The publication of Carlos Nelson Coutinho’s Gramsci’s Political Thought in the Historical Materialism Book Series by Brill [2012] provides a wonderful opportunity to draw some attention to the debates on Gramsci in Latin America. This particular book is a translation of Gramsci: Um estudo sobre su pensamento politico [1999] and is an essential window through which to view debates in and beyond Brazil. It is written by one of the most hugely important intellectual figures in Latin America producing studies on Gramsci whose company would also include José Aricó, Juan Carlos Portantiero, or Dora Kanoussi, to name a few. Its publication in translation represents a  really positive and agenda-setting attempt by the editorial board of the Historical Materialism Book Series to bring Latin American texts to a wider Anglophone audience and is to be much applauded. The appearance of Carlos Nelson Coutinho’s work in English leads the way in this respect and my hope is that additional texts in this series and others will follow. Notably, Verso also recently published Emir Sader’s The New Mole: Paths of the Latin American Left [2012]. What can engaging work from a Latin American context offer to past and present Gramsci debates?

The straight answer is a great deal. I have spent time with Carlos Nelson at conferences in Mexico, Sardinia, and Brazil and he blends together huge attention to philological detail with political acumen. All of this is on display in Gramsci’s Political Thought that includes eight main chapters covering Gramsci’s early political formation, the Factory Council years (1919-1920), political maturity within the Partito Comunista d’Italia (PCd’I) and then a focus on methodological observations in the Prison Notebooks, state theory, socialist strategy, the ‘Modern Prince’, and Gramsci’s contemporary relevance. These main chapters are then supplemented with three appendices, the first covering political philosophy and Gramsci’s concept of hegemony in relation to Rousseau’s and Hegel’s theories. The second is an intervention (political and theoretical) in debates on understanding the age of neoliberalism as a ‘passive revolution’, or the process of revolution-restoration in the restructuring of capitalism. Then, third, there is a focus on Gramsci and Brazil covering his reception and uses.

These chapters are jam-packed with insights but for reasons of brevity and because of its specific links with my own research interests conveyed throughout For the Desk Drawer, I will draw readers’ attention to the important issues raised in relation to passive revolution. It is with reference to this theme that Coutinho wants to highlight how Gramsci draws our attention to the ‘non-classical’ forms of the transition to capitalist modernity. For him, passive revolution provides ‘important indications for the analysis of the processes of “conservative modernisation” that characterise Brazilian history’. As a result, there are crucial insights throughout the book that interpret the Brazilian path to capitalism as a passive revolution in which there was an anti-popular process of transformation culminating in the so-called ‘Revolution of 1930’ and then the Getúlio Vargas dictatorship and ‘Estado Novo’ in 1937.

As Ronaldo Munck has also argued, in Capital & Class, the Vargas administrations opened up a new stage in the history of capitalism in Brazil through which state intervention arose as a precondition and development for the expanded reproduction of peripheral capitalism. In Los usos de Gramsci [1981], Juan Carlos Portantiero also comments on the ‘grand dimensions’ of passive revolution in and beyond Latin America, characterised by the state’s dominant role in production, its engagement with forms of mass organisation, as well as its national-popular claims to the political constitution of subaltern classes.

Yet, as Coutinho adds to these debates, Gramsci did not restrict the notion of passive revolution to the consolidation period of capitalism but to ongoing reorganisations linked to furthering the monopoly stage of capital. ‘These indications’, as Coutinho states, ‘can be used to understand the best part of the aims of the dictatorial régime established in Brazil by the 1964 military coup’. The result is a fecund commentary on passive revolution in order to understand the major events in Brazilian history, the transition process to capitalist modernity, as well as the continued displacement and exclusion of the popular masses.

