Monday 3 December 2007

Introducing Antonio Gramsci

At the risk of doing much violence to Antonio Gramsci, I presented an introductory look at his life and ideas to the Stoke Socialist Party branch meeting, last Thursday.

After giving a brief precis of his life, I turned to Gramsci’s key contributions to Marxism. The starting place for this was his theory of hegemony. Put simply, this is the view that as well as resting on the bodies of armed men organised through the state, bourgeois power equally depends on mass consent. This doesn’t mean the bulk of the population have to agree that capitalism is great or the best possible social system. Gramsci's understanding of hegemony is subtler than that - he points to how culture is so thoroughly permeated with bourgeois values to that it's mostly taken for granted. For example, not many workers are articulate defenders of neo-liberal philosophy, but it is common sense to accept the wages system, mortgage payments, the existence of rich and poor, etc. Therefore, alongside the bourgeois monopoly of force and the economic compulsion to sell our labour power, we have a capitalist consensus culture that generates and reinforces certain habits of mind. In a famous passage of the notebooks, Gramsci evokes a battlefield metaphor to describe the problem bourgeois hegemony poses. In it, he says the state is just an outer ditch of the defence. Once captured, one can see beyond it a complex system of redoubts, earthworks, machine gun nests, and foxholes. What he means by this is for socialism to be established, the party must wage a political and a cultural struggle, of counterposing bourgeois hegemony with our own socialist counter-hegemony. For Gramsci, the success, the depth, and the permanence of a revolution rests upon winning the battle of ideas and displacing their hegemony with our own culture of resistance.

To win this cultural struggle, the working class have to win over other classes and class fractions to its intellectual and moral leadership. In other words, socialism has to speak to more than just the material interests of the working class, it has to show how others would benefit. What our counter-hegemony needs to do is weld together these forces into a system of class alliances that Gramsci terms a ‘historic bloc’. Now, this is often taken to mean he was an early advocate of class collaboration and the Popular Front, but this need not be the case. Small business people and where it exists, the peasantry can be won over to socialism, not by watering down socialist objectives but through persuasion, argument, and practice showing how these classes can benefit from the building of the democratically planned economy. The bourgeoisie play a similar game in defence of capital. Hegemony in Britain has traditionally welded together a ruling historic bloc comprising of capitalists, aristocrats, state bureaucrats, and sections of the petit bourgeoisie and layers of the working class. These webs of alliances in turn reinforce bourgeois hegemony, as was explored by Stuart Hall and some of the thinkers grouped around Marxism Today in the 80s. What is clear is for socialism to be successful in Britain, the ruling historic bloc has to be broken up. Central to his ideas of hegemony and counter-hegemony are the roles played by intellectuals in articulating them. Gramsci defines two types. There are the traditional intellectuals who appear as a class apart but have interests tied to the defence of the existing order. This includes layers of professors, politicians, priests, professionals, pundits, celebrities, etc who by their actions disseminate ideas and promote modes of being that may appear autonomous and independent in themselves, but when connected up articulate and strengthen bourgeois hegemony in a variety of contradictory and complex ways. Counterposed to these are the organic intellectuals, the thinking groups that arise from within the dominated classes and through political and cultural activity articulate the experience, the feelings, and the demands of those at the sharp end of capitalist society. For us, these organic intellectuals are activists, trade unionists, left politicians, and so on. In other words, organisers. For Gramsci, it falls to organic intellectuals to organise and disseminate counter-hegemonic ideas as widely as possible not only to challenge the establishment, but also encourage the development of other organic intellectuals.

What is the role of the party in all this? In the Prison Notebooks, Gramsci speaks of the ‘Modern Prince’. This is a reference to the 16th century Italian political thinker, Niccolo Machiavelli whose best known work, The Prince, has long been seen as a handbook for political elites. This is a work of statecraft, and particularly addressed to the petty but semi-absolutist princelings who ruled the Italy of his day. In modern capitalist societies, politics are a mass phenomena - the time of the single absolutist political actor is long passed, it is now the province of the modern prince - the political party. For socialists, the revolutionary party acts as a factory for concentrating the experience of the working class and generating through multiple interventions in politics and civil society more organic intellectuals, and a counter hegemony capable of winning over the working class, cementing a historic bloc, and challenging the bourgeoisie.

