Escaping the Throne Room

Peter Thomas and the Gramscian Moment

In: Historical Materialism

In The Gramscian Moment Peter Thomas fundamentally revises the ‘textbook’ Gramsci – a theorist whose work centred on a primordial East/West distinction, focused on the superstructure, and upon the ways a ruling class secured subaltern consent to its rule. Placing special emphasis on the Notebooks from 1932, Thomas critiques readings of Gramsci by Perry Anderson and Louis Althusser, and finds that Gramsci articulated the ‘philosophy of praxis’ not so much as a synonym for, or declaration of independence from, Marxism, but rather as a tendency within Marx’s legacy that Gramsci hoped to make hegemonic within the working-class movement. Two friendly amendments emerge with respect to this persuasive account. First, the emphasis on Gramsci’s philosophy leads the author to an over-simplified account of the role of evolutionary theory within Gramsci’s own perspective and privileges ‘philosophy’ over other fields to which Gramsci’s vision was even more decisive. Is the ‘Gramscian moment’ really best analysed by looking at those intellectuals commonly deemed philosophers? And second, does not this moment also entail a more fundamental rethinking of the orthodox concepts and methods of revolutionary-left historiography than the author sometimes implies?

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  • 1

    Thomas 2009a, p. 136, emphasis in original.

  • 2

    Thomas 2009a, p. 3; Q11, §27; Gramsci 1971, p. 465. To facilitate reference to Gramsci’s work, this essay follows the international convention of specifying the Q (Quaderni) and § (section) location of specific passages.

  • 3

    Thomas 2009a, p. 136.

  • 4

    Thomas 2009a, p. 442.

  • 5

    Thomas 2009a, p. 114; for the Goethean genealogy of the phrase, see Francese 2009.

  • 6

    Thomas 2009a, p. xx.

  • 9

    Anderson 1976.

  • 11

    Thomas 2009a, p. 48, n. 15.

  • 12

    Thomas 2009a, p. xxii.

  • 14

    Thomas 2009a, p. 54.

  • 15

    Thomas 2009a, p. 61.

  • 16

    Thomas 2009a, p. 68. As Thomas points out, this epigram, read more subtly, draws a conceptual distinction between the state and civil society while polemically insisting that they are interconnected (Thomas 2009a, p. 68, n. 89). And had Gramsci meant this equation literally, he would surely have dropped the term ‘civil society’ altogether subsequently in the Prison Notebooks as a redundancy – but such is not the case.

  • 17

    Thomas 2009a, pp. 91–2.

  • 18

    Thomas 2009a, p. 92.

  • 19

    Thomas 2009a, pp. 92–3.

  • 20

    Thomas 2009a, p. 106.

  • 22

    Thomas 2009a, p. 448.

  • 23

    Thomas 2009a, pp. 448–9.

  • 24

    Thomas 2009a, p. 449.

  • 25

    Thomas 2009a, p. 249. For a contrasting discussion, placing more emphasis on ‘historicism’ as a guide to concrete historical research, see Morera 1990.

  • 26

    Thomas 2009a, pp. 249–50.

  • 28

    Thomas 2009a, p. 449, emphasis in original.

  • 29

    Thomas 2009a, p. 422.

  • 30

    Thomas 2009a, p. 449.

  • 31

    Thomas 2009a, p. 141. For exciting new work that brings out the dynamic context of the ‘united front’ within the Comintern, see Riddell 2011 and Riddell (ed.) 2012.

  • 32

    Thomas 2009a, p. 143.

  • 34

    Thomas 2009a, p. 137.

  • 36

    Thomas 2009a, p. 142.

  • 38

    Thomas 2009a, p. 144, again citing Burgio, emphasis in original.

  • 39

    See also Thomas 2006.

  • 40

    Thomas 2009a, pp. 150–1.

  • 41

    Thomas 2009a, p. 151.

  • 43

    Thomas 2009a, pp. 156–7. This one-sided emphasis on ‘failure’ seemingly proceeds from the a priori assumption that the working class is generally revolutionary, and underestimates the extent to which workers were able to articulate their own interests, their own ‘languages of politics’, in ways that cannot simply be written off as ‘failure’. A more nuanced reading of the varieties of subaltern response to capitalism can be located in many places in the Prison Notebooks.

  • 45

    Thomas 2009a, pp. 373, 370.

  • 46

    Thomas 2009a, p. 374.

  • 47

    Thomas 2009a, p. 370.

  • 48

    Thomas 2009a, p. 371.

  • 49

    Thomas 2009a, p. 134, emphasis in original.

  • 51

    Thomas 2009a, p. 194.

  • 55

    Thomas 2009a, p. 163.

  • 56

    Thomas 2009a, p. 235; citing Q13, §18.

  • 57

    Thomas 2009a, p. 154.

  • 58

    Thomas 2009a, p. 434.

  • 59

    Thomas 2009a, p. 450.

  • 61

    Thomas 2009a, p. 282.

  • 62

    Dainotto 2009, p. 59.

  • 63

    Thomas 2009a, p. xxiv.

