In 2011, I was fortunate enough to be invited to present at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM) in Mexico City to participate in a conference on the ‘Uses of Gramsci in Social and Political Theory’ (see ‘Gramsci y el concepto de revolución pasiva’). The proceedings of that event have now been published in an excellent volume entitled Horizontes Gramscianos: Estudios en torno al pensamiento de Antonio Gramsci (UNAM, 2013), edited byMassimo Modonesi. This book, Gramscian Horizons: studies around the thought of Antonio Gramsci, is an important text in furthering the wave of work on Gramsci published in Spanish in and on Latin America, following key works by figures such as Dora Kanoussi, Carlos Nelson Coutinho, Marcos del Roio, José Arico, Juan Carlos Portantiero, Hugues Portelli, and Ronaldo Munck. The book itself carries significant essays inter alia by Fabio Frosini, Guido Liguori, Dora Kannousi, and Carlos Nelson Coutinho.
My own contribution is entitled ‘Viajando con Gramsci: la espacialidad de la revolución pasiva’ [Travelling with Gramsci: the spatiality of passive revolution] and is available in English here. However, I want to dedicate my commentary to the really significant content of Massimo Modonesi’s own chapter in Horizontes Gramscianos entitled ‘Revoluciones pasivas en América Latina: Una aproximación gramsciana a la caracterización de los gobiernos progresistas de inicio de siglo’.
In this essay on ‘Passive Revolutions in Latin America’ Massimo Modonesi focuses on developing a Gramscian approach to the characterisation of ‘progressive governments’ throughout the region at the start of the twenty-first century and offers a pivotal assessment of both the theory of passive revolution and its actuality in shaping the contemporary history of Latin America.
Starting with the theoretical dimension, Modonesi traces the constituent elements of Antonio Gramsci’s category of passive revolution to delimit the concept as a general criterion of historical interpretation that is then accurate and flexible enough to be related to current historical processes in Latin America. His overall aim in the chapter is to textually engage with the concept of passive revolution in Gramsci’s work and then provide an exercise of analytical-interpretive application in relation to ongoing debates about the characterisation of the ‘progressive governments’ emerging in the last decade in Latin America.
Modonesi identifies and asserts the analytical and interpretative elasticity of the coordinates of passive revolution, something that Alex Callinicos has questioned elsewhere in Capital & Class (available here for free download). For Modonesi, these traits of passive revolution are centred around a combination of two tensions, tendencies, or moments that are uneven and dialectical: restoration and renovation, preservation and transformation or, in Gramsci’s terms, ‘conservation-innovation’ (Q8§39). As Modonesi, summarises, for Gramsci, ‘the history of Europe of the nineteenth century then appears as the epoch of passive revolution’. The question then linking his theoretical analysis to Latin America is whether there is another epochal leap from the forms of passive revolution in Gramsci’s years to ours, from a Euro-American perspective to a Latin American perspective.
For Modonesi, the emphasis within the contradictory amalgam of passive revolution is both on the noun revolution and the adjective passive in order to clearly distinguish the specific embodiment of revolution that then becomes characterised by the undermining of subaltern class demands to ensure the stability of fundamental relationships of domination. The noun revolution thus refers to the effect and extent of the transformation. As he puts is: ‘revolutionary transformation without revolutionary irruption, without social revolution’. A passive revolution thus refers to a contradictory mix of revolutionary transformation and restoration. Or as Gramsci clearly outlines, it is a mode of dominant class power that is in reaction to ‘the sporadic and incoherent rebelliousness of the popular masses . . . a reaction consisting of “restorations” that agree to some part of the popular demands’ (Q8§25).
Closely linked to the condition and concept of passive revolution are further notions (such as Caesarism and trasformismo) that, following Modonesi, form a useful conceptual and suggestive framework for interpreting historical processes, particularly those that occur in discordant and contradictory form.
Hence, Modonesi’s turn to the ‘progressive governments’ of Latin America and the leaderships inter alia of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva-Dilma Rousseff (Brazil), the late Hugo Chávez (Venezuela), Evo Morales (Bolivia), Rafael Correa (Ecuador), and Nestor Kirchner-Cristina Fernández de Kirchner (Argentina), albeit without wanting to assimilate their differences. Modonesi’s aim is to transversely think through and recognise the commonalities and differences in these cases, to dialectically relate their contrasts and tensions. At the same time, he is attempting to avoid a schematic overview that subordinates reality to theory, while casting out some preliminary hypotheses. These include the point that many of these governments were initially driven by popular mobilisation and antagonistic demands ‘from below’ that have become subsequently incorporated ‘from above’ through the state, the government, presidential power and the use of institutional legality as instruments of political domination.
The result has been the promotion of demobilisation, or more or less pronounced policies of ‘passivisation’, of subaltern movements across Latin America. Elsewhere, Jeffrey Webber in his co-edited book with Barry Carr entitled The New Latin American Left: Cracks in the Empire(Rowman & Littlefield, 2013) refers to this as ‘reconstituted neoliberalism’ combining the promotion of both democratic indigenous revolution with the restoration of capitalist class rule. For Modonesi, the key has been the deployment of trasformismo tactics of co-option and absorption by forces, alliances and conservative projects that have “moved” the institutional field of state apparatuses to a public policy-oriented redistribution of social welfare programs leading to demobilisation and social control. Such post-neoliberal policies are part of the mode of passive revolution in Latin America where social welfare programs have partially responded to demands ‘from below’ but have simultaneously displaced the ruptures caused by the emergence of such movements and their ensuing cycles of protest. Modonesi calls this a ‘re-subalternisation’ of popular class forces meaning a reconfiguration of subalternity within the matrix of domination as a condition of passive revolution.
To cite Modonesi directly, across Latin America:
The ongoing debate on anti-neoliberalism, post-neoliberalism, neo-developmentalism, anti-capitalism and socialism in the twenty-first century is symptomatic of this overall process although the positions are far from finding a consensus, branching out not only in relation to political-ideological positions but also according to the different areas and different national experiences.
In response to the general trend of the co-called ‘progressive governments’ in Latin America to foster and promote the demobilisation and depoliticisation of subaltern and popular social movements, there has also been a furtherance of anti-neoliberal struggles aiming to re-politicise the practices of resistance, to change the correlation of forces, and to place demands on state-civil society relations through struggles over hegemony. To posit these conditions of passive revolution is not to assume therefore that the consensus generated is absolute or total, that resistance is futile. There is a need to distinguish between project and process, Modonesi argues, to distinguish between the class projects of ‘progressive governments’ across Latin America and the actual mode and experiences of class rule operating throughout the region. In some instances, then, in Venezuela, Ecuador, or Bolivia, ‘we must not lose sight of the contradictory and incomplete nature of the processes of passivisation of popular movements’.
As a result, it is to the conquest of spaces of resistance, in exercising self-determination and revolutionary radicalisation, that emancipatory attention should now turn. Massimo Modonesi’s arguments in this book will be a vital resource in understanding the contemporary history of subaltern classes in Latin America based on initiatives ‘from below’ in challenging state power ‘from above’ in current and future rounds of mobilisation and class struggle.