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Antonio Gramsci: Thoughts for the Global World

Crisis of modernity

The First World War influenced the whole of Gramsci’s thinking. He considered it the “historical break” which determined the deep-going crisis of the modern political subject, in other words the European Nation-State. In the Prison Notebooks (1929-1935) he singled out Soviet communism, fascism and Americanism as the main attempts to get out of the crisis, of which Americanism seemed the most “expansive”, while the crisis put European Marxism out of action. Gramsci concentrated on rethinking the bases of the crisis by reworking the Marxist concept of interdependence and developing that of world history.

Cosmopolitanism of the economy and nationalism of politics

To his way of thinking, the world history of the twentieth century hinged around the contrast between the cosmopolitanism of the economy and the nationalism of politics. The contrast generated global economic crises as much as it did regional and world wars. However, their cause was not to be found in a supposed immutable nature of capitalism, but rather in the ruling classes’ ineptitude in not being able to bring the spaces of politics into line with those of the economy. Crises and war derive from the fact that the ruling classes are formed in the struggle for power in spaces circumscribed by territorial sovereignty and are generally not equipped to develop new forms of supranational sovereignty. The globalization of politics, however, which were generated by the First World War, made the contradictory process of the peoples towards unity irreversible and hence Gramsci foresaw that interdependence could prevail over geostrategic conflicts and over the wars of the 1930s, giving rise to an era of supranational economic and political groupings capable of belying the inevitability of war.

Hegemony and interdependence

For Gramsci the exercise of hegemony, at the national level as much as at the supranational or global one, implies the existence of systems of equilibrium among social groups within States and among the great powers at the world level. These equilibria are negotiated continually by a plurality of protagonists, amongst whom there prevails the one having most resources for use in obtaining consent and consensus. Consequently, the hegemonic systems constitute open national and international political orders within which the relations of force among the parts composing them are reversible. By applying the Gramscian theory of hegemony to the actual situation, the idea that from the implosion of the USSR a unipolar world would emerge in which American hegemony could extend boundlessly revealed itself to be without substance. The structure of the post-bipolar world has proved to be ever more multipolar and the absence of a new world order has generated instability and wars. The response to the hegemonic challenge of China cannot be of a military character since that would create anew the risk of a nuclear holocaust for humanity.

Moles and beavers

To the idea of politics as the struggle for hegemony there corresponds a conception of history emancipated from the economic determinism that is inherent in its reduction to the history of the class struggle. The concept of history is centered on the concept of passive revolution. In the global world, historical change proceeds from above and from below asymmetrically. The interdependence and subjectivity of peoples generates non-eliminable progressive drives, the cumulative effect of labour and the sciences gives rise to a molecular erosion of the relations of force and the equilibria of power. The dominant social groups, however, have the chance to update their agenda in continuation by incorporating progressive demands, with the goal of maintaining their leadership of the historical process. The passive revolution thus appears as the typical figure of historical change up to the point when one or other of the protagonists of the political conflict brings the system of existing equilibria down. In the world history of the twentieth century the concept of passive revolution is particularly appropriate for defining the “golden age” of American hegemony in the historical period that ranges from the end of the Second World War to the eclipse of the Bretton Woods system.

A new cosmopolitanism

In the global and interdependent world, the struggles for hegemony are decided on the national terrain; but national politics is determined by combinations that are alternative between internal factors and the international conditionings of development. Nation and development are ever more intertwined and may follow different trajectories according to which specific social groups or coalitions of interests prevail. In the era of the masses the nation thus becomes plural, dynamic and subject to competition. Its destiny depends on the world geopolitical connections into which it is inserted. Democracy is the only form of political organization that allows the interconnected deployment of its internal dynamics and international projections. For Gramsci the political party is the organ created by modern history for interpreting this dynamic, it is the protagonist of the struggles for hegemony. But the moving force of the historical process is the formation of “national-popular collective wills” destined to prevail in the political arena. They are the articulations of hegemonic ideological currents that irradiate from the “great powers” in the countries connected with them and in the peripheries of the world.  The political party feeds on such narrations, adapting them to national life. In a fractured world, shot through with asymmetries, antagonisms and wars, the task of primary importance for the progressive forces is, for Gramsci, that of collaborating in the “reconstruction of the world in a unitary fashion”. In order, then, to systematize the interdependence between national politics and the conditionings of world history, he abandons the traditional concept of internationalism, replacing it with that of a “cosmopolitanism of a new type.”

Giuseppe Vacca was formerly Professor of the History of Political Thought, and Director of the Fondazione Istituto Gramsci from 1988 to 1999, and then its President up to 2016. He is now head of the Scientific Commission of the National Edition of Antonio Gramsci’s Writings, currently being published by the Istituto della Enciclopedia Italiana. His most recent book with Palgrave is is the outcome of over forty years of study of the life and thought of Gramsci.

Picture of Giuseppe Vacca

Giuseppe Vacca

Thoughts for the Global World

© SpringerFor a taste of his recent book Alternative Modernities: Antonio Gramsci’s Twentieth Century, read Chapter 1, “The Concept of Hegemony” for free until 8 April 2021

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