I gave this presentation to a class this week:
I will not be talking directly about hegemony but instead about something else that comes up quite often in the reading we did for this week and (as we will definitely see when we read Black Reconstruction) in the work of Du Bois: the writing of history. What are the demands of historiography for someone thinking about politics and working out Marxist concerns? This is my question. However, in pursuing it I may be constantly traversing a point at which the effort of writing history (as Gramsci in his notes seems to be approaching it) passes over into a concern that might influence his use of the word “l’egemonia.” If any such point exists, and if I ever do move through it, we might question it with respect to what it gives our understanding of Gramsci (and Du Bois) and what areas the mere possibility of its existence is already excluding from the field of my considerations—in other words, whether and how this point might only also be a blind spot.
This indirect approach might best start with a quotation from Gramsci’s notes towards an account of the Italian unification in the mid-19th century. Here, according to Gramsci, the Northern urban productive force (i.e. totality of labor + totality of means of production, including instruments and waste) had for various reasons to assemble the Southern urban forces around its lead so as to attain what Gramsci calls homogeneity of internal coherence among all urban forces. But, unlike the urban North, these urban Southern forces were not the leading forces in their own part of the nation: they were often led by the rural force in the countryside. Gramsci shows that these conditions were able to produce a “strident contradiction” that, if made explicit, would produce something incurable, something the Northern urban force could not use its particular homogeneity or cohesion to remedy. If we can, let us try and observe for now precisely how Gramsci is staging or setting this contradiction up as the posing of a question—letting the other complex concerns work themselves out afterwards. “The urban forces,” Gramsci says, in this state of affairs,
are socially homogeneous, hence must occupy positions [across Italy] of perfect equality. That was theoretically true, but historically the question posed itself differently: the urban forces of the North were clearly at the head of their national sector, while for the urban forces of the South that was not true, at least not to the same extent. The urban forces of the North had therefore to persuade [dovevano quindi ottenere] those of the South that their [i.e. the South’s] directive function [funzione dirrettiva] should be limited to ensuring the “leadership” [direzione] of North over South in a general relation of city to countryside. In other words, the directive function of the Southern urban forces could not be other than a subordinate moment [un momento subordinato] of the vaster directive function of the North. The most strident contradiction was created by this series of facts [La contraddizione piú stridente nasceva da questo ordine di fatti]. The urban force of the South could not be considered as something on its own [comme qualcosa a sé], independent [indipendente] of that of the north. To pose [porre] the question in such a way would have meant asserting in advance an incurable “national” rift [un insanabile dissidio «nationale»]—a rift so serious that not even a federalist solution would have been able to heal it [avrebbe potuto comporre]… In reality, however, there existed only certain “aspects” [«aspetti»] of such a national question, not “all” the aspects or even the most essential ones. … In practical terms, therefore, the question posed itself in the existence of a strong center of political leadership, with which strong and popular personalities from the South and the islands would necessarily have had to collaborate (SPN 99-100; Q19§26, 2043-44).
Now, as Gramsci composes this history, he does not oppose the “national question,”—that is, the question about the independence of the Southern urban forces from those of the North—he does not oppose this question to history as some historiographer’s construct or external mechanism that would pretend to make sense of history’s “actual” richness: provisionally, we may say that history for him is something that works itself out in structures similar to questions. However, we can also see that it is essential for him to keep marking the fact that history, though it works out itself in structures similar to questions, does not work itself out in the form of theoretical questions or meta-historical reflections. Thus, when he says, “to pose the question in such a way would have meant asserting in advance an incurable ‘national’ rift,” apparently we must see that the history of the productive forces, and not any particular person or historiographer, is the one posing or putting forth the question, and putting it to themselves. Similarly, we must see that it is opposing and avoiding its own questions by dispersing their disruptive potential into aspects, only some of which actually exist, as Gramsci says. The writing of history, then, appears to consist of looking at the conditions in which the productive forces can pose themselves discernible questions, and tracking the ways certain aspects of these questions, in their existence or non-existence, allow this force to avoid or seize the question through them.
But what do we mean by this? What exactly is being seized and avoided? This can be put another way: why does Gramsci say that, in reality, only some aspects of the question exist? This is because, as we said peremptorily, the question itself (which, we remember, was the question as to the independence of the urban force of the South from the North) comes from beyond the capacity of productive force of the urban North to remedy it: the question’s aspects reside in that space in which the North’s own homogeneity or cohesion is precisely not enough by itself to endure the question’s possibility. This leads us to a deeper understanding of the role of the question at which Gramsci’s historiography looks. The question of the independence of the Southern urban force is there in the history Gramsci is writing because it is not yet possible for the Northern urban force to actually make this Southern force wholly independent “in reality.” If this were possible, if the Northern force were homogenous enough for this independence to occur, the Northern urban force would not be where it is, within a relation to the South and faced with this question as to whether it is or is not in this relation—indeed this is why actually posing the question would “assert in advance” of posing it that there would be a rift, as Gramsci claims. The only option for the urban North, then, is attempting the unification that would risk asserting the question of its independence from the South so as to avoid asking that very question. This means, on the level of the productive forces, working with what it already has—only aspects of the question, as Gramsci says, since the questions are somehow, by the fact of its cohesion or lack of cohesion, the fact that it cannot be asked merely by or with those productive forces.
