Gramsci and Scotland revisited

I first became aware of Gramsci in the late 1960s as a student in Aberdeen. As someone with a deep personal interest in Scottish history and culture and as a trainee teacher of English and History, I was struck by the Anglo-centric orientation of both disciplines in curricular content and the inferior status given to Scottish history or culture. This phenomenon was also found in the Anglo-Brit left including the English ‘new left’, the very proponents of a Gramscian approach to the specificities of history and culture and who identified – following Gramsci – that cultural hegemony was a key tool of the ruling elites.

It was clear that if the theoretical tools provided by Gramsci were to be deployed specifically to our own situation in Scotland then it was a task we would have to undertake ourselves. In 1970, this resulted in an all-day teach-in at Aberdeen University with a focus entirely on Scotland to facilitate a rigorous re-examination of our intellectual and cultural history, the common past that had made our shared present. The Gramscian tenor of the theoretical underpinning was evident in the focus of the programme on ‘the national-popular’, the role of ‘intellectuals’, and the ‘common sense’ of each era (from the early medieval to the present).

The event was a well-attended, rewarding and revelatory experience, but as I argued elsewhere ‘in their general unresponsiveness it also confirmed the deep disdain on the political left not just for nationalism but for any promotion of a Scottish perspective on culture and history’. The following year, however, the publication for the first time in English of a selection of writings from Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks made it even clearer that he was a political writer and theorist whose ideas were of major significance to the Scottish situation. I put this proposition forward in Scottish International in November 1972.

It included Gramsci’s now familiar notes on the relationship between the state and civil society, his analysis of the ‘dense’ civil societies of the polities of Western Europe, exposing how it was within the institutions and practices of civil society itself that much of the defensive mechanisms of the ruling social groups were embodied.

The ‘complex structures’ of civil society Gramsci likened to the elaborate defensive trench-systems of modern (i.e. WWI) warfare. It was an insight that helped to reveal how these structures could be strategically assailed and ultimately transformed, not through the prevailing idea of a seizure of power through a full-frontal insurrectionary assault on the state but, in Gramscian terms, ‘through a war of position rather than a war of manoeuvre’.

In Scotland, I argued this had two important implications. Firstly:

While we have a homogenous British State, it must be noted that the organisations and institutions in civil society which comprise its bulwarks and defences have an azoic complexity the most significant feature of which for us is that civil society in Scotland is fundamentally different from that in England. What is more, much of our shared ‘British’ ideology manifests itself in Scotland, draws its vigour and strength from a specifically Scottish heritage of myths, prejudices and illusions.

The state, in short, in its ethico-political sense did not have the same external facade in Scotland as it did down south. The second implication and the key issue, was what were we, the left in Scotland, going to do about it. If the class-denying limitations of bourgeois nationalism were to be combated then it was essential that our arguments as to the reality of how power was exercised and how domination and subjugation were sustained should be articulated in relation to our specifically Scottish situation. For as Gramsci observed:

every truth, even if it is universal … owes its effectiveness to its being expressed in the language appropriate to specific concrete situations. If it cannot be expressed in such specific terms, it is a byzantine and scholastic abstraction, good only for phrasemongers to toy with.

The urgent necessity, I concluded, was not to perpetuate the rootless presence of a branch left in Scotland but to nurture a specifically Scottish left, one organically grounded in our own distinct history and culture. So I argued ‘… if the new social order we strive for is to be a worthwhile and fitting signification of the past and future history of the Scottish people then the left must uphold and expound the merits of past achievements and the richness of our inheritance’.

In the early 1970s, following the demise of Scottish International, the idea of bringing together left-minded nationalists and Scotland-minded socialists and facilitating in some small way the development of a grounded Scottish left led to the launch of Calgacus, as a political quarterly with a particular focus on Scottish history and culture from a socialist perspective but it was not a success. An early involvement on another cultural front, with John McGrath, 7:84 (Scotland) Theatre and The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil was a different matter.

In subsequent studies of the play and its undisputed impact on Scotland at the time, the extent to which there was a distinct Gramscian influence on both the gestation of The Cheviot and on many of the subsequent productions of John McGrath and 7:84 (Scotland) tends to be overlooked. Yet as I recall, from discussions of content in terms of both historical events and related cultural material, exposing how power was maintained by a cultural order clothed in the ‘common sense’ values of Anglo-Brit hegemony was at the heart of all his Scotland-based 7:84 productions. Suffice to say that the power and enduring relevance of The Cheviot, in no small measure rests on the Gramscian approach it embodies.

