‘Gramsci, Materialism, and Philosophy’ reviewed by Carlos Yebra López

Gramsci, Materialism, and Philosophy

Routledge, New York, 2014. 164pp., £85 hb
ISBN 9781138013841

Reviewed by Carlos Yebra López

About the reviewer

Carlos Yebra López holds an MA in Philosophy from Birkbeck College, University of London, …


This is an insightful work where, much in the vein of the kind of Analytical Marxism which first emerged in the late 1970s (including authors such as G A Cohen and C P Van Parijs), Esteve Morera aims at understanding the philosophical problems raised by Gramsci’s historical materialism, in particular those generated by the relation between materialism and Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection. Morera, whose attention revolves mainly around philosophical materialism (as opposed to historical materialism), is ultimately concerned with separating Gramsci’s absolute historicism from the subsequent abandonment of materialism, or its reduction to vulgar historicism (often encountered not only in the works of post-Marxists such as Spivak, but also in those of Gramscian historical materialists like Haug).

In doing so, Morera shows that while Gramsci’s historicism may not be the best way to avoid the undesirable consequences of materialism and move Marxism forward, there are some important ideas that Gramsci (1891-1937) hinted at. Philosophical materialism, Morera underscores, is of importance here in that it offers the kind of understanding of the world around us (as to both its natural, and its social characteristics, and the complex interrelations between the two) which is crucial to the practice of philosophy as the critique of common sense and religion, as much as for the purpose of laying down the guiding principles behind the major philosophical challenges socialists must face: What can be done? What ought to be done? How can we do it? (136).

In the first chapter (6-28) Morera reflects on the nature of philosophy as envisaged by Gramsci, as well as on its relationship with materialism. In particular, the author puts forward the idea that philosophy’s modest task is to dispell the illusions of common sense, by being critical concerning its social sources and limitations, and also logically and conceptually adequate (7-15). Our philosophical questions, Morera contends on behalf of Gramsci, should respond to human nature and experiences, including the ones of those living on the margins of history (African philosophy (15-23), Marxism, feminism, socialism), for our ethical duty as philosophers is to make philosphy socially responsible, i.e., commited to the development of a just society (23-7). It is only in this way that we will be able to carry out a transition from common sense (folk philosophy) to good sense (philosophy in the strict sense).

In the second chapter, Morera tackles the notion of materialism on the crucial assumption that “if Marxism is also to be an integral worldview, as Gramsci sometimes asserts, then it cannot but take the further step and announce a general metaphysics” (36). Consequently, the philosophical task of Marxism is, in part, to develop a materialism which is consistent with the overall development of the physical sciences, and our growing understanding of the relation between brain and mind, while allowing for (a) freedom as the basis of political praxis, (b) the ability to think and feel (reason and passion), and (c) the complexity of living things (30). In other words, historical materialism needs to be consistent with materialism/naturalism and, despite Gramsci and Gramscian theorists after him (stuck in either post-modern confusion, or in the language of nineteenth century idealism), it can actually do so without falling into reductionism and passivity. This is possible on the basis of a substance reductionism (ontological reductionism) which need not imply epistemic reductionism (explanatory reductionism). In other words, complex systems can be thought of as the result of material process plus emergent systemic properties through the unfolding of history. This in turn forces us to confront how the laws of biology and physics constrain, what they make possible or the realm of opportunites that opens up with the social world, without thereby reducing the explanatory framework of materialism relative to the laws of biology or physics (thus rendering it compatible with the tenets of Gramsci’s sociological thesis) (40-62). Further hypotheses involving the existence of spiritual or vital substances that guide or cause natural properties to acquire life, conciousness and so on, are illusions of the human mind, and as such they need to be vehemently rejected, not only because they are false, but also because they often have consequences, not only for how we understand ourselves, but also for how we organize socially and how we act (66).

