work in progress in social theory and cultural sociology

base/superstructure 1 1/2: totalitarian tendencies in gramsci ?!?

10.02.2013 · Posted in Uncategorized

In my previous post on Basis/Überbau I casually mention Gramsci’s totalitarian tendencies. This needs some further explanation, especially since I will use some aspects of his reconceptionalisation (as struttura/superstrutture) when arguing for the retention of this much maligned metaphor.

Gramsci tries to solve the old problem of dualism of base/superstructure (which he rejects as an instance of Croce misinterpreting Marx and Engels) and the related problem of simultaneity of determination “in the last instance” of the superstructure by the base on the one hand and the reality/efficacy of the superstructure which affects the base on the other. His solution is of the have-your-cake-and-eat-it type: he emphatically makes space for political and intellectual activity and assigns transformative powers to them while not giving up on ultimate determination by the development of the forces, modes and relations of production. I will (in a future post) argue that to make the theorem of base/superstructure productive it is crucial to resist this temptation of forging them into (in Gramsci’s terminology) an “historic bloc”. In this post I will make the case that not resisting this temptation is outright dangerous as it is conducive to totalitarian politics.

What is totalitarian? Totalitarianism is not merely (as if that wasn’t bad enough) total dictatorship of a bureaucratic State or party apparatus, it is not just the complete regulation of all aspects of life under surveillance of an omnipresent secret police and under threat of draconic punishments. It is also not only thought control. There is one important characteristic that is often overlooked, even though it is central in the work that did most to popularise the concept: Hannah Arendt’s Origins of Totalitarianism: the logic of movement. Totalitarianism is a dynamic rule of terror – one in which typically an allegedly inevitable law of development (economic, biological or divine) is accelerated mercilessly by political action.

‘Totalitarian lawfulness, defying legality and pretending to establish the direct reign of justice on earth, executes the law of History or of Nature without translating it into standards of right and wrong for individual behavior. It applies the law directly to mankind without bothering with the behavior of men. The law of Nature or the law of History, if properly executed, is expected to produce mankind as its end product; and this expectation lies behind the claim to global rule of all totalitarian governments. Totalitarian policy claims to transform the human species into an active unfailing carrier of a law to which human beings otherwise would only passively and reluctantly be subjected.’ (Arendt 1967: 462)

Arendt refers to “the law of Nature” referring to the bio-racist ideology of Nazism and “law of History” as the perversion of historical materialism as appropriated by Stalinism. I have added “divine law” not only because the later 20th century also saw an onslaught of religious totalitarianism, but because the my original interest in base/superstructure stems from the intent to reassess Weber’s Protestant Ethic thesis – and early Calvinism indeed anticipated much of the politico-psychological dynamics of later totalitarian movements. Like them and even more vigorously, Calvinism based its view of the really-existing world on predestination. As later with the dogmatic/orthodox Marxism slammed by revisionists and revolutionists alike, this could have been a theoretical background for quietism (absolute quietism and total acceptance of the unfolding predestined fate for the religious believer in predestination – relative quietism and gradualist political involvement for the believer of the predestination “to a degree” by the unfolding contradictions in forces, modes and relations of production). But Calvinists turned out to display quite some political activism, including, initially, relentless persecution of opponents of the new faith. Charles Taylor (1989: 228) gives a plausible account as to why that may have been. In essence it is that the historical process as ordained by God works through human action – and (echoing Weber’s interpretation of the ironic effect of predestination) while the actors do not think they have free will, in being instruments of God’s plan they prove themselves to be on the right side of history while those who perish clearly were not.

‘In other words, while humans do nothing to bring about reconciliation, the reconciled person feels the imperative need to repair the disorder of things, to put them right again in God’s plan. His desire and effort in this direction are only the fruit of God’s reconciling action in him; they flow from his regeneration.’

This is not so different from, say, Stalinist terror in which as Leo Kofler (1970: 64) points out, there was a strange simultaneity of mechanistic base/superstructure historic materialism and spontaneist subjectivism.

