As we have seen in previous pieces in the series on Gramsci's Selections from the Prison Notebooks, building a revolutionary party - the modern prince - is a vitally necessary precondition for the seizure of state power by the working class. But building the party is one thing, the path to power is another. It's not enough to proclaim a party (any bunch of misfits with a passing knowledge of Marxism can declare themselves the vanguard): the key political task is overcoming the divisions within the working class itself.
For Gramsci, in an abstract sense politics is about leaders and led. More concretely, by virtue of the different roles millions of individuals play in the division of labour, some sections of the class are more predisposed to leadership/intellectual/organising positions than others. However the existence of leaders and led does not mean the latter will automatically follow the former, especially when the locations they inhabit in the division of labour can put them at loggerheads. Often a departmental manager or supervisor is in conflict with their staff, the shop floor may resent the office, and on it goes. The authority one group has over the other is based on the lash of economic necessity.
The relatively privileged positions of some workers confer certain skills that lend themselves to most kinds of political organisation. But here lies a problem. The division of labour casts a cultural shadow over life outside the workplace: the language, culture, forms of activism, expectations of commitment and so on may not gel with the culture of the led. Similarly the mass can appear as a dark continent to the 'leaders', especially when the class stubbornly refuses to follow their lead or act in ways contrary to what is determined to be its interests. This is particularly problematic for existing Leninist organisations in Britain as they disproportionately draw its cadre from this layer. Marxist politics has to be sensitive to divisions within the working class and avoid compounding the problem by reducing every problem of proletarian politics to a question of leadership.
Class divisions among the opposition are worth paying attention to as well. In any given country, parties are divided along fundamental lines corresponding to classes. i.e. a bourgeois party, a workers' party, etc. More often than not the fundamental bourgeois party is split into factions for a variety of historical and ideological reasons. In Britain it is split between the Tories, LibDems and Labour (the latter itself an instantiation of a cross-class alliance between sections of capital and the labour movement). Following this line of thinking the main parties are really factions of the fundamental party of capital. Each of the factions are formally independent and may vigorously and bitterly oppose one another, but at times of crisis (sometimes during capitalist crisis but especially during a revolutionary crisis) the situation brings out their identity of interests. Existing differences are comparatively trivial set against what unites them. At times of crisis they can and do form united fronts and therefore become the de facto ruling class party. Where the main workers' party has its feet in the ruling camp its organising nucleus can pass over to capital. This can lead to a temporary immobilisation as the workers' movement reels from the shock but it does prevent an opportunity for socialists to fill the vacuum. But it is an opportunity: there is no guarantee such an eventuality would set the class on the path to firmer consciousness. In addition to these, some sections of their class can exist apart from and appear to be independent of party politics. Monarchies and ceremonial presidents are typical examples, but so are "non-political" pressure groups and bosses' organisations.
Therefore Gramsci is arguing for a wider definition of a party, he's referring to the complex totality of how a class organises politically. It follows that writing a history of a political party is simultaneously charting the historical capacity of a class to act in its own interests. This is a difficult but necessary task for getting to grips with the political situation.
The political party of the working class - the organisational complex through which it acquires consciousness - is unlike the party of capital. Whereas the latter is formed and reformed as it preserves the system, as long as the working class party remains trapped by the confines of capitalism it is never fully developed. It incubates within the womb of capitalism and becomes conscious through action and learning from action. Today it's a protest, tomorrow a decisive election campaign, the next day forming the first socialist government. In line with received Marxist thinking on the subject, the full maturation of the revolutionary party only happens when the new society is being constructed. The complete party is the one that begins abolishing itself.
The revolutionary party begins formation at a certain level of historical development when it becomes "necessary", i.e. when the path to power is a real (objective) possibility. This requires three elements: the masses themselves; a "cohesive element" (a leadership) that can inspire the masses to follow them, place themselves under their discipline, innovate and seize opportunities when they arise, and learn the lessons of previous struggles; and a mediating element between the two, the sinews of the political party (conventionally defined).
Gramsci may have been writing in a very different context with mass communist parties and much greater levels of class consciousness, but his wider identification of the party with the organisational complex of a class seems useful for the predicament socialists find themselves in today. In the historical absence of a sizable revolutionary party and a Marxist left seriously interested in patching up its differences, and given the traditions of the workers' movement, it seems very unlikely a mass Leninist party will ever be built in this country - even at a moment of revolutionary crisis. This isn't a counsel of despair, just a realisation that the route to class consciousness will not conform to the vague Trotskyist blueprints that are knocking about. For Marx, the task for socialists is to organise the class as a political party, which implies he used 'party' in Gramsci's wider sense of the term. Despite the many problems plaguing the labour movement we still have the advantage that the institutions it has built remain and still organises masses of workers, economically and politically. Therefore socialists must work in them, build them, democratise them, and work to ensure our ideas come to the fore. It's not an easy task, but this seems the only realistic way of realising a Gramscian strategy in Britain today.
A list of posts in this series on the Selections from the Prison Notebooks can be found here.