I thought that I would rescue another older paper and put it up on the blog. In this case, its an essay about Gramsci and he work of Chakrabarty that I wrote for a class on Gramsci about seventeen years ago. At this point, I'd probably write a far different paper, being far more skeptical of Chakrabarty at this point in my life and far more sympathetic with the work of Gramsci. Because of that, I'm going to leave the essay as it is and I've made no edits to the essay as it was originally written.
There has been a considerable transformation in the word subaltern from the time that Gramsci first appropriated it to the manner that it is deployed within current theoretical methodology. A movement that redeploys the word from one indicates a certain type of subordinate officer to one that implies a connection to a complex series of hierarchical relationships. There is an interesting genealogical project implicit in that statement, in which one can move from Gramsci to Guha in a similar manner in which one can move from Gramsci to Mouffe. However I’m interested in something else, in circling back in order to use the concepts which Gramsci set into motion. Instead of using Gramsci to read the subaltern studies collective, let’s read Gramsci through the subaltern studies collective. In a sense, this means examining Gramsci as individual coming from the margins (the south) of a marginal country (Italy). This is also a country that it was still ‘immature Italy’ with ‘no capital to import’, but also had sections of the elite strata that saw Imperialism as the tool to get it out of the crises that it was in, that is between the discontinuous development between the industrial north and agrarian south. To put this another way, it would be valuable to look at Gramsci as a subaltern thinker working with the tools of European modernity.
What do I mean by this? Gramsci spends a considerable time analyzing Italian historical development. This can be seen most prominently within the groups of fragments gathered under the rubric of “Notes on Italian History”, and “The Modern Prince”, as well as some of the writing under “State and Civil Society.” These historical writings can also be supplemented with some of the notes contained within Selections from Cultural Writings.
We need to look at the way the Gramsci deploys the tools of modern European thought. Gramsci is engaged in a certain type of historicism common to both liberalism and Marxism. This historicism in Gramsci’s hand is highly complex and differentiated, but nonetheless is caught within a certain type of thinking in regards to the nation-state. In effect, the manner in which the model of the nation that is exemplified by France, and a lesser extent, England and Germany. When one does that, it is clear that Italy simply cannot live up to those expectations.
A central trope of those writings is one of inadequacy. The text return again and again to a sense of lacking in Italian politics, culture, and even in the classes themselves. The specter of the Jacobins and the French popular novel loom heavily over Gramsci’s understanding of Italian history, and it (Italian history) can never quite live up to what is expected of it.
Interestingly enough, Dipesh Chakrabarty sees the same phenomenon within Indian history within the first essay contained in Provincializing Europe. “The tendency to read Indian history in terms of a lack, an absence, or an incompleteness that translates into “inadequacy” is obvious in these excerpts. As a trope it is ancient, going back to the beginnings of colonial rule in India. The British conquered and represented the diversity of Indian pasts through a homogenizing narrative of transition from a medieval period to modernity. The terms have changed with time. The medieval was once called “despotic” and the modern “the rule of law.” “Feudal/capitalist has been a later variant.”
Why bring up this seemingly tangential comment about Chakrabarty’s reading of a series of readings of Indian history? It is important because in many ways, the two so far apart, stand together in one sense, in the sense that both are countries recently decolonized through revolutions seen by many of the parties involved as incomplete. Just as Antonio Gramsci describes the Risorgimento as a passive revolution, one can find the same analysis of Post-colonial India with Guha. Also the process of decolonization placed both nations in positions of periphery within the global capitalist order. But this global positioning which is so emphasized within the realm of subaltern studies thought (and most postcolonial thought) is pushed to the periphery. The nation’s failures tend to be internalized rather than seen within structural terms.
Within “Notes on Italian History”, these tropes can be seen within the comparisons between the Action Party and the Jacobins. By in large, this is a trope of failure and lack. The axis of this failure can be seen on the grounds of two overlapping binaries, 1)North/South 2)Urban/Rural. In both cases, the Jacobins succeeded where the action party failed. There is an element that is recognized. An element out of control of the actors, but Gramsci de-emphasizes this and returns continually to the trope of the Action Party failing to recognize what should have been so apparent.
This becomes clear in his descriptions of both the Jacobins and the members of the Action Party. Let’s begin with the Jacobins. “For not only did they organize a bourgeois government, i.e. make the bourgeoisie the dominant class—they did more. They created the bourgeois state, made the bourgeoisie into the leading, hegemonic class of the nation, in other words gave the new state a permanent basis and created the compact modern French nation.” This occurred because the Jacobins understood the need to form an alliance with the masses of the peasantry. They put in place the necessary agrarian reforms, and in response, the peasantry recognized the hegemony of Paris.
