Saturday, 16 January 2010

Gramsci, Intellectuals and Class

Gramsci's approach to intellectuals has been much abused in academia since the first publication of the Selections from the Prison Notebooks in English in 1971. In this piece I will set out as plainly as possible what Gramsci's understanding of intellectuals was and how he ties them in with the class relationships of capitalist societies.

Gramsci begins his short two-part piece, 'The Intellectuals' with a basic distinction concerning the class origins of intellectuals. 'Traditional' intellectuals are rooted in the classes that have hung over from pre-capitalist society, and as such express the interests of landed aristocracies, monarchs the church. Where these relationships have persisted into the modern era feudal classes, according to circumstance, have retained some ability to produce traditional intellectuals. But this is tempered by the ever-growing ensemble of social relations that is subject to capital. Where capitalist and feudal relations of production exist simultaneously there can be found battles that pit one set of intellectuals against another in a struggle for ideological supremacy. However, because of the greater dynamism of capitalism traditional intellectuals are onto a loser and either retreat and/or co-opted by the intellectual apparatus of the rising class - in this case, the bourgeoisie.

The other type of intellectual, the 'organic' intellectual is rooted in capitalism. They are produced by and serve the fundamental classes of that system i.e. the bourgeoisie or the proletariat (it is possible to have organic intellectuals who come from proletarian origins who go on to serve capital, and vice versa). As far as the peasantry are concerned, they do not produce organic intellectuals in the same way the bourgeoisie and working class do. Because of the historical division of peasants into semi-self sufficient households/families and their absorption by immediate concerns and interests, the peasantry has not been able to articulate its interests separately and distinctively from capitalism's fundamental classes. This isn't to say it cannot and has not produced intellectuals, obviously it has. But these have tended to be assimilated to the interests of the other classes. Therefore, Gramsci notes:
Every social group [i.e. class] coming into existence on the original terrain of an essential function in the world of economic production, creates together with itself, organically, one or more strata of intellectuals which give it homogeneity and an awareness of its own function not only in the economic but also in the social and political fields (Gramsci 1971, p.5).
So we have established the two different types of intellectual and how they are related to social class. But what *is* an intellectual? Gramsci notes "all men are intellectuals ... but not all men in society have the function of intellectuals" (p.9). Therefore an intellectual is defined by the qualities of their activities, but being an intellectual is more than just being involved in "brain work". In capitalist societies, the numbers and types of intellectuals and the ideas they employ are variously elaborated in conjunction with preceding intellectual activity and ongoing 'muscular nervous activity'. In other words, the specialist knowledge developed in conjunction with the ever-growing division of labour allows not only for the examination of the practice(s) of that division, and the suggestion for improvements/new practices. This existence as a specific form of intellectual practice forms the grounds for new ways of seeing the world. As far as Gramsci was concerned, these sorts of intellectuals are specific to capitalism and are therefore of a 'new type' that differs from the received contemplative connotations of the word 'intellectual'. He says:
The mode of being of the new intellectual can no longer consist in eloquence, which is an exterior and momentary mover of feelings and passions, but in active participation in practical life, as constructor and organiser, "permanent persuader" and not just a simple orator ... from technique-as-work one proceeds to technique-as-science and to the humanistic conception of history, without which one remain "specialised" and does not become "directive" (specialised and political) (p.10).
Therefore Gramsci demonstrates how intellectuals as organisers of capitalist production set in train a tendency that leads to the formulation of gradually more abstract ideas to the point where they are formally divorced from economic organisation altogether. That is, as intellectuals organise the class relations of production they have the effect of organising class consciousness too. As you might expect, because the bourgeoisie are the ruling class in capitalist societies and its interests are bound up with the creative/destructive chaos of capital accumulation, there is a great concentration of intellectuals of every conceivable specialism clustered around it.

It's at this point Gramsci introduces his famous notions of hegemony and civil society in order to bring out the significance of the functions of intellectuals. It's worth quoting what he has to say:
What we can do ... is to fix two major superstructural "levels": the one that can be called "civil society", that is the ensemble of organisms commonly called "private", and that of "political society" or "the state". These two levels correspond onf the one hand to the function of "hegemony" which the dominant group [class] exercises throughout society, and on the other hand to that of "direct domination" or command exercised through the state and "juridical" government (p.12)/
Hence not all the intellectuals at the bourgeoisie's disposal are of the technical/professional kind: there are intellectuals who to greater or lesser degrees (irrespective of subjective consciousness) organise ruling class hegemony, and therefore serve and defend the activities of this class. Academics, journalists, politicians and even celebrities define the parameters of public discourse, promote certain forms of common sense, provide spectacles (be they political or 'harmless' entertainment), and so on. This has the effect of naturalising existing conditions, co-opting radical grievances and protest, and seeing off alternatives through a mix of rendering them absurd/unthinkable/unworkable and/or crowding them out.

