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Book Review: Gramsci, Culture and Anthropology (J.W. Jamieson)

Book Review: Gramsci, Culture and Anthropology

by J.W. Jamieson

Gramsci, Culture and Anthropology
Kate Crehan

University of California Press, 2002

Antonio Gramsci (1891-1937) was no doubt one of the most powerful of Marxist ideologists after Karl Marx himself. Although Marx’s own beliefs as to how Communists could win power proved totally faulty, it was Marx who provided the dream that has survived to this day. But while Marx spoke of the workers in an industrial society overthrowing developed capitalism, it has only been in predominantly agrarian societies that immature capitalist societies have been overthrown by marxist rebellions fermented not by the workers but by a disenfranchised elite — as pointed out by the Italian philosopher Vilfredo Pareto.

Gramsci’s ideology is the same that of Marx, but his perception of the dynamics of modern society was much clearer. Gramsci saw that developed and highly complex societies could best be won by infiltration of the existing institutions, rather than by attempts to challenge the institutions. It is Gramscian revolutionary tactics that have advanced the Marxist idea in the West, even since the downfall of Communist power in Russia and its decline in China. Gramsci’s brand of international Communism continues to advance by way of a “long march” through the existing institutions, instead of overthrowing them. Nations and individuals in the world are steadily becoming less free as Gramscian tactics continue their advance. As author Kate Crehan, who is clearly a Gramsci follower, reveals, it is not surprising that education and anthropology in particular have been infiltrated by Marxist ideology, for education must be at the center of any move for ideological change; and what more vital and sensitive target could there be than anthropology, the study of human behavior, for those who seek to teach young people how to see the world through the prism that they have themselves chosen?

Marx was obsessed with power, class and inequality, believing that no other real values existed for mankind than these three things. Gramsci was similarly obsessed. Just as Marx believed that race was real, but that international socialism was the desirable goal, so Gramsci believed that nations and nationality were real, but that inequality was evil and that international socialism was the desirable goal. It would seem that the prevailing breed of Western anthropologists, having been reared in the tradition of Boas and his pupils, have gone further than Marx, declaring that race is no more than a social construct, that ethnic groups exist but ought not to exist, that sexual differences are not real or ought not to be real, and that there is only one threat to continued human advancement — “inequality.”

Crehan’s book on Gramsci is excellent, but there is one caveat to be made. A tendency that is frequently indulged in is to make “institutions,” in effect, out of single thinkers, making their thought the “turning point” of this or that redirection of others’ thinking. This is often a fallacy, similar to the one Leo Tolstoy dissected in War and Peace, where he argued that massive underlying forces, not singular individuals who are in fact riding history like a bubble on a wave, are what account for much of what happens during an historical period. In Gramsci’s case, we find him writing about a “march through the institutions.” This would probably have happened even if Gramsci had never written: the vast alienated literary and artistic culture that existed, and that was so greatly augmented by that of the “baby boom generation” that came to adulthood during the 1960s, was by a simple matter of demographics going to come to occupy the professoriates, the editorial chais, and the like, during the final third of the twentieth century. Gramsci wasn’t the cause of that burgeoning, marxist dominance. He is, however, a thinker whom it is handy to point to as having, at least, articulated what was to happen.

[The Mankind Quarterly, Winter 2003]

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