The limits of passive revolution.

Author:Callinicos, Alex


One of the main directions in which in the past few decades the scope of historical materialism has been extended to cover the international has been through the employment of some of Antonio Gramsci's key concepts. The recent work of Adam Morton has given this enterprise a much sharper analytical focus, based on a deep acquaintance with Gramsci's writings but transcending a purely philological enquiry in seeking to deploy the concepts he finds there to help us understand the present (Morton, 2007a, 2007b). The Gramscian concepts central to this enterprise are those of hegemony and passive revolution. Hegemony is, of course, a contested concept, both within international relations and among Gramsci scholars, although the work of Peter Thomas should bring a degree of clarity to debates among the latter (Thomas, 2009). The value of the concept in helping us to understand the specific patterns of capitalist global domination seems to me indisputable (for example, Callinicos, 2009, chs. 4 and 5). Passive revolution, by contrast, is one of Gramsci's most fertile ideas, which seeks to conceptualise processes through which systemic transformations are achieved by non-revolutionary means. But it has, as I seek to show, suffered from a chronic problem of over-extension in the Prison Notebooks themselves. This leads me to entertain a degree of scepticism--friendly scepticism, I should emphasise--towards current attempts to further extend the concept.

The underlying problem is posed well by Imre Lakatos in his brilliant philosophical case study in the history of mathematics, Proofs and Refutations (Lakatos, 1976). He shows how mathematicians struggling to establish the truth or falsity of Euler's conjecture about the nature of polyhedra often sought to modify the content or scope of the concepts used to make the conjecture. One such practice was 'monster-barring'--i.e. dismissing deviant cases as pathological exceptions rather than genuinely refuting counter-examples. Another is 'concept-stretching'--extending the scope of a concept beyond that originally intended for it. Lakatos sees this as an intellectually creative activity, which can serve to make a conjecture more open to refutation, but he also notes that concept-stretching can reach a point 'where it ceases to be a tool of growth and becomes a tool of destruction' that compromises both meaning and truth (Lakatos, 1976: 103).

The problem with passive revolution isn't quite so apocalyptic, and the concept-stretching starts with Gramsci himself. Nevertheless, those using the concept should confront the possibility that the concept has now been stretched to a point at which it threatens to break. In what follows, I first consider the development of Gramsci's own treatment of passive revolution in the Prison Notebooks, where it serves as a means for systematically comparing the politics of 19th-century Europe and that of his own day. In the process, what had originally been conceptualised as a particular path to capitalist domination--from above, gradually, and without violent rupture--comes to be understood by Gramsci as a principal means of maintaining capitalist domination in an epoch of wars and revolution. Then I discuss the further extensions of the concept of passive revolution by Morton and by Kevin Gray and Rick Simon in their contributions to this special issue. These tend, in my view, to detach the concept from the role Gramsci saw it playing in his conception of historical materialism. Thus the general bent of this article is towards a sort of genealogical analysis of concepts rather than to the study of real processes. Sometimes, however, conceptual clarification may be of some help in negotiating the pitfalls of empirical research. I hope this may prove to be the case here.

Stretching your own concept: Passive revolution in Gramsci

In the Prison Notebooks, Gramsci uses the expression 'passive revolution' initially as a means of interpreting the Risorgimento as a process through which bourgeois domination is established, gradually and by means of compromise among the exploiting classes, in contrast to the radical and punctual process of destruction of the ancien regime instituted in France, from below, by the popular masses in 1789-94 under the leadership of the Jacobins. His first explicit reference to the expression 'passive revolution', which he takes from the writing of the Neapolitan conservative Vincenzo Cuoco, comes in Notebook 4 (1930-32, Q4 [section] 57):

Vincenzo Cuoco called the revolution that took place in Italy as a repercussion of the Napoleonic wars a passive revolution. The conception of passive revolution, it seems to me, applies not only to Italy but also to those other countries that modernize the state through a series of reforms or national wars without undergoing a political revolution of a radical-Jacobin type. (Gramsci, 1996:232) (1)