Just as the organic intellectuals of the bourgeoisie organise the hegemony of capital, hegemony (tautologically) justifies the existence of an education system appropriate to it. As one advances through modern mass education systems the degree of specialisation increases and multiplies into disciplines, sub-disciplines, and niches of sub-disciplines. The pursuit of qualifications legitimises educational hierarchies of prestige, as well as the intrinsic qualities of intellectual activity itself. Generally speaking, the more abstract a field is the more prestige accrues to it (this is certainly the case within Sociology - while careers can be made off the back of ground-breaking empirical studies, it tends to be social theorists who command lasting fame and influence).

Gramsci notes some strata tend to be 'traditional' producers of intellectuals. In the Italy of his day, middle land owners, the petit bourgeoisie and the urban bourgeoisie provided the bulk of capital's organic intellectuals. Some sons of land owners and rural/small town bourgeoisie ended up as state bureaucrats. The urban bourgeoisie found outlets for its offspring in the technical professions. Of course, the fate and growth of the latter is bound up with the spread of industry and the pace of technological change, and the further up the intellectual hierarchy you go the more and more it merges with the general business management staff of capital. Rural intellectuals on the other hand "belong" to the mass of the countryside in two senses. In terms of outlook, culture and standard of living they identify with the small town bourgeoisie. But in their everyday activity (at least in early 20th century Italy) rural intellectuals in the shape of teachers, lawyers and priests formed a contact point that bridged the gap between the peasantry and (local) state administration. They were pillars of the community and many a peasant family aspired to have their sons in these sorts of positions.

As we have seen, intellectuals are more than 'brain workers', they organise things. The bourgeoisie's organic intellectuals organise the production process and work to maintain its class hegemony over society. Proletarian intellectuals on the other hand seek to organise the working class in pursuit of its interests (more in a future post). As organisers, what is the relationship between intellectuals and political parties which are, at base, aggregates of certain interests of certain classes and/or class fractions that are pursued collectively? Is there a necessary cross over of parties and intellectuals? Gramsci thinks there is. He makes two points:

1) For the bourgeoisie, all members of 'their' political parties are 'their' organic intellectuals. The parties offer a way of training organisers and elaborating new ideas that can maintain bourgeois hegemony. Given the 'general' mass character of the political field, this is the only way they can be so organised. The isolation of technical intellectual activity from politics means this does not and cannot offer the requisite training.

2) For all classes, parties perform roles in civil society analogous to the position the state holds in political society. A bourgeois party tends to be an alliance of organic intellectuals and traditional intellectuals (where feudal relations have persisted in some form) and transforms them "into qualified political intellectuals, leaders and organisers of all the activities and functions inherent in the organic development of an integral society, both civil and political" (p.16). Regardless of the class character of a party, anyone who joins is submerged into a group of organic intellectuals and through it becomes linked to the class it represents.

In addition to these two points, regardless of size and political orientation all parties have a general character. The bourgeoisie has various associations, combines and industry bodies to tend to its immediate (economic) interests. The working class has trade unions that further its sectional interests. But only parties transcend this particularity and attends to (what it takes to be) the general interests of its class.

By way of a conclusion, intellectuals are organisers, and their activities - be they technical or political/social/ideological - are linked with organising one of the two main classes in capitalist societies, regardless of the level of abstraction they are working at (an abstraction that itself is an outcome of organising those classes in the production process). Gramsci is absolutely crystal clear about this - the bonds between intellectuals and classes maybe elastic but they are incredibly strong too. Which is why attempts to decouple hegemony and intellectuals from class, as so-called post-Marxists
attempt to do are problematic. It supposes hegemony is a free floating object that somehow exists rather than being the result of elaborations an struggles in the real world. Post-Marxism is simultaneously seduced by the intellectual fiction that somehow intellectuals (or more properly, academics) stand outside and apart from actually existing historical processes.

Attending to Gramsci rather than his pomo
epigoni, it could be suggested that nevertheless his understanding of intellectuals is problematic from the standpoint of socialist politics. Critics of Leninism have traditionally attacked Lenin's What Is To Be Done? for arguing that socialist politics needs to be brought to the working class "from without" by a vanguard party is elitist (the point Lenin made was actually far subtler than this, but that's for another time). Gramsci's treatment of the intellectuals could be similarly interpreted - that the working class "needs intellectuals" to organise and become aware of itself, that workers are incapable of understanding things and struggling for themselves, etc. However this position is only possible if Gramsci's understanding of what an intellectual is is twisted and pared down to its traditional meaning. It's self-evident that any class needs organisers in order for it to organise itself - and Gramsci's discussion of the part they play emphasises the importance of the left today needs to place on cadre building and training.

In the next piece we will turn to Gramsci's writings on education: how it sustains class relationships, legitimises itself, feeds into bourgeois hegemony, etc.

A list of posts in this series on the
Selections from the Prison Notebooks can be found here.


skidmarx said...

