‘Gramsci’s Pathways’ reviewed by Alex Underwood

Gramsci’s Pathways

Brill, Leiden, 2015. 238pp., €104
ISBN ISBN 9789004245198

Reviewed by Alex Underwood

About the reviewer

Alex Underwood is studying for a PhD on Deleuze and conceptions of identity in Neoliberal theory at …


Guido Liguori has written widely on 20th Century Italian Marxism and is president of the Italian branch of the International Gramsci Society. Gramsci’s Pathways is largely the product of this Society’s ‘Seminar on the lexicon of the Quaderni del Carcere’, and follows in the footsteps of the Dizionario Gramsciano 1926–37, an excellent reference that is regrettably not yet available in translation. Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks, written in multiple drafts over the eleven years of his incarceration, are fragmented, open-ended, and purposefully resistant to systematisation. This has allowed the content of the Notebooks to be presented in defence of a variety of causes, Marxist or otherwise. As such, both the rigorous study undertaken in Gramsci’s Pathways and the translation by Broder are welcome additions to English-speaking scholarship.

As its preface makes clear, this book incorporates a philological exploration of interpretative pathways drawn from the Prison Notebooks. As contemporary readings often ‘demand too much of the text’, the seminar from which the book developed aimed to return to the text itself, and thereby to a point prior to the ‘battle of ideas’ that has developed between interpretations. (ix) However, this textual focus does not entail surrendering concepts to ambiguity, or the withholding of judgement: as Liguori puts it, “interpreting is not only unavoidable, but also the only way to understand a text” (x) and Gramsci’s Pathways marks an attempt to outline a Gramscian hermeneutics in a ‘programmatic’ manner, one which affirms an ultimately materialist Gramsci contrary to culturalist, neo-idealist and liberal readings.

The first six chapters each explore a prominent concept from the Notebooks, beginning with the ‘extended state’ which, in the first chapter, is shown to differ from the traditional Marxist conception of the state through new dialectical relations of ‘unity-distinction’ between politics and economics, the state and civil society. Civil society is understood to be part of the state, and to operate under its hegemony (1). As Liguori shows in the second chapter, Gramsci’s position remains a materialist one in which the economic realm is ultimately determinative, even as its relationship to the political is complicated through the concept of hegemony. Here Liguori contradicts the reading of Bobbio and others who suggest the concepts of civil society and the state are to be considered in oppositional terms, suggesting that while Gramsci did diverge from Marx in considering it as part of the superstructure, this did not entail making it the new centre of socio-historical reality (35).

The third chapter places Gramsci’s views on the nation-state and scientific management into the context of contemporary debates regarding mundialisation and globalisation. Liguori demonstrates that for Gramsci, concepts must be considered from the national perspective, and he counters readings that would seek to overestimate the importance of civil society at the expense of the state. Liguori believes that such overestimation typifies the influence of neoliberal myths of the end of state politics in contemporary capitalism, to which Gramsci’s dialectical unity of state and factory serves as an important corrective (48).

Liguori also argues that liberal readings rely on an anthropological conception of the subject which Gramsci would not have accepted, insofar as he followed Marx in believing it to be fundamentally relational. The following three chapters examine these relations through Gramsci’s conception of popular and social movements, ideology and ‘common sense’. They do so in great detail whilst also providing a historical exploration of Gramsci’s life. In the newly added fourth chapter, Liguori suggests that, contrary to certain ‘Sorellian’ interpretations, a dialectical relation of party and movement is always central to Gramsci’s thought: conscious leadership is always a necessary part of, and takes its cue from, popular movement (64). Ideology is developed by Gramsci in a positive sense, and is understood as a shared conception of the world and the means by which a subject develops consciousness and thereby the possibility of opposition to a rival hegemony (80). This is distinguished by Liguori from Marx’s negatively connoted use of the term in the German Ideology, and it places Marxism as one ideology among many; albeit a superior one, insofar as it historicises its own development (72). Ideology, a philosophy which has become a cultural movement, pervades a social group and constitutes the subjectivity of its members, who must continue their battle for hegemonic dominance within the concrete material formations of the state. This opposition can be seen as a battle against the dominant ‘common sense’. The latter is a variant of ideology that appears to have two distinct meanings within the Notebooks: on the one hand, as the conception of the world shared by a social stratum, a ‘passive moment of reflection’ devolved from the more conscious intellectual stratum of the group, while on the other it is the alternative to a developed conception of the world (88). Intellectuals, through a critique that emerges out of and in opposition to ‘common sense’, must enter into a dialectical relationship with it, in order to facilitate consciousness and hegemonic change, thereby superseding it while maintaining their connection to the ‘simple’ (112). This section of the book ends with a discussion of the ethical dimensions of Gramsci’s work. Although his work differs from more deterministic accounts of Marx, Gramsci’s subject is not entirely free: choice is only possible in the formation of ideology within a given historical circumstance. Communism, referred to as ‘regulated society’, is no longer a historical necessity but a choice that must be made (118).

