28 February 2018

Stefan Kipfer: Gramsci as geographer

Interviewed by Selim Nadi 


A French version of this interview was originally published at

  • Your research interests include a recurrent focus on space, specifically urban questions as well as the spatial organization of relations of exploitation and domination. Theoretically, you mobilize the works of Henri Lefebvre and Frantz Fanon, but you are also interested in Gramsci’s take on, for example, urbanity and rurality.  How do you see the relevance of Gramsci’s analyses for geographical concerns today?


I started reading Gramsci in 1990 just before turning to urban research and the debates around ‘radical geography’ that were still in full swing then. Broadly speaking, these debates  tackled two problematic treatments of space in social theory: the reduction of space to a strictly passive, ‘empty’ container of history, and, in turn, the elevation of space to  historically invariant determinant of social life. Instead, a key lesson in these debates was to discuss space dialectically, as a product of history and an active historical force. These debates quickly pushed me to return to Gramsci and consider something that a few geographically minded intellectuals had considered here and there but that was then still an unusual topic for the Gramscians amongst my colleagues: the place of space in Gramsci’s particular strand of Marxism.

One of the most important questions in Gramsci’s philosophy of praxis (then and now) is the issue of historicism, which Gramsci affirmed in a peculiar way to describe one crucial aspect of his historical materialist method. A few have pointed out that the conceptions of time and history which informed Gramsci’s historicism are not to be confused with those that shape other forms of historicism, notably Hegel’s and Ranke’s. Among the first to do so in English was Esteve Morera, who wrote a book on the subject in 1990.[1] However, at the time, it was not uncommon (even among Gramscians) to sidestep geographical questions or treat space as the philosophical counterpart of time. I sometimes felt that on this matter, not much had changed since the 1970s when the famous exchange between Immanuel Wallerstein (and his ‘spatial’ conception of capitalism as a world system) and Ernesto Laclau (and his ‘historical’ conception of capitalism as a mode of production) unnecessarily pitted space against time, geography against history.

Even just a cursory reading shows that Gramsci’s writing was characterized by a profound geographical as well as historical sensibility. My sense was and is that both sensibilities are integral to his method. Forging a path a Marx himself had laid out, Gramsci developed his main concepts (from language and folklore to intellectuals and politics) through an intimate reading of historical moments and geographical situations. ‘Space’ for Gramsci was never just contextual backdrop or singular material condition (let alone a symbol of historical stasis). As condition and product of history, geography is an active force of the multiple rhythms that make up historical time. In turn, Gramsci treated space and scale relationally, showing the mutual imbrication and historical co-constitution of world, nation, region, city and country.

Key in this context is the idea that spatial forms are, among other things, subjects of struggle as well as ‘ingredients’ in political projects, as it were. It is well known (as Panagiotis Sotiris has reminded us most recently)[2] that Gramsci treated the national scale not as a given entity (let alone an ethnocultural or historical essence) but an open-ended field of struggle and a strategic construction site. Gramsci insisted that the national-popular aspect of revolutionary politics, which is not to be confused with nationalism, must be developed in constant interaction with equally open-ended internationalist horizons.

Gramsci made similar points about city and country. Observing debates among fascist intellectuals such as Curzio Malaparte, he saw that claims to urbanity and rurality do not simply express given geographical realities. They can help form historic blocs. Compare Gramsci’s insight, which considered politics as an active force, to contemporary debates in electoral geography, which have a tendency to read right populist and neo-fascism passively, as mere reflections of given settlement forms defined by national statistical offices: suburb, periurb, rural space or small to medium sized town. Exemplified in France by the work of Christophe Guilluy, among others, such spatially determinist readings of the Front National actually corroborate Gramsci’s point. In their passive conception of politics, intellectuals like Guilluy naturalize, and thus lend effective support to frontist political claims by treating small towns, agricultural areas and periurban zones as embodiments of the ‘autochtonous’ people of France and their seemingly spontaneous and inevitable xenophobic impulses.[3]

  • What does a Gramscian reading of Lefebvre’s work add to Lefebvre scholarship? In what ways did Lefebvre try to urbanize the question of hegemony[4] ?


