THE CHANGING MEANINGS OF PEOPLE’S POLITICS. Gramsci and anthropology from the history of subaltern classes to contemporary political subjects

Gramsci Conference, Past & Present, King’s College, London, 18th and 19th June 2015 


Since the 1950’s, Gramsci is one of the main references for those studies inquiring into the history, the forms, the experience, and the significance of popular politics. What is the significance of popular or subaltern politics today and what would be a Gramscian perspective on that? In order to tackle this question, this paper traces the changing ways in which Gramscian concepts have inspired scholars, and especially anthropologists, on the issue, showing how the idea of popular politics has changed accordingly to the changing meanings of subalternity, from the end of the Second World War to the present. Firstly, the paper describes the way in which Gramsci has been, for a moment, a link between anthropology and social history (De Martino, anti-colonial anthropology, Hobsbawm, Thompson) for the study of subaltern classes, especially rural groups not yet completely incorporated into state and capital modernity. Secondly, it shows the critical, but also partial, use of Gramsci’s concepts in the post-structuralist anthropology of resistance and of peasant societies (Scott, Guha) in postcolonial worlds. At the end, the paper reflects on the possibilities and the limits for a Gramscian look at popular politics for anthropologists today. This is a critical issue in our times, where intellectuals and institutional politics have lost any capacity to represent organically subaltern classes and where the meaning of subalternity of Gramsci’s times – as both nostalgically denounced and prophetically anticipated by Pasolini about Italy – has completely changed in the contemporary world.


The paper I am presenting today is a reflection by an anthropologist on the meaning of popular politics in a Gramscian perspective. It relies on a broader research I am developing from the point of view of the history of anthropological ideas and theories. But I would like to remind that I am an anthropologist doing fieldwork essentially in West Africa, where I inquire into the conditions of possibility for an “autonomous political initiative” for subaltern groups. Thus, in my work, I try to make of the anthropologist the “integral historian” Gramsci talked about: doing “monographs” collecting the disperse “traces” of the “history of” particular and specific “subaltern groups”. Nevertheless, today I would like to bring the discussion on a more theoretical and general level, engaging my discipline into the broader discussion about popular politics from a Gramscian point of view.

Anthropologists feel they can contribute to the discussion today, with the renewal of a critical or engaged current in the discipline. Contemporary social movements, protests and popular revolutionary or reformist attempts calls for real democracy, politics for real people and direct participation, with the idea that people’s politics is opposed to the “caste” of institutional politics and of governing elites. This resonates, sometimes explicitly, with the ideas of Ernesto Laclau and it is apparent in the anti-political or anti-institutional discourses of new populist movements. In some of the theoretical discussions accompanying these movements, anthropology has found a role to play, thanks to its traditional capacity of displacing the focal from politics to the political, from formal politics to real people practices, or to say it with Jean-François Bayart’s words, to “politics from below”. That is why anthropology has a certain success today in contemporary social movements, as long as anthropological literature and ethnological examples of living and organizing society differently are sources of inspiration for thinking to counter-hegemonic alternatives and other possibilities, and I am referring here to engaged anthropologists such as David Graeber. In addition to that, anthropologists feel that they have the tools to avoid intellectual populism, by filling up the empty signifier of “the people” with their empirical knowledge of “real people doing real things”, as Sherry Ortner famously put it, thanks to ethnography and participant observation and by catching the point of view of the subject.

But anthropology is not immune to paradoxes on that. Any of its capacities of exploring people politics presents its own risk of reproducing some of the “intellectualities” that Gramsci detested:

  1. The pretention of truth through empiricism has the risk of scientific positivism of popular groups, that Gramsci particularly denounced in the work of sociologist Henri de Man;
  2. The search for “alter-politics” may turn into a sort of exotic utopian escapism (“somewhere or anywhere else politics is better”) that Gramsci criticized concerning popular literature;
  3. In relation to that, the idea of “alternative counter-hegemony” is not possible inside the Gramscian scheme as it posits the possibility for the subject to choose to remain outside the hegemonic relation of power and then of history;
  4. And finally, the search for a non institutional form of direct politics also produces among anthropologists a sort of populism, or a projection on popular groups of all the expectations of the intellectuals, while people may act or think in a less progressive way than expected or hoped.