The later sections of the book concern Gramsci’s relation with other thinkers, beginning with Marx and Engels. Gramsci, in light of the failure of revolutionary hopes after 1848, believed that Marxism had transformed from a ‘war of movement’ to one of position (120). Three major distinctions between Gramsci and Marx arising in previous chapters are recounted here, and are provided with a more encompassing historical analysis: the positive conception of ideology, the importance of beginning with the nation-state, and the extension of the concept of the state, are each presented as adaptations, rather than breaks, with Marxist theory. This continues in the ninth chapter, where Liguori opposes a popular reading which suggests a unilateral criticism of Engels’ influence on Marx on Gramsci’s part. While not aiming to create a false sense of harmony between them, Liguori progresses beyond a simplistic account of Gramsci’s views even of Anti-Dühring, demonstrating his adoption of several concepts as part of his polemic against Bukharin and Croce, including the objectivity of the real and dialectical relation of quantity and quality (136). Liguori demonstrates that although Gramsci was critical of Engels for attempting to systematise Marx’s theory, he also demonstrates Gramsci’s approval of the anti-determinism of later letters which seem to suggest Engels came to repudiate purely economistic readings (138).

Proceeding with his relation to more immediate contemporaries, Liguori demonstrates divergence between Gramsci and Labriola, in that while the latter escapes from a purely economistic reading of Marx to a greater extent than much of the Second International, he does so without a positive account of ideology as a driving political force. While Labriola attempts to read history in terms of Marxism, Gramsci’s primary concern is to engage in the political, ensuring that he was more concerned with the “avenues and resources of subjectivity not only post factum” (150). Chapter eleven explores the relation to Togliatti, who was his comrade, first interpreter and translator. Liguori divides Togliatti’s writings on Gramsci into distinct historical periods, praising him for presenting as true an image of Gramsci as was possible under Soviet political pressure while acknowledging new evidence which dispels critical exaggeration of their disagreement. Liguori’s analysis is particularly useful in this regard, countering prima facie accounts and myths with detailed comparative references.

Chapter twelve reviews the concept of hegemony as its interpretation has evolved through critical works from first publication to the modern day, focusing on those specifically devoted to the concept or which have made particular contributions towards its interpretation. While some repetition of content inevitably occurs, it does provide an excellent philological account of the interpretive variations, including the origins and development of the liberal readings of Gramsci and the relation of hegemony to democratic practice and civil society.

Chapter thirteen concerns the contemporary reading of Gramsci by West, who describes himself as a neo-Gramscian pragmatist, and possible parallels with Dewey and American Pragmatism. West not only studies Gramsci, but uses the interconnectedness of the economy, politics and society developed in the concept of hegemony to examine racial conflict in contemporary America without reduction. This process of translation is presented as laudable, though not philologically accurate, with Liguori claiming that to translate a discourse faithfully to another time and political situation is impossible (201). While the explication of the relation of Gramsci and American Pragmatism is exhaustive, he unfortunately does not develop this thought further with more concrete modern examples.

The fourteenth chapter, newly added for the English translation, examines Gramsci’s reading of Machiavelli. On Gramsci’s view, The Prince is a work of political praxis in which Machiavelli, despite his acceptance of dictatorship, wished to educate the revolutionary class of the time, the Italian people and nation (211). This democratic and nationalist interpretation of Machiavelli rejects conceptions which present him only in terms of Realpolitik, and led Gramsci to suggest that The Prince could be taken as a model for a work in which the protagonist is a revolutionary party understood in all its historically determined specificity. In his outlining of a ‘Modern Prince’, Gramsci translates what he saw as the non-systematic work of Machiavelli into his own considerations of the pragmatics of contemporary Europe.

Gramsci’s Pathways will prove an invaluable reference to those wishing to deepen their understanding of Gramsci or to consider individual readings within the wider scholarly and historical context, and the book makes a powerful case for reclaiming Gramsci’s legacy as part of a materialist and Marxist tradition. The detailed way in which Liguori separates often contentious notions and critical readings is to be commended, though some familiarity is advised before approaching the incredible detail and historical reference of his study.

30 October 2016

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