The Blog of Jack Holloway

Saturday, May 13, 2017

A Little Bit of Marxist Theory: Gramsci on Common Sense vs. Good Sense

In my last post, I covered Lenin’s essay “What is to be done?” where he claims that workers must have Socialist theory introduced to them without because it would not be introduced to them organically from within. I claimed that this way of rendering things is elitist and problematic. Here, I will demonstrate why I think Gramsci’s theory of common sense vs. good sense is a better alternative.

Whereas Lenin privileges a group of bourgeois intellectuals with the ability to arrive at and introduce truth, Gramsci claims that every person is an intellectual:
"Each man … carries one some form of intellectual activity, that is, he is a “philosopher”, an artist, a man of taste, he participates in a particular conception of the world, has a conscious line of moral conduct, and therefore contributes to sustain a conception of the world or to modify it, that is, to bring into being new modes of thought."[1]
Every person is committed to a philosophy, and each person’s philosophy has some kind of logic to it, a logic that is not completely lost on them. The critical theorist’s challenge, then, is not to teach her truth to passive workers waiting to be taught by intellectuals, but the true challenge lies
in the critical elaboration of the intellectual activity that exists in everyone at a certain degree of development, modifying its relationship with the muscular-nervous effort towards a new equilibrium, and ensuring that the muscular-nervous effort, … which is perpetually innovating the physical and social world, becomes the foundation of a new and integral conception of the world.[2]
In other words, the critical theorist sublimates unquestioned common sense (or, “spontaneous philosophy”[3]) by preserving the good sense within it and transforming it into a more excellent mode of thought, “to make it a coherent unity and to raise it to the level reached by the most advanced thought in the world.”[4]

Gramsci further expresses that the process of leading a mass of people to this level of thought “is a ‘philosophical’ event far more important and original than the discovery by some philosophical ‘genius’ of a truth which remains the property of small groups of intellectuals.”[5] This is in contradistinction to Lenin’s theory of the bourgeois intelligentsia. This is not the introduction of advanced modes of thought to the working class from without, but the transformation of thought from within, using the established common sense as a starting point.

We are still talking about intellectuals like Gramsci (and, indeed, Lenin) leading laypeople from “their primitive philosophy of common sense” to “a higher conception of life.”[6] Gramsci still advocates for “the creation of an elite of intellectuals,” because a mass of people “does not become independent in its own right without … organising itself; and there is no organisation … without the theoretical aspect of the theory-practice nexus being distinguished concretely by the existence of a group of people ‘specialised’ in conceptual and philosophical elaboration of ideals.”[7]

This is not an imposition of thought from without. Here, there is a more organic and democratic understanding of the development of the higher conception of life. He describes it as “a dialectic between the intellectuals and the masses.”[8] It begins with the cultivation of the “good sense” already present within the spontaneous philosophy of the workers. “The [theoretical consciousness of the] active man-in-the-mass,” he says,
can indeed be historically in opposition to his activity. One might almost say that he has two theoretical consciousnesses (or one contradictory consciousness): one which is implicit in his activity and which in reality unites him with all his fellow-workers in the practical transformation of the real world; and one, superficial explicit or verbal, which he has inherited from the past and uncritically absorbed.[9]
There is already present within the consciousness of the worker the material necessary for cultivating a new and coherent alternative to common sense—that is, there is within common sense “good sense.” Good sense “is common sense’s ‘healthy nucleus.’”[10] Furthermore, the cultivation of good sense entails the “diffusion in a critical form of truths already discovered, their ‘socialization’ as it were.” [11]

Tilling this ground, furthermore, is not simply the business of intellectuals teaching the masses, but requires time, commitment, and, let’s be real, luck. He refers to it as “a ‘philosophical’ event.”[12] He says, “creating a group of independent intellectuals is not an easy thing; it requires a long process, with actions and reactions, coming together and drifting apart and the growth of very numerous and complex new formations.”[13]

The class struggle is, in fact, a struggle. It is a war of position, not a plow-through-it-quickly war of maneuver. Gramsci’s theory is not incongruous with reality, nor is it overly idealistic and presumptuous. He realizes that he is up against a system, a system which is pervasive in everyday life, its claws running deep into the lives of a mass of people. The answer to this system is not simply the pedagogy of an enlightened group of intellectuals, but the organic, dialectical struggle of outing the truth.

[1] Antonio Gramsci, Selections from the Prison Notebooks, ed. and trans. Quintin Hoare and Geoffrey Nowell Smith (New York: International Publishers, 1971), 9.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid., 323.
[4] Ibid., 324.
[5] Ibid., 325.
[6] Ibid., 332.
[7] Ibid., 334.
[8] Ibid.
[9] Ibid., 333.
[10] Jan Rehmann, “The Relevance of Gramsci’s Theory of Hegemony for Social Justice Movements,” in Pedagogy of the Poor: Building the Movement to End Poverty (New York: Teachers College Press, 2011), 118.
[11] Ibid.
[12] Gramsci, 325.
[13] Ibid., 395–396.

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