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Permanent Passive Revolution?

by Adam David Morton on February 26, 2016
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TahrirIn preparing for an engagement with Brecht De Smet’s new book Gramsci on Tahrir: Revolution and Counter-Revolution in Egypt, I thought it would be a good idea to dust-down a few earlier blog posts of mine in order to provide a ground-clearing exercise on thinking about Antonio Gramsci’s concept and condition of passive revolution. My goal in this endeavour is therefore to re-blog a series of four posts all revolving around the notion of passive revolution. The first was ‘What is this thing called passive revolution?’.

This second in the series, entitled ‘Permanent Passive Revolution?’, originally appeared on For the Desk Drawer (18 July 2012). The post appears without any changes. The aim is then to develop a wider commentary on passive revolution, as well as Brecht De Smet’s important new book, in subsequent contributions to Progress in Political Economy. The third in in the series is entitled ‘Telescoping Passive Revolution’.

Following on from my last post, my purpose in this commentary is to reflect critically on the thesis of passive revolution and whether there is something relatively “permanent” about it as a hallmark of postcolonial state formation. The initiative to do so derives directly from the conclusion to my book Revolution and State in Modern Mexico [2013, Updated Edition]. There, it is noted that Antonio Gramsci was acutely drawn in the Prison Notebooks to consider the utility and dangers of the thesis of passive revolution ‘as an interpretation of the Risorgimento, and of every epoch characterised by complex historical upheavals’ leading to the transformation of capitalist modernity. Hence Gramsci casts out a set of reflections in his carceral research on the ‘danger of historical defeatism, i.e. of indifferentism, since the whole way of posing the question may induce a belief in some kind of fatalism’. Can the history of capitalist development in postcolonial states be marked by transformations of permanent passive revolution?

In Gramsci’s writings there is a focus on the dialectical development arising out of the contradictions of existing forces that provides some assurances on the thesis of passive revolution. As he states, the implications of passive revolution need to be ‘purged of every residue of mechanicism and fatalism’. This is so because ‘the conception remains a dialectical one – in other words, presupposes, indeed postulates as necessary, a vigorous antithesis which can present intransigently all its potentialities for development’. But to what extent can the concept of passive revolution be stretched across an entire historical period to encompass the ongoing processes of modern state formation? Can the history of state formation be seen as the history of passive revolution? This type of question was posed by Gramsci on the permanency of passive revolution in Italy by asking: ‘Are we in a period of “restoration-revolution” to be permanently consolidated, to be organised ideologically, to be exalted lyrically?’

For sure, it is possible to read into such a statement a fundamental transhistorical dynamic. This means the extension of the concept of passive revolution to patterns and regularities across history whilst positing a fixed and continuing present. Gramsci’s own reflections on ‘Reformation and Renaissance’ might confirm a flirtation with passive revolution as an essentially unchanging human story. To quote from Notebook 3§40, written in 1930:

The scattered observations on the differing historical significances of the Protestant Reformation and the Italian Renaissance, of the French Revolution and the Risorgimento (the Reformation is to the Renaissance as the French Revolution is to the Risorgimento) can be collected in a single essay, possibly under the title ‘Reformation and Renaissance’.

Indeed, this analogy may well be suggestive in not only considering the condition of modernity but also in signposting and situating the social transformation and structural changes in capitalism signalling postmodernity, as Perry Anderson has argued in The Origins of Postmodernity [1998]. However, as Leon Trotsky advises, ‘a shallow and purely liberal method of making analogies of historic forms has nothing in common with Marxism’. My argument here, then, is that such acts of concept stretching should be resisted, something that might assuage certain concerns on these lines raised by Alex Callinicos. So, what does it mean to advance the continuum of passive revolution, meaning its relatively ‘permanent’ character within historically specific circumstances, as a hallmark of postcolonial capitalism and state formation?

A central proposition of my Mexico book is that a focus on the continuum of passive revolution reveals pertinent features of modern state formation in an historically specific sense within the twentieth century transition to and transformation of modern capitalist political space. Neil Smith has stated that ‘uneven development is the systematic geographical expression of the contradictions inherent in the very constitution and structure of capital’ and thus unique to capitalism. Equally, as an affinal concept, the thesis of passive revolution reveals specific class strategies and spatial practices that characterise capitalist society and how these have changed with the further development of capitalism.

Cover-200x300This is what is meant by the continuum of passive revolution. Therefore, although uneven development and passive revolution might be treated as universal processes, a historicist mode of thought will emphasise these features of historical sociology as premises of the capitalist mode of production. Hence, when Gramsci pronounces on the historical dynamic of passive revolution that, ‘since similar situations almost always arise in every historical development, one should see if it is not possible to draw from this some general principle of political science and art’, the reference is to capitalism understood as a specific mode of production.

The condition of permanent passive revolution might therefore characterise the identity and history of a specific state in the transition to capitalism as a mode of production. This would be a situation when the ruling class is unable to fully integrate the people through conditions of hegemony, when ‘they were aiming at the creation of a modern state . . . [but] in fact produced a bastard’, as Gramsci puts it. In relation to state formation in Mexico, it is therefore pertinent to ask whether existing class forces (including those surrounding the recent election) can blaze a trail beyond the politics of passive revolution. The Zapatistas posed the problem thus:

The Mexico of today finds itself with a structural deformation that cuts across the spectrum of Mexican society, in that it affects all social classes, in economic and political aspects, and includes its geographical urban and rural ‘organisation’ . . . any intent to ‘reform’ or ‘balance’ this deformation is impossible FROM WITHIN THE SYSTEM OF THE PARTY-STATE. There is no ‘change without rupture’. A profound and radical change of all the social relations in today’s Mexico is necessary. A REVOLUTION IS NECESSARY, a new revolution. This revolution is possible only from outside the system of the Party-State.

Is the result then a condition of permanent passive revolution? Perhaps. Extending the focus across Latin America it is interesting to note that Álvaro Bianchi and Ruy Braga come to a similar conclusion about the history of capitalist development in Brazil. For them, passive revolution is a ‘mutilated dialectic’ that, in the content of the Workers’ Party (PT), becomes updated by means of successive transitions of passive revolution commanded by the state. The mode of passive revolution á la brésilienne is therefore an attempt to update capitalism by state managers within a broader succession of passive revolutions marking the history of the republic. Therefore ‘translating’ passive revolution in Brazil, as argued by Marcos del Roio in a significant essay that pushes the debate further, means recognising attempts to extend the program of passive revolution through permanence. From a Latin American perspective, then, what remains open-ended is the extent to which anti-passive revolution processes of resistance against neoliberalism may further emerge.

Adam David Morton
Adam David Morton is Professor of Political Economy in the Department of Political Economy at the University of Sydney.
1 Comments
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  • Carlos Beca
    March 1, 2016 at 7:08 am

    This is a nice thought but if Brazil is one of the examples of this process, it is quite clear that it does not work.
    Brazil has been in a passive revolution since the late 70s and very little changed.
    Inequality is horrendous.

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