BAKHTIN, GRAMSCI AND THE SEMIOTICS OF
Although very different thinkers, Bakhtin and Gramsci shared a remarkably similar intellectual heritage and developed many very close formulations about the relationship between language, ideology and hegemony. Like Bakhtin, Gramsci was repelled from positivist social science and linguistics and was drawn to the anti-positivist aesthetic theories of Benedetto Croce and Karl Vossler, who had, in turn, developed the ideas of Wilhelm von Humboldt. Although both Bakhtin and Gramsci developed a critical approach to Croce’s romantic theory of language, which identified art and language in an attempt to stop art being treated as some sort of ‘aristocratic club’,  they both adopted the key notion that a language embodies a worldview. The greatest intellectual threat to the tenability of the Crocean theme, which rested on the sovereignty of the individual over his or her language (which he called an endless flow of intuition-expressions) came from the work of Saussure. Saussurean linguistics had severely damaged the tenability of the Crocean scheme by destroying the atomistic conception of language by which a word refers singularly to an object in the outside world and showing language to be a social given which structured consciousness. While Bakhtin encountered Saussure’s work through the work of the Russian Formalists, Gramsci came to Saussure through the work of his ex-research supervisor Matteo Bartoli, who had developed a spatial linguistics called neolinguistics which attempted to trace the flow of innovations from one national language to another. Gramsci praised Bartoli for his historicizing of language study, but argued that it needed to be based on a Marxist base in order to avoid the romantic individualism of Crocean theory.
Bakhtin’s early work is concerned with the way in which an action requires its meaning in the unique situation or ‘event’, but this too was compromised by the Saussurean system. Even worse, the society described by Saussure’s langue is a bureaucratic and homogenous world ‘in which every subject behaves according to formal rules, to be obeyed without reference to ends, values or mitigating circumstances’. Immediately unacceptable in philosophical terms, this was to become politically unacceptable by the end of the 1920s. In Marxism and the Philosophy of Language the author uses the work of Croce and Vossler to break down the unacceptable aspects of Saussure’s system. Like Gramsci, Voloshinov turned to Croce to overcome the contamination of Marxism by mechanical materialism, that ‘reverence for "fact" understood ... as something fixed and stable’ which Saussure also displayed . Although Voloshinov tries to present his position as equidistant between the two trends, a close study reveals a position much closer to the romantic theorists Croce and Vossler.
Like Gramsci, the Bakhtin school follow Vossler’s critique of Croce’s individualism in which Croce is taken to task for ignoring the diversity of speech communities and producing a conception which treats human consciousness as a vast monologue. Vossler argued that diversity is shown in a plurality of styles at individual and national levels which interact through the mediation of translation: wherever and whenever we enter into the speech of someone else, or our own past speech, we are translating’. As for Bakhtin, all communication is, in a sense, translation. This involves the transferral of the inner form of language (‘the tendency of mind towards a definite goal’) across the boundaries of outer form where it becomes differently embodied in the receiving language. The surety of meaning is, however, disrupted by contradictory interests within the language community, and since style and worldview are identified, translation is a means of defence against alien perspectives. Aesthetic ‘taste’ stands guard over the boundaries of a language, binding members of the speech community aesthetically while sentiment binds them ethically. Language becomes a field of force within which different ideologies, styles and ideologies contend.
Vossler’s influence on Bakhtin and Gramsci was thoroughgoing. In shifting the Crocean identification of language and worldview to an analysis of style, Vossler implicitly acknowledged ideologies as existing in social, semiotic forms and defined by their relation to other competing ideologies. Gramsci and Bakhtin’s group both adopted this perspective but reaccentuated it to correlate with the sociological stratification of society as defined by Marxism. Both rejected Marxism’s Base and Superstructure model in favour of the Hegelian reduction of the social whole to expressions of a single essence interpreted, through Vossler and Humboldt in terms of the inner form of language. For Gramsci a social group has a conception of the world implicit in its social practice and which is manifested in the language it uses. For Bakhtin dialogism, the relations between discourses, is taken to be the expression of this single essence running throughout all social interaction, and which the novel models. Heteroglossia, the socially stratified national language is, however, subject to the power relations and hierarchy of society in which a dominant discourse imposes itself on others, presenting itself as universal and ideal. What Bakhtin calls the ‘posited unitary language’ Gramsci calls a ‘normative grammar’ presented as ‘the only one worthy to become, in an "organic" and "totalitarian" way, the "common" language of a nation in competition with other ‘phases’ and types or schemes that already exist’. A ruling class brings about changes as a ‘mass’ while the subaltern dialects influence in a ‘molecular fashion’. For Bakhtin, these forces are the centrifugal and centripetal forces operative within language. Like Bakhtin Gramsci sees the ruling discourse to have a tendency to become ‘fossilized and pompous‘ and breaking up ‘into so many refractions and dialects’ when it tries to ‘become informal’. This is the fate of the ruling discourse on Bakhtin’s carnival square.
