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Travels with Gramsci

by Elizabeth Humphrys on June 17, 2015
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Some paths to an event seem particularly labyrinthine, which only adds to the joy once a project reaches an unexpected destination.

When Adam David Morton arrived to take up his Professorship at Sydney in 2014, it coincided with a merging and re-foundation of a number of local Capital reading groups. A group of students were about to embark on reading Peter Thomas’s prize-winning book The Gramscian Moment, and so this initiative was brought under the auspices of the Department of Political Economy and expanded to become the Past & Present Reading Group. The group has been tackling classic and contemporary heterodox books over the last 18 months, most recently Samuel Knafo’s The Making of Modern Finance.

On finishing Peter’s book, those working specifically with Gramsci’s texts began reading the Critical English Edition of the Prison Notebooks. We met weekly to discuss them, and in the process developed an event to bring together higher degree research (HDR) students working with Gramsci’s writings from around Australia. An early thought that we might discuss our experience of reading Peter’s book with him, initially proposed to be via Skype, expanded into asking him to participate in the workshop.

With the generous support of the Department of Political Economy and the School of Political and Social Sciences, the Gramsci workshop took place at the end of last month. The day involved a range of impressive PhD student papers, bookended by keynote addresses from internationally renowned Gramsci specialists Adam Morton and Peter Thomas. The keynote papers have already been made available online (here and here).

The call for papers for the event was focussed on method in Gramsci, and his urging that we study with ‘heroic fury’ any new theory. On the day, I felt two themes around method ran through the papers — the questions of the translatability of Gramsci’s conceptions and of what method to use to study the Prison Notebooks themselves.

UnravellingGramsci’s conceptions developed in a close study of various locations and historical moments — not least of all the Risorgimento in Italy — and many of the papers raised the issue of how one can ‘translate’ Gramsci to another time. They asked how Gramsci’s work might usefully aid social inquiry about other moments and geographic locations. This is a question raised by many Gramsci scholars, and as Adam argues in his book Unravelling Gramsci it is crucial to be attentive to how Gramsci’s ideas developed within his historical context before discerning any contemporary relevance. Quoting (and contesting) Randall Germain and Michael Kenny, in that book, he notes that there is ‘the need to historicise Gramsci and display “greater sensitivity to the general problems of meaning and understanding in the history of ideas” as well as pay “far greater attention to the problems of meaning and interpretation embedded in his ideas”’.

With Gramsci, perhaps more so than some other theorists, this task is complex because of the open-ended form of the Notebooks — their both circular and progressive structure, and incomplete form. This open-ended nature leads many to argue there can’t be, therefore, only one true Gramsci.

Thus in using Gramsci’s work, there is a need to be attentive to the historical specificity of Gramsci’s conceptions and an acknowledgement that the nature of the Notebooks means this is not always plain. Additionally, the history of alteration and adaptation of Gramsci’s conceptions in the secondary literature, often without making such shifts clear, further complicates this task.

ThomasPeter’s book The Gramscian Moment — which was winner of the prestigious Premio internazionale Giuseppe Sormani (2011) for the best book on Gramsci between 2007 and 2011 — urges a way through some of these difficulties. He asks us to examine Gramsci’s work in the manner Gramsci suggested we read others. To read it in a search ‘for the Leitmotiv, for the rhythm of the thought as it develops’, in Gramsci’s writings (Q16§2, quoted in Thomas 2009, p. 129). Peter argues this should be done in acknowledgement that the search for the Leitmotiv ‘should be more important than [a search] for single casual affirmations and isolated aphorisms’.

Our travels with Gramsci at the workshop, in seeking to translate Gramsci to our own research, saw presenters ask about the connections between Marxism and American Pragmatism, hegemony and the German Revolution, land struggles in Brazil, and the content and form of neoliberalism (amongst other topics).  My presentation focussed on the relationship between the state and civil society, in tracing aspects of this through Hegel, Marx and Gramsci in order to better understand corporatism in recent Australian history. The audio recording of my talk, based on my PhD research and entitled ‘Gramsci’s ‘Integral State’: Securing Neoliberalism in Australia’, is available below.

On a final note, on behalf of the organisers of the workshop (Ihab Shalbak, Philip Roberts, Richard Parkin and myself) I would like to thank Adam Morton for his help in bringing the workshop to fruition — as well as for travelling with us and Gramsci in our reading group over the last year. We were also ably assisted by administrative staff in the School, Nena Serafimovska and Grace Zhang in particular, and would like to thank them too. Thank you to Adam and Simon Tormey, our Head of School, for securing the funding to make the initiative possible.

Elizabeth Humphrys

Elizabeth is a Scholarly Teaching Fellow in Social & Political Sciences, within the Communications program, based in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, at the University of Technology Sydney.

1 Comments
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  • paresh chattopadhyay
    July 4, 2015 at 12:29 pm

    On an important political aspect Gramsci cannot come up to the level of his great contemporaries Rosa Luxemburg and Antonio Pannekoek. This aspect concerns workers’ self emancipation. In his ‘Il materialismo storico’ Gramsci wrote “critical self consciousness signifies historically and politically creation of an intellectual elite; a human mass does not distinguish itself and does not become independent on its own without organisation in large sense (in senso lato) and there is no organisation without intellectuals, that is without organisers and without leaders…without there being a stratum of persons specialised in the conceptual and philosophical elaboration’. This is, of course, Kautsky-Lenin: workers on their own are incapable of creating their own revolutionary consciousness. This is standing Marx on his head. It is not wihout reason that Marx and Engels in their famous ‘Circular Letter'(1879, September) emphasised that the intellectuals have only one one task in the revolutionary movement, to bring education. They must not be allowed to have any influence on the leadership of the movement. In 1844-45 they underlined that workers create their own consciousness in the course of their struggle. This is further discussed in Marx’s 1857-58 Grundrisse. Here Rosa Luxemburg and Anton Pannekoek followed Marx.

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