Antonio Gramsci and India

(on the 70th death anniversary of Antonio Gramsci, who died on April 27, 1937 in Mussolini’s prison)

Antonio Gramsci’s position in history of ideas cannot be underestimated. Given its overarching strength and universalist ambitions, it is very difficult to be original from within the Marxist framework- something that Gramsci managed to do in his short life. Despite the spread of Marxist ideas in India and his own reputation as a great Marxist theoretician, Antonio Gramsci has remained relatively distant in India.

This is not to say that there has been no influence of Gramsci. In fact, both India and Gramsci have influenced each other.

Much before India reached out to Antonio Gramsci after his writings became available in English translations in the late 1960s (though it was reviewed by Bhabhani Sen soon after it came out in 1957), Gramsci had reached India in the 1930s- indeed his key theoretical contribution to the theorization of revolutionary advance was illustrated with the strategy of the Indian freedom struggle.

While imprisoned in Mussolini’s prisons during the fascist purge of communists in Italy, he saw Mahatma Gandhi’s strategy of alternating active political movement and withdrawal as what he termed as the ‘war of movement’ and ‘war of position.’

The Indian communist leadership in the 1930s, under the awe of the ‘living Lenin’- Stalin, at that time had characterized the Indian freedom struggle as a bourgeois movement. But then, it will be incorrect to wholly blame Stalin for this. Much before he became a key figure within the CPSU, the brilliant, but mistaken, Indian revolutionary MN Roy had characterized the Indian struggle for freedom as a bourgeois one, something that Rajni Palme Dutt would make a central tenet in his book India Today, for a long time the Bible of Indian communists.

It turned out that both MN Roy, and much of the Indian communist leadership, excluding, but only to a certain extent, P.C. Joshi (who despite his rather inclusive and sympathetic look at the Indian freedom struggle, was an admirer of Stalin), were mistaken. In terms of a theoretical understanding, neither the CPI, nor the CPM, to speak nothing of the blatantly mistaken Maoists, have made any attempt to learn from Antonio Gramsci’s writings of the 1930s. The only attempt from within the establishment Left was made by the former CPI theoretician, the late Mohit Sen, who had incorporated Gramsci’s theoretical concepts in his understanding of the Indian Revolution, in the book published under that name in 1970.

Even Mohit Sen treated him from within Leninist glasses, writing a tract called the Leninism of Gramsci. Whether Gramsci went beyond Leninism or not may be a conclusive debate as yet, what is certain is that Gramsci’s concepts of hegemony, and the need to build organic intellectuals are more pertinent than Lenin’s (contrast Lenin’s ideas about the ‘professional revolutionaries with that of Gramsci’s ‘organic intellectuals’.) A reading from his essay on the Intellectuals from Selections from The Prison Notebooks confirms how closer he is to contemporary capitalist society:

Every social group, coming into existence on the original terrain of an essential function in the world of economic production, creates together with itself, organically, one or more strata of intellectuals which give it homogeneity and an awareness of its own function not only in the economic but also in the social and political fields. The capitalist entrepreneur creates alongside himself the industrial technician, the specialist in political economy, the organisers of a new culture, of a new legal system, etc. It should be noted that the entrepreneur himself represents a higher level of social elaboration, already characterised by a certain directive [dirigente]and technical (i.e. intellectual) capacity: he must have a certain technical capacity, not only in the limited sphere of his activity and initiative but in other spheres as well, at least in those which are closest to economic production. He must be an organiser of masses of men; he must be an organiser of the “confidence” of investors in his business, of the customers for his product, etc. (Link)

He fundamentally changed the understanding of the base- superstructure as envisaged in the binary model outlined by Marx in his The Critique of Political Economy that remained popular because of its great conceptual breakthrough and the simplicity of the concept. He rescued the Marx of The Eighteenth Brumaire from the mechanistic reductionism in the former work.

Economy and ideology. The claim (presented as an essential postulate of historical materialism) that every fluctuation of politics and ideology can be presented and expounded as an immediate expression of the structure, must be contested in theory as primitive infantilism, and combated in practice with the authentic testimony of Marx, the author of concrete political and historical works. Particularly important from this point of view are The Eighteenth Brumaire and the writings on the Eastern Question, but also other writings (Revolution and Counter-Revolution in Germany, The Civil War in France and lesser works). An analysis of these works allows one to establish better the Marxist historical methodology, integrating, illuminating and interpreting the theoretical affirmations scattered throughout his works.(Link )

Above all, Gramsci remains relevant because he tried to explain the nature of political power (much before the meaning of power was investigated, somewhat tangentially by Michel Foucault and Derrida), from the perspective of what he called the ‘subaltern’ perspective. The usage of the word ‘subaltern itself is interesting- it establishes a historical relationship between various, otherwise disparate classes. The short lived Indian school of historiography initiated by Ranajit Guha- the subaltern school of historians took off from Gramsci’s concept of the subaltern, employing it almost interchangeably and therefore restrictively with the ‘peasant.’

