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Chris Walsh reviews Carlos Nelson Coutinho's

Gramsci's Political Thought, part of the


Historical Materialism book series.
412 14 2
By Chris Walsh (International Socialist Group)
Published 19th December, 2012
Gramscis Political Thought
1
, published by Brill this summer as part of the Historical
Materialism Book Series, offers a unique vantage point into South American Gramscian studies
not previously afforded to the Anglophone scholar. The title by the recently deceased Brazilian
Marxist Carlos Nelson Coutinho was first published in Portuguese as Gramsci: Um Estudo
Sobre Su Pensamento Politico in 1999. The Historical Materialism publication includes the
original text with an introduction by Joseph Buttigieg (editor of the English Critical Edition of the
Notebooks) as well as three other essays by Coutinho included as appendices.
When approaching any new text on Gramsci we are always primarily concerned
with which Gramsci the author desires to portray. It goes without saying that the legacy of
Antonio Gramsci has been the object of spirited contest since the Italians death and that his
oeuvre, perhaps more than any other Marxist figure, has been deployed (or at least select
parts of it have) for purposes contradictory to a Marxist Weltanschauung. Christine Buci-
Glucksmann suggested that two major pitfalls in the study of Gramsci are: constructing an
ideological Gramsci-ism inclined to substitute itself for the entire corpus of Marxism and its
most recent developments
2
and, in an attempt to emphasise Gramscis originality opposing
Gramsci to Leninby underestimating the place of hegemony in Lenins work.
3

When the new text concerned is published as part of the HM series there is obviously no cause
for concern on the first front. Coutinho is a serious Marxist and a serious scholar of Gramsci:
having edited the ten volumes of The Complete Works of Gramsci, he was considered one of
the leading left-wing intellectuals in South America. Marxist scholars are enthused to have this
new title available in English for the first time. He explicitly warns against this first error: stating
that we cant represent Gramscis thought truthfully if we sever his link with the organic
tradition initiated by Marx. (138). Nor does Gramscis Political Thought commit the second
offence warned of by Buci-Glucksmann: Coutinho is very clear about Gramscis position in the
lineage of Lenin and spends a sizeable portion of the book assessing the precise nature of the
relationship between the two thinkers. An analysis of this assessment will form the backbone of
this review.

There are, however, aspects of Coutinhos politics that this review will seek to challenge.
Coutinho spent some years in exile Bologna in the 1970s, a period in which his work with the
Italian Communist Party (PCI) had a profound effect upon his politics. He was a proponent of a
Left Eurocommunism, thinking it the contemporary representative of the best traditions of the
communist movement, in search of a third way between the bureaucratic method of the
Stalinists and neo-Stalinists and the limited reformism of social democracy.
4
The final section
of the review will engage with the question of Eurocommunism by examining Coutinhos
statements on Gramscis legacy and specifically his endorsement of the politics of late
Poulantzas.
Gramsci and Lenin
Coutinho notes that in the period of the factory councils and the publication of LOrdine Nuovo,
Gramsci had realized the significance of two key aspects of Lenins thought:
On the one hand, the need to treat the issue of the state as a central issue in
the socialist revolution, at the same time indicating the concrete ways to get
closer to the construction of this new state, thus breaking with the passive
and spontaneist wait for the great explosion; and on the other, the need to
create a new kind of party, a party that was actually communist and
revolutionary, capable of leading the whole of the working class and its allies
in the process of preparation for taking power and in the later construction of
this power.
5

Throughout his study, Coutinho unpacks both of these theoretical lessons (and many more)
that Gramsci absorbed from Lenin. He is quite clear throughout, about Gramscis indebtedness
to Lenin for the building blocks of his own theoretical endeavours, correctly noting that Lenin, in
his final years, was acutely aware of the necessity for a different socialist strategy in the West
than that of the successful Russian experience. Lenin understood that the greater complexity
of Western societies would make it hard to take power, demanding a longer process and an
ability to do politics far greater than what had been required in Russia. (27)
Coutinho is concerned with establishing a proper description of the relationship between
Gramsci and Lenin: he warns against two wrong-headed positions that one encounters fairly
routinely:
There are two positions that must be excluded in advance, both of which are
equally one-sided: 1) that which sees in Gramscis work an alternative to
Leninism, that is, a theoretical path that beginning with Marx himself (or
maybe with Sorel or Croce) and leading in a direction different or even
opposite to Lenins parallel path; and 2) that which, though correctly
acknowledging the essential link between Gramsci and Lenin, minimises the
moment of renewal, of dialectical overcoming, of going beyond.
6

