• "Transformation": Antonio Gramsci and Karl Polanyi

  • By Walter Baier | 09 Nov 10 | Posted under: Theory
  • “It may be ruled out that immediate economic crises of themselves produce fundamental historic events; they can simply create a terrain more favourable to the dissemination of certain modes of thought, and certain ways of posing and resolving questions involving the entire subsequent development of national life”.

    (Antonio Gramsci)


    Most serious people understand that we are not looking at a cyclical crisis typical of the history of capitalism and also not a crisis of capitalist regulation, but one which involves the accumulation regime of capitalism and also its political and international system – in other words, we are dealing with a systemic crisis.

    Even for the ruling elites the situation still is precarious. The jolts of the financial markets were overburdening the available regulatory instruments. Even today nobody is able seriously to predict what will become of the Euro-zone. Despite all the lack of concepts which became obvious in the improvisations of the recent weeks, the elites are reacting with a class-political offensive the objective of which is to do away with those remains of the Fordist class compromise which have survived the neoliberal counter-reforms. In the first place, the austerity programme is directed against the former working-class that has integrated into the “middle class”. Their living conditions are to be assimilated to the living conditions of those social classes suffering from precariousness in capitalist societies.

    Europe has arrived at a turning point. It might well be that we are at the beginning of a longer phase of social and political instability, trapped in a process in which the geo-political and geo-economic importance of Europe is on the decline. In theory, “organic crises” (Gramsci) of this kind create openings for the dissemination of a theory of social change. However, since the crisis of the dominant hegemony is not outweighed by a counter-hegemony finding general consensus, there is considerable danger in the offing. “When these crises appear, the immediate situation will be delicate and dangerous since the field is free for all violent solutions, for the activity of obscure forces represented by charismatic or violent men,”2 he warned in the 13th book of the Notebooks which he wrote between 1932 and 1934.

    In our opinion, the greatest danger lies in underestimating the drama of the historical moment.


    The first question that arises has to do with the character of the left we want to be part of.

    The most important political legacy of the 20th century to the left in Europe, to speak more precisely, to the left in continental Europe, is the organisational division of the labour movement into a moderate and a radical wing, or, put more positively: the existence of mass parties with their own culture and institutions who independently and often in stark contrast to the social-democratic majority current represented the more radical currents of the labour movement. Despite being inspired by the October Revolution their first historical lesson paradoxically was accepting that the Russian revolutionary model was fundamentally not transferable. As we know, this model was characterised by a social reality in which, as Gramsci writes, “the state was everything, yet civil society was still primordial and gelatinous”. If applied in the West, where “there was a proper relation between the state and civil society”, a relation which therefore proved robust against revolutionary ambitions, this could only lead to defeat”.3

    The resulting change of paradigm, that is, the “change from the war of manoeuvre to the war of position”, called by Gramsci “the most important question of political theory that the post-war period has posed”,4 represented the first historical breach within Communist identity, which for an entire historical period represented the left of the left. In declaring this, Gramsci was not reflecting, as is often simplistically assumed, the ebbing of the revolutionary post-war crisis.5

    The time at which he wrote those words, between 1930 and 1932, indicates something different, namely that he is implicitly referring to topical questions concerning the party: the turn introduced by Stalin in 1928 towards sectarian and authoritarian forms of politics and their negative effects on parties in the West, which proved to be the case in the following years of economic crisis and ultimately led to the defeat of the German labour movement.6

    What is particularly significant for us here is that Gramsci establishes a link between the theory of war of position and hegemony, on the one hand, and the problems posed by the crisis, on the other. “If the ruling class has lost its consensus, i.e. 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. The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born: in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.”7

    Why are we referring to Gramsci to understand today’s problems?

