Gramsci by Domenico Losurdo

Image: Magda Ehlers


The legacy of bourgeois revolutions and liberalism to the left

It is common for the Brazilian left to find a response to the ills that afflict us in the sharp criticism of the political legacies of liberalism and the democratic values ​​of which, to a certain extent, it is the bearer. Nothing could be further from the critical Marxism of Antonio Gramsci, according to the reading presented by Domenico Losurdo[1]. In fact, for the great Italian intellectual, the founder of the Italian Communist Party is among the Marxists in whom the issue of the legacy of bourgeois-democratic revolutions is one of the most valued, even if this is a process that must be “completed”, that is, it is, “complete and overcome”.

As Chapter I already demonstrates, it is because Gramsci understood liberalism to carry the embryos of socialism, at the beginning of his political and intellectual life, he knew how to launch himself into the study of the Italian heirs of this tradition, especially dedicated to the deepening of the German idealism that referred to Hegel − notably Benedetto Croce and Giovanni Gentile, but also and not secondarily to the Spaventa brothers. It is therefore understandable the type of liberalism to which Losurdo is referring. It is above all the one that engages in the criticism of the most reactionary Catholic culture, well demarcated in the pontifical document Syllabus Errorum (1864), antagonistic to the national state that emerged from Risorgimento and all the social progress that accompanies it, based on freedom of expression and conscience, on legal equality between nobles and commoners, on public schools and on the vision of the State as the origin and source of all rights.

In fact, seeking to distance himself from positivist thought, which interpreted the problems of backwardness in southern Italy (the Noon) in a naturalist key, this liberalism could only call the attention of Gramsci, who had just left poor and conservative Sardinia. The same positivism, it should be said, that appeared not only in the paradigm of medical anthropology by Lombroso, but also in authors such as Guglielmo Ferrero, capable of attributing Irish backwardness to the “Celtic character”, “of an undisciplined spirit and alien to the organization”, or in the English liberalism of John Stuart Mill, speaking of the “indolence” and “envy” of the peoples of Southern Europe.

It is true that this appreciation of the achievements of liberalism and bourgeois revolutions in Gramsci is not without problems, insists Losurdo. What appears mainly in the initial stages of the development of the Sardinian, marked by a somewhat oleographic view of the USA – in what incidentally followed a recurrent reading in Marxism −, which was not aware of the brutal racial discrimination present there, or even of England itself , by not paying attention to the census restriction on suffrage, the presence of remnants of the Ancien Régime, and even oppression over Ireland; while French Jacobinism is still seen negatively, as “a messianic vision of history”, with the “political pretense of suppressing all opposition”. By the way, for this reason Gramsci's condemnation of the First War does not yet involve, in this youthful phase, the liberal and Anglo-Saxon world.

But it is precisely with regard to the War, and also the October Revolution that is contemporary with it, that Gramsci's distance from the liberal thinkers who gave him his initial philosophical basis, the subject of Chapter II, appears more clearly. In fact, while Gramsci exalts the October Revolution, which emerged in the struggle against war, seeing it as a chapter in the struggle against colonialism, Croce and Gentile, even though during the conflict they did not allow themselves to be carried away by the theological reading that they saw in the war a democratic crusade, do not rise to the height of totally rejecting the chauvinist incitement of the masses that this reading implied. Its internationalism, asserts Gramsci, was limited to the field of sciences and arts.

In particular, Croce, already in the midst of fascism, and despite being in opposition to the regime, appears as an admirer of German national unity, which in his eyes had managed to eliminate class conflicts. It is, after all, adherence to a barracks socialism, which uses the reading of war as the national “furnace of unity”. Gentile, on the other hand, goes further, presenting himself as an intervention enthusiast, a position from which he explicitly adheres to fascism.

Such positions, which strictly speaking operate a singular inversion, where Marxism appears as a celebration of war and conflict, have their philosophical roots in a biased reading of Hegel, notes Losurdo in chapter III. Rather, as noted there, it is a reading of Hegel from Fichte, the philosopher of action and acting − as the Young Hegelians did, always busy refusing a position of passive contemplation, arising from a supposed identity radical, in Hegel, between the real and the rational. Gramsci's Marxism steers clear of this path. Rejecting the vulgar reading of the Stuttgart philosopher, who associates reality with simple immediate empiricism, and valuing the famous preface to Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, Gramsci attaches himself, rather, to the strategic dimension of the real and to the basic tendency of the historical process, only to insist on the relationship - more than exactly identity – between the rational and the real.[2]

Incidentally, it is in this key that the presence of the historical subject must still be read, if one seeks an antidote to Fichtian subjectivism. Already in Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit, insists Losurdo, the subject and historical praxis are inserted in objectivity: “If the negative 'appears as the inequality of the I in relation to the object, it is also the inequality of the substance in relation to itself. What seems to be produced outside of it, and to be an activity against it, is its own operation, and it proves to be essentially Subject'”. And this is how far we are from the blind action that characterizes the many philosophies of the subject, even if not always associated with fascism.

