Monday 24 August 2009

Gramsci, Althusser and Hegemonic Struggle

The Marx-Engels-Lenin thesis forms the foundation for Gramsci's stress on the need to take political and ideological struggle seriously. Though it is important to appreciate the repressive nature of the state, an insurrection would be unthinkable if the battle for the hearts and minds of the working class had not already been won. It means recognising "the permeation throughout civil society of an entire system of values, attitudes, beliefs, morality, etc. that is in one way or another supportive of the established order and the class interests that dominate it" (Carl Boggs. 1976. Gramsci’s Marxism. London: Pluto Press, p.39). Class struggle for Gramsci permeated all levels of society. The immediate strategic task of the revolutionary party is to forge a hegemonic counter-weight, presupposing "that account be taken of the interests and the tendencies of the groups over which hegemony is to be exercised, and that a certain compromise equilibrium should be formed – in other words, that the leading group should make sacrifices of an economic-corporate kind. But there is also no doubt that such sacrifices and such a compromise cannot touch the essential; for though hegemony is ethical-political, it must also be economic, must necessarily be based on the decisive function exercised by the leading group in the decisive nucleus of economic activity" (Antonio Gramsci. 1971. Selections From the Prison Notebooks. Eds. Quentin Hoare and Geoffrey Nowell-Smith. London: Lawrence and Wishart, p.161).

Therefore the revolutionary party must not only win the working class to socialism but also appeal to the interests of other class groups and fractions. To borrow a phrase from Lenin, the party must become the ‘tribune of the oppressed’, committing itself to addressing and providing answers for oppressions that immediately appear independent of class. Finally Gramsci affirms the classical theory of communism, the withering away of the state and the class basis for socialism. He states "since every party is only the nomenclature for a class, it is obvious that the party which proposes to put an end to class divisions will only achieve complete self-fulfilment when it ceases to exist because classes and therefore their expressions, no longer exist." (ibid p.152). Gramsci therefore locates the state as the chief objective of revolutionary politics.

Althusser in his celebrated
notes on ideology agrees with Gramsci that the institutionalisation of violence is one aspect of the state. Alongside these ‘Repressive State Apparatus’ (RSA) co-exist a number of ‘Ideological State Apparatuses’ (ISAs). Under this heading Althusser groups the institutions that constitute civil society, such as organised religion, families, the legal system, political parties, educational bodies, etc. The analytical distinction Althusser makes between ISAs and the RSA is fourfold. Firstly there is a plurality of ISAs whereas there is only one coercive apparatus wielded by the state. Second the RSA and ISAs correspond to a division between the public and the private respectively. Althusser then goes on to ask rhetorically how a ‘private’ institution such as the family can be regarded as a state apparatus. He suggests the functional effects it has by virtue of its socialising role ultimately produces the kinds of subjects required by capitalism and thus buttresses the state. Third, the distinction between the two hinges on the predominant character of the apparatus. The police in liberal democracies are saturated in ideologies around law and order and crime prevention. But their institutional function – of being the first line of the state’s defence – predominates over the ideologies their organisation secretes. Conversely, the nuclear family tends to be a site where (in most cases) a limited amount of violence is deployed against children, but in sum this is just one aspect of a socialising process that for the most part relies on non-violent means that generates particular subjects. Fourth, class struggle is central but operates differently across the RSA and ISAs :
The class (or class alliance) in power cannot lay down the law in the ISA’s as easily as it can in the State apparatus, not only because the former ruling classes are able to retain strong positions there for a long time, but also because the resistance of the exploited classes is able to find means and occasions to express itself there, either by the utilisation of their contradictions, or by conquering combat positions in struggle. (Louis Althusser 1971 ‘Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses’ in Lenin and Philosophy. London: Monthly Review Press, p.165).
The implication here is Althusser endorses the kind of long drawn out struggle sketched by Gramsci, where the ISAs are overwhelmed and transformed into revolutionary strong points in the long march to state power.

It is also necessary here to discuss Althusser’s original contribution to Marxism – his treatment of the micro-level processes of subject generation. Taking his cue from a sentence in Marx’s
1859 Preface, Althusser locates ideology in the position of mediator between an individual and the wider social world; it occupies ‘the imaginary relation of …individuals to the real relations in which they live’ (ibid). Ideology has a real, material existence. To illustrate ideology's materiality, Althusser notes the rituals, rules, and proscriptions characteristic of religious ideology is materialised in the practice of individuals and collectives that hold to these beliefs. Ideology also plays an active role in the constitution of individuals as subjects. Without it constituted subjects ideology cannot operate. The multiple influences of the ISAs interpellates us as subjects that think of ourselves as autonomous and free-willed entities, because this is ideology’s mode of address. To help understand this, Althusser offers the metaphor of being hailed in the street by a police officer. When they shout ‘hey you!’ the individual realises they are recognised by power and act accordingly. But in a society saturated by ideology this process of interpellation is always-already present. For example, the family ISA begins to constitute an unborn child as a subject through the rituals and practices surrounding birth. Therefore Althusser adds a new domain of analysis to Marxist politics.

Leaving aside many of the criticisms levelled at Althusser from within Marxism itself, there are two important charges that need addressing. The most common objection is that Althusser limits the scope of resistance, that it is circumscribed by the top-down programming of ideology, reducing individuals to what ethnomethodologists would call ‘cultural dopes’. This attribution of fatalism is a misplaced criticism. Althusser recognised the constant presence of the class struggle in the ISA’s, which implies interpellation is far from a uniform process. Subjects will always be contradictory entities whose degree of adaptation/resistance to the social order is dependent on the broad balance of class struggle throughout a given social formation. However this implication has to be teased out as it remains an untheorised silence in Althusser’s discussion.

The second criticism addresses the choice of terminology. Miliband in his 1977 book,
Marxism and Politics argues that Althusser confuses class and state power, collapsing the former into the latter with his designation of institutions such as the family as an ideological state apparatus. This puts undue emphasis on the state that could lead to an overestimation of its power and an under-appreciation of the potency of other forms of working class power – such as unions and cooperatives. Miliband favours a more balanced approach where the strategic obstacle presented by the state is tempered by recognition of the diffuse character of class struggle. This however is a problem of language and the tendency to interpret Althusser in strict functionalist terms. Althusser's work may assume a functional appearance, but at least where politics are concerned Althusser and Gramsci are one on the issue of political strategy.

Nonetheless the additions made by Gramsci and Althusser enrich the Marxist theory of the state rather than signal a significant departure from it. There is a ‘red thread’ running back to Marx that identifies the state as the lynchpin of ruling class power, recognises this power in the last analysis rests on an apparatus of organised coercion, that ruling class ideas obscure this through discourses that mystify the nature of the state, and finally recognises that the emergence of socialism depends on the ability of the working class to capture state power in order to dissolve it.

The whole contents of
Toward a Marxian/Foucauldian Encounter can be viewed here.

1 comment:

Dylan said...

good work. You pull the parts and levels about well. Made it easy for me to understand a lot of things ive read and how they talk to each other. of luck with your phd