U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Thinking Like a Gramscian Historian: An Introduction, a Provocation, and Guide to the Basics

antonio-gramsciWhat follows is a guide and provocation—not a formula—for writing as a mature, unorthodox Marxist historian. By the latter I mean as a “Gramscian Historian,” or perhaps something like a Critical Theorist historian. As the points below accumulate, moreover, you might see this as a guide to thinking like a Gramscian Intellectual Historian. We’ll see. [Note: This could be read as a companion to Kurt Newman’s November 19, 2013 post on Gramsci.]

The deeper I delve into the darkest corners of my theoretical self (an ongoing preoccupation over the past year, by choice and accident), I’m seeing myself as a someone who could get comfortable writing in a Critical Theorist-Gramscian historical mode of analysis. By this I do not mean using that mode to direct my selection of evidence, guide all of my interpretive decisions, or to depart from a factually rich style of writing (hopefully that sense of self will be confirmed as reviews of my book begin to appear). Rather, in a fashion true to the historicism of Max Horkheimer and the concreteness of Antonio Gramsci, I mean using that mode to help one make sense of the abstractions, generalizations, and inductions that arise from a deep immersion in evidence. A Gramscian-Critical Theorist mode of analysis is another important tool in my box of interpretive tools.

The immediate inspiration for this post is the death of Stuart Hall, but through a recommendation by James Livingston. When Jim posted a reflection about Hall on his Facebook page, he included a reference to Stuart Hall’s 1986 article “Gramsci’s Relevance for the Study of Race and Ethnicity” (Journal of Communication Inquiry, vol. 10, no. 5, pp. 5-27). I would’ve never noticed this without Jim’s shout-out, which included this marketing tag: “The best single piece on Gramsci I have ever read is not by Cammett or Genovese, or Nairn or Anderson, or, for that matter, Laclau and Mouffe, but by Hall, in the Journal of Communications Inquiry.” That is no small praise. I bought Livingston’s pitch, and this post is the result.

Almost everything in the outline, or program, below derives from the Hall article. That piece, in turn (which sadly contains no bibliography), relies primarily on Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks. But Hall also references a number of other pieces that may (I’m not sure) exist outside the Notebooks. Finally, in a bibliography afterwards I cite some other potentially useful secondary sources.

How to Think Like a Gramscian Historian, as Inspired By Stuart Hall

Note: All page references are to the Hall article. Other sources are sprinkled throughout.

antonio-gramsci-red1. Like any good orthodox Marxist—as distinct from a unorthodox Marxist thinker like Gramsci—you must still know and understand the economic terrain/base. This means thinking about the period, particulars, and specifics of capital and labor. Be sensitive to communities and various regional differences. This is what helps make your historical thinking historicist. This means knowing both qualitative and quantitative data, as much as is possible. (pp. 14, 18)

2. Having learned the economic terrain, let it simmer in the background. Think about the contours of the story you have just ascertained—it’s elements of commodification and reification (the ‘thingification’ of social relations, as a relation of tradeable objects).

3. Ask how these contours, in turn, affected “superstructures” as manifest in culture, thought worlds, ideology, politics, psychology, and personality. Again, sensitivity to particular communities and regions, as well as periodization, is a necessity. (p. 14)

4. Think about the relations of conceptual superstructures to social forces and individuals. What are the various levels of articulation between these classes and forces, and how do they compete with each other? Be aware of sites of struggle and crisis. Think about whether the social force, movements, and individuals (all the players) are ‘organic’ (meaning historical and deep) or incidental (“occasional, immediate”). An ‘organic’ crisis can last for decades and is not static. (p. 13)