Compare this with the comments on the Action Party. “The southern peasant wanted land, and Crispi, who did not want to (or could not) give it to him in Italy itself, who had no wish go in for “economic Jacobinism”, conjured up the mirage of colonial lands to be exploited. Crispi’s imperialism was passionate, oratorical, without any economic or financial basis.” Similarly Garibaldi is shown to deliberately ignore the evidence for the southern peasant’s desire for land.
The Action Party is repeatedly marked by this failure. It is incapable of seeing the basis of a bourgeois revolution within the alliance with the agrarian bloc in the south. It refused or was incapable of seeing beyond what Gramsci referred to as ‘economic-corporate’ interests. This was the problem of the communes of the renaissance, and it reappeared in the Risorgimento. In both cases, “the same narrow egoism prevented a rapid and vigorous revolution like the French one.”
One can put this simply. The Action Party never had a significant platform. “The Action Party lacked even a concrete program of government. In essence it was always, more than anything else, an agitational and propagandist body…” It never moved beyond the simple emotional desire for independence now. Exceptions such as Piscane were only notable in that they marked the continual poverty of the cycles of Action Party leadership. Even when the Action Party came to power in 1870 and 1876, there was no significant change in the substance of national policy.
In reality, the function of the Action Party was in fact a subordinate one to the Moderates. As Gramsci puts this, “The Moderates continued to lead the Action Party even after 1870 and 1876, and so-called “transformism” was only the parliamentary expression of this action of intellectual, moral and political hegemony.” Despite the expressed by the leadership of the Action Party towards the Moderates, it was the moderates who dictated the terms of the discussion. That discussion was built on an automatic exclusion of the great masses of the peasantry that made up the vast majority of the southern part of the nation.
Given the failure for this alliance to manifest itself, we are left with the alliance created by the Moderates. “Out of the Action Party and the Moderates, which represented the real “subjective forces” of the Risorgimento? Without a shadow of doubt it was the moderates, precisely because they were also aware of the role of the Action Party: thanks to this awareness, their “subjectivity” was a superior and more decisive quality. In Victor Emmanuel’s crude, sergeant-major’s expression “we’ve got the Action Party in our pocket” there is more historico-political sense than in all Mazzini.” It was their hegemonic block that was the successful one, the block of the aristocracy and the landowners, but it was one that, “made the people nation into an instrument, into an object, they degraded it. And therein lies the greatest and most contemptible demagogy…”
This ties in with the deep-seated problems with the bourgeois class within Italy. As has been said repeatedly, it was incapable of becoming the leading class. It creates a situation in which the Italian nation can be a ‘bastard.’ It can only function as a deeply flawed creation. Within the creature known as Italy there are perhaps even two nations, the south and the north with only a common enemy, the dominance of Austria at the time. The trope of India returns once again, after all, in both cases isn’t the form of the nation defined from primarily from without, from the pressures of foreign domination rather than from an internal pressure.
“To pose the question in such a way would have meant asserting in advance an incurable “national” rift—a rift so serious that not even a federalist solution would have been able to heal it. It would have meant asserting the existence of separate nations, between which all that could have been achieved was a diplomatic-military alliance against the common enemy, Austria.”
The only reason that the “nation” holds together is the “weak position of the Southern urban forces in relation to the rural forces, an unfavorable relation that sometimes took the form of a literal subjugation to the countryside.” This places the southern urban forces in an almost semi-colonial position in its alliance to the northern urban forces.
Gramsci introduces an interesting concept. The examination of the party can act as an examination of the nation of the whole from as certain perspective. On understanding that view, the failure and successes of the two parties in the Risorgimento come to mean something else than particular failures of individuals, instead they become somewhat symptomatic of the problems of the nation itself.
The siting of the location of this moment of inadequacy continually moves backwards in time within Italian history to the Renaissance. An interesting event occurs there. There is a radical separation between what the Renaissance does for the rest of Europe in a progressive function for the construction of the nation state, and a regressive one with the vantage point of Italy.
“This claim can be accepted if one distinguishes within the movement of the Renaissance the break which occurred between Humanism and the national life which had gradually formed after the year 1000, if one considers Humanism as a progressive process for the educated ‘cosmopolitan’ classes but regressive from the point of view of Italian history.”
