Understanding Gramsci’s Political Thought

Understanding Gramsci's political thought

6th e-Lecture on Understanding Gramsci’s Political Thought by Prof Arun Kumar Pathnaik, Dean of School of Social Sciences, University of Hyderabad.

The lecture commenced with Dr Patnaik’s views on of the most important Marxist thinkers of the 20th Century, Antonio Gramsci. The speaker himself utilizes the theories of Gramsci to understand the crisis of secularism, social movements, political movements and the communal politics in the Indian context. According to the speaker, Gramsci applied ideas of thinkers like Aristotle, never believed in received theory and always tried to challenge, modify and present alternatives. Unlike other thinkers, he was open to discussion and was a firm believer of the need to know history in order to change the future, which made him one of the most open-minded political thinkers. 

Dr. Patnaik points out three important values one needs to imbibe from Gramsci:

 1. learn from your enemies. 

 2. Learn from your friends who are apart from you.

 3. Learn from the common, ordinary man. The intellectual class needs to learn from the common man for a better understanding of the grassroots level. 

It was important for Gramsci to learn from the strengths of these men and be inclusive to present a post-positivist, empirical approach to his theories. 

Gramsci’s contribution to political thought: 

Liberals and the Socialists, two arch enemies, share very different viewpoints on the concept of the human being. Liberals believe in the idea of autonomy to an individual in the society which the Socialists needed to learn. Whereas, the socialists believed in the collective nature of a man, his social urge to connect with other human beings and his connection with nature for making life on earth a continuous process. Accepting the strengths of both the schools and reforming the concept of man is the first argument put out by Gramsci. Conflicting ideas and being open to ideas of others is a must for every individual to develop in society. The individuality of an individual is an aspect that the Socialists must bring to use for effective working. Gramsci comes across as a reformer of the Socialists and provides an internal critique of the Communists. 

Society is a multi-layered unit, not a homogenous unity. Class relations in every society either employ coercion or come together through consent. This duality of power is important for a society to function. Every civil society has three layers –

The economic connection with nature – man comes into contact with nature to produce “productive forces” with the help of science, technology, industries etc. Through these productive forces, he creates a space for his survival and thus socializes with nature. Our interaction with nature is inevitable and, hence we create spaces to be safe from the harsh conditions of nature. Therefore, the economic base is primary, and other bases are built around it. 

Next, the ancient institution of “civil society”. From Aristotle to modern thinkers, everyone has given due importance to civil society. It helps in socializing the human nature which is of utmost importance to carry out life in civil society. Our ways of living in society have changed over time, derogatory practices like slavery have been abolished. 

The economic base acts as the foundation of a house, the first layer is the civil society and the second layer is the state. For Gramsci, without civil society, there will be no house. In a political framework, civil society is an independent sphere, that mediates between the classes and the state. But in a superstructure, the civil society is a base without which there will be no state. A chief characteristic of civil society is that it is a sphere where most of the struggles take place. It is a zone of contestations, where subalterns confront each other in the economic and political spheres for equal rights. Civil society is not only hegemonic but counter-hegemonic, as there are continuous confrontations among the classes. This is a unique contribution by Gramsci, which many have failed to understand. 

In a civil society, different kinds of subalterns are present such as women, poor, blacks who face marginalization, oppression and exploitation from the other classes. The socialists must defend these sections and help reclaim their positions in civil society. The institution of civil society should not be abolished, otherwise, a realpolitik state of nature will prevail. Man will be devoid of his rational, political and social sense which will turn him into an animal. 

A shift in the program of education must be sought. Education must be given importance, as it is an important factor in transforming society. Power relations cannot only be questioned by coercion but also through education. If educated, subalterns can fight for themselves. Another important point raised by Gramsci was that the “educator must be educated”, originally proposed by Karl Marx. Gramsci invokes this idea differently, that the educator must learn from the ordinary people. If the upper class doesn’t learn from the ordinary, they should be outcasted. Gramsci is a firm believer of this point. 

An ordinary man has many different perspectives and beliefs some good, bad and prejudicial differences but beneath all this mud there lies “lily flowers” of good sense. The socialists need to learn from the good sense of the common man and nurture them accordingly. 

The task of socialists is to develop intellectuals from the common man. For counter-hegemonic tasks, the subalterns should be educated and turned into intellectuals to offer resistance. 

The speaker concludes the lecture by emphasizing the importance of educating the common man and learning from them in return.

One of the questions asked was that the civil society labels one’s arguments according to its interests which suits its hegemonic interest. If one wishes to see radical changes, how to engage in such a realm? The speaker replied to this by stating that the civil society is a sphere of contradictions. The dominant force is hegemony but without education, hegemony has a very sketchy foundation, and looks weak. It is only through education that hegemony survives. Every section of society must be educated, to offer counter-hegemony and not be blinded by the activist programs that go on. 

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