5. Has the interaction or coordination between these forces created a ‘hegemony’ or effected a historical bloc that sustains hegemonic environment? This definition of hegemony seems useful (from here): “the success of the dominant classes in presenting their definition of reality, their view of the world, in such a way that it is accepted by other classes as ‘common sense’.” Hegemonies are seen through their effects of power and control. Hall also seems to imply, to me anyway, that for Gramsci not all hegemonies are necessarily bad; they can dominate in positive and negative ways. Hegemony is, then, more of a descriptor than a shadowy monster. Hall notes that “‘hegemony’ is a very particular, historically specific, and temporary ‘moment’ in the life of a society.” It is multi-dimensional and has a multi-arena character that involves many fronts in society’s superstructure. Finally, it is a ‘historic bloc’ rather than a ‘ruling class’ that includes the “strata of the subaltern and dominated classes, who have been won over by specific concessions and compromises and who form part of the social constellation but in a subordinate role.” (pp. 14-15)

6. Is the hegemonic class dominating or leading? Domination can maintain the ascendancy of a class, but only with limited reach. A leading hegemonic bloc wins consent by taking into account “subordinate interests” and attempts to maintain popularity. Coercion and consent run together for Gramsci, and run the gamut of cultural, moral, ethical, and intellectual concerns. (p. 16-17)

7. Consider the power—“the sturdy structure”—of “civil society” when analyzing struggles. Most all struggles, in liberal democracies, are won by protracted and complex ‘wars of position’ rather than momentary ‘wars of maneuver” that are reminiscent of WWI trench battles. Those wars of position occur in the context of civil society. The ‘art of politics’, then, is what happens in the context of “voluntary associations, …schooling, the family, churches and religious life, cultural organizations, so-called private relations, gender, sexual and ethnic identities, etc.” The state, in this scenario, is both “educative and formative”—a “point of condensation” for those diverse kinds of institutions and their relations. The state is a function of the “civil hegemony” that derives from that civil society. The complexity of these historical circumstances cannot be emphasized enough. In Hall’s words (as inspired by Gramsci): “This points irrevocably to the increasing complexity of the inter-relationships in modern societies between state and civil society.” Hall adds: “The effect is to multiply and proliferate the various fronts of politics, and to differentiate the various kinds of social antagonisms.” (pp. 17-20)

8. Enter ideology, and how it affects civil society and hegemony. Gramsci defines ideology as “a conception of the world, any philosophy, which becomes a cultural movement, a ‘religion’, a ‘faith’, that has produced a form of practical activity or will in which a philosophy is contained as an implicit theoretical ‘premiss’. …In its best sense [it is]…a conception of the world that is implicitly manifest in art, in law, in economic activity and in all manifestations of individual and collective life.” Given this definition, Gramsci declares that the essential problem of ideology is how it “preserve[s] the ideological unity of the entire social bloc which that ideology serves to cement and unify.” Ideology consists of a philosophical core or nucleus that is linked and elaborated, in Hall’s words, “into practical and popular forms of consciousness” as they affect (and effect) “the broad masses of society, in the shape of a cultural movement, political tendency, faith or religion.” Gramsci is less concerned with the philosophical nucleus than ideology as an organic form which touches thinking people and “practical, everyday, common sense.’ The key here is that philosophy values coherence while common-sense thinking is eclectic—concerned with effectiveness and practice. Common-sense thinking, to Gramsci, is “not rigid and immobile but is continually transforming itself.” It also more likely to be a deep product of historical process. Finally, Gramsi circles back to everyday politics: “The relation between common sense and the upper-level of philosophy is assured by ‘politics’.” (p. 20-21)

9. At this point you, as an historian, might be asking about ‘the self’ and real people. What of the individual thinker, however complex or simple? Gramsci hasn’t forgotten you and them. Gramsci recognizes the individual via plurality. According to Hall, Gramsci “refuses any idea of a pre-given unified ideological subject.” There is a “‘plurality’ of selves or identities of which the so-called subject of thought and ideas is composed.” As such, “the personality is strangely composite.” And on that individual’s consciousness (always a tricky subject in Marxist thought), Hall sees Gramsci as drawing “attention to the contradiction in consciousness between the conception of the world which manifests itself…in action, and those conceptions which are affirmed verbally or in thought.” The result is a “complex, fragmentary and contradictory conception of consciousness” that surpasses considerably the “false consciousness” of traditional/orthodox Marxist thought. In sum, there is no “‘given’ and unified ideological class subject” (p. 22-23). We must try to understand those who participate in hegemonies in the smallest units possible to as to reflect individual and group agency (the final term being my import).

