Gramsci and the Changing Face of Socialism
April 1, 1990
Stimulated by the dramatic collapse of communism in Eastern Europe and elsewhere, there is much talk about the changing face of socialism, and the decline or even "death" of communism.
Much of this commentary is superficial and uninformed about the true nature of this ideology. On the one hand, those who think that communism is dead probably underestimate its lingering powers or at least the power of those who have ruled in its name. On the other hand, Western academics and politicians on the left are convinced that Marxism can be salvaged. For example, an editorial in The Guardian of London opined that "to believe in communist renewal is utterly central to the new optimism with which the world as a whole has begun to view its future." It is obvious that those who seek insight into the momentous upheavals in communist-ruled countries need not bother reading the editorial pages in The Guardian. Instead, we are better served paying attention to an influential Italian Marxist thinker whose ideas shed light on the present reappraisal of socialism.
Antonio Gramsci (1881-1937) recognized that old-fashioned Marxism-Leninism was out of date. He taught that socialism as an economic idea must make way for a new focus on education and culture. Jaime Antunez, in a foreword to a collection of essays about the influence of Gramsci, analyzes the true significance of his thoughts. A translated version of this foreword was published in the April, 1989 issue of Crisis.
Antunez explains that Gramsci faced the difficulty of implanting communism in a country with a culture and society very different from that in Russia. He realized that religion is a powerful antidote to Marxism, and therefore insisted that a socialist transformation of culture must start with the elimination of all belief in the transcendent. This amounted to a reversal of the Leninist theory which gives primacy to the material substructure and the violent revolution. Gramsci believed, in the words of Antunez, that:
...in countries sharing the societal characteristics of Italy, the revolution would triumph only after first conquering civil society; from there, control of the state would be a short and easy step. Not only is it not necessary, thus, to achieve the support of a majority of wage-earners, but in fact this can be dispensed with for a time. The task instead is to change the way the entire society thinks about problems. Thus Marxism-Leninism will have achieved not only hegemony over the physical existence of citizens, but what is much more important, over their minds.
This approach in no way dispenses with Marxism but, as Antunez explains, raises it to a much more sophisticated level; it concentrates on preparing the way for Marxism by means of abolishing Christianity. In this context the Marxist-Christian dialogue has played an important role. Gramsci clearly saw that the purpose was not to converge the two but to remove any genuine religious sense from religious institutions. As one commentator has pointed out, "Once religion is deprived of its supernatural content, it will be replaced by political consciousness."
The content of religion is then changed completely. Instead of speaking of worship, faith, the sacraments and prayer, there is an emphasis on human solidarity, the hope of this world, denunciation of social injustices and conversion of religion into support for the class struggle.
In other words, this kind of religion is a form of advanced secularism that reduces salvation to the horizon of this world and to merely another avenue for social and political revolution. The process of secularization in Western culture is undeniably very far advanced. The proof lies in social disasters such as divorce, abortion, drug abuse, and the complete secularization of education. As Antunez concludes:
...what we have here is a convergence between the most deleterious and decadent aspects of Western culture, the most important factors producing its rapid dissolution, and the worst elements of Marxist culture.
From this it should be evident how the Western politicians who lead the fight against Communism have, in most cases, been in error. They have underestimated the struggle in the culture field; at the same time, they have not recognized the true nature of the enemy they are facing.
Rather than being complacent about the so-called defeat of communism, we had better realize that the enemies are within the gate. They are the barren ideologies of atheism and secularism that pervade every aspect of Western culture. (See Jaime Antunez, "Socialism Chic: Meet Antonio Gramsci, Father of the New Marxism in Europe and Latin America," Crisis, April 1989, pp.38-40.)