‚Das Hinüberschieben der Schuld für das Mißlingen der bürokratischen Pläne auf die Schulter von subversiven und renitenten Elementen, die von der Absicht besessen sind, den sozialistischen Aufbau zu stören, ist deshalb ein besonder interessantes Moment in der bürokratischen Ideologie, weil hier in vollstem Widerspruch zur mechanistischen, die Rolle des Subjektiven unterschätzenden Auffassung des Prozesses plötzlich und unvermittelt eine Überbetonung subjektiver Gegebenheiten zum Vorschein kommt. Ein solches Verfallen in kontradiktorische Extreme ist überhaupt charakteristisch für jedes nichtdialektische Denken.‘ (Kofler 1970: 64)

The fact that the laws of motion that modern totalitarianisms refer back to come in a scientific guise – and thus lack the absolute certainty of religious truth since doubt is a crucial ingredient – adds an additional factor: fear. What if the prediction was not correct? What about the inevitable imprecision of scientific forecasts? The only revolutionary Marxist who was absolutely honest about this concern and as a consequence arrived at the insight that the necessary historical process could go astray if mass support is not ensured by things like party discipline – and violent action. Alongside the revisionist Eduard Bernstein (1899), ultra-revolutionist Georges Sorel in his 1906 Refléxions sur la violence was one of the first to sense this fully. And while Bernstein welcomed the fact that this creates an empty space to be filled with party political practice, Sorel (like most communist leaders in the first two thirds of the 20th century) concluded that if the historical process does not come on as predicted it is but a task for the revolutionary class and its party to make it happen. In particular, Sorel was concerned that an alliance of reformist social democrats and moderate liberals (bourgeois softened by a humanitarian spirit intimidated into making concessions to trade unions and labour parties – anticipating Lenin’s notion of a working class aristocracy bringing class war to a standstill in the Imperialist nations). The reconciliation between historical necessity and autonomous political action was to achieved by violently destroying the possibility of compromise and gradual development:

‘Si, au contraire, les bourgeois, égaré par les blagues des prédicateurs de morale ou de sociologie, reviennent à un idéal de médiocrité conservatrice, cherchent à corriger les abus de l’économie et veulent rompre avec la barbarie de leurs anciens, alors une partie des forces qui devaient produire la tendance du capitalisme est employé à l’enrayer, du hasard s’introduit et l’avenir du monde est complètement indéterminé.’ (Sorel 1950: 77)

The open admission of panic facing the possibility of an indeterminate future is noteworthy for its honesty. But it is shared by totalitarian Marxists – in particular Stalin and Mao had very little confidence in the historical process even when presiding over a one-party system with dictatorial powers (for Mao see the Lifton 1969). Before revolutionary success, the means to keep history on track (and insuring that oneself is an instrument of the objective historic process) is militant party activism in the name of historic materialism and against material history. After the revolution the hinge between objective development and human activity is, as a last resort, terror. Terror as the means by which the leadership lashes on the masses to make their own prophecies come true

‘Terror is the realization of the law of movement; its chief aim is to make it possible for the force of nature or of history to race freely through mankind, unhindered by any spontaneous human action. As such, terror seeks to “stabilize” men in order to liberate the forces of nature or history. It is this movement which singles out the foes of mankind against whom terror is let loose, and no free action of either opposition or sympathy can be permitted to interfere with the elimination of the “objective enemy” of History or Nature.’ (Arendt 1967: 465)


