What is the meaning and significance of the term passive revolution in Antonio Gramscis analysis of history and politics? Essay

“I’m a pessimist because of intelligence, but an optimist because of will.”

(Antonio Gramsci 1971)

Passive revolution is one of the most complex ideas contained within prison notebooks. Gramsci’s variant of Marxism led him to re-conceptualise the state. Gramsci saw that the state incorporated not just the traditional institutions of government but also civil society as a whole. His vision was one of a flowing power structure and is, perhaps, one of the most accurate depiction’s of polity to be produce within the realm of modern political science. However, it is questionable whether Gramsci actually achieved his desired goal by the formulation of this theory. As Marx once wrote, “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it.” At first glance it seem that he has provided a strong explanatory structural analysis but his theory offer little in terms of a way forward for oppressed classes.

This essay begins by looking at the formation of the theory of passive revolution and, specifically, how it was grafted from Italian history. It will then go onto discuss the theory itself arguing that its significance is its ability to analyse state formation and transitions. It will also show how Gramsci is useful for studying modern day politics and can help us understand the complex power structure which exists today throughout society. Finally, it will consider that Gramsci analysis of passive revolution is so strong it is actually self defeating. Using a theory of natural capitalism this essay will argue that the war of position is winnable and as a result the dominant classes will always find means of achieving passive revolutions. With reference to the opening quote it is possible Gramsci understood this and thus, his rationality provided a pessimistic outlook. It was only his morality that kept him positive in the search for the creation of a better society.

Passive revolution is under pinned by two assertions. Firstly, no social formations disappear as long as the productive forces which have developed within them still find room for further forward movement. Secondly, society itself does not set itself tasks for whose solution the necessary conditions have not already been incubated (Gramsci 1971). Thus a theory of passive revolution can be defined as an instance of revolution where demands and objectives are accommodated but the underlying vision of the revolution is a conservative readjustment of power. A certain plasticity allows the dominant forces to restructure during a period crisis. According to Germinal (in Morton 2003) the formation of the Italian state cannot be understood without the relevance of its medieval history.

It can be used to describe both state formations, such as the Risorgimento and/or a period of state transition such as the birth of fascism. Gramsci argued that passive revolution is a way for the dominate classes to reorganise and provide subaltern classes with concessions to maintain control of society. In the case of Italy, leaders were “aiming at the creation of a modern state …[but] instead produced a bastard,” (Gramsci 1971). The Risorgimento contained a mix of moderates made up of landed gentry, lead by Cavour and radical democrats led by Mazzini. Gramsci highlights how the Italian bourgeoisie were unable to fully achieve the creation of the modern state as they did not incorporate the interests of the Subaltern classes.

He contrasts this to the Jacobin French revolutionaries who were able to create a strong state as they included the views of the lower classes. Gramsci argues that the weakness of the Action party was its “paternalist attitude; it therefore only succeeded to a very limited extent in brining the great popular masses into contact with the state,” (Gramsci 1971). He also argues that it failed to recognise its own (or the moderates) subjectivity. By not understanding their position in the unification they were unable to mobilise the working classes. The moderates gained control of powerful institutions and used them to organise the state in the interest of the dominant classes.

As result Italy suffered from uneven development, producing a north south divide. Gramsci labels this “the Southern Question,” stating that the industrial north incorporated the backward features of the south. Thus, for Gramsci this process meant that uneven development was a natural part of a passive revolution. Gramsci also stated that the theory could be used to describe consolidation of capitalism through restoration. Thus, passive revolution can be used to describe a state in transition. Gramsci argued that fascism in Italy was an example of this and it was just a method for the bourgeoisie to reorganise social relations whilst maintaining capitalist property relations. Geopolitically, Gramsci argued that American expansionism under Ford was seen as a passive revolution on a global scale.

The theory of passive revolution is significant for a number of reasons. Gramsci uses the theory primarily to analyse state formations. Gramsci refers to this formation by stating that, “the crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear”, (Gramsci 1971). What Gramsci is referring to here is during the transition from monarchy to government often undesirable power formations are created. Passive revolution asserts that during a revolution dominant classes will look to occupy top positions in the new proposed system. He uses the example of Cavour being successful in leading the Italian unification. Cavour represented the members of the aristocracy and thus they were able to keep their hegemonic influence by keeping control of the means of production during the unification. There are similar situations which occurred in state formations of ………..

As a result, Gramsci’s concept furthers political science as it accurately depicts the process of state formation making it useful when studying this area. On the other hand we must be careful not to spread the concept too far, a mistake this paper believes Gramsci was guilty of himself. He stated that the theory can be applied to “every major historical upheaval,” (Gramsci 1971). Kaviraj (1988) in her article, “A Critique of Passive Revolution”, argued that the history of India was one such situation where passive revolution could not be applied. She stated that, “the Gramscian Hegemonic of the capitalism state does not apply in any simple unproblematic form”.

