Presentation at the "The return of Gramsci" seminar organised by the Jendouba Faculty of Legal, Economic and Management Sciences and the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation, to commemorate the 80th anniversary of the disappearance of the Italian thinker; seminar held in Tunis on 29 March 2017. I have kept the oral tone of the presentation.
I discovered Gramsci in 1979, in Rome. In Paris, where I had previously resided, I had read in translation some texts of his Turinese period, which had left me hungering for more. I knew that his masterpiece was the Prison Notebooks, but this had not yet been translated into French. In Italy, after a few months of learning the country's language, I bought the Quaderni del carcere and began to study it.
Neither in regards to the form - the work is a succession of fragments of varying length over thousands of pages - nor in regards to the substance had I ever encountered anything of the kind in classical Marxist literature that had hitherto structured the basics of my political training. The first moments of disorientation having passed, I was quite literally captivated by the magnitude, the power and the radical novelty of the thought that was offered to me.
A dozen years earlier, in Tunis, immersing myself in the reading of Capital, I had also experienced a great moment of intellectual excitement. But things were not of the same order. With Marx, the excitation was in a way purely cerebral, abstract, disembodied. I discovered the underground springs that were determining the functioning of the economic system governing the world. With Gramsci, I was no longer underground, but in the open air. I was no longer in the "infrastructures", but in the "superstructures". That is to say, in the domains of culture, ideology, politics, war, representations, emotions, passions - where, precisely, the real social groups and flesh and bone humans are evolving, where they live, where they struggle, where they appear and then disappear, sometimes leaving their mark on the surroundings. And since the analysis of superstructures was always linked, in his work, to the consideration of the weight of infrastructures, the result was a more complete picture of reality, and one become endowed with a more effective way of understanding and acting on it.
Gramsci certainly would not have been Gramsci without Marx, but Gramsci has gone further than him. In my personal pantheon, I place him very highly on the scale of human intelligence, just as I place him highly for his love of the people and his devotion to the revolution.
Another factor explains my ongoing interest in him. Gramsci was born in 1891, about twenty years after the achievement of Italian unity. In the context of the times, in comparison with Great Britain and France, he was born and grew up in a backward, behind country situated on the periphery of the central capitalism as it existed then. Italy had long experienced great difficulties in building up its national state and in completing its democratic-bourgeois transformation. Its conversion to capitalism appeared to be an existential emergency, not because the conditions of this transformation were united within it, but because capitalism had already taken root in neighbouring states and this implantation, by sharply altering the balance of power, had now become a threat. Italy, like all less advanced states, was under an obligation to make up for its delay if it did not wish to be condemned to dependence and subordination.
Awareness of the country's historical backwardness and the search for the means to bridge the gap are at the heart of Gramsci's theoretical contemplation in the Quaderni del Carcere, as they are at the heart of the thinking of other Italian thinkers and politicians of his time (Benedetto Croce, Giovanni Gentile, or Vincenzo Cuoco, their predecessor). The famous distinction he introduces between active revolution (that which occurs in the countries of central capitalism) and passive revolution (that which takes place in peripheral countries) is a direct illustration of this.
As a Tunisian, as a Maghrebi, as an Arab, I am, like all of you, a citizen of a backward and dependent country. You will therefore understand why reading the Notebooks was of so much interest to me, to what extent they resonated with my own thought process and how much of an impression they made on me.
With Gramsci, I was not only dealing with a great theorist of the universal, but with a thinker whose universalism came directly from his assumption of his singularity as a member of a backward country - a singularity that even today, is the case of the majority of women and men who inhabit our planet.
From that point on, it is perfectly legitimate to try to study what has been happening in our country for the last six years in the light of the frameworks of interpretation that he developed for his country and which are largely transposable to all of us, subject to the usual precautions regarding time and place.
I wrote a book myself, La promesse du Printemps (The Promise of Spring), which gives an initial assessment of the Tunisian revolution and the transition that succeeded it, by taking stock of what has been achieved and what remains to be accomplished. I rarely quote Gramsci, but I can tell you that he has often accompanied me in my writing. (I tell you this by the way, in order to encourage you to read or re-read Gramsci and, secondarily, to encourage you to read me as well.)
I will not summarise here his main developments, but only insist on some basic notions, and first of all on the concept of "historical bloc". In Gramsci, the historical bloc is made up of all the classes and social groups (with their representative organisations: political, trade union, cultural...) which are formed during periods of great transformation, that is to say during periods of revolutionary change. The classes and social groups concerned then constitute themselves as a whole to bring the change to an end and to reorganise the existing order according to their interests and their expectations .
We experienced a transformation of this kind between December 2010 and January 2011, when the country rose up en masse against the Ben Ali regime. The course of the uprising makes it possible to identify the various components of the historical bloc - or front of classes - which gradually took place on this occasion. It first encompassed the rural population of the inland regions, then the peripheral areas of the urban centres (the informal world); these first two segments were then joined by the wage-earning population (workers, employees, civil servants - what we might call the UGTT people) and, at the end of the trajectory, by several sectors of the lower and middle-class bourgeoisie (liberal professions, employers of SMEs, etc.).