How does Gramsci into all this? Gramsci who has been hailed as undogmatic and heterodox thinker of civil society? The idea that Gramsci’s theories could have been conducive to totalitarian rule is counter-intuitive in particular as he has been identified as turning point from the dogmatic Marxism of the Second and Third International to pluralist, radical democratic post-Marxism in Laclau and Mouffe’s (1985) seminal work on hegemony. They portray Gramsci (notably and suspiciously alongside Sorel!) as the one Marxist who has come furthest in breaking with the crude base/superstructure determinism that brought down orthodox, revisionist and revolutionary Marxism alike. But Laclau and Mouffe’s analysis has one crucial flaw – and that is that it is driven by the search for a successful revolutionary strategy rather than by a concern about the way that the emancipatory movement inspired by Marx could turn into Stalinist killing machines. Therefore they identify as main problem the stagnation and dogmatism of Marxism in its many forms; which means all attempts to break up that stagnation must be welcome. This may be an understandable error for someone who wants to salvage the Marxian tradition in the 1980s. Under Brezhnev bureaucratic encrustation looked like the worst sin of Marxism-Leninism. They are forgetful of the dimensions of suffering inflicted by Stalinism (and later by Maoism) and hence do not deem it necessary to analyse how the main current of Marxism in the middle of the 20th century, i.e. from 1930s into the 1950s (and 1970s if you count in Maoism), could produce a hell so distant from what Marx envisaged in terms of socialist democracy and communist freedom. Their only mention of Stalinism (‘the Stalinist imaginary’) does not go beyond the notion of an ‘impoverished monolithic image of “Marxism-Leninism”’ – completely ignoring the ravaging dynamism of Stalinist rule and its parallel deployment of both rigidly mechanistic historiography and unprincipled and unpredictable voluntarism/subjectivism.

However, when Stalin famously announced as early as 1917 – just before the October Revolution – that he, unlike the orthodox interpreters of Marx’s works, prefers a ‘creative Marxism’ over a ‘dogmatic’ one, we have to take this claim seriously. Dogmatic Marxism would have slowed down or even cancelled the October Revolution as preposterous attempt to race ahead of the historical plan. Just a few months later – in December 1917, just after the Bolsheviks under Lenin, Trotsky… and Stalin had translated their creative Marxism into practice, the young Italian socialist leader Antonio Gramsci in an article for Avanti!  approves of their, as he called it, “revolution against Capital” – conceding that, on the one hand:

In normal times a lengthy process of gradual diffusion through society is needed for such a collective will to form; a wide range of class experience is needed. Men are lazy, they need to be organized, first externally into corporations and leagues, then internally, within their thought and their will in a ceaseless continuity and multiplicity of external stimuli. this is why, under normal conditions, the canons of Marxist historical criticism grasp reality, capture and clarify it. ‘ (Gramsci 1988: 34) Una volontà di tal fatta normalmente ha bisogno per formarsi di un lungo processo di infiltrazioni capillari; di una larga serie di esperienze di classe. Gli uomini sono pigri, hanno bisogno di organizzarsi, prima esteriormente, in corporazioni, in leghe, poi intimamente, nel pensiero, nella volontà […] di una incessante continuità e molteplicità di stimoli esteriori. Ecco perché, normalmente, i canoni di critica storica del marxismo colgono la realtà, la irretiscono e la rendono evidente e distinta.

… but pointing out on the other, if there is an opportunity to accelerate the historical process or make it happen where it was not envisaged, an injection of revolutionary initiative is called for:

‘This is what happens under normal conditions. When events are repeated with a certain regularity. When history develops through stages which, though ever more complex and richer in significance and value, are nevertheless similar. But in Russia the war galvanized the people’s will. As a result of the suffering accumulated over three years, their will became as one almost overnight. Famine was imminent, and hunger, death from hunger, could claim anyone, could crush tens of millions of men at once stroke. Mechanically at first, then actively and consciously after the first revolution, the people’s will became as one.’ (Gramsci 1988: 34)  Ciò normalmente, quando i fatti si ripetono con un certo ritmo. Quando la storia si sviluppa per momenti sempre più complessi e ricchi di signficato e di valore, ma pure simili. Ma in Russia la guerra ha servito a spoltrire le volontà. Esse, attraverso le sofferenze accumulate in tre anni, si sono trovate all’unisono molto rapidamente. La carestia era imminente, la fame, la morte per fame poteva cogliere tutti, maciullare d’un colpo decine di milioni di uomini..

In his early career as professional revolutionary, Gramsci was not completely decided between creative Marxism of this kind and reliance on the spontaneous unfolding of class struggles according to orthodox Marxist projections. As Rossana Rossanda notes (shortly before she got thrown out of the Pci along with the other members of the Il Manifesto group), Gramsci was deceived by the apparent success of the Turin factory occupations in 1919/1920 into believing that historical materialism would now unfold itself by spontaneous proletarian mass action; but the failure of this movement taught him that the masses must be taught to obey the governing historical laws – or else the laws will cease to govern.

