Reading Gramsci in Latin America

Some 80 years after his death, Marxist theorist Antonio Gramsci’s relevance for social movements and the Left in Latin America persists. 

May 26, 2017

(Artwork by Gabriele Cancedda)

Buenos Aires commemorated the 80th anniversary of Antonio Gramsci’s passing on April 27, 1937, with a week of lectures and cultural events paying homage to the Italian revolutionary. The proceedings, which will continue into the following months, had an air of veneration customarily reserved for independence leaders like Simón Bolívar and José de San Martín. Indeed, few intellectual figures have proven as important as Gramsci in addressing questions of power and state formation in the Latin American context. To borrow the title of Peter Thomas’s 2013 study, Argentina and Latin America have been living their own “Gramscian moment” for the last half century.

How, and why, has Gramsci’s thinking remained so relevant in Latin America? History provides several clues—among them the fact that the first non-Italian edition of his Quaderni del Carcere (Prison Notebooks) was published in Spanish in Buenos Aires in 1950.

The Quaderni presented a reinvention of traditional Marxism, taking national history as its central point of reference. Before Gramsci, Latin American communist parties largely ignored the specificity of national and regional histories, deferring to the Communist International’s (Comintern) interpretation of history, which deemphasized the particularities of individual nation-states. Gramsci’s writings encouraged Marxists to engage directly with a set of regional realities that local communist parties had programmatically ignored, such as peasant-based and plebian societies, a feeble bourgeoisie with little vocation for national leadership, and entrenched authoritarian state structures. These factors became the basis for a Latin America-specific line of Marxist analysis.

Gramsci’s ties to Latin America go back nearly a century. As early as 1921, the Italian theorist’s work was introduced on the South American continent, thanks to the writings of José Carlos Mariátegui, a profoundly original Peruvian Marxist who in many respects was Gramsci’s intellectual contemporary. Since then, Gramsci has been enlisted into a larger intellectual project that has sought to adapt Marxist theory to the social reality of a region largely ignored by orthodox Marxism.

Nowhere was this adaptation more apparent than with Gramsci’s concept of the “organic intellectual.” Transposed to the Latin American scene, the organic intellectual was directly involved in political and social struggles against imperialism and capitalism, a figure that would provide intellectual guidance, but just as importantly, a moral example. In other words: a Che Guevara, a Camilo Torres, a Luis de la Puente, a Miguel Enríquez.

Latin American Gramscians first looked to create common cause among diverse political sectors—political parties, social movements, trade unions, and at times even guerilla groups—in a period rife with revolutionary potential. Looking back from 1988 on the tumultuous 1960s and 70s, the Argentine scholar José María Árico writes in his La cola del Diablo [The Devil’s Tail] that “Gramsci allowed us to imagine a political opening where we could be more than just the flighty and unreliable ‘fellow travellers’ of the proletariat.” As Arico puts it, “It may seem today like a chimerical idea, but how else can we understand Latin America’s experience with guerrilla violence in the 60s and 70s except as a resolute attempt by leftwing, radical intellectuals to steer the course of politics?”

Arico’s words speak to a particular understanding of the Gramscian intellectual in Latin America, which would be adapted and interpreted in various ways over the last half-century. In every historical moment, Gramsci has been appropriated apace with the region’s shifting politics. In the 1960s and 70s, Aricó’s Pasado y Presente (Past and Present) group read Gramsci in a Leninist-Guevarist spirit as a guide for how to seize power. During democratic transitions in the 1980s, prominent Marxists employed a reformist version of Gramsci to imagine themselves as stewards of what Gramsci called “moral and intellectual leadership” in Brazil, Argentina, and elsewhere.

Starting in the 1990s and continuing through the present, Gramscian theory has been deployed by autonomous Indigenous political movements in Bolivia and Mexico, while state leaders such as the late Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez and Bolivian vice president Álvaro García Linera have also adapted and publicly invoked Gramsci’s ideas. For both figures, Gramsci was key in making sense of the construction of “21st century socialism” in South America, a process that implied not only seizing state power, but also building a hegemonic bloc where, in the words of García Linera, “there exists a social, political and moral leadership that allows for a sense of belonging and being represented within the State’s administrative structure, […] an alliance that unites the people around a common project”.

1950s to 1970s: From Italy to Argentina, Adapting Gramsci to the Local Context

Hectór Agosti, the first in an important line of “Argentine Gramscians,” acted as the catalyzing force behind Gramsci’s early reception among Argentina’s communist intelligentsia. His first systematic deployment of Gramsci, a 1951 history of Argentina’s creole liberal elite, drew parallels between Italy and Argentina. Both societies were effectively born of failed bourgeois revolutions, resulting in a disarticulated class structure and a residual oligarchy, he argued. According to Agosti, this could help explain the rise of fascism and the similar emergence of the populist project of Juan Domingo Perón.