So it is that, despite the exaggeration in suggesting Nietzsche as a fascist before la lettre, Gramsci seems to retain the essential by associating the Duce to “so many costumed Nietzscheans verbally revolted against everything that exists”. And a clear proof of this is the fascist program of 1921, with its reference to homo rusticus as the healthiest variety of Homo Sapiens and, already in the midst of the Mussolinian regime, the apology of a new rural civilization, in a vehement critique of the modern that, recalls Losurdo, is in close connection with Heidegger – adherent of Nazism, remember – of the critique of forgetting the subject and modernity as uprooting and abandonment of being.

It is not surprising, therefore, that the First War is a moment of Fichte's prestige, as much as the aborted German revolution of 1848, whose impatience of the revolutionary youth even found support in Schelling, called to Berlin by the reaction. The same anti-Hegel Schelling, with anti-comtemplative rhetoric, insists Losurdo, who manages to exert influence on Bakunin. It is also the case that, in Italy, Gentile exerts more influence than Croce on an entire generation of revolutionaries, basically just agitators who, operating a disarticulation between practical and theoretical domains, carry out an epistemological liquidation of socialism and Marxism.

Nevertheless, it is worth remembering how Gramsci, emphasizing the dialectical unity between subject and object, the concreteness of history and of political and social relations, the category, in short, of objective contradiction, in the effort to overcome Italian idealism – in what he repeats, in fact, , what Marx had done in relation to the Young Hegelians -, does not forget the critique of the Marxism of technological determinism, as attached to a mythical and metaphysical subject as idealism in its limits. In the first case, the emphasis on the working instrument to which Bukharin dedicates himself, which basically gives rise to the doctrine of the inertia of the proletariat, in the second, the emphasis on valuing the self-consciousness of the subject, incapable of linking himself to the “doctrine of superstructures” and his “struggle for objectivity”, as can be read in notebook 11.[3]

But how, after all, does the concreteness of history, in Gramsci, allow one to read the October Revolution? How does the Sardinian communist position himself before the theory of revolution in Marx, Engels, Lenin, Trotsky? This is the theme of Chapter IV, when Losurdo invites us to reflect on the existence, in Marx, of at least two readings of the revolution. One of them is more mechanistic, present in Chapter XXIV of The capital, where the revolution tends to emerge from the immediate conclusion of the process of primitive accumulation, with politics, national peculiarities, ideological factors and revolutionary consciousness itself absent. A second reading, however, much more concrete, appears in the preface of Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy. Even if the revolution here also stems from the aggravation of the contradiction between the productive forces and the relations of production, the emphasis does not seem to be on a single revolution, and even less on the immediate nature of the process, since there is talk of “an epoch of revolution”. Social."

Now, Gramsci, having lived through the tragedy of the defeat of the labor movement and the victory of fascism, easily breaks with the hopes of a quick and definitive outcome of the socialist revolution. Our Sardinian, points out Losurdo, is the first to perceive these two versions, and, not by chance, quoting recurrently the famous preface, he was precisely the Marxist who most deepened the complex and long-lasting nature of the revolutionary process. This is what can be seen in the passages of the Prison Notebooks in which the eight decades of duration of the French Revolution are highlighted, as well as the reference to the fact that the passage from capitalism to a regulated society (communism) will last centuries.

What has been said above does not mean that Gramsci can be read along the lines of Bernstein and the Second International, after all, tributary to the more mechanistic reading that Engels extracted from The capital to interpret the defeat of the peasants in Germany (Müntzer) as well as the failure of the workers' revolt in France in 1848 (the absence of objective conditions, Engels insisted). Far from this English, used by revisionism in criticizing the October Revolution, Gramsci starts from a critical rereading of Marx that will even allow him to overcome the shortcomings of Trotsky's theory of permanent revolution.