‘That political expression does not require mediations; in the factory councils, in the achievement by the class of its consciousness of being a revolutionary alternative, a new society is already coming into being in the heat of battle. Ten years later, in the Notes on Machiavelli, the emphasis changes: the accent is placed on the vanguard, on “the prince”, alone capable of interpreting reality by releasing reality’s yet imprecise potentialities. Without its intervention, reality cannot manage to take shape, to become recognizable.’ (Rossanda 1970a: 226)

Theoretically this is underpinned by the concept of the ‘historical bloc’ for which Gramsci credits Sorel, and which Laclau and Mouffe hail as turning point towards a truly radical democratic socialism. I would challenge this, not so much because Gramsci uses the term totalitario to describe the ensemble of ideologies that adequately reflect the base/structure, but because of the idea of a simultaneous heterogeneity of ideological currents and their forced unification by a social group – rendering them the rational real

‘Structures and superstructures form a “historical bloc”. That is to say the complex, contradictory and discordant ensemble of the superstructures is the reflection of the ensemble of the social relations of production. From this, one can conclude: that only a | totalitarian system of ideologies gives a rational reflection of the contradiction of the structure and represents the existence of the objective conditions for the revolutionizing of praxis. If a social group is formed which is one hundred per cent homogenous on the level of ideology, this means that the premises exist one hundred per cent for this revolutionizing: that is that the “rational” is actively and actually real. This reasoning is based on the necessary reciprocity between structure and superstructures, a reciprocity which is nothing other than the real dialectical process.’ (Gramsci 1988: 192f) La struttura e le superstrutture formano un «blocco storico», cioè l’insieme complesso e discorde delle soprastrutture sono il riflesso dell’insieme dei rapporti sociali di produzione. Se ne trae: che solo un sistema di ideologie totalitario riflette razionalmente la contraddizione della struttura e rappresenta l’esistenza delle condizioni oggettive per il rovesciamento della praxis. Se si forma un gruppo sociale omogeneo al 100% per l’ideologia, ciò significa che esistono al 100% le premesse per questo rovesciamento, cioè che il «razionale» è reale attuosamente e attualmente. Il ragionamento si basa sulla reciprocità necessaria tra struttura e superstrutture (reciprocità che è appunto il processo dialettico reale).

As mentioned, Laclau and Mouffe hail Gramsci as prophet of post-Marxism, of radical democracy and plurality in the Marxist tradition – but their endorsement shows that they have a rather odd understanding of what acknowledging plurality entails

‘…Gramsci’s position is clear: the collective will is a result of the politico-ideological articulation of dispersed and fragmented historical forces. “From this one can deduce the importance of the “cultural aspect”, even in practical (collective) activity. An historical act can only be performed by “collective man”, and this presupposes the attainment of a “cultural-social” unity through which a multiplicity of dispersed wills with heterogeneous aims, are welded together with a single aim, on the basis of an equal and common conception of the world.”’ (Laclau/Mouffe 1985: 67f)

What comes through here is the ease with which the concession of historical indeterminacy is transformed into a determination of creating a unified and directed process. The empirical evidence of the futility of such an undertaking provokes, not as in the revisionists a more pragmatic outlook, but the urge to try again and again – and to try harder. Rossanda hence is completely in her rights to portray Maoist China as the torch bearer of Gramsian Marxism