This is the moment in which Europe moves forward through the Reformation to the nation-state, and Italy, ultimately, winds up somewhere very different. It is clear that Gramsci sees this clearly within negative terms. He like Machiavelli before him lays the primary blame upon the papacy. This is a legitimate claim. They controlled the educational system and directed towards their own interests. Those interests were one clearly defined around countering the reformation that defined much of the rest of Europe rather than the issues internal to Italy itself. It also has tied its interests in with the forces of the moderate party, that is the landowners and aristocracy, and perhaps more significantly, ties to the former controlling nation of Austria. After all, the papacy continues to make claims towards a universal empire that is clearly dead. And all of Italy is clearly educated under the legacy of that empire.
The notion of inadequacy is traversed in a quite interesting manner within some of the initial questions posed within “People, Nation, and Culture”. They are as follows, “’Why is Italian literature not popular in Italy… 2.) is there an Italian theatre… which should be connected with the other question concerning the greater or lesser vitality of theatre in dialect and in standard Italian? 3)the question of the national language as set forth by Alessandro Manzoni; 4) whether there has been an Italian romanticism? 5) is it necessary to provoke a religious reformation like the Protestant one? In other words, was the absence of broad and profound religious struggles… a cause of progress or regression? 6)were Humanism and the Renaissance progressive or regressive? 7)the unpopularity of the Risorgimento or the indifference of the masses towards the struggle for independence and national unity; 8) the political non-involvement of the Italian people, expressed in the phases ‘rebellionism’, ‘subversism’ and a primitive and elementary ‘anti-statism’; 9) the non existence of a popular literature in a strict sense….”
Implicit within these questions, and the answers that that follow is an implicit problematic. That problematic consists in examining the reasons for Italy failing to become a nation. It is the same question implicit within Guha’s book, Dominance without Hegemony. It isn’t that remarkable that Gramsci uses that precise formulation in his description of the Risorgimento and Piedmont’s function. “It is one of the cases in which these groups have the function of “domination” without that of “leadership”: dictatorship without hegemony.” It isn’t the comparison that is the most interesting thing; after all, all that proves is that Gramsci’s formula works. No what is interesting is the thread common to both of them. That lack, where in both the bourgeoisie and the proletariat are incapable of creating the national popular.
In the case of Italy, the trope of France is significant. We are introduced it through the issue of the Jacobins, the issues of literature, etc. I think that it is interesting that not only do the bourgeois force fail because of cosmopolitanism, but also do the subaltern forces. “Culturally speaking, they are interested in a past that is more French than Italian. They use French metaphors and cultural references in their language and thought.” After all without an authentic national-popular tradition, aren’t they more interested in questions of French history, French culture, etc.? Aren’t the failures implicit in the final questions, present precisely because of this unlabelled cosmopolitanism?
The question of literature is an essential one. Once again, Gramsci’s questions are cogent. “The so-called ‘artistic’ ‘national’ literature is not popular in Italy. Whose fault is it? That of the public, which does not read? That of the critics, who are not able to present and extol literary values to the public? That of the newspapers, which publish the old Count of Monte Crisco instead of serializing the ‘modern Italian novel’? But why does the public not read in Italy, when in other countries it does? Besides, is it true that in Italy nobody reads? Would it not be more accurate to state the problem in this way: why does the Italian public read foreign literature and non-popular, instead of reading its own?… What is the meaning of the fact that the Italian people prefer to read foreign writers?”
It seems to be the crux of the situation, one where the intellectuals and the people are radically separated. “After the sixteenth century, in other words, the separation between the intellectuals and the people, which underlies these notes and which has been of such importance for modern Italian political and cultural history, becomes radical.” There seem to be two reasons for this separation. The first is the legacy of the Holy Roman Empire. Intellectuals tied their interests to the cosmopolitan empire rather than the nation-people. The second is more implicit. The years of occupation by foreign powers have enfolded Italy’s intellectuals within the projects of their nations.
This separation is by in large driven by contempt on the part of intellectuals towards the subaltern forces of the nation. This can be seen in ‘the anti-democratic attitude of Brescianist writers’, whose writing ‘is the form of opposition to any national-popular movement and is determined by the economic-corporate caste spirit, of medieval and feudal origin.” But it can also be seen in the writings of Manzoni, who is genuinely interested in following Tolstoy’s lead in writing literature of a national-popular nature. He is incapable of presenting subaltern characters with any sense of inner life. Unlike Tolstoy, it is the nobles who have a deep spiritual inner life, and give answers for the questions posed within the book.