She argues that although the bourgeoisie dominated the Indian state they do so through, “a coalition strategy carried out partly through state-directed process of economic growth [and the] allocation necessities indicated by the bourgeois democratic political system.” She also argues that the pre capitalism dominance of, “governance”, in the history of the country must be given analytical weight. In brief conclusion it is dangerous to claim universal applicability for a political concept and although Gramsci provides a solid base for the analysis of state formations we must be wary of applying the concept directly.

Running in a similar vein of thought, passive revolution can also be applied to states in transition to analyse their power structures (Morton, 2007). Gramsci argued that the Italian transition to fascism and the production lines of Fordism were examples of this. Gramsci referred to this as the theory of revolution-restoration in that capitalism often reorganises in order to grant minor concessions to subordinate class but still keeping the dominate classes in a position of power. This is a significant point as it allows us to use the theory of passive revolution to provide an insight to how the power structure is maintained. From this Gramsci drew two conclusions. Firstly, classes must struggle for hegemony before and after the seizure of power to create their own socialisation of politics. Secondly, there is a difference between east and west. The West has a form of civil society intertwined with the state, resistant to incursions against its hegemony. As a result subaltern classes must engage in a war of position. This was an ideological war that first had to be won so that the traditional, “common sense”, values of the bourgeoisie would be replaced with more Marxist ideals. It was only after accomplishing this victory could a war of manoeuvre be engaged.

This war was an actual physical seizure of power which Gramsci exemplified by referring to the storming of the Winter Palace (Gramsci, 1971). This is a significant step in Marxist analysis. Previously Marx had predicted that the communist seizure of power would be achieved when the proletariat would revolt due to the oppression that capitalism imposed of them. However, today no such revolution has taken place and most agree that this aspect of Marxist analysis was flawed.

The bourgeois classes by controlling the means of production and the political and social ideology are able to prevent such a revolution by infecting the working classes. This prevented them from uniting and undertaking a revolution. Furthermore, Buci-Glucksmann (2003) states that this meant that the situation in the west required a different strategy to that of the east. She argued that civil society and the bourgeois control is not as ingrained into society in the east as it is the west. This makes the western war of position “pivotal,” in combating passive revolution. This is an important distinction as it means that the theory has scope to be flexible and recognise dichotomies between different passive revolutions.

Passive revolution can also be used to analyse global politics. When using it in this way states become the individuals. Thus different states, as a collective, make up the international bourgeoisie. Passive revolution in this way can help us explain the political international structure and instances from history. Gramsci has already stated that he believed that the American expansion of its economy into a global force with the introduction of assembly lines was an example of this. Further examples can be seen through collective institutions such as NATO and OPEC which represent an international class structure. Robert Cox (in Abrahamsen, 1997) argued that key agencies of government have become increasingly linked to each other. “Integration in the world economy also has profound effects on state-society relations and class structure.” Other, often third world, states serve as a subaltern class. Huge corporations that arise from within dominant states, such as Nike, outsource the making of their products to workers overseas who sell their labour for a wage.

Dependency theory is an argument already voiced by many academics studying Latin America (Cardoso & Faletto 1979, Sen 1999). However, their argument is largely an economic one. The Gramscian model more accurately depicts the dominant state control as it is recognises social relations, not just economic relations are a feature of the global power structure. Chomsky and Herman (2010) provide the example of the U.S. and the Dominican Republic; “after the invasion of 1965 the U.S. reasserted effective control over that small country and has thoroughly dominated its politics and economics”. Furthermore, many dominant states are keen to export democracy and prevent the spread of other forms of governance. The most obvious example being the cold war, the U.S. invasion of Vietnam, the War in Iraq and more recently political pressure being applied on the Iranian regime.

Dominant countries also exert influences subalterns through the international hegemonic structure, by control of media and academia. Such as seen in Mexico which has been heavily influenced by Parisian architecture (Morton, 2003). Abrahamsen (1997) supports this argument stating that the, “structural adjustment programmes and the good governance agenda become part of the ideological construction and maintained of hegemony”. Dominant states will find ways to passively revolt in order to maintain their position. The growth of the EU can be used to highlight this point. Dominant members seemingly release some of their sovereignty in order to in-cooperate smaller countries. This paper argues that the institution itself is thus a form of passive revolution as major states, such as France and Germany make small concessions, in order to maintain their position of power.

