Social Theory: Antonio Gramsci
24th Jun 2022 by Bassel F. Salloukh
A Gramscian Toolkit for the Middle East.
Contribution by Bassel F. Salloukh (Associate Professor & Head, Politics & International Relations Program, Doha Institute for Graduate Studies, Qatar)
All over the world, a number of scholars are “thinking in a Gramscian way about the present” without “rigidly ‘applying’ Gramsci’s concepts” (Morton 2007: 208 and 213). This is especially true today in studies of the Middle East, where Antonio Gramsci’s (1891-1937) social theory is increasingly deployed as an analytical toolkit to explain a range of urgent challenges and puzzles.
In his personal struggles and prison notebooks, the co-founder of the Italian Communist Party waged a tireless battle against deterministic, primarily economistic interpretations, of Marxism, emphasizing the importance of sociological analysis and interpretations with the aim to develop a liberating philosophy of praxis, a more socially and historically nuanced Marxism, but one always grounded in material conditions or lived experience. His core concern was to theorize the durability of capitalism in advanced industrial societies and explain what prevented revolutionary change under this deeply exploitative system, but also how to overcome capitalism through revolutionary activity. His concerns are more urgent today in the context of even more socioeconomic inequality, globally but especially in the Middle East, and Gramsci left us a number of core concepts and ways of thinking that serve as sources of intellectual and methodological inspiration.
Most popular among these concepts is hegemony, the insight that individuals are not governed by force alone, but also by ideas. Gramsci conceived of hegemony as ‘political leadership based on the consent of the led, a consent which is secured by the diffusion and popularization of the world view of the ruling class’ (Bates 1975: 352) in the political, economic, and cultural realms even under conditions of exploitation. Civil society, a mélange of private (or non-state) organizations, is the arena for the diffusion and popularization of this world view and the construction of ways of thought and social associations that form a culture. Hegemony is imposed on society by a ruling historical bloc, the alliance of classes or groups that dominate society at a given historical moment.
By contrast, in nonhegemonic contexts, due to the existence of articulated modes of production, the bourgeois classes (read regime or dominant elites outside advanced capitalist contexts) engage in a passive revolution: they initiate sweeping socioeconomic changes without concomitant political reforms – that is, without altering the dominant social order. In this case coercion is more visible and palpable in everyday life, unlike in hegemonic systems where the mechanisms of physical force are relegated to the background, only activated when consent unravels. This is not a binary, however, but rather an overall balance between coercion and consent.
In Gramsci’s famous formulation, the state is composed of two mutually-reinforcing realms: political society with its legalistic and coercive measures and civil society. Yet as Peter Thomas insists, we should distinguish political and civil society from each other ‘methodologically, not organically’ and always ‘within a unified (and indivisible) state form’ (Thomas 2009: 137) that constitutes an integral state free from constructed binaries. It follows then that there are two routes to political change: a lightening and violent 1917 Russian Revolution-styled war of maneuver that takes control of the (then feudalist-capitalist) state, an option he considered inappropriate in advanced industrial societies, and a much more protracted and difficult war of position that aims at producing an alternative counterhegemony and prepares the ideological and organizational infrastructure for that moment when the state can be toppled through a war of maneuver. But how to bring about revolutionary consciousness and change in this latter type of struggle?
In the battle for counter-hegemony, the role of the party, The Modern Prince, is to organize the subaltern politically and democratically and instil in them a revolutionary consciousness that demystifies the common sense manufactured by the dominant classes’ agents of ideological diffusion. This hinges on the ability to promote organic intellectuals from these groups who maintain the party’s link with its popular base. Organizing is thus the necessary condition for meaningful popular mobilization and cultural transformation. And this transformation is molecular rather than sudden and may pass through a number of overlapping phases along the difficult road from subordination to revolution (Chalcraft 2022).
Any Gramscian engagement with the contemporary Middle East should start from where Gramsci himself starts. Adam Przeworski stated it best: ‘Marx’s lesson is that any analysis of life under capitalism must start from material conditions. Gramsci’s addition is that it should not end there but it still must start there’ (2020: 15). The other caveat involves how we deploy Gramsci’s concepts: we should always remind ourselves that we are examining different capitalist formations than those Gramsci dissected. Consequently, alternative capitalist formations generate different state forms and social orders with their own material interests and disaggregated class relations that have to be analyzed rather than assumed. Gramsci’s concepts should thus be approached more as a toolkit for analyzing contemporary social and political problems than rigid concepts to be duplicated uncritically. I am often much more comfortable deploying Gramsci’s way of thinking, and how he gathers the material, organizational, and ideological to explain social orders and violent superstructures, than using his exact concepts or terms.
Nazih Ayubi’s massive Over-stating the Arab State (1995) was one early English-language deployment of Gramsci’s passive revolution to explain the durability of non-hegemonic authoritarian regimes in the Arab world, whether they are populist-corporatist or conservative-corporatist. The concept was rediscovered to explain how counter-revolutionary regimes are able to restore coercive control over their societies and restructure historical blocs (Gervasio and Manduchi 2020).