It is interesting to recall that one of the reasons that Gramsci came up with new nomenclature was because of the restrictions that he faced while writing in a fascist jail- anything that was ‘evidently Marxist’ could not have passed through the jail censorship.

Much later, in the mid- 1980s, Bipan Chandra and some of his associates employed Antonio Gramsci’s concepts to understand the Indian struggle for freedom and concluded that the Indian struggle for freedom was a revolution. This understanding remains fundamentally at variance with that of the mainstream communist Left, that still does not recognize the changed nature of political power in the backdrop of the establishment of popular democracy. It is, for them, still ‘bourgeois’ democracy, as if ‘proletarian democracy’ is a qualitatively different category.

This is not the place to go in why that is so- it sufficient is to mention that even the mainstream Left makes no pretense at theoretically advancing their understanding of India- categories like proletariat and what constitutes the revolutionary class(es) in the age of post- industrial capitalism. Among other works, Manuel Castells’ rather revisionist work The Rise of the Network Society (a work of ‘Hegelian dimensions’ nonetheless) and Anthony Giddens’ The Third Way remain un- debated.

It is among the Indian academics that Gramsci has proved to be more popular. Shashi Joshi and Bhagwan Josh, in their seminal study of the CPI, in the first two volumes of Struggle for Hegemony in India employed Gramsci’s path breaking work to indicate that the original intent of the Workers’ and Peasants Party which became part of the CPI (and to which P.C. Joshi also traced his political roots) was closer to the conclusions of Gramsci than those of the MN Roy/ Comintern line.

His death at the age of 46 was premature, and brutal coming as it did at the end of 10 years of solitary confinement.

On the evening of November 8, 1926, Gramsci was arrested in Rome and, in accordance with a series of “Exceptional Laws” enacted by the fascist-dominated Italian legislature, committed to solitary confinement at the Regina Coeli prison. This began a ten-year odyssey, marked by almost constant physical and psychic pain as a result of a prison experience that culminated, on April 27, 1937, in his death from a cerebral hemorrhage. No doubt the stroke that killed him was but the final outcome of years and years of illnesses that were never properly treated in prison.(Link )


A brief overview of the treatment of Gramsci’s ideas in India by Sobhanlal Dutta Gupta.

Writings of Antonio Gramsci at archives

International Socialist has an issue devoted to Antonio Gramsci (link via Histomatist )

A google search reveals an article Reading Gramsci in the time of Hindutva by Imtiaz Aijaz Ahmed. I haven’t read it though and could not find the online version either.

On a more personal side of his life, read this article from Guardian about the touching letters to his son and wife.

Image acknowledgement

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Author: bhupinder singh

reader, mainly and an occasional blogger

7 thoughts on “Antonio Gramsci and India”

  1. what i found interesting and did not know was that gramsci had to coin words like “hegemony” to avoid jail censorship. i have always wondered why he used this word when it is so close to marx’s conception of the “ideology of the dominant class”. now i have the answer. you are right in pointing out that gramsci’s seminal contribution is in his concept of the “organic intellectual”. it goes one step ahead of the concept of the “vanguard” in leninist politics. whereas the proletarian vanguard is still under the tutelage of the “professional revolutionaries” of the party, the organic intellectual is defining his own and his comrade’s path to freedom. however, i disagree with the interpretation that gramsci’s concepts could be used to characterise the gandhi led indian freedom struggle to be a revolution of any sort. the connection between gandhi and the indian “comprador”s was so close that there is no way in which such an interpretation can be justified. gandhi has his merits but in the final analysis they are outweighed by his demerits.

  2. gaddeswarup: Thanks a lot for the link, will try and procure the book. Seem I also made a mistake in the post- the essay is by aijaz Ahmed and not Imtiaz Ahmed.

    Rahul: What I find very interesting in Bipan’s book when I read it years back (and still do) is the stress that he laid on the role of intellectuals in the freedom struggle. But to him and his associates (among whom I count Shashi Joshi and Bhagwan Josh, despite their later divergence) to pick up from Gramsci’s illustration of the war of movement and position using the Gandhi led Congress movement.

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