In total, therefore, four major social sectors: the peasantry, the suburban ghettos, the employees and the middle class. In its fundamental inspiration, their converging uprising was part of a prospect typical of a democratic revolution.
But what were the representative political movement(s) of this emerging historical bloc? The answer in three words: there were none. The uprising remained spontaneous end-to-end, with no specific programme, no political guidance by any party, no national leaders. How can such a gap be explained?
Academic political science sees nothing abnormal in such a shift. For it, revolutions almost always start spontaneously, without yet disposing of the new political elites capable of leading them and bringing them to a successful conclusion. These new political elites assert themselves - when they manage to constitute themselves - almost always after the moment of the spontaneous uprising and almost never before.
Returning to Gramsci allows us to go further and better explain the finding. Let us begin by considering what he wrote on the issue of elites and intellectuals. Let me quote him at length:
"Are intellectuals an autonomous and independent social group, or does each social group have its own specialised category of intellectuals? The issue is complex, given the various forms taken so far by the actual historical process of formation of the different categories of intellectuals. The most important of these forms are two:
"1 - Every social group born on the original terrain of an essential function in the world of economic production, creates with itself, organically, one or more classes of intellectuals who give it homogeneity and awareness of its own function not only in the economic field, but also in the social and political one (...)
"2 - But each "essential" social group, at the moment it appears in history, emerging from the previous economic structure as an expression of the mutation of this structure, has found, at least in history as it has unfolded to the present day, categories of intellectuals who existed before them and who, moreover, appeared as representatives of a historical continuity which had not even been interrupted by the most complex and radical changes in social and political forms. The most typical of these intellectual categories is that of ecclesiastics (...)
"One of the most important characteristics of each social group that seeks to rise to political domination lies in its struggle to "ideologically" assimilate and conquer the traditional intellectuals, an assimilation and conquest which are all the more rapid and effective since this social group pushes further development of its own organic intellectuals. The enormous development of scholarly activity and organisation (in the broad sense) in societies emerging from the medieval world indicates the importance of categories and intellectual functions in the modern world. The school is the instrument used to train intellectuals... ".
This division of the intelligentsia between a wing that I shall call modernist by convenience and a traditionalist wing can be noticed in our country (and in other Arab countries) since the beginning of the 19th century. Their coexistence, often conflicting and violent, crystallised under the French protectorate: Neo-Destour against the old Destour, UGET against Saout et-Taleb, Bourguibists against Youssefists, etc. (See editor’s notes *)
With Independence, in 1956, it was the modernist wing that seized power. For 15 years, they exercised invulnerable domination and imposed on the country a project of authoritarian modernisation copied on the western capitalist model. I won't go into details, you know them as well as I do. In 1969, this Westernisation-modernisation project exploded in full force. The failure was initially economic and led to the abandonment of developmentalist ambition aimed at integrating the entire working population into a system of unified production and exchange. It was after 1969 that the so-called informal sector appeared and social and territorial divisions began to widen.
But the failure was also political and ideological. It was again after 1969 that the traditionalist wing, which had been stifled until then, was renewed and reappeared in another form, that of an Islamist movement, which later became known as Ennahdha and became the main opposition force. Unable to establish its hegemony over time, modernist culture has also proved itself incapable of definitively converting and assimilating traditional culture and its supporters. The school system was not spared by this development. From a central vector of progress and change, it gradually transformed itself into an instrument of conservatism and regression.
The ruling group, now freed of its modernist project, became concerned only with staying in power. The economic system evolved from then on in an increasingly clientelist and rent-based manner, before becoming almost mafia-like under Ben Ali.
After the overthrow of the latter and the elections of October 2011, the Islamists seized leadership of the State. Though the Destourian modernists had been able to maintain their ideological domination over the country for 15 years, the Islamists could not maintain it during the three years when they monopolised power. Since 2015, they have been in command together (Ennahdha and Nidaa Tounès, the last avatar of Neo-Destour and the RCD), and it cannot be said that things have worked out for them in this respect, quite the contrary. The two parties united represent only a quarter of Tunisians of voting age, and appear to be totally out of step with the needs of the population.
Why these cascading failures? Why this kind of fatality in failure? We have need of Gramsci again. I quote: "... When the surge in progress is not closely linked to a broad local economic development (...), it is the reflection of an international development which transmits to its periphery its own ideological currents, born on the basis of the productive development of more advanced countries, while the group that drives the new ideas is not the economic group, but the intellectual class, and the conception of the State of which it is the spokesman changes its aspect: the State is perceived as a thing in itself, as an absolute rational... ". This seemingly innocuous Quaderni passage provides an essential key to understanding the enormous difficulties encountered by modernisation processes in backward countries.