What is it beyond these productive forces that could constitute the questions that Gramsci’s historiography traces? In answering this, we can see how historiography may become explicitly related to politics and Marxism for Gramsci. Because we know that it cannot come merely from a productive force, let us suggest that for Gramsci this cohesion or non-cohesion of a productive force resides within its relations—more precisely, in the area of these relations which exceed being merely the productive force itself considered qua productive, i.e. economically. If this is so, the historiography of this productive force can transform itself into analyses of relations of force, which, as Gramsci says,
cannot and must not be ends in themselves (unless the intention is merely to write a chapter of past history), but acquire significance only if they serve to justify a particularly practical activity, an initiative of will. They reveal the points of least resistance, at which the force of will can be most fruitfully applied; they suggest immediate tactical operations; they indicate how a campaign of political agitation may best be launched, what language will best be understood by the masses, etc. (GR, 209; Q13§17).
In order to see this transformation, we must look at where Gramsci effects the expansion of the area beyond productive forces as such: that is, in a few pages within the note titled “Analysis of Situations,” when he differentiates various “moments or levels” in the relations of the productive forces. For reasons of time, I cannot look at all of this differentiation now, but I can look at one of them: the “most purely political phase” (GR, 205) of what he calls the moment of the relation of political forces.
This moment is not as tied to the economic constitution of the productive forces as “the relation of social forces.” It indeed contains economic concerns (or concerns that only relate to the productive forces qua productive,) but in one of the three levels Gramsci specifies it is explicitly questions that, beyond these economic or “corporate interests,” arise. If we can, let us notice again merely how the word “question” must appear and function—again letting other concerns (like that of ideology, the party, etc.) be illuminated perhaps by virtue of this notice. “This is the most purely political phase,” Gramsci says,
and marks the decisive passage from the structure to the sphere of the complex superstructures; it is the phase in which previously germinated ideologies become “party,” come into confrontation and conflict, until only one of them, or at least a single combination of them, tends to prevail, to gain the upper hand, to propagate itself over the whole social area [a diffondersi su tutta l’area sociale]—bringing about not only a unison of economic and political aims, but also intellectual and moral unity, posing all the questions around which the struggle rages [ponendo tutte le quistioni intorno a cui ferve la lotta] not on a corporate but on a “universal” plane (GR, 205; Q13§17).
The “question” as it functions here is not just what makes productive forces risk themselves. It is the means by which they risk and secure for themselves that homogeneity and coherence that they have. By expressing or articulating a particular set of historical questions within its political dimension, a productive force can make all other forces struggle politically (and, as Gramsci says, also economically, intellectually, and morally) around it. These questions, then, would be the political development of contradictions in the historical situation of productive forces that were so particularly problematic that they could not be overcome. If historiography articulates how these political questions are constituted, they will indeed be working out not just the past, but also where force can be applied.
Let me just suggest that it would be in the beginning of the notes on “The Modern Prince” that we might find this articulation regarding how these political forces are constituted. There, it is the particular functioning of the myth that will illuminate the constitution of the currently broad definition we are using of “political.” The absolutely crucial question that these notes prompt us to ask, which is indeed that question towards which all of this has tended, would be whether Gramsci in the end was writing history (in the sense of "the past") in the passage above or constructing a myth. Or both--and have we gone any way in specifying what this conjunction or disjunction would be? We might also ask this of Du Bois next week. The fundamental point for me, however, is that Gramsci is trying to delineate a history that would be absolutely incommensurate in its truth with vanguardism as a practice: vanguards could only be untrue, could only be the populous in the grip of a mistake. But this precisely does not mean that vanguardism does not happen. Indeed, it put Gramsci in jail. But the question we need to ask ourselves--if we are to refine our inquiry--is whether myth or history as "the past" would do this. Or, again, both (or none). We could also conclude by showing that the last quote continues, “and thus creating the hegemony of a fundamental social group over a series of subordinate groups” (GR, 205). Hegemony would thus have already crossed our path somewhere—I’ll venture that point occurred when we moved from how the productive force questioned itself to how it used this questioning to express itself.