Gramsci on popular politics

In order to grasp the relation between anthropology and Gramscian theory about popular politics, I firstly have to start with what we can understand of Gramsci’s ideas around the notions of the “popular” and of “people’s politics”. Gramsci clearly aimed at re-politicizing the representation of people’s actions, practices, cultures and conceptions of the world. In particular, his non-mechanical historicism allows him for eluding any positivistic representation of popular groups and in particular their folklorization as survivals – positive or negative – of a non-historical world, as the Italian anthropology and sociology did at his times. But for Gramsci, “popular culture” was not only a mere aggregate of disperse forms of cultural expression of subaltern and marginal groups, in the sense of folklore. Intended as a potential common culture of all subaltern groups, popular culture, grounded on a new common sense, was a political objective: a key factor in the process of modernization of the Italian nation-state in a bourgeois system, and eventually in the process of constituting a new hegemony. We all know here how, for Gramsci, such a cultural hegemony, to be conquered in the domain of civil society and through a war of position, was a preliminary step to obtain political hegemony. In that sense, Gramsci was deeply critical of the notion of “the people” in the bourgeois sense: even when they intended to “go to the people”, “populist” bourgeois intellectuals were in reality detaching themselves from real people. Their aesthetic appreciation of popular folklore allowed for the deepening, rather than for the bridging of, the gap between upper and lower classes. But at the same time, for Gramsci there was another possible way to think of the people: this aggregation of all the subaltern groups could also be seen as a cultural and social site for the emergence of the “people-nation”, that is a common ground for the potential blossoming of a new popular political subject with a common culture or sense and a collective will. The first point to keep in mind about Gramsci is this: on one side, he strongly criticized any “populist” representation of popular classes; on the other, he looked at these interrogating their potentialities for emerging as a political subject.

His historicist perspective on popular culture broadly resonate with those parts of the Notebooks where Gramsci engaged with the inquiry into the conditions of possibilities for subaltern groups to engage into an “autonomous political initiative”. I am referring here in particular to Notebook 13 on Machiavelli, where he reflected on the possibilities of a catharsis from the “economic-corporate” stage of subaltern groups to the “ethico-political” one; and to Notebook 25, where Gramsci laid the basis for the study of all the stages of politicization and of “the history of subaltern groups”.


Gramsci, anthropology and the progressivism of popular culture

Coming to anthropology, I would say that the main issue about which Gramsci is debated in the discipline is the degree of politicization of popular or subaltern groups’ culture, discourses, practices and actions. By degree of politicization, I both refer here to the degree of political consciousness of subaltern groups and to the capacity of their practices to change the historical conditions of their subalternity or to produce cracks in the structure of hegemonic power.

By evoking these issues, we normally think now at the Subaltern studies and at the anthropology of peasant societies focusing on the notion of resistance, the latter being considered as the most significant, and often the only, form of popular politics reacting to hegemony. I will come to those currents later, but I would like first to go back to another current in anthropology, which tackled the same issues in a Gramscian perspective some decades before, but which is still hardly known in international Anglophone anthropology. I am referring to the Italian anthropology of Ernesto de Martino, Vittorio Lanternari and others who had been the first anthropologists to read Gramsci’s Notebooks and to integrate his ideas and notions in an intellectual project of knowing subaltern cultures in Southern or rural Italy. Some months after the first publication of the Prison Notebooks in the Platone-Togliatti edition, Ernesto de Martino, a Crocean historian of religions, was subjugated by Gramsci’s writings and especially by the Osservazioni sul folklore (Observations on folklore). De Martino engaged into the study of cultural and especially religious popular expressions, showing how religious practices and beliefs were a way for peasant societies to redeem from nature and affirm their cultural presence in history. Politics as an object of study was very far from de Martino’s perspective. But his article Intorno ad una storia del mondo popolare subalterno of 1949 published on the journal Società[1], shows that this ethnology of religion and popular culture was in reality an intellectual contribution to the political project of showing how rural subaltern groups were inscribed in and participant to history in a post-war moment where radical intellectuals, like De Martino, Carlo Levi or Rocco Scotellaro, were renewing the Southern Question. De Martino thus engaged into the debate around the political potentialities of folklore to transform into a new popular culture of subaltern groups becoming politically active in history. This project was very Gramscian: Gramsci was certainly interested in subaltern cultures as embryonic manifestations of marginal people’s rebelliousness against cultural and political hegemony and reflected on the Southern Question. But that anthropology [2] was also aware that Gramsci also formulated, at the same time, a sharp political criticism of popular culture and resistance as unable to transform society. As a Marxist and a political activist, Gramsci thought that only a more structured political consciousness and organization could transform and then emancipate subaltern cultures: when they are in “a state of anxious defense”, people are “subject to the initiatives of the dominant classes, even when they rebel” (Q 3, §14). Gramsci opens to the possibility that elementary forms of resistance can be something more than mere passive resistance or, in his own words, a mere “fact”. They may not, however, be enough for emancipation, unless these molecular forms are brought “to the surface” by active political engagement for the transformation of historical blocs connecting economy and culture.

