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Tuesday, October 05, 2010

active and passive revolution


The ideological hypothesis could be posed in the following terms: "The ideological hypothesis could be presented in the following terms: that there is a passive revolution involved in the fact that -- through legislative intervention by the State and by means of the corporative organization -- relatively far-reaching modifications are being introduced into the country's economic structure in order to accentuate the 'plan of production' element; in other words, that socialisation and co-operation in the sphere of production are being increased, without however touching (or at least not going beyond the regulation and control of) individual and group appropriation of profit."
–Gramsci, Prison Notebooks

There are few references or essays about Neapolitan historian Vincenzo Cuoco in English. He is known, by a small minority, for having originated the distinction between passive and active revolution that Gramsci took up in the twentieth century and used in a sense that, to an extent, seems to call out to Karl Polanyi’s hypothesis of the double movement – first the movement towards the free market, then the movement towards state intervention to preserve the private sphere from the stresses the profit taking activity had caused - within the Great Transformation to capitalism.

Cuoco (1770-1823) was the sort of figure who could easily have been cast by Stendhal in La Chartreuse de Parme. He was also the sort of figure that was easy to lose sight of, since the nuances he stood for were, in a sense, drowned in the blood of his epoch. In this sense, there is something of Benjamin Constant’s sense of the need to reintroduce Nemesis into politics, in the form of limits that would work against ‘usurpation’ and conquest. Constant’s pamphlets didn’t stop Napoleon, and Cuoco ended up, by all accounts, on the side of legitimacy after the great fading of collective energy in 1815.

He was not from Naples, but from the Molise region. By training he was another lawyer – or rather, his training as a lawyer was just part of a vaster training in the vaguer career of a philosophe, that career that is not, like that of law, institutionally recognized, and seems like no career at all to people who have short views of the amplitudes of the human soul.

He was, like all Italian philosophes, keenly aware of what was going on in Paris in the 1790s, and had, to frame his observations of these distant events, a fund of sources that included Vico. When the revolution came to Naples, his friends, like Pagano, participated in it and even tried to lead it. Cuoco took a discreter role, but even so fled the collapse and subsequent repression that put Pagano’s neck in a rope. In Milan, he published his essay on the rise and fall of the brief Parthenopeen Republic, under the guise of a philosophical history:

“In history, the custom of reporting names does more to flatter the vanity of those so named than it serves to instruct the reader. Few men know how to master events; the greatest number is its slave; he is what the time, the ideas, the moeurs and the events want him to be; when one has painted the first, what is the point of naming the others? I am firmly persuaded that if in the greatest part of history, one substituted for the proper names the letters of the alphabet, the instruction one would draw from it would be the same.”

In the event, the philosophic dislike for the personal was quickly disgarded in a history that was filled with personalities. And yet, in a sense, those personalities are as unreal in their reality as the characters of La Bruyere. Or they are real, rather, as calculators the combinations they are made of – which is to say, of that time, those moeurs, those events to which they reacted as though they had the choice to be outside of them.