That was all over 40 years ago. A great deal has obviously changed since then, not least in terms of our familiarity with Gramsci, and the ‘uses and abuses’ of Gramsci as it has been aptly termed. Yet when I reflect on the situation as confronted then with that we face now, I find a sad and seemingly irredeemable, similarity.

In the 1980s, there was a fresh advocacy of a ‘Gramscian turn’, one primarily associated with the late Stuart Hall in his critique of ‘Thatcherism’ and the early adoption of a neo-liberal agenda. Hall laid particular stress on the Gramscian concept of the historical conjuncture. Relating it to his analysis of Thatcherism, Hall argued that: ‘Gramsci knew that difference and specificity mattered.’ From this basis, therefore, the left should take a lead in applying the notion of difference by recognising ‘the specificity of a historical conjuncture’ and being aware of how different forces come together, conjuncturally, to create the new terrain, on which a different politics must form up’.

Hall and his associates were persistent advocates of ‘thinking conjuncturally’. Political thought, we are told, required an ability to see the ‘degree of openness or contingency’ that was to be found in every historical conjuncture. In Scotland, there was a fundamental difference in our relationship to the institutions of the Anglo-Brit state. We had our own ‘different politics’ in an overarching discourse around the polarities of ‘power devolved, power retained’ or ‘independence’. And, the ‘new terrain’ of our own specific conjunctural moment was that within and around debate within and around our reconvened parliament in Edinburgh. Yet ironically, deploying a Gramscian approach that recognised difference and had an awareness of distinct specificities within our discrete civil societies, was the very thing that the luminaries of the Gramscian turn in English critical thought seemed irredeemably incapable of doing.

By 2011, this incapacity was even more pronounced. An influential survey of ‘the long march of the Neoliberal Revolution’ was singularly mono-focal. The ‘open horizon’ of the advocates of seeing the ‘degree of openness or contingency’ to be found in every historical conjuncture was evidently confined to a polity contained within the frontier remains of Hadrian’s Wall. Despite the profound reverberations of Scotland’s own different and distinct conjunctural moment within the UK polity, the crisis within the latter could only be framed in terms of the political interventions of ‘English intellectuals’; the ideational history of ‘English common sense’; the grand narrative of ‘the English race’; the inherited beliefs that ‘Englishmen were born free’ and that ‘England was the true home of Liberty’ according to Stuart Hall. This was a return to the same problem faced in conjunctural moment of 1968: an all too familiar reiteration of a singularly myopic Anglo-Brit way of seeing that saw Scotland through a resolutely and appropriately Nelsonian blind eye.

A further laudable deployment of a Gramscian approach and key Gramscian concepts, in this case the notions of ‘common sense’ and ‘good sense’ flawed by a chronically impaired vision recurs in the 2013 ‘Kilburn Manifesto’. ‘Common sense needs to be taken seriously’, it proclaims. The left must not use the same language as the Tories. It needs to draw on the specificity of people’s ‘good sense’ to shape a ‘different politics’. These are exhortations reiterated in a dozen essays across a range of policy issues in which Scotland is not referred to once.

In the spring of 2017, notwithstanding the momentous political shifts of 2014 and 2015, within Corbynist Labour and the Anglo-Brit left generally, not least amongst ‘the left in Scotland’ in which the saturation of the ‘common sense’ of Britification is proving terminal, this resolute determination to deny that Scotland has its own historical, cultural and political differences and specificities seems as resolutely entrenched as ever.

As in the earlier era in which I began studying Gramsci, the Anglo-Brit left reaffirms itself as being more a part of the problem than of the solution. With a general election just announced, in the struggle of dominant, hegemonic and resistant, oppositional ideas, the specific historical and cultural terrain of Scotland and the key the media and political discourse will be the ground on which our Gramscian war of position will be fought. The effective mobilisation of a national-popular organically grounded Scottish left, across, within and without, all relevant political, social and cultural agencies will be the most effective and appropriate way in which the relevance of Antonio Gramsci to Scotland can be demonstrated.

Ray Burnett spoke at the recent Edinburgh People’s Festival event called ‘The life and legacy of Antonio Gramsci’.

Ray Burnett (2015) ‘Viva la Gille More: Hamish Henderson, Gramsci and Subaltern Scotland’, in Bort (ed.) Anent Hamish Henderson, pp218-260.
Stuart Hall (2011) ‘The neoliberal revolution’, Soundings, 48:9-27
Stuart Hall, Doreen Massey and Michael Rustin (2013) (eds.) After Neoliberalism? The Kilburn Manifesto,