The concept of passive revolution was, however, already present in what Louis Althusser would call 'the practical state' in Gramsci's reflections on Italian history (Althusser, 1969: 165). Thus, after writing the passage just cited, he returned to his most substantial treatment of the Risorgimento, in Notebook 1 (1929-30), and inserted a reference to Cuoco and passive revolution (Gramsci, 1992:136-51, Q1 [section] 44; Gramsci, 1971:55-80, Q19 [section] 24). In other words, Cuoco's phrase captured a process that Gramsci had already identified. In exploring the Risorgimento, Gramsci constantly tracks between it and the French Revolution, to the former's disadvantage. Thus he unfavourably compares Mazzini and the Jacobins:

The Action Party ... confused the cultural unity which existed in the peninsula--confined, however, to a very thin stratum of the population, and polluted by the Vatican's cosmopolitanism--with the political and territorial unity of the great popular masses, who were foreign to that cultural tradition. A comparison may be made between the Jacobins and the Action Party. The Jacobins strove with determination to ensure a bond between town and country, and they succeeded triumphantly. (Gramsci, 1971: 63, Q19 [section] 24)

Or again, Gramsci refers to:

an era of restoration-revolution in which the needs that found a Jacobin-Napoleonic expression in France were satisfied in small doses, legally, in a reformist manner, thereby managing to safeguard the political and economic positions of the old feudal classes, avoiding agrarian reform and making especially sure that the popular masses did not go through a period of political experience such as occurred in France in the Jacobin era, in 1831 and in 1848. (Gramsci, 1995: 349, Q10I [section] 9)

Gramsci owes the expression 'restoration-revolution' to Edgar Quinet's Les Revolutions d'Italie (1848-52). In the following passage from Notebook 8 (1930-32), he brings the two formulations together, highlighting that the transformations under discussion, even if not driven by mass revolt, involve an attempt to accommodate popular demands:

One could say that both Quinet's 'revolution-restoration' and Cuoco's 'passive revolution' express the historical fact that popular initiative is missing from the development of Italian history, as well as the fact that 'progress' occurs as the reaction of the dominant classes to the sporadic and incoherent rebelliousness of the popular masses--a reaction consisting of 'restorations' that agree to some part of the popular demands and are therefore 'progressive restorations' or 'revolutions-restorations', or even 'passive revolutions'. (Gramsci, 2007: 252, Q8 [section] 25)

One of the most valuable themes of Morton's work on Gramsci has been to highlight the extent to which the state system is already a key reference point in the Prison Notebooks (see, for example, Morton 2007a: 63-73). And it's certainly true that Gramsci is careful to identify the geopolitical conditions of passive revolutions. Thus he writes (with the Italian case mainly in mind), 'the drive for renewal may be caused by the combination of progressive forces which in themselves are scanty and inadequate ... with an international situation favourable to their expansion and victory' (Gramsci, 1971 : 116, Q10II [section] 61). Conversely, he argues that an essential dimension of Cavour's statecraft was to highlight the constraints imposed by the international situation as a way of keeping the initiative in his own hands and marginalising the Action Party (see, for example, Gramsci, 1971: 84, Q19 [section] 28; or Gramsci, 2007: 76-8, Q6 [section] 89; 140, Q6 [section] 195). It is interesting, therefore, to note that Gramsci's discussion of the role played by the state of Sardinia-Piedmont, steered by Cavour, as a substitute for the revolutionary bourgeois leadership that Italy lacked, serves to stress the absence of hegemony--the synthesis of political domination and ideological leadership necessary for stable class rule--in the case of Italian state formation:

the significance of a 'Piedmont'-type function in passive revolutions--i.e. the fact that a State replaces the local social groups in leading a struggle of renewal. It is one of the cases in which these groups have the function of 'domination' without 'leadership': dictatorship without hegemony. The hegemony will be exercised by a part of the social group over the entire group, and not by the latter over other forces, in order to give power to the movement, radicalize it, etc. on the 'Jacobin' model. (Gramsci, 1971: 105-6, Q15 [section] 59)

Here, then, Gramsci highlights the weak and partial form of bourgeois class rule that passive revolution delivered for Italy. Nevertheless, passive revolution is a form of revolution, albeit one that involves 'molecular changes which in fact progressively modify the pre-existing composition of forces, and hence become the matrix of new changes' (Gramsci, 1971: 109, Q15 [section] 11). Indeed, the processes under discussion and the...

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