Althusser and Gramsci

Jonathan Beasley Murray jbmurray at
Fri Aug 12 16:19:12 MDT 1994

I thought I'd forward this on (though I suspect I've said something
similar to this elsewhere on the list--me and my broken record).

In answer to Nick Lawrence, yes I guess I was going for one of my wilder
statements when I suggested we could so simply de-Lacanize Althusser.
And I wouldn't try to date any particular "epistemological break" (about
which I thought Gene's comment was interesting).

However, as the following also shows, I am interested in the
institutional contexts to thought--and the possible uses that a writer
may open up which may remain neglected for a number of contingent,
material (dare I say it) reasons.  In none of this, however, would I wish
to discover a "true" Gramsci, or an "authentic" Althusser--though I do
believe some interpretations are better than others, pragmatically.
Rather, it's useful to examine the fate of various Gramscianisms or
Althusserianisms, their effects and consequences.

Anyway, here goes on Gramsci:

On Fri, 12 Aug 1994, Bryan A Case wrote:

> I'm curious - as I set out on a reading of THE PRISON NOTEBOOKS - just
> why was the Birmingham adoption of Gramsci a mistake?  How was he
> misrepresented, etc.?  Thanks in advance.

In (very) brief:

Gramsci's main contribution, as I see it, is a re-conceptualization of
civil society and its relation to the State.  There's an excellent essay
by Norberto Bobbio (in a book whose name I forget for the moment; it's
the book that also contains an essay by Negri) tracing
the evolution of the concept of civil society from Hegel through Marx to
Gramsci.  Whatever (and I would have to refresh my memory on this, too),
the main thing is that civil society is situated as part of a fairly
complex structure with some intellectual pedigree (pedigree not itself
being an unqualified good; think of this as a Foucauldian discursive
context if you will).

As the Birmingham School took up Gramsci, they conflated culture (a word
floated around above all by Williams, but also debated with Thompson et.
a.) with civil society, and lost the structural analysis.  (In
Theory-speak, of course the discursive context into which a piece of
terminology is imported will shape that terminology, and the horizons of
its possible uses in dramatic ways.)

Although many British Marxists in the 70s (especially the
historians--there's interesting stuff on this by Tom Nairn and Perry
Anderson, for example), didn't completely lose sight of the State,
gradually, and especially with the export of cultural studies to the US,
the term culture, fortified with the Gramscian term "hegemony" acquired
more and more conceptual autonomy.

Hence (very briefly and schematically) we can get to a situation where
almost anything is counter-hegemonic and thus subversive--listening to
Madonna or reading the romance, for example--because the essentially
Gramscian term hegemony (and thus by implication counter-hegemony) has
been almost completely dissociated from its original framework.  As far
as I can see, the results of all this--viz. American cultural
studies--are clearly two sandwiches short of a picnic (though of course I
over-generalize massively).  A short, sharp dose of Bourdieu should clear
up any notion of the celebratory.

One of my many projects is to trace through this trajectory in a little
more thoroughness.  Tell me what you think.

> --Bryan A. Case a/k/a Bryan.Case at a/k/a godwin at

Unfortunately, as I'm moving state (small s) on Monday, I have few books
to hand, and little time to clarify any more than this... still, all
feedback is always welcome.


Jon Beasley-Murray
Department of English and Comp. Lit.
U. of Wisconsin-Milwaukee
jbmurray at


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