Robert Jackson: Work, Americanism and Rationalisation in Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks



Antonio Gramsci was a revolutionary active in the class struggles in Italy following the First World War known as the Biennio Rosso (the two red years, 1919-20).(1) He was later imprisoned by Mussolini from 1926 until shortly before his death in 1937, during which time Gramsci produced a series of notebooks (comprising over 3000 pages) that were later smuggled out of prison. Today Gramsci’s thought is widely studied across numerous disciplines from international relations to political philosophy to cultural studies.(2) In this short article, I will briefly look at his study of the phenomena of Americanism and Fordism in the Prison Notebooks,(3) and will suggest that his attitude towards the rationalisation of work processes is in tension, but not incompatible with, the critique of capitalist rationalisation developed by other thinkers in the revolutionary Marxist tradition (most notably Georg Lukács).

Motivated by the growing strength of American capitalism in the early 20th century, Gramsci sought to investigate the relationship between the modern, rationalised forms of work and ‘scientific management’ techniques associated with Henry Ford and Frederick Taylor respectively, and the character of American culture. Gramsci could see in the rationalisation of work – despite its coercive implementation under capitalism – a potential realisation of a higher standard of living for the majority in society. This positive assessment would seem to put Gramsci at odds not only with Max Weber’s conception of rationalisation as an inescapable ‘iron cage’, but also with thinkers in the Marxist tradition who developed the theory of reification, a critique of capitalist rationalisation, such as Georg Lukács and Theodor Adorno. I will suggest that understanding this apparent conflict between the approaches of Lukács and Gramsci to the phenomenon of the rationalisation of work is vitally necessary to developing a coherent Marxist account of this phenomenon, while at the same time remaining a useful tool for theorising the relationship between conditions within capitalism, and the possibilities of transcending them.

America and Europe

The Oxford English Dictionary defines Americanism as a “quality, custom, or trait peculiar to or characteristic of the United States”.(4) For Gramsci, Americanism was a historical phenomenon of primary importance not only for America itself. Despite his incarceration, he was an astute observer of attempts to introduce aspects of Americanism and Fordism into Europe. Indeed Gramsci’s investigations begin with an analysis of the impact of American production techniques on societies in Europe following the First World War.

Gramsci characterises the essence of American culture as not yet having emerged from what he calls an “economic-corporate” phase through which European culture passed in the Middle Ages [SPN, p.272]. Thus he claims that America is influenced by Europe and European history, as it has not yet created a group of “great intellectuals” to lead civil society [SPN, p.272]. However he also argues that, as a preliminary condition of introducing American production techniques, European societies must confront the question of a “rationalisation” of their own demographic composition [SPN, p.280].

By this he means the problem of a “passive sedimentation” left by European history in the form of “civil-service personnel and intellectuals, of clergy and landowners, piratical commerce, and the professional … army” [SPN, p.281]. These parasitic classes, he argues, lack an essential function in the world of production, and therefore put up an “intellectual” and “moral” resistance to the introduction of Fordism in Europe, which therefore tends to involve extreme coercion and take place in “brutal and insidious forms”, such as the expansion of the corporate economy in Italy under fascism [SPN, p.281].

For Gramsci, the “old, anachronistic, demographic structure of Europe” is in conflict with the introduction of “ultra-modern forms of production” and working methods associated with Americanism [SPN, p.280]. This preliminary condition of Americanism – a “rational demographic composition” – is invisible within America, he argues, because it exists there “naturally” [SPN, p.281]. By contrast, the societies of Europe would like to introduce the benefits of Fordism, such as increased competitive power on the international market, whilst retaining these parasitical elements that consume surplus value within their societies.

A New Historical Phase?

Gramsci questioned whether changes in work and the processes of production characteristic of Fordism and Taylorism constituted either a new historical phase, or a temporary conjuncture of events. Although Gramsci apparently took the association of scientific management techniques and rationalised work processes with Americanism as self-evident, it is necessary to comment on this. Recently Elizabeth Esch and David Roediger have convincingly suggested that it was the racialisation of labour-systems in the United States under slavery that allowed the development of particular conceptions of ‘scientific management’ and set the stage for the rationalised production of Fordism.(5)

Although Gramsci does not develop a definitive answer to this conjunctural question, he considers the efficiency of American productive techniques and the apparent democracy of American enterprise to be very important. Like many of his contemporaries, Gramsci is interested in the possibility of applying Taylor’s “scientific management” techniques and Ford’s rationalised production-line methods to socialist relations of production. The full-scale introduction of Americanism to Italy represents, for Gramsci, the high point of capitalist development, and the potential abolition of the last residues of feudalism. He saw Fordism as the ultimate stage in successive attempts by capitalist industry to overcome what classical Marxists refer to as the law of the tendency of the rate of profit to fall (as the source of economic crises).(6)