José María “Pancho” Aricó was the first to understand that Gramsci’s reception on the continent could have implications not only for Latin American Marxism, but for Marxism in general. After being kicked out of the Argentine Communist Party, he charted an independent political course that would put him in the company of Guevarist revolutionaries, left-Peronists, Maoists, and other political radicals. Most significantly, Aricó embarked in the early 1960’s on a life-long endeavor to disseminate Gramsci and other critical Marxists through his Pasado y Presente publishing house.

Beyond translating the works themselves, Aricó and company sought to graft Gramsci onto the national political consciousness, adapting his works to local conditions. One prominent example of this “translation” was Aricó’s comrade Juan Carlos Portantiero’s decision to take Gramsci’s idea of the “peripheral condition,” an idea that initially referred to the geopolitical situation of Italy vis a vis Europe, and transform it into a universal category applicable to Argentina, Brazil, Mexico, and other Latin American nations. In his classic Los usos de Gramsci [The Uses of Gramsci], Portantiero underlines this analogy between the periphery of Europe and the global periphery, writing that “Latin America is only ‘third world’ in the vaguest sense,’ given that it is composed of “societies with a century and a half of political autonomy, complex social structures, major nationalist and populist political movements, and a longstanding tradition of highly organized subaltern classes.”

Thus, Gramscian terms such as hegemony and domination, coercion and consensus, assumed new connotations as they descended from theory to describe the material production and reproduction of social life in Latin American societies.

1980s: Gramsci and the Democratic Restorations

The defeat of Salvador Allende’s socialist project in Chile and the rise of military dictatorships throughout the Southern Cone—followed in short order in Central America—forced a reassessment of counterhegemonic ambitions in the region. The democratic restorations in South America during the 1980s saw the emergence of a new chapter in Gramscian thought, a period that was similar to Europe’s experience with Eurocommunism. In the best of cases, this era involved a frank theoretical discussion of the relationship between socialism and democracy, although the prevailing tendency was to recast Gramsci as an ideologue of social-reformism and to deemphasize the Marxist character of his thought.

In 1983, the Pasado y Presente group returned from exile in Mexico to Argentina. Members believed that the political climate in Argentina would be more receptive to the kind of intervention they had intended in the ‘60s and ‘70s, when their hopes had been frustrated by the Peronist’s monopoly of working-class politics, and were ultimately cut short by military dictatorship. That renewed hope proved to be misplaced. Raúl Alfonsin’s government began with a popular mandate to carry out a far-reaching democratization of Argentine society, effectively attempting to simply restart the political culture of a nation undermined by a century of authoritarian destabilization. Juan Carlos Portantiero and other members of the Pasado y Presente group even occupied important advisory roles during the period. However, the “war of positions” they planned to wage never came to fruition, and the amorphous ambitions of a “democratic rebirth” slowly bled into the intellectual passivity of neoliberalism in the 1990s.

Brazil forms an interesting counterpoint to the general historical trajectory in Argentina. In Brazil, a Gramscian-style war of positions had already been underway for several years before the democratic restoration in 1985. Since 1980, the Workers’ Party (PT) had been incubating a confluence of Liberation Theology-influenced groups alongside the labor movement, concentrated in Saõ Paulo’s “ABC” industrial sector. Gramsci, already canonized among the Brazilian left, had provided the blueprint for a protracted process in which a trade-union-turned-political-party would attempt to create a new hegemony, led by Luiz Ignacio Lula da Silva.

Brazil’s leading Gramscian, Carlos Nelson Coutinho, helps us to understand the remarkable success and ultimate downfall of one of the largest left-wing parties in recent history. Coutinho, who along with other prominent Brazilian leftists had supported the PT from its inception, employs Gramsci to understand the unique qualities of Brazil’s bourgeois state. The “passive revolution” is a term Coutinho uses somewhat interchangeably with “dictatorship without hegemony” to describe the bourgeoisie’s failure to impose its leadership role on Brazilian society. Failing to constitute its hegemony, the bourgeoisie is maintained on life support by the state, which tends to rule through repressive measures because it lacks the ability to reach a governing consensus over different sectors in society.

Brazil’s military government (1964-1985), a “revolution from above,” which managed to modernize sectors of the Brazilian economy while pacifying any dissent, exemplifies such a process. Counterintuitive as it may seem, the ruling elite’s heavy-handedness, together with its lack of hegemony among Brazil’s popular classes, was fertile ground for the PT to embark on its 20-year-long path to power that ended in 2002 with the Lula presidency.