    In his fundamental study of Benedetto Croce’s historical philosophy, Gramsci calls the most important methodological problem of historical and political research the fact that the “philosophy of praxis”, that is Marxism, “does not only not exclude ethico-political history but that, indeed, in its most recent stage of development, it asserts the moment of hegemony as essential to its conception of the state and to its “taking into serious account’ the cultural fact, cultural activity, a cultural front as necessary alongside the merely economic and political ones”.8


    Using Gramsci’s arguments makes a difference – in two ways: First, the notion of “hegemony” makes sense only in relation to “major social groups” who form a subject of their own. To use “hegemony” in Gramsci’s sense implies, just as in Marx, interpreting history as a history of class struggles; secondly, since – as Gramsci emphasises – “people become conscious of the conflict between content and form of the world of production in the sphere of ideologies”,9 a major political group must “traverse the ambit of the economic group” to become a leading group, that is, it must assert itself in the area of ideology and culture.

    This includes two concepts: on the one hand, the idea of alliances, or, if you like, of exterior and mechanical relations of social forces under the leadership of a “major group”, as Lenin also conceptualized them in both bourgeois revolutions in Russia. This alone is a demanding project, since it presupposes that the “major group” can be convinced of compromises and the necessity of subordinating its selfish corporate interests to a political universal interest.

    On the other hand, and this is the second of the two concept included in Gramsci’s arguments, it is even more complicated that in the theory of “structure and superstructure” the notion of “hegemony” involves what we today may call the “software” in the functioning of a “major group”, namely its capacity for intellectual and moral leadership in society, its subjectivity.

    Gramsci’s famous formula according to which the state in the integral sense is hegemony protected by the armour of coercion – please note that he did not say coercion mitigated or masked by hegemony – must be understood against this background.

    Intellectual and moral leadership means neither an aesthetic completion of the unrefined struggle for power nor a surrogate for it. Still, it is true that Gramsci regards the concept of hegemony as the general principle of dominance of one class, and power as one of its moments.

    Thus the notion of “transformation”, which in everyday political language mostly involves a process of restructuring of society over long periods of time and in the midst of tedious disputes, acquires an additional aspect: subjectivity. Gramsci asks, in regard to the tendency to “economistic” positions in the labour movement, “Why do you exclude the transformation of the subordinate into a dominant group either by not considering the problem at all or by posing it in an inadequate and ineffective form (Social Democracy) or by claiming that it is possible to leap from class society directly into a society of perfect equality (theoretical syndicalism in the narrower sense of the word)?”10

    The self-transformation of the oppressed class into a class able to dominate – this is what is at stake when we speak about transformation.


    In the German Ideology Marx and Engels had written that “Communism is for us not a state of affairs which is to be established, an ideal to which reality [will] have to adjust itself. We call communism the real movement which abolishes the present state of things”.11

    As already mentioned, Gramsci’s concept of hegemony does not float freely in the political scientist’s heaven, but is rooted in the material contradictions of society. This becomes particularly clear in the term “historical bloc”, which denotes an entity comprised of “structure and superstructures”, with “the complex and contradictory ensemble of superstructures being a reflection of the ensemble of social relations of production”.12

    While in general political language, by “social” or “political bloc” we understand an alliance of different groups on the basis of converging interests, the term “historical bloc” refers to something more in the nature of a principle, namely the ability in a certain epoch to mobilise social and political forces according to fundamental and long-term requirements of development. This describes the legitimacy and function proper to a political party. Political parties of historical importance can thus and in the first place be identified by means of the historical bloc, the formation of which they are more or less consciously involved in.

    “If a social group is formed which is one hundred per cent homogeneous on the level of ideology, this means that the premises for this revolution are one hundred per cent present: that is, that the ‘rational’ is actively and actually real.”13

    The same idea of a dialectical relationship of “structure and superstructure” was developed by the Austrian Karl Polanyi in a pedagogic text which he wrote about the same time and which is addressed to left Christians: It is a misunderstanding, he writes, that the economic interests of a class are regarded as the final driving force of history. “Rather, Marx’s theory claims that the interests of society as a whole are the decisive factors in history. That these interests coincide with the best possible usage of the means of production; that therefore that class is meant to lead in society which is able to guarantee the best method of production; and that in case of change in the method of production a new class might be eligible to take over leadership … (…). In other words: not class interests but the interests of society as a whole are the last [final] agent in society’s history.”14

    According to Gramsci, two conditions can guide us in determining what this interest is: “1) that no society sets itself tasks for whose accomplishment the necessary and sufficient conditions either do not already exist or are not at least beginning to emerge and develop; 2) that no society breaks down and can be replaced until it has developed all the forms of life which are implicit in its internal relations.”15 The programme of historical research outlined here by Gramsci is of decisive political importance.

