On January 23 in 1891 one of the most influential Marxists of the 21st Century, Antonio Gramsci, was born in the small town of Ales in Sardinia. Gramsci’s work transformed how we think about a Marxist politics. Whereas the Russian Revolution occured in the “backward” Russia, and as such was as much a revolution against the “old regime” as against capital, Gramsci attempted to wrestle with the question of how we build a revolutionary movement in the developed areas of Western Europe. In particular it was his development of the concept of “hegemony” which was to prove the most influential. In this piece, from the great Stuart Hall and published in The Hard Road to Renewal, Hall attempts to expand these insights of Gramsci’s to analyse the “regressive modernisation” of Thatcher. In an age where many are tackling the question of how to build a new left modernity, Gramsci and Hall are as relevant as ever.
This is not a comprehensive exposition of the ideas of Antonio Gramsci, nor a systematic account of the political situation in Britain today. It is an attempt to ‘think aloud’ about some of the perplexing dilemmas facing the Left, in the light of – from the perspective of – Gramsci’s work. I do not claim that, in any simple way, Gramsci ‘has the answers’ or ‘holds the key’ to our present troubles. I do believe that we must ‘think’ our problems in a Gramscian way – which is different. We mustn’t use Gramsci (as we have for so long abused Marx) like an Old Testament prophet who, at the correct moment, will offer us the consoling and appropriate quotation. We can’t pluck up this ‘Sardinian’ from his specific and unique political formation, beam him down at the end of the 20th century, and ask him to solve our problems for us: especially since the whole thrust of his thinking was to refuse this easy transfer of generalisations from one conjuncture, nation or epoch to another.
The thing about Gramsci that really transformed my own way of thinking about politics is the question which arises from his Prison Notebooks. If you look at the classic texts of Marx and Lenin, you are led to expect a revolutionary epochal historical development emerging from the end of the First World War onwards. And indeed events did give considerable evidence that such a development was occurring. Gramsci belongs to this ‘proletarian moment’. It occurred in Turin in the 1920s, and other places where people like Gramsci, in touch with the advance guard of the industrial working class — then at the very forefront of modern production — thought that, if only the managers and politicians would get out of the way, this class of proletarians could run the world, take over the factories, seize the whole machinery of society, materially transform it and manage it, economically, socially, culturally, technically. The truth about the 1920s is that the ‘proletarian moment’ very nearly came off. Just before and after the First World War, it really was touch and go as to whether, under the leadership of such a class, the world might not have been transformed – as Russia was in 1917 by the Soviet revolution. This was the moment of the proletarian perspective on history. What I have called Gramsci’s question’ in the Notebooks emerges in the aftermath of that moment, with the recognition that history was not going to go that way, especially in the advanced industrial capitalist societies of Western Europe. Gramsci had to confront the turning back, the failure, of that moment: the fact that such a moment, having passed, would never return in its old form. Gramsci, here, came face to face with the revolutionary character of history itself. When a conjuncture unrolls, there is no ‘going back’. History shifts gears. The terrain changes. You are in a new moment. You have to attend, ‘violently’, with all the ‘pessimism of the intellect’ at your command, to the ‘discipline of the conjuncture’.
In addition (and this is one of the main reasons why his thought is so pertinent to us today) he had to face the capacity of the Right – specifically, of European fascism – to hegemonise that defeat.
So here was a historic reversal of the revolutionary project, a new historical conjuncture, and a moment which the Right, rather than the Left, was able to dominate. This looks like a moment of total crisis for the Left, when all the reference points, the predictions, have been shot to bits. The political universe, as you have come to inhabit it, collapses.
I don’t want to say that the Left in Britain is in exactly the same moment; but I do hope you recognise certain strikingly similar features, because it is the similarity between those two situations, that makes the question of the Prison Notebooks so seminal in helping us to understand what our condition is today. Gramsci gives us, not the tools with which to solve the puzzle, but the means with which to ask the right kinds of questions about the politics of the 1980s and 1990s. He does so by directing our attention