These insights are in lockstep with Ronaldo Munck’s additional insightful comment in Latin America: The Transition to Democracy [1989] that ‘the theme of “passive revolution”, as elaborated by Gramsci, does provide certain clues to understanding the unity within diversity of Latin American history from 1930 to the mid-1960s’. In Marcos del Roio’s felicitous phrase, in a recent issue of Capital & Class, this is perhaps part of the endeavour of “translating” passive revolution in Brazil or “approaching” passive revolution as a driver of developmental catch-up, as rendered in my own work on Mexico.

In August 2011 I was lucky enough to present at two events in Brazil, at the kind invitation of Marcos del Roio and Ricardo Salles respectively, at the IV Seminário Cientifíco Internacional: ‘Teoria Política do Socialismo: Antônio Gramsci na Periferia’, held at the Universidad Estadual Paulista “Julio de Mesquita Filho” (UNESP) in Marília and the Seminário Internacional Comemorativo dos 120 anos de Nascimento de Antonio Gramsci: ‘Gramsci Histórico held at the Universidade Federal do Estado do Rio de Janeiro (UNIRIO) in Rio de Janeiro. Again at these fora, Coutinho was at the forefront of debates outlining to me and others how a passive revolution involves a revolution-restoration in which there is an acceptance of a certain part of subaltern class demands whereas, by contrast, a counter-reformation is the moment of restoration pure and simple. Some of these essays are now available in Revista Novos Rumos, including my contribution to the roundtable on ‘Passive Revolution and the Periphery’.

As Gramsci put it in prison notebook 3§40, written in 1930:

The scattered observations on the differing historical significances of the Protestant Reformation and the Italian Renaissance, of the French Revolution and the Risorgimento (the Reformation is to the Renaissance as the French Revolution is to the Risorgimento) can be collected in a single essay, possibly under the title “Reformation and Renaissance”.

Again, Coutinho’s crucial contribution in the pages of Gramsci’s Political Thought is to pick up on this issue to argue that as a result, ‘it is more adequate to use the concept of counter-reformation instead of passive revolution to describe the essential features of the contemporary age’ of neoliberalism. Indeed, this analogy may well be suggestive in not only considering the condition of modernity but also in signposting and situating the social transformation and structural changes in capitalism signalling postmodernity, as Perry Anderson has argued in The Origins of Postmodernity [1998]. For Coutinho, although there is evidence in Brazil of the overwhelming logic of the state under neoliberalism, the management of politics within the Workers’ Party (PT) during the governments of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and since are not part of a broader succession of processes of passive revolution, which is more the position of Álvaro Bianchi. Concurrent with Perry Anderson, there exists an ‘inverted hegemony’ in Brazil: ‘Where, for Gramsci, hegemony in a capitalist social order had been the moral ascendancy of the possessing over the labouring classes, securing the consent of the dominated to their own domination, in Lulismo it was as if the dominated had reversed the formula, achieving the consent of the dominant to their leadership of society, only to ratify the structure of their own exploitation’.

Dropping the assessment of neoliberalism as a continuation of the politics of passive revolution in favour for counter-reformation,  provokes a number of thoughts. Does Coutinho neglect one essential aspect of passive revolution that is the reference to revolution without mass participation, involving elite-engineered social and political reform? Does Coutinho hold to a fundamental transhistorical dynamic by extending the notion of counter-reformation throughout history, from the Protestant Reformation to the present? And whereas the extension of passive revolution to specific historical periods is methodologically authorised by Gramsci, is there license for the same authorised extension of counter-reformation to the present? These are just some of the rich issues provoked in my reading of Coutinho’s fantastic book that need to be taken up seriously in future debate as the book will no doubt be an essential classic of its kind.

Right at the end of the text, Coutinho concludes by stating that ‘Gramsci’s present relevance is the reason why he achieved en mâitre à penser, a space of his own in Brazilian cultural life’. One can add that that is precisely why Gramsci is so attractive: Gramsci enables us to promote a certain way of thinking that eschews receiving him as some sort of maître-penseur that might close intellectual avenues or result in the imposition of a schematic approach.

“Exatamente!”, as Carlos Nelson Coutinho might say.

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