[Marxism] Gramsci and Subaltern Studies

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Wed May 15 06:11:03 MDT 2013

Comment posted on my blog by Carlos Eduardo Morrero:

Hi Louis,

A few quick points in “defence” of Gramsci and his heavily mediated 
offspring Subaltern Studies.

You wrote above that: “As it turns out, we can blame Gramsci, who used 
it as a kind of synonym for working class in the Prison Notebooks in 
order to trick the guards who might have been primed to beat him up if 
he used a forbidden word”.

I really think this reading, though commonly asserted by many Marxists 
and interpreters of Gramsci, is mistaken. Gramsci is picking up on and 
signalling to other things with this category. He is not simply using 
code to confuse his guards.

The category of the “subaltern”, in fact, implies an opening up of 
politics from below, and picks up on other kinds of social antagonism 
that might not primarily or solely have a class character. Controversial 
point, I know. If you read Gramsci, you might find that in his later 
notebooks he substitutes “groups” for “class”, and will often list 
subaltern groups together with workers, as both being opposed to 
“hegemony”. Subaltern thus may refer to proletarians, but also to sub- 
or para-proletarians (others who are marginalised as subjects in 
society), i.e. groups that experience subordination (thus the easy link 
with today’s talk of “sex”, “gender” and “race”, etc. in Cultural 
Studies and other “Left” academic work).

In any case, Fascism let Gramsci, a VERY prominent Marxist 
revolutionary, writer, journalist, founder of the Italian Communist 
Party, etc., write over 30 notebooks in prison. I wonder what they 
thought he was writing about then… pretty simple, revolution and 
politics. Still, these notebooks weren’t published for decades, and were 
mainly written as a means for theoretical and political 
self-clarification. (By the way, some are still to be translated into 

Rather, it seems to me that this somewhat dismissive reading 
(“Subaltern” is mere code for Class) is especially popular among those 
who aren’t keen on other Marxisms. That is, Marxists who aren’t keen on, 
for example, this other genealogy and politics that Gramsci referred to 
as the “philosophy of praxis”, and which, of course, had begun much 
earlier with Labriola (a Hegelian prior to being a Marxist, and someone 
who Engels considered a “rigorous Marxist” back in 1893). Althusser, my 
pet code-Marxist, isn’t particularly fond of this stuff either.

Indeed, those code-Marxists claim that “philosophy of praxis” is, once 
again, simply more Gramscian prison-code for Marxism itself, thus 
discounting this rich Hegelian inflected Marxist tradition that was 
Gramsci’s. By the way, if you read closely that short Gramsci quote you 
pasted up there –this business of “becoming a State”–, the proximity to 
the Hegelian interpretation of the State should become more or less 

Finally, though I would agree that this is all a bit far off from a 
“critique of political economy” –-and a big YES to Negative Potential 
here, that is essentially IMHO what Marx’s own work is most productively 
about–, I do think that Guha’s Subaltern Studies, based as it is on a 
certain interpretation of Gramsci’s project for subaltern history, 
should be seen as relevant to a radical politics that looks to Marx’s 

I take this kind of theoretical and historical work to be, not merely 
scholarly work, but also a theoretical contribution to, or an 
elaboration upon, the second point Negative Potential refers to, the 
concrete politics, and in particular, a reading of the concrete politics 
in a colonial or “postcolonial” world.

By the way, in Chakrabarty’s Provincializing Europe, second chapter, 
“The Two Histories of Capital”, he presents a really suggestive reading 
of capitalism in the periphery/postcolonial world that builds upon his 
and other work from the SS collective and Postone’s interpretation of 
Marx (his colleague at U. Chicago).

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