But what Jones has been known for is, in fact, the very opposite of a “nuanced understanding” of the issues. Indeed, it is precisely the opposite. In the 1920s, the late Italian Communist scholar and leader Antonio Gramsci developed his theory of “hegemony.” As Gramsci saw things, the leading front of revolutionary struggle was the culture. Revolutionary social and political change, he argued, could never be obtained without a prior cultural struggle for hegemony in the existing institutions, in which revolutionaries had to work to make the culture at large ready for social revolution.
So while most people saw political change taking place via elections and the ballot, the Gramscian Marxists believed that the proletariat would never reach the necessary stage of fomenting a revolution until intellectuals worked first to create an intellectual and moral leadership that would transform the culture at large. The result would be creation of what he called a “historic bloc” that could successfully challenge the control of social relations by the bourgeoisie and lead to the moment when revolution could become a reality.
To Gramsci, it was the role of the intellectuals to mold the thought of those influenced by them, and to help create a group of “organic intellectuals” tied to the forces of social change and representing their true – i.e., revolutionary — interests. Little, I suspect, did Gramsci imagine that this role would be taken up within the major Ivy League institutions of higher education in the United States. But it has, and Princeton’s appointment of Jones reveals precisely this development.
The Gramscians believed that no revolutionary change could take place until civil society was first transformed by the intellectuals, after they had changed the culture. It was in the culture that the modern battle for revolution in advanced capitalism takes place — not in the factories where a steadily declining blue collar working class led their lives, as in the 19th and early 20th Centuries.
So in moving to the academy, Van Jones is only carrying out what he said in a now famous East Bay Express 2005 interview: that while his goal was still revolution, he was going to work for it within the system, or as he put it, “ I’m willing to forgo the cheap satisfaction of the radical pose for the deep satisfaction of radical ends.” Jones may have been forced to abandon his White House perch, but Princeton has given him a pretty good one. Gramsci might be smiling from his grave, but this isn’t something to celebrate if you are concerned about the state of America’s higher education.