‘You can only win the game when you understand that it is a game. Let a man play chess, and tell him that every pawn is his friend. Let him think both the bishops holy. Let him remember happy days in the shadows of his castle. Let him love his queen. Watch him lose them all.’
— Jorg Ancrath, Prince of Thorns
The Marxist Antonio Gramsci is a celebrated thinker; strangely enough he is probably more celebrated on the Right than he is on the Left. There is a good reason for why he is regarded as a useful thinker by the conservatives and nationalists that he would have fought against with ferocity in the early twentieth century. This reason has little to do with his politics, and much more to do with his creative methodology and his notion that you need to have culture on your side in order to succeed in politics. When some of his concepts are removed from their original context, they can be appropriated by the Right and made useful in our own struggle.
There are certain strands in Gramsci’s general thought, however, which give us reasons to be careful in using his methodology, even when it is adopted with the clear purpose of advancing the positions of the Right. There is a degree to which Gramsci can be seen as part of a cadre of Marxist intellectuals who worked on concepts pertaining to the importance of the people in society, history, and culture. One should also mention György Lukács and his ideas about class consciousness, Jean-Paul Sartre and his concept of bad faith, and the ideological state of Louis Althusser. When it comes to the intellectuals who in some ways came to replace the earlier, Marxist left, one can mention Michel Foucault and his ‘archaeological’ investigations, and one should certainly not forget Jacques Derrida and the school of deconstruction.
Some, but by no means all, of the Marxist intellectuals were aware that it is not a very good strategy to trust the workers to find their own way to their class identity, the struggle, and the party. For instance, Lukács believed that class consciousness could only arise under certain circumstances, and that cannot awaken on its own. There has always been a tension in Marxism when it comes to the relationship between the means of production and the cultural structure, or, as they put it, between the base and its superstructure. It should not be forgotten that Marxism, when it was first formulated, was viewed as a hard science by those who claimed to follow its teachings.
Marx himself held that he had formulated a science, and this was a serious claim. He believed to have discovered the laws of history and society, and he expressed them in terms of dialectical materialism and historical materialism. The first refers to his notion that culture arises from the material and that thought is altered by the material, and that ideas, in the end, are determined by the material. Historical materialism, as a complementary view, refers to the concept of class and its importance in the history of mankind. It is the idea that history is really about the sometimes open, and sometimes hidden, war between the classes: a sort of occult war that is destined to end with the working class triumphing over the bourgeoisie.
Jonathan Bowden once said that Marxism resembled a vortex of ideas, and he was certainly right. Since its founding, Marxism has gone in many different directions; some strands have been critiqued for being crude in their materialism and some have been almost completely oriented toward the study of culture. The interesting thing is, of course, why have Marxists always had an interest in culture? Why would they? In a more orthodox interpretation of this type of thought, culture is simply an outcome of the means of production. It is determined, it does not determine. Culture would perhaps be of interest to describe the decadent life of the bourgeoisie, but in the end it doesn’t really matter since it will change when the means of production are reorganised.
This stance has been rendered impossible by its own incongruity. Not even a hardcore materialist philosophy like Marxism can ignore the importance of culture and ideas in the long run. More than anyone, Gramsci became aware of this when he was active as the leader of the Italian Communist party. Their attempt at a revolution failed, and Gramsci was jailed by the Italian state, which at that time was being ruled by Benito Mussolini’s Fascists. During his time in jail, Gramsci developed the concepts that would come to be important for the Left in the decades following Gramsci’s death in 1937.
It is surely not surprising that during his time in jail, Gramsci considered the reasons why the revolution had failed, and why the workers had not done what the organisers and intellectuals of the Left had asked them to. Gramsci was not the only Marxist intellectual to have had these thoughts; Lukács also pondered this in his History and Class Consciousness, where he asked the question of how the working class becomes aware of itself as a working class; or, in other terms, how it develops its class consciousness. It seems to be a necessity that the working class actually thinks of itself as a working class if it is to be possible for it to fulfil its destiny.
