Marxist Revival in the West
Editor’s Note: This second article is taken from a seminar on politics given by Dr. Luis Roldán at the Society of Saint Pius X’s seminary La Reja, Argentina in August 2011. Readers are encouraged to read the preceding article first.
How is this possible that, 20 years after the fall of Communism, Marxism continues to be one of the strongest political ideologies? For this, we need to talk about an author closer to us, at least to us Argentinians: Antonio Gramsci, who attempted a complete re-formulation of Marxism, especially from the tactical/political point of view.
So, who was Antonio Gramsci? Antonio Gramsci was an Italian born in Sardinia toward the end of the 19th century. While still very young, he moved to Turin, a northern industrial city, where he became a grade school teacher, worked at factories, and also as a journalist, and was active in politics. Along with Palmiro Tolgliatti and others, Gramsci founded the Italian Communist party and would have a moment of glory when Lenin triumphs in Russia in 1917. This triumph of Lenin in 1917, followed by the end of World War I, the redrawing of Europe through the Treaties of Saint Germain and Versailles, would encourage, in almost every European country, attempts at a Communist revolution. In Germany, in Bavaria, the so-called Tragic Week in Spain happened and it had repercussions even in Argentina. However, contrary to what happened in Russia, the attempts at class struggle in Italy caused not Gramsci, but Mussolini to come into power. And one of Mussolini’s first measures was to ban the Communist party and arrest all its leader, Gramsci from among them. Gramsci spent the last eight years of his life in jail and died of pneumonia in 1937. It was during this time that he wrote most of his political works. Gramsci’s work, Prison Notebooks, is not as systematic as Marx’s.
The original was written in a number of school notebooks which his friends were allowed to give him while he was enjoying the vacation paid by Il Duce. What Gramsci is most concerned about is to understand why Lenin had been victorious and he was not. This is going to lead him to revisit some of Marx’s opinions. There is, however, one aspect he does not question at all: Gramsci reclaims Marxism as the heir of modernity. Marxism, for Gramsci, is absolute materialism, absolute anthropocentrism. The Reformation, the Counterreformation, the Protestant Revolution, and the French Revolution, all are ordained towards Marxism. Gramsci maintains that Marxism is the epitome, the end of modernity. All the elements of modernity converge towards this absolute humanism, this absolute anthropocentrism, and are understood in Marxist mode. And the first element to hold on to is this idea of the dialectic materialism that there are no essences.
But Gramsci will revise some other things, in particular, the fundamental relations between the infrastructure and the superstructure. In classic Marxism, these relationships were understood rather rigidly, one could say mechanically; whatever action was applied to the infrastructure immediately affected the superstructure. Marx also considered the study of the superstructure as of no importance. He was not alone, because György Lukacs and others also talked about this. Gramsci thought the superstructure has a certain autonomy in regard to the infrastructure. He agrees that the superstructure ultimately depends on the infrastructure, but it is somewhat autonomous. This was very important from the point of view of the universities, because Gramsci okays Marxists to learn about the law, politics, even theology, and not merely the economic side of things. Almost the whole of Gramsci’s writings in this period focus on what he calls “the issue of the superstructure.” He notes that there are two elements to the superstructure of society. The first element of the superstructure is what he calls the political society, a symbol of compulsion, an element of compulsion. Machiavelli’s influence is palpable in this—politics as a mere coercive tool. The principal elements of the political society would be the armed forces, police, and the courts. And, of course, there is another more important element to the superstructure, what Gramsci calls the civil society.
