Passive revolution revisited: From the Prison Notebooks to our 'great and terrible world'.

Author:Roccu, Roberto


Ever since the publication of part of his Prison Notebooks in English and the full critical edition in Italian in the 1970s, Antonio Gramsci has become an essential reference point for critical scholars interested in bridging the analysis of economic structure and political and ideological superstructures. This common interest has led to the proliferation of a range of different and at times contrasting interpretations. Whereas it is understandable that more than 2,000 pages scattered with notes lend themselves to interpretive divergences, and whereas such diversity is in principle to be welcomed, the main risk here is for anyone to build their own pret-a-porter version of Gramsci. And if Gramsci's work deserves any attention, 'it is because his philosophical assumptions do preclude some interpretations of his thought in general, and support others' (Morera 1990: 1). It is only wise to assume that in 29 notebooks written across 7 years in prison, one's thought necessarily develops, sometimes falling into contradictions, some others venturing tentatively into uncharted paths that may be followed through, re-elaborated or abandoned altogether in subsequent notes. For this reason, it is all the more important to return to the original sources before discussing diverging interpretations. More emphasis should also be placed on the social context within which Gramsci's own thinking was embedded, following J. M. Clark's maxim: 'To understand any forceful writer and make the necessary allowances, find out what it was against which he was reacting'. (1) At the same time, it is imperative not to fall into the symmetric trap of reducing Gramsci's thoughts and insights to the context in which they originated. Gramsci (1971b: 465, Q11 [section] 27; 1975: 419-421, Q4 [section] 1 ; 1975: 1726-1728, Q14 [section] 67) was acutely aware of this risk and devoted a series of notes to the relation between past and present. (2) Here, he suggests that it is necessary to sift through historical processes, as well as intellectual production, in order to keep what is organic and thus has the potential of being reactualised, while making 'the necessary allowances' for what is conjunctural.

The importance of investigating concepts starting from their original context to see how they might transcend it applies especially to the study of passive revolution. This is arguably one of the most 'political' concepts in Gramsci's thought, and thus more than others dependent on the strategic and theoretical problematique he was facing, namely: if the proletariat had emerged in many European countries as a collective social and political actor in the wake of industrialisation, why had the deepest crisis of capitalism not led to a revolution, but rather to various forms of capitalist reorganisation? This was the question of most practical relevance to Gramsci, and should be taken as an orientation device to examine how passive revolution is used in the Prison Notebooks. Incidentally, this is also a question of great contemporary relevance, in the midst of the 'global organic crisis' unleashed by the financial crisis of 2007-2008 (Gill 2010).

This article thus starts by looking at the three different usages of passive revolution in the Prison Notebooks, and at the conceptual extensions--as well as tensions--that they imply. It begins from the bulk of notes on Italian state formation during Risorgimento and cognate processes occurring at the same time in other European countries. Here, passive revolution is used to identify both the transition towards capitalism and the related process of state formation. It then moves on to the notes discussing whether fascism might also be seen as a passive revolution, this time entailing a hybrid transition, characterised by the intensification of capitalism in the North and its extension and consolidation in the South of Italy. Passive revolution is also mentioned in the notebook on Americanism and Fordism, and here it clearly identifies a transition within the capitalist mode of production. While these extensions create some degree of conceptual instability, the second section suggests that it is still possible to identify a conceptual core defining Gramsci's use of passive revolution, revolving around four elements. The first two outline the preconditions of passive revolutions: one international, related to the necessity of restructuring brought about by the uneven development of capitalism, and one internal, pointing towards the specific relation of political forces, characterised by the weakness of both subaltern and dominant classes. In light of its relative weakness, the dominant class heavily relies on its control of state power to effect a passive revolution, whose third distinctive element is thus the method through which restructuring occurs. Finally, a passive revolution is also distinctive in that its outcome must be a structural transformation that simultaneously consolidates the political rule of the dominant class by weakening and breaking up the emerging subaltern bloc through the partial fulfilment and displacement of its demands.