Indeed, its shortcomings stem from its attachment to what Marx wrote about the agrarian and national revolution in Ireland (in the The Manifest this possibility also appears for Germany), seen as a manifestation, at the extreme of the bourgeois body, of the contradiction between productive forces and relations of production in the metropolis, which would mean thinking of the revolution in the periphery as a prelude to the revolution in the most advanced capitalism. Hence, then, Trotsky concluded that revolution in one country was impossible. Now, it is in opposition to this variant of mechanism, and in defense of the October Revolution, that Gramsci will insist on the long duration of the revolution in the West and its character as a war of position – a reading, it should be said, quite distant from the International Communist, which, devaluing the national question, presented itself as a world communist party, exaggeratedly centralized.

And it is still starting from the idea of ​​the long duration of the revolution, that Gramsci does not allow himself to be contaminated by the thesis of the ideological decay of the bourgeoisie, developed by Marx after the defeat of the Paris Commune and of clear echoes in the Leninian thesis of the putrefaction of capitalism in the imperialist phase . Not sharing this catastrophism, which sees in the long period cited only a counter-revolution (in a way justified by the reaction embodied in Napoleon III and the rise of fascism that characterizes the period in which Lenin writes the Imperialism), Gramsci will treat this process as the result of a passive revolution (read in the key of an “interpretation criterion”, not so much as a “program”). It is, notes Losurdo, an analysis that is much closer to that espoused in the manifesto, who sees in the incessant technological transformation of the bourgeois era a process of intellectual emancipation of broad masses, or even of the most mature Marx of Criticism of the Program from Gotha, who criticizes Lassale for not seeing that the bourgeoisie cannot be considered a homogeneously reactionary mass, as were the feudal lords. A thesis perhaps applicable only to the German bourgeoisie – the bourgeoisie of Prussian way, we would say with Lenin −, incapable of criticizing the census restriction of political rights, a Jacobin banner.

By the way, operating here in the register of a difficult balance between criticism and legitimacy of the modern – hence the expression “critical socialism”, or “critical communism” −, it is seen how Gramsci's Marxism, insists Losurdo, is far from the so-called Western Marxism , often given over to the liquidationist critique that so much resembles Bakunin's anarchism, committed to combating bourgeois wealth and bourgeois science indiscriminately.

It is also because of this difficult balance that Gramsci poses the question of the State and its extinction, the subject of chapter V. Our Sardinian, avoiding the mechanism that understands political institutions as a simple superstructure of the economy, is, according to Losurdo, the most critical , in twentieth-century Marxism, of the anarchist and eschatological tendencies present in it, as can be seen even in Lenin's The State and the Revolution. Seeing the thesis of identity between anarchists and Marxists regarding the State as a parasitic entity – a perspective that is in any case understandable, if one thinks of the context in which Lenin writes, namely, that of the struggle against social-chauvinism.

On this point, Gramsci is much closer to A German Ideology, a work in which Marx and Engels point out that the objective of the State is not just the control and repression of subordinate classes. In fact, it is in this work, after all the founder of Marxism, that we see the category of power and the interest of the dominant classes expressed not immediately, but rather in a mediated form − the general form in which state action is presented. It is understandable: read by Marx and Engels in a Hegelian key – as, by the way, also did the Lenin of the Philosophical Notebooks −, the general form in which the State presents itself, even though it is not its substance, the State, does not appear as a “nothing”, expressing, rather, in its appearance, also a level of reality, moreover capable of imposing a limit to the exercise of the power of the dominant classes. Hence the thesis of the extinction of the State, so dear to Marxism in theorizing of communist society, appears to Gramsci as the extinction of the apparatus of repression, while they would assert themselves, in a line that is more for Marx than Critique of the Gotha Program (for whom in communism the functions of government are transformed into simple administrative functions), the elements of regulated society, or even of the ethical State, or civil society. And even statements about communist society, such as the disappearance of the State and its absorption into civil society, can only apparently be read as ambiguous, since for Gramsci civil society is also the State. And this is when it is necessary to remember his criticism of transforming a methodical distinction into an organic one.

Once again, for Gramsci, the one-sidedness of the concept of the State can even lead to colossal errors, such as the identification of violence only in the State as such and the celebration of civil society as the unambiguous place of freedom. In fact, communism as a regulated society that Gramsci speaks of is placed in the same dimension as Hegel's “State without State”, a way of overcoming the State of nature, anarchy and violence typical of class society. Hence Gramsci was the only one to explicitly conclude that anarchy is associated with liberalism, not socialism.