10. Finally, Gramsci even addresses paradigm change—the transformation of hegemonies. Hall found an extraordinary passage in the Prison Notebooks that hits Kuhnian tune. Here’s Hall’s narration:

“The multi-accentual, inter-discursive character of the field of ideology is explicitly acknowledged by Gramsci when…he describes how an old conception of the world is gradually displaced by another mode of thought and is internally reworked and transformed: ‘what matters is the criticism to which such an ideological complex is subjected…This makes possible a process of differentiation and change in the relative wight that the elements of the old ideologies used to possess…what was previously secondary and subordinate…becomes the nucleus of a new ideological and theoretical complex” (p. 23).

A Gramscian vision of benign or pernicious ideological, or hegemonic, change is one where the new paradigm always contains residues of the old. New ideas are articulated, and old one disarticulated. In either case history and historical circumstance are respected.

I noted this on the USIH Facebook page, but consider the “how to” outline above my own kind of tribute to both Stuart Hall—and James Livingston?. The latter probably gets more credit as an antagonist and provocateur than as an authentic person and inspiration to good historical thinking. This one is for you, Jim, even if you think it comes off as sucky, programmatic b.s. – TL

Secondary Bibliography

Notes: (a) These are in addition the abovementioned Hall article and his embedded citations of Gramsci’s works. (b) I do not endorse these in their particulars, but rather as broad guides to thinking about Gramsci’s thought

“A Gramsci Glossary.” Workers’ Liberty. March 27, 2013.

Raney, Vanessa. “Gramsci Outside of Marx?: Defining Culture in Gramscian Terms.” Web essay, Claremont Graduate University (Fall 2003).

Rosengarten, Frank. “An Introduction to Gramsci’s Life and Thought.” Marxist Internet Archive Library, Antonio Gramsci Archive.

8 Thoughts on this Post

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  1. Thanks for this very useful post Tim. I’m wondering if Hall/Gramsci is using common sense differently in #5 than he is in #8. #5 suggests that common sense is the logic dictated by the dominate hegemonic class and #8 that common sense is eclectic and ever changing. One implies agency/purpose and the other not so much?

    • Paul: Thanks for the comment. Gramsci is, as I see it, using the term ‘common sense’ differently. If you read #5 carefully, it’s saying that the dominant classes are *presenting* their view of the world as if it is common sensical. They are attempting to manipulate common sense. If accepted, that makes the hegemony more palatable to the dominated. Agency would be subverted with respect to the degree the dominated bought the overall message of the hegemonic historic bloc. But in #8, Gramsci presents the fact that common sense is linked to deeper philosophical currents (“stratified deposits”) and exists among the masses, with positive and negative aspects. It may give you agency, but purpose is not guaranteed. Hall covers and elaborates on Gramsci and common sense in the following: S. Hall and Alan O’Shea, “Common-sense neoliberalism,” *Soundings* (Winter 2013): 8-24.

  2. This is a great piece–and thanks very much for your generosity in linking to my Gramsci musings.

    The Hall essay is indeed a crucial text, and I really like the way you have worked with it here. I like especially the way that this engagement also opens up the essay that is in many ways the other half of Hall on Gramsci–Williams on the “dominant, residual, and emergent.”