Antonio Gramsci was not one of the primary figures in Lefebvre’s intellectual universe. But in various parts of his work, Henri Lefebvre presented us with explicit textual invitations to see his own contributions in a Gramscian light. In the opening pages of the Production of Space, for example, he established the hypothesis that bourgeois hegemony does not leave space untouched, as it were, thus suggesting that spatial organization represents a crucial element in the organization of political rule. This insight systematized the earlier conclusion ofThe Urban Revolution, where Lefebvre stressed the fact that ‘urbanisme’, and the specialized spatial sciences associated with it have the potential to sustain bourgeois rule by disorganizing opposition and promoting subaltern passivity.

Lefebvre’s urban work represents one among several openings towards Gramsci. Others include his theory of the state and his conception of everyday life. Lefebvre’s life-long critique of everyday life (an explosive mix of routine and aspiration), for example, resonates in crucial ways with Gramsci’s nuanced engagement with popular life, this contradictory complex of common and good sense. The late André Tosel was one of the few who has also emphasized this substantial parallel between Gramsci (who stressed the mystical and popular aspects of fascism in his Prison Notebooks) and Lefebvre (whose contemporaneous critique of mystification represented the key theoretical contribution in his work on fascism and nationalism in the 1930s).[5] Given the importance of fascism and nationalism today, this parallel is worth pursuing further, but with the obligatory critical attention paid to the particular kind of nationalization of political strategy which the Third International (and Lefebvre’s PCF) were promoting at that time.

Both of these examples allow us to see theoretical connections between Lefebvre and Gramsci that go much deeper than the few direct textual references to Gramsci in Lefebvre’s work. Both share an enormously ambitious, integral take on Marxism, one that insists on interpreting the world by treating all aspects of life in non-reductive and relational ways. When I started working on the Lefebvre-Gramsci connection in the mid-1990s, many English-speaking intellectual debates were based on typically mechanical, uncritical distinctions between political economy and considerations of class (code words for Marxism) and cultural studies and the politics of identity (code words for postmodernism). To me, Gramsci and Lefebvre served as reminders that such an intellectual compartmentalization of the world, which is still alive today in some corners, makes absolutely no sense from a serious historical materialist perspective.

This leaves the question of Lefebvre’s urbanization of the problem of hegemony. In the Urban Revolution published in 1970, Lefebvre posited the hypothesis that the world was in the process of being completely urbanized, that the distinction between city and country was no longer adequate to grasp the spatial organization of capitalism even though comparatively specific symbols and claims to urbanity and rurality continued to weigh on social life and politics. By suggesting that in our capitalist world urban life was no longer a matter of towns and cities only, but, through industrialized agriculture and globe-spanning networks of state intervention, transportation, migration and communication, social life as a whole, Lefebvre underscored that ‘urbanisme’ had become even more central to the spatial organization of rule than was the case even in the lifetime of Gramsci (who had already pointed to the importance of the metropole and urban planning in the formation of Fordist capitalism). Lefebvre was also interested in the implications of generalized urbanization for theories of revolution, including the theories of peasant revolution that dominated the radical left when he wrote the Urban Revolution. In 2017, we are still grappling with the complexities of world-wide urbanization and its political implications, also with respect to the United Front strategy so dear to Gramsci.

  • With Michael Ekers, Gillian Hart and Alex Loftus, you edited a collected volume (Gramsci Space, Nature, Politics, 2013) where you return to and develop, among other things, the importance of Gramsci’s work for questions of space. In an extremely important point,[6] you stress the importance of space in considering Gramsci’s strategic thought. You write, for example, that the Turin uprisings in 1919 and 1920 had an important impact on Gramsci’s recognition that the revolutionary left needed to construct alliances between the Northern proletariat and Southern peasants. This is a point Gramsci developed notably in his notes on the Southern question, where he writes that the proletariat needs to create a system of class alliances, which in the Italian case meant acquiring the active support of the peasant and agrarian masses. How is the question of space in Gramsci linked to the question of working class hegemony ?


Given his biography and his political trajectory from Sardegna to the Piemonte, the Southern Question had to impose itself upon Gramsci one way or another. But it is of course true that he elevated this question, which is itself criss-crossed in complex ways by the city-country question, to the highest strategic importance. Some Aspects of the Southern Question (1926) was a response to the reality of Mussolini’s fascism (as well as the maximalism of fellow Communist Amadeo Bordiga, who refused to see a difference between fascism and bourgeois democracy). Mussolini’s hordes managed to impose themselves not the least due to the defeat of the Factory Council movement of 1919-1920 and the latter’s relative isolation from other subaltern spaces in Italy. The rise and temporary consolidation of Italian fascism illustrated to Gramsci how uneven development in Italy was not only a structural limit on bourgeois rule but also a problem with deadly consequences for socialist and communist politics and the capacity of the proletariat to exercise political leadership.

It is worth stressing two noteworthy elements in Gramsci’s attempt to translate (adapt and develop) the Communist International’s United Front strategy for Italian purposes. Gramsci acknowledged that a project of building subaltern political unity is difficult given the qualitative social differences (between factory workers, agricultural labourers, sharecroppers and peasants) and the deep regional cleavages fortified by several layers of variegated historical and linguistic development. Following the famous 1926 text, and after his imprisonment, Gramsci spent much ink tracing uneven development, of which the Southern question is the most salient example, all the way to the high Middle Ages and the Italian Renaissance. In this longer view, the Risorgimento and fascism recast and exploited longer historical lineages of uneven development in the context of modern capitalism.

Given the historical depth of social and spatial unevenness in Italy, it is easy to understand why for Gramsci, building alliances could not be a matter of merely aggregating social groups and social spaces in their existing state.  For him, building a United Front meant that the constituent parts of an alliance get transformed socially and intellectually in the very process of alliance formation. In the Italian context, this meant addressing anti-Southern racism among the Northern proletariat as well as tackling the manifold dependencies that made it easier for landlords, industrialists, and fascists to recruit Southerners as soldiers or strike breakers. Gramsci’s recognition that there are no easy shortcuts to building an integral revolutionary organization on the basis of multiple subaltern forces led him to an understanding of politics as a practice of transforming – in a complexly universalizing fashion – the particular, short-term and spontaneous (`economic-corporate¨) character of subaltern interests and passions. In the end, politics as hegemony aims not to simply affirm but to end, dialectically, subalternity as such.

  • With respect to the relation between cities and the countryside, you stress the importance of the struggle against anti-Southern racism within the Northern proletariat for rethinking the problem of alliances and to link country and city in a sort of hegemonic bloc. Could you explain how Southern Italy can be analysed as a type of internal colony and then revisit the influence Gramsci has had on thinkers concerned with colonial and racial questions, for example Stuart Hall and the subaltern studies group ?


Looking at Gramsci’s work as a whole, it is important to point out that the city-country question is not covered neatly by the Southern question, nor is it coterminous with the relationship between industry and agriculture in Italy as a whole. It is true, however, that Gramsci repeatedly analysed the relationship between South (that is, the semi-feudal nexus of landlords, the Church and the peasants) and the North (that is, the Northern industrialists and ruling circles in the newly formed unified Italy) as a semi- or quasi-colonial relationship. Rooted in economic dependency and political domination, it reproduced pre-capitalist modes of life in the South and limited the capacity of the Italian ruling class to build an integral national hegemony. (I would use the term internal colony with great caution to describe the Italy of the interwar period to avoid what Gramsci himself did not do: establish a parallel between Southern Italy and social spaces populated by former slaves or immigrant populations from the former colonies in, say, the U.S.A., France, and the United Kingdom).

Gramsci also established links between the Southern question and Italy’s imperial adventures in North and East Africa. He observed that Italy’s imperial adventures were promoted not only for capital export but also for purposes of colonial settlement and domestic political legitimacy, not the least to build popular support from land-hungry Southerners. Gramsci also noted that modern raciology treated Southern Europeans (and Southern Italians in particular) as an intermediary ‘race’ between Northern and ‘Alpine’ Europeans, on the one hand, and various non-Europeans, on the other. In Italy, the force of this double-sided raciology helped link the Southern to the imperial question. But not unlike racism in other countries like France, raciology in Italy radiated much beyond the aristocratic circles that had produced some of the early versions of modern race theory. For example, Gramsci stressed that racism against Southerners (‘sudici’) had acquired a popular, pseudo-scientific dimension and weighed on both class relations and left politics.

To give proper due to racism and uneven development in Italy, Gramsci spent much time criticizing a broad cross-section of Italian intellectuals who were responsible for articulating a racialized conception of social relations. Among these were important figures in Gramsci’s own Socialist Party such as Achille Loria and Cesare Lombroso (the infamous criminologist whose questionable work fills a whole museum in Turin still today). As Marcus Green has pointed out, Gramsci’s critique of these intellectuals, which cuts across important segments of the Prison Notebooks, brilliantly highlights the philosophical link (positivism) between racism, economic determinism, pseudo-scientific conceptions of progress and political fatalism.[7] Establishing this link helped Gramsci develop the non-reductive historical material method as well as the multidimensional conception of subalternity that define his work.

The fact that Gramsci has been of great interest to intellectuals committed to anti-colonial and anti-imperial strategies is thus related not only to Gramsci’s interest in particular topics: city and country, agriculture, uneven development, colonialism, imperialism, and racism. It is also related to the weight these themes carried as Gramsci developed his conception of Marxist theory and practice. There are thus good reasons why his work has been taken up by generations of intellectuals in Latin America, the Caribbean and South Asia, for example. As you say, the most well-known Gramsci-inspired currents in the English-speaking world are the subaltern studies collective (in India and the Anglo-American academy) and the Birmingham school of cultural studies, of which Stuart Hall is the most well-known exponent. These currents, which underwent numerous transformations themselves, have left many invaluable – direct as well as diffuse – neo-Gramscian traces, notably in historiographies of hegemony, nationalism and subalternity in the non-European world and socio-political analyses of race, class, gender, migration and nationalism in the imperial North.

There is no consensus among anti-colonial and ant-racist thinkers about how to interpret and make use of Gramsci.[8] This state of affairs should not surprise us. There is no such intellectual consensus about Gramsci in the sprawling universe of Gramsci scholarship as a whole (nor is there theoretical unanimity in the even more widespread world of post-colonial theory). I am personally most drawn towards those who have tried to develop Gramsci’s historical materialist method for purposes of analysing racism, colonialism and nationalism: Stuart Hall, who, next to many other things, has produced some of the finest Gramscian methodological statements in his work on racism and authoritarian populism;[9] Himani Bannerji, who has mobilized Gramsci for a pathbreaking Marxist-feminist critique of ideology and the sharpest of analyses of Hindutva, the fascist political nébuleuse governing India today,[10] and Ato Sekyi-Otu, the philosopher who has produced the most ambitious, notably Gramsci-inflected reading of Frantz Fanon.[11]

What these attempts to work with and redirect Gramsci tell us is that Gramsci is not the exclusive property of ‘the West’, or ‘Western Marxism’. Contrary to a conception that was more widespread when I started reading Gramsci seriously a quarter century ago, Gramsci’s conception of East and West is relational and strategic, not ontological. In the Prison Notebooks, Gramsci treated East and West not as transhistorical essences (ontologies) but historically malleable constructions strongly influenced by the visions and practices of the ‘educated classes.’ (On this point, Gramsci fleetingly anticipated Edward Said’s pathbreaking work on Orientalism). In various comments (on Gandhi and political strategy, and religiosity in tributary societies shaped by Islam, Hinduism or Catholicism, for instance), Gramsci indicated that civilizations are neither unique nor mere variations of the same. They are simply comparable. As evolving and interrelated historical constructs, their features can be ‘translated’: understood across boundaries and adapted in different contexts.

To illustrate: Gramsci’s conception of politics and rule – his analyses of hegemony, coercion and consent, state and civil society – were not meant exclusively to understand Western Europe or Euro-America. Gramsci scholars like Carlos Nelson Coutinho, Domenico Losurdo, Peter Thomas, and Gillian Hart have all stressed this point.[12] Precisely because Gramsci was  both a theorist of the (particular) Italian situation and an intellectual of the Communist International (with its universalizing ambitions), he was committed to translating – transporting and modifying – concepts and strategies across national and continental borders instead of fixating them in culturalist-civilizational terms. For him, historical materialism was about linking the particular and the universal in a dialectical, not relativist or abstractly universalist fashion. In our world which witnesses a return of civilizational angst about the decline of the ‘West’ (something Gramsci criticized in his time) and where many forces work towards making the U.S. American doctrine about the Clash of Civilization a living reality, Gramsci’s approach (which, as Sekyi-Otu has pointed out, echoes the partisan-universal orientation of dialectical anti-colonialists such as Frantz Fanon) is as timely as ever.

  • In what ways can the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions in 2011 be analysed through the prism of what you call Gramsci’s ‘spatial historicism’, that is, his nuanced historico-geographical method ?


At the time, two things struck me most about the Euro-American media coverage of the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings that kicked out dictators Ben Ali and Mubarak. Giving voice to official U.S. American and French support for the existing regimes and the concomitant hostility towards the rebels, this coverage often had a racist-civilizational undertone. Accordingly, the uprising was seen to reflect the time-less but explosive contradictions of ‘the Arab street’ (fatalistic passivity alternating unpredicatbly with violent fanaticism), which, in this Orientalist view, made authoritarian rule necessary in the Middle East. This representation (as well as basic journalistic convenience) explained the focus of media coverage on the squares and streets that were claimed by mass mobilizations then: Tahrir and Kasbah squares in Cairo and Tunis as well as the Avenue Habib Bourgiba in Tunis.

This central city bias has also been at the heart of many much more enthusiastic academic treatments of the 2011 political revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt. Some of these (often very good) analyses have allowed us to see these revolts as the first (or perhaps second, following the Iranian mobilizations of 2009) step in a transnational sequence of the revolts of ‘squares and streets’ reaching across the Mediterranean (to Greece and Spain) and the Atlantic (to the U.S.A., Canada and Brazil) and back (to Turkey). To correct these one-sided readings, Gramsci invites us to do two things: (1) replace culturalist readings of the revolutions with conjunctural analyses of historical change and continuity; and (2) broaden narrowly urban (that is, metropolitan, big-city) readings with a multi-scalar analysis of central city revolt, within which the national question remains important. In this way, the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings appear as moments within a crisis-ridden historical conjuncture that combines multiple scales and spaces and articulates a range of historical rhythms.

Historically, the Tunisian and Egyptian demands for ‘dignity’ (to speak with Sadri Khiari)[13] expressed the terminal political crisis of structural adjustment regimes (and their imperial supporters). By 2010, the capacity of these regimes to rule had been hollowed out by absurdly personalized forms of corruption as well as the confidence and collective capacities built by rounds of opposition that preceded 2010-2011 (and that were typically neglected by media coverage). Since the 1980s, these regimes had already recast the contradictions of the nationalist era of the 1950s and 1960s that had reached a crisis point in the 1970s. In this longer view, we can see more clearly see the comparatively specific imperial and neo-colonial dimensions that shaped the recent Tunisian and Egyptian revolts.

Geographically, one may say with Gramsci (as well as Lefebvre) that the most visible aspects of the uprisings – the mobilizations in the streets of Tunis and Cairo – were themselves a product of wider geographies of struggle. Protesters claimed ‘the right to the city’ not because they emerged from or wanted to occupy permanently the central spaces of the two capital cities but because they represented claims to political power that expressed a convergence of struggles: strikes and protests in other metropolitan neighbourhoods as well as social spaces in peripheral zones. In Tunisia, the most well-know of these zones were the mining districts and agricultural towns in the geographical centre of this very unevenly urbanized country: the areas in and around Sidi Bouzid and Gafsa where the uprising started before reaching the coastal zones in the East (Sfax) and Northeast (Tunis) of the country.

