Whose Gramsci? Right-wing Gramscism
Rob van Kranenburg
We are in the proces of losing our foremost thinker of and on concrete historical scenarios, Antonio Gramsci, to a reactionary right-wing cause. Gramsci himself has become entangled in a position to which he had given much thought, namely, Ceasarism. Ceasarism can be said to express a situation in which the forces in conflict balance each other in a catastrophic manner: But Ceasarism “does not in all cases have the same historical significance. There can be both progressive and reactionary forms of Ceasarism; the exact significance of each form can, in the last analysis, be reconstructed only through concrete history, and not by means of any sociological rule of thumb. Ceasarism is progressive when its intervention helps the progressive force to triumph, albeit with its victory tempered by certain compromise and limitations. It is reactionary when its intervention helps the reactionary force to triumph, in this case too with certain compromises and limitations, which have however, a different value, extent and significance than in the former.”
Although Gramsci makes it very clear that Caesarism is “a polemical ideological formula, and not a canon of historical interpretation” (220), that “a Caesarist solution can exist even without a Caesar, without any great, ‘heroic’ and representative personality” (220), we may well add Gramsci’s own name to his very own list which included Caesar, Napoleon I, Napoleon III, and Cromwell, to name but a few. Tony Bennett wrote a decade ago that, “It is always tempting these days and especially at the end of long essays to wheel out Gramsci as a ‘hey-presto’ man, as the theorist who holds the key to all our current theoretical difficulties.”  Nevertheless his ‘hey-presto’ qualities seem to have faded somewhat in the progressive positions in cultural studies; but not, unfortunately, however, in extremely right-wing circles where his fundamental notion of hegemony is being hailed as a politically effective and productive way of gaining influence and political power. This seems to me to be one of the foremost fundamental productive questions in cultural studies: to what extent is Gramsci’s notion of hegemony politically neutral, and if so to what extent are we willing to let it be compromised? Not only is Gramsci misunderstood, as in the new elitist focus of McGuigan who blames the uncritical embracement of mass consumption on the hegemony theorists who have closed their eyes to an economic grounding of all cultural production, a position which can be easily refuted within Gramsci’s own framework: [END PAGE 14]
Can there be cultural reform, and can the position of the depressed strata of society be improved culturally, without a previous economic reform and a change in their position in the social and economic fields? Intellectual and moral reform has to be linked with a programme of economic reform indeed the programme of economic reform is precisely the concrete form in which every intellectual and moral reform presents itself. 
But within the progressive framework of cultural studies, his concept of hegemony is questioned as well, especially because “there are problems with distinguishing hegemony theory from the dominant ideology thesis;  the feminist perspective does “not accept such a privileging of capitalism over patriarchy as the determinate structure of ideological relations,” and ethnic
studies claims that ” the national-popular concept is in danger of suppressing specific dynamics of black and ethnic struggles” . Moreover, “the problems of reconciling it [hegemony] with a theory of pleasure are insurmountable” .
Unfortunately, the French Nouvelle Droite movement headed by Alain DeBenoist, and the Flemish extremely right political party Het Vlaams Blok have no such insurmountable problems whatsoever with Gramsci’s notion of hegemony. On the contrary, they use it to their utmost ability and they’re not being shy about it. The Nouvelle Droite was founded as an ideological perspective in the mid- sixties by the French theorist Alain de Benoist. Ironically, it is inspired as an active movement by Gramsci’s Quaderni del carcere, and it literally calls the metapolitical struggle for cultural hegemony the Gramscism of the Right. I was first confronted with this rightwing theft of Gramsci by the journalistic writings of Marc Spruyt, who has since published a much needed, clear and precise account of rightwing party (meta)politics . His book surely ought to be translated into English, especially given the specific French and Belgian context within which Gramsci is (mis)used in this manner. The lack of a translation enables the otherwise extensive works about Gramsci to completely miss this development: for example, Paul Ransome’s Antonio Gramsci: A New Introduction (Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1992). Moreover, Ransome’s very last words in the conclusion now become ominous:
To the extent that Gramsci’s ideas provide Marxism with a new degree of flexibility and adaptability, it is likely that his influence will be felt for some time to come. Gramsci it seems has not been “relegated to the attic”.
This conclusion about “adaptablity” acquires a very different and altogether uncomfortable dimension if we become aware whose attic it is that we may be speaking about. Gramsci’s notes on hegemony in his prison writings are spread out throughout his text, deeply imbedded not infrequently within concrete historial situations and events as his was no disinterested academic exercise but a genuine attempt to understand the elements of a triumphant Italian fascism. We would however, not misrepresent him if we take his notion of hegemony to mean that in between [END PAGE 15] forced consent and active dissent we find passive consent, that cultural change precedes political change, and that changes must connect to an audience that is ready to respond. As Gramsci notes, “the supremacy of a social group manifests itself in two ways, as ‘domination’ and as ‘intellectual and moral leadership’. A social group dominates antagonistic groups, which it tends to ‘liquidate’, or to subjugate perhaps even by armed force; it leads kindred and allied groups. A social group can, and indeed must, already exercise ‘leadership’ [hegemony] before winning governmental power (this indeed is one of the principal conditions for the winning of such power); it subsequently becomes dominant when it exercises power, but even if it holds it firmly in its grasp, it must continue to ‘lead’ as well.