  • 66

    Thomas 2009a, p. 23.

  • 67

    Barot 2010.

  • 68

    Trotsky 1995.

  • 69

    Thomas 2009a, pp. 277–8.

  • 70

    Thomas 2009a, p. 300, n. 169.

  • 72

    Note Boothman 2010, pp. 116–17, for the markedly evolutionary overtones of some of Gramsci’s vocabulary on the problems of translation and translatability.

  • 73

    For example, Sheehan 1993.

  • 74

    Barot 2010, p. 144.

  • 75

    Thomas 2009a, p. xviii.

  • 76

    Thomas 2009a, p. 108, citing Q7, §35; Gramsci 1971, p. 357.

  • 77

    Thomas 2009a, p. 140.

  • 78

    Gramsci 1971, p. 238; Q7, §16.

  • 80

    Gramsci 1971, p. 446; Q11, §34.

  • 82

    Thomas 2009a, p. 136.

  • 85

    Thomas 2009a, p. 275.

  • 86

    Thomas 2009a, pp. 16–17, emphasis in original.

  • 88

    Thomas 2009a, p. 250.

  • 90

    Gramsci 1971, p. 464; Q11, §27, emphasis added.

  • 91

    See Finocchiaro 1988, countered by Kahn 2002; Mansfield 2011.

  • 94

    See Thomas 2006.

  • 95

    See Finocchiaro 1988, p. 133.

  • 96

    Croce 1921, 1929 and 1970; Gramsci 1971, pp. 114–16, Q15, §62; Q10II, §61. In this volume, Esteve Morera is interpreted as a forerunner of critical realism as a philosophical tendency (p. 318, n. 35). Yet, from a working historian’s perspective, Morera appears more as a theorist refreshingly open to a rapprochement between Marxism as a discipline and the newer developments in socio-economic history, such as the Annales school (see Morera 1990).

  • 97

    Gramsci 1971, p. 465; Q11, §27.

  • 99

    See Fontana 2009, for a discussion of five major strands in Gramsci’s writings about nature that candidly documents his ‘boldly assertive’ belief in ‘the superiority of reason and thought, as well as in the preeminence – indeed, domination – of rational action and knowledge throughout all spheres of human endeavour’ – while also concluding that Gramsci makes it possible to imagine ‘a Weltanschauung . . . whose practical realization and dissemination would also mean the resolution of the historical antagonism between humanity and nature. At the same time, the development of material and political conditions conducive to freedom understood as self-determination – as the elaboration and self-imposition of limits and boundaries – might harbinger an awareness of the need for limitation and articulated restraint when it comes to dealing with nature and the environment’ (Fontana 2009, pp. 69, 79).

  • 101

    Cf. Thomas 2009a, p. 229.

  • 102

    Gramsci 1971, p. 449; Q11, §18.

  • 103

    Gramsci 1971, p. 439; Q11, §15.

  • 106

    Gramsci 1971, p. 438; Q11, §15.

  • 107

    Trotsky 1986 and 1995.

  • 109

    Gramsci 1971, p. 241; Q14, §68. Of course, in both the cases of Bukharin and Trotsky, we might find that Gramsci’s ‘annihilating polemic’ falls short of his own advice about fairness to one’s opponent (see especially Finocchiaro 1988, pp. 68–122), especially since he had plainly learned a vast amount about socio-political ‘equilibria’ from the one and the ‘united front’ from the other.

  • 110

    Thomas 2009a, p. 91.

  • 111

    See Boothman 2010; Sewell 2005.

  • 112

    Thomas 2009a, p. 335.

  • 113

    Thomas 2009a, p. 443.

  • 114

    Gramsci 1971, p. 462; Q11, §27. Roberto Dainotto (Dainotto 2009, p. 51) shows convincingly that this theme in Gramsci is heavily dependent on the prior work of Antonio Labriola, whose collected works Gramsci had requested as early as March 1929.

  • 115

    Gramsci 1971, p. 462; Q11, §27, emphasis added.

  • 117

    Thomas 2009a, p. 106, emphasis added.

  • 118

    Gramsci 1971, pp. 462–5; Q11, §27.

  • 119

    Gramsci 1971, p. 464; Q11, §27.

  • 121

    Thomas 2009a, p. 376.

  • 124

    Thomas 2009a, p. 253.

  • 125

    For example, Thomas 2009a, p. 220.

  • 126

    Thomas 2009a, p. 221.

  • 127

    Greaves 2009.

  • 128

    Denning 2009; Ruccio 2009.

  • 129

    For discussion, see Filippine 2009, p. 266.

  • 130

    Thomas 2009a, p. 226.

  • 132

    Fontana 2009.

  • 133

    Pearmain 2011.

  • 134

    Thomas 2009a, p. 283.

  • 135

    Thomas 2009a, pp. 446–7, echoing Tosel and Haug.

  • 137

    Thomas 2009a, p. 254.

  • 138

    Thomas 2009a, p. 327.

  • 139

    Thomas 2009a, p. xviii.

  • 142

    Thomas 2009a, p. 131.

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