Editors' Introduction

Volume 30  Issue 4  October 2018

When Antonio Gramsci appeared before a fascist tribunal in 1928, the prosecutor declared openly that “this brain” must be prevented from functioning for twenty years. The conditions in the Fascist prison brought an early and painful death to the thinker, but the prosecutor’s declaration—an expression, no doubt, of the profoundly challenging nature of Gramsci’s thought—proved prescient. The continuing geographical spread and the scope of his influence in the twenty-first century confirms his unique position as not only one of Marxism’s most original thinkers but also a superlative social theorist in general.

We open the final issue of this volume of Rethinking Marxism with the first part of a two-part symposium entitled “Gramsci in the Twenty-First Century: ‘Unclear Boundaries’” and edited by Marcus E. Green. Gramsci’s writings have been extraordinarily influential across the humanities and social sciences, stretching from cultural studies, literary theory, linguistics, and postcolonial criticism to anthropology, sociology, political science, and critical pedagogy. The phrase “unclear boundaries,” which Gramsci used to describe his ever-expanding carceral studies, captures the transdisciplinary nature of his thinking and legacy.

Cosimo Zene, in “Justice for the Excluded and Education for Democracy in B. R. Ambedkar and A. Gramsci,” explores and compares the works of the two thinkers in the title. Zene uses an expansive notion of education to indicate not merely the processes through which we acquire erudition but also those by which we transform reality and develop a “wisdom” that can give birth to praxis that will engender further change. In the work and lives of Gramsci and Ambedkar, the latter of whom was deeply influenced by John Dewey, education has a particular centrality. Subalterns and Dalits, these thinkers argue, need to engender their own intellectuals, which is necessary for overcoming their subalternity. Zene observes that transformative education has to be conceived within the local historical and cultural context, which then necessitates our querying of Eurocentric philosophies of the world that have inspired educational praxis and have presented themselves as “universal,” all the while producing class, ethnic, racial, and gender differences. The author argues that any changes in our thinking and educational system will be meaningful to the extent these changes benefit the least advantaged in society. Only this kind of education can transform a society built on different forms of inequality, poverty, and exclusion. Zene notes that the importance of Ambedkar’s and Gramsci’s ideas on education become more apparent in our times when education is increasingly commodified, intensifying its already exclusionary trends.

The necessity of educational praxis in overcoming the subalternity that Zene brings into focus is a theme that Marcus E. Green also addresses in his article “Gramsci’s Concept of the ‘Simple’: Religion, Common Sense, and the Philosophy of Praxis.” Often overlooked, the very first note Gramsci entered in the Prison Notebooks concerns the Catholic Church’s treatment of poverty and inequality as natural conditions ordained by God. Through a diachronic analysis of the composition of the Notebooks, Green shows how Gramsci’s early focus on religion developed into the concept of the “simple,” which Gramsci utilized as a category to examine the Catholic Church’s paternalistic view of common people and peasants as “simple and sincere souls,” in contrast to superior cultured intellectuals. Over time, as Green shows, Gramsci utilized the concept of the “simple” as a way to address the concerns of philosophy and common sense. As a collective intellectual, the Church’s condescending and fatalistic portrayal of the “simple,” Gramsci argues, provides a basis for common sense, which reinforces the conditions of subalternity. By both praising and reinforcing the humble conditions of the “simple,” the Church provides a basis for the “simple” to accept a fatalistic worldview, with faith in an unknown future. For Gramsci, as Green shows, determinist Marxism presents a similar fatalistic worldview, which is equally incapable of addressing the political aspirations of the “simple.” Given the uncritical nature of common sense, Gramsci argues that it is necessary for the “simple” to develop a “renewed common sense” (or “good sense”) that contains critical and reflective philosophical foundations transcending the passivity and paternalism of religion. Following Gramsci, Green argues that such a movement requires articulating and disseminating a new conception of philosophy and culture that possesses a critical grounding and provides a basis of struggle in which the “simple” play the predominant role in the direction of their political lives and in the creation of a new hegemony.

Alfonso Gonzales, in “Nuestro Gramsci: Notes on Antonio Gramsci’s Theoretical Relevance for the Study of Subaltern Latino Politics Research,” emphasizes the growing importance and relevance of Gramsci’s work for understanding Latino politics in conditions of neoliberal authoritarianism. Gonzales traces the genealogy of Latino research on politics, starting with earlier research conceived in a positivist and conventional paradigm that rests on a narrow definition of the state and, the author criticizes, on a series of assumptions informed by liberalism. The author suggests a turn toward Gramsci’s notion of the integral state, observing that this site is where the majority of Latino politics takes place. Gonzales, like Zene, argues that the creation of organic intellectuals is of central importance to a subaltern politics of the Latino community, which can be made possible to the extent we acknowledge and focus our work and struggles on the integral state operating in the context of racial capitalism—a notion important for Robin Kelley’s analyses as well, and the challenging of which is fundamental to any politics and education geared toward transformation. These organic intellectuals, who emerge from struggles within the integral state, need to comprehend the “common sense” of the people and be continually in touch with the “simple” analyzed in Green’s essay. Gonzales ends by pointing to the more recent literature on Latino politics, which does not have the limiting foundations of the earlier research and is more reflective and promising of transformative politics produced by scholars who are themselves rooted in social movements.