Civil vs. Politic Society
What is the civil society made of? The civil society are the elements that carry or transmit the culture, the first one being the family. After the family, the school, the theater and mass media, the Church. Gramsci will dedicate some very interesting paragraphs to analyzing the Church. What is the roll of the civil society? The civil society is that element that, in one particular moment, holds man’s cosmovision of the world, of life; it balances what Gramsci calls the high and the low. Gramsci is intrigued that in Italy at that time, a poor old country bumpkin who can neither read nor write feels she thinks like a university professor from the Gregorian university. This happens, Gramsci explains, because the Church, as part of the civil society, has known how to keep together the low grounds and the high grounds. That example showcases why the fundamental element of the civil society is what Gramsci calls “the organic intellectual”. Every civil society has in a specific point in time a number of people that study and disseminate a particular conception of man, the world, and life itself, and that keep in a cohesive unity all the elements of the social life. The fact that in a church an old, illiterate woman prays the same rosary as a theologian or a great philosopher is because the intellectuals have known how to keep the unity of what Gramsci called the “hegemonic historical block.”
And what is this hegemonic historical block? It is a block because it is a unity of things that Gramsci, a Marxist himself, considers contradictories: rich and poor, sages and illiterates, those who hail from the north and those from the south, etc. Historical, because it was generated in a particular time in history and will disappear at another time. And it is hegemonic because the reality under the appearance of unity is but a cover for domination of one class over the other.
At this point, then, Gramsci compares the Italian and Russian societies and comes to the conclusion that Russia had a very strong political society; the Tsar had, at his disposition, a huge military force, a formidable secret police, a terrifying court system, but the civil society, on the other hand, was very weak. There was little contact between the masses of peasants and the high classes. In Italy, however, the State was poorly organized, having emerged from a recent unification (at the time Gramsci wrote this, the Italian state had been around for 60 years). Add to that the mafia, etc., etc. Anybody who has an even a superficial knowledge of Italy knows that the Italian armed forces were certainly not the best in Europe; the Italian police had issues, the courts were a disaster. And how is it possible then, asks Gramsci, that Lenin won in Russia and I lost in Italy? The reason is that, in Russia, the political society was indeed very strong, but the civil society was undernourished. In Italy, on the contrary, the political society was weak, but the Marxists missed the fact that the civil society was extremely strong.
So, what happened? In a case where the political society, that is the coercive body, is very weak but the civil society is very vigorous, a handful of outdated Marxists that engage in strikes, setting off bombs, etc., will ultimately strengthen the political superstructure. So Mussolini rose because he knew how to capture the common sense of the hegemonic historical block. That is why Gramsci stated that a change in tactics was imperative. At the time Gramsci wrote, there was an ongoing discussion regarding war tactics. On the one hand were those who favored the tactics of World War I, that is, the war of position: trenches, barbed-wire, etc. On the other hand, there were others, like Lukacs, who considered the war of movements far more efficacious: a quick strike to an enemy’s position to break the front and seize power.
Gramsci takes this idea. Lenin, he said, employed the war of movements, which is a perfect tactic when one does not face a civil society. But when one encounters on the contrary, a very strong civil society and utilizes the tactics of the war of movement, the result is the entrenching of the most counterrevolutionary sectors. In countries like Italy, Marxism must distance itself from the war of movements and embrace the war of position. This is a long, arduous war, taking trench by trench, house by house, mine field by mine field. And what are those trenches and those houses? The schools, the mass media, the universities. And how is that going to take place? By replacing the intellectuals: the school teacher, the journalist, the priest at the pulpit. In other words, he that keeps the hegemonic historical block. All these figures need to be replaced by intellectuals that are devoted to Marxism, what Gramsci calls organic intellectuals. And this needs to be done slowly, without letting anybody know what is taking place.
And to what target is Gramsci going to aim this strategy? This is masterful—Gramsci’s objective is the common sense, the destruction of the common sense. Because the common sense is what carries the metaphysical mentality—the idea that there are essences, that there is a nature to things.
