Saturday, 4 September 2010

Gramsci and Economism

As we saw in the previous post in this series on Antonio Gramsci's Selections from the Prison Notebooks, he was committed to building a mass revolutionary party in the Leninist mode. But simultaneously he invoked a different and broader understanding of the political party. This isn't limited to members of tightly disciplined revolutionary organisations but takes in the entirety of the organisational capacity of a class. Conceived this way all the separate political parties, associations, combines, institutions, etc. of capital and the ruling class is their political party. The trade unions, co-operatives, labour and social democratic parties, Marxist parties and sects, community groups etc. are our - the working class's - political party. This is germane to our discussion of economism (which I understand, following Lenin, as the everyday bourgeois politics of the working class) because, as far as I'm aware the critique of economism has always gone hand in hand with promoting the Leninist party as its solution.

Before getting stuck into Gramsci's notes on economism, it's worth briefly addressing Gramsci's approach to class consciousness. His view was the working class were on a road of progressively realising its power and becoming conscious of itself and was exemplified from the historical experience of the class from the machine-breaking of the Luddites to mass communist parties dedicated to capitalism's overthrow. This position (not dissimilar to Lukacs) has been variously critiqued as teleological and a left gloss of Hegel's philosophy of history. But this criticism misses the mark because their philosophical positions on consciousness are a meditation on proletarian experience up until that time: it was not derived from a rigid schema based on the progressive evolution of consciousness. If following Althusser philosophy is regarded as the class struggle in theory, it can also be the condensation of working class memory, albeit in abstract forms.

This is important because even though working class consciousness is the outcome of historical processes, it is something that has to be developed and fought for. That socialist consciousness and socialism is guaranteed by the blind laws of historical development is the opposite of Gramsci's views, which makes attempts to ascribe this view to him all the more perverse.

Gramsci's notes on economism looks at its place within capitalist relations of production, whose interests it serves, and how it is perceived/experienced by the ruling class and the working class. For the powers that be, free trade ideology is their primary species of economism. These ideas demarcate a split between political society (the state and its various appendages) and civil society (everything else that isn't the state, including the economy). But proponents of this view take this *analytical* separation of society into two distinctive spheres as a real separation. It is a nonsense to suppose the state and economy are really separate and opposed as the operation of each underpins and reproduces the other. But as distorted as it is it makes sense from a business point of view - the state is something external to the individual enterprise, as something that taxes profits and, even worse, passes laws and regulations that undermine management's right to manage. Free trade ideology is a philosophical generalisation of this perspective. Its solutions - laissez-faire in commercial relations between businesses and minimal interference by the state in the internal practices of enterprise (and of course, lower taxes) express the view that if left alone everything will be fine.

Despite being explicitly "hands off", as far as Gramsci was concerned this is as much a regulatory strategy for governing capitalism as Keynesianism and corporatism (whether of the Italian fascist or liberal democratic kind). Laissez-faire may be economistic and premised on the state's lack of agency, but to implement it requires changing key government personnel and developing a semi-coherent line of policy.

The main species of economism in the working class, or at least the sections organised by the labour movement, is syndicalism. It performs a similar, but inverted, analytical/"real" split between the state and civil society. For the economistic trade unionist the objective of workplace politics are better wages and conditions, fewer hours, more benefits and more autonomy. The struggle for these are waged against a clearly defined opponent: the employer. There appears to be few links between positions taken in the workplace and politics in wider society, which is why it's not unknown for the Queen's portrait to adorn the living rooms of many a militant.

Workplace relations belong to the totality of capitalist relations of production, but trade unions and trade unionists inhabiting the highly localised and specific relations between employers and employees are functionally uninterested in wider issues: it is beyond their brief. Hence the question of power and power relations is ignored and is entrusted to the political wing of the labour movement - the labour or social democratic party (this is why it takes a great deal for trade unions to begin questioning their formal relationship to these parties). More rarely, syndicalism can develop in a radical direction - especially if a union has won several successive victories and its members are confident. Their victories "independent" of political assistance can inculcate the view that the union/unions themselves can alone take power. Neither view, conservative syndicalism or radical syndicalism, contest the political, moral and cultural legitimacy of capitalism. This is a legitimacy - a hegemony - that operates without respecting the neat analytical separations of free trade dogma and syndicalism.

For Gramsci the relationship of the classes to their specific forms of economism has different effects. A ruling class subscribing to economistic views is a class renewing and buttressing its power. A working class that doesn't break with economism is one that finds its exploitation continually reinforced.

Economism, rather than being an ideology in and of itself is rather a set of several ideologies. "Radical" electoral abstentionism is one (i.e. the refusal to deal with politics, except in the most abstract and outlandish ways to allow for maximum radical posturing). Another branch of economism has taken up residence in academia and continues down to this very day. The inability to make a distinction between fleeting and semi-permanent phenomena was recycled in recent years in voguish approaches to globalisation, post-Fordism and postmodernism. The abstraction/celebration of economic self-interest, which identifies the historically and socially specific economic behaviour of a class with the 'human condition' lives on in (some) rational choice theory. And the outcome of historical processes - technological change - is inverted and becomes the primary driver of social development lives on in a negative sense: it is often (ignorantly) conflated with the Marxist conception of history.

Another example of economism, often found on the far left, are 'intransigence theories', or the avoidance of compromise almost on principle. The denunciation of leaders for selling out workers, a black and white view of the world, the sustenance of shibboleths, the agitation for demands out of step with popular working class consciousness, an implied linear progression of this consciousness in the unlikely event the class takes up a transitional demand or two, all of these presuppose an iron law of history where more favourable circumstances are bound to occur. Hence the order of the day is not building working class consciousness but preserving these perfectly formed ideas for the day when they will have mass support. To compromise now is to dilute them.