M thought Gramsci's work is vital because he makes clear the breadth of the struggle socialists are engaged in, and how complicated the tasks are that lie before us. The ditch and earthworks metaphor is important because it shows how our job doesn't end with the assumption of power by the working class: the construction of the new society is a continuation of the struggle against generations of bourgeois ideas settled like a sediment upon the the collective consciousness of our class. D noted one key battle for socialists is to invest socialism and communism with new meaning, and make the perverse associations bourgeois hegemony has helped articulate around them meaningless. He also noted with their monopoly on the means of production, their dominant cultural position shouldn't come as a surprise. P added Gramsci is useful because the notion of hegemony gets us away from viewing capitalist culture as a monolith that swallows up workers and spits them out as drones. Hegemony is dynamic because it always seeks to absorb the new and the challenging. For example, contemporary multiculturalism has become a central component of British bourgeois hegemony partially due to changes within the composition of the ruling class and the state, and partially due to the struggles of oppressed and marginalised groupings from below. The fact these struggles have been reconciled and absorbed into bourgeois hegemony stands testament to the failure of making these struggles a constituent part of our socialist counter-hegemony.

Summing up, I looked at two bastard offspring of Gramsci's ideas. Beginning with Eurocommunism, I discussed how they were taken up by 'modernising' layers within the official communist parties on the continent to build a strategy where talk of hegemony and historic blocs provided a sophisticated gloss to their outright collapse into parliamentary reformist strategies. This was abetted by the inclusion of an element of the capitalist class itself within their mapping of the socialist historic bloc - an element supposedly in an antagonistic relationship with monopoly forms of capital tied to the state and extra-national interests. In Britain, where the Eurocommunist wing captured the bulk of the decaying CPGB apparatus, the party was wound up in the name of a self-styled Gramscian strategy. All it managed to achieve was the hitching of many a career onto what later became the New Labour bandwagon.

The second was the fate it suffered at the hands of many an academic. Gramsci's ideas proved attractive to many in the universities because of a superficial understanding of the role he allotted to intellectuals. Some went on to take this to an elitist extreme. In Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe's much-celebrated Hegemony and Socialist Strategy, their at times willful misunderstanding of the Marxist conceptualisation of the proletariat argued one could not meaningfully speak of the working class having interests - therefore there was no necessary correspondance between class interests and socialist ideas. By disassociating socialism from real tendencies present within capitalist society, Laclau and Mouffe have essentially reduced it to being just a good idea. But to fight for that idea, a new socialist counter hegemony has to be created, where coalitions and alliances are built between a multiplicity of small, localised struggles and constituencies. The job of articulating the counter-hegemony, falls, as in Gramsci, onto the shoulders of the intellectuals. But because there cannot be a class component, these intellectuals are free floating and potentially unaccountable. Because of their position in articulating the counter-hegemony, they can presume to speak for the coalitions gathered beneath its umbrella - they assume a privileged position vis a vis the rest because they can only speak for themselves. Thus socialism, instead of growing organically out of the development and antagonisms of capitalist society becomes something divined by a political elite, who then hand down socialism from on high.

As far as I was concerned, the ambiguity of the Prison Notebooks left a space for the bastardisation and debasement of Gramsci's legacy. But his concepts only failed to become weapons precisely because their revolutionary qualities were expunged and his ideas twisted by those whose interests lay in securing position for themselves under the present system. In the hands of socialists, of unashamed partisans of the working class, they're dynamite.


Anonymous said...

For a classic portrayal of working-class acceptance of the bourgeois hegemony you cannot beat Robert Tressell's 'The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists'.

Charlie Marks said...

Aye. But its a fucking miserable read. It'd make a good film or, now here's an idea, BBC costume drama...

Great post, compa. The "socialism as idea" is prevelant, esp. among working people, as you've noted. What we need to articulate is class, socialism as working class rule, as participatory democracy.

MC Fanon said...

I started getting into Gramsci when I was taking a look at anti-fascist literature from a Marxist perspective. It wasn't so much that he developed the idea of cultural hegemony (Marx simply referred to it as the bourgeois "superstructure") but rather he identified its place and role in modern society. Gramsci is probably cited more than Marx himself for his contributions on culture, and ironically many of those who cite him are Christian conservatives.

