Dialectics and revolution in Gramsci


Dialectics and revolution in Gramsci


The philosophy of praxis seeks to move away from both vulgar materialism and idealism.

The 1917 revolution, interrupting the belief in the linearity of a history driven by the mechanical development of the productive forces, put the reflection on the dialectic inside and outside Russia on the agenda. Hegel, finally, ceased to be treated like a “dead dog”, as Marx said, but his influence on historical materialism was an issue that remained and still remains open today.

“Dialectical materialism” is a recurring expression that seeks to point out Marx's connections with Hegel. But which of the two terms should have priority? A similar issue had previously divided Hegelianism.

Hegel was careful and calculatedly ambiguous in naming his dialectic the “idealist-objective dialectic,” thus uniting Idea and matter, subjectivity and objectivity, the rational and the real. And, as thought for Hegel is objective and real, the relations between being and thought remain scrambled. In his work there are moments of extreme idealism in which reality is derived from thought; in others, on the contrary, the categories generated by thought express what is previously given in reality (this is the case of the second part of the science of logic, “The doctrine of essence”, which so excited Lenin of the philosophical notebooks). Lukács, another enthusiast of that text, stuck with it to praise Hegel's “true” ontology, the materialist one, and to separate it from the “false”, the idealist one.

Hegel's disciples, however, sought to emphasize one or another of the terms that the master had intended to unite.

On the one hand, the so-called “Hegelian right” clung to idealism and the priority of the system over the method: with this, they took as a reference Philosophy of law, Hegel's most conservative work, in which monarchy, according to his interpretation, was glorified as the supreme moment of rationality. By doing so, they established a limit to the dialectic that should no longer intend to go beyond what exists: the real is rational.

On the other hand, the “Hegelian left”, vehemently affirmed the priority of the method (the dialectic) and its uninterrupted movement that leads to the continuous negation of the present: the rational is real, but the monarchy, in a Europe shaken by the French revolution, it had become an anachronism, something irrational. The realization of rationality, therefore, requires the overthrow of the monarchical regime, as this is not yet the rational, but only the empirical, moment to be overcome.

Hegel, anticipating these interpretations, was aware of the enigmatic character of his formulation: “The poet Heine, who was a student of Hegel at the University of Berlin, assured that the old philosopher forced the obscurity of the expositions he made in his classes, because he feared the consequences of his revolutionary ideas, if they were understood. Heine recounts that he once questioned the teacher, after one of the classes, irritated with what he considered “conservative” in the Hegelian equivalence of the real and the rational. According to him, Hegel then remarked to him with a smile: “What if Mr. read the sentence like this: what is real must be rational…?”(KONDER: 1979, p. 10).

Gramsci found that Marxism inherited the tension between the two terms that Hegel had intended to hold together. In one passage, he noted: “Hegel's followers destroyed this unity, and there was a return to materialist systems on the one hand and spiritualists on the other (…). The disruption that occurred with Hegelianism was repeated with the philosophy of praxis, that is, of dialectical unity, turned to philosophical materialism, while the idealist modern high culture tried to incorporate from the philosophy of praxis what was indispensable to it to find some new elixir. ” (Prison notebooks III, 1861, henceforth Q).

Often, attachment to materialism excludes dialectics, as attested by Materialism and Empiricism of Lenin, at the time when he was combating the influence of irrationalist ideas within the party, but without having yet studied the science of logic of Hegel or, more recently, as occurs among Della Volpe's disciples.

On the other hand, the unilateral emphasis on the dialectic makes it a merely conceptual dialectic that disregards the materiality of the real. The Lukács of History and class consciousness, for example, excluded nature from his theory and, with it, the material mediation that allowed the exchange between men and nature: work. Consequently, the fracture between being and thought could only find a solution when the working class, seen as a “collective thinker”, came to power, thus transforming itself into an identical subject-object. This unity, in Hegel, would only materialize in the distant moment of the realization of the Absolute Spirit, after going through a long odyssey. In Lukács, the Russian revolution as a harbinger of world revolution already announced reconciliation. Evidently, this idealistic frenzy contrasted with the harsh reality of building socialism in Russia. Trotsky, in 1928, recalled that Lukács tried to go beyond historical materialism: “He ventured to announce that, with the beginning of the October revolution, which represented the leap from the realm of necessity to the realm of freedom, historical materialism had ceased to existed and had ceased to respond to the needs of the era of proletarian revolution. Nevertheless, we laughed a lot with Lenin at this discovery, which, to put it mildly, was at least premature. (Trotsky: s/d, p. 3).