As I've already noted, for Gramsci the modern prince (the revolutionary party) was the primary instrument for combating economism. The body of the party unified the collective memory and experience of the working class with theory, which in turn guided the party's strategy on the ground which, at least in theory, forms a tight unity of theory and practice with each drawing on, building, and enriching the other. But in Britain where the far left has historically been weak and the Bolshevik tradition as a whole has never had a sustained mass following (nor is it likely to win one in the future), how can economism be combated in the labour movement?

There is no road map for this, but a general line of march can be built on Gramsci's insights on the root causes of economism. One of the major weaknesses of the British labour movement - but reflecting formal separations in British capitalism - is its division into a political, trade union, and cooperative wing. Labour's political "common sense" is to build electoral coalitions to win power: it is simultaneously the political arm of the labour movement and a catch-all party like the rest. The received wisdom of British trade unionism is economistic to the core. And the cooperative movement, in as far as it has a coherent outlook, is less about workers' ownership and control and more about being the consumers' champion. Therefore each are mired in their own forms of sectional economism. These are the obstacles socialists have to shift, and it's not easy.

Traditionally socialists outside Labour (whether Leninist or not) have and continue to pump out general propaganda for socialism. But this is much like trying to dispel religion by reasoned argument: it is a one-sided war without end as long as social relations replicate and sustain economistic ideas. Socialist arguments have to be combined with a strategy for transforming the labour movement into a body where economism finds less purchase. And the best way of doing this is building, strengthening and founding new relations between Labour, the trade unions, and co-ops. Practically, it means encouraging trade unionists to join Labour and, where affiliated, getting their branches to send mandated representatives to meetings. It means encouraging party members - who by rule should be members of a relevant union anyway - to get active in their trade union branches. It means unions and the party becoming enthusiastic supporters of co-ops and co-ops in turn using the avenues open to them to promote their alternative form of ownership.

This has to be struggled for, it will not drop from the sky. It requires socialists be active across all three areas of the broad labour movement building connections, making it more cohesive, and tying in the fates of each with the direction of all. This strategy, married to arguments for socialism, can produce conditions where the economism produced and reproduced by capitalist workplace relations is always and everywhere challenged by the experience of the labour movement. And when we have that, we have a solid nucleus powerful enough to contest capital's hegemony.

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


Boffy said...


I haven't read the full article yet, which looks very interesting following on from Part 1. However, I came across this, which I had to respond to.

"This is germane to our discussion of economism (which I understand, following Lenin, as the everyday bourgeois politics of the working class) because, as far as I'm aware the critique of economism has always gone hand in hand with promoting the Leninist party as its solution."

I don't think this is right. Although, the actual term "Economism" is associated with Lenin, and with "What is To Be Done?", and other writings at that time, where he argues that the Russian Marxists had to movbe beyond the industrial struggle to take up political issues, Lenin himself is basing himself on Marx and Engels.

His argument is essentially that I have been making for some time, which is that workers cannot advance purely within the confines of that industrial struggle, because in itself that struggle only ties them more closely to bourgeois ideology, it reinforces the notion that they can advance their position within Capitalism, and thereby reconciles them to it. Breaking out requires a political struggle. That is Lenin's basis for arguing, for example in "Two Tactics of Social Democracy", for the Marxists to engage in a struggle for bouregois democratic freedoms rather than leave that ground to the bourgeoisie. It is also his basis for arguing the need for a Revolutionary Party.

But, Marx and Engels made the argument that workers should not confine themselves to that "Economism" too, for example in marx's letter to Kugelman, his polemics against Weston and so on. Yet, Marx did not argue for the establishment of the kind of Party that Leninists insist upon. On the contrary, I think marx and engels concept of party was closer to that of Gramsci.

Eddie Truman said...

I have to say Phil this was enormously educational for me, I will need to come back to it many times again before I can really fully understand everything in it.
I'll need to read the first in the series next tho!
Is there any chance you could provide a reading guide of sorts to help with the articles?
A product of the strict Lenin / Trotsky school of mid 1980's Militant I never read any Gramsci.

Phil said...

That's fair enough, Boffy: it's a claim made on my own experience of the far left. The cpgb have always put great store in the struggle against economism but that's been firmly on the terrain of Leninist party building (although they have a much more open conception of what that means than the rest of the far left). Also their conclusions have tended to veer off in ultra left directions IMO.

Phil said...

I'm glad an auld comrade like you Eddie is appreciative! I will put together a proper reading guide when the whole series is completed.

But in the mean time when approaching the work I'd recommend reading the Selections preface by Quentin Hoare and Geoffrey Nowell-Smith, which does an excellent job setting out the historical and theoretical contexts. Also if you can get hold of it Roger Simon's 1982 intro to Gramsci is very clear, whether one agrees with his eurocommunism or not.

Reading The Notebooks themselves, readers must remember this was never designed by Gramsci to be a regular text. The notes are fragmentary, provisional, occasionally repetitive and at times difficult. None of this makes for an easy read, though the editors have done a good job in giving them some coherence.

I'd definitely begin with his notes on the intellectuals and education first and then move straight to the Modern Prince and the notes on hegemony and civil society. There are clear linkages between them. I would read his notes on Italian history last as an example of Gramsci's application of hegemony for understanding the class struggles in the early modern period. As for the rest of the book, on Fordism and Americanism, and philosophy, I haven't read them myself yet!

Eddie Truman said...

Thanks for that Phil, very useful.