Sunday, 13 June 2010

Class Formation and Class Politics

The first two set of selections from Gramsci's Prison Notebooks discussed here were concerned with demonstrating how classes exerted their influence through groups of intellectuals. In the fragments grouped together in 'Notes on Italian History' Gramsci is demonstrates how the formation of the Italian state during the 19th century was the story of subordinate classes overcoming the domination of the peninsular by landed aristocracies, petty monarchs, Austria, and agents of the Pope while simultaneously negotiating the consent of the mass of the peasantry and nascent working class. As I'm no scholar of Italian history this contribution to the ongoing series on Gramsci's Selections will confine itself to a few (overly theoretical) points.

Gramsci begins by noting that classes do not enter the stage of history as unified actors: they are the outcome of particular social processes:
The historical unity of the ruling classes is realised in the State, and their history is essentially the history of States and group of States. But it would be wrong to think that this unity is purely juridical and political ... the fundamental historical unity, concretely, results from the organic relations between State or political society and "civil society" (Gramsci 1971, p.52).
Subaltern (i.e. non-ruling) classes belong to civil society: that segment of society not part of the state (in this definition the economy is part of civil society, whereas 'political society' is not). Nevertheless class histories are bound up with the state under whose auspices they developed. For example, it would be impossible to understand the making of the working class in these islands without reference to its relationship with the UK state.

To analyse non-ruling classes Gramsci recommends six methodological criteria:

1. Classes are 'objectively' formed by economic processes from the classes and strata of previous societies. Initially they have a non-conscious 'sociological' existence and to an extent their previous histories are preserved.
2. In their existence, classes have active/passive affiliations with a number of political actors of other classes. Their dealings with these parties influence them, condition political consequences of those interactions and in turn impact on the formation of the class.
3. As well as being influenced by the social weight of subaltern classes, parties and institutions belonging to the ruling class attempt to win control over them by seeking their consent to be ruled.
4. The above produces an organisational response within subaltern classes. The initial group of organisations are formed to press its own claims.
5. The second set of organisations lay claim to the interests of the subaltern class(es) in the prevailing social order.
6. Finally, organisations emerge that assert the integral, independent identity of a class
as a class.

Applied to the formation of the working class in capitalist societies, these criteria can guide the study of the passage it makes from a class in itself to a class for itself (in Gramsci's guarded writing, the latter three criteria refer to the formation of trade unions, social democratic and labour parties, and revolutionary parties). Such an analysis must pay attention to the complex interplay of struggles, institutions, parties, etc.

In the second part of his notes on Italian history; 'The Problem of Political Leadership in the Formation and Development of the Nation and the Modern State in Italy', Gramsci demonstrates how the formation of the Italian bourgeoisie was bound up with the consolidation of their nation state. He begins:
... the supremacy of a social group [class] manifests itself in two ways, as "domination" and as "intellectual and moral leadership". A social group dominates antagonistic groups, which it tends to "liquidate", or to subjugate perhaps even by armed force; it leads kindred and allied groups. A social group can, and indeed must, already exercise "leadership" before winning governmental power (this indeed is one of the principal conditions for the winning of such power); it subsequently becomes dominant when it exercises power, but even if it holds it firmly in its grasp, it must continue to "lead" as well (ibid, pp 57-8).
By making the distinction between coercion and consent, Gramsci argues ruling and rising classes tend to use force for subjugating subaltern classes to its will while exercising 'intellectual and moral leadership' to speak with and bind potential class allies to it. Such leadership is the condition for winning power, but also it must continued to be exercised if a class is to retain its dominant position: class rule that depends on force of arms alone is a brittle thing doomed to early extinction.

This insight into the nature of class rule remains as keen now as it was almost 80 years ago. But as his discussion of the formation of the Italian state shows, a class must have reached a certain level of development before it can exercise intellectual and moral leadership. Looking at the revolutionary wars of Italian unification (the Risorgimento), Gramsci argued the orientation of the bourgeoisie could be summed up by two broad factions. The first was the Moderate Party, which was a 'pure' bourgeois party. Its anchor in Italy's capitalist class meant it was socially homogenous (its members were owners, managers and entrepreneurs - social locations forged by the capitalist relations of production), influential and, because of its class basis, not consistently revolutionary.

The other dominant faction of Risorgimento Italy was the Action Party. The group favoured Italian unification under a single republic and, to varying degrees, were hostile to the political influence wielded by the Vatican. However, its Jacobin pretensions were a symptom of the shallow roots it had in the Italian bourgeoisie. Without the anchor its leadership was unstable and vacillating, which in turn meant it couldn't seek to shore up its base. As such the moments the Action Party had in the Risorgimento were episodic and fleeting. Exacerbating this was its
de facto alliance with the Moderates against Italy's petty states: just as the homogeneity and resources of the Moderates drew in their train intellectuals from other classes, it similarly conditioned the Action Party. If the AP was to play a similar role to its Jacobin counterparts in the French revolution, Gramsci argued it needed to separate from the Moderates and form its own 'national-popular will': it needed to build a base among the peasantry and nascent working class and become something more than the Italian bourgeoisie's arms-length revolutionaries. But it did not produce its own programme and did not go down this route. It meant the Italy what was to eventually emerge was one most in tune with the interests of its bourgeoisie: a constitutional monarchy and limited parliamentary government. But it also meant the exclusion of the working class from the revolutionary process meant it would form its own parties later on: organisations stamped by a high degree of class consciousness and a receptivity to revolutionary socialism.

Gramsci's examination of the Risorgimento period is much richer and detailed than what I've presented here. It recalls Marx's
The Class Struggles in France in his grasp of the intermeshing of personalities, parties, factions and classes in the historical process.

Overall Gramsci's approach to analysing class can be most clearly seen today in the so-called
Neo-Gramscian approach to study class relations at the level of states. But there are objections that can be levelled at Gramsci from within and without the Marxist tradition. The main criticism regards his analytical criteria: that a class, when formed, is on an irreversible path towards greater consciousness. Now some may take this as a teleological argument which was handed down to Gramsci from Hegel by way of Benedetto Croce, but it seems to me this criteria is the theoretical condensation of the concrete experiences of the workers' movement up to the 1930s. At the time Gramsci compiled his thoughts it was reasonable to argue the working class had risen from an amorphous mass and developed the means to become progressively self-aware and that only the brute force of fascism could set back this development in Western Europe. But from the vantage point of the early 21st century with its weaker labour movements and the massive reversals revolutionary socialism has suffered, of course Gramsci's argument appears teleological: the last 30 years has seen very significant retreats to the point where class consciousness, at least in Britain, is at an historic low.

Gramsci cannot be blamed for not anticipating socialism's current malaise. The legacies of the developments he charted are however still with us: the West European working class does retain trade unions, workers parties, and fragments of once mighty revolutionary parties. The logics of class struggle in a capitalist society means sooner or later these will again shape and condition the consciousness of the working class, but hopefully this time with a victorious conclusion.

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

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