And so it is possible to understand why Bakunin, who was inspired by Proudhon – as much as the latter by Tocqueville, or at least by the climate that inspired him –, cries out against the State socialists and the Jacobins, accused not only of statism, but to sacrifice freedom in the name of equality. By the way, Sorel's apolitical syndicalism also refers to the Jacobins in this tone, in what was criticized by Gramsci, who here departs from his original position to start talking about the distinction between a nationalist version, of a bellicose type, and the historical and authentic − a popular Jacobinism, the latter's summary liquidation claim being no more than an ideological subordination to the liberal bourgeoisie. Hence, for Gramsci, “trade union and economist fetishism”, “anti-Jacobinism”, “pure economism” and “radical liberalism” are always the same thing.

It is based on this view of Gramsci that Losurdo maintains that it is somewhat curious how anarchist influences ended up penetrating Marxism, and this to the point of making problematic the main socialist experience of the XNUMXth century, to be carried out through authoritarian procedures. In addition to the objective conditions, much of the Marxist theorizing that informed the construction of the new society was inspired by the pair anarchism/mechanism, as denoted by the proclamation among exponents of Soviet socialism that the idea of ​​the Constitution (and the legal norm) was just a bourgeois idea, or even the illusion regarding the equivalence between the disappearance of classes and the disappearance of the State.

By the way, it is in the same sense that the question of the nation and the market appears. And here too Gramsci is the Marxist who presents himself more clearly, stating, in a polemic with an anarchist interlocutor even before prison, that in post-capitalism “capitalist national states” disappear, but not every national state, a thesis reaffirmed us notebooks when he insists that a communist's internationalism, to be consistent, must be deeply national. For its part, the market is always historically determined, its concrete configuration being closely dependent on a specific political, moral and legal superstructure. Finally, a category that must be declined in the plural.

For Losurdo, it is precisely because of these reflections that Gramsci could hardly be classified as a representative of what Perry Anderson called “Western Marxism”. And this because he knew how to distance himself, notably in the notebooks, of the nihilist critique of the past, so present in this Marxism. And this is when the historical and intellectual context in which Gramsci lived emerges again, namely, that of a country with a liberal tradition that confronts Marx in order to overcome the Syllabus and the Ancien Régime. Hence his “philosophy of praxis” is presented not as the gentile “philosophy of the pure act”, but rather the culmination of a long historical process. The same process that, starting from the French Revolution and Jacobinism, finds its most complete theoretical expression in classical German philosophy and notably in Hegel, read as the achievement and highest point of modernity. A reading, one might say, even more advanced than that of Lenin, who tends to assume the great German philosopher only as a theorist of dialectics.

In a way, it is through this record that one can understand Gramsci's appreciation of Marx's warning in the preface to the second edition of The capital, according to which the importance of “disinterested research” and “free scientific research”, abandoned by “salaried swordsmen”, is paramount. Far from any inquisitorial character, for Gramsci scientific discussion implies the incorporation, as a subordinate moment, of the opponent's point of view, a condition sine qua non the conquest of hegemony by the revolutionary class. Following here a line dear to the Engelsian concept of ideology as “false consciousness” (the true driving forces of the social process remain foreign to the thinker), it is about the effort to guarantee the understanding of the objectivity of the social being in order to do justice to both parties. , something absolutely absent in all subjectivist criticism (such as that of Marxism that clings to the thesis of ideological decay), attached to the idea of ​​insincere and corrupt subjectivity of bourgeois authors. Moreover, in Gramsci's perception, this is also the limitation of syndicalism, which does not know how to leave primitivism (the corporate phase) to reach ethical-political hegemony, a process only possible if one understands revolutionary theory as self-reflexive.

But it is also here that the problem arises of forming, for the proletariat, its own group of independent intellectuals and an autonomous political party, a way of overcoming the harassment of the dominant classes (we recall Pareto, who talks about recruiting elements that are fox and instinctual). bellicose, pointing, among the latter, to unionism). For Gramsci, it is through the promotion, among intellectuals, of a diffuse left tendency and even an adherence to the program and doctrine of the proletariat, that this independent intellectual formation can be achieved. But it is in this same direction that the development of organic intellectuals is even more decisive.

To the extent that the group of intellectuals formed within Marxism does not have its origins linked to the people − rather, coming from the small and middle bourgeoisie, classes to which, due to interests most often linked to social promotion, they can return in major historical crises, it is crucial for the proletariat to create its own category of organic intellectuals. These must be linked to him not only by ideas, but also by social extraction, for which it is necessary to carry out a catharsis cultural and political, a way of breaking free from the corporate spirit, but also another way of posing the problem of inheritance.