    The sentence, that “mankind always sets itself only such tasks as it can solve and that the task itself arises only when the material conditions for its solution already exist”, refers to the problem of the development of a collective will. Analysing critically the meaning of this sentence requires us to investigate how these enduring collective wills are formed and can set themselves concrete long- and short-term goals, that is, arrive at a collective line of action. … It is the problem that in modern times finds expression in relation to the party or the coalition of parties related to each other: how is the constitution of a party initiated, how does its organised power develop, the power that enables it to have an influence in society, etc.16

    To Karl Polanyi we owe the term “great transformation”, which he used to describe the complex transition from feudal societies to capitalist market economy more than 300 years ago and which he correlated to the great economic and political crisis of the 1920s and 30s. “Fascism, like socialism, was rooted in a market society that refused to function. Hence it was worldwide, catholic in scope, universal in application; the issues transcended the economic sphere and generated a general transformation of a distinctively social kind. It radiated into almost every field of human activity whether political or economic, cultural, philosophical, artistic or religious.”17

    Following Polanyi and also Antonio Gramsci, I would like to propose an understanding of the current global crisis as a crisis of transition, a crisis of transformation.

    This includes understanding the crisis which we are living through in Europe as a crisis of the capitalist form of life. Defending our living standards and the social welfare states in the face of the offensive of the dominant class must be linked to the cultural and psychological assimilation of human beings in general and of the working classes in particular to a globally changed reality. This is a process described by Gramsci as the “transition from the merely economic to the ethico-political moment, […] as a catharsis”.18


    An initial condition must be mentioned here: By the end of the last century, not only had state socialism disappeared in Eastern Europe, but also the impact of the Left in capitalist Europe, as shown by election results, declined from 15 to 7%. In this context there is also a striking qualitative change to be noted. While in the 1940s and 1950s big Communist Parties functioned as flagships of the European Left, their influence has decreased in two historical stages, in the 1970s and in the 1990s. This was counterbalanced by an increasing importance of new types of left parties: left-socialist, left-ecological or left-populist. To a great extent they reflect the political cultures of their respective countries, but do not yet represent one characteristic and general model of a new formation of the left. Therein also lies a theoretical problem.

    What then is today’s new left if it accepts the principle of a war of position and hegemony as its premises? Is it a Social Democracy with a more radical language, what Bruno Kreisky predicted as the future of Euro-Communism? Gramsci raised the question arising from this theoretical problem with the categories he found: “Does there exist an absolute identity between war of position and passive revolution (that is, of a revolution without a revolution, an assimilation of society, from the top to the bottom, to a newly developing mode of production)? Or at least does there exist, or can there be conceived, an entire historical period in which the two [strategic] concepts must be considered identical …One problem is the following: Are not both components – passive revolution / war of position, on the one hand, and popular initiative / war of manoeuvre, on the other, although in struggle with each other – equally indispensable?”,19 so that only as they flow into an integrated political approach can a rational balance between them be derived for our strategy?

    One may also ask, from the point of view of present-day challenges, whether the difficulties, paradoxes and tensions involved in the participation of left parties in governments result from precisely the incapacity, or also the paucity of opportunities, to bring about such a balance.

    To Gramsci, this question is sufficiently important that “… one should see if it is not possible to draw from this some general principle of political science and art”.20 And he hints at a solution, namely that in the frame of a productive dialectic between reformist and revolutionary socialism – one should remember that he was writing when the Communist International spoke of “social fascism” – “each member of the dialectical opposition must seek to be itself totally and throw into the struggle all the political and moral ‘resources’ it possesses, since only in that way can it achieve a genuine dialectical ‘transcendence’ of its opponent”.21

    The imbalance that arose in the course of 19th-century bourgeois revolutions between the moderate tendencies, on the one hand, and the people’s initiatives, on the other, consisted in the fact that “the thesis alone developed to the full its potential for struggle, up to the point where it absorbed even the so-called representatives of the antithesis: it is precisely in this that the passive revolution consists”.22

    This “being entirely itself” refers to the formula outlined above: the ability to take part in the formation of an historical bloc is equal to the ability to contribute to the constituting of a progressive class which, in the historical sense, is the equivalent of forming a political party.


