Gramsci on the Inside/Outside of Social Relationships. (08/24/2001)

Antonio Gramsci, credited by some as being a kind of savior of Marxian theory in the decade of the 1930's, which might seem odd that it needed one so soon after it brought Russia into the camp (empty at the time) of Marxist's states, and writing from prison, where the Fascist state apparatus of Italy thought best to incarcerate him, notes, in his Prison Notebooks, that a normal flow of action regarding "social relations of force" move from "conjunctural fluctuations" to "political relations of force" and are finally resolved in the "military relation," which he says is always "decisive" (209). Gramsci goes on to explain what can occur when a potentially revolutionary movement develops without this process of evolution; that is,

"If this process of development from one moment to the next is missing-and it is essentially a process which has as its actors men and their will and capacity-the situation is not taken advantage of, and contradictory outcomes are possible: either the old society resists and ensures itself a breathing space, by physically exterminating the elite of the rival class and terrorizing its mass reserves; or a reciprocal destruction of the conflicting forces occurs, and a peace of the graveyard is established, perhaps even under the surveillance of a foreign guard" (209).

While it is always possible to read a statement like this one from various points-of-view, what is most noteworthy about it is the all-encompassing faith expressed here that a normal flow of historical development in typically European societies must of necessity follow a course and a "process which has as its actors men and their will and capacity" that inevitably leaves in its wake the extermination of entire classes of human beings and the terrorization of their "mass reserves," on the one hand, or that leads to the total destruction of both side of the conflict, on the other, whose survivors are then placed under the domination of a "foreign guard." The idea that human destiny is historically determined by an established sequence of inevitable events and not by the behavior of individual human actors, even the ones Gramsci acknowledges, and that the sequence itself always leads to the worst possible outcome if any aspect of its "natural" or expected progression is missing, is consistent with major tenets of western thinking, even if those concepts that can be traced are widely dispersed over time and ideology.

That any western thinker would only expect the worst possible outcome when one group or class of people in society find themselves at odds with another higher or lower class or group over the state of affairs, relations of power distribution and/or wealth, in that society as a whole, depends on the prior assumption, or observation, that social relationships in society are flawed or unworkable in the first place. To say that Gramsci was somehow mistaken about the nature of European culture as a whole at the time he was writing the Prison Notebooks would be the same as ignoring the fact that his statement came between the First and Second World Wars that occupied so much of the human condition in Europe during the first half of the 20th Century. His assessment, in other words, can hardly be disputed, both in terms of what had already transpired during his lifetime, and again in terms of what was about to happen in the near future. The question any of this raises can be put in two parts; that is, why does European culture always seem to be on a downward spiral to all-out war, on the one hand, where Croatia, Bosnia, Kosovo, and now Macedonia, have given us more recent versions of the events that unfolded between 1914 and 1945, if different only because they have been less widespread geographically, and secondly, why do Europeans do so little to change the conditions of their culture that lead so often to open conflict and war? Gramsci's acceptance of the inevitable, even his anticipation that it might prove beneficial in some way to anyone able to plot out its course of development beforehand, clearly suggests that he does not perceive a reason or a method for changing the circumstances that are about to drop Europe back into the depths of all-out human suffering and war.

A point to be taken from this observation is that Gramsci's perception of European historical reality is nothing more nor less than what any reasonable person ought to expect. Given the long history of military conflict in Europe, from the wars of conquest waged by Rome as it built its European empire, which is always perceived as the greatest possible good, to Napoleon's attempt to do the same thing 1,800 years later, with hundreds of less destructive activities in between, and countless others since, it can come as no surprise that Europeans believe that civilization itself is defined by how many and how destructive its empire-building wars are and have always been. To say that Europeans embrace the notion that there is no cultural progress without the destruction that warfare creates, even when such claims are so obviously absurd, is to say what is only most obvious about its essential ideology. That Gramsci says as much without a second thought, and even embraces the prospect with a certain gleeful hope of the benefits that can be derived from it, simply testifies to the fact that he is thoroughly European in his expectations.

Making matters even worse, from a more reasonable point-of-view that perceives war for the destructive plague it actually is, something Europeans have never been able to do, is the fact that this ideology has its essential ground in the notion that war is not just inevitable but is also actually a necessary and God-ordained condition handed down to human beings by the all-powerful and all-knowing Creator who judges them unworthy if they choose to resist the impulse to destroy and annihilate their neighbors. This idea springs from the notion that social relationships must always be based on inevitable hierarchical structures derived in whole from a single binary oppositional complex stretched out between good and evil, best and worst, highest and lowest. The great lie and falsehood that fuels this ideology is that God chooses one side as the good, the best, the highest, and then demands that it annihilate the other side, the ones who are the evil, the worst, the lowest, the ones, furthermore, who occupy and possess the promised land that must be taken back from the wicked, from the ones who do not deserve to occupy it. This model is Biblical, the Holiest Word of God, clearly articulated in all its opulent glory as an immutable commandment in Chapters 7 and 8 of Deuteronomy, where God tells His chosen people that they must utterly destroy their enemies or suffer for themselves His insatiable wrath. Who could resist such an open invitation to commit genocide without fear of reprisal or legal consequence? No one in Europe ever has.

Whenever another American politician says "God bless America," I wonder where the borders of the next killing field are likely to appear, what new promised land is about to be bathed in the unrighteous blood of its native inhabitants, what new resource has been discovered in its Black Hills that some corporate greed can only gain by the annihilation of those unfortunate enough to already live there.