FRIDAY’S WORDS OF WISDOM: GRAMSCI

This week I picked up Andrew Pearman’s The Politics of New Labour: A Gramscian Analysis. It’s a book with a title that seems designed to disappoint readers as it isn’t really an analysis of New Labour, Gramscian or otherwise. Much of the book is an excuse for an ex-communist (turned Green) to complain that New Labour wasn’t communist enough. There are a lot of good reasons to criticise New Labour but complaining that they weren’t communist enough is a bit like kicking your cat because it doesn’t bark enough and calling that a “Gramscian analysis” is like claiming the kicking is a form of practical zoology. The book isn’t a total washout, however, as it does provide an interesting (though partial and shallow) history of the uses and abuses of Gramscian theory by various parts of the post-war British left.

There was one passage that struck a particular chord with me:

There is something about Gramsci that appeals to a certain cast of mind, especially among thoughtful younger men at odds with their social circumstances, ‘outsider insiders’ or ‘gregarious loners’ like the man himself, drawn by the romantic lure of enforced exile and incarceration, not to mention the lonely devotions of wilderness prophecy and inevitable early, largely un-mourned death. There is added appeal in posthumous acclaim and influence, which brings glory in fabled death without the blemishes of a real full life. There are obvious parallels in religious iconography, or in the short-lived ‘bright stars’ of the romantic tradition and our own popular culture; lonely suffering and early death can be a smart career move. Fittingly Gramsci’s ashes were deposited in an urn in the ‘English’ Protestant Cemetery in Rome where the poet John Keats was buried (with his beautiful headstone inscription: “Here lies one whose name was writ in water.”) But Gramsci’s was not a self-willed confinement, or in any sense self-induced mortality. Besides, his sheer determination in conditions of spiritual, mental and physical adversity, which he seems if anything to have downplayed in his writings, seemed (and seems) truly heroic. For young lefties of the generally dispiriting 1970s, with our thwarted hopes and quasi-feminist openness to feeling, Gramsci was a sentimental inspiration. (13)

If you replaced the “dispiriting 1970s” with the “soul-destroying 1980s” then this might roughly describe my encounter with Gramsci as a student (though I’m not sure if I could ever claimed to have possessed a “quasi-feminist openness to feeling” – I was always more of a “bottle things up until your head explodes” kind of guy…). The communication studies part of my first degree was heavily influenced by the “cultural studies” movement and Gramsci was highly influential in providing theoretical underpinnings for the work of people like Stuart Hall. Gramsci and, a little later, Foucault would be the two most important theorists I discovered as an undergraduate.

But it wasn’t in an academic setting that Gramsci first caught my attention. Instead it was a quote from Grasmci’s prison letters that was on the liner notes of Billy Bragg’s album Worker’s Playtime (itself a document that is a testament to “…younger men at odds with their social circumstances, ‘outsider insiders’ or ‘gregarious loners’…”) which was released in the summer 1988, at the end of my first year at university.

How many times have I wondered if it is really possible to forge links with a mass of people when one has never had strong feelings for anyone, not even one’s own parents: if it is possible to have a collectivity when one has not been deeply loved oneself by individual human creatures. Hasn’t this had some effect on my life as a militant–has it not tended to make me sterile and reduce my quality as a revolutionary by making everything a matter of pure intellect, of pure mathematical calculation?

That rather sums up what I’ve always liked about Gramsci. Though he was committed enough to his Marxist beliefs to rot in prison rather compromise his beliefs, he never allowed ideology to stop him worrying about being a decent human being. Because Gramsci was “discovered” by British sociologists in the 1970s it is sometimes easy to forget that he was a contemporary of Lenin. Compared to the Russian, Gramsci’s writing and thought contains little of the narrow mechanical determinism that allowed Stalinism to emerge from Russian socialism and less of the utopianism that would be so easily transformed into despotism by the vanguardist soviets.

Gramsci, especially in the Prison Letters, is a very quotable writer providing epigrams that resonated with me as a “young lefty” and which I still carry with me:

“I’m a pessimist because of intelligence, but an optimist because of will.”

“Live a life without illusions while not becoming disillusioned.”

And my favourite:

“If you beat your head against the wall it is your head which breaks and not the wall – that is my strength, my only strength.”

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