However, while Bakhtin sees the imposition of the unitary language as a reactionary move, Gramsci notes that this depends upon the political circumstances. While Bakhtin was concerned with resisting the imposition of a systematic ideology from above, Gramsci was concerned to overcome the regional particularisms that prevented the formation of a class alliance of workers and peasants to resist Fascism and ultimately seize state power in Italy. While Bakhtin attached ethical criteria to the question of linguistic plurality, Gramsci saw the question in purely political terms. From 1934 Bakhtin saw the novel as an aestheticized form of popular carnival, which by bringing the official discourse into contact with ‘immediate reality’ through narrative, facilitates its break-up into socio-specific dialects. Entering the realm of recontextualization and experiment the ideological structure is revealed. Bakhtin’s author relates to the diversity of social discourses in the same way as Gramsci’s ‘organic intellectual’ relates to the common sense of a nation. Croce’s ‘aesthetic intuition’ becomes, in Gramsci’s hands, the ‘political intuition’ of the ‘leader’. 
Bakhtin poses the poles of novelistic construction as the monophonic and polyphonic poles (Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky) where the ‘form-shaping ideology’ of the author reveals a particular orientation on the plurality of languages. The former simulates a dialogue between discourses but in reality simply provides a medium where the author’s own discourse will ‘ring out more energetically’. Gramsci calls such a principle ‘bureaucratic centralism’ when applied to the political party, leading it to act as a ‘policing organism’. The contrary polyphonic novel aims for the ‘most extreme activization of vari-directional accents’, which is the principle Gramsci understands as ‘democratic centralism’ where previously dominant forces are kept within the boundaries of a new ‘legality’ and previously subaltern voices are raised to an equal level to compete for acceptance. In both Bakhtin and Gramsci these are treated as contrary hegemonic principles: attempts to bind another discourse to one’s own by establishing a relation of authority (Bakhtin’s authoritative discourse; Gramsci’s bourgeois hegemonic principle) or by facilitating the further advancement of the target discourse through one’s own (internally persuasive discourse/ proletarian hegemonic principle). In the latter principle the acceptance of another’s worldview, following Vossler, is a question of one’s language generating sufficient prestige to appear aesthetically, linguistically and ideologically attractive. 
While such similarities are apparent, Bakhtin restricted himself to cultural questions and anti-hegemony. As a revolutionary leader Gramsci was more concerned with the ‘construction’ of a counter-hegemony.
1. Croce, Aesthetic as Science of Expression and General Linguistic (London, 1953), p. 14.
2. Ken Hirschkop and David Shepherd (eds.), Bakhtin and Cultural Theory (Manchester, 1989), p. 8.
3. (Trans.Titunik and Matejka, Cambridge, Mass., 1973), p. xiv.
4. The Spirit of Language in Civilization (Trans. Oester, London, 1932), p. 182.
5. Gramsci, Selections from the Cultural Writings (London, 1985), p. 181.
6. Gramsci, (1985), p.172.
7. Gramsci, Selections from the Prison Notebooks (London, 1972), p. 252.
8. Bakhtin, Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics (Manchester, 1984), p. 204.
9. Gramsci (1972), p. 155.
formerly Max Hayward Fellow in Russian Literature, St Antony’s College, Oxford; now HRB Research Fellow, Bakhtin Centre
Copyright © 1995 Craig Brandist; all rights reserved. Redistribution, or republication of this text in any medium requires the consent of the author and the notification of the Bakhtin Centre