Gramsci in the 21st Century: Social Movements and the Pink Tide

Coutinho and other high-profile intellectuals eventually broke with the PT during Lula’s first term. A reform-minded Marxist, Coutinho had initially pronounced his support for the party’s increasing political moderation, stating that the business of socialism could be dealt with after democracy had been safely secured. Shortly into the Lula presidency, however, he did an about-face, stating that no kind of democracy would be possible in Brazil until the socialist horizon was put back on the agenda.

Under the Lula government, the “passive revolution” continued unabated, albeit in a progressive guise. The popular energies galvanized by the PT, rather than transforming the relationship between civil society and the state, had simply been assimilated and pacified by the state apparatus.

Bolivia also presents an interesting case, where, as far back as the 1990s and particularly since the election of Evo Morales in 2006, Gramsci’s thought has shed light on processes of state formation. Bolivian scholar René Zavaleta proposes the term “motley society” [sociedad abigarrada] in an attempt to isolate the unique dynamics of Bolivian society: a social totality more complex than most Western capitalist states, characterized, Zavaleta argues, by uneven social formations and embedded colonial forms existing alongside modern capitalist structures.

Bolivia’s Water War of 2000 and the Gas War of 2003 are landmark moments when a new critical reception of Gramsci became the urgent task of those trying to interpret and influence the Indigenous and popular insurrection that would ultimately carry Evo Morales into power. Varied and frequently antagonistic interpretations of that political cycle have drawn on Gramsci. Current Vice President García Linera has argued that under Morales and the MAS party, Bolivia has become a true “integral state”, as opposed to the “apparent state” that only simulates representation of the people. On the other hand, Marxist intellectual Luis Tapia describes a “passive revolution” in Bolivia that has created what he calls a “negative hegemony,” in which subaltern and Indigenous movements have been fragmented and coopted.

Gramsci Today: Continued Relevance?

Presiding over last month’s honorary Gramsci conference in Buenos Aires was a sense of urgency: a need to redress certain aspects of Gramsci’s thinking in light of a reactionary uptick throughout the continent. The ability of right-wing movements—in Venezuela, Brazil, and elsewhere—to mobilize mass demonstrations against progressive governments has led several commentators to orient themselves through a rereading of Gramsci’s writings on fascism. Indeed, elements of the new “golpismo” show that, in addition to authoritarian tendencies concentrated in the state, civil society has also become a site of rightwing energies.

Argentina currently stands at the vanguard of an emergent “right turn.” The late Argentine intellectual Ernesto Laclau, speaking before that country’s presidential elections, erred in claiming that he had a better chance of becoming the emperor of Japan than current president Mauricio Macri had of taking office. Since before Dilma Rousseff’s impeachment, the disaffected majority of workers throughout Brazil have found little on offer in the left agenda. The left, in short, has become disoriented. These are classic Gramscian dilemmas with no easy solution.

The consensus seems to be that a forthcoming analysis should center on the structural weaknesses and policies that have eroded the base of popular support for the region’s progressive governments. Here too the Gramscian concept of “passive revolution” is being re-engaged: debates are growing about whether any substantive transformation of productive sectors have taken place in the last decade and a half. The answer seems to be no; during the so-called pink tide, the prevailing model of accumulation not only emerged unscathed but even intensified in key areas, such as extractive industries.

Even in the midst of a historical downturn, the Latin American left could still show signs of rebound. While progressive governments adapt to shifting landscapes, the region’s social movements continue to fulfill the role of a “collective intellectual,” as proposed by Gramsci, waging local struggles that seek to create a new culture and worldview. Brazil’s Landless Workers’ Movement (MST), a prime example of a movement where Gramsci enjoys near-saint status, will hope to play a prominent role in the resistance to Brazil’s right turn. Social movements, be they indigenous, feminist, syndicalist, student, or peasant-based, will continue to resist on the terms that Gramsci had imagined, incorporating the cultural struggles and subjective conditions that he understood as forming an essential part of the revolutionary process towards socialism.

Nicolas Allen is a translator living in Buenos Aires. His doctoral research at the University of Buenos Aires focuses on the cultural history of the Communist Party of Argentina.

Hernán Ouviña holds a Ph.D. in Political Science from the University of Buenos Aires, where he is also a professor. He is a researcher at the Institute for Studies of Latin America and the Caribbean and coordinates the research group “Latin American States: Ruptures and Restorations,” housed within the Latin American Council of Social Sciences (CLACSO).

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