Check out Alan Wald‘s longform review of Laura Marriss’s translation of Jean-Yves Frétigné’s To Live Is to Resist: The Life of Antonio Gramsci. There is a lot in Wald’s piece, but I want to call your attention to this passage:
The latest burst of Gramsci references and publications in the United States is the product of an overlapping web of factors: the movement of the ethnonationalist far right from margin to center, the establishment of a serious democratic socialist foothold as a current in the Democratic Party, and a revitalized investigation of history and culture inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement. Yet one also doesn’t have to look too closely to see that some of the citations of Gramsci’s name in journalism serve to bloat an alleged expertise in order to hawk one’s wares—selecting a phrase from Gramsci to give one’s preferred ideas the cachet of sophistication or insider knowledge. On occasion Gramsci’s name is gratuitously summoned simply to gussy up an unexciting truism about the politics of culture.
After all, since World War II Gramsci has never really followed the familiar pattern of obscurity and rediscovery. It was long ago that posterity began compensating steadily for the original slight of Gramsci’s achievement, and at present his magisterial synthesis of historical materialist thought with diverse classical and contemporary thinkers is world renowned. What further can be done to fortify his authority? Probably cited more than any other Italian intellectual, he is not merely part of the socialist pantheon but accepted in the canon of world culture with an interdisciplinary heft comparable to Marx himself. Politically, even as research into the former Soviet Union persists in discrediting the Stalinist experience, the appeal of Gramsci’s Marxism over the past five decades has not been diminished one whit. Whatever debates have roiled the younger left since over the last decade and a half, Gramsci has resisted any lapse into a spectral position, in contrast to regrettable decline of attentiveness to other Marxist icons such as Raymond Williams.
Perhaps the most novel development affecting his reputation, since the turn of the century, is the tenacity with which reactionary polemicists have been pumping the zeitgeist full of attacks on what they call “cultural Marxism.” There are now enough book-length works to constitute a genre, most featuring confrontational (and often wild-ass) titles like Islamic Jihad, Cultural Marxism and The Transformation of The West (2016), The Red Trojan Horse: A Concise Analysis of Cultural Marxism (2017), The Tentacles of Cultural Marxism (2020), and American Crisis: Cultural Marxism and The Culture War: A Christian Response (2020). The most recent, Mark R. Levin’s best-selling American Marxism (2021), sounds more sedate but extends the same scare tactics. While the emotionally potent simplifications of this campaign against cultural Marxism originally focused on Jewish Marxists of the Frankfurt School, it is now the name of Gramsci who frequently tops the list as the Great Satan of academic wokeness.
In recent months, the focus of the right started turning to a bogus version of critical race theory (CRT) in which Gramsci became the prime candidate for the avatar of evil alongside running mates Derrick Bell and Kimberlé Crenshaw. From the pages of the Wall Street Journal to loose cannons firing all over the Internet, the anti-radical pundits of Trumpistan are a channel playing all Gramsci, all the time. Needless to say, it is a rendition scrupulously drained of complexity. A composite summary of their complaint reads as follows: the unrepentant Communist with the famously small body and big hair advocated undermining the pillars of decent society in the interests of “flipping hegemony from alleged oppressor to the oppressed” (The Times and Democrat); he believed that “societal norms and institutions, such as family, nation state, capitalism, and God, needed to be torn down” (The Discovery Institute, offshoot of the Hudson Institute); and this was all to create a situation where “the revolutionary vanguard would teach the workers how to think” (The Heritage Foundation).
Yet this caricature exemplifies precisely the kind of mechanical thinking that Gramsci set out to demolish in his Prison Notebooks, which most scholars read today as a triumph of humanistic reflection pledged to creating a domination-free international order. Wasn’t one point of his analysis of the Neapolitan Revolution of 1799 to argue that efforts to impose principles on a population from the outside are doomed to failure? Didn’t he renovate Lenin’s concept of hegemony by advancing the moral and intellectual along with the political in the quest to achieve truly democratic institutions? Something of a cultural anthropologist by training, Gramsci was less interested in telling people the opinions they should hold than in finding out what they believed and why.
Read the entire review at Boston Review.
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