Gramsci, for his part, tried to move away from both vulgar materialism and idealism. The philosophy of praxis, understood as absolute historicism, intended to overcome/conserve the two trends in a harmonious synthesis. However, the Croatian influence was always with our author. In his critique of Treatise on Historical Materialism by Bukharin and the text presented by that author at the Congress of the History of Science and Technology, held in London in 1931, Gramsci made the following comment on the question of the objectivity of knowledge: “It is evident that, for the philosophy of praxis, the “ matter” must be understood neither in the meaning that results from the natural sciences (physics, chemistry, mechanics, etc., and these meanings must be recorded and studied in their historical development), nor in the meanings that result from the various materialist metaphysics. The various physical properties (chemical, mechanical, etc.) of matter, which together constitute matter itself (…), must be considered, but only to the extent that they become a “productive economic element”. Matter, therefore, must not be considered as such, but as socially and historically organized by production and, in this way, natural science must be considered essentially as a historical category, a human relationship” (prison notebooks, 1, 160, henceforth CC). This is an anthropocentric vision that insists on affirming the non-existence of an objectivity in itself, “extra-historical” and “extra-human”. Who will judge this objectivity, asked Gramsci?

The endless tension between materialism and idealism thus arises for Gramsci. Who judges objectivity? The question seems to place our author on the side of the skeptics who accused materialists of being dogmatic for claiming the existence of something they cannot prove. For Gramsci, the belief in the objectivity of the real world goes back to religion and creationism: the universe was created by God and has always been presented to men as something finished. In the opposite direction, the Lenin of Materialism and Empiricism he had affirmed the similarity between Marxism and the common sense of “naive realism”, which intuitively perceived the independence of the external world in relation to our conscience, with the conception of scientists.

The divergence points to different paths in subject-object relations. In Lenin, knowledge is a reflection of reality; in Gramsci, the knowledge of reality is conditioned to the history and point of view of man: the “concept of objective of vulgar materialist philosophy seems to want to mean an objectivity superior to man that could be known even outside man (…). We know reality only in relation to man, and since man is a historical becoming, knowledge and reality are also a becoming, objectivity is also a becoming, etc. (CC, 1, 134). Or again: “Objective always means “humanly objective” (…). Man knows objectively insofar as knowledge is real for all humankind historically unified in a unified cultural system” (idem).

Gramsci, therefore, places himself in an anthropocentric perspective that conditions the objectivity of the real to the subjective sphere, to the knowledge shared “by the whole human race”, “by all men, that is, by all men who can see and feel from the same point of view”. same way” (Q, I, 466).

 As was to be expected, such a design generated a lot of criticism. Opponents of historicism and dialectics, such as Lucio Coletti, accused the anti-scientific character of a thought that intends to submit nature to history, thus making historical knowledge the exclusive model of science. Gramsci, therefore, remained stuck in the idealist tradition of Italian historicism, as he considered nature as a social, historical category. Orlando Tombosi, a competent Brazilian disciple of the Dellavolpian school, observed this alienation from nature for those who claim to be materialists. Nature never appears in Gramsci “as a limit, a hard alterity, but as an unlimited possibility”: “in the Italian tradition, historicism means above all a conception of History – fundamentally of Hegelian derivation – that affirms the historicity of all reality, reducing, as a result, , all knowledge to historical knowledge. It is (…) Croce's position, inseparable from his idealism, which denies the cognitive character of the Natural Sciences – these are only pragmatic and utilitarian” (TOMBOSI: 1999, p. 24).

The consecration of Marxism as historicism was accompanied by a political purpose: Gramsci was instrumentalized by Togliatti and the PCI leadership to defend the strategy of “progressive democracy” – the democratic transition to socialism through consensus, the “historic compromise” between parties and heterogeneous social segments.

The most important of Gramsci's disciples in Brazil, Carlos Nelson Coutinho, in tune with Togliatti's political orientation, did not fail to point out Gramsci's idealistic traits (COUTINHO: 1999, p. 60-62). The Croatian influence on Gramsci's thought led him to verify the negation of a specific type of knowledge, scientific knowledge, identified without further ado as ideology. The identification between knowledge in the natural sciences and in Marxism is erroneous. Marxism is a science, and when transformed into a guide to action (= ideology), it does not lose its scientific character. Not distinguishing the two types of knowledge leads to an anthropocentric vision that reduces knowledge to the expression of subjectivity, to a “human relationship”. The equivalence between historical-social objectification and natural objectification, in turn, also identifies the two corresponding modalities of consciousness: anthropocentric (specific to the human sciences) and deanthropomorphizing (that of the natural sciences), says Coutinho, relying on the division established by Lukács da Aesthetics.