Gramsci’s notion of ‘a crisis of authority’, when ‘the social basis supporting the basic structure of the political system was undermined, resulting in a breakdown of social consensus’ (Morton 2007: 189), also serves to analyze the causes and afterlives of the popular protests that swept across the Middle East after 2011 and in 2015 and 2019. Gramsci’s insights on subaltern mobilization explain variations in the trajectories of these protests and their prospects. Dense pre-crisis bottom-up organizational structures at the level of civil society helped achieve important breakthroughs even if these were later reversed, as in Tunisia, Egypt, and then Sudan. By contrast, where such organizational networks were not found or had to be invented in the midst of socioeconomic and financial crisis, prospects for change were limited, as in Lebanon and Iraq (Halawi and Salloukh 2020). More importantly, Gramsci’s insistence on the primacy of democratic organizing as a fulltime preoccupation, much like in his own life-activity, is an academy for how to do meaningful bottom-up activism as a prerequisite for social and political change (Chalcraft 2022; Denning 2021; Wald 2022). For what Gramsci provides is the material and organizational corrective to otherwise abstract and mechanical theorizing and the kind of ‘political hobbyism’ (Hersh 2020) often confused for intentional organization and strategic political action.
Most liberating, however, is the expansive image of the state Gramsci supplies for students of Middle East politics searching for an alternative to the presumed weak, absent, or fragile state. “The State,” Gramsci writes, “is the entire complex of practical and theoretical activities with which the ruling class not only justifies and maintains its dominance, but manages to win the active consent of those over whom it rules” (Gramsci 1971: 244). This image helps us gather the material, organizational, and ideological activities that go into producing a social order and its concomitant state form, one free of the imposed binaries of civil society/political society, consent/coercion, weak/strong state, the private/public sphere, state/non-state actors, and the formal/informal sectors (Salloukh forthcoming). I find this toolkit especially useful in examining the durability of modes of sectarian consent, or its resistance through a protracted war of position (Dodge 2019), one in which culture is an arena of struggle rather than a reified essence.
The aforementioned is but a selective snapshot of the possible deployments of Gramsci’s toolkit in Middle East studies today. Ultimately, to think in a Gramscian way about our contemporary problems is to help invent “new conceptions that could make sense of and change particular histories and contexts” (Chalcraft and Marchi 2021: 5). For who else other than Gramsci, in his biography and liberating insights, can shine the way forward in these dark times?
Nazih N. Ayubi, 1995. Over-stating the Arab State: Politics and Society in the Middle East London: I.B. Tauris.
Thomas R. Bates, 1975. “Gramsci and the Theory of Hegemony,” Journal of the History of Ideas 36: 351-66.
John Chalcraft, 2021. “Revolutionary Weakness in Gramscian Perspective: The Arab Middle East and North Africa since 2011,” Middle East Critique, DOI: 10.1080/19436149.2021.1872858.
John Charlcraft, 2022. “Four Phases of Popular Mobilization,” paper presented at the “Gramsci in the Middle East and North Africa” Conference, London School of Economics & Political Science, London, UK, 9-10 May.
John Chalcraft and Alessandra Marchi, 2021. “Guest Editors’ Introduction: Gramsci in the Arab World,” Middle East Critique, DOI: 10.1080/19436149.2021.1872855.
Michael Denning, 2021. “Everyone a Legislator,” New Left Review 129, (May/June): 29-44.
Toby Dodge, 2019. “Muhasasa Ta’ifiya and its Others: Domination and Contestation in Iraq’s Political Field,” POMEPS Studies 35, (October): 38-46.
Giuseppe Fiori, 1970. Antonio Gramsci: Life of a Revolutionary, tr. T. Nairn, New York: Schocken Books.
Gennaro Gervasio and Patrizia Manduchi, 2020. “Introduction: Reading the Revolutionary Process in North Africa with Gramsci,” The Journal of North African Studies DOI: 10.1080/13629387.2020.1801264.
Antonio Gramsci, 1971. Selections from the Prison Notebooks, ed. and tr., Quintin Hoare and Goeffrey Nowell Smith New York: International Publishers.
Ibrahim Halawi and Bassel Salloukh, 2020. “Pessimism of the Intellect, Optimism of the Will after the 17 October Protests in Lebanon,” Middle East Law and Governance 12 (3): 322–334.
Eitan Hersh, 2020. Politics Is for Power: How to Move Beyond Political Hobbyism, Take Action, and Make Real Change London, Scribner.
Alessandra Marchi, 2021. “Molecular Transformations: Reading the Arab Uprisings with and beyond Gramsci,” Middle East Critique DOI: 10.1080/19436149.2021.1872862.
Adam David Morton, 2007. Unravelling Gramsci: Hegemony and Passive Revolution in the Global Political Economy London: Pluto Press.
Adam Przeworski, “What Have I Learned from Marx and What Still Stands?” Politics & Society (September 2020), https://doi.org/10.1177/0032329220958662.
Sara Salem, 2020. Anticolonial Afterlives in Egypt: The Politics of Hegemony Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Bassel F. Salloukh, forthcoming. “What We Talk About When We Talk About the State in Postwar Lebanon,” in Steven Heydemann and Marc Lynch, eds., State Capacity in the Middle East.
Peter Thomas, 2009. The Gramscian Moment: Philosophy, Hegemony, and Marxism Leiden: Brill.
Alan Wald, 2022. “Gramsci’s Gift,” Boston Review, 4 April, at: https://bostonreview.net/artic...
 I should like to thank Wadood Hamad, Toby Dodge, and Ibrahim Halawi for their rich Gramscian conversations.
 By contrast, Sara Salem (2020) has argued that Nasserism was an anticolonial hegemonic project, the first and last in Egypt.