    I have tried to bring up some of Antonio Gramsci’s categories in order to facilitate our debates by defining them more exactly. A second reason for going back to them is that since they arose in the context of the Great Crisis and the defeat of the European left in the 1930s these categories can help us more easily understand the present situation.

    Third and most important, I refer to Gramsci, because his categories may be useful in outlining the programme which we have to master in the process of a new foundation of the left in Europe. Recommending theoretical discussions does not mean working to turn parties and movements into expert committees of social scientists.

    Yet indeed in a number of respects today’s world requires a new interpretation. Let me mention a few aspects:

    • the revolutionary changes in the world of labour, where according to Gramsci, “hegemony originates”.23
    • the disruption of sex and gender relations
    • the reaching of ecological boundaries
    • the crisis of hitherto existing forms of representation
    • the inexorable upheaval of the global economic and political order

    In the face of the new “great transformation”, which finds expression in today’s “crisis of civilisation”, all political and cultural forces are facing the task of leading to the birth of a new civilisation, through those who are taking it upon themselves to suffer in order to create the foundations of this civilisation: they “have to” find the “original” system of life … to let “freedom” grow, which is today’s “necessity”. 



    1. Antonio Gramsci: Gefängnishefte/Prison Notebooks, vol. 7, Berlin 1996, p. 1563
    2. Antonio Gramsci: Gefängnishefte/Prison Notebooks, vol. 7, Berlin 1996, p. 1578
    3. Antonio Gramsci: Gefängnisschriften/Writings from Prison, vol. 4, Berlin 1992, p. 873
    4. Ibid., p. 816
    5. Cf. Ernst Wimmer: Antonio Gramsci und die Revolution. Vienna 1984, p. 15
    6. Cf. Valentino Gerratana: Einleitung zu/Introduction to: Gramsci, Antonio: Gefängnisschriften, Bd. 1, Berlin, 1991. (Writings from Prison, vol. 1), p. 31
    7. Antonio Gramsci: Gefängnisschriften/Writings from Prison, vol. 2, Berlin 1991, p. 354
    8. Antonio Gramsci: Gefängnisschriften/Writings from Prison, vol. 6, Berlin 1991, p. 1239
    9. Antonio Gramsci: Gefängnisschriften/Writings from Prison, vol. 3, Berlin 1992, p. 500.
    10. Ibid., p. 499
    11. Karl Marx/Friedrich Engels: Die deutsche Ideologie/The German Ideology. – In: Marx/Engels: Werke/Works (MEW), vol. 3, Berlin 1969, p. 35
    12. Antonio Gramsci: Gefängnisschriften/Writings from Prison, vol. 5, p. 1045
    13. Antonio Gramsci: Gefängnisschriften/Writings from Prison, vol. 5, p. 1045
    14. Polanyi, Karl: Chronik der großen Transformation. Artikel und Aufsätze ( Chronicle of the Great Transformation. Article and Essays (1920-2947), Marburg 2005, p. 270
    15. Gramsci, vol. 3, ibid., p. 492
    16. Gramsci, vol. 5, ibid., p. 1050f.
    17. Karl Polanyi: “The Great Transformation“, Boston 2001, S. 248
    18. Gramsci, vol. 6, ibid., p. 1259
    19. Gramsci, vol. 7, ibid., p. 1727
    20. Ibid.
    21. Ibid., p. 1728
    22. Ibid.
    23. Gramsci, vol. 1, ibid., p. 132

    This text is based on the talk given at the seminar “Meaning, Subjects and Spaces of Transformation”, May 29-30, 2010 in Florence

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