In the first part of a wide-ranging interview carried out by a founding member and the first editor of Rethinking Marxism, Jack Amariglio, and a long-standing member of the Association for Social and Economic Analysis (AESA), Lucas Wilson, Robin Kelley presents us with slices of American history analyzed with profound insight and delivered through a very personal lens. As one of the many themes picked up in this rich interview, Kelley dwells on the notion of dialectical critique as one of his main inspirations from Marxism. He argues that in this kind of critique, the point is not to resolve conflicts but rather to transform them, to produce from differences something new. In a dialectical relation, he argues, conversations do not take place with the intention of presenting a point of view that then, we hope, “will win,” but rather the intent is to produce a different point of view. This, of course, is a call to a different kind of politics, not of “sentimental love” but of “hard love,” as Martin Luther King called it, a politics that shaped the lives of thinkers/activists who influenced Kelley, such as Grace Lee Boggs, a politics in which we labor with those whom we like and also with those whom we don’t. This signifies a move from a politics of “empathy” based on the likeness of the Other to one of solidarity that admits the “radical alterity” of the Other, that concept to which Emmanuel Levinas dedicated his life’s work. Kelley argues, in his discussion of identity and the question of intersectionality, that the tendency of certain social movements to sometimes emphasize “alikeness” and to use this as the basis of either giving or withdrawing support to/from other social movements can result in missed political opportunities—and sometimes truly lethal consequences. In a poetic moment, Kelley states, “Solidarity is not a market exchange.” At a time when pressures for the commodification of all existence are intensifying, this is an urgently needed call to a truly transformative politics and education.

This all-embracing commodification in society and the need to resist it that Kelley points at in his interview appear as a theme in the artwork we present in this issue. At a time when contemporary photography is largely associated with digital culture, social media, and self-documentation, artist Jonathan Johnson introduces viewers to the experience of viewing images in a slow and personal way. Johnson’s images are a product of his travels in Thailand and Costa Rica, and as Brian Harnetty explains in his introductory essay to Johnson’s work, the experience of walking through unfamiliar places in a state of purposeful disorientation is a part of the artist’s process. In the act of slowing down, walking, and getting lost, Johnson captures points of space in both rural and urban environments, avoiding the signs and symbols of commodities as well as portrait-style images. He uses a small instant-film camera, producing credit-card-sized images with saturated colors. The images capture the explorative nature of experiencing new environments, presenting the viewer with the feeling of being in unfamiliar spaces. The content of the images as well as the process of their creation present a critique of productivism, against structured time and the constant generation of commodities.

As the first part of the symposium on his work demonstrates, one of the difficulties of utilizing Gramsci’s ideas is the legendarily complex nature of his writings, and this has recently spurred a concentrated focus on his writings’ historical and philological composition, a focus that has systematically addressed their diachronicity, vocabulary, and concepts. This incredibly rich research, largely in Italian, has become so vast that it is difficult for Gramscian specialists to remain current, let alone nonexperts. In his review of Michele Filippini’s book Using Gramsci: A New Approach, Christian W. Chun explains how Filippini utilizes the insights of contemporary Gramscian research to produce an accessible introductory text for both specialists and novice readers. In contrast to many introductory texts that address Gramsci’s well-known concepts (hegemony, culture, state/civil society, etc.), Filippini organizes the book around Gramsci’s lesser-known but equally important concepts (ideology, the individual, collective organisms, society, crisis, and temporality). As an applied linguist who is interested in utilizing the Gramscian framework to explore and develop alternative ethnographic and pedagogic approaches, Chun argues that Using Gramsci could not have appeared at a better time for those of us who are committed to engaging the public in confronting and countering the hegemony of neoliberal capitalism.

It has been five years since we assumed the editorship of this journal. While reading Kelley’s analysis of the great musician Thelonious Monk and the latter’s belief in and struggles with collective forms of laboring, we were reminded of our own practices of producing this journal. We are thankful for our partnership, which was nothing less than ideal. We feel deep gratitude to the Editorial Board of Rethinking Marxism. Just like Monk’s constant mentorship, we also partook in this practice, so our thanks go to the previous editors of the journal: Jack Amariglio, David Ruccio, and S. Charusheela. We relied on their experience and wisdom. We thank the associate editors Stephen Healy and Maliha Safri for their advice. Very special thanks go to our production editor, Jared Randall, our managing editor, Ceren Özselçuk, and our proofreader, Jacquelyn Southern. They, more than anyone else, bore the anxieties of production deadlines and the chaos of last-minute emergencies. To them we would like to express our deepest gratitude for producing work of outstanding quality under, at times, very trying personal and political circumstances.

It is only just to acknowledge the solidarity in our private lives that also made our work possible. Thanks and gratitude are due to our partners, Makis and Dolores, and our children, Natalia, Cybele, and Sebastian, for the many dinners served in front of a laptop, for silences adhered to by the whole household during online meetings, and for the hours endured away from their mother or father.

Rethinking Marxism was conceived as a collective and continues to be one. Laboring collectively is not easy. Disagreements can be difficult and fraught. But if this is the “hard love” that is necessary to produce solidarity, then it was very much worth it, and it was our honor and, indeed, our joy to be part of it. We wish the new editorship as joyous an experience as ours and promise our solidarity at all times.

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Page last revised: January 23, 2019