Coutinho stresses the importance of finding the appropriate balance
between continuity and renewal when assessing Gramscis relationship to Lenin. His position,
which we endorse whole-heartedly, is that the theory expounded by Gramsci in the Prison
Notebooks does not represent a departure from Lenins theory, but a dialectical overcoming,
in the sense that the mature Gramsci did not deny every achievement of Leninism, but
rather maintained its central core, while at the same time developing it. (50-51) In other words,
Gramsci did not move beyond Leninism; he moved Leninism on; an elevation to a higher
level. (131)
In fact, one of the great strengths of Gramscis Political Thought is its decisive and clear
account of Gramscis own interpretation of Leninism as a living and vibrant practice, making no
allowances for theoretical laziness and dogmatism. Coutinho endeavours to present Gramsci
(in the pre-carceral era as well as that of the Notebooks) as an ever-vigilant challenger to
dogmatic approaches to Marxism. His challenge to the ultra-leftism of Bordiga represented a
battle
fought in the name of Lenin, but not in the name of a Lenin conceived as a
chest of ready-made definitions, a Lenin understood as the creator of an
abstract and doctrinaire Leninism (similar to what Stalin was beginning to
propose), but in the name of the dialectical and materialist method that lies
at the basis of practical action and of the main political formulations of the
great Russian revolutionary: a method that shows, through differentiated
(concrete) analysis of the real and respect towards its mediations, the basic
task of Marxism as conceived as a guide to action.
7

The dynamism of Gramscis Marxism (the Philosophy of Praxis) is what ensures its continuing
relevance to socialists; it does not reinforce any anachronistic temptation to return to
dogmatism [Gramsci] was a critical communist, a heretical one, which allowed him to avoid
most of the theoretical impasses created by historical communism. (123)
The Philosophy of Praxis is not a fixed collection of ideas, beliefs or platitudes, (as some
variants of Marxism contemporaneous to the Notebooks had become) in fact, Gramsci warned,
There is no clear and precise concept of what the philosophy of praxis itself actually
is.
8
According to Coutinho, Gramscis Marxism was
a method, for making explicit new determinations from the unfolding of the
old, which, being dialectical, were determinations necessarily open to
historical evolution, and for that reason demanded permanent renewal.
Lenins basic tenets were thus conserved (but only in their essential aspects)
and brought to a higher level (by taking account of new determinations
created by socio-historical development). It is clear that there is no other way
of being faithful simultaneously to the dialectical method of historical
materialism and to the objective dialectics of social reality, since this method
is the mental reproduction of those objective dialectics which is also
constituted in itself, ontologically, by the articulation between continuity and
renewal.
9

The Philosophy of Praxis demands permanent renewal by way of constant practical
engagement with the real. Changes in material conditions, whether conjunctural or epochal,
dictate that the theoretical truths of our predecessors are re-assessed and where necessary
altered or developed, in order to retain their relevance in relation to an external reality which is
in a constant process of transformation. Marxism cannot stand still because the world doesnt
stand still. Gramscis Marxism, probably more than that of any other single figure, rigourously
emphasises this point and promotes (or defends) the importance of the dialectical method. This
point is made clearly and emphatically by Coutinho in Gramscis Political Thought.
Hegemony and the Party
This is what hegemony is: to identify the peculiar features of a historical
condition, of a process; to become the protagonist of the demands of other
social strata, and of the solutions to these demands, uniting around oneself
these strata, allying oneself with them in struggle against capitalism and thus
isolating capitalism itself. The Italian working class becomes the leading
class when it makes the southern question a national question. For Gramsci,
to deal with the question of working-class hegemony means to deal with the
question of the national role of the working class.
10

