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[The following review, originally published by First Review: Reviewing for the Social Sciences (2001), is archived here with the kind permission of the author, Adam David Morton, who retains the copyright.]

Gramsci, Realism and Revolution


Review of Jonathan Joseph, Hegemony: A Realist Analysis (London: Routledge, 2002), and Paul Le Blanc (ed.), From Marx to Gramsci: A Reader in Revolutionary Marxist Politics (New York: Humanity Books, 2002).

'The philosophy of praxis', Gramsci once proclaimed, 'is precisely the concrete historicisation of philosophy and its identification with history.' Implicitly, at least, the objective of Jonathan Joseph's Hegemony: A Realist Analysis is to carry forward this assertion by pursuing the philosophical and practical coincidences between critical realism and theories of hegemony within a Marxist-inflected framework. Rather than analyse particular forms of concrete hegemonic projects in specific locations the aim, instead, is to reflect on hegemony's very conditions of being by employing critical realism in its philosophical underlabouring role. By doing so, this book provides a significant and sophisticated contribution to debates on hegemony in capturing both the agential aspects of hegemony as well as its basic structurality within the social world.

The argument unfolds by initially elaborating upon some of the basic distinctions within critical realism, namely between transitive processes (or knowledge of the world as embodied in a set of theories or methods) and the intransitive objects of knowledge (structures, relations, processes and generative mechanisms which exist independently of us in a relatively enduring state). Hence facilitating a differentiation between transitive causal laws and intransitive or deeper causal structures and generative mechanisms. These classical designations of critical realism are then deployed to probe an understanding of hegemony that is cognisant of both the structural aspects of hegemony—the requirement to secure the dynamic of capital accumulation and the reproduction of the social formation—as well its agential aspects—the actual hegemonic projects and strategies that are emergent out of these deeper conditions. The first part of the book pursues these questions of hegemony through a 'theoretical history' grounded within the theory and practice of Gramsci, Lenin and Trotsky whilst providing critiques of E.P. Thompson, Raymond Williams, Louis Althusser, Nicos Poulantzas and the post-structuralism of Jacques Derrida, Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe within which 'hegemony is thrown to the winds of arbitrary signification' (121). The second part of the book then elaborates on a structural-agential understanding of hegemony through a series of 'theoretical questions' in relation to issues of objectivity and intersubjectivity; space, time and history; and the economy and state regulation.

The overwhelming strength of Joseph's contribution to debates on hegemony is his pursuance of two related types of hegemony: a deeper hegemony that has the role of securing the unity and cohesion of a mode of production and ensuring the reproduction of its basic structural processes and relations and a surface hegemony linked to actual hegemonic projects and strategies that are the expression and actualisation of such deeper conditions. This combined understanding of hegemony relates the structural aspect of reproduction to the political moment of agency thereby appreciating that the conditions of capital accumulation are never given but have to be secured through the realisation of particular hegemonic projects. The argument, it is claimed, therefore moves beyond the 'ontological flatness' of culturalist and humanist accounts that reduce hegemony to its surface expression rather than encompassing its associated conditions of being. It also claims to move beyond the 'fashionable radicality' of post-structuralism which offers no more than a discursive amelioration for contingent moments and a startling non-committance on the very subject of hegemony and socialist strategy that it is supposed to address (117, 120).

The emphasis on the combined aspects of hegemony—a focus on the underlying structures and generative mechanisms that shape the conditions of hegemony and the actual agential aspects of particular hegemonic projects and strategies that are emergent from these conditions—has a great deal of wider relevance to perennial agency-structure debates in international relations and international political economy. The distinction between a deeper structural hegemony and an emergent expression of hegemony through the agency of particular projects and strategies can also be usefully related to more specific arguments. For example, this understanding of hegemony dovetails well with the analytical distinction drawn between accumulation strategies and hegemonic projects in Bob Jessop's State Theory: Putting the Capitalist State in Its Place (1990).

There are at least two main issues, though, that could have been pursued in a little more detail to add greater weight to the argument and focus of the book. Firstly, there is a puzzling detour within the 'theoretical history' of hegemony that starts from Gramsci and then proceeds to discuss the works of Lenin and Trotsky, whilst subsequently moving on to E.P. Thompson, Raymond Williams, Nicos Poulantzas, Louis Althusser, Jacques Derrida, and Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe. There is clearly no single point of reference on hegemony and the lineage of the term could be traced through the writings of the nineteenth-century Italian philosopher Vincenzo Gioberti as much as through the Russian labour movement. So why start with Gramsci? Indeed, it was Gramsci himself who acknowledged various precursors and stated, with a little over-exaggeration, that:

the greatest modern theoretician of the philosophy of praxis [i.e. Lenin] has—on the terrain of political organisation and struggle and with political terminology—in opposition to the various tendencies of 'economism', reappraised the front of cultural struggle and constructed the doctrine of hegemony as a complement to the theory of the State-as-force.

