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Peter Thomas, The Gramscian Moment

by Adam David Morton on August 20, 2014
Past & Present

In organising the Past & Present Reading Group, the first text that was chosen was a book that is certainly no shrinking violet. After all, Peter Thomas’ The Gramscian Moment was the winner in 2011 of the Premio internazionale Giuseppe Sormani, awarded by the Fondazione Istituto Piemontese Antonio Gramsci in Turin for the best book on Gramsci between 2007 and 2011. The Gramscian Moment also comes out at a considerable 400 plus pages to deliver a truly canonical statement on what a philologically precise reading of the Prison Notebooks offers students and scholars interested in Antonio Gramsci today. The anticipation and interest in reading the book was thus extremely strong within the group, whether amongst those that were reading it for the first time, or those that were returning to the text for an additional visit. How can one summarise some of the main currents coursing through The Gramscian Moment? What lies beneath the surface waters of the text and what elements did the group spotlight in navigating their passage through this essential read?

Along with additional scholars such as inter alia Joseph ButtigiegDerek BoothmanMarcus GreenPeter IvesFabio Frosini, or Rocco LacortePeter Thomas is at the forefront of asserting a philological reassessment of Gramsci’s legacy relevant to the renewal of Marxism today. More specifically, for Peter Thomas, the incumbent task is an inheritance, transformation, and revitalisation of Marxist philosophy. With a term that recurs throughout the book, The Gramscian Moment sets itself the task of re-proposing a distinctively Marxist philosophical research programme as a necessary element in the task of continuation and renovation, fidelity and renewal, of a future philosophy of Marxism.

This research programme stands on a tripod of absolutes in recovering the meaning of 1) absolute historicism, 2) absolute immanence, and 3) absolute humanism in Gramsci’s legacy for Marxist philosophy today. The notion of ‘moment’ is also thus pivotal to the development of this tripod of absolutes, to indicate a possible contemporaneity between Gramsci’s thought and the present day. The Gramscian ‘moment’ then is the constitution of Marxist philosophy with the concepts of absolute historicism, absolute immanence, and absolute humanism. In developing his argument, two major fellow travellers are cut adrift by Thomas. The representative status of Perry Anderson’s interpretation and his commonly held assumptions are dissipated if not completely eroded, not least on the issue of state-civil society relations. Equally, the coherence of Louis Althusser’s subjectivist philosophical approach is revealed as a symptom of political defeat, which it is argued is translated into a theoretical register devoid of class content.

Hence, the dialectical dimensions of Gramsci’s theory of the integral state come to the fore in the early arguments of The Gramscian Moment. Antonio Gramsci articulates, as early as 1930 in his carceral writings (Q1§43), this dialectical mode of thinking thus:

Finding the real identity underneath the apparent differentiation and contradiction and finding the substantial diversity underneath the apparent identity is the most essential quality of the critic of ideas and the historian of social development.

Hence, for Thomas, ‘Gramsci posited the dialectical unity of political and civil society, and not their identity or fusion’. Throughout The Gramscian Moment, then, it is this stress on dialectics that marks Gramsci’s concepts, his dialectical relation of force and consent, the identity/distinction of political society and civil society as moments within hegemony, or the unity-in-difference of state forms linking the uneven and combined development of both ‘East’ and ‘West’ rather than their opposition, which all come to the fore.

Equally, the mode of formation of modern statehood across nineteenth-century continental Europe that Gramsci referred to as passive revolution is in dialectical relation with the development of the condition of hegemony. Passive revolution is the cautious molecular absorption of subaltern classes into a consolidating state and its organs of civil society related to the incomplete struggle for bourgeois hegemony. Hence, as Thomas details, the ‘true secret of the state’ is found in the twofold problematic of 1) the analysis of the short-circuits whereby the bourgeois state achieved a false transition between civil society and political society [passive revolution]; and 2) the challenge of forging an ‘organic’ transition between civil society and its organising instance in the state [hegemony].

These streams flow into the main tributaries on absolute historicism, absolute immanence, and absolute humanism. Absolute historicism is regarded as the ‘hard core’ of Gramsci’s research programme, referring to the capacity of historical materialism to link the unity in distinction of philosophy, history, and politics across non-contemporaneous time. ‘The philosophy of praxis’, states Gramsci, ‘is precisely the concrete historicisation of philosophy and its identification with history’ (Q11§22). By extension, absolute immanence focuses on forms of knowledge linked to the concrete terrain of history, providing a qualitatively new way of posing the question of the relation of theory to practice. In concurrence with Thomas’ historicist viewpoint:

According to this new concept of immanence, theory is no longer to be understood as external to practice to which it must be applied. Rather, in realistic and historical terms, theory itself is to be understood as a determinate activity alongside other activities with its own specific tasks to fulfill, a theoretical “moment” that can be immanent to the social practices it seeks to comprehend because those practices are already immanent to it.

Finally, absolute humanism is the recourse in Gramsci—following Karl Marx’s Theses on Feuerbach—to situate politics, history and philosophy within the ensemble of social relations as historical relations of class struggle. As Thomas details, rather than as pre-given interior or subjective relations that enter into relations with an exterior social world, or simply with other ‘interiorities’ or subjectivities, human relations are conceived by Gramsci as ‘relations of force’ between different class interests in determinate conflict. The result is Gramsci’s ‘“anti-subjectivist” historicist explanation of the category of the subject’, thereby dispensing with a fixed notion of human essence. Put differently, armed now with the trident of absolute historicism, absolute immanence, and absolute humanism, Marxist philosophy is able to combat both speculative idealism and philosophical materialism to offer an autonomous research programme in the renewal of Marxism today.

How then can one best approach the literary form of the Prison Notebooks? According to Thomas:

Our task as readers of the Prison Notebooks today, therefore, is less one of reconstruction than of a particular type of intervention, simultaneously on two fronts: on the one hand, we must determine with as much accuracy as philology allows, the conceptual coordinates of Gramsci’s trajectory, establishing what Gramsci really thought and wrote in the actual texts he composed in prison; and, on the other hand, we must attempt to explore the lines of research that he initiated but could not conclude.

This is the research programme to which The Gramscian Moment uniquely forges and develops. More mapping of the notion of research programme, however, might have been expected. Its echoes with the philosophy of science model of research programme as developed by Imre Lakatos in Proofs and Refutations, with the attendant notions of a hard core of theoretical assumptions, theoretical falsificationism, notions of science, and auxiliary hypotheses, remain latent within the text. Greater development of how the Marxist philosophical research programme stemming from the renewal of the Gramscian moment today would differ from the methodology of scientific research programmes according to Lakatos would have been welcomed. Nevertheless, Peter Thomas has crafted a masterwork that contributes to the images of Gramsci as a historical materialist with direct contemporary resonance. At the same time he corrects the various ‘soft’ reflections of Gramsci within the social sciences that reduce his Marxism to the cultural domain of ideological hegemony.

Just as Antonio Gramsci remarked that all scholars should study with ‘heroic fury’ any new theory with deep interest, then so too should all scholars study Peter Thomas’ The Gramscian Moment with the same ‘heroic fury’, while recognising the importance and significance of his marvelous contribution to shaping the terrain of contemporary Gramsci studies.

Adam David Morton
Adam David Morton is Professor of Political Economy in the Department of Political Economy at the University of Sydney.

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