The cultural atmosphere in Italy marked by the criticism of Hegel's heirs to positivism and by its greatest exponent, Croce, accompanied Gramsci forever, which helps to explain some passages of the prison notebooks with undeniable idealist “encrustations” (to turn against Gramsci the expression he used to criticize the “positivist” traits in Marx). The role of nature in prison notes, however, retains a certain ambiguity, as attested by the critical references to Lukács (who expelled it from his theorizing) and the ambiguous references to Engels from dialectic of nature (blamed for Bukharin's deviations).

Alongside these few epistemological digressions, Gramsci's Marxism under construction generated a vigorous political theory that is, in fact, what really matters in prison notes. In the following pages we will analyze the presence of historicism and its influence on revolutionary theory, confronting its theoretical and political positions with Althusser and Adorno.


contradiction and transition

In his confrontation with Croce, Gramsci denied the existence claimed by the philosopher of a dialectic of distincts, as he considered it an expression of a conservative thought that appropriated concepts of historical materialism to, thus, subordinate it to an idealist philosophy adept of the “revolution”. passive". However, he did not deny the coexistence of contradiction with the distinct – “not only do opposites exist, but also distinct ones” (CC 1, 384). His political analyzes are careful on this point, always aiming to point out the web of social interests that are present in the diverse and changing political conjunctures – interests that are not always antagonistic, which, in turn, makes political work essential and complex for the formation of the hegemony. The relationship between contradiction and distinction, however, is not a peaceful theme among Marxist authors, as it contains important theoretical and political developments.

Althusser, for example, criticized the Hegelian concept of “negation of negation” for understanding that it presupposes a linear movement, without ruptures, of history seen as a process of overcoming-conservation. In place of this diachronic vision, he affirmed the complex character of social life that is not limited to the belief in a simple contradiction, but in an accumulation of contradictions that coexist spatially, obey a hierarchy, and ultimately the overdetermination of the economy.

In this way, he substituted the historical analysis for the synchronic one, a substitution that had as reference the text of Mao Zedong, about the contradiction, a text that innovated the Marxian lexicon by adding new terms: the universal and particular character of contradiction, main contradiction (productive forces/production relations) and secondary contradiction, main and secondary aspect of contradiction, antagonistic and non-antagonistic contradictions, etc.

The "translation" of Mao's ideas in Althusser's text, in addition to serving to criticize the Hegelianism present in Marxist authors, also served to reinforce his conception of the mode of production as a "structured complex whole" in which changes in the economic base do not automatically modify the superstructure, as the various instances that compose it (juridical-political, ideological) have their own temporality.

Althusser's theoretical inflection paved the way for the study of political conjunctures, such as those carried out by Nicos Poulantzas, in which analytical reason focuses on social reality, in its synchrony, to identify and classify the social interests in dispute. In addition to these developments, Althusser's ideas had political consequences perhaps not foreseen by the author. The relative autonomization of instances served as a theoretical justification for the ideological struggle waged by so-called minorities, struggles often disconnected from material contradictions, thus becoming restricted and confined to particularist demands. But it also served to fuel the frontal rejection of bourgeois institutions: the State, the law, the market. The encounter with Maoism, in the troubled 1960s, fueled this ultra-left view that despised participation in the struggle waged within institutions in the name of a frontal attack on the capitalist State.

Mao Zedong, called to validate the Althusserian interpretation of Marx, is also included among the opponents of the Hegelian heritage in Marxism, represented, in China, by the party's intellectuals who replicated the theses defended by Deborin in the polemic about the dialectic in Russia that took place in the 20s. Allying himself with Stalin, Mao followed the critique of the historicist and Hegelian heritage, understanding the thesis of the “negation of the negation” as a conciliation of opposites.

Against historicism he stated: “the school of Deborin maintains that contradiction appears not at the beginning of a process, but only when it has already developed to a certain stage. (...). This school does not understand that each and every difference already contains contradiction and that difference itself is contradiction”.