As articulated in this passage by Luciano Gruppi, cited in Gramscis Political Thought, in order
that the working class has the ability to depose the ruling bourgeoisie, it must first elaborate a
hegemonic project which incorporates the needs and desires of other subaltern groupings as
well as its own. This is the realisation arrived at concretely by Gramsci in his most significant
pre-prison article Some Aspects of the Southern Question: the working class must become
the national class. The party, as the vanguard of the working class has a crucial role to play. It
must move beyond corporatism and seek to represent the universal interests of all of the
subaltern classes. It must articulate a revolutionary strategy that incorporates the needs and
desires of other exploited and oppressed blocs not in a superficial or tokenistic way, but in
the knowledge that only by taking the responsibility of being the true leading class and
championing all of the struggles that this entails, can it hope to challenge the dominant
hegemony in a bid for power.
A crisis of ruling class hegemony does not automatically lead to the ascension of a worker-led
bloc. Gramsci noted that if the masses withdraw their consent for the ruling bloc, so that it is
no longer leading but only dominant, exercising coercive force alone, this means precisely
that the great masses have become detached from their traditional ideologies, and no longer
believe what they used to believe previously, etc. (98) This detachment from bourgeois
ideologies will not necessarily translate into revolutionary upheaval. It is the role of the party to
foster an intellectual and moral reform that spreads among the masses a new, radically
secular and immanentist high culturethat contributes to the creation of a new collective
subject from the proletariat thus converted into the national hegemonic class that promotes
and furthers the radical transformation of society. (72) In this way we can establish a new
collective national-popular will in the struggle to overcome an old relation of hegemony and to
build a new one. (72)
Just as Gramsci embraced the Bolsheviks action in opposition to Second International
positivism, he realizes that variations of the same strategic inactions and pessimism must be
avoided in challenging hegemony. We have already noted that Coutinho portrays Gramscis
Leninism as a guide to action; now, again, we see Gramsci as a political figure acting in
opposition to deterministic and fatalistic positions; stressing the importance of the will and the
necessity for the revolutionary party to act politically and be the agent of the bourgeoisies
demise and the ascension of the proletariat.
Coutinho explains:
In the war of position that happens throughout a crisis of hegemonythere
is no place for the messianic wait for the great day for the assault on
power. The main criterion for the resolution of the crisis is the initiative of
collective political subjects, the ability to act politically, to include large
masses in the solution of their own problems, to struggle day-to-day for
spaces and positions without losing sight of the final goal, that is, to bring
forth structural transformations that put an end to the socio-economic
capitalist formation. If the economic crisis does not translate itself
spontaneously into the disaggregation of the ruling bloc (in certain
conditions, it may even favour a re-aggregation of the bloc), this means the
disaggregation depends directly on the ability of the dominated class to act
politically; in other words, to gradually conquer for itself the hegemony that
was lost or is about to be lost to the ruling classes.
11

Here, Coutinho provides a most thorough and readable explanation of the War of Position.
However, in a later section discussing Gramscis legacy, he offers another facet of his
interpretation that is perhaps more open to comradely critique.
Beyond Gramsci?
Coutinho suggests that Marxists in the lineage of Gramsci must seek to concretise his general
theoretical formulations, applying them to their own historical time and their own national
reality; andcontinue the theoretical developments of the concepts of state and socialist
revolution, enriching Gramscis formulations with new determinations from the evolution of
reality after his death. (132) He suggests that the Greek Marxist Nicos Poulantzas has best
lived up to this task, describing his theoretical output as the expression of one of the most
lucid Marxist political reflections of our times. (132)
For Coutinho, Poulantzass Democratic Road to Socialism outlined in his final major
work State, Power, Socialism represents the best example of an enriching and renewal of
Gramscis Marxism. However, Poulantzas misunderstood some key aspects of Gramscis
thought in this text and Coutinho replicates his errors directly in Gramscis Political Thought.
The fundamental error from which all others stem is in the location of hegemony and an
incomplete understanding of the Integral State. Coutinho claims that Poulantzas had
dialectically overcome Gramsci since the latter conceived the struggle for hegemony and for
the conquest of positions as something that took place within civil society (within the private
apparatuses of hegemony), Poulantzas goes beyond and speaks of an analogous battle to be
fought within the state-apparatuses themselves, in the narrow sense (political society, in
Gramscis phrase). (133)
He goes on to quote a famous passage from State, Power, Socialism which outlines how
socialists go about contesting power within state networks (133) and repeating uncritically
Poulantzass assertion that the war of positionfrom Gramscis point of view, is always a
siege of the fortress state. (133)
The problem here is that Poulantzass idea that Gramscis War of Position was played out
exclusively within civil society until the forces for revolution where strong enough to overthrow
the fortress state is quite wrong, and symptomatic of his misunderstanding of the concept of
the Integral State.
Peter Thomas explains the Integral State:
Gramsci comprehended political and civil society as attributes of the
substance of the integral state: whereas political society refers to this
substance-state after the consolidation of the political power of a class in
(state) institutions on the basis of the degree of coercion, civil society is
associated with the constitution of such (potential) political power in forces
on the social terrain on the basis of consent.
12

