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Why Michael Gove can’t claim Gramsci as an influence

LOrdine-NuovoAcross ten densely packed but concisely organised paragraphs, Antonio Gramsci penned a piece of journalism entitled ‘Towards the Communist International’, printed in the newspaper L’Ordine Nuovo on 26 July 1919. Although the egregious Michael Gove, UK Secretary of State for Education, may claim Gramsci as one of two individuals that have most influenced him (the other was reality TV star Jade Goody!), there is little in Gramsci to relate to the content of Conservative policies currently ripping apart contemporary British society. Specifically in this piece of journalism, Gramsci poses the fundamental problem of proletarian revolution in the tumultuous years following the Russian Revolution. We can surmise that proletarian revolution was not a top priority for Gove during his time at Oxford University or writing for Rupert Murdoch’s The Times and that this remains the case today. In contrast to Gove’s social function, Gramsci’s article is interesting for two reasons: (1) it demonstrates Gramsci’s wider role in shaping the politics of the Communist International (or Comintern) (1919-1943); and (2) it clarifies that Gramsci was very much a thinker of “the international” referring to a grasp of the geopolitical circumstances of capitalism in shaping state development. How is this so?

Gramsci’s aim in and beyond Italian politics in 1919 was how to channel the revolutionary ferment of the time into the sort of organisational structures needed to accomplish revolutionary consciousness and power. My previous post detailed how Gramsci would come to conceive of the role of the ‘Modern Prince’ as the form to forge a new organisational and political party as a revolutionary agent. Earlier in his thinking Gramsci viewed the Soviets as the new institutions of self-government capable of expressing the sovereign autonomy of labour in the production and distribution of material goods in the internal and external relations of the State.

In one illuminating comment, Gramsci states that these workers’ organisations ‘must be further developed and systematised on a national and international basis: the anti-State must be organised’ within the productive process of capitalism in order to to control and immobilise it. It is worth citing him at length on issues of political organisation that go to the heart of recent debates on radical Left organising:

The Communist International is not a bureaucratic headquarters of “leaders” of the masses . . . it must consist of a network of proletarian institutions which themselves give birth to a complex and well-articulated hierarchy, capable of waging all aspects of the class struggle such as it takes place today both nationally and internationally.

Following World War I, the Entente Powers in Gramsci’s view had formed an enormous administrative and political apparatus that was ‘effectively the instrument of Anglo-Saxon world hegemony’. In anticipation of the global reach of industrial and international organisation – in today’s parlance transnational capitalism – Gramsci makes explicit reference to ‘the global politico-economic system controlled by Anglo-Saxon capitalism’. Recall that this is in 1919. As argued some time ago in my article ‘Waiting for Gramsci’, it is always therefore rash to assume that Gramsci refused the international dimension any constitutive status, as a causal factor, in his analysis of historical development and social transformation.

Perhaps, then Gramsci’s insights can still clarify today’s world in relation to his activism within the Comintern and with reference to his understanding ‘the international’, rather than him simply becoming a flippant reference point for the political class. In order to generate ‘teeming communist forces’ the immediate task for Gramsci was to organise ‘from the base upwards, from the inner reality of the industrial process, from the capillary sources of capitalist profit’. These are conclusions that surely have contemporary resonance and relevance like never before.

Adam David Morton


Published inGlobal Justice


  1. JM JM

    Gove`s speech reflected that tension in conservative thought, on the one hand they are nostalgic for a long lost world (some time prior to the 1960s) when pupils respected their teachers, young folk respected their elders, workers respected their bosses and all of us respected our elected representatives. Its in this context that Gove is attacking the postmodernistic relativism of “progressive education” and invoking Gramsci as an ally. Its certainly true Gramsci (like Marx) was a modernist, a man of the Enlightenment and believed very much in the role of a classical education in the development of a self-conscious and progressive working class. The problem for Gove is that the neoliberal element of conservatism is radically postmodern, what value for Latin, Shakespeare and Aristotle in the contemporary jobs market? If we believe that there are no logics of classification other than the market, then who is to say that Goethe is better than Harry Potter, lets just put it out there and let the market decide. You only have to look at the neoliberal logics which are re-shaping the university in terms of “customer service”, “employability”, “transferrable skills”, “impact”, “rationalisation” etc etc to see that any nostalgic ideas about the autonomy of knowledge are profoundly at odds with the educational philosophy of Neoliberalism. The irony is particularly exposed when we look at the flagship neoliberal educational policy: Academies, we have business academies, drama academies, media academies, IT academies, all with shiny new buildings, brochures and marketing directors selling “experiences” to potential students and their parents.

    While Tories like Gove (and Thatcher) might be nostalgic for a gentler time gone by, when education was valued in its own right, in the end they always have to accept that the market is sovereign and only the market can determine value. While Modernists of the Liberal Humanist or Marxist Revolutionary varieties see education as inherently valuable as a process of critical self reflection, neoliberals can only see its value as a commodity within the market place (what Gove refers to as “cultural capital”). This is the fundamental difference, what Gramsci was advocating was an education which fostered critical self-reflection amongst the working class about the conditions of its own exploitation. What Michael Gove is advocating is a traditional education which suppresses critical reflection by inculcating an “official” knowledge “national pride”, “the canon”,etc, the resources not to critically reflect collectively on systemic inequaity, but to individually get oneself ahead in the race for cultural and economic capital. Once you have this latter philosophy of education, education no longer has any value in itself, it becomes entirely dependent on the market in which it is an exchangeable commodity, it becomes post-modern and this inevitably erodes the classical principles which Gove appears to want to preserve.

    • A wonderful summary JM! My concern is also that students are “buying” into the marketisation of education by failing to engage. As lecturers, our teaching loads have been increased to accommodate the higher fees and the assessment that this also has to lead to increased contact hours. But the majority of students are not attending the additional teaching fora, the workshops, the lectures, the seminar series that are being organised. Could it be that universities are focusing on quantity of contact hours in response to higher fees rather than the quality of the teaching experience? Could it be that students are not attending the increased contact hours because it is non-assessed? A few words from Antonio Gramsci, on education, may act as a reminder:
      “Many people have to be persuaded that studying too is a job, and a very tiring one, with its own particular apprenticeship – involving muscles, nerves as well as intellect. It is a process of adaptation, a habit acquired with effort, tedium and even suffering . . . Many even think that the difficulties of learning are artificial, since they are accustomed to think only of manual work as sweat and toil”. The increased sweat and toil of teaching, I fear, is falling redundant on empty class rooms and, of course, the state of research will depreciate. With low-recruiting modules in danger of being scrapped, university education is also increasingly moving to the centre ground of unchallenging (rather than critical) content, just like politics itself.

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