This hypertrophy of a contradiction, which has always existed, which does not develop from the fragmentation of a unit generating difference and, finally, opposition, aims to deny the “positive”, “appeasing” character of synthesis. The thesis is not overcome/preserved in the synthesis, but destroyed, as this astonishing comment attests: “What is the synthesis? You all witnessed how the two opposites, the Kuomitang and the Communist Party, were synthesized in the countryside. The synthesis took place like this: their armies came, and we devoured them, piece by piece (…). The big fish eating the little fish, that is synthesis. (...). For his part, Yang Hsien believes that two combine into one, and that synthesis is the indissoluble bond of opposites. What indissoluble ties exist in this world? Things may be linked, but in the end they end up being separated. Nothing exists that cannot be cut” (MAO: 2008, pp. 222 and 224).

The inevitable separation of things, the omnipresence of the struggle of opposites, in its permanent perpetual motion, ignores the possibility of synthesis. The Cultural Revolution, the attempt to make a revolution within the revolution, therefore, of the revolution an endless process, exemplifies well the political results of the “bad infinity” of contradiction, of the self-devouring vortex whose result was the disarticulation of economic life, foreshadowing the end of real socialism.

On a theoretical level, the negation of the third moment, the synthesis, suggests a surprising approximation with Adorno's “negative dialectic”. In his classes, Adorno stated that “the word synthesis is extremely unpleasant for me”, feeling a real “aversion” for it (ADORNO: 2013, p. 107). The concept of synthesis embodied for Adorno the odious “identity” that his negative dialectic was intended to criticize. Such refusal, evidently, was not at the service of an endless revolution, but of the need to keep the critical spirit away from the “reconciliation with reality”, with the “positivity” of a hopelessly alienated world.

If “power is at the point of the gun”, as Mao said, in Gramsci the capitalist State is not maintained only by coercion, but also by consensus. Therefore, the struggle presupposes the construction of hegemony. Here we are facing two different situations: in the first, “eastern”, a war of movement took place, but in the second, “western”, a war of position must prevail. In the “West”, the “Eastern” strategy is represented by Trotsky’s theory of “permanent revolution”, considered by Gramsci “the political theorist of frontal attack in a period when this is only the cause of defeats” (CC, 3, 255).

Differences aside, in both strategies the struggle of opposites is always present, but, according to Gramsci's careful historical references, it can have different outcomes. In addition to the revolutionary eruption, there is the possibility of an organic crisis, a situation in which “the old has died and the new cannot be born” (Gramsci uses the word morbid to characterize it). This “pathological” situation is the result of the ruling class losing consensus, that is, it ceased to be a ruling class, becoming merely dominant. In this case, there is a mismatch between the structure and the superstructure, in which the latter was developed without being in line with the material base. (CC, 3, 184).

Another possibility occurs in caesarism which “expresses a situation in which the forces in struggle balance each other out catastrophically, that is, balance each other out in such a way that the continuation of the struggle can only end in reciprocal destruction” (CC, 3, 76).

There may also be a “conservative synthesis”, as occurs in passive revolution, in which the demands of the antithesis are partially incorporated. This happens as a “reaction of the dominant classes to the sporadic, elementary, non-organic subversivism of the popular masses, through “restorations” that accepted a certain part of the demands that came from below; it is, therefore, about “progressive restorations” or “revolutions-restorations”, or even “passive revolutions”." (CC, 1, 393).


Hegemony: revolutionaries and reformists

Some Gramsci interpreters give centrality to the concept of historical block that would be present at the core of our author's thought. Others, like Giuseppe Cospito, consider it a concept left behind in the writing of the prison notebooks. In his attentive reading, he followed the periodization of the notebooks, trying to follow Gramsci's “rhythm of thought”. According to his interpretation, the concept of historic block was gradually abandoned from 1932 onwards, giving way to alternative expressions that Gramsci began to use to name the relationship between the base and the superstructure, expressions that, in a short period of time, yield the others: “quantity and quality”, “content and form”, “objective and subjective”, until finally arriving at “power relations” (COSPITO: 2016) .

An observation is in order here. Gramsci uses the last expression to carry out “analysis of situations”. It is not, therefore, an abstract concept, but an expression used in the analysis of specific historical processes. He, by the way, asks himself if effective reality “is perhaps something static and immobile or, on the contrary, a relationship of forces in continuous movement and change of balance?" (CC, 3, 35).

As Carlos Nelson Coutinho wrote in the gramscian dictionary, the latter is the central aspect to be highlighted, since with it Gramsci was able to make the transition from the concept of the theoretical sphere present in the “Preface of 1859” to historical analysis, aiming to highlight the role of the superstructure: “the predominant moment of the dynamics of power relations is thus more at the political and ideological level, although it is based on economic determinations”.