De Martino tried to answer to the dilemma posed by the Gramscian interpretation of folklore between a populist insistence on people capacity to express its cultural autonomy and creativity as a way of resisting dominant culture and a historicist invitation to go beyond politically those embryonic popular forms of cultural rebelliousness. His main contribution to the debate was the discussion about the possibilities for a “progressive folklore”[3]. De Martino developed this notion thanks to his reading of Gramsci and of the Soviet ethnologists interpreting folklore as a transforming popular contribution to revolution[4]. But in reality, De Martino started to think to “progressive folklore” some years before, during his staying in rural northern Italy (at Cotignola, Romagna region) as an internal displaced person and then a member of the Resistance army during the Second World War. Actually, in Romagna, the popular culture of workers and peasants was transforming into popular cultural commitment for the transformation of society through the social and cultural activities of the Resistance and than of the Communist Party. It is worth reminding that De Martino was strongly criticized by the Italian Communist Party for his ideas about folklore and popular culture as tools of emancipation. Actually, as the reaction of Cesare Luporini on the same journal Società shows[5], the party took from Gramsci his more modernist side and his criticism of any traditionalism about popular culture, insisting rather on the mission of the working class as the true revolutionary subject in a modern society like post-war Italy. In 1965, all the intellectuals working on popular cultures were criticized by Alberto Asor Rosa as “populist” and “gramscianist” who, “while going towards the people and before coming to it, transforms it into a myth[6].

Actually, the Italian Gramscian anthropologist like De Martino, but also Vittorio Lanternari, were following Gramsci to disconnect the notion of the “subaltern” from that of the working class. Their reflections on peasant societies in rural Italy could then be enlarged to all the subaltern groups of the world, and especially to Third-World and colonized societies, as Lanternari explicitly did with Anthropology and imperialism. Surprisingly, De Martino’s Gramscian article of 1949 already criticized, well before the anthropological self-analysis of the 1970s and 1980s, the link between ethnological naturalism, bourgeois society and colonial imperialism. So that De Martino and Lanternari, in a way, anticipated many of the issues discussed by postcolonial anthropology and criticism and made of the Italian Southern Question a sort of paradigm to understand the Third-World.


