Pete Buttigieg Just Dealt a Blow to His Father’s Legacy

This week, Pete Buttigieg joined forces with the Democratic establishment to attempt to defeat a democratic-socialist insurgency. In doing so, he attacked the philosophy that his Marxist dad spent his career celebrating.

Former Democratic presidential candidate and former South Bend, Indiana mayor Pete Buttigieg speaks during a campaign event on February 14, 2020 in Sacramento, California. (Justin Sullivan / Getty Images)

A longtime and widely respected professor of literature, Joseph Buttigieg devoted his remarkable academic career to translating the writing of the Italian revolutionary Antonio Gramsci into English.

In his long tenure at Notre Dame, the professor founded the International Gramsci Society and came to be recognized internationally, including by the Italian government, as a leading expert on the theorist’s writing. Buttigieg’s signature contribution, however, was his authoritative translation of Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks — a collection of thirty-three notebooks that Gramsci had filled with original reflections and theories from the prison cell where he eventually died as a captive of Mussolini’s fascist regime.

In the Prison Notebooks, Gramsci wrote prolifically on the insidious ways by which the ruling class manufactures consent among the masses to remain in power. Rather than merely using force to subjugate the working class, Gramsci wrote that the bourgeoisie establishes and maintains a “cultural hegemony,” rewriting the culture’s values, philosophy, and imagination to maintain class hierarchy and exploitation.

For decades following his death in 1937, Gramsci’s writing was largely inaccessible to a readership outside Italy. The first time his foundational writing was published in English was in 1957, and even thirty years after that, Buttigieg wrote, “the non-specialist Anglophone reader has direct access only to a partial and somewhat disjointed version of Gramsci’s ‘literary’ legacy.” His writing was “still known only in bits and pieces through selections stitched together and given a measure of coherence by well-intentioned editors and translators.”

Reviving Gramsci’s revolutionary philosophy and rescuing his ideas from near obscurity was a staunchly political act. Decades after Gramsci’s death, Buttigieg was in part responsible for his reemergence as one of the great Marxist thinkers of the twentieth century. His achievements were also a resounding defeat of the fascist censorship that Gramsci struggled against behind bars until his death.

Buttigieg spoke of Gramsci as a muse, with unbridled admiration. He wrote that Gramsci’s life was one of “selfless commitment to the socialist vision; of great expenditures of energy on behalf of the Italian Communist Party he helped found; of unwavering dedication to the cause of the oppressed; of brave, unyielding and very costly defiance of the Fascist dictatorship.” He called the revolutionary an “an anti-Fascist martyr.”

The Apple Falls Far

During his campaign for the presidential nomination, the younger Buttigieg ironically came to neatly embody what Gramsci called a “traditional intellectual” — a public and influential figure, educated in the dominant institutions, whose ideas and stature are designed to maintain the cultural hegemony, the same institutions and social order that propped him up. Educated and trained in our society’s most elite institutions — a prep school, Harvard, Oxford, the US military, and McKinsey — Pete came to serve as a mouthpiece for the bourgeoisie, helping to reproduce the logic that has kept it on top.

Although Pete entered the race championing alternative thinking — his early ideas of “generational justice” included abolishing the electoral college, restructuring the Supreme Court, and Medicare for All — somewhere along the campaign, he sold his campaign to the bourgeoisie and embraced everything Gramsci warned against.

In the name of liberalism, and with the backing of an impressive roster of billionaire donors, his raison d’être has been to shrink Americans’ political imagination and to return the political conversation to a neoliberal “common sense.” He found his lane campaigning on a return to the pre-Trump status quo, proposing stale, market-based solutions to the health care crisis and redefining “inclusion” to mean that billionaires can buy electoral power. He espoused “sensible” gun control at home while celebrating his role in carrying out violence abroad, as though gun control were an entirely separate issue from military aggression overseas.

And most insidiously, Mayor Pete paired his centrist policy and rhetoric with a reactionary cultural sensibility designed to make it all feel like “common sense” — just the way things are. His was a realistic and pragmatic position, he suggested, in contrast to the “nostalgia for the revolutionary politics of the 1960s.

Antonio and Bernard

When Bernie Sanders declares that health care is a human right and proposes a sweeping policy to that end, he is challenging the common sense that has undergirded a massive portion of the American political economy for generations. He is proposing a fundamental change not just in how we pay for health care, but in how we think about health care in our society, and more importantly, our responsibility toward caring for each other.

Our society doesn’t have to be this way, Gramsci would argue, and Bernie’s campaign is the first to articulate that challenge to hegemony so boldly, forcefully, and without compromise.

But beyond specific policies, the #NotMeUs movement is challenging the authority of the “traditional intellectual” — the Ivy League–educated McKinsey alumni, like Mayor Pete. One of the key concepts to emerge from Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks was the role of the “organic intellectual,” a thinker who is a product of the working class, and whose intellect is shaped by class consciousness. The knowledge of the organic intellectual, according to Gramsci, comes not from the elite institutions that seek to legitimize and reproduce exploitative systems, but from the organic experience of living and laboring in the working class.

Their intellect challenges the status quo and presents an alternative.

The #NotMeUs movement is the first modern American political campaign to center the voices and perspectives of workers over technocratic elites. The intellectual foundation of the campaign — the source of knowledge that Sanders appeals to — is not the tired pedigrees, policies, and conventional wisdom that a neoliberal consensus has convinced us is the only way to govern. It is the pains, injustices, and realities that working Americans live every day and the alternatives that they have come to believe in.

This movement is what the younger Buttigieg called an “inflexible, ideological revolution” last week. And it’s what he used his last remaining ammunition to attempt to defeat earlier this week.

He was striking a blow to the movement and ideas his father tried to advance.