On a strictly theoretical level, the expression historical block seems to synthesize the elements that became “permanent” and “stable” in Gramscian thought, in addition to keeping together the two basic moments of reality: the structure (block) and the process (historical). Cospito's philological tracing, useful for “specialists”, more complicates than clarifies in its uninterrupted movement of presentation and rapid disposal of the terms used by Gramsci in a very short period of time.

All the effort and all the difficulties encountered by Gramsci are the result of his anti-determinist effort to understand the relationships between the base and the superstructure based on that schematic text by Marx. This is obviously not an exercise in mere exegesis: there was a historical conditioning that influenced Gramsci's reflection. Namely: the new relationship established between the State and the market in modern capitalist society. The intended separation between those two spheres, disclosed by the liberal conception of night watchman status, already undermined in the First World War, found its truth in the great crisis of 1929. Gramsci intensely lived the debates of his time, always showing that in the new historical moment the relations between State and market were definitively intertwined. His writings on fascism and Americanism center on the growing presence of the state in economic activity. This phenomenon, however, does not mean that economics as a science has lost its object, that there are no more economic crises and that social control is imposed on everyone, without resistance, as the Frankfurt theorists intend.

The Gramscian reading of the 1857 Preface to the Critique of Political Economy, in the new historical period, had a clear political orientation: to criticize vulgar materialism, idealism and Marxist interpreters who resorted to Marx to justify a progressive reformism that denied the possibility of insurrection before capitalism fully developed the productive forces. But, for Gramsci, contrary to the Marxists who defended a frontal attack on the bourgeois State, the elevation of the “conception of the world” is a prerequisite for subordinates to dispute hegemony and confront the dominant ideology. This dispute initially takes place within the hegemonic apparatuses.

And here we enter a controversial political issue. Gramsci conceived the concept of historical bloc to remove the relations between the base and superstructures of determinism, just as in the notion of integral State he sought to overcome the arbitrary separation between State and civil society. In this way, the integral State became the scenario of the hegemonic struggle. It is no longer a question of the restricted conception of the State, like that of Althusser, since in it the hegemony is not disputed, but rather the struggle to destroy the bourgeois State and all its institutions.

With regard to civil society, absolute priority should not be given to it, as the liberal interpretation of Gramsci initiated by Bobbio wants – here, in fact, the Sardinian revolutionary becomes a theorist of superstructures and cultural hegemony as a way to get governance. Civil society, in this register, is thought of as a sphere separated from the State and the economic base, approaching what would later be known as the “third sector”.

Domenico Losurdo noted that for Gramsci, on the contrary, “civil society is also in some way the State, in the sense that terrible forms of domination and oppression can also be exercised within it (the despotism of the capitalist factory and even slavery), with in relation to which political institutions, even bourgeois ones, can represent a counterweight or an instrument of struggle” (LOSURDO: 2006, p.223).

Hegemony, therefore, should not be restricted to the cultural level, as a consensus obtained through communicative reason and not by force, through revolutionary insurrection. In this line, Perry Anderson is inserted, who states that hegemony cannot be achieved before the seizure of power and, therefore, defends the insurrectionary perspective (Anderson: 1986).

When speaking of criticism of “reformism” in the interpretations of Gramsci, in Brazil, the preferred target is Carlos Nelson Coutinho who, based on the East-West duality, built a refined theory that denies the transition to socialism through the “head-on collision with the State coercive apparatuses, in revolutionary ruptures understood as violent explosions and concentrated in a brief period of time”, in the name of the conquest of hegemony “in the course of a difficult and prolonged “war of positions”. This “prolonged” war of positions within civil society presupposes, according to its critics, an idyllic image of civil society formed by non-contradictory interests appearing to be an alleged universality. In addition, the complex nature of the institutions present in it would only reinforce the dominance exercised by the apparatuses of hegemony over the popular sectors, thus impeding the path of emancipation, as stated by several authors (See BIANCHI: 2008 and SCHLESENER: 2002).

Dictated by political choices beforehand, this controversy promises to never end. Therefore, it seems to me advisable to go back to Gramsci and point out the historical context that determined his hesitations that were never definitively overcome.


Interpretation and overinterpretation

It is common ground that the openly insurrectionary perspective of the times of the L'Ordine Nuovo suffered a slowdown in prison notebooksbecause, after all, the workers' rebellion had been defeated not only in Italy but also in Germany and Hungary. Furthermore, capitalism appeared to be in a phase of stability. In this context, revolutionary Russia struggled to survive. The project for the extinction of the State would be shelved in the name of “socialism in one country”. Consequently, the prospect of an imminent world revolution gave way to the “popular front” policies proposed by the Communist International. The drastic change of situation coincided with the most creative period of Gramsci and the new concepts woven in his “workshop”: hegemony, war of position, passive revolution, etc.