Gramsci’s concept of “the organic” is the focus of the third chapter. According to Morera, Gramsci’s language and its application to a number of central questions suggests a central outline of a theory of dynamic systems later to be developed by von Bertalanffy et al.. His use of organic metaphors (through relative permanence, interconnectedness, function and representation of interest and identity (70-7)) is hence not a mere linguistic peculiarity, but on the contrary, is theoretically important (and yet compatible with his criticism of evolutionary sociology, and his claim that human nature is the ensemble of social relations). In particular, it implies a complex theory of determinism, which avoids the simplicities of the old positivist conception of causality (as well as its prenicious intellectual and political consequences [social immobility]), and instead takes reality as a “world of systems”. This view emphasizes the productive or deterministic interconnections amongst the elements of a whole, and the emerging properties that would not develop otherwise (79-88). This theory, Morera concludes convincingly enough, has the potential to develop historical materialism without the futile and mostly empty debates about determinism, reductionism and essentialism (92).

The fourth chapter is devoted to the pivotal notion of “human nature”. From the perspective of Gramsci’s historical materialism, when one speaks of the historicity of human nature, both the theoretical question of what human nature has become, and the ethical or practical question of what it may become, must be taken into account. Thus, human nature is a philosophical, ethico-political, social and natural triadic dynamical system involving the individual, nature (natural history) and society (social history), each element of the relation bearing a distinctive temporality. Human beings are linked to nature via work and technique, whereas their link to other men is organic (101-6). Morera claims that Gramsci’s insights into human nature via this triadic system can be rendered consistent with materialist ontology, and further expounds the idea that Gramsci may have indeed anticipated some of the problems to be encountered by revolutionary politics as regards human nature (e.g. the production of knowledge, and the development of political programmes need to integrate these two elements, one closely related to the experiences of the masses, and the other to the knowledge of the “laws of history”, for the creation of a new social reality must always be grounded on effective reality (110)).

The last chapter, which goes by the name of “Materialism and Ethical Life” favors the adoption of a naturalist notion of freedom (hence, one that gives up all illusions of an absolute origin of agency (119-23)) and renders it compatible with materialism as a deterministic view of the world, thus allowing freedom to pave the way for ethical life. In this way, Morera puts forward an individual freedom which becomes a complex system of socialized freedom that is, as such, subject to a necessary order, which constrains individual action as much as it enables it, by providing choices and capacities otherwise unavailable (123-5) and which has the fortunate consequence of greatly expanding freedom beyond the illusions of individualism (proposed by early liberals) and collectivism (which reduces individuals to simple parts in a whole that take priority over the constituent elements) (125-31): “freedom is based on natural characteristics of human beings; society develops it in a truly human fashion” (130).

All in all, Morera is to be commended for having written a rigorous, thought-provoking book, with improbable cross-references and dialogues (e.g., Gramsci-Dennett, Gramsci-Carbonell), exhaustive analysis and far-reaching theoretical implications concerning Gramsci’s political theory as a crucial contribution to democratic socialism. On the other hand, it is of note that Gramsci, Materialism and Philosophy contains some rather protracted excursuses which may not always be required in order for Morera to make his points (the emergence of Modern African philosophy (15-23), Gramsci and Russell (31-7), Freedom and Necessity: From Kant to Hegel (117-19)), in addition to incurring some running starts at the beginning of some episodes (that is, Morera warms up by talking in the most general terms about either the history of philosophy or its main notions, as opposed to jumping straight into the topic at hand). More crucially, it is one thing to ask whether one can apply Gramsci’s work to the development of materialism vis-à-vis the intricacies of our current understanding of human nature and the ethico-political situtation, yet it is another to conclude that this justifies neglecting any other parts of Grasmci’s work which seem to suggest otherwise (112). This, in turn, is the reason why Morera’s proposed consistency between Gramsci’s own work and materialism comes across as stilted or ad hoc at some points. In any case, the above virtues outweigh these minor problems by far. So much so that I strongly believe Gramsci, Materialism and Philosophy to be a must for those philosophers interested in either Materialism, Gramsci or general considerations on the interwining of human nature and socio-political considerations from a Marxist perspective.

13 July 2014

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