Gramsci and Braudel
I recently borrowed a book called Gramsci’s Historicism: A Realist Interpretation by philosopher Esteve Morera. Because I knew a couple of points I wanted to explore immediately, I hurriedly read the introduction and pushed into the index. Once I found the brief portions on Fernand Braudel and the Annales, I began studying without delay. Coincidentally, my used copy of Braudel’s monumental The Mediterranean lumbered to my doorstep that same day. I wanted to use some of the commentary in Morera’s book to anchor a brief post? Its subject? The fascinating and, to me, novel parallels between Braudel’s project and Gramsci’s, as well as some of their profound differences.
So we have three writers in the room: Braudel, Morera, and Gramsci, with the second naturally bridging the two. His discussion of Braudel comes in the midst of a larger discussion of Gramsci’s historicism. Since Gramsci is famous for proclaiming his thought an “absolute historicism,” it’s worth pondering what that means, and Morera wisely breaks down this complex issue into a few pieces. The first aspect he ascribes to Gramsci’s historicism, an affirmation of the transience of all historical phenomena, leads to the discussion of different ideas about the complexity of historical time, from Marx to Kondratiev and, of course, Braudel.
Given how famous he is for advocating the primacy of structure and geographical forces in the course of history, there is some irony in the fact that Braudel is placed in a discussion of historical transience. Yet the connection here is more natural than it first appears. As Morera argues, Gramsci is interested in a “holistic” history that can only be understood from a long-term perspective.¹ He summarizes Gramsci’s views on the temporality of history:
First, an organic theory of society which rejects the atomist conception of history as a series of events; second, the rudiments of a history of historical time…of the various tempos that criss-cross each other in history.²
Anyone familiar with Braudel will already sense the trajectory of Morera’s argument as it leads directly from here to a discussion on Braudel’s triple-layer scheme presented in The Mediterranean. Level one is the realm of geographical time, where the relatively permanence of natural space and structure reigns. Social and economic time forms the second level, and it was here where the intersection between the relative permanence of structure intersects the most with the more short or medium-term conjuncture, which is often cyclical. As Braudel puts it: “swelling currents…economic systems, states, societies, civilizations, and, finally…how all these deep-seated forces were at work in the complex arena of warfare.”³ At last, we reach the final level, where all the froth and dust of political and diplomatic history are kicked up. It’s here, at the third level, where the contingent events follow their wave-like course, emerging for a brief time before disappearing into the sea of continuity and strong currents beneath.
So Gramsci and Braudel share a methodological commitment to holism and an emphasis on the long-term, what Braudel called longue durée. Their commitments each lead them, as Morera notes, to critique sociology and other social sciences for their fetishization of empirical models and the short-term time span. Though neither of them is hostile to the social sciences as such––this is arguable in Gramsci, but Braudel hoped that history could unify all the human sciences––they both understood that the long term perspective is key to grasping the entirety of human social relations and their evolution over time. Gramsci’s analysis of “situations”develops through study of the dialectical unity of structures, conjunctures, and events, which broadly correspond to the terms Braudel uses. I would note in passing, however, that Braudel is careful to avoid stitching these layers together with any kind of “dialectical” or theoretical glue, and his holism is a great deal more empirical and fragmentary than the Marxist or Gramscian theories of history.
Morera later notes, correctly, that where Gramsci and Braudel most differ is in the matter of politics.⁴ For Braudel, politics are part of the ephemeral flows of “the history of individuals,” and not of central importance to his project. Gramsci, being a (jailed) leader of a communist project in Italy, gave politics the most prominent place in his conception of history. Of course, both of them reject the idea of statecraft and royal rosters as the foundation of history, but Braudel ultimately wants to relegate all of politics, including mass politics, to secondary or even tertiary status.
When reading The Mediterranean, I noted that Braudel’s sense of structure was much more fatalistic and continuous than the Marxist concepts I knew. Though there are also more structurally-oriented versions of Marxism that have been criticized for being fatalistic or “static,” Marxists tend to at least subscribe to the theory that human beings make history. Marxists will then make the structural qualification that humans only make history within the more-or-less determined situation into which they are born. Marxist history is the history of catastrophes, revolutions, and class struggle, the processes through which structures, so durable and powerful, prove their transience. “All that is solid melts into air.” With Braudel, I get the sense that it is rather history that makes people, and that people are merely swept along the currents. That said, unlike Althusser––who criticized the Annales journal and Braudel for not having a specific enough theory on the complexity of historical time––Man, capital-M, is the subject of Braudel’s history. He’s still at the centre of the story, but his natures and his actions are tightly bounded by land and water, prices and travel times, the very mental conceptions we’re taught. It’s not “process without a subject” pushed along through the energy of class struggle, it’s a process with a fatalistic subject who can take some reassurance that despite the tumult around him, the great immobile structures and whirling cycles will endure.
I should say that the above is a rank generalization, and Braudel’s histories are almost indescribably complex and eclectic. But I appreciate Morera’s insight into the relationship between Braudel and Gramsci because it called attention to my lack of knowledge about Gramsci and clarified the latter’s thought, which to me has always been less penetrable than that of his contemporaries. Engaging with Morera has pushed me back to reading Gramsci again, this time with a wiser frame of mind, and I’m glad I crossed this bridge between historians.
1. Esteve Morera, Gramsci’s Historicism: A Realist Interpretation (New York: Routledge, 1990), 83-4.
2. Ibid, 85.
3. Fernand Braudel, The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II vol. 1, trans. Sîan Reynolds (New York: HarperCollins, 1972), 21.
4. Morera, Gramsci’s Historicism 93.