Monday, July 11, 2011

Realism and Passive Revolution (with Gramsci)

Political realism is something larger than Cold War game theory; it's the grounding of political options in a hegemonic philosophy of reality, a system that is supposedly not political but just a reflection of the way things are, of which game theory was the midcentury style. (A hegemonic philosophy of reality would be one that coerces consent and does not recognize the existence of other realisms.) Those who sign on to political realism do so not only because they believe they can prosper as realists—indeed, they believe that there is no other way to prosper or even to survive—but also because realism brings along its own morality and therapeutics. Beneficiaries benefit psychologically as well as materially; they’re shielded by a realist therapeutics from what they might otherwise experience as psychic poverty. Doing the “only” thing becomes doing the right thing; it becomes the right thing to perceive and act on the belief that conditions recognized by realism are the “only” conditions there are, and to be outraged by the number of “stubborn” “deniers of reality” that somehow subsist in the world. (“UC Irvine Students Protest Against Reality,” wrote the right-wing blogs in my university’s neighborhood, during the 2010 demonstrations against budget cuts, restriction of civil liberties, and institutional racism. )

Theories of reality are always also therapies, and Hegel’s philosophy is, in a way that’s still insufficiently examined, a theory of postwar working through in an age of counter-revolution. His psychology is more powerful in effect the more it seems to form in response to a reality that Hegel’s philosophy has formulated to fit it. And the more responsive Hegel’s working through seems, the more it is able to cast the philosophy of which it is part as an insight into reality itself which by definition helps one live. The circularity of psychology and philosophy in Hegel’s work lends his conclusion, the Idea, the authenticity of psychic reality and the authority of externality: the Idea is the very model of the depth of field, multidimensionality, and ambiguity that modern reality is ever after required to have. Paying attention primarily to its psychological functions, then, presents Hegel’s way of thinking, his postwar strategy of thinking restoration transformatively as part of the work of spirit (a strategy which is not only his, not only inside Hegel), from an angle that shows the normative model of working through that drives it. Hegel’s working through calls on political realism to choose the actions that move the self through therapeutic stages. The “text” in question here, then, is not just what Hegel says, but what his sayings do. The cruxes of argument are not places where Hegel is wrong or contradictory in his own terms, much less whether his system is “open” or “closed.” Let’s assume for expedience a Hegel who’s “open”: what is at stake is not the consequence of his openness (as unclear as that is) but of the depth of the reality claim he makes for this open system.

Redefining the problem of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries’ postwars as a problem of hegemonic realism shifts the source of historical trauma during these periods from the failure of revolution to the inability to tell revolution and restoration apart. A look at part of Gramsci’s account of nineteenth century history can help here—a brief look that sets aside for the time being the deeper analysis of Gramsci scholars. –In 1933, Gramsci explores the historical process that begins in the Napoleonic postwar by inquiring whether it can be thought of as “revolution-restoration.” “Revolution-restoration,” also known as “passive revolution,” hypothesizes a type of political process that might also be discerned in the Risorgimento, in “the period . . . which followed the war of 1914-18” (Selections fron the Prison Notebooks 106), and in the U.S. after the 1929 economic crisis, and that becomes a “general principle” to consider in “similar situations [that] almost always arise in every historical development” (PN 109). The condensed term “revolution-restoration,” written with a hyphen or a slash, registers the idea that in this formation, there is

the necessity for the “thesis” to achieve its full development, up to the point where it would even succeed in incorporating a part of the antithesis itself—in order, that is, not to allow itself to be “transcended” in the dialectical opposition. The thesis alone in fact develops to the full its potential for struggle, up to the point where it absorbs even the so-called representatives of the antithesis: it is precisely in this that the passive revolution or revolution/restoration consists. (PN 110)

Revolution-restoration takes ground incrementally through the overdevelopment of the thesis during stretches when a society is not ready for confrontation. Gramsci associates it with incremental reformism and the political management of state transition by “moderate and conservative liberalism” (PN 119). In his related notion of the “war of position” (PN 106, 108), a kind of “siege warfare,” “concentrated, difficult,” and requiring “exceptional qualities of patience and inventiveness,” takes precedence over the frontal “war of maneuver” (PN 239; Gramsci famously recommends wars of position, in contrast and in response now to passive revolution, as a working-class strategy for difficult times). Observing some similarity between revolution-restoration and his own idea of war of position, Gramsci asks whether at times they can be identified: “does there exist, or can there be conceived, an entire historical period in which the two concepts must be considered identical” (PN 108)? If so, then there could be an entire historical period when war of position is reduced to revolution-restoration, i.e., when the only possibility left is through the hypertrophy of the opposition. If so, for Gramsci revolution-restoration would still be bounded by an “until” that it is nurturing: it might hold “until the point at which the war of position once again becomes a war of maneuver” (PN 108). The identity of revolution-restoration and war of position would be the line where antagonism is everywhere and nowhere.

Two years later, Gramsci considers “The History of Europe Seen as ‘Passive Revolution’” and asks, “Are we in a period of ‘revolution-restoration’ to be permanently consolidated, to be organized ideologically, to be exalted lyrically?” (PN 118). The irony in the question implies that it is a rhetorical rebuttal to overconfident conservative-liberals and especially to Croce’s just published History of Europe in the Nineteenth Century (1933). Croce’s book is the narrative of "Europe" as the product of reform: it begins “from 1815” and repeatedly “excludes the moment of struggle” (PN 119). But by this time, Gramsci’s own gradually expanding reflection has reached from the Napoleonic postwar to Italian fascism, even as it has remained hypothetical. Revolution-restoration is an “interpretation” of conditions, not a “program,” he emphasizes. But if Croce spins the totalization of revolution-restoration as reality, Gramsci traces in his wake the dominance of revolution-restoration as a way of thinking about history, as well as its actuality as a recurrent condition that presents itself for interpretation. (In fact, I am emphasizing the hypothetical character of Gramsci’s reflection more than most readers of these passages, who treat passive revolutions as objects of Gramsci’s cognition.) In 1935, he writes, someone could propose that fascist industry is creating kinds of “socialization and cooperation” that release economically progressive forces. Such a “schema,” he goes on, “is capable of creating—and indeed does create—a period of expectation and hope . . . . It thus reinforces the hegemonic system and the forces of military and civil coercion at the disposal of the traditional ruling classes” (PN 120).

The temptation of revolution-restoration is that by its logic “restorations in toto do not exist,” even and especially just when they would otherwise seem most totalized. Yet, the impossibility of telling revolution and restoration apart in the postrevolutionary narrative is more disturbing than any “failure” of revolution, because then revolution-restoration appears as that against which revolution, already thoroughly submerged in it, is definitionally incapable of doing more than it is already doing. The hyphen or slash between revolution and restoration recurs in Gramsci’s question about whether revolution-restoration, in turn, and the war of position that can be the working-class response to it could also become indiscernable. The increasing closeness, threatening identity even if Gramsci doesn't finally go there, between revolution-restoration and wars of position expresses the realism that relates both notions to Marx’s realist assessment that “mankind always sets itself only such tasks as it can solve” (Preface to Critique of Political Economy; PN 106). For Gramsci, the idea of revolution-revolution is a “critical corollary” to this passage of Marx, an impetus to the “revision” of hopeful fatalism (PN 114). But what if we see its critical purchase as affecting not only "determinism," but the hegemonic realism that may have captured in advance the theory of wars of position as well?

Image: Richard Long

No comments: