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Gramsci and You: an Open Letter to Mayor Pete

Dear Mayor Pete,

It was recently brought to my attention that your father, the late Joseph Buttigieg (1947-2019), was a professor of English at the University of Notre Dame (1980-2017). He served as department chair and was granted emeritus status upon retirement. I’m sure he was a fine man. You must be proud of his legacy.

His main achievement as you know was to translate from Italian the Prison Notebooks of the great communist thinker, Antonio Gramsci. As you know, your dad was a highly respected Marxist scholar. He was an advisor to the journal Rethinking Marxism and in an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education celebrating the 150th anniversary of the Communist Manifesto praised it as a work “meant to liberate the proletariat” which is of course true.

Your dad was a friend of Cornel West, who recalls traveling with him to Italy—and who recalls meeting you from your childhood. But (have you heard?) West now wonders aloud what went wrong with you.

Your dad died on Jan. 27, 2019. You announced your presidential candidacy in April. You dad had been supportive of you when you came out as gay in 2015. (Of course; the radical left in this country had long since abandoned homophobia.) But would he have supported your bid for the presidency? Your “centrist” campaign? Your virtual celebration of military “service” as a good in itself? Your acceptance of billionaires’ donations? Your disparagement of Bernie Sanders, and your tired mantra that “it shouldn’t be a choice between revolution and the status quo”?

In 2000 as a high school senior you wrote a prize-winning essay. You won the top prize in the JFK Library and Museum’s “Profiles in Courage” essay contest and traveled from South Bend to Boston to accept the award. Your father must have been so proud. What was your topic? The political integrity of Bernie Sanders.

Gramsci is well known for his analysis of the relationship between the state and civil society. Between the coercion exercised by the capitalist ruling class, and the consent it receives through traditional institutions such as the family, schools, unions. He was—was he not?—groping with your question of revolution versus status quo? He was writing (as you know) between 1926 and 1937, imprisoned by the fascist status quo. In language made more eloquent by the need to speak subtly (and to avoid staid Marxist terminology) he addressed the issue of making revolution.

Your whole campaign is precisely about NOT doing that. NOT making revolution! It’s (in Gramscian terms) about wedding coercion to consent. Powerful capitalist-state forces—including those 40 billionaires—back you (as the Biden back-up, with the possible plus of being “diverse” in these changing times), while you get a popular-culture boost for being young, unapologetically gay, military, and goofy. You combine the military-coercive state aspect (in your promotion of your heroic Afghan-service self, and your tough-guy mayor image) with the civil society-consentual aspects (in your promotion of gay military centrist identity versus Sanders’ socialism). You try to resolve the contradiction between state and civil society in your smooth-talking self-assured self.

You are (as Bernie implies) becoming the candidate of the billionaires, of Wall Street, of the ruling class your father despised from his days as an aspirant Jesuit priest in his native Malta in his youth to his tenure at Notre Dame. You’ve become the anti-Bernie candidate, the Great White Hope of the cable news talking heads like Donny Deutsch.

Wonder at night before bed: what would Gramsci think of you? What would your dad think?

Just some thoughts, Mayor.

Sincerely,

Gary P. Leupp
Professor of History
Tufts University
Medford, MA 02155