Gramsci’s notion of hegemony, or rather on how hegemony is procured, is literally restated by the leader of the reactionary Het Vlaams Blok, Filip Dewinter: “The ideological majority is more important than the parliamentary majority, the former actually almost always precedes the latter” . The theft of Gramsci by the Nouvelle Droite becomes especially unseemly in the case of the extreme right wing Flemish organization, Were Di, which finds its inspiration in the views of the Nouvelle Droite for three axiomatic foundations: “hereditary inequality, hierarchic society, elitist organisation” . Now I will not overstate my case in claiming that most evidence in any court can be read both ways, that the corruption of notions and concepts has been reevaluated as appropriation or excorporation, but whenever there’s a line to be drawn, it is most certainly in this particular moment when Gramsci’s painstaking labour is turned against him and all he ever stood for. And, in as much as this is a moral stand, I plead firmly guilty. Because theoretically there is very little ground upon which to conclude that hegemony is not a politically neutral concept. There is but one moment in the Quaderni where Gramsci suggests that hegemony can only be understood in relationship with democracy:
Of the many meanings of democracy, the most realistic and concrete one in my view can be worked out in relation to the concept of ‘hegemony’. In the hegemonic system, there exists democracy between the ‘leading’ group and the groups that are ‘led’, in so far as the development of the economy and thus the legislation which expresses such development favour the (molecular)passage from the ‘led’ groups to the ‘leading’ groups. In the Roman Empire there was an imperial territorial democracy in the concession of citizenship to the conquered peoples, etc. There could be no democracy under feudalism, because of the constitution of the closed groups estates, corporations, etc (56).
But of course this will not stop anti-egalitarian, totalizing users of his ideas as they work within parliamentary democracy towards a dictatorship in which any of these considerations become ineffective and academic. So we are experiencing Ceasarism with “Gramsci” as the discursive battlefield, a catastrophic moment where a sound, productive concept–“hegemony”–is being abandoned by progressive positions and revitalised by reactionary forces. And again it is Gramsci himself who gives us the basic clue from which we have to try to start our understanding of his [END PAGE 16] contemporary position. For his remarks on Machiavelli can now be read as referring to his current position:
The habit has been formed of considering Machiaveli too much as the man of politics in general, as the ‘scientist of politics’, relevant in every period .
This is exactly what has happened with Gramsci’s notion of hegemony in progressive positions, they have overstretched its productive capacity to the extent that its inability to reconcile it with specific historical (contemporary) positions such as a theory of pleasure, a recognition of ethnic or feminist struggles has become to be viewed as a drawback of the original concept, an intrinsic inability that produces ‘insurmountable’ difficulties. But Gramsci of course would have been among the first to recognize that these are genuine critical contemporary problems that have to be taken into account in any reading of our concrete historical scenario; he, unfortunately, was concerned ‘only’ with his specific situation and his specific reading of the mechanisms of the making of Italian fascism. The position that suggests that the problems of reconciling hegemony theory with a theory of pleasure are insurmountable, has not understood Gramsci at all, does not acknowledge the plain fact that contemporary hegemony theory if it wants to be effective would include pleasure and a theory of pleasure as an important contemporary factor and yet another disguise of economic imponderables dressed up as cultural critique. And in the meantime, while we were talking, Gramsci has suddenly become an obscure man who died of pneumonia in a prison somehow, somewhere, and hegemony is something that has to do with the way the Nouvelle Droite sees things, right? Wrong:
Now they were walking down a narrow street, with old men on wicker chairs, and grandmothers playing with balloons to amuse their grandchildren. At the end of the street was suspended another gigantic portrait: a great domed head, like a beehive of thought, wearing glasses. That’s Gramsci. He put his arm round her shoulders so that she could lean her head against his damp flannel shirt. Antonio Gramsci, she said. He taught us all. You wouldn’t mistake for a horse dealer! he said .
1. Selections from the Prison Notebooks of Antonio Gramsci, Quintin Hoare, Geoffrey Nowell Smith (ed), Lawrence and Wishart, London, 1971; p. 219. Hereafter cited as SPN.
2. Tony Bennett, “Marxism and Popular Fiction” In: Popular Fictions, Essays in Literature and History Peter Humm, Paul Stigant & Peter Widdowson (ed.) Methuen, London and New York, 1986; p. 263
3. Notes, p. 133
4. Mercer, “Complicit Pleasures”, In T. Bennett, Mercer, Popular Culture and Social Relations, Milton Keynes, Open University Press, 1986, p. 66.
5. Ibid., p. 66
6. Ibid., p. 67 [END PAGE 17]
7. Grove Borstels, Stel dat het Vlaams Blok morgen zijn programma realiseert, hoe zou Vlaanderen er dan uitzien?, van Halewijck, 1995.
8. SPN, p. 254. A very similar passage in his notebooks reads: “A social group can, and indeed must already ‘lead’ [i.e. be hegemonic] before winning governemental power (this indeed is one of the principal conditions for the winning of such power)”. (SPN, p. 47).
9. Filip Dewinter in Zwartboek `Progressieve leraars’, cited from MarcSpruyt: Grove Borstels, p. 164.
10. Nationalistische Grondslagen, Were Di, 1985, p. 3.
11. SPN, p. 140.
12. John Berger in the story “Play Me Something” in his book Once in Europa Granta Books, London, 1991; p. 189.
For a look at the American rightwing use of Gramsci, see Charlie Bertsch’s “Gramsci Rush: Limbaugh on the Culture War” (reprinted in the IGS Newsletter, no. 6)