In the struggle between Trotsky and Stalin, Gramsci took the latter, although he claimed that the criticism leveled at Trotsky was "irresponsible". The theory of the permanent revolution, however, seemed to him a dangerous intellectualist lucubration made in disregard of history, since in Marx and Engels it referred to 1848, a troubled period in French history that ended in the 70s with the defeat of the Paris Commune. and European colonial expansion. Since then, significant changes have taken place, such as the consolidation of parliamentarianism, the strengthening of trade unionism, the constitution of modern parties – therefore, a complexification of civil society with consequent changes in its relationship with the State. Therefore, the “war of movement”, implicit in the thesis of permanent revolution, should be replaced by the “war of position” within the now “robust structure of civil society” (CC, 3, 262). Homogenizing different historical moments (1848, 1905, 1917) seemed an anachronism to him. Furthermore, the adventurous pretense of trying to export the revolution to Europe also meant a threat to the survival of the Soviet state. The development of the revolutionary process, according to Gramsci, "is in the sense of internationalism, but the starting point is "national", and it is from this starting point that one must start". Next, he affirms the need to “purge internationalism of all vague and purely ideological elements (in a pejorative sense) to give it a realistic political content. The concept of hegemony is one in which demands of a national nature come together and we can understand why certain trends do not speak of this concept or only refer to it in passing” (CC, 3, 314 and 315). Unlike Lenin, who was “deeply national and deeply European”, Trotsky, generally seen as a “occidentalist”, was, for Gramsci, “a cosmopolitan, that is, superficially national and superficially westernist or European” (CC, 3, 261).

The transition to socialism has always been a controversial topic. Marx was laconic about this. Speculating about the future, in his time, was a task performed by the utopians; moreover, utopianism was opposed to his dialectical realism, always hostile to arbitrary projections.

However, the course of the revolutionary process in Russia was nothing like the theses defended by Lenin in The State and the Revolution: the creation of a Commune-State, “without police, without fixed army, without bureaucracy”. A revolutionary party, supported by a minority working class in a still agrarian country, found itself helpless with the failure of the expected revolution in Europe and civil war. The party leadership adapted to the new reality, rehearsing the need to first create a “state capitalism” to obtain the material conditions for the transition to socialism; then, he implemented the so-called “war communism” to finally institute the NEP (New Economic Policy). Evidently, this last turn was interpreted by the “workers' opposition” as a betrayal. A change of direction that was symbolized by the brutal repression of Kronstadt sailors.

The intended transition to socialism took its course through the gradualist NEP policy formulated by Bukharin. According to Stephen Cohen, “In the period 1925-27 official Bolshevism was basically Bukharinist; the party followed the Bukharinist path to socialism”, a path contested by the left-wing opposition that insisted on the role of the State as a promoter of the class struggle. The need for equilibrium in the social organism, as Bukharin had learned from functionalist sociology, reappeared as a theoretical reference to promote the harmonia in a social fabric traumatized by so many abrupt changes. The most important aspect of the new orientation is the fact that, from now on, the State will cease to be primarily an “instrument of repression” and will be able to create the necessary conditions for “collaboration” and “social unity”. As for terror, “its time had passed” (COHEN: 1980, p.245 and 231).

It was not just Lenin and Bukharin who switched from a radical to a moderate position. Gramsci also followed this path. On July 28, 1917, he wrote with enthusiasm: “the revolution does not stop, it does not close its cycle. It devours its men, replaces one group with another more audacious; and only because of its instability, its never-reached perfection, is it truly asserting itself as a revolution” (GRAMSCI: 2005, p. 105). But on October 14, 1926, Gramsci wrote a letter on behalf of the Political Bureau of the Italian party to the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the USSR at its XV Conference. In it, enthusiasm gave way to concern about the possible consequences of the split in the party, strained by the left-wing opposition (Trotsky, Zinoviev, Kamenev). Gramsci stated that the three leaders “contributed powerfully to educating us for the revolution” and, therefore, “we would like to be sure that the majority of the Central Committee of the CP of the USSR does not intend to overwhelmingly win this struggle and is willing to avoid excessive measures” (GRAMSCI: 2004, p. 392). The person in charge of transmitting the letter, Togliatti, saw fit to shelve it and Congress removed the old Bolsheviks, who some time later would be executed.