What he had in mind here was Lenin's Two Tactics of Social Democracy (1905) that stressed how the proletariat should aim to exercise hegemony through the leadership of allied classes. Therefore Gramsci heralded Lenin's approach to hegemony, in theorisation and practical realisation, as 'the greatest theoretical contribution to the philosophy of praxis.' It is therefore disappointing that Joseph either overlooks these crucial comments or fails to qualify why he disrupts the chronological 'theoretical history' of hegemony.

The second issue is in relation to the distinction made between the philosophical aspects of Gramsci's work and his more social and political analysis. It is argued that Gramsci's writings have a critical realist nature but in order to appreciate this dimension his philosophical statements have to be separated from the political analysis so that priority can be given to the latter. Hence an imposed division between philosophy and practice that seems entirely contrary to the very 'philosophy of praxis'—as precisely the concrete historicisation of philosophy and its identification with history—that Gramsci sought to forge. Moreover, by diminishing the philosophical aspect of Gramsci's realism, crucial distinctions are omitted from the discussion. For example, there are strong statements in the Prison Notebooks that indicate a rejection of the principle that objects cannot exist independently of our knowledge about them:

If it were true that . . . infinitely small phenomena . . . cannot be considered as existing independently of the subject who observes them, they would in fact not be 'observed', but 'created' and would fall into the same domain as the pure imaginative tuition of the individual.

Perhaps Gramsci gives the most compelling example in relation to these issues in his argument about 'matter': 'for the philosophy of praxis . . . the various physical (chemical, mechanical, etc.) properties of matter which together constitute matter itself . . . should be considered, but only to the extent that they become a productive "economic element". Matter as such therefore is not our subject but how it is socially and historically organised for production, and natural science should be seen correspondingly as essentially an historical category, a human relation.' The example Gramsci then goes on to provide is that of electricity.

Electricity is historically active, not merely however as a natural force (e.g. as an electrical discharge which causes a fire) but as a productive element dominated by man and incorporated into the ensemble of the material forces of production, an object of private property. As an abstract natural force electricity existed even before its reduction to a productive force, but it was not historically operative and was just a subject of hypothetical discourse in natural history (earlier still it was historical 'nothingness', since no one was interested in it or indeed knew anything about it).

Nature therefore provides qualities of matter (electricity) which exist prior to our knowledge about them but they only become significant when linked to the interests of social power and to the development of the forces of production. A lack of attention to these lines of thinking within Hegemony: A Realist Analysis thus somewhat vitiates a thorough exploration of Gramsci's potential contribution to critical realist debate and the very possibility conditions of objective knowledge within an intersubjectively constituted social world.

Setting these quibbles aside, though, it should be made clear that this book contributes a great deal to some of the principal issues occupying political science today. It is a book driven by an engagement with the social world in order to challenge the rendering of hegemony as a hollow and palliative concept. As such it demands serious engagement itself and requires reading by all scholars in and beyond its immediate target audience.

Equally useful is the reprint of Paul Le Blanc's From Marx to Gramsci: A Reader in Revolutionary Marxist Politics. This volume carries essays by Marx and Engels (including excerpts from Manifesto of the Communist Party and Capital); Luxemburg (including excerpts from Mass Strike, Political Party and Trade Unions and her polemic Reform or Revolution); Lenin (including material on imperialism, the state, workers' democracy and revolution); Trotsky (including material on the Russian Revolution and excerpts from The Revolution Betrayed) and Gramsci (including pre-prison material on dialectics, party leadership and workers' organisation as well as key notes from the Quaderni del carcere). The book also carries several extremely useful essays penned by Le Blanc himself entitled: 'The Revolutionary Marxist Synthesis'; 'Theory of Capitalist Development'; 'Theory of the Labour Movement'; 'The Strategy of Revolution'; 'The Conception of the Transition to Socialism'; and 'Does Revolutionary Marxism Have a Future?'. An annotated bibliography on all the thinkers as well as coverage of more general resources on Marxist politics completes the collection.

'Italian comrades', notes Trotsky in one of the excerpts, 'inform me that with the sole exception of Gramsci, the Communist Party [in Italy] wouldn't even allow the possibility of the fascists' seizing power' (271). Likewise, Gramsci was well aware of the clear comparisons drawn by Trotsky between 'Eastern and Western fronts' and the differences this entailed in terms of revolutionary strategy (320); later developed through the war of position and war of manouevre distinctions. A greater focus, then, on these and additional themes—such as Marxism and literature—might have been worth including, to further establish links between the thinkers under consideration. This, for example, could have helped to tease out the connections and contentions between Trotsky's Literature and Revolution (1924) and Gramsci's linking of intellectuals to the world of production within capitalist society, wherein literature is understood as a material social product and the social function of the author is endowed with political significance (Selections from Cultural Writings, 1985).

Overall, From Marx to Gramsci is a useful accompaniment to Hegemony: A Realist View in that it precisely contains and traces a number of important cognate areas of Marxist debate. Taken together, these books will provide an invaluable resource in understanding and renewing Marxism as both theoretical orientation and practical strategy.

Adam David Morton was formerly an ESRC Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of International Politics, University of Wales, Aberystwyth and is now Lecturer in Politics and International Relations at Lancaster University.

Copyright © 2002 Adam David Morton

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