Sunday 31 October 2010

Notes on Organisation and Consciousness

The remainder of Antonio Gramsci's notes grouped under the 'Modern Prince' in the Selections from the Prison Notebooks are a hodgepodge of reflections on state structures, cultural traditions, class consciousness and the kinds of approaches appropriate to them.

The first of these remaining sections is 'On Bureaucracy'. Here Gramsci notes each state has its own particular cadre of functionaries. The tasks they perform are broadly the same - the day to day running of the state bureaucracy - but at the same time they possess their own nation-specific traditions (and, it should be noted, different sectors of the bureaucracy have their own cultures too). Rising classes, whether bourgeois or proletarian, must pay heed to them and develop ways of neutralising/binding them to their own hegemony.

For Gramsci an historical inquiry into the development of bureaucracy would arrive at two qualitatively different forms of organisation to which all empirical examples can be reduced. The first of these is 'organic centralism', the development of organisation around a specific individual. But real organicity, a real reflection in organisation of the (class) relationships that sustain it is a property of democratic centralism. As we have seen previously, democratic centralism enables a party to become the transmission belt of the interests of the working class. Gramsci notes that organic centralism in the state has a tendency to petrify and become bureaucratic centralism. You could say such a fate awaits self-described democratic centralist states, parties and groups if permanent and unaccountable leaderships are at their head.

In 'The Theorem of Fixed Proportions' Gramsci argues there is a link between the organisation and politics of a class. In short, the more it is organised the better it is able to sustain an independent politics. The same rule is true in reverse: the less organisation there is, the less likely political ideas organised around class interests will find a purchase. One should however avoid an absolute separation between the two. Both are dialectically reciprocal and always conditioned by the overall balance of forces.

Gramsci responds to contemporaneous fascist critiques of liberal democracy in 'Number and Quality in Representative Government'. What fascism shares with mainstream advocates of representative democracy is the assumption all citizens have an equal say in the exercise of governance, regardless of their individual capacities. As a fundamentally elitist and anti-democratic body of thought, fascism holds that this is a recipe for mediocrity and ruin. However they are dealing with a definition of liberal democracy at its most abstract. Elections are not a battle of atomised ideas, rather it is a measurement of the persuasive capacities of competing elites. While the freedoms liberal democracy afford are valuable, need defending, and be used as a spring board to argue for
more democracy socialist must also recognise the severe limits imposed upon any form of democratic state structures by the rule of capital.

Turning now to problems of organisation, in 'Continuity and Tradition' Gramsci poses the problem all socialist must face: how do we assimilate the mass of the working class party (in the sense described
here) to its most advanced (socialist) section? For the bourgeoisie this is performed by the state and codified in the law. This organises them as a class and promotes conformity. For the working class, the body of its organisation requires something that can perform similar tasks and prosecute the class struggle to its victorious conclusion. For Leninists the answer is the "general staff" of the revolutionary party. For others it's the attempt to embed themselves and socialist ideas in the class as a means of diffusing consciousness. These are different methods but the outcome they wish to reach is broadly the same.

Moving onto 'Spontaneity and Conscious Leadership' Gramsci argues here that all political developments since the dawn of class society have at their centre conscious leaderships. The slave revolts and peasant rebellions of antiquity and feudalism were conscious in the sense of intentional activity, but were reflections of the common sense of the day. These constituted rudimentary forms of popular consciousness because they could not become conscious of their class position in the same way the classes of modern capitalism can. This means spontaneous mass working class action contains a germ capable of passing over into more durable forms of collective consciousness and organisation. Hence there's no real opposition between Marxism and proletarian spontaneity, but neither is there an unproblematic relationship. Socialists have to respond and relate to it in all its forms - including those with apparently reactionary objectives - with sensitivity and tact to strengthen the tendency toward independent collective activity. Opposing them, as some have done in
recent times runs the risk of deepening reaction and alienating workers. The job is to convince, not condemn.

'Against Byzantinism' is a small polemic against what Althusserian Marxists call 'theoreticism' - of treating theory as if it had an independent value. For Gramsci its value is always measured in concrete terms. Proof of utility lies in being able to explain situations outside of the context it was conceived and crafted, and its capacity to materially incorporate itself into these realities (i.e. successfully guide subsequent theory and practice and therefore influence the course of events). Value therefore does not lie in logical coherence but an ability to understand and facilitate change.

In 'The Collective Worker' Gramsci restates the basic relationship between the working class 'in itself' and 'for itself' - that the workplace reduces the worker to a cog in the division of labour with scant knowledge of the processes that placed them there. But this position can generate a social solidarity between others in a similar position, and it's this that's the starting point for seeing themselves as the collective worker. It's the first step on the road to resolving the gap between their position and consciousness of it.

In 'Voluntarism and Social Masses' Gramsci tackles the problem of 'volunteers': political adventurers that appear independent of any class. This was a pronounced historical phenomenon of Italy prior to Mussolini because of the traditional passivity of the rural mass, and the preponderance of dissatisfied and declassed intellectuals from the petit bourgeoisie and the peasantry. Without a class environment by which to navigate they were drawn to any number of causes and created all kinds of organisations. Politically their parties never succeeded in winning mass audiences and were frozen into sects. Because of this they have a tendency to settle into two types of voluntarism: as a collective of supermen
vis a vis the historical process, or as harbingers of am imminent reality that they're preparing the way for. These are pitfalls and obstacles labour movements need to avoud. The task for socialists is to base themselves on the existing organisations of the class and build consciousness and capacity from there, not to try and break a new path that can only lead to dead ends.

These notes on organisation and consciousness restate many points Gramsci has made before as well as some basic positions of Marxist politics. There are a number of applications that still have relevance to building socialist politics in Britain now. These will be discussed in the next post summarising The Modern Prince.

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


Callum said...

So, what we're to take from Gramsci, basically, is that if he were alive, he'd be keeping a blog and campaigning for Tristram Hunt in Stoke?

In actual fact, in the part on 'voluntarism', he doesn't critique the notion of 'vanguards' per se, which would be silly to do, of course, since any dunce with half a brain recognises the uneven development of class consciousness. He does criticize vanguards who 'celebrate active minorities'.

What's he critiquing is both voluntaristic adventurism AND the 'static' tailism of the 'reformist' intellectuals, who see their role viz-a-viz the masses in purely mechanical terms, as a one-way purely 'educational' process as opposed to an active pedagogy.

The choice for intellectuals on the Far Left, Gramsci says, is not between 'existing organizations' and 'voluntarism', but between an orientation towards the class and an orientation towards other intellectuals and/or the social dregs.

He's trying to offer a vision of revolutionary socialists politics that maintains the essential core of Marxism, which is a belief in the creative potential of the working classes. In this sense, his critique is just as relevant to those groups on the Far Left certainly NOT orientated towards the class, AND to the miserable depressed reformists whose relationship to the class takes the form of a kind of historical suicide pact.

Phil said...

Thank you for reiterating my interpretation of Gramsci in ranty, excitable terms.