Despite the concerns, Gramsci agreed with the party's orientation in adopting the NEP, remembering, by the way, the similarity with Italy, where the rural population was supported by a Catholic church with two thousand years of experience in organization and propaganda. The left-wing opposition, on the other hand, advocated the expropriation of peasants to finance the country's industrialization.

Gramsci also agreed with the need to oblige the working class to make new sacrifices in the name of building socialism and pointed out the unheard-of contradiction: “it has never occurred in history that a ruling class, as a whole, has seen itself in conditions of life inferior to certain elements and extracts of the dominated and subjugated class”. The workers, who carried out the revolution, were required to sacrifice immediate class interests in the name of general interests and listen to demagogic comments such as “Are you the dominant one, poorly dressed and poorly fed worker, or is the dominant one nepman cloaked and having at his disposal all the goods of the earth?” Or else: “What did you fight for? To be even more ruined and poorer?” (GRAMSCI: 2004, p. 384 and 392).

All of Gramsci's theoretical setbacks, arising from the harsh reality, had their turning point at the VII and last congress of the IC. The approval of the report presented by Dimitrov put on the agenda two central themes for the Gramsci of the prison notebooks: the national question and the united front policy.

Until then, the Bolsheviks had intended to subordinate all communist parties to the guidelines of the Communist International (CI), conceived as a single party leading the world revolution (such pretension would reappear with the creation of the Fourth International). From then on, the national question forced the communists to look carefully at the specificity of their countries, leaving aside the generalizing schemes exported by Moscow. The defense of the Soviet state had generated a deep patriotism that, in a way, was identified with the construction of socialism. Hence the awareness of the need to go beyond that abstract and unrealistic conception of proletarian internationalism still present in various sectors that simply ignored national identities.

Committed to “translating” the October revolution to Italy, Gramsci at various times criticized the narrow understanding of internationalism and, as a linguistics scholar, was aware of debates in Italy about the imposition of a unified language and the survival of dialects, as well as as well as the close relationships between language, culture, world view and hegemony.

The united front policy against fascism should momentarily put an end to the class-against-class strategy and its correlate: fascism or proletarian revolution. Gramsci began, in his own way, to defend the united front as a necessary transition period to defeat fascism by raising the slogan of the Constituent Assembly, which, according to Christinne Buci-Glucksmannm, can be interpreted as “Gramsci’s political testament” conceived at a time when he was elaborating the concepts of hegemony and war of position. The defense of the Constituent Assembly, evidently, is a democratic claim that presupposes the alliance of classes against fascism, a pause, therefore, in the struggle between antagonistic social classes.

The realistic position on the need to strengthen the Soviet State – the defense of the NEP and the general interests of the industrial proletariat against immediate class interests – marks a distance in relation to the texts written in the times when Gramsci coordinated the factory councils in Turin, preaching the union between workers and poor peasants. But does this distance mean a rupture, a drastic change of position? Marcos del Roio asserts, contrary to Chirstinne Buci-Glucksmann, that Gramsci's vision was different from Dimitrov's, and that there was only a progressive refinement in the concept of a united front initiated in “Some themes of the meridional question”: “Here Gramsci launches a broader notion of worker-peasant alliance, since, with the inclusion of the question of the mass of intellectuals, it approaches the formulation of the historical bloc, which implies problems such as the organization of production and the State in the transition, as well as the essential question of the organization of the subjective sphere, a core theme of prison notebooks. In this way, the political formula of the united front finds, with Gramsci, new solutions and a theoretical deepening that the IC [Communist International], as a whole, could not contemplate” (DEL ROIO: 2019, p. 231).

There is no doubt about the difference in relation to the CI, but does not restricting the historical bloc to an alliance between workers, peasants and intellectuals mean emptying the reach of the theory of hegemony, which would be little different from that previously formulated by Lenin? What would Gramsci have added again? Wouldn't there also be a hollowing out of the war of position strategy? Hegemony, in Gramsci, was conceived to overcome the economism and corporatism that prevented the working class from going beyond its immediate class interests and, thus, influencing the direction of the historical process. An illuminating example is Gramsci's position towards the NEP: the enrichment of the kulacs seemed to be an insult to the workers who carried out the revolution and compared the penury in which they lived with the growing wealth of that social stratum. What is decisive for the Marxism of Lenin and Gramsci is not the class point of view, but the point of view of totality.

The divergence between interpretations brings with it the endless dispute between a “reformist” or a “revolutionary” Gramsci. The central point is the proposal of a Constituent Assembly as an intermediate step between the fall of fascism and the transition to socialism. This proposal is a black hole in interpretation, as it was made from reports of fellow prisoners without textual support, since Gramsci, under the upsurge of censorship, wrote nothing about it.