Good post. I'm going to give it a second go-over tomorrow.

Anok said...

First - thanks for stopping by.

Next - A wonderful post.

the construction of the new society is a continuation of the struggle against generations of bourgeois ideas settled like a sediment upon the the collective consciousness of our class.

This thought process, and others similar to it in your post is something that has been at the top of my personal socio-political conversations as of late.

Although I do take a different stance, slightly, the idea behind it all is the same. Years upon centuries of social "training" will have to be undone to create any kind of new society, be it Socialist, Communist, Anarchist etc...

Thanks for saying it better than I have been able to as of late!

Frank Partisan said...

Charlie: I have problems commenting on your blog. It's a technical problem.

Phil: Thank you for helping save Gramsci from his fair weather friends the Stalinists.

Anonymous said...

Fuck me, a CWI branch discussing Gramsci.
It would never have been tolerated in my day.

Phil said...

Thank fuck things aren't as grim now as they were back then Eddie, lol.

Thanks comrades for the comments as well. The one thing I get from Gramsci, which I didn't really go into much depth about, was how his approach to hegemony, the forging of the historic bloc, the war of position within civil society (again, not really covered in my post), lay out in abstract terms how socialism can form and proceeds to develop from within capitalist society.

I hope to work this piece up and expand it into an article for Socialism Today.

D.B. said...

Excellent post, Phil BC. That's as good an exposition of the relevance of Gramsci to socialist struggle as I've seen anywhere.

The strange thing for me is that, theoretically speaking, I came to Marxism mainly through Gramsci (or at least the appropriation of his work in 80s cultural studies) rather than any of the more "classic" Marxist approaches. I was a socialist before that, but in terms of my theoretical understanding Lenin and Trotsky are still relatively unfamiliar territory to me compared to Gramsci. I think that's partly the reason I felt uncomfortable in a trad revolutionary party like the SP. I suppose I'm a child of the 21st century in that respect: uncomfortable in any party, and more receptive to the idea of cultural struggle than anything. Not necessarily a bad thing, but not necessarily a good thing either...

I think you make a good point about the mis-use of Gramsci in academia too. It certainly applies to cultural studies: including those academics who (contrary to what Gramsci or Marx themselves would have argued) began to see practically all of popular culture as a sign of struggle and resistance: the "don't worry be happy" conception of popular culture. I like to see myself at neither one extreme or the either (neither Frankfurt School nor Cultural Populist) and I think Gramsci offers a way out of that polarisation, if used properly.

PS. Thanks for the shout out re. my Morrissey post!

Korakious said...

A good post certainly, but... we've been saying that for quite some time. By we, I mean you, and me and the guy next door, ie people who take a serious approach to Marxism than just a vulgar economistic workerism.

The problem is how do we translate this into concrete political action. What for example, should SPEW, or the SSP do to build hegemony?

Phil said...

Aye Korakious. Gramsci has been available to English language readers since 1971 now. Much of what Gramsci talks about, we on the left do already, though for historical reasons his influence has been more acknowledged among 'official' communist circles than among those of us who stand in a Trotskyist tradition.

As a concrete example of hegemony-building and conflict, look at environmental issues. At the moment the bourgeoisie through their monopoly on the media and rolling out of government-backed green programmes (recycling, etc.) have hegemonised environmentalism around non-threatening green-friendly consumption and individual life-style change. Those of us who have alternative political solutions not only have to consistently critique the obvious inadequacies of bourgeois environmentalism, we have to make green issues red issues by consistently championing them while debating and arguing with our allies/opponents within the environmental movement. Naturally, they'll be trying to do the same thing. Hence the reason why the labour movement and the revolutionary left should have large, visible presences on demonstrations such as those against climate change that took place this last weekend.

Of course, one obstacle placed in the way of constructing a vibrant and combative socialist counter-hegemony in Britain are the levels of mistrust existing between the most significant socialist organisations. There's no quick fix for getting round this, unfortunately. The best we can do at present, in the absence of a major struggle that could throw us all together, is keep open the lines of communication, keep talking, and wherever possible build constructive relationships around common actions.

Just my two pennies worth on a complex subject.