Over the last few months a number of you had recommended Gramsci, so when the opportunity presented itself I read some Gramsci. You were right: Gramsci writes well. Mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.
I don’t know whether the passages I read will change my views substantially or lead to a more systematic attempt to read/study Gramsci, but what I find most striking about this “discovery” was how flimsy the rationale for my long aversion to Gramsci now seems in retrospect. I had said that Gramsci was overexposed, overused, and so (presumptively) overrated. I wasn’t imagining this; people talk about Gramsci all the time. Everyone talks about Gramsci. I didn’t need to read Gramsci in order to learn what people think about Gramsci; I know plenty about that.
Where I went wrong was in assuming that what people have said about Gramsci must be substantially related to what Gramsci has said. How often do I say this to people? To the texts, to the texts! What most people mean when they say “Platonic” or “Hobbesian” or “Nietzschean” has nothing to do with the writings of Plato, Hobbes, or Nietzsche. We read old books because what older writers wrote was better than what our contemporaries write: less subject to the whims of passing fads, less distorted by the demotist deception. This general principle also extends to new books about old books! I know it in principle, and I remind people of it often myself; but somehow I failed to apply the logic to Gramsci.
Of course, part of the problem was that Antonio Gramsci isn’t just distorted by deception: he’s distortion made flesh. I have wasted enough time already reading prestigious radicals, and I was loathe to waste more. But I failed to be properly chauvinist in my analysis. ML King and Malcolm X were blacks; Rosa Luxemburg was a jewess. To be an imprisoned radical is not, in itself, a ticket into the martyrology of Cultural Marxism; you need either the privileges of an Official Victim, a radical network of co-ethnics to lobby for your canonization, or preferably both.
Antonio Gramsci was a Italian man with a pretty wife. He wasn’t even properly proletarian: his childhood poverty was the outcome of his father’s ugly career as an embezzler, and the books he ordered from his prison cell were charged directly to his friend Piero Sraffa.
Clearly I was too much of a glassy-eyed universalist to realize that the Left does not fetishize the prison letters and prison scribblings of every white, straight male who was imprisoned during Bolshevism’s openly-violent phase. Gramsci had to earn the right to be misinterpreted by cat-ladies with tenure. My aversion to writers connected with the phrase “prison notebooks” ought not to have extended to him.
As you will have gathered, my second-hand knowledge of Gramsci was a web of mistakes and misunderstandings. The funniest of these involved the concept of hegemony Gramsci proposed. In Cultural Marxist orthodoxy, “hegemony” refers to insidious, polymorphous, overwhelming voodoo-power which undermines all attempts to resist it. I have always disliked it, not because the concept is incoherent or dishonestly applied but because in Greek, hegemon does not denote awe-inspiring power or absolute control but rather primus inter pares, the leader of a coalition. But this is exactly what Gramsci has in mind: leadership within a coalition.
My vague sense that Gramsci played a role in the politicization of the banal and the banalization of academia was more accurate. But even here, Gramsci’s own position was more reasonable than what his successors’ became. When Gramsci talks about the significance of everyday life and folk-culture, his purpose is not to belittle the life of the mind but rather, by placing it in its proper context, to show its profound importance. In effect, he recreates Hobbes’ position: high-status intellectuals create and refine doctrines which medium-status intellectuals then teach to the low-status intellectual who indoctrinate the population. When the indoctrination is complete, men who could never read a book like Summa Theologica nonetheless have many of its doctrines embedded in their routines, their idioms, their rituals, and the standards to which they hold each other.
In other words, Hobbes emphasizes the political function of the lower clergy not in order to de-emphasize abstruse debates between berobed doctors, but in order to underline the ultimate political impact of the academic debate by outlining the transmission mechanism whereby academic theses become popular consensus. Gramsci’s argument is tailored to refute the Marxist dogma that metaphysics is irrelevant to politics rather than the Puritan dogma that metaphysics rises above politics, but is identical in its general shape.
So the “Gramscian” view that any piece of pop culture ephemera deserves the same level of study and analysis as the Republic is a parody of Antonio Gramsci’s view; but perhaps Gramsci deserves no better. The company you choose in life may bedevil you long after death…