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Reading Gramsci









In my book Unravelling Gramsci (2007) I argued against a mechanical application of the thought and practice of the Italian Marxist, Antonio Gramsci. Instead, I developed an interpretative method that drew from Gramsci’s recommendation to grasp the leitmotiv or rhythm of thought of a thinker in relation to practical concerns relevant to the present. After all, as Karl Marx relayed in the Theses on Feuerbach, the question of the relevance of theory has to be grounded in the ‘this-sidedness’ of thinking in practice.

Hence, for Gramsci, historical materialism should not be conceived as a total or rigid doctrine beyond question but as a philosophy of praxis. Indeed, in a newspaper article for Il Grido del Popolo entitled ‘Our Marx’, dated as early as 1918, Gramsci rejected any perception of Marx as a ‘shepherd wielding a crook’, or ‘some Messiah who left us a string of parables laden with categorical imperatives and absolute, unchallengeable norms, lying outside the categories of time and space’. Just as Gramsci received Marx in this manner then this is how we should receive Gramsci. How can this approach to the history of ideas in general and the significance of historicising Gramsci in particular be further developed?

A new review article of mine in Capital & Class and available to download here draws on a noteworthy contribution to questions of method and hermeneutic understanding when approaching the reading of texts. In terms developed by Tony Burns in his book Aristotle and Natural Law (2011) the ‘reading’ of a text is an endeavour at the most elementary point of engagement in an attempt to understand a text, assuming that it can be understood in different ways. Flowing from this starting position, he then distinguishes three approaches to reading a text in order to develop an approach to hermeneutic understanding, which involve establishing meaning by interpretation, by appropriation, and by negotiation.

In brief, meaning by interpretation is an attempt to understand a particular text as the author of that text understood it herself or himself. An interpretation of a text is an attempt to understand the ideas in a text in their own terms, or as the author of the text in question might have understood them, based on someone seeking the ‘truth’ in relation to the meaning of the text in question.

Second, meaning by appropriation has a practical or political relevance for the person who produces it. In such readings the ideas of an author are taken up and used by the reader for purposes of their own. The person who appropriates a text, or the ideas which it contains, is not motivated by the desire to offer a ‘truthful’ interpretation of the text. Appropriations in this sense are regarded as distortions of the meaning of a text and radically alter the meaning of the concepts contained within the text. The act of appropriation is an intentional hermeneutic manoeuvre. Additionally, according to Burns, ‘if an appropriation of a text were presented as an interpretation of it then it would be rejected by the vast majority of scholars working within the field, or even all of them, as being false or invalid’.

Third, establishing meaning by negotiation represents a compromise, perhaps, between interpretation and appropriation or a theoretical synthesis of the two. From this point of view, the act of hermeneutic understanding is always an historical enterprise and therefore there is an acceptance that the meaning which is given to texts written in the past can and will alter. Nevertheless, background conditions do set a limit to the range of possible readings that might legitimately be given of a specific text by an individual reader living in a particular society at a certain moment in time. Negotiation represents in effect some sort of dialogue between the author of the text and its reader. The meaning of a text and the ideas which they contain can and do alter over time.

These conceptual distinctions are clearly useful for historians of ideas and students of the history of political thought in that they distinguish between the enterprise of establishing meaning by interpretation, by appropriation, or by negotiation when approaching a thinker. Not least, when disputes between competing interpretations of texts arise these may be evaluated on the basis of recourse to the text. As a result, misinterpretations of texts are possible rather than misreadings. Further, an appropriation of a text can be revealed as a selective reading of a text whereby the ideas of the author are taken up by appropriators and used by them for purposes of their own. Such readings reflect the interests and concerns of the appropriator and not necessarily those of the author.

The import of these conceptual distinctions to Gramsci studies could be highly significant. After all, when approaching his texts readers should be clear in their own minds which of these activities they are performing – interpreting, appropriating, or negotiating – in developing a reading of Gramsci. In my earlier work, Unravelling Gramsci, such interpretative groundwork was attempted, specifically in heeding Gramsci’s own method of absolute historicism when reading texts germane to the past and present.

In recently surveying a “new phase” in the use of Gramsci’s ideas and writings, it has been astutely remarked by Marcus Green and Peter Ives in Rethinking Marxism that one might hope for ‘a turn away from the all-too-common invocation of Gramsci in vague repetitions of compelling but general motifs’. In my view, one result may be the prevalence elsewhere of devout but errant students producing vague repetitions and invocations of Gramsci’s thought that are reliant on an unreflexive appropriation of, rather than negotiation with, Gramsci (see here my post ‘Turkey: what kind of passive revolution?’).

Now might be an apposite moment to provide greater clarity and self-reflexiveness on what method or hermeneutic approach one actually adopts when reading Gramsci.

Adam David Morton

Published inPolitical theory

One Comment

  1. Tony Burns Tony Burns

    I am delighted that Adam Morton has found my new theoretical framework for reading texts/studying the history of ideas to be useful in his work on reading Antonio Gramsci.

    A more accessible source for reading about this would be an article entitled ‘Interpreting and Appropriating Texts in the History of Political Thought: Quentin Skinner and Poststructuralism,’ which was published in the journal “Contemporary Political Theory,” 10, 3 (2011), pp. 313-31.

    Professor Skinner has been the dominant figure in this area over the last few decades. He has very kindly written to me praising my article and thanking me for writing it.

    I hope to secure a research grant to develop the ideas contained in this article at some point in the future.

    Tony Burns

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