‘Only one socialist country, China, displaced in the course of its revolution – and particularly during the tumultuous “cultural revolution” – the theoretical terms of the question mass-and-party by proposing the permanent recourse to the mass, the permanent reference not only to the latter’s objective needs, but to the most immediate forms of its consciousness (“the poor peasant”, those most in need becoming the axis of the construction of the movement wherever arrived the Red Army and its propagandists): it is according to these criteria that must be measured the correctness of the political process and to which the organization must be subordinated. However, this insistence on the material condition is itself conditioned by the charismatic character of the “correct thought” of Mao, the leaven for the achievement of consciousness, the | guarantee of the subjective process. This duality harbours an explosive tension which, from time to time shatters the concrete forms of political organization or of the administration of the state, but only to reproduce immediately new such forms, just as rigidly centralized, with their specific institutions and their external relation to the mass. It seems that, rather than speak of a dialectic, it is more appropriate to speak of an unresolved antinomy, kept alive as a practical empirical system, with its own reciprocal corrective features. It may be that this is the only system which, in a situation of immaturity of productive and up to a point social forces, allows the relation class-party not to be frozen in a hierarchical structure which would otherwise be encouraged by the immensity of the problems to be tackled. The theoretical question remains unresolved; but it also remains at least present and alive in China, while in other socialist societies it has come to be frozen in the reiteration of a Leninist scheme revised and impoverished by Stalinist experience.’ (Rossanda 1970a: 227f.)

Like in Laclau and Mouffe 15 years later (and across the board) we again find dynamism for dynamism’s sake paired with the notion that the true problem of Leninism/Stalinism is encrustation – on the theoretical level: Marxism minus dialectics. However, the way that the antinomies of Maoist China as well as Stalin’s oscillating mechanism/subjectivism – and I am afraid also the ease with which Gramsci switches between structuralist spontaneity (Turin’s factory councils) and party-subjectivism against structure (October Revolution “against Capital”, Quaderni position) are to be explained by forcing together base and superstructure into an organic unity. In Leninist party-state politics from Stalin to Mao this was practiced but not theorised – there is no need to theorise when you’re in a position to decree truth. Gramsci himself was removed from political life by the Fascist regime, so in the complete opposite position of the Russian and later the Chinese Communists – powerless to mend the historical process gone so horribly wrong all he could to was to find a theoretical account that would allow him to imagine what had become so unlikely: a revolutionary turn.

From this flows a concept of discipline and spontaneity that adequately justifies “creative Marxism” as it was proclaimed in the run up to the October Revolution. What Laclau  and Mouffe suggest about Kautsky and Lenin applies a forteriori to their hero Gramsci

‘Such intellectual mediation is limited in its effects, for, according to the Spinozist formula, its sole freedom consists in being the consciousness of necessity’ (Laclau/Mouffe 1985: 19f.)

Only that “necessity” means different thing for a dogmatic Marxist (as Kautsky) and for a creative Marxist. For the dogmatic Marxist it is (the misconception of) an empirical fact, for the creative Marxist it is a normative task to undertake whatever it takes to create a unity between theory and reality, party and class – violating both in the process.

‘Is sincerity (or spontaneity) always a merit and a value? Only if disciplined. Sincerity (and spontaneity) means the maximum degree of individualism, even in the sense of idiosyncrasy (in this case originality is equal to idiom). An individual is historically original when he gives maximum prominence to social being, without which he would be an “idiot” (in the etymological sense, which is however not far from the common and vulgar sense.) There is a romantic meaning attached to such words as originality, personality and sincerity, and this meaning is historically justified in that it springs from an attempt to counteract a certain essentially “Jesuitical” conformism, and artificial and fictitious conformism created superficially for the interests of a small group or clique, and not for those of a vanguard. There is also a “rational” form of conformism that corresponds to necessity, to the minimum amount of force needed to obtain a useful result. The discipline involved must be exalted and promoted and made “spontaneous” or “sincere”.’ (Gramsci 1988: 399f.) Sincerità (o spontaneità) e disciplina. La sincerità (o spontaneità) è sempre un pregio e un valore? È un pregio e un valore se disciplinata. Sincerità (e spontaneità) significa massimo di individualismo, ma anche nel senso di idiosincrasia (originalità in questo caso è uguale a idiotismo). L’individuo è originale storicamente quando dà il massimo di risalto e di vita alla «socialità», senza cui egli sarebbe un «idiota» (nel senso etimologico, che però non si allontana dal senso volgare e comune). C’è dell’originalità, della personalità, della sincerità un significato romantico, e questo significato è giustificato storicamente in quanto nacque in opposizione con un certo conformismo essenzialmente «gesuitico»: cioè un conformismo artificioso, fittizio, creato superficialmente per gli interessi un piccolo gruppo o cricca, non di una avanguardia. C’è conformismo «razionale» cioè rispondente alla necessità, al minimo sforzo per ottenere un risultato utile e la disciplina di tale conformismo è da esaltare e promuovere, è da fare diventare «spontaneità» o «sincerità».