In the same way, the strongly self-reflexive character of Gramsci's Marxism − as we said, directly due to the valorization of the legacies arising from the rupture with the Ancien Régime − appears as the best key to the historical reconstitution of the regimes that emerged from the October Revolution. In this reconstitution, it is necessary not to remain only within the communist movement, which means demanding that it also know how to measure itself with the West.

In other words, sticking to the concrete issues of the State, the nation, the market, etc.; a way, after all, of moving away from vulgar materialism, tending to reduce Marxism to a mere appendage of the culture of the ruling class. But it is also the West itself, warns Losurdo, which needs to be read from a unitary historical framework, since the October Revolution influenced, itself, the very welfare state of advanced capitalism - well outlined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948 −, not to mention the wave of decolonization experienced by the South and the East, part of the same unitary historical framework.

It is still the problem of inheritance that is posed if one wants to think about the debates that were present at the time when the October Revolution triumphed, after all, decisive also for understanding the next course of the revolutionary process. And this is when an interpretation of great originality emerges. In fact, it is not a matter of ignoring that Gramsci − in a line that certainly follows Lenin from The Agrarian Program, speaking with enthusiasm of the “American way” − stands out for recognizing and deepening the different and superior degree of the historical development of the West. A process from which to draw lessons for a truly world-wide revolutionary project, since it observes the particularities of the different political regions, and which is thus conceived not only as a rupture, but also as a continuity of the historical development of humanity. However, and what is original here, this does not mean that the Western Marxism/Eastern Marxism dichotomy mechanically corresponds to the dictatorship/hegemony dichotomy.

Gramsci, insists Losurdo, supported the dissolution, by the Bolsheviks, of the Constituent Assembly that opposed the soviets, to the same extent that he opposed the threat of dissolution of representative bodies in Italy by the reformist Bissolati, and this precisely because, in both cases, opposition to those who wanted to throw the proletariat into war was on the order of the day. And, once again, in the case of the soviets, it was an episode of freedom, notwithstanding the external forms it assumed, resulting from the confrontation between two forms of legitimacy that had been fighting each other since February 1917 − while the threat of a coup in Italy exclusively embodied the principle of legitimacy .

At this point, points out Losurdo, Gramsci revealed that he was aware of a more concrete sense of reality than Rosa Luxemburg, who condemned the dissolution of the Assembly by the Bolsheviks, not understanding that it was not a question of dictatorship versus democracy, but dictatorship versus dictatorship, as one could easily perceived by observing the maneuvers of imperialism against Russia. The curious thing, insists Losurdo, is that it was this same Rosa Luxemburg who condemned the Bolshevik agrarian reform as being petty bourgeois, as well as inviting the new government to stifle any separatist tendency with an iron fist.

Now, aren't we here facing formulations that are still dear to the contemporary left today, most often inclined to devalue the role of the market and the nation? And it is not a mere detail to remember, as Losurdo does, that the Stalinist turn that marked the tragedy of real socialism – and this despite the historical context in which it must be read −, somehow began and was fed precisely by misconceptions of this nature with regard to the peasant and national question. And here is also the critique of bureaucratic deviations and the very theoretical deficiency of European socialism that emerged in October 1917, which at a certain point exacted its price in the form of the inability to continue influencing the political destinies of the West, as it did in the post World War II.

* Marcos Aurélio da Silva is a professor at the Department of Geosciences at the Federal University of Santa Catarina (UFSC).

Modified version of article published in Journal of Economic and Social Geography.



[1] Domenico Losurdo, Antonio Gramsci, from liberalism to “critical communism”, Rio de Janeiro: Revan, 2006 (trans. by Tereza Otoni; review by Giovanni Semeraro), 286 p.

[2] The critique of this “radical identification” between the real and the rational is well developed in Losurdo, D. La catastrofe della Germania e l'immagine di Hegel. Napoli: Istituto Italiano per gli Studi Filosofici; Milano: Guerrini and Associati, 1987, pp. 94 and 97. Losurdo criticizes here in particular Émile Boutroux and his student Henri Bergson, inclined to “a unilateral interpretation of this Hegelian 'great principle'”.

[3] Gramsci, A. Quaderni del Jail. Edizione critique dell'Istituto Gramsci. The cure di Valentino Gerratana. Torino: Einaudi, pp. 1416-1420. In this same notebook are the criticisms of Bukharin.

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