The question of romanticism looms over this discussion. It isn’t an idle one for Gramsci. “In this sense, romanticism precedes, accompanies, sanctions and develops that entire European movement which took its name from the French Revolution. Romanticism is the literary aspect, the aspect of feeling of this movement; it is more a question of feeling than of literature, since the literary aspect was only a part of feeling which pervaded all of life… And in this specific sense romanticism has never existed in Italy. Its manifestations have been at best minimal, very sporadic and in any case of a purely literary nature.”
This separation creates the conditions in which Italian readers find their needs met through foreign writers. “It means that they undergo the moral and intellectual hegemony of foreign intellectuals, that they feel more closely related to foreign intellectuals than to ‘domestic’ ones, that there is no national intellectual and moral bloc, either hierarchical or, still less, egalitarian.” In very different circumstances, and with different effects, Chakrabarty touches upon the same phenomena, “Faced with the task of analyzing developments or social practices in modern India, few if any Indian social scientists or social scientists of India would argue seriously with, say, the thirteenth century logician Gangesa or with the grammarian and linguistic philosopher Bartrihari… Sad though it is, one result of European colonial rule in South Asia is that the intellectual traditions once unbroken and alive in Sanskrit or Persian or Arabic are now only matters of historical research for most—perhaps all—modern social scientists in the region. They treat these traditions as truly dead, as history.”
In terms of popular literature, Gramsci’s analysis of the day seems to be accurate, fairly systematic, and honest in presenting a lack within Italian society. But it seems that within a country with such high levels of illiteracy, other forms of medium would perhaps be better at capturing this national-popular sense. Gramsci refers to the national conscious as “operatic”, but never discusses what that term entails. Also Gramsci never gives due respect to the national popular form of opera, which he recognizes as a popular form, but never explores the production of a national popular that say, Verdi is involved in. These forms are recognized as being important, and Gramsci points out that the ‘public’s choice in music includes “Verdi, Puccini, and Mascagni, who naturally do not have counterparts in literature.”
Gramsci dismisses opera as a national popular form in an interesting way. “’Verbal’ expression has a strictly national-popular-cultural character: a poem by Goethe, in the original, can only be understood and fully relived by a German (or by one who has ‘become German’). Dante can only be understood and relived by an educated Italian, etc. But a statue by Michelangelo, a piece of music by Verdi or a painting by Raphael can be understood almost immediately by anyone in the world, even by the non-cosmopolitan, even if they have not gone beyond the narrow circle of a province in their own country.”
One can quibble whether one needs the ability to translate non-verbal forms of communication or not, but I think that a more significant problem would be missed. Operas have words. As a matter of fact, most operas are constructed with fairly simple language, and fairly simple plot lines. Verdi used this medium to express nationalist themes around the Risorgimento, and these productions were extremely popular in Italy. They may be explicitly referring to European themes as Gramsci remarks in the later section on popular literature, but are easily decoded to describe the situation in Italy. One wonders if one could find other forms of connection with the national-popular in Italy if one looked outside of the narrow confines of ‘popular literature’ (which was apparently not particularly popular, nor very good literature).
Obviously, in a practical functional sense, having a language that operates like ‘Esperanto’ is not going to lead to a particularly functional nation. But ultimately, in looking at the attempt to produce the national-popular one has to make do with what one has, and literature clearly wasn’t the answer.
Although this question of the national language is one that cannot be easily dismissed, Gramsci criticizes Croce precisely on this point. His solution would functionally disallow the participation of the subaltern forces of the nation, purely by the inability to communicate within the discussions that matter. Although Gramsci seems to ignore other alternative ideological forums to focusing and uniting the subaltern classes, his emphasis on functional literacy, or to write a “lively, expressive and at the same time sober and measured prose” as Gramsci puts it, is not an unimportant goal, especially within the European system. However in these cases, it may have to wait until after the revolution is completed for it to be universally implemented.
One finds another strangely contrarian thread within Gramsci’s writing. At the same time in which we are repeatedly introduced to the theme of France as the nation par excellence, we find another thread emphasizing its current bankruptcy. Jaures and Zola were the last to speak for the people. Gramsci seems to sense the crisis that the popular front government is about to head to. He clearly states that the French form of the nation state has seen its time. Clearly this is meant to indicate the collapse of the bourgeoisie and perhaps the rise of a new Rome of modernity, Moscow.
But there seems to be recognition of possibilities within Italian society. Gramsci sees the drive for cosmopolitanism within the Italian people, even when it manifests itself in clearly utopian (in the negative sense) projects such as Esperanto. This drive and desire can lead to a new form of cosmopolitanism, one that is truly revolutionary.