Gramsci, to be clear, cannot be held historically responsible for the excesses of the Cultural Revolution in China – and we cannot know what turn his political activism would have taken had he not been imprisoned by the Fascists. As I will argue in posts to come, his contribution to a reinterpretation of the base/superstructure theorem are valuable – and it is only for this reason why it is important to the expose potentially totalitarian dimensions in his thinking.

As a collateral benefit, however, we can also see some roots of the micro-totalitarianisms that Gramsci and more generally New Left influenced academically educated elites that have since re-joined the establishment have carried into enlightened management practices into business, marketing and public administration. The taste for dynamist continuous revolution, every heightened reflexivity and feedback mechanisms between bureaucracy and those subjected to it in the name of both efficiency and democratisation can be understood as collapse of base and superstructure (in the sense of routine reproduction of material and social life on the one hand and practices of reflection set apart in space/time) into each other which in the radical critical theory tradition has been identified as false de-alienation

‘Die Differenz von Basis und Überbau ebnet sich tendenziell insofern ein, als der Produktionsprozess sich immanent ideologisiert: Mythen, Bilder und Symbole, formalisiert, zeichentheoretisch zusammengefasst, geben jenem ihre Anweisungen.‘ (Krahl 1971: 119) ‘The difference of base and superstructure is, by tendency, vanishing inasmuch as the process of production itself is made ideological from within: it is now governed by semiotics: formalised and assembled myths, images and symbols.’

Already visible on the horizon in the early 1970s this reintegration of the superstructure into the base has been radicalised in the permanent revolutions of the post-Fordist economy. It has scathingly been described as the “communism of capital” (Virno 2004) (and a decade before that hailed as Lenin’s dream come true on the shop floor at GM/Toyota in Fremont by Adler 1995) – so the fact that capitalist elites have been learning from Marxist theory and practice has not gone completely unnoticed.


Adler, Paul S. (1995): ‘“Democratic Taylorism”: The Toyota Production System at NUMMI’, in: Steve Babson (ed.): Lean Work. Empowerment and Exploitation in the Global Auto Industry, Detroit: Wayne State Univ. Press, pp.207-19

Arendt, Hannah (1967) [1951]: The Origins of Totalitarianism, London: Allen & Unwin.

Bernstein, Eduard (1899): Die Voraussetzungen des Sozialismus und die Aufgaben der Sozialdemokratie, Stuttgart: J.H.W. Dietz

Gramsci, Antonio (1988): A Gramsci Reader: Selected Writings, London: Lawrence and Wishart (ed. by David Forgacs)

Kofler, Leo (1970): Stalinismus und Bürokratie, Neuwied: Luchterhand

Krahl, Hans-Jürgen (1971): Konstitution und Klassenkampf: Zur historischen Dialektik von bürgerlicher Emanzipation und proletarischer Revolution, Frankfurt: Verlag Neue Kritik

Laclau, Ernesto/Mouffe, Chantal (1985): Hegemony & Socialist Strategy, London: Verso

Lifton, Robert Jay (1969): Revolutionary Immortality: Mao Tse-tung and the Chinese Cultural Revolution, London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson

Rossanda, Rossana (1970): ‘Class and Party’, in: Socialist Register, Vol.7, pp.217-31.

Sorel, Georges (1950) [1906]: Réflexions sur la violence, Paris : Marcel Rivière.

Taylor, Charles (1989): Sources of the Self, Cambridge MA.: Harvard University Press.

Virno, Paolo (2004): A Grammar of the Multitude, Los Angeles: Semiotext(e)

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