Sunday 15 August 2010

Internal Class Divisions and the Party

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.


Boffy said...


Great exposition, and I think you know I would agree with much of this. The importance of the Workers Party, and its role in uncovering what is really going on, and feeding that back to workers in this kind of context, was brought home to me today, reading an old copy of Capital & Class. It was a review of the book "The British Economic Disaster" (Andrew Glyn and John harrison) by Ben Fine, and in which he also draws on the work of Glyn & Sutcliffe "Workers & the Profits Squeeze". Fine makes the point, which flows ffrom these economic analyses, that in the 1960's the Trades Unions were able to limit the effects of the attack of Capital - I'd argue they were only able to do that due to the continuance of the Long Boom) - but, he says, the irony of that is that in limiting the attack of Capital, they made themselves worse off! They could only limit its attack by a form of collective Luddism that reduced labour productivity, and hence Capital Accumulation, which meant lower levels of unemployment, and less ability to pay higher wages. By comparison, in Germany those same moves by Capital were accomplished with a resultant higher level of productivity and growth, and higher living standards for workers. In hort he says they would have been better off not resisting!

But, within the confines of TU consciousness that is not at all obvious. The further consequence, of course, was that ultimately Capital responded with Thatcher, and a wholesale decimation of all those TU practices exemplified by Fleet Street. But, without a Workers Party, and without marxists within it, there is no way for ordinary workers to see beyond what appears to be a normal response.

Next Left said...

Good stuff.

I have found reading Hal Draper and Gramsci together a useful way to think about the problems facing the left. Draper spent the last 30 or so years of his life trying to get the radical left to think in terms of cultivating a pluralistic socialist culture within the working class - instead of wasting their time building tiny sects that declare that they alone offer the only path to socialist salvation.

Mass support for socialist politics is dependent on a complex mix of social, economic and cultural factors - few of which, at present, are capable of being shaped by tiny sects. Leadership, at present, is the least of the problems facing the Marxist left.

Boffy said...

Next left,

Good points. The point I was also trying to make, but reading what I wrote again, I don't think I made clear is that the existing leadership was itself bound by a TU consciousness. Ironically, the "Marxist" Left, hung up on the question of "Leadership", and criticism of it, failed to actually spot that the basis of their criticism was itself faulty and anti-Marxist. Their criticism of the leadership was not, as Fine's argument correctly points out, that TU struggle could not answer the workers problems and would ultimately be counter-productive, but the opposite, a criticism of not being TU militant enough. As Fine, says the latter would only make sense if it was in the context of flowing over into a Socialist overturn, but there was no chance that was going to happen. In the end the sects reason for adopting that position was founded solely on theri own sectarian ends of gaining the odd incremental additions to their own tiny groups out of such struggles. A true definition of sectarianism, putting their own ends ahead of the movement.

But, the implication also is that a "marxist" leadership that DID argue such a position would be screwed too, because it would not have found a resonance for such ideas so long as the majority of the class remained strangled by that TU consciuosness - Fine says that the militant TU struggle simply acted like a lengthening rope around the class's neck.

Hence the idea of the War of Position, of actually seizing territory for the purpose of holding on to it. hence the idea of Party as something wider than it is normally considered. hence the idea that the party acts in the way that Marx outlined, more as an educator than a leader. Rather like Rousseau's notion of the Law Giver, exemplified by the tutor in Camille.

Anonymous said...

What ever happens if your working class do not have an accident because if you do! you belong to the scrounging class, not wanted by labour Tory or anyone else.

Chris said...

“Draper spent the last 30 or so years of his life trying to get the radical left to think in terms of cultivating a pluralistic socialist culture”

Today that is labelled communalism or multi-culturalism and is vilified by the ‘Marxist’ left. At least admit this so called pluralism has a dogma all of its own.

“Mass support for socialist politics is dependent on a complex mix of social, economic and cultural factors”

Which are? I mean everything is dependent on a complex mix of social, economic and cultural factors, even the way one shits!

Chris said...

Given the historic experience of the last 100 years, does Boffy think it would be better if unions died out? That is certainly the vibe that I am getting from him. If not, what positives do you think they have/have had in actual reality?

Boffy said...

As Marx and Engels put it they acted as basic assembly points for workers into which socialists could intervene, and attempt to demonstrate that the basic premise of Trade Unionism was bouregois and limited, because it implied continuing to accept the current system, and only to bargain within it. They argued that it was necessary instead to use the Trade Unions as means of support for other Workers organisations that DID address that basic problem i.e. the creation of a Workers Party, the establishment of Workers Co-ops, and the fight for those basic political demands that would facilitate the class struggle e.g. the Ten Hours Act without, which workers would not have had time, and would have been too exhausted to have created their own Party, to educate themselves etc.

I do not accept the view of Rosa Luxemburg that because the Trades Unions were essentially bourgeois they were an impediment to workers development, and that it was necessary for Marxists to rely on spontaneity.

Anonymous said...

Another interesting and enlightening post in this series thank you.

The problem that is mainstream political parties, in the sense in which the term is used here, being the parties of capital is not necessary absolute; by this I mean, the party of the working class consciousness has the potential to simultaneously be the party flogging a dead horse - that is capitalism itself.

This for me sums the Labour party; it is at once the party organised through which the working class gain consciousness - in the sense that historically the party had been composed of actors brought together through working class and uinon interest - but today it is the party that flogs the dead horse of capital.

In this sense we are in a far safer position within the labour party than any other which is predicated upon capitalism alone, or a party like the fringe groups that Sunder (I assume) above speaks of, with little history other than mere protest.

Another reason why I enjoyed this particular chapter of the series is its element on the organisational structure, through which Gramsci was able to define party. I think this can serve two functions; to define the party in opposition to the party of capital, and to define the party against left wing elements where the structure is different (utopianist or "fantasy" socialism or even Proudhonian anarchism.

I particularly liked the conclusion too - it does a better job of saying what I want to say above - "[d]espite 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." - a strong message directed to the fringe groups, the nut trots and the socialists whose politics hasn't grown up from their undergrad days.