Gramsci investigates whether the development of Americanism can be characterised either as a process of the type undergone during the Risorgimento, the unification of Italy in the 19th century, excluding the active participation of the popular classes, which he describes as a ‘passive revolution’, or as a process of the “molecular accumulation of elements” leading to an explosive upheaval on the pattern of the French revolution [SPN, p.280]. As Alex Callinicos has argued – in relating the various forms of bourgeois political modernity to the concept of ‘passive revolution’ – Gramsci begins to stretch this concept.(7) He even seems to flirt with an epochal identification of Americanism with passive revolution, and it is in this context, I would argue, that Gramsci’s steers closest to the terrain of Weber’s conception of the ‘iron cage’ of rationality.(8)

High Wages and the Instability of Americanism

Gramsci tends not to see Americanism as a new type of civilization, but as an “organic extension and an intensification of European civilization” [SPN, p.318]. In the United States, argues Gramsci, this process of rationalisation has “determined the need to elaborate a new type of man suited to the new type of work and productive process” [SPN, p.286]. This elaboration, he suggests, is still in its initial and “(apparently) idyllic phase”, which he describes as the stage of “psycho-physical adaptation” to a new industrial structure, one which is aimed at through the introduction of high wages [SPN, p.286]. Gramsci claims that the ideology of high wages associated with Fordism is a “phenomenon derived from the objective necessity of modern industry at a certain stage of its development” [SPN, p.311]. It illustrates the potentially transitory nature of Americanism, and an inherent instability associated with the new methods of work.

Once these new production methods have been “generalised and diffused” and a new type of worker created, says Gramsci, rising unemployment restricts excessive “turnover” and the phenomenon of high wages begins to disappear [SPN, p.310]. At the international level, American high-wage industry is able to exploit a monopoly granted by its initiative with these new methods, but this is soon undermined through the process of competition and the subsequent adoption of production techniques by other national industries (such as the automotive industry in Japan) [SPN, p.311].

New Industrialism and Cultural Policy

However, the attempt by industrialists to create a ‘new type of man’ is not confined to the narrow economic terrain, but exists also through the direction of cultural policy. By analysing changes of cultural policy, such as the prohibition of alcohol and the regulation of sexuality, as well as economic developments, Gramsci’s writings display a particular sensitivity to the relationship between culture and work. In this sense, Gramsci thought that prohibition was a necessary condition for the project of developing a ‘new type of worker’ suitable to the new industry of Fordism. It would be a mistake, Gramsci says, to laugh at these attempts to regulate morality as being of a purely ‘puritanical’ form. Such a view, he thought, overlooks the objective importance of the American phenomenon, as “the biggest collective effort to date to create, with unprecedented speed, and with a consciousness of purpose unmatched in history, a new type of worker and of man” [SPN, p.302].

Similarly, Gramsci thought that attempts by industrialists to regulate and rationalise sexual instincts were also part of this project to create a ‘new type of man’. In particular, it seemed to the industrialists that the “exaltation of passion” conflicted with the refinement needed for the “timed movements of productive motions” [SPN, p.305]. Gramsci analysed what he saw as the consequent polarisation of conceptions of sexuality in American society between the notion of reproductive function and the notion of sex as ‘sport’ [SPN, p.295]. Sexual instincts, Gramsci argued, were those that have undergone the “greatest degree of repression from society in the course of its development” [SPN, p.294]. By increasing life expectancy, medical advances were making sexual questions increasingly important, giving them an increasingly “fundamental and autonomous aspect” over and above the economic level. This gives rise to what Gramsci describes as complex problems of a “superstructural” order [SPN, p.295].

Gramsci, Lukács and Rationalisation

I claim that reading the apparently conflicting conceptions of Lukács and Gramsci with and against each other is important for an adequate Marxist understanding of rationalisation and its connection to the creation of socialism. For Gramsci, the working class is neither opposed to Americanism, nor its effects in social life, but should reject its specific economically exploitative and culturally repressive forms. He puts forward the concept of an “integral rationalisation”, although there is some ambiguity whether this coincides with his project for the creation of a socialist society [SPN, p.315]. There are clear dangers associated with transposing concepts between different historical situations, particularly with mapping structures from the transition to capitalism onto the processes by which a transition to socialism might be possible.

This was demonstrated by the brutal measures of rationalisation that were being implemented in Russia in the name of ‘Socialism’. Gramsci, however, was unaware of the full ramifications of Stalinism due to his imprisonment. Gramsci’s commitment to the development of the autonomy of working class forces suggests that he would have strongly condemned the identification of Stalinism and socialism, despite his later theoretical appropriation by political parties associated with Stalinism.

