Gramsci and the Idea of Kulturkampf, Part 1
Gramsci and the Idea of Kulturkampf, Part 1
There are lessons to be learned everywhere, not just from the older prophets on the now dead and gone Old Right, but also from the Old Left
It was primarily in reading deeply the intellectual history contributions of Paul Gottfried—in his many important books and essays—that I realized I needed to properly understand the socio-political development of the world in our time. Theory without its own development is as useless as it is empty. When one seeks to understand the development of ideas, he is inevitably drawn into the historical events from which they flowed. It is one of the greatest tragedies of Western education that few people have any meaningful understanding of the past. Without any understanding of the past, their understanding of the present is not only truncated, it is actually ripe for both misinterpretation and, more realistically, received interpretation.
Hence the concept of the Cathedral.
In understanding our world today, there are many “jumping off points;” places in history “where it all went downhill.” The Democrats and the mainstream Left usually look to the Reagan so-called Revolution, the Republicans and the mainstream “conservatives” might look to the 1960s. The American Old Right looks to the New Deal as the second phase of a problem that began with Wilson and the Progressive Era. The more brave of these Old Rightists look even further, back to Lincoln and the War Between the States.
From here, you can criticize the attempts almost immediately to centralize via US Constitution, the short-lived US Confederation. For Traditionalist Conservatives, things began to unravel over the nineteenth century starting with the upheaval of the French revolutionary spirit in 1789. And was not this revolutionary spirit the fulfillment of the Enlightenment which began over a hundred years prior? Traditional Catholics look to the disintegrating effects of the Protestant Reformation in the sixteenth century, which could not have come about without the efforts of John Wycliffe in the fourteenth. Richard Weaver has an especially broad view of the consequences inherent in ideas, as he looks firstly to the triumph of Nominalism in the twelfth century.
The point of this observation is that the interpretation of the problems of our time requires us to be diligent students of history. This is, of course, not always welcome news; it requires us to work harder than we are used to. How much easier is it to treat the world of ideas like a buffet, allowing us to choose at random those ideas which most appeal to our sensibilities and frustrations? This approach suits twenty-first century Western man, for he is, above all else, a Consumer in the age of abundance. I speak to this in an exercise of self-criticism. Up to this point in my years of reflection, I have had little in the way of substantive historical knowledge.
It is a curious thing that, in the course of modern ideological history, the intellectual far Left has developed a better understanding of the realism in socio-political dynamics than the supposed “right and left” that occupy the mainstream. What we generally refer to as Liberal and Conservative under our present framework are basically two degrees, with varying priority scales and sentimental constituencies, of what we might call the age of State Liberalism, or Liberal Democracy. Thus you have, even in the sprouting conservative renewal throughout “conservative-leaning” think tanks and institutions, the rhetoric of “renewing our liberal democracy.”
This presents a problem for those of us in search of an authentic Right. Rightism is necessarily and essentially focused on the preservation of organic and historically developed customs, norms, traditions, and social institutions. But the story of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries is one of social revolution via democratic state. This means that while the Democratic Liberal Western order has achieved dominance, it has done so by shaping a particular grand or meta-narrative about the world; the overall mood of our time is one of upheaval and overcoming the past, of emancipation of the individual from all heritage and historical past, led along by a state as the mechanism of benevolent change. This plays right into the hands of a truly leftist approach to the world such that it is tempting to think that only by mimicking the method of leftism can rightism find its return.
If the Right is about preservation of norms and long established social institutions, and if the age of Democratic Liberalism has so completely sent these institutions to the dustpan of history, how exactly do we preserve what no longer exists? This is the question I pondered a few days ago and the truth is, there is little in the way of an obvious answer. It was not Communism that dealt the ultimate blow to the West: the state-sponsored progressive Liberalism has earned that honor.
This is the inherent problem that any authentic Rightist movement in our time is going to have, as explored in Paul Gottfried’s book on Fascism. Gottfried takes up the view of fascism as put forth by the historian Ernst Nolte, who interprets the movement as a Rightist one which sought to mimic the revolutionary strategy of the Communist Left; that is, it was a “counterrevolutionary imitation of leftist revolution.” Gottfried notes, as quoted in David Gordon’s review, “the fascists absorbed the disruptive tactics and revolutionary élan of their leftist enemies in order to vanquish them.” Fascism, Gottfried, mentions later, was an abject failure in accomplishing anything lasting. This is certainly due to the paradox of achieving Rightist ends by Leftist revolutionary means.
