Saturday 26 December 2009

Another Look at Antonio Gramsci

The culture of the far left in Britain sometimes makes it difficult to talk about the kinds of strategies socialists should pursue in advanced capitalist societies (see this thread over at Socialist Unity for instance). To argue that the far left should take elections more seriously invites charges of electoral cretinism. To suggest we should skillfully exploit progressive virtues in popular national identities is branded a capitulation to nationalism. Thinking about how the police and army can be turned from antagonists into potential allies of the labour movement supposedly discards what Lenin wrote in The State and Revolution. And on and on it goes. Creative thinking about strategy tends to be substituted by a quasi-mystical belief that some day the mass of the working class will become more combative and usher in a revolutionary situation, which is when (insert the name of the revolutionary party of your choice) will fight to place itself at the head of the process and make the revolution.

Unfortunately, socialist politics are not so simple. Building a small organisation of a few thousand members is one thing. Breaking out beyond this and contesting capital for the political loyalties of masses of working class people is quite another. And as for managing the transition from a capitalist to a socialist society ...

Clearly, the tasks socialists set ourselves are enormous. We may be scattered across the labour movement, the Labour party, the 57 varieties of Trotskyism and elsewhere, and as far from a sniff of power as we have ever been. But nevertheless we have to think about bringing socialism from the fringe to the mainstream, otherwise what's the point? There are plenty of lessons that can be drawn from the existing practice of British Trotskyism - for example, the experiences of the SSP, Socialist Alliance and Respect on the relationships between Leninist and non-Leninist organisations and activists, the SP's intervention in the Lindsey dispute, the SWP's role in Stop the War and Militant's leadership of Liverpool City Council - all deserve serious study rather than being causes for condemnation or uncritical celebration.

But experience is not enough. A theoretical framework for thinking through strategic options is required too. Traditionally (and unsurprisingly), British Trotskyism has taken its cue from Trotsky's transitional method, of putting forward slogans theoretically achievable under capitalism but, if implemented, runs up against its logics and demonstrates in practice how the system is fundamentally incapable of meeting the needs of the many. While I do think there is a place for this, it implies a mechanical view of consciousness (who's to say socialist conclusions are the inevitable consequence of millions "realising" capitalism isn't run in their interests?) It is also premised too much on a metaphysics of leadership - that workers would follow the transitional demands put forward by the party if it wasn't for the betrayals of union bureaucrats, Stalinists, reformists, sectarians, or opportunists. This kind of thinking is unhelpful for identifying political opportunities and likely points of rupture in societies as complex as ours.

One alternative is the work of celebrated Italian Marxist, Antonio Gramsci, who is often the first stop for thinking about socialist strategy in Western Europe (he first received the AVPS treatment a couple of years ago
here). His work has proven extremely influential, though very often for the wrong reasons. Over the course of a series of posts I'll be looking at Gramsci's best known work in English, Selections from the Prison Notebooks, which will be listed below. The format will be very similar to the previous extended discussions of Georg Lukacs and JS Mill, looking in depth at arguments and evaluating them in light of subsequent debates and developments.

Gramsci, Intellectuals and Class
Gramsci on Education
Class Formation and Class Politics

The Modern Prince
Machiavelli and Marxist Politics
Internal Class Divisions and the Party
Gramsci and Economism

Theory and Activism in Marxism
Notes on Organisation and Consciousness


EddM said...

A watered down version of Gramsci is still popular in universities, among people who point to his writings on the role of intellectuals without realising that he talks about activist intellectuals. This reading of his work gives armchair socialists in academia an easy way out.

I'm looking forward to reading what you have to say.

luna17 said...

Yes, I agree with EddM that Gramsci has a degree of academic respectability (unlike Lenin and Trotsky) that depends on gutting him of authentic revolutionary content. In the 80s he was used to legitimise abandonment of revolutionary positions by some on the left, and has for a long time been a safe house for academic Marxists (as distinct from Marxists who are also academics).

I agree entirely with the main post about the need for re-visiting the Marxist classics and especially looking afresh at the challenges of building in contemporary Western societies. I'm going through a similar (and slightly daunting) process with Lenin at the moment - going back to the source and thinking through how it is applicable today.

Simon said...

I've always said there's alot to be learned from Gramsci's ideas. He's one of the most widely read theorists but one of the most rarely realised in practice.

Phil said...

I think one of the reasons why he's rarely realised in the existing practice of the far left is partly historical - Gramsci's ideas were firmly associated from the outset with eurocommunism and particular factional battles within official communism - and partly because constructing a counter-hegemonic bloc is beyond the sectarian traditions of British Trotskyism, who, as this decade has shown, have a very hard time even fielding joint candidates in elections.

Polscistudent said...

If it could be summarized, what is the main argument of gramsci in his prison notebooks?:)

John Robinson said...

Polsistudent, i'm not saying that it's his only idea of merit, but you may want to try reading up on Gramsci's 'hegemony theory', as a route for better understanding his modus operandi...