Writing these lines reminds me of a research project that remains to be pursued: a comparative analysis of Gramsci and Ibn Khaldoun. (In Tunis, Khaldoun’s statue stands in the middle of l’Avenue Habib Bourgiba, right across from the French embassy. Engulfed by the mobilized masses in 2011, the statue has since been fenced off with barbed wire to help secure the embassy in a move that is surely highly symbolic of the developments since 2011). I was first made aware of the plausibility of such an analysis in the early 1990s, in a graduate seminar taught by Robert Cox, the ‘founder’ of a Gramscian approach to international relations. In one of the earliest historical materialist texts, Khaldoun’s Muqadimmah discussed the interplay between town-based Arab-Muslim dynasties and their nomadic-pastoral hinterlands in order to understand the crisis of rule of these dynasties in the 14th century. Written almost six centuries before Gramsci, Khaldoun’s text provides a striking cross-Mediterranean echo to the Sardinian’s analysis of late medieval Italy, and, indeed, a crucial reference in any project to understand urbanization and politics in the Maghreb today from the perspective of the longue durée.


[1]Gramsci’s Historicism. Routledge, London, 1990.

[2] “From the Nation to the People of a Potential New Historic Bloc”,International Gramsci Journal 2.1. (2017) 52-88.

[3] For a critique, see Stefan Kipfer and Mustafa Dikeç, “Peripheries against peripheries? Against spatial reification,” inMassive Suburbanization Eds. Murat Ucoglu, Murat Guney & Roger Keil (forthcoming).

[4] Voir notamment: Stefan Kipfer, « Hegemony, Everyday Life, and Difference: How Lefebvre urbanized Gramsci”, dans: Kanishka Goonewardena, Stefan Kipfer, Richard Milgrom et Christian Schmid (dir.),Space, Difference, and Everyday Life: Henri Lefebvre and Radical Politics, Routledge, New-York/Londres, 2008, pp. 193-2011.

[5]Le Marxisme du 20ème Siècle. Paris: Syllepse, 2009.

[6] Voir : Stefan Kipfer, « City, Country, Hegemony : Antonio Gramsci’s Spatial Historicism », dans : Michael Ekers, Gillian Hart, Stefan Kipfer et Alex Loftus (dir.),Gramsci. Space, Nature, Politics  Wiley-Blackwell, Oxford, 2013.

[7] “Race, class, and religion: Gramsci’s conception of subalternity” in Cosimo Zene dir.The Political Philosophies of Antonio Gramsci and B. R. Ambedkar: Itineraries of Dalits and Subalterns (New York: Routledge, 2013).

[8] See for example Srivastava, Neelam and Baidik Bhattacharya eds.The Postcolonial Gramsci (New York: Routledge, 2012);)Special issue on The Postcolonial Gramsci, Postcolonial Studies 16.1., 2013.

[9] Gramsci’s Relevance for the Study of Race and Ethnicity.” In D. Morley & K.-­‐H. Chen (eds.),Stuart Hall: Critical Dialogues in Cultural Studies (Routledge, London, 1996), pp. 411–440;The Hard Road to Renewal (London: Verso, 1988).

[10]Demography and Democracy: Essays on Nationalism, Gender and Ideology (Toronto: Canadian Scholars’ Press, 2011)

[11]Fanon’s Dialectic of Experience (Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA, 1996).

[12] Peter Thomas ;The Gramscian Moment (Brill, Leiden, 2009) ; Domenico Losurdo,Der Marxismus Antonio Gramscis (Hamburg : VSA, 2012); Gillian Hart, “Political Society and its Discontents: Translating Passive Revolution in India and South Africa Today”Economic and Political Weekly L: 43 (October 24, 2015); Carlos Nelson Coutinho,Gramsci’s Political Thought (Chicago: Haymarket, 2013).

[13] “The Tunisian Revolution did not come out of nowhere”, interview with Béatrice Hibou