Here we find that Coutinhos terminology is insufficient to accurately explain the different
moments of the process of hegemony. If we draw a distinction (absent from Coutinhos
analysis) between civil hegemony and political hegemony, a much richer formulation is
possible. Hegemony gained within civil society (civil hegemony) does not represent real
political power, only an amassing of support for a hegemonic project (i.e. consent); it must
evolve into political hegemony through the consolidation of the political power of a class in
(state) institutions i.e. hegemony must be contested within political society if the potential
pregnant within the civil hegemony is to be given institutional expression; if a class is to be
dominant as well as leading.
In fact, Coutinho partially understands the phenomenon of civil hegemony, without
acknowledging it as such. He writes, The ideology (or system of ideologies) of the subaltern
classes is now able to achieve hegemony within one or more private hegemonic apparatuses
[institutions within civil society], even before these classes have achieved state-power strictly
speaking, that is, before they become ruling classes. (86)
The danger inherent in Coutinhos incomplete analysis is that he fails to explain
the necessity of such civil hegemony progressing into political hegemony; since if it does not it
will be disaggregated and subordinated to the existing idea of the social body, that is, the
existing political hegemony of the ruling class.
13

Following Poulantzas, Coutinho mistakenly implies that for Gramsci, class struggle is located
outside of the institutional State. Once we comprehend the Integral State its clear that he was
mistaken. Classes do primarily compete for hegemony within civil society; but this civil
hegemony must progress into political hegemony by capture of the legal monopoly of
violence embodied in the institutions of political society, or the state understood in a limited
sense, that is, the state apparatus.
14
If leadership within the social basis of the integral state
(civil hegemony) cannot quickly evolve into political hegemony, then the experience will be
subordinated to the dominant hegemony through incorporation or the State can simply crush
the threat to with the repressive state apparatuses.

Although Coutinho sees in Poulantzas a more able champion of the Philosophy of Praxis than
he really was, his general depiction of Gramscis thought is of real value. His position on the
relationship between Gramsci and Lenin is sound and he provides a fair representation of the
balance of continuity and renewal in the relationship. Most valuable though, is his illustration of
Gramscis Marxism as antithetical to dogma of any kind. If Marxism is to have any kind of
renaissance in public life, this versatile, un-dogmatic approach will have to be the visible centre
of our endeavours.

[1] Coutinho, Carlos Nelson; Gramscis Political Thought; Brill; (Leiden 2012); All in page
references are to this volume.
[2]Buci-Glucksmann, Christine; Gramsci and The State; Lawrence and Wishart (London 1980);
ix
[3]Ibid. 174
[4]Sader, Emir; Taking Lulas Measure; New Left Review33, May-June 2005;
http://newleftreview.org/II/33/emir-sader-taking-lula-s-measure
[5]Coutinho 2012, 22
[6]Ibid. 51
[7]Ibid. 33
[8]Gramsci, Antonio; Selections from Prison Notebooks; Lawrence and Wishart; (London
1978), 431
[9]Coutinho 2012, 51
[10]Gruppi, Luciano; cited in Coutinho 2012, 41
[11]Coutinho 2012, 98-99
[12]Thomas, Peter; Conjuncture of the Integral State?: Poulantzass Reading of Gramsci;
Reading Poulantzas; (Merlin 2011) 288
[13]Thomas, Peter .; The Gramscian Moment: Philosophy, Hegemony and Marxism;
(Haymarket Books 2009); 194
[14]Thomas, Peter; Conjuncture of the Integral State?: Poulantzass Reading of Gramsci;
Reading Poulantzas; (Merlin 2011) 285
Gramsci's Political Thought is currently available in
hardback from Brill. A paperback edition will be released by
Haymarket Books in July 2013.
- See more at: http://internationalsocialist.org.uk/index.php/2012/12/review-gramscis-political-
thought-carlos-nelson-coutinho/#sthash.SH6Yd1W2.dpuf