The third and fourth sections of the article put this conceptual core in dialogue with the work by Adam Morton and Alex Callinicos on passive revolution and its contemporary relevance in International Political Economy (IPE), and provides the platform for advancing a twin argument on the relevance of passive revolution in the current juncture of our 'great and terrible world', as Gramsci (1964) put it in a letter to his wife (p. 47). On the one hand, and partly contra Morton, this article suggests that passive revolution should be given a narrower definition. On the other hand, and partly contra Callinicos, in light of the increasing importance that Gramsci accords to the international as a necessary precondition for passive revolution, this article suggests that, in times of 'intensified uneven development' (Kiely 2007:434), passive revolution might arguably be as relevant as ever. As popular revolts appear to foreshadow the return of revolution as 'the sixth great power' in global politics (Halliday 1999), it is a strategic imperative to investigate the weaknesses often making these revolts a manifestation of 'sporadic and incoherent rebelliousness' (Gramsci 2007: 252, Q8 [section] 25), as well as the instruments deployed by ruling classes, increasingly lacking in hegemonic clout, to defuse and displace the threat of an emerging subaltern bloc. With its attention to how, in Callinicos' (2010) own definition, 'revolution-inducing strains are at once displaced and at least partly fulfilled' (p. 498), passive revolution might still provide a very useful analytical tool to this end.

Passive revolution in the Prison Notebooks: extensions and tensions

Passive revolution appears several times in the Prison Notebooks, but less frequently than 'philosophy of praxis', hegemony, the structure-superstructures image and other concepts usually associated with Gramsci. As documented by Voza (2004), passive revolution emerges in different phases of his imprisonment, with reference to different historical junctures, and with a slightly but constantly expanding meaning. What remains at the heart of Gramsci's use of passive revolution is its function in helping us understand 'the global problematic of transition' (Buci-Glucksmann 1979: 207), particularly in relation to two of the main arguments advanced by Marx in his Preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, of which 'the theory of passive revolution is a necessary critical corollary' (Gramsci 1971b: 114, Q15 [section] 62; 106, Q15 [section] 17):

The concept of 'passive revolution' must be rigorously derived from two fundamental principles of political science: 1. that no social formation disappears as long as the productive forces which have developed within it still find room for further forward movement; 2. that a society does not set for itself tasks for whose solution the necessary conditions have not already been incubated, etc. Risorgimento

In the vast majority of references, passive revolution is invoked to understand the twin transition of Italian Risorgimento, which under the leadership of the Kingdom of Piedmont entailed both a process of state formation and the unfolding of the capitalist mode of production. Gramsci borrows the phrase 'passive revolution' from the Neapolitan intellectual Vincenzo Cuoco, who used it to analyse the failure of the Parthenopean revolution of 1799 vis-a-vis the success of the French revolution. The latter, understood by Gramsci (1971b) as the archetypal transition into modernity, characterised by a 'revolutionary explosion' (p. 114, Q10II [section] 61), is also the example Italian Risorgimento is pitted against. According to Gramsci (1971b), from its original formulation, passive revolution had quickly been transformed into 'a positive concept, a political programme', hiding 'the determination to abdicate and capitulate at the first serious threat of an Italian revolution that would be profoundly popular, i.e.: radically national' (p. 59f, Q10I [section] 6). It is within this context that one can place Gramsci's (1971b) understanding 'of the "passive revolution" not as a programme, as it was for Italian liberals of the Risorgimento, but as a criterion of interpretation, in the absence of other active elements to a dominant extent' (p. 114: Q15 [section] 62).

This final reference to an active element, in turn, can only be understood if placed within the context of Gramsci's dialectical approach, and particularly to his Hegelian understanding of history as a process of thesis, antithesis and synthesis (Bobbio 1958). Here, the element that is lacking 'to a dominant extent' is the antithesis, unable to 'present intransigently all its potentialities for development' (Gramsci 1971b: 114, Q15 [section] 62). This is particularly evident in Gramsci's...

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