What we learn from raw reaction as displayed in the Rightist movements of desperation in Italy (Mussolini), Spain (Franco), and Chile (Pinochet), is that they fail because they do not coincide with any shift in the Geist of the people and culture at large. In these examples, there was, not without justification (see Ralph Raico at the Mises Institute), a worried interpretation of a Communist Left rising into power and the Rightist reactions were moves to dispel that. And yet, when there is no shift in the general mood of the age, violent force becomes the last option if immediacy is preferred. Desperate people do desperate things, and each of them did eventually fail to last.
Since the dawn of the Cold War, the narrative in the West was that Democratic Liberalism had ideologically defeated various outdated socio-political models in the battle of ideas; monarchism, imperialism, oligarchy, right-socialism, and so on, were overcome as the American framework of a neutral state and a tolerant-democratic regime was the way of the future. Then the Soviet Union collapsed at the end of the century and we had achieved the “end of history.” While it is true that the American model has dominated the Western world since the Allied victory in World War II, it is now unraveling.
There is therefore renewed justification for diving into the complex developments that produced the present world order. Why is it, for example, that the New Left in the West abandoned the economic priority of their class warfare model? Classical Marxism emphasized the economic proletariate in class tension with the owners of the means of production (the capitalists) who exploited the dynamic for access to the profit, produced by an artificial and unjust relationship with the wage earner. Why is it that the Left now has this economic dynamic on a back burner, preferring instead the rhetoric of cultural victimhood? As discussed elaborately by Paul Gottfried in his The Strange Death of Marxism, economic injustice gave way to what we now see everywhere: social justice. Race oppression, sexual/gender exploitation, cultural-based bigotry… all these have so obviously replaced economic narratives as the struggle of our time.
One of the reasons why few people saw this coming, why they did not realize that “political correctness” was indeed profoundly political is because they had approached problems in accordance with the framework of the Democratic Liberal narrative. Under this model, the state is the primary object of discussion. The great debate of our time is over its size and scope: should we have a big government, welfare, warfare, state-provision of goods and services? Under this approach, the “conservatives” say less; the “liberals” say more. Living in the United States, the epicenter of the new international Western political framework, it is difficult to look beyond this. Both conservatives and liberals operating under this framework set the boundaries of “acceptable opinion.” There is zero understanding or appreciation for what Antonio Gramsci described as "meta-politics:" everything from culture and aesthetics to commerce and capital to philosophy and worldview to power dynamics as all being necessarily thrust into the domain of the political, specifically because we live under a liberal political framework. We sometimes hear about Gramsci's strategies for achieving political success, but what we need to understand is that his strategies were the result of his interpretation of power dynamics under a democratic-liberal political order!
Thus, as the postwar liberal-international consensus breaks down (domestically and globally), there is a need to rethink the world; to approach with fresh eyes and level-headed analysis what is happening, and how this came to be. There are lessons to be learned everywhere, not just from the older prophets on the now dead and gone Old Right, but also from the Old Left, both being dissenters from the Democratic Liberal corporate state. Soon, I will discuss some ideas from the Old Right, but in this series, I want to focus on the Left, particularly in Antonio Gramsci. He is worth reading, as Gottfried mentions here in his article on learning from the Old Left:
During my years of attachment to a now vanished conservatism, I typically ignored corporate economic interests in explaining why political causes acted as they did. I was quite content attributing what I did not like to “bad ideas” and “ideology.” Although I would not dismiss such factors, it seems to me now that the desire for wealth and power have much more to do with who dominates whom than I once cared to notice. In reaching this perception, I have been guided not so much by avowed Marxists as I have by recovering ones: James Burnham, Will Herberg, Paul Piccone, Christopher Lasch, the Greek Germanophone political theorist Panajotis Kondylis, the onetime East German Marxist scholars, Peter Furth, and Frank Böckelmann.
I have also learned a great deal from browsing through Antonio Gramsci’s Notebooks, which I recommend as a primer for the study of power relations. What has impressed me about all these scholars (except for Gramsci, who died a communist) is not the orthodox Marxism that they left behind, but what they took from it: an understanding of the social dynamics of global capitalism, the relationship between dominant classes and their worldviews, and the irreversibility of historical change. Political and social developments do not take place in a pendulum fashion. Whatever follows our late modernity, with its peculiar configuration of conditions, will not bring us back to anything that preceded it. The future will look different from the past because it is the radicalizing present that propels it.
Stay tuned for part two.
About the author
C.Jay Engel is the founder and publisher of Bastion Magazine. He has written for Mises.org, LRC, David Stockman, and related. He owns several consulting business, actively works on the magazine, and lives in Northern CA.