Translated in a more explicit language, the quoted extract in fact says this:
1. In backward countries, the need for change does not come from within but from outside;
2. This need does not appear in the economy (the infrastructure), but in ideology and culture (the superstructure);
3. It is not driven by a productive class but by a social group outside production;
4. The State acquires, in these conditions, a form of transcendence; it becomes the instrument used by the group of intellectuals to impose change on the social body.
These determinations radically modify the situation. By reversing the relationship between the productive classes and intellectual circles, the modernisation of backward countries takes on an unprecedented aspect. When they come to power, these intellectual circles are endowed with a strong capacity for leadership and driving, while remaining struck with a kind of fragility, an organic inconsistency, as they cannot rely on endogenous sociological dynamics meaning they function according to a logic of substitution, compensating their lack of objective substance by an over-investment in ideology.
It has already been pointed out that the answer to the question of backwardness has taken two main forms, both reactive and mimetic:
- Responding by imitation of the foreigner, for those who opted for modernisation, seeking to impose the model which had triumphed in advanced countries;
- Responding by imitation of the past, withdrawal into oneself, for those who opted for change from the revival of tradition.
From their purely ideological nature, the two responses were by definition unsuitable, inadequate, and destined to fail in the long run, especially when the partisans of one or the other took over the direction of the State.
But let's get back to the Tunisia of today. Everyone knows that the 2010-2011 uprising was essentially spontaneous, with no political organisation(s) to guide it and set a course for it. In light of what has just been explained, it can be added that the uprising marked a tipping point, a break, the moment when the population, in its mass, freed itself from the tutelage of its former elites, modernists as much as traditionalists. One can say that a full stop has been inserted, after the long parenthesis opened by the colonial episode.
Initially, in turn, these ancient intellectual elites were able, despite their limitations, to push the social body forward; they could help it to progress and to transform it. Then, more or less quickly, their ability to transform reality ran out. And the social body has pursued - without them and in spite of them - the work of change and transformation. In other words, there was a swung from a situation where the elites were ahead of society to a situation with society ahead of the elites.
But the process of emancipation, sanctioned in a striking way on 14 January with the fall of the dictatorship, remained largely unfinished. It remains to this day deprived of the levers (cultural, political, organisational...) necessary to carry out the work of emancipation to its end.
This state of affairs is fraught with threats. The front of classes constituted in popular fervour six years ago is still there, but it keeps cracking under our eyes. Without a common national project, each of its components only fights for its own interests, even if they have to oppose those of others. On the side of the ruling coalition, authoritarian temptation is increasingly pressing. The democratisation of the political regime has been bogged down, while the prospects for economic and social democratisation are steadily shifting, to the benefit of the rentier and mafia groups whose influence has never been so strong.
In short, the country and its revolution are in danger. And they are all the more so because we do not yet have the new elites able to face and reverse the trend. Yet these new elites exist, and they are even relatively numerous. However, they remain dispersed, scattered, and unable to affect the course of events. This is due in particular to the absence of a credible alternative political force capable of bringing them together and federating them, definitively surpassing the old divisions between modernists and traditionalists.
Building such a force is the major task of the present moment. It is a collective responsibility. And I do not think I am mistaken in saying that we can find in Gramsci's thought, that which will help us to fulfill it.
- A. Gramsci, Quaderni del carcere, vol. III, pp 869, 1091, 1237-1238, 1300-1301, Einaudi, Turin, 1975
- Quaderni del carcere, op. cit., vol. III, pp 1513 et seq (translations are by me, AK).
- Quaderni del carcere, op. cit., vol. II, p. 1360.
“Study because we will need all your intelligence”: mural by the Italian artist Solo at the entrance of the "Antonio Gramsci" secondary school in Affogalasino Street in Rome
Neo-Destour (officially named the New Constitutional Liberal Party, al-Hizb al-Hurr ad Dustūrī al-Jadid) was a political party created on the 2nd of March, 1934 following a split of the Destour created in 1920 which then became known as the old Destour. Once come to power in 1956, Habib Bourguiba became its sole leader, eliminating by violence the Youssefists, whose leader, Salah Ben Youssef, was assassinated in 1961. The party changed its name to the Socialist Destourian Party in 1964. In 1988, at the beginning of the dictatorship of Ben Ali, it was renamed RCD (Democratic Constitutional Rally). It was dissolved by decision of the court on 9 March 2011, to revive in 2012 under the name of Nidaa Tounes (Appeal of Tunisia).
The General Union of Tunisian Students or UGET is a student union which was created in 1952 under the leadership of Neo-Destour. Its first congress was held in Paris. After independence, President Bourguiba wanted to make it the only representative body of students. Consequently, Saout El Taleb, The Students' Voice, a Zitounian organisation created in February 1950, had to accept reunification on 8 July 1956.
Zitouna, the oldest university in the world, was an Islamic teaching centre linked to the mosque of the same name before being placed under the control of the State in 1956. It was one of the hotbeds of development of the Islamist movement.
Saout El Taleb, The Students' Voice, was the name of the Zitouna students' newspaper and organisation.