The theme is familiar to the Brazilian public: in the final years of the military dictatorship, a broad debate began on the proposal to convene the Constituent Assembly. Sectors more to the left, then grouped in the Workers' Party, claimed that the Constituent Assembly (which they called “prostituent”), was a bourgeois claim that did not interest the working class. Fearing the “contamination” of liberal ideology and the possible hegemony of bourgeois sectors, they preached a frontal clash against the regime.

The dual logic (“class against class”) present there had already manifested itself earlier within the Brazilian labor movement of the 1970s through the centrality given to factory commissions to the detriment of unions, a strategy adopted to maintain distance in relation to legal institutions. The experience lived by the young Gramsci in Turin was a reference evoked by the “union oppositions” in Brazil. The classist alternative rejected the policy of the democratic front, affirming the need to create a workers' counter-hegemony formed in alternative spaces to bourgeois institutions. Again, the echoes of Gramsci, but only from his juvenile texts, because in prison notebooks the expression “counter-hegemony”, typical of binary logic, does not appear, but the need to dispute hegemony by occupying spaces within existing institutions, in “private apparatuses of hegemony”.

Gramsci's critical fortune found a watershed in the Constituent Assembly. Those who rejected it insisted on the autonomy of the proletariat and, therefore, on its distance from any composition with the democratic bourgeois sectors. Consequently, they insisted on the linear continuity between the councilist Gramsci and that of the prison notebooks. Defenders of the policy of alliances, on the other hand, took the defense of the Constituent Assembly as a starting point for the future strategy of Togliatti's “progressive democracy” and the “historical commitment” with Christian democracy. In both cases, what was just an intermediate step was made absolute to endorse political choices. As in a palimpsest, Gramsci's suffering notes were “scraped” to make way for a new writing dictated by references that were not on the horizon of the imprisoned revolutionary.

And here is the question: are there limits in the interpretation of a text? Or again: does it make sense to “dig” Gramsci's writing to discover, beyond textuality, a hidden and revealing meaning that would clarify everything?

The second question has been followed by the so-called deconstructivist criticism, interested in affirming the fluctuating character of meaning and denouncing the “authoritarian” pretension of determining a univocal and perennial meaning. The deconstructivist analysis is moved by suspicion, believing that what matters most in the text is what was repressed in it, the unsaid, and not what the “suspected” author actually said. I don't know if any deconstructivist critics have addressed the prison notebooks to discover the silences and absences of the text. In any case, the “floating” character of prison notes seems to haunt all interpreters.

As for the first question – whether there are limits to interpretation – it is worth remembering the distinction made by Umberto Eco between interpretation and overinterpretation. Traditional literary criticism was restricted to author-work relationships; subsequently, efforts were made to include the reader as a co-participant in the literary process. Thus, he would leave behind the old passivity when he was summoned to participate in the creation of meaning. The text, therefore, loses the pretense of having a univocal meaning, since it depends on the reader's participation. Umberto Eco, in 1962, welcomed this inclusion in the book the open work. As the title indicates, the literary work should no longer be seen as something finished, concluded, closed. It has become an open work that is offered to the reader, inviting him to participate in the different possibilities of interpretation.

From the 1970s onwards, the rise of post-structuralism was responsible for expanding the reader's participation, opening the doors to unlimited and arbitrary reading possibilities. Eco, then, returned to the theme in order to establish limits to interpretation, as it should not violate the text at will by establishing a relativist free-for-all. Fidelity to the letter and spirit of the text (to the writing and to the “author's intention”) restricts the reader's freedom and sets limits to the endless flow of interpretations – it must, therefore, be the criterion to separate the reasoned interpretations from the presumptuous pretensions and arbitrary (ECO: 2001).

In his prison solitude, Gramsci compulsively wrote his work. It was no longer the journalist who produced circumstantial texts in profusion: “In ten years of journalism I wrote enough lines to fill fifteen or twenty volumes of four hundred pages, but these lines were written on a day-to-day basis and, in my opinion, they should die. In the end of the day" (prison letters, II, 83). The prisoner, now, was dealing with the need to organize his “inner life” and use writing as a form of resistance, writing a work für Ewig to update historical materialism. A work, however, without an interlocutor, the work of an author who wrote to clarify his own ideas and who died without having given them a definitive wording.

Celso Frederick is a retired senior professor at ECA-USP. Author, among other books, of Essays on Marxism and Culture (Morula).


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