For the bourgeoisie, all members of 'their' political parties are 'their' organic intellectuals.
But not all of 'their' organic intellectuals are members of 'their' political parties.
And I'm not sure there is a one-to-one correspondance between working class intellectuals and organisers, although the two roles to complement one another.

Phil BC said...

You do pick up on one element of confusion in Gramsci's argument. Going by my reading of his discussion of the intellectuals, it does seem as if he was concentrating on bourgeois intellectuals - hence his discussion of intellectual activity, abstract thought, etc. Obviously as far as the socialist movement is concerned, not everyone pens Marxist tracts, even though our revolutionary organisations are committed to blurring the distinction between theory and practice - it expects its members to study Marxist theory and working class history, and be politically active.

When it comes to the organic intellectuals of the working class I think we have to apply a wider definition of intellectual activity. For instance, while strikes are often led by militants who know nothing about Marxism, their activities as organisers brings groups of workers together and in so doing begins the process by which their consciousness undergoes change. Hence it's the *effects* of their actions that have an "intellectual" quality. At least that's how I see it.

hegemonynow said...

"[Post-Marxists suppose that] hegemony is a free floating object that somehow exists rather than being the result of elaborations an (sic) struggles in the real world."

From what I understand, both of those descriptions of hegemony are accurate. Hegemony is a "free floating object" because it is the "elaboration" (or discourse) arising out of various "real world struggle". It is "free-floating" precisely because the shape a struggle takes, i.e. the construction of a hegemony, is not logically predetermined by any privileged sphere. The difference, I think, between you and Laclau is that you only consider class to be a "real world" struggle while Laclau is more inclusive of other struggles (feminist, GLBT, ecology, etc.)

It is also odd that fault Laclau and Mouffe for thinking of themselves as "outside and apart from actually existing historical processes". The very title of the book (Hegemony and Socialist Strategy) would seem to indicate that they want to influence the "real world", as you aptly put it, and consider themselves to be a part of it. What evidence makes you say otherwise?

Paul said...

My viw for what it's worth is that Laclau and Mouffe, well-meaning intellectuals they may be, have harmed socialist strategy with their brand of anti-essentialist and ultimately liberal approach (and they explictly. express their admiration for liberalism in the final pages of H&SS). By far the best contemperaneous intellectual rebuttal comes from Norman Geras, oddly, though he builds on Ellen Meiskins-Woods return to class.

I've written on the impact on the British left of the NSM-style post-Marxism championed by L&M at

More relevantly, and much more briefly, I see Chris Dillow has taken up the issue today in his reflection on the failure of the left in the 1980s. See

EddM said...

Interesting stuff. It seems to me that in universities at the moment, Gramsci is the 'acceptable' Marxist to quote. The concept of 'civil society', and more often that of Habermas's 'public sphere', are particularly common in my history degree. But more often than not they are divorced from class analysis. Probably by organic bourgeois intellectuals...

The other thing I've noticed is the superficial reading of the word 'intellectual' to convince left-leaning academics that going to occasional seminars on post-colonialism constitutes political activism. Well, in a sense it does, but too often there's too little effort made to marry the idea of an 'activist' with that of an 'intellectual.'

I think this is one of two major misreadings of Gramsci which persist, with the whole Eurocommunist debacle being the other one.

Phil BC said...

Re: Hegemonynow, the above is a stick bending exercise. LGBT, anti-racist, feminist and ecological struggles are every bit as real as class struggle. In fact they are all intermeshed. Struggles that are supposedly "non-reducible" to class are overwritten by it in myriad ways. Pomos and post-Marxists (at least in my experience) tend to operate with a crude, reductionist and economistic idea of class that they read on to Marx and Marxism. This, IMO, ignores class as a social relationship fundamental to capitalism, glossing over its complexity, how it is conditioned by struggle and in turn how it conditions struggle (as well as social being "outside" of class struggle narrowly defined - it's one reason why I'm very interested in Bourdieu's work, but that's for another time).

So when I talk about hegemony as free floating, obviously in one sense it is - it's an aggregate of competing discourses conditioned by struggles, and also has a quality of its own beyond the sum of its parts. But what I am opposed to is conceptualising it as something without social anchors. I think what Laclau and Mouffe do is conceptually sever it from its material foundations, thereby reducing politics to just a competition over ideas.

Phil BC said...

Edd, when I was an undergrad in the mid-late 90s I read lots of stuff around postmodernism and post-Marxism. The academic bastardisation of Gramsci you describe was exactly the same back then.

luna17 said...

I sympathise strongly with EddM. A major reason for Gramsci's popularity with many 'marxist' academics is that they convince themselves they are politically active because they research and/or teach Gramsci. This is encouraged by a mis-interpretation of Gramsci's own work - they delude themselves they are doing 'praxis' without actually doing any political activity. Talking about 'praxis' becomes a substitute for combining theory and practice. It is, in reality, closer to Althusser's safe, academic notion of 'theoretical practice' (and Althusser was a long, long way from the authentic Gramsci).