This year it is the 100 year anniversary of the Russian revolution. Or, two revolutions as it turned out – February and October. There are lots of compulsive commemorative theory books for these twin theoretical times, 1917 and 2017. Tariq Ali’s The Dilemmas of Lenin, China Mieville’s October and Slavoj Zizek’s Lenin 2017, all published by Verso Books (originally called New Left Books in the 1960s and 1970s) are this year’s absolutely indispensable, crucial political theory reads. It was Lennon (John) not Lenin (Vladimir Illyich) who sang (with The Beatles on 1968’s so-called ‘White Album’) ‘You say you want a revolution’ but since May 68 in truth there has not been much sign of one. Indeed proclamations of revolution have more recently come from the new new right. Donald Trump supporters at Breitbart, the far right website formerly run by his adviser Steve Bannon, saw his election as a revolution from the right and a surprise one at that. I see team Trump’s assault on the US presidency and the White House military and state power as more of a silent coup d’etat, but you kinda know what they mean. Brexit, driven by the right wing forces of UKIP (United Kingdom Independence Party) and the EDL (English Defence League), is already fundamentally changing post-imperial Britain. Marine Le Pen picked up 11 million votes for the far right in the French presidential election. And so it goes. The rise of the right globally is indeed the story of the decade.
But maybe things are starting to change. The UK (no need for it for 3 more years) snap election resulted in a Tory minority government and made Theresa May a simulacrum (in Jean Baudrillard’s terms) of a Prime Minister. The football chant (JC is an Arsenal fan) inspired ‘Oh Jeremy Corbyn’ soundtrack is everywhere in the UK right now after Corbyn-led Labour picked up dozens of seats amid predictions of a terminal meltdown for the old party. ‘Jezza’ could yet force a Labour minority government if things go badly in the (maybe, definitely) coming civil war in the Tory party. Who know where the future lies. However, the old hoary question of ‘hegemony’ springs to my mind. Hegemony, the H-word, signifies the process by which combinations of forces in society bring about ‘consent’. Alternatively, as theorist Goran Therborn once put it, what does the ruling class do when it rules? Another book recently published by Verso is by New Left Review’s long time editorial board member and historian extraordinaire Perry Anderson. The Antinomies of Antonio Gramsci was first published as a long essay in 1976 in New Left Review when Gramsci’s influence on the European West was at its height. Discipline after discipline succumbed to Gramsci. After all, the origins of cultural studies in the 1960s and 1970s, for example, was always as much about Antonio Gramsci as, say, figures like the French theorist Louis Althusser. The new version of Anderson’s book has a fascinating, reflexive preface by the author filling in the gaps between 1976 and 2017. It also features an English translation of an amazing report on Gramsci’s prison talks in the early 1930s near Bari in Italy by a fellow inmate Athos Lisa. Gramsci was a powerful and influential speaker for the gathering of political prisoners like Athos Lisa. Antonio Gramsci is indeed one of history’s forgotten political prisoners. Gramsci, having been involved in the Communist International in the early 1920s following the Russian revolution, and the PCI (the Italian Communist Party), was effectively framed and put in prison in Italy where he wrote his masterpiece the Prison Notebooks. Although Gramsci did not invent the term he is most famous for his development of the concept of ‘hegemony’. Hegemony is different from domination, as the wily old theoretical fox Jean Baudrillard put it in his stunning posthumous book The Agony of Power. Baudrillard wrote, ‘in order to grasp how globalisation and global antagonism works, we should distinguish carefully between domination and hegemony. One could say that hegemony is the ultimate stage of domination and its terminal phase’. Along with the republication of The Antinomies of Antonio Gramsci Perry Anderson and Verso have just published a companion study called The H-Word, on, you’ve guessed it, hegemony. Gramsci understood this dichotomy of domination and hegemony and how hegemony could be used in alternatives to, as he saw it at the time in the 1920s and 1930s, international ‘bourgeois’ rule. He did not live to see it (dying in 1937) but as the Russian revolution stalled and eventually failed, and its expected global influence was met by ruthless fascism and reaction, Gramsci expected hegemony to be a significant world process in the battle for the future and the eventual overcoming, in Baudrillard’s words, of the ‘agony of power’.
To quote John: Well, you know. We all want to change the world.