Antonio Gramsci, Organic Intellectuals,
and the Division Of Labor

by Ralph Dumain

2 May 1996:

I am bothered by the inadequacy of the concept of organic intellectuals as I understand it. I don't have much of a background in Gramsci; I go primarily by the way I see people around me using the concept. I think the notion is especially problematic for American conditions, given that the relationship between the individual and "community" is especially problematic for us, even more so than for other parts of the world.

First, the notion of organic intellectual is directly connected to the goals of a political movement, real or desired. This, of course, is a goal in which revolutionaries have a vital stake, but it is not the only issue in conceiving the relationship between intellectual (or any individual) and society. And what if there is no movement, or what institutions exist are totally corrupt? What about the means of communication that link the intellectual to his audience? Are they always community based, and what are the consequences either way? The 'organic intellectual' matters so much to the academic left in the USA precisely because everybody wants to belong but nobody does. Nobody wants to stand alone or admit his ineffectuality. The concept of being "political" means in practice tailing after every opportunist who comes along who seems to be able to make an impact on society, or politicizing cultural figures who cannot possibly bring about the kind of results one fantasizes about.

The division of labor is one way of formulating the decisive problem I am addressing; another is the relationship of the individual to community and to society as a whole, not only in terms of political life narrowly defined, but in terms of one's total system of relationships to other people in everyday life.

I belabor this seemingly obvious point because the academic left, often guilt-ridden and defensive about its own social position, thinks the solution is to engage in political activism. Surely this is an important responsibility that hopefully one day all citizens will take up, but it does not address the entire range of issues involving one's relationship to one's social environment, which does indeed involve the division of labor and the space one occupies in daily life across the board — the neighborhood one lives in, the people with whom one interacts on a daily basis, where one gets one's information abut how the other half lives — i.e. one's total sense of reality based on how one lives. Engaging in political work — signing petitions, getting arrested in front of embassies, participating in demonstrations, etc., are all important ways of engaging social issues, but they address only a part of one's relation to one's social environment, at least in our society in its present state. Given society's present state, and the alienated existence which characterizes it, the way intellectuals politicize their own work, even under the felt obligation to take a stand, is very confused and naive, and is generally much more corrupt and less socially useful than would be the case if leftist academics just stuck to the job of working on ideas and publishing good, readable books. Theory without practice is not the only problem; action without understanding is much worse.

Being neither an academic nor a person who confines his life to the subculture of the activist left, being a person who spends relatively little time around intellectuals, I have a perspective on this issue that is very different from the academic and the activist left. So here is where my concern over the implications of the division of labor goes beyond the concerns of all of them — the feminists, postmodernists, analytical Marxists, and of course the sectarian left too — all of them. My own particular position within a divided society gives me my own vantage point which is quite different from most people I encounter. Most people I encounter on the left — academic or activist — are utterly confused and lost. They don't know who or where they are, and their foundation of thought and action is very confused — one has to be very careful about how to deal with them.

The next major theme I need to introduce is the notion of theory and practice. The left has a history of dealing with this in various historical periods. Now I think this has to be thought out anew, now more than ever, given the complexity of the relationships within society and the fact that many people who claim to be practical are in fact corrupt or insane.

In researching the Young Hegelians and the young Marx (inspired by my reading of C.L.R. James on intellectuals and culture), I realized that the relation between theory and practice outside of narrowly defined political work has to be completely re-thought. My conception of "unity" of theory and practice is now informed by a (using the term loosely) Hegelian approach.

Perhaps I simply do not understand the concept of organic intellectual, but I do not see how the concept can be useful to my concerns. Given the difficulty of being "organic" in the USA in 1996 without being utterly corrupt, perhaps this is not the concept that should most interest us now.

14 Sept. 1997:

I've always been suspicious of the American academics' appropriation of Gramsci, particularly their obsession with "organic intellectuals". I didn't think I could use Gramsci for my purposes until completely by accident I stumbled across an essay by Sassoon in Boundary 2 [see bibliography] which links Gramsci's ideas about intellectuals to the division of labor, and finally I found something I could work with.

12 July 1997:

This article gave me a newfound respect for Gramsci in spite of his current vogue and has finally given me a reason to want to study him. In spite of his posthumous celebrity in these parts of late, I was always highly suspicious of people's concern with him here, because I always suspected that a concern with being an "organic intellectual" in American conditions was a load of ballocks. But now I see that Gramsci was profoundly engaged with the real problems of technical specialization and the division of labor, and his concerns do not devolve to typically American moralistic preoccupations with how to overcome being a lonely individual crying in the wilderness looking for a power base or somebody's ass to kiss.

5 June 1999:

I never claimed to be an organic intellectual. I think the whole notion is misapplied. In Italy the concept referred to the social function of a layer of educated people. Here it is taken as some obligation or ideal, because this country is full of alienated individuals looking for someplace to belong; they are looking for a totally organic experience. For all intents and purposes our organic intellectuals are Siskel and Ebert—well the fat boy is still alive—and Oprah's self-help gurus. Don't you think this is funny?

(compiled and revised 10 Feb. 2000)

1996, 1997, 1999, 2000


The Unknown Karl Marx

Marx & Individualism Reconsidered: Selected Bibliography

The German Ideology After 150 Years

Quotable Quotes from The German Ideology by Marx & Engels

"Socialist Individualism?" by Magnus E. Marsdal

Wisdom, Philosophy & Everyday Life — Theoretical Perspectives: An Unconventional Guide


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