Gramsci died in jail, but what happened in Italy after his death is interesting. Italy ends World War II with the stability proper to Italian diplomacy, signing on the side of the winners, not as a defeated country. A few years later, the Constituent Assembly generates the 1947 constitution. And, breaking off with the most pro-Soviet hardliners, the Italian communist party declares itself respectful of the democratic institutions, accepting, in principle, the political actions of the different political parties. So much so that in the 50’s and 60’s Euro-Communism was considered a domesticated version, a Communism that was not for storming positions or setting off bombs. Communists never actually formed a government in Italy, where the main political party from 1947 till practically 1990 was the Christian Democrats. But while the Christian Democrats were fighting each other for seats in parliament, the Marxists were competing for the university chairs and journalist positions at mass media outlets, and it is incredible how they were able to destroy the Italian society in 50 years. They did not form a government as such, but after the fall of the Berlin Wall there is every so often a watered down left-wing coalition in power whose central philosophy is undeniably Gramscian.
This has had an impact especially in Argentina, because after the anti-subversive period in the 70’s many ex-Montoneros spent some time vacationing in Italy and other countries and apparently they rediscovered that Gramsci and his ideas were applied in 1983: The renunciation of the use of force, of violence, but the fight to overtake the common sense, the cultural destruction. The re-writing of history is paramount, it is one of the things Gramsci considers most important, that is, to re-write history. Why is that? Because history is a permanent reference of all political attitudes. This is not a new concept since the 19th century liberals already addressed this issue. But here in Argentina some folks have already changed our history. For instance, nowadays to speak of the 30,000 disappeared is to address a myth. It is as if one encounters a tribe of indigenous people before the arrival of the Spaniards and disturbs the totem—it is not going to end well. In this society in which relativism, pluralism, subjectivism dominate, the leftists have managed to fabricate a new dogmatism and clichés on which to base all reasoning; they have created a secular inquisition, the inquisition of the politically correct, and we could also mention the ecclesiastically correct. Added to this is the transformation of the new generations through the school curricula, etc., and I believe that in Argentina last year, same sex “marriage” was reached with approval.
Why is that? Because this was a last bastion where man could still think that there was a nature to things, that there was a difference in the sexes. And this idea that I can build reality, that I can fabricate things, is the summit of the modern anthropocentrism. Nothing new, we are back to the devil’s temptation to our first parents: in what day soever you shall eat thereof, your eyes shall be opened: and you shall be as gods, knowing good and evil. I do not know Hebrew, but I have heard or read somewhere that the term “to know” may also mean “to conceive.” Why would they be as gods? Because from now on you can decide what is good and what is bad. But for me to ultimately decide what is good and what is bad, I must be able to say what is and what is not. Once we reach that point, the common sense is destroyed.
And that is why Marxism, its political and economic failures notwithstanding, is still alive and kicking. I remember asking about that to an old professor once, and he responded to me, “Son, what happens is that you do not know what an ideology is. A doctrine can be true or false, but a man that holds a doctrine has a contemplative attitude towards reality. He asks first what things are, and when he realizes that things are this way or this other way, he reaches a conclusion as to what to do and what not to do. That is why, when you encounter a person that holds an erroneous doctrine, you can have a discussion with him, you can convince him that he is mistaken. If you convince this man, he will change his ways. In the case of an ideologist, it is the opposite. The ideologist is someone that has a disordered affection for something and he fabricates a world around it and does not care if it is true or false; the only thing that matters to him is that it provides a justification for the route he is taking. This fulfills the famous saying that he who does not live what he believes will end up believing what he lives.”
And this is a characteristic of contemporary society. Marxism does not convince because it is true. It convinces because it satisfies the desire that was already in the original sin of man yearning to set himself up as god and resenting an objective order, resenting that there are laws about marriage; man wanting to re-design himself anew. This is the reason why this ideology of the anti-politics like Marxism has outlived its political, military, and economic failures. Because it is not so much a doctrine as an ideology.
This must inspire us to think that, if we want to confront this idea, we must recuperate the common sense. Let us not be won over by the current of political correctness. Prudently and carefully, let us state that things are what they are. There is an objective order of things established by God, and man is not the measure of all things.