This is also a good way to put the question that Gramsci must have asked himself: why did the working class not come to think of itself as a working class? It is in this context that he developed the concept of hegemony, which is an idea that is more complicated than it is sometimes made out to be. Hegemony is something that exists in the mind; it is rule by ideas, values, and norms. If an attempt to alter the existing hegemony is to succeed it is necessary that people internalise these ideas in a deeper sense. Ideas when understood in this context therefore exclude the sort of opinions that one can change from one day to the next; it also excludes coercion by means of force.
An interesting thing about Gramsci is the importance he assigned to intellectuals in the scheme of things. He held that it is not enough merely to be intelligent and to write on subjects that could be perceived as metapolitical in the broadest of senses. To be of any relevance in Gramsci’s eyes, it is necessary to be an organic intellectual, which is a type of intellectual who expresses the actual interests of his time and those of the people who live in it. It is not uncommon that academics believe that their particular contribution is uniquely important, but Gramsci’s response would be that most academics are unimportant by virtue of the fact that they are not expressing the interests of the people.
Hegemony is thus our ideas, values, and norms; those things that are closest to us and that, to a degree, we believe to be entirely natural or common sense. Gramsci believed that common sense is ideology in a form that ordinary people can understand, and that it is not, therefore, the product of the games of bourgeoisie intellectuals, but rather something that originates from human action and needs. The idea that our society, culture, history, and institutions are something different from what they seem is not new in Marxist thought. Marx himself wrote several books on these topics, such as The German Ideology and The Holy Family.
This is the reason why one should proceed with caution when attempting to use Gramsci, regardless of one’s purpose and intent. There is a destructive mechanism built into Marxism by which the culture and institutions that are important for a society’s functioning are transmuted into something different. In the light of its theories, all these valuable things can potentially be portrayed as something intrinsically bad and dangerous because they are all products of the capitalist order. The culture and history of a society are, in Gramsci’s view, merely something that has been imposed on the people by organic intellectuals, which the people have in turn internalised, and that needs to be done away with.
In the introduction to The Communist Manifesto, Marx refers to Communism as the spectre that is currently haunting Europe. I agree that Marxism has certain ghostly qualities, and Gramsci’s form of Marxism more so than others. The core value in Marxist cultural thought is, as I perceive it, to convince the working class that they are actually participating in a great game, in which they will always lose because the game is rigged. This is a necessity because when the working class doesn’t know that it is in a game, they are not interested in playing. And when the working class is not interested in playing, the Marxists lose the game.
That would be the claim of orthodox Marxism; Gramsci’s claim actually departs from this view by being even more radical. Gramsci can be read as an Idealist thinker, in the meaning of someone who views ideas as more important than the material world. The theorist of international relations, Alexander Wendt, has argued that ideas are not to be understood as something that exists as a utility of power, but are the very thing that power itself consists of. Just as I stated in my earlier discussion of Gramsci’s view of hegemony, ideas in this sense should be understood as being deep and internalised rather than becoming confused with the more shallow opinions and notions that people use when thinking and expressing themselves in everyday life.
Ideas are, as Wendt understands them, equal to power and interests. To formulate and shape ideas is not to make people aware of their interests; it is to create those interests in the first place. Gramsci’s thinking is not, therefore, so much about revealing hegemony as it is about making people in general believe that it exists. If people come to believe that traditional culture, values, and loyalties are part of a hidden structure of power, in a strange way that actually causes it to become the case. This is the hidden essence of Gramsci’s thought: hegemony and class consciousness come into being by the spellcasting of the theorist: these things of the mind are not discovered, they are invented.
Gramsci’s ideas of hegemony can thus be viewed as something like a prophecy that is supposed to lead people out of one form of cultural structure and into something else entirely. After all, if people act as if the claims of Marxism are true, it amounts to the same thing as if these claims actually are objectively true: the result will be the same. The only thing that mattered to Gramsci, which he had in common with the vicious character of Jorg Ancrath, is to win the game. And truth is just another way to lose the game.