The Consent of the Lectured


Perry Anderson. The Antinomies of Antonio Gramsci. London: New Left Review, 1976; reprinted with an introduction and additional material, London: Verso Books, 2017.

Perry Anderson. The H-Word. The Peripeteia of Hegemony. London: Verso Books, 2017.

I don’t know what you call a tin ear for Praxis, but whatever it is, Perry Anderson’s got it. I first saw him lecture many years ago—lecturing at a cluster of political activists in New York on the finer points of Late Romantic German Philosophy. Not that I object to Late Romantic Philosophy, just that Anderson seems singularly detached at times from the practical issues he addresses—even when dealing with the burning issue of Hegemonism.
How burning? Consider the following:

 As used here, "political warfare' does not concern activities associated with the American political process but rather exclusively refers to political warfare as understood by the Maoist insurgency model. Political warfare is one of the five components of a Maoist insurgency. Maoist methodologies are described as synchronized violent and non-violent actions. This approach envisions the direct use of non-violent operations arts and tactics as elements of combat power In Maoist insurgencies, the formation of a counter-state is essential to seizing state power. Functioning as a hostile compete state acting within an existing state, it has an alternate infrastructure. Political warfare operates as one of the activities of the "counter-state." Political warfare uses non-violent methods such as participation that undermines the morale or offers to engage in discussions, as an adjunct to violence. Political warfare methods can be implemented at strategic, operations, or tactical levels of operation.

Pretty scary, right? This is the nut-case screed that supposedly got Rich Higgins fired from the National Security Council; but of course there’s nothing unusual or unknown about the organizing process he describes, it’s simply the common struggle for Hegemony, as practiced right, left and center: practiced by the State and those who oppose it.

Hegemonism, as we’re led to conclude by the end of the second of Anderson’s books, is a Classical Greek political concept referring to Rule by Persuasion, as opposed to Rule by Coercion: what Nutcase Higgins calls "non-violent methods such as participation." The term has been widely popularized over the past sixty years through the writings of Antonio Gramsci, the Italian Marxist who died in a Fascist prison in 1938. Gramsci brings up the concept in conjunction with the tactical questions of Marxist organizing in the ‘thirties, the ‘seventies or, for that matter, the ‘tennies: non-violent and cultural, or violent and involving physical confrontation? “War or Position” or “War of Maneuvre”? Hegemonism or brute force? And, most important, how do we deal with the unending wars conducted against society, either through outright violence or through persuasion backed by the multiple forms of coercion at the disposal of the neo-liberal machine and the State? Contrary to Nutcase, Hegmeonism does, too, include “activities associated with the American political process.” As Anderson demonstrates, Gramsci’s original analogy to wars originates in the Soviet doctrine of “Deep Battle” developed in the Soviet Union in the ‘thirties. In the grand scheme of Diamat as a unified science, what happens in the realm of military operations must be applicable in other fields as well.

The first of Anderson’s two screeds was published as an article in 1976, and it focuses exclusively on Gramsci’s interpretation; the second has just appeared along with an updated version of the first, and it quietly corrects a number of factual lapses in the first, by attempting to place the concept of Hegemony within a wider history of ideas, ranging, as we are helpfully informed, from
“its birth in classical Greece…  to parliamentary Germany, Tsarist Russia, fascist Italy, Entente France, Cold War America, neoliberal England, retro-monarchist Spain, post-colonial India, feudal Japan, revolutionary China, and back to a subaltern Britain, aspirant Germany and unipolar United States.” The two books are vastly different in style as well: the first has more of the tone of an Address to the Comrades, the second is far more academic, it’s obviously marketed for graduate courses in what Anderson coyly calls IR—that’s International Relations, you polloi. What both books have in common is their rigidity—except in different ways. The first is rigid in its argumentation, the other has little argumentation, it’s a literature review, the obligatory summary of previous research that’s supposed to precede any serious academic thesis.

Gramsci, I suspect, would have warned Anderson of the dangers of Cardonism, a term Gramsci himself seems to have invented, and that figures in the first section of Antinomies. The expression refers to Luigi Cardona, a terminally tight-assed Italian general of World War I who consistently applied learned theories of Warfare to situations with which they could not possibly apply, then had his men shot when they were unable to achieve his goals. Cardonism, then, would be the inability to learn from one’s lived circumstances and adapt one’s theoretical apparatus to them; Gramsci, who himself defined Marxism as “the philosophy of Praxis,” was obliquely referring to the Stalinist tendency to blame the failure of unworkable plans and theories on saboteurs and such—and then to have them shot. (A nicer analogy would be to the railway system in Germany, where nothing can possibly go wrong because it’s all supposed to not go wrong and if something goes wrong then it must be YOUR FAULT.) Anderson does a nice job parsing the passage in which Gramsci, who was under considerable pressure from prison censors, discusses the problems of Communist strategy by analogies to battlefields strategies, East and West, during the First World War. Here, Gramsci, Anderson insists, is not to be taken as a cover for those Western Communist parties who have abandoned any thought of class struggle or struggle tout court in favor of a wishy-washy parliamentarism, because Gramsci! The argument holds even today, as we see Gramsci’s concept of Hegemonism Occupy-ed by the motley theorists of Masturbatory Democracy and other assorted Mouffe-divers. Gramsci, Anderson argues convincingly, never stopped being a Leninist—only a far more flexible one than is generally assumed. It would be nice if Anderson himself had shown the same flexibility: he's of that generation of Marxist thinkers who, with a few exceptions, were unprepared for the collapse of the Soviet System; Whatever their theoretical and moral opposition to Orthodox Marxism, they were not flexible enough to distance themselves from its theoretical orthodoxies; one example is Lucio Colletti, who went from Hegelian Marxism to supporting Berlusconi. Anderson himself is unable to move beyond the Soviet-era argument that there is an an unbridgeable gap between those who reject violent revolution (commonly known as “Social-Democrats,” “Social-fascists” and the like) and those who see violence as inevitable. If there is anything that unites Anderson’s two books it’s his gradual awareness that there many shadings between the two positions, with Lenin and Gramsci occupying a middle ground. Anderson provides some invaluable information about Karl Kautsky, Rosa Luxemburg and Lenin theorizing about the self-same topic that Gramsci was to take up later; but he can’t resist returning to the Party Line that dismisses Kautsky and others as “renegades” (Lenin’s term.) Of course in those days they didn’t have Google; today you can go online and read the Comintern’s 1920 position on Hegemonism for yourself, and it’s nowhere close to the determinative statement Anderson makes it out to be. (As a matter of fact the general idea of Hegemonism is present in Marx and Engels; it played a crucial role among the Austro-Marxists; and Anderson as well dismisses far too glibly the role Hegemonism played in the autonomous movements of the 'sixties.)