In contrast to Gramsci’s apparently positive conception of rationalisation, thinkers such as Lukács and Adorno theorise the specificity of capitalist society by highlighting its corrupting effects. They develop the theory of reification criticising capitalist rationalisation on the basis of Marx’s analysis of the fetishism of commodities.(9) Lukács’s theory of reification seeks to demonstrate the central role of the commodity as the universal structuring principle of forms of consciousness in capitalist society. For Lukács, the penetration of these reified forms of thought rests on the potential creation of a self-conscious subject capable of drawing the totality of this system within the ambit of its power.(10)

Gramsci and Lukács both propose proletarian revolution as a totalising project, although the concept of totality enters their conceptions in very different ways. Lukács’s concept of reification gives a unified explanation for the corrupting effects of rationalisation, but it is open to the accusation that the working class becomes the agent of revolution by a messianic leap from its reified state to a self-conscious subject. By contrast, Gramsci shows how class power is institutionalised in the various aspects of civil and political society. In his conception of ‘contradictory consciousness’, he is particularly attentive to the fact that workers are both formed within capitalist society and capable of founding society anew.

We have seen above how Gramsci offers a concrete analysis of the attempts by American industrialists to create a ‘new type of man’. This attention to the conscious construction of a new project is characteristic of Gramsci’s approach to the development of new institutions of working-class power. Gramsci’s great strength is to seek the concrete expression of the development of the autonomy of subaltern forces in every social institution: cultural, political and economic. •

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1   A version of this article was presented at the American Work Symposium (May 2013) at the Rothermere American Institute in Oxford. Thanks to the participants who made very useful comments on the paper.

2   The range of Gramsci scholarship in various fields is too vast to survey here, but some notable recent works include Peter Thomas, The Gramscian Moment (Chicago: Haymarket, 2009); Morton, A Unravelling Gramsci (London: Pluto, 2007); Ives, P Language and Hegemony in Gramsci (London: Pluto, 2004); Krätke, M “Antonio Gramsci’s Contribution to a Critical Economics” Historical Materialism Vol. 19:3 (2011), pp.63-105.

3   Gramsci, Antonio Selections from the Prison Notebooks ed. and trans. Hoare, Quintin and Nowell-Smith, Geoffrey (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1971) – Henceforth referenced in the text as [SPN,].

4   Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition – s.v. “Americanism

5   Esch, E and Roediger, D “One Symptom of Originality: Race and the Management of Labour in the History of the United States” Historical Materialism Vol. 17:4 (2009), pp.3-43 – the consequences of this argument should be studied elsewhere.

6   The importance of Gramsci as an economic thinker has been upheld recently by Michael Krätke and Peter Thomas, against a commonly-held view to the contrary – (Krätke “Antonio Gramsci’s Contribution to a Critical Economics” Historical Materialism Vol. 19:3, pp.63-105 and Thomas The Gramscian Moment, p.347).

7   See Callinicos, A “The Limits of Passive Revolution” Capital and Class Vol. 34(3) (2010), pp.491-507

8   Weber, M The Protestant ethic and the spirit of capitalism trans. Parsons, T (London: Routledge, 2001), p.123

9   It is notable that Gramsci does not develop a sustained analysis of commodity fetishism within the Prison Notebooks, although it could be argued that his method of working on common sense concepts to generate a coherent and critical world-view plays a de-fetishising function in Gramsci’s thought.

10  Drawing on a concept from classical German philosophy, Lukács describes the proletariat as the “identical subject-object of history” – Lukács, G History and Class Consciousness (London: Merlin, 1971), p.149


Callinicos, A “The Limits of Passive Revolution” Capital and Class Vol. 34(3) (2010), pp.491-507

Esch, E and Roediger, D “One Symptom of Originality: Race and the Management of Labour in the History of the United States” Historical Materialism Vol. 17:4 (2009), pp.3-43

Gramsci, A Selections from the Prison Notebooks ed. and trans. Hoare, Quintin and Nowell Smith, Geoffrey (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1971)

Harman, C “Gramsci versus Eurocommunism International Socialism, first series, 98 (May 1977) – (available at:

Ives, P Language and Hegemony in Gramsci (London: Pluto, 2004)

Krätke, M “Antonio Gramsci’s Contribution to a Critical Economics” Historical Materialism Vol. 19:3 (2011), pp.63-105

Lukács, G History and Class Consciousness (London: Merlin, 1971)

Morton, A Unravelling Gramsci (London: Pluto, 2007)

Thomas, P The Gramscian Moment (Chicago: Haymarket, 2009)

Weber, M The Protestant ethic and the spirit of capitalism trans. Parsons, T (London: Routledge, 2001)

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