious in reading it that the authors have read Gramsci and have even a basic understanding of his view on political and cultural revolution. They read him as members of the educated literati, which means they see him as a kind of precursor to all the radical professors in today’s higher education who seem genuinely to believe that the key to undoing class inequality is learning how to properly interpret pop music hits and youth hairstyles (which, naturally, you do by going to university and taking the courses on pop culture of said radical professors).
I was not attracted to Gramsci as a young man because I was interested in writing fan lit about pop culture I liked. It seemed obvious to me that pop songs and teen clothing styles, as interesting as they are for young people and for some college professors who teach about them, are not a contribution to addressing the deprivation of the American underclass. I wanted serious political and social theory to explain how a system of political economy with as many obvious problems as ours had could sustain itself, and what if anything could be done to change it. Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks offered that in abundance.
I am not a Gramscian Marxist any longer. I left that ideological persuasion a quarter century ago. The reasons can be summed neatly:
I got old enough to have seen people operating long enough to realize that Marx’s whole view of human nature is just hopelessly wrong; and
I got more distant from the working class world of my birth and some of my incoherent rage at being thrown into that by the fates got focused into the much more productive task of trying to change my position in that order and figure out what I wanted to spend the time I had remaining on the planet doing.
Two later events made it highly unlikely I would ever again be able to accept the idealist worldview of the Marxist revolutionary (yes, what a contradiction, no? the materialist revolutionary’s perspective is more idealist than that of any religious conservative!): I got married and my wife and I had children. Few things are more likely to annihilate ideas about burning things down and starting all over than concern about the future lives after your death of the little people who share your genes.
But in leaving my copy of the Prison Notebooks on the shelf, I did not forget all of the lessons I had learned from the wily Gramsci. I still agree with him on one major point at least, though I’ve twisted it to fit my current outlook on politics and revolution.
Gramsci was right that an organic intellectual class, born of working class or underclass stock, would be able to exercise a unique place in the class struggle. He was just incorrect that they would inevitably and most profoundly make that mark from the left.
It is true, as he argued, that those at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder in capitalist societies need intellectuals who understand their position and their struggles. It is also true that the intellectuals most suited to that task are those who share or shared those class origins.
Though it is dangerous to follow the principle too uncritically, and some purchase on objectivity as a goal, however ultimately unattainable, is essential, people who have been poor understand poverty in a way that people who have not are essentially incapable of achieving. There are experiential elements to the thing that evade understanding through mediation, and those elements are important. Read as many books as you like on the American underclass; as worthwhile an endeavor as that is, you still will not know what it feels like to go through a grocery store checkout line and pay with food stamps if you haven’t done it.
The writers of the contemporary bourgeois literati who celebrate their Gramsci of the cool haircut and countercultural piercing and sneeringly anti-heteronormative pop lyric are not the intellectuals who can be of aid to the underclass. I have known enough of them to measure how little they typically have of the practical experience of social exclusion and powerlessness.
The organic intellectuals who best understand the real interests of the working class are those who have shared their experience, and even had their time living in some radical space of Gramscian consciousness before becoming sufficiently educated to turn counter-revolutionary.
These are the organic intellectuals who can inform them (though they often know it already) not only how the corporations frequently have it in for them, but how the Gramscian bourgeois literati and their fellows in the woke ruling classes claiming to be their pals are also aligned against them, and still more insidiously, because they are even more skillful liars than the corporate kingpins.
This is the organic intellectual message I have for my people, the American underclass:
No one is coming to save you.
The revolution, if it does come (and God help us), will not save you. It will bury your culture and replace you with imported victim populations who fit the present woke ideology more perfectly than you do in your dreary white trashiness.
The billionaires who run your country will not save you. They will work as hard as they can to make it impossible to avoid purchasing their soul-deadening products and shackling yourself to a life of debt, and they will replace you with imported victim populations who fit the woke ideology and enable them to bulk up their bottom line still more.
So develop your bullshit detectors to still greater levels of accuracy.
Do as much work as you can to inform yourself about as many expert discourses as possible, however impossible it is to learn enough about all of them, because it is a good general principle that much of the time many of the experts do not have your interests at heart.
Recognize that you have to figure out a good deal of it for yourself.
But recognize too that your ancestors, the people who built this country, painstakingly worked out pretty good answers to a lot of the problems over long years and trials.
Many of today’s experts and corporate elite hate your ancestors and the knowledge they produced and the world they made. This alone is good reason to take those ancestors and what they knew seriously.