Although the explanatory powers of passive revolution are strong when dealing with historical or modern day phenomena. The final section of this paper will argue that Gramsci’s theory is fact self defeating. When it comes to using at passive revolution as a predictive tool, Gramsci believed that his concept offered the subaltern classes an insight to the power structure and the methodology of the bourgeoisie for maintaining their position. From this they could formulate a theory to combat this structure, battling in the war of position through a political parties. Gramsci stated that, “All men are intellectuals: but not all men have in society the function of intellectuals”, implying that the proletariat would have to formulate their own intellectuals if they were to engage in an anti passive revolution (Gramsci 1971). This paper argues that it serves to do quite the opposite. We will now seek to explain a theory of Natural Capitalism.

At this point it must be stressed that it is not the structural integrity of passive revolution that is being questioned; it is the implications of the theory. This paper argues, that Gramsci has demonstrated, through the concept of passive revolution, that the war of position is not winnable. In short, Gramsci underestimated the strength of his own theory. Natural capitalism argues that the capitalist system depicts human nature far better than any other. As a result, man was always bound to arrive at its creation. It’s a system is akin to our human nature and thus in many ways capitalism can be seen as a natural phenomena rather than a social construct of man.

The reason for this lies in the make up of human nature. This debate has raged through the ages from Hobbes to Ghandi but this paper argues that the strongest arguments have been made by Charles Darwin. It is biological fact that we are, despite our intellect, animals and thus the survival of the fittest is the most relevant theory when it comes to explaining human behaviour. Thus, although we have a capacity for cooperation we are at heart a competitive animal. Gramsci adamantly disagreed with this argument advocating that cultural norms must not be seen as, “natural”, or, “inevitable”, instead we must look at social structures to explain them. He also addresses the question of human nature directly when discussing if the, “backward”, nature of the southern peasants stating that this trait occurs not because of any natural inability but was due to their oppression by the northern industrialists (Gramsci 1971).

However, using the Gramsci methodology and looking backward through history we must question, at some point, where did the first instance of passive revolution occur. In this instance it can be not be the result of previous power structures. We must question then how the first dominant classes were formed and how were they able to dominate. The only answer which explains this hypothetical situation is that certain classes were intellectually stronger that others around them.

Thus, class domination can be attributed to the natural inequality in man. Salamini (1975) states that the working classes are capable of dealing with the hegemonic apparatuses and process involved in state penetration. Gramsci theorises that the subaltern classes must undertake a task of anti passive revolution through a political party. This implies that he agreed with Salamini, as he would not have advocated anti passive revolution if he believed it was fruitless. Which reference to the southern question, Gramsci is right to suggest that the backwardness of the peasants was a result of their oppression. However, this misses the wider point of how such oppression came to exist in society in the first instance. In summation, a dominant class structure is a natural phenomena of man and is the first reason why the war of position is not winnable.

The second reason follow thus; the dominant classes are entrenched and have their position protected. The recent economic crisis provides good evidence of just how entrenched neo-liberal theory is. The crisis was one of the worst of modern times yet there has been little reformation of the banking system. Writing in the New York Times Paul Kruger states that, “We’ve been through the second-worst financial crisis in the history of the world, and we’ve barely begun to recover: 29 million Americans either can’t find jobs or can’t find full-time work.

Yet all momentum for serious banking reform has been lost”. It would seem sensible to suggest that the best opportunity to make progress in the war of position and prevent the dominant classes passively revolting would be during times when it appears liberal theory and hegemonic prescriptions are been challenged by the economic and political climate. However this has not happened in the slightest and there are many other instances in history where opportunities have not been seized. The great depression, black Wednesday, the fact that there were no WMD in Iraq. Yet no significant impact has been made of the political structure suggesting that the combined ability of hegemony passive revolution, and natural capitalism makes the dominate classes to strong to overthrow.

In conclusion passive revolution is of great significance. As a theory it is one of the most accurate depiction of the internal political structure. It can be used to look at states in process of unification to understand how certain classes gain and influence the unification of a state. The theory also encompasses states that are in transition and in an era of political modernity this is perhaps now its most relevant use. Understanding how the working classes are intertwined in the structure of a state is an important concept.

More over, passive revolution has provided the working classes with an explanation of their position. However, the strength of the theory is also its down fall. Instead of providing a path of hope for the subaltern classes Gramsci has formulated a theory which explains the hopelessness of their situation. Such is the strength of passive revolution and the hegemonic structure that it is unlikely that the war of position will ever be won. More importantly the theory of natural capitalism argues that it is not meant to be won and that capitalism is the natural system of mankind. Although self defeating Gramsci’s model has progressed political science and provided us with an accurate depiction of the global political system.


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