Political anthropology, social history and Gramsci

Actually, in the Fifties, political anthropology was reflecting on popular cultures and especially religious expressions in the colonized world, such as millennial and prophetic movements, as a political affirmation of colonized peoples entering history. I am thinking in particular to the Manchester school and the work of Max Gluckman, who was working at that time on the Mau Mau in Kenya as a local form of emerging anticolonial movement. In 1956, Gluckman organized a seminar in Manchester on popular social movements in a comparative perspective starting from what he was studying in Africa. He invited three speakers: historian Norman Cohn on Medieval millenarianism; anthropologist Peter Worsley on the cargo cults in colonial Melanesia and Eric Hobsbawm on pre-industrial forms of social movements in Europe. All the three interventions became three masterpieces in the social sciences: Cohn’s The Pursuit of the Millennium, Worsley’s The Trumpet shall sound and Hobsbawm’s Primitive Rebels[7]. The latter two in particular share a common view on popular cultural movements: they are, in a way, an imperfect anticipation of a more conscious political movement that will later emerge. In that sense, Worsley talked of new Melanesian anticolonial rituals as a form of proto-nationalism, while Hobsbawm talked of popular rebellions, like that of the Lazzaretti’s millennial movement, as pre-political. But if Worsley will meet Gramscian writings only after his reading of the cargo cults, Hobsbawm was directly engaging with Gramsci. In that perspective, in 1960, one year after the publication of Primitive Rebels, he wrote an article in Italian on Società[8], the same journal in which De Martino had published his article on the history of subaltern and popular world. In a similar manner, Hobsbawm called for a convergence of political anthropology and Gramscian theory, through social history, but as Carlo Ginzburg has recently noticed[9], he did this without making any reference to De Martino’s work. It is important to notice that Hobsbawm insisted on the historicism of Gramsci to emancipate political anthropology from any remaining a-historical naturalism, but this turned out to be a problem for the Gramscian legacy in the social sciences studying popular politics, especially in peasant societies.

Actually, anthropologists or subaltern scholars like James C. Scott and Ranajit Guha has strongly criticized Hobsbawm and his notion of the prepolitical, as long as it would implicitly express a teleological representation of popular social movements as something still lacking consciousness in comparison to a modern Marxist political initiative. This criticism of Hobsbawm’s notion is in part justified, but it also had some consequences on the way in which Gramsci was interpreted by these authors. Guha, for example, still considered Gramsci as a topical reference, but as other anthropologists of resistance[10], he has made use of only some parts of Gramsci’s work. While eluding or even criticizing the call made by Gramsci for a new hegemony to be produced by acquiring an upper level of political consciousness and organization, these authors have studied the emergence of anti-hegemonic discourses in different subaltern groups by relying only on his interpretation of the “negative” potential of popular subversion, the defensive subaltern political action which manifests itself through “a series of denials” and a “generic” anger towards the powerful (Q 3: 323). For other theorists of resistance, especially those with libertarian orientations[11], Gramsci is even rejected for denying any political consciousness or intentionality in the “spontaneity” of popular groups. For example, in James Scott’s view, Gramsci’s theory of cultural hegemony is another version of the German ideology, seeing every cultural proposition as inevitably at the service of the dominant classes[12].

From the 1970s and the diffusion of Gramscian selected writings in the international Anglophone production of knowledge, anthropology has made an use of Gramsci which better approximate to that of EP Thompson. In the introduction to Customs in Common, the social historian makes a reference to Gramsci and his idea of double consciousness to describe the way in which the people may manifest conformity to the dominant ideology, but at the same time may have a different common sense “derived from the share experience of exploitation” with fellow workers and neighbors (p. 11). Interestingly enough, Thompson developed this idea in an intervention at a Conference of Indian Historians in 1976[13], where he called for a convergence, through social history, of political anthropology and Gramscian theory, an attempt very similar to that of Hobsbawm in Italian in 1960. But for Thompson, Gramsci was useful for anthropologists not for his historicist vision, but rather to understand hegemony as a social drama in Victor Turner’s sense, where consensus may be publicly manifested on the public space controlled by the powerful, but where dissent may emerge in private social sites.

More generally, political anthropology of popular resistance from in the Eighties and Nineties has done partial and contradictory uses of Gramsci’s ideas. Several Anglophone anthropologists have read him in “post-structuralist” terms, reducing artificially his ideas to the debates on structure versus agency[14] and coercion versus consent. This “post-structuralization” of Gramsci’s work in political anthropology has stripped it of its Marxist theorizing[15]. For Crehan, these readings of Gramsci by anthropologists, as in the case of Comaroff and Comaroff[16], have given a “light” interpretation of Gramsci’s theory of hegemony, considering it analogous to the Bourdieusian doxa: a cultural uniformity politically imposed by power, neglecting its relation to economic structures and taking for granted the idea of a discursive uniformity between dominant and subaltern groups.