    • Thanks Kurt. It was your November piece that reminded me that I needed to read more on Gramsci and look for ways to get him involved in my internal dialogue about the Critical Theorists. Indeed, my next task is integrate what I’ve learned here (and in the Hall-O’Shea article) with my knowledge of Horkheimer, Adorno, Habermas, and other Critical Theorists. Of course the common Marxist vocabulary and many similar concerns make it easier. And the larger point is that their shared interest in getting context, particulars, and history right (from the start) is what makes their thinking congenial to us. – TL

  3. for writing as a mature, unorthodox Marxist historian. By the latter I mean as a “Gramscian Historian,” or perhaps something like a Critical Theorist historian. As the points below accumulate, moreover, you might see this as a guide to thinking like a Gramscian Intellectual Historian. We’ll see.

    Worth a try. The other thing hasn’t been working too well.

    Cheers, Tim. I remain a fan.

  4. Tim —

    Finally reading this. My comment is historiographical.

    I think the Hall/Cultural Studies/Birmingham School use of hegemony tried to take up the possibilities of tipping the hegemonic scales toward a new historic bloc; hence lots of work on cultures of working-class youth, feminist readings of soap operas, the lurking politics of pop culture (John Storey’s Cultural Theory and Popular Culture Reader is quite good on this lineage). Maybe Michael Denning and a few other labor historians were the main US cultural historian to take up this mode of Gramcian analysis (Robin Kelley too, though he turned more toward James Scott, hidden transcripts, kind of language).

    But my sense of the 1980s essays on the concept of hegemony US journals such as JAH was that many US historians took up the Gramscian concept to grapple not with “reading” counter-hegemonic forces, but rather with explaining the failure of radicalism and socialism in the US (unlike the UK cultural studies, Birmingham School stuff). Lears, Fox, Genovese, and a number of others used the concept not to seek out counter-hegemonic forces, but rather as an explanatory tool to comprehend how American ideologies and institutions had survived the struggles and tumult of the 1960s. Gramsci became a way to grasp the resurgent conservative/reactionary energies of Reagan and the 1980s and to continue to hammer (and sickle) away at that time-honored question: why no socialism in the USA?

    As an aside, it’s interesting that someone who cuts across this UK/counter-hegemony vs. USA/hegemony binary is Lawrence Grossberg, one of Hall’s great US cultural studies emissaries; he used Gramsci (among other theorists) to develop a quite bleak assessment of radical culture in the US circa late 1980s/early 1990s in books such as We Gotta Get Outta This Place.

    By and large, though, the Hall mode was hopeful, sensitive (sometimes perhaps too much so) to little specks of revolutionary culture buried in all sorts of unlikely places, whereas the US intellectual/cultural historian modality was to discover the depressing persistence of non-radical ideology and power in even seemingly transgressive or revolutionary cultural materials: the latter is the road that leads to Tom Frank, What’s the Matter With Kansas? position.

    I guess this is what happens when one tries to track the “moving equilibrium” of hegemony. You can see the intermingled tangle, the Gramscian knot, of radical and reactionary wires. It untwines either way—hegemony always about to come undone; hegemony stubbornly keeping its grip—depending on how you want to trace the hitches, loops, and strands.

    Thanks for the great post!


    • Gramsci became a way to grasp the resurgent conservative/reactionary energies of Reagan and the 1980s and to continue to hammer (and sickle) away at that time-honored question: why no socialism in the USA?

      That Kramer guy sure can write.

  5. Michael,

    Thanks for the long, engaged comment.

    I think you’re right about Hall being a hopeful figure. That’s one of the things I wanted to convey in my post—i.e. that hegemony can be used to analyze positive developments. Although the Frankfurt Schools neo-Marxism was always critical (nein!) and aimed at negation, Gramsci’s theoretical musings might show the way toward analyzing what worked at certain moments when socialist dreams appeared tantalizingly close. This goes to your citation of Denning.

    No matter whether one wants to take a pessimistic or optimistic tack, I’m with you that Gramsci always emphasized complexity. To borrow your phrase, being human seems to have implied for him that “Gramscian knots” are always present. – TL

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