Sunday, November 27, 2011

Was Gramsci a Marxist?

At first look, it sounds like an awkward question. First time I started to be bothered by that question was when I read a short introductory article on Gramsci's thought written by John Hoffman. (Hoffman, John, "Antonio Gramsci: The Prison Notebooks", in The Political Classics: Green to Dworkin, (ed.) Murray Forsyth and Maurice Keens-Soper, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996, pp. 58-77

Hoffman tries to identify a central dilemmatic problem in Gramsci's thought. He argues that "as a committed Marxist, he (Gramsci) identified with the vision of an emancipated society which is not only classless, but stateless as well. At the same time his political allegiances meant that he embraced authoritarian arguments for revolution, class war, and party organization. The question inevitably arises: how was a stateless end to be realized through statist means?" (p.58)

According to Hoffman, Gramsci's attempt to overcome this dilemmatic situation through incorporating the ethical-political concepts of the Italian humanist Benedetto Croce into his Marxist framework had two significant consequences for Gramsci's thought and his version of Marxism. Hoffman argues that on one hand, the liberal-idealist philosophical background derived, intentionally or unintentionally, from Croce "made it possible to raise questions of morality, culture, and freedom which he believed that a fatalistic form of Marxism had suppressed." (p. 58) But at the same time, Hoffman thinks, "this attempt at a synthesis was unsuccessful and undermined a coherent argument for emancipation, since the abstract idealism of Croce coexists uneasily in Gramsci's work with authoritarian arguments for class war, revolution, and the proletarian state." (p. 59)

In my view, mainly two types of individuals play important roles in a scholar's intellectual/philosophical development. On one hand, a scholar feels himself/herself close to, or associated with, the ideas, thoughts, theories and methodology of a certain philosopher. He/she gets influenced by these ideas and tries to understand the world around him/her through these ideas. The role of French socialists for Karl Marx, and the role of Marx for Antonio Gramsci can be mentioned as two examples of this case. One the other hand, the scholar may find the ideas and thoughts of a certain philosopher problematic or even disturbing, and he/she may choose to deal with these disturbing points to correct them, to improve them, or to refute them. In that regard, the role of G.W.F Hegel for Marx, and the role of Benedetto Croce for Gramsci can be good examples. It is through a philosophical converstaion or a struggle with the philosophers of the second types which I think is what actually helps a scholar to develop his/her own ideas and come up with new theories or philosophical systems.

But then was Gramsci successful in overcoming an early philosophical influence on his thought, that is the influence of the idealist Italian thinker Croce, and develop a new philosophical system? Hoffman argues that he was not. "A loyalty to Marxism saddled Gramsci with authoritarian concepts that he sought to dilute with Crocean idealism. This explains why his work was received with particular enthusiasm by Eurocommunists who sought to pursue a liberal politics within a Marxist framework. If, then, Gramsci's Marxism is tantalizing, it is also incoherent, for he was ultimately unable to develop the concepts necessary for promoting a self-governing world in place of the hierarchical and repressive institutions of the state." (p. 75-76)

What do you think?

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