But it isn’t persistent return to a stagist conceptualization of history that throws Gramsci’s ideas into a spiral. One can find sections within Gramsci where he recognizes that history always resides in its particulars, but those particulars must go through the nation-state form. But the particularities of Italian history, like the particularities of Indian history can never live up to the expectations of this particular historicism.
It’s not surprising that those engaged in postcolonial studies would take Gramsci on with such enthusiasm. Perry Anderson is correct in part by claiming Gramsci for ‘Western Marxism.” One can find elements (and important elements at that!) within his work, particularly the ideas contained within “State and Civil Society.” But there is another side to Gramsci, a side that is dealing with situations very similar to that of many postcolonial nations. Admittedly, there are Marxist works that deal with these issue on the colonial side of matters much more explicitly from colonial powers, Gramsci’s work for the most part has an expansive, open feeling that they lack. It is this side of Gramsci that becomes relevant to the postcolonial, the one who can grasp the problems within much more direct and focused terms.
The question of the colonies goes back as far as Marx himself. What is perhaps more significant is that Gramsci deals with the ramification of foreign domination much more directly. Questions that are for Marx and Lenin quite abstract, are for Gramsci the questions that he must confront directly in day to day life in Italian life to accomplish anything. They act as a painful sore, one that is addressed with considerable emotional and intellectual intensity.
Europe, in Chakrabarty’s sense, still reigns supreme within Gramsci’s work. The inadequacy that is apparent in the dwelling on France’s national-popular formation represents that Europe. This doesn’t change appreciably if one reads ‘France’ and ‘Jacobin’ as code words for ‘Soviet Union’ and ‘Bolshevik Party’.
However, in the clarity and minuteness of Gramsci’s analysis, as well as the multiplicity of perspectives that he brings in, alternatives exist. Gramsci is particularly unforgiving to any easy solution to the problem of the unity of Italy, whether presented by his friends or enemies. It is this continual demand that keeps him out of the ranks of those who would place the map of any other location onto Italy.
Clearly, Gramsci makes the most of the tools available to him. It would be useless to criticize him for the limitations that were not in his control. But if we look at the issue differently, perhaps in a strange sense, by pushing historicism to its limits, we can see beyond them to other possibilities of understanding history.
Nevertheless, there must be limit put upon this. For as much value Gramsci can have, there are limits as well. One suspects that the following description of Italian life would have significantly different coloring from Guha or Chakrabarty.
“’The act for the act’s sake’, struggle for the sake of struggle, etc., and especially mean, petty individualism, which is anyway merely an arbitrary satisfying of passing whims, etc. (In reality, the question is still that of Italian “apoliticism”, which takes on these various picturesque and bizarre forms.”
It’s at moments such as this that one wishes that another thinker would pick up and analyze these “bizarre” behaviors. Gramsci feels comfortable to dismiss them out of hand, and to a certain extent, Gramsci’s rebellion is limited to a group of easily recognized behaviors, that are ‘cosmopolitan’ and ‘European’ in themselves. Ultimately, they may provide interesting answers to political questions, even if they don’t move directly to the revolution. This is not the matter of dismissing Gramsci or polemicizing against him, rather it is a matter of incorporating aspects of his ideas into a different problematic that can better deal with the ambiguous postcolonial world that we live in.
 Antonio Gramsci, Selections From the Prison Notebooks, ed. and trans. Quintin Hoare and Geoffrey Nowell Smith (New York: International Publishers, 1971), 68.
 Dipesh Chakrabarty, Provincializing Europe (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000), 32.
 Gramsci, Selections From the Prison Notebooks, 79.
 Ibid., 67-68.
 Ibid., 54.
 Ibid., 62.
 Ibid., 58.
 Ibid., 113.
 Ibid., 90.
 Gramsci, Selections From the Prison Notebooks, 99.
 Ibid., 99.
 Antonio Gramsci, Selections from Cultural Writings, ed. David Forgacs and Geoffrey Nowell-Smith, trans. William Boelhower (Cambridge, Mass., Harvard University Press, 1985), 220.
 Gramsci, Selections from Cultural Writings, 200-201.
 Gramsci, Selections from the Prison Notebooks, 106.
 Gramsci, Selections from Cultural Writings, 216.
 Ibid., 216-217.
 Gramsci, Selections from Cultural Writings, .
 Ibid., 205.
 Ibid., 209.
 Chakrabarty, Provincializing Europe, 5-6.
 Gramsci, Selections from Cultural Writings, 122.
 Ibid., 204
 Gramsci, Selections from the Prison Notebooks, 147.