The Great Leveler
IIPPE 7th International Conference in Political Economy

What is this thing called passive revolution?

by Adam David Morton on February 24, 2016

In 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 in the series, entitled ‘What is this thing called passive revolution?’, originally appeared on For the Desk Drawer (11 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 second in the series is entitled ‘Permanent Passive Revolution?’.

passrevcover-214x302A number of my current posts have looked at the condition and concept of passive revolution, including the most recent focusing on ‘Spaces of Revolution’. As a result, a post on some of the theoretical and historical sociological contributions of the notion of passive revolution, as developed by Antonio Gramsci, might be a good intellectual backstop for pointers on passive revolution and how best to ‘approach’ the import of passive revolution for understanding state formation, crises in capitalism, and conditions of class struggle. This was also the topic of a significant special issue of Capital & Class, entitled ‘Approaching Passive Revolutions’, which contains various articles including my own on ‘The Continuum of Passive Revolution’.

In earlier work, my aim has always been to emphasise that any ‘reading’ of Gramsci has to reveal, self-reflexively, its main underlying purpose or form of engagement. This is because a ‘true’ or ‘real’ Gramsci cannot exist. This was a central argument that appeared in Unravelling Gramsci: Hegemony and Passive Revolution in the Global Political Economy [2007]. Therefore, there is no ‘correct’ reading of Gramsci that can be produced given that any understanding of his writings is circumscribed by specific interests and purposes. At the same time, it should be clear that any reading of Gramsci cannot simply draw from an open text or that any reading is simply as provisional and acceptable as the next interpretation. Therefore, Unravelling Gramsci is quite clear in offering an approach that accepts treating texts as vehicles for the exercise of present preoccupations. However, my argument is also that any engagement with Gramsci has to avoid exegetical mistakes or the outright distortion and disregard for historical circumstances and ideas that arise within such specific conjunctures.

With that important ground-clearing set of comments in mind, my reading of passive revolution is that the condition and concept captures various concrete historical instances in which aspects of the social relations of capitalist development are either instituted and/or expanded, resulting in both ‘revolutionary’ rupture and a ‘restoration’ of social relations. ‘The problem’, as Gramsci remarks, ‘is to see whether in the dialectic of “revolution/restoration” it is revolution or restoration which predominates’. A passive revolution therefore represents a condition of rupture in which processes of revolution are at once partially fulfilled and displaced, as perfectly described by Alex Callinicos.

For me, there are at least two different but linked processes to the condition of passive revolution that are evident in the Prison Notebooks. First, with reference to a revolution without mass participation, or a ‘revolution from above’, involving elite-engineered social and political reform that draws on foreign capital and associated ideas while lacking a national-popular base. Second, in terms of how a revolutionary form of political transformation is pressed into a conservative project of restoration but is linked to insurrectionary mass mobilisation from below. Here, to cite Gramsci, there is:

the fact that ‘progress’ occurs as the reaction of the dominant classes to the sporadic and incoherent rebelliousness of the popular masses – a reaction consisting of ‘restorations’ that agree to some part of the popular demands and are therefore ‘progressive restorations’, or ‘revolutions-restorations’, or even ‘passive revolutions’.

Yet the process of passive revolution does not imply an inert, literally passive, process. The unfolding of a passive revolution can be violent and brutal, the outcome neither predetermined nor inevitable. One way of regarding the condition and concept of passive revolution is to reflect on how elements of an insurrectionary force therefore become domesticated, which may involve a dialectical relation between processes of revolution from above and processes of revolution from below.

Definitionally, then, a passive revolution can be a technique of statecraft which an emergent bourgeois class may deploy by drawing in subaltern social classes while establishing a new state on the basis of the institution of capitalism, such as in the case of the Italian Risorgimento [1861], or the expansion of capitalism as a mode of production, as in the case of ‘Americanism and Fordism’. Capturing in stark clarity the specific territorial, spatial and geographical dimensions of the uneven development of passive revolution, Gramsci comments in the Prison Notebooks that:

in Italy there have been the beginnings of a Fordist fanfare: exaltation of big cities, overall planning for the Milan conurbation, etc.; the affirmation that capitalism is only at its beginnings and that it is necessary to prepare for it grandiose patterns of development.

Cover-200x300As outlined in my most recent book, Revolution and State in Modern Mexico [2011], grappling with Gramsci’s work thus entails highlighting how specific processes of passive revolution capture the territorial, class, and spatial relations of social development at the state level but also across broader scales. It is possible to denote the spatial organisation of state power through the class strategy of a passive revolution and its socially produced configuration across local, regional, national, and geopolitical scales, which is something that my Mexico book sets out to achieve. Hence my argument there is that the Mexican Revolution (1910-1920) stands as one of the links in a chain of passive revolutions called forth by capitalist modernity.

Yet, as Peter Thomas, invaluably adds to the debate, Gramsci is also our contemporary and he will ‘remain today a horizon for our own intellectual and political practice in the epoch of neoliberal passive revolution’. There is, then, an importance behind tracing the counter-attacks of capital, in the form of those approaching passive revolutions that are in the making in times of neoliberalism, but there is also an importance to tracing new advance-line skirmishes of resistances against capital. The work of Dorothee Bohle, Ian BruffStuart ShieldsNeil Burron, Nicola ShortChris HeskethFiona Nash, or Marcos del Roio all attest to the fact that there is something important about this thing called passive revolution. Although, of course, one should immediately add that any focus on passive revolution is a focus on material relations between persons and not a focus on relations between things.

For Lenin, in The State and Revolution [1917], it was famously declared that the ‘dialectics of living history’ mean that ‘it is more pleasant and useful to undertake the “experience of revolution” than to write about it’. One could not agree more! Similarly, Gramsci recognised that, ‘the only “philosophy” is history in action, life itself’, which means, sadly, that the more common occurrence is the less pleasurable experience of passive revolution, which also requires historical and contemporary understanding as a guide to action.

Adam David Morton
Adam David Morton is Professor of Political Economy in the Department of Political Economy at the University of Sydney. He is author of Unravelling Gramsci: Hegemony and Passive Revolution in the Global Political Economy (2007); Revolution and State in Modern Mexico: The Political Economy of Uneven Development (2011), recipient of the 2012 Book Prize of the British International Studies Association (BISA) International Political Economy Group (IPEG); and co-author of Global Capitalism, Global War, Global Crisis (2018) with Andreas Bieler. He co-edits Progress in Political Economy (PPE) with Gareth Bryant that was the recipient of the 2017 International Studies Association (ISA) Online Media Caucus Award for the Best Blog (Group) and the 2018 International Studies Association (ISA) Online Media Caucus Award for Special Achievement in International Studies Online Media.

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