Étienne Balibar | Remarks for Revolution 13/13 : On Antonio Gramsci and Jean-Paul Sartre

By Étienne Balibar

In my remarks at Revolution 3/13, I will explore the concept of the “engaged philosopher” in relation to the work of Jean-Paul Sartre and in conversation with Antonio Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks. I will begin my presentation with Sartre.

Sartre, like other intellectuals from his generation, wanted to fight for “la cause de l’autre” (the other’s cause), meaning to fight not in his own name, but in the name of others. This is what led him to coin the term “engagement” to illustrate his own literary and political activity. The French term “engagement” is understandable in other languages, or at least neighboring languages. Theodor Adorno, for example, published an essay in 1962 titled « Engagement » in German, in which he critiqued Sartre and Brecht. The English translation of that text is entitled “Commitment.” Commitment is a partial equivalent for engagement, but is far from retaining all the dimensions of the concept. The key to its idiomatic singularity lies in the question of responsibility and, as Bernard explains in his introductory essay, irresponsibility (as another form of responsibility). Sartre maintained that the writers who claim or believe themselves to be apolitical are in fact deeply political in a practical sense.

In the texts by Sartre posted for this seminar, as I will discuss, there is a unique foundation for a discussion of responsibility. It lies in the coupling of two words or notions which are: “embarqué” (être dans le coups / to be on board) and “choisir” (to chose). What Sartre explains is that the situation (in which you are embarqué) is never chosen, but within the situation, there is an absolute and radical possibility of choosing. The choice, as I hope to show, is in fact the extreme or radical choice between endorsing the situation, and the power relations involved, or rejecting it completely—each of which will result in particular consequences: First, to choose means to be involved, you are no longer a spectator and therefore you are at risk of certain sacrifices including the sacrifice of intellectual distance. Second, it also means to choose all the consequences which are essentially incalculable, unpredictable, ungovernable, unlimited. That invokes the idea of a certain perilous obstinacy, not only considering the experience of error, but the idea of enforcing the error. Perhaps another good equivalent of engagement would be « the river of no return ».

As for Gramsci, as I will discuss, one cannot understand Gramsci and his ideas without understanding the circumstances in which he theorized and practiced. It is certainly difficult to reduce Gramsci as intellectual to a quick definition. On the one hand, he was a party leader—more than that, he was a founder of the Italian Communist Party, which emerged from revolutionary circumstances, events, and experiences—which we can put under the name “revolution against capital.” He eventually became one of the leading figures of the Communist International, but before that he was called to Moscow and received a Bolshevik education. On the other hand, Gramsci was a philosopher, a historian, a philologist, and a journalist. He never gave up working with concepts and elaborating the concepts that he thought were called for by the situation, both before and after his time in prison, but above all, during his prison years.  During that time, he was caught in a double bind: He was imprisoned in Mussolini’s jail, but within Mussolini’s jail, he was isolated from the other prisoners by his own party comrades because he was considered no longer politically reliable and perhaps a dangerous thinker. He was working against Stalinism, and increasingly so, but from within a Stalinist organization that was simultaneously in a life or death confrontation with fascism.

Bernard has already addressed the Gramscian concepts of hegemony, the subaltern etc, so I will not go into detail about that in my presentation. I will, however, disagree with Bernard’s endorsement of the Leninist idea that, strategically, cultural revolution must and can only come after the political revolution—that is, after the seizing of power. I believe that for Gramsci, there can be no priority or ordering between political and cultural class struggle. Of course, given that there is no priority or ordering, as a consequence, there is something like an aporia, or strategic difficulty, of articulating politics and theory which is not only conceptual but also, in most cases, existential and personal. The fact is, you can’t do everything at the same time. You face choices. This is sometimes resolved in what I tend to call, ironically, « favourable circumstances. » The most favourable circumstances to resolve this dilemma, that is, to do both at the same time, are tragic circumstances or catastrophic circumstances. Think of Marx in 1851 or Gramsci in the ‘30s.

This will lead me to my next point on Gramsci’s work: “Pessimism of the intelligence, optimism of the will.” This formula is mentioned five to six times in his writing, and it’s very important. The key passage is in Notebook 1, section 63, and I invite you to focus on the two following sentences in this passage.

  • “It is necessary to create sober, patient people who do not despair in the face of the worst horrors and who do not become exuberant with every silliness”
  • “because it strikes as a subterranean current of popular romanticism created by the cult of science, by the religion of progress and by the general optimism of the 19th century. In this regard, one must consider the validity of Marx’s reaction. He poured cold water over the enthusiasm with his law of the tendency of the rate of the profit to fall […] These optimistics currents have hindered more accurate analysis of Marxism.”

These sentences are extraordinary. I find especially important the sentence, “he poured cold water over the enthusiasm.” Many of Gramsci’s most interesting contributions to the Marxist tradition or post-Marxist tradition as examples of pouring cold water, including the concept of « passive revolution » which, if you think about it, creates a profound tension among revolutionaries, especially among Marxists. Why do passive revolutions create tension among revolutionaries, you may ask? First, because passive revolutions complicate the analogy between the bourgeois and the proletarian revolutions. Second, because it suggests a revolution without a revolution, namely a deep transformation of the society in the interest of the dominant class. This is what Gramsci was trying to understand and to find in the example of Americanism and Fordism. Finally, because revolution can’t take place in a context in which the masses and the subalterns are passive, in which they are not hegemonic and not organized. The worst consequence would be the reversal of the very meaning of revolution. Gramsci questioned himself as well as his comrades about whether this phenomenon occurred in the aftermath of the 1917 Russian Revolution, or during Stalin’s regime after the death of Lenin, when he tried to Americanize the Russian Revolution through a process of Taylorism.

I propose, then, to develop these points at the 13/13 seminar—and look forward to our discussion!