This is where Anderson’s allows his Inner Cardona to come out: like a good academic he has to be the one who, to paraphrase Marx, must place himself above society to grasp it: “Unknown to himself, Gramsci had an illustrious predecessor;” “Gramsci… was unaware of these precedents;” “A thesis that Lenin had wrongly ascribed to Kautsky;” “Errors of this text;” “Brecht …unaware of any anterior history;” “Gramsci’s confusion was here virtually total.” It’s one thing to argue that Lenin, or Marx, for that matter, misinterpreted Marx: in fact it’s highly recommended. It’s a bad idea to claim that Lenin, or anyone else, got it wrong because that assumes a Transcendental Marxism, an orthodoxy to which all other variants of Marxism must respond—as in the Soviet model. As Marx reminded Engels with a chuckle, there is no such thing as Dialectical Empiricism. Anderson hasn’t got the message. Neither, of course, did the Soviets.

The second book is more successful because its goals are narrower, even as its purview is more ambitious: it’s an adjunct to Anderson’s earlier, ambitious American Foreign Policy and Its Thinkers (2015). We all know the buzzwords: “Soft Power;” ”Winning Hearts and Minds;” “Hegemonism.” Anderson lobs a few cooly understated British pitches in the direction of American Imperialist hypocrisy; there is also a short, but devastating takedown of the pretensions of Podemos and other supposedly radical groups that use “Democracy” as a fig-leaf for Parliamentary power-grabbing. More interesting, because more original, is Anderson’s attempt to trace the history of the concept of Hegemonism root to branches. The passages on Indian, Chinese and Japanese theory, from the Qing Empire on, are fascinating, and they illuminate these cultures in ways that cut across the disciplines: I would include Art History among them.

All the same, Anderson is limited, as in Antinomies, by his own methodological baggage.  As he phrases it, the “limits of a philological survey have dictated these inevitable restrictions,” which I think is supposed to mean that he’s attempted a close reading of selected uses of the word “Hegemony” instead of seeking traces of a deeper conflict of which its use is a mere symptom. (There’s an unjustified and perfunctory dismissal of Carlo Ginzburg, supposedly because Ginzburg wrote a magnificent essay on reading traces.) I can’t help thinking Anderson has unconsciously made his own John Locke’s distinction between praktikè and semeiotikè: British Empiricism has a way of creeping up on you.

Equally impressive the number of languages Anderson claims to command, Classical Greek and German among others, though he modestly admits he got help with the Chinese and Japanese. As to the French: The title of a book by Raymond Aron is consistently misspelled; and the expression vase close, unfortunately, translates as “enclosed mud.” I’m not sure how much interference Anderson got from some editorial assistant; scholiasts breed sciolists.

In a further stab at the impractical, The H-Word is crammed with obscure academic wink-winks which would have been infuriating twenty years ago but in our Age of Google can be fun to follow up, if only to figure out how pointless. What does the following mean, for instance?

…coercive powers which the transnational, by Weberian definition, does not possess.

It’s a pretty pointless reference to begin with: Weber argued that the State’s purpose is to hold a monopoly on violence; that doesn’t mean transnational relations have transcended that dynamic, only taken it to another plane. But that should have been obvious from the very beginning when, as Thucydides observed, the Athenian Polis pretended to lead all others in the Delian League as if the League was no more than the Aufhebung of Athenian Democracy to a trans-polis level. In other terms, and to quote Ranajit Guha, the brilliant Indian scholar introduced later on by Anderson, the point of “Hegemony” as a concept is to provide “a theoretical pretext for a liberal absurdity—the absurdity of an uncoercive state.” Or, as Nutcase put it,

'political warfare' does not concern activities associated with the American political process.

Uh-huh. In a liberal democracy, as Gramsci argued, force and consent

balance each other, so that force does not overwhelm consent but appears to be backed by the consent of the majority.

Hey, I could have told you that if Foucault hadn’t told you that before me. Foucault as well as Gramsci could have told Anderson that the boundaries of Power are porous; so are the boundaries between Nation and Class. “Hegemonism” is not the guarantor of the ultimate success of Consensual Democracy, it’s the symptom of its limits. After 42 years, Anderson is grudgingly aware of the porosity. For all its valuable insights and information The H-Word is a gigantic enfonçage de portes ouvertes.

Hoipolloi Cassidy