More recently, a more precise knowledge of Gramsci in theoretical and even in philological terms is now allowing anthropology to go beyond these conundrums. For example, Kate Crehan or other Anglophone neo-Gramscian anthropologists especially working on contemporary peasant societies, such as John Gledhill[17], William Roseberry[18] and Gavin Smith[19], show that post-structural interpretations of Gramsci have not understood the historical, and therefore unstable, nature of Gramsci’s vision of hegemony and have minimized Gramsci’s ability to understand the possibilities of resistance among subaltern groups. Nevertheless, if we raise again today the question in Gramscian terms, that is how to evaluate the political potentialities of popular cultural expressions, rebellions and resistances, we are confronted with several problems. So, just to conclude, I would like to evoke some issues we should think about if we want to make an aggiornamento of a Gramscian anthropology.

First of all, we should say that the meaning of subalternity of Gramsci’s times has completely changed. PierPaolo Pasolini, one of the principal heir of the Italian and Gramscian populist current, nostalgically denounced and prophetically anticipated about, that is Pasolini, the “anthropological transformation” of popular classes through the common sense of consumerism makes more difficult any identification of positive folkloric values. But this position would be again populist, in the Asor Rosa’s sense, or even affected by what Gramsci called over-villagism (strapaese). The problem is rather that subaltern subjectivities have multiplied and so has decreased our capacity to think about them and to start from them in order to form a new collective will. Again, populism is sometimes the answer of post-Gramscian thinkers such as Ernesto Laclau for by-passing the problem of difference in popular groups and form a radical democratic “people”. I personally prefer to think with those scholars, like Peter Thomas, who go back to the essence of Gramscian way of thinking about the possibility of a new collective will, a contemporary modern prince, without given up to postmodern visions of floating subjects and political projects. But this is a political and theoretical issue. As regards anthropology, I would say that, in our times, where intellectuals and institutional politics have lost any capacity to represent organically subaltern classes, we should engage in reviving the capacity of this discipline to form a “sentimental connection”, as Gramsci put it, with the people.

[1] De Martino, Ernesto. 1949. Intorno a una storia del mondo popolare subalterno. Società (Torino) 3: 411-35.

[2] (De Martino 1951; Cirese 1973)

[3] De Martino, Ernesto. 1951. Il folklore, un invito ai lettori del «Calendario». Il Calendario del popolo VII: 989 ; De Martino, Ernesto. 1951. Il folklore progressivo. L’Unità 26 giugno ; De Martino, Ernesto. 1951. Il folklore progressivo emiliano. Emilia 3: 251-54.

[4] Iuri Sokolof, “Le folklore russe” (Paris, Payot, 1945, 1938) ; E. V. Gippius and V. I. Cicerof “Trent’anni di folkloristica sovietica” (Etnografia Sovietica, 1948).

[5] Cesare Luporini, Intorno alla storia del “mondo popolare subalterno”, «Società», VI, n. 1, pp. 95-106 ; Ancora sulla “storia del mondo popolare subalterno”, «Società», VI, n. 2, pp. 309-312.

[6] Asor Rosa, Alberto. 1965. Scrittori e popolo: saggio sulla letteratura populista in Italia Roma: Samonà e Savelli (Einaudi 1988, p. 134).

[7] Hobsbawm, Eric J. 1959. Primitive rebels : studies in archaic forms of social movements in the 19th and 20th centuries. Manchester:Manchester University press ;

[8] Hobsbawm, Eric. 1960. “Per lo studio delle classi subalterne” in Società XVI (1960), p.436-49.

[9] Ginzburg, Carlo. 2013. « Preface », The Night Battles: witchcraft and agrarian cults in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. JHU Press, p. IX e X.

[10] Guha (1999: 4) and Keesing (1992: 225; see also Linger 1993; Kaplan and Kelly 1994)

[11] (Scott 1985, 1990; Feierman 1990; Day 2005)

[12] (Scott 1985: 336)

[13] Published as Folklore, anthropology and social history. Indian Historical Review vol. III, no. 2, January 1977.

[14] (Schwarzmantel, 2009)

[15] (Kurtz 1996, Crehan 2002)

[16] (1991: 25, 125)

[17] (2000: 11-12)

[18] (1994)

[19] (1999)

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