Rough Notes on Antonio Gramsci’s Pre-Prison Writings. by Gareth Williams

  1. What Gramsci is, or appears to be:
  2. “Gramscianism” (here between October 1914 and June 1919) is an orthodox humanist Hegelianism.

Gramsci’s geopolitical world comprises Turin, Italy (as object of political commentary and an under-developed ethical state-form), Germany (as ethical state-form), England (as ethical state-form), France (as ethical state-form), and Russia (as revolutionary process and challenge to the previous ethical state-forms).

  1. The overall dispositive of writing in these pages is comprised of three essential historical determinations:
  • World War I:  shifts in the extension, dimension, and form of the capitalist mode of production.
  • The Russian Revolution, as apparently the least suitable (“Anti-Capital”) of environments for revolution. And yet . . .
  • The understanding of “socialist history” in relation to organization, consciousness, and the regional/national conditions of the capitalist mode of production, the coming revolution etc.
  1. The last of these three (c) is perhaps the most important for reading pre-prison Gramsci, since it leads to the question of how, and whether, Gramsci comprehends historicity in general, and the historicity of capitalism in particular. At this point there are a number of questions and problems herein, which Gramsci himself extends, naturalizes, and does not resolve.
  2. Why? Because he is a card-carrying orthodox Hegelian who puts the cart of Absolute Spirit (that is, his conclusions; the coming into being of the revolutionary dialectic of consciousness) before the horse (of historicity, or of analytic method etc). He does this in the name of objective commentary, knowledge, and therefore science. Socialist history remains internal to the dialectical relation between knowledge and Spirit; it is this enclosure and presupposition that establishes the “actuality” of the ground of his thinking, and also the idea that socialism, or communism, raise political thinking to the level of science. Absolute Spirit is the presupposition and structuring principle of Gramsci’s understanding of the entirety of Enlightenment history and of the coming politics. But does this not mean that Gramsci’s understanding of history is in fact groundless, or at the very least, myopic? Gramsci, like Hegel before him, and, indeed, like Marx to an extent, had already decided in what direction history was flowing and why.  “Spirit” is the moving forward of the new shape of the new era.  It is this glaring contradiction alone—between the claim to method and having decided on a prior conclusion regarding finality, or Absolute Spirit—that informs Gramsci’s understanding of a socialist epochality. While the proletariat is the determined negation of the bourgeoisie, the dialectical passage by which the proletariat ceases to be merely a negation of the bourgeoisie and becomes entirely Other is never really elucidated, other than by claiming the absolute reconciliation of the State-society relation at some point in the proletarian overtaking of the State and the full achievement of consciousness; the entirety of humanity coming into its own (humanity achieving its destinal completion). The signifier “Russia” is almost itself a stand-in for this constitutive lack, or absence.  As a result, the proletariat as the determined negation of the bourgeoisie is the positive content of (bourgeois-socialist-communist) progress in the direction of Spirit. The proletariat in the unfolding of its consciousness is the “not that” of the bourgeoisie; it is the bourgeoisie’s inverted positive, which, in Hegelian terms, could only ever be recognized as such from within the bourgeois dialectic of recognition, the dialectic of Lord and Bondsman in which both are recognized by the other, in their self-consciousness.

This is the heart of both Hegel and Gramsci’s essentially topological imagination (topos of recognition, the proximity of the common, friend-enemy relation etc; question: how could planetary revolution be imagined from within such a topological imagination?). One is left wondering, moreover, how a “true” revolution can be created by the dialectic of an inverted positive alone (again, the mere signifier “Russia” might appear to stand in as the resolution for that problem [?]). This might be why “true” revolution appears to be akin to the collapse of all mediation itself, in the name of “reconciliation”, or “Spirit” as the unity of all the different independent self-consciousnesses which, in their unification, enjoy perfect freedom and independence via the I that is we and the we that is every I (however, a world in which both I and Other disappear, it might be said, is no world; the world of absolute spirit can only be no world, because it has no movement). “True revolution” is the vanishing of mediation itself that has come about, somewhat mysteriously, via the (disciplined, disciplinary, moral) desire for absolute mastery. Is this a desire for an objectless world? To be master in the absence of the object—of the Other—? Can such a thing be possible? Obviously not. No language is given to the status of the object within the epoch of the collapse of all mediation, which is also referred to as “perfection”. From with the advent of “true revolution”, how could anything be grasped, dialecticized, actualized? Can there be a world in which the object—the Other—has no status? And yet Gramsci says that this arrival is inevitable, underway, realistic, already in the process of coming into being in consciousness.

  1. What Gramsci is not (or at least, not yet):
  • He is not a thinker of value, of surplus value, of commodity fetishism per se. He is a thinker of exploitation of the masses by the capitalists, and the place/role of these groupings in the overall terrain of national politics. Capital Volume I does not appear to be here in any specific way, though the Manifesto clearly is (perhaps excessively so).
  • He is not a thinker of anything that might be behind, beneath or beyond consciousness. He maintains no critical, or even agnostic, relation to the cogito. The proletariat exists internally to the epochality of the bourgeois cogito, as its negation. By definition, the proletariat does not think for itself (yet). Gramsci is a thinker of the proletarian amelioration of the cogito, but the cogito itself remains untouched. His thinking appears to be profoundly Cartesian (I think, I am).
  • He is not a thinker of language, of the signifier, metaphor, or of metaphor’s limits or decomposition(s)
  • He is not a thinker of the drives. Rather, he is a moralist. A thinker of the law, of mastery.
  • He is not a critic of “police thought”; on the contrary, “emancipation” is a variant manifestation of the police (discipline, order, morality, confession, self-other improvement, single-mindedness, organization of the army of the masses etc)
  • He is not a thinker of the decision
  • He is not a thinker of the relation between capital and the body; of gender; sexual difference (there is no reason to expect him to be so either).
  • He is not a thinker of the economy.
  1. Up to now, is there anything here to be salvaged for 2020, a “Gramsci for our times”?

Reality, or the social, is exactly the same at Gramsci’s point of departure in any given writing as it is at the point at which his thinking lands again at the end of any given writing. The real itself remains unquestioned. Perception remains unquestioned (faith in the cogito). In this sense, he is a 19th century realist thinker of the political, or, rather, he would be, if it were not for his faith in the Hegelian dialectic of Spirit. He is an astute commentator of the political conditions of his place and time.  But I cannot yet see anything for our times, since, as said at the beginning of these notes, Gramsci is an orthodox humanist Hegelian, a thinker of humanity’s movement in the historical direction of Absolute Spirit.  What we now comprehend as the modern historicity of capitalism itself circumvents Gramsci’s understanding; his secular faith in modern history—in temporality itself—as the bourgeois-socialist-communist teleology of human progress and development is unconvincing, though it remains the structural principle of his reading, and understanding, of both history and capital before, during, and in the wake of World War I and the Russian Revolution.