Sunday 24 October 2010

Theory and Activism in Marxism

The previous post in this series concentrated on the socialist struggle against economism in the labour movement, and looked at the relevance of that position today. The next two major note fragments - 'Prediction and Perspective' and 'Analysis of Situations. Relations of Force' - address themselves to the place Marxism occupies in the formation of socialist strategy.

Understandably the ability to predict the consequences of unfolding social trends and processes is essential for any kind of Marxist political project. The capacity of theory as a guide to practice depends on identifying those moments where the application of the limited forces at its disposal can make a difference and effect the overall balance of the class struggle. By way of an example, it is to the eternal credit of Militant and others who brought the Anti-Poll Tax Federation together that they could mobilise a mass movement against it and help re-energise the organised working class after the defeats of the 80s. But this realisation wasn't just because of a particularly canny analysis of the situation. As a small but rooted organisation, Militant's analysis condensed the experience of tens of thousands of conversations its membership was having in the labour movement and beyond. Theory drove subsequent practice, but that theory was preceded and conditioned by practice from the outset.

As far as Gramsci was concerned predictions depend on seeing the present and the past as a movement. They are not discrete entities only distantly related to one another. The past is
not a foreign country: it is the necessary foundation for all subsequent developments. But also theory and practice needs to generate (and subsequently be conditioned by) a programme. It's not enough to analyse and deploy our forces. Socialists need a road map, a sense of how to get from here to where we'd like to be. The programme mediates the relation of theory to practice and practice to theory, while striking a balance between what is and what ought to be (in their pathological forms, the former can be realised as the worship of accomplished fact, of capitulating to prevailing social relations in the manner of right wing labourism and social democracy), and the latter ultra-leftism and voluntarism). For socialist politics the immediate objective is always striking a new balance of forces, one that differs from the objective of its pathological forms because they work to transcend the present. Hence 'ought' is always concrete and should always be based on imminent historical possibilities. If this is neglected all one is left with is a revolutionary whimsy.

For Gramsci the Marxist analysis of class forces proceeds from different levels of abstraction. These are

1. International Relations (how these define a great power, position states in systems of international hegemony(ies), questions around small and medium state sovereignty and independence).
2. Society's "objective relations" (level of development of the productive forces, level of development of class relations and political force, hegemonic parties and party systems).
3. Immediate political relations (small scale actions and activism, everyday political activity, etc.).

Demonstrating their interpenetrated and interrelated nature, he writes

Any organic innovation in the social structure, through its technical-military expressions, modifies organically absolute and relative relations in the international field too. Even the geographical position of a nation state does nor precede but follows (logically) structural changes, although it also reacts back upon them to a certain extent (to the extent precisely to which superstructures react upon the structure, politics on economics, etc.) . However, international relations react both passively and actively on political relations (of hegemony among the parties). The more the immediate economic life of a nation is subordinated to international relations, the more a particular party will come to represent this situation and to exploit it ... (1971, p.176)
It's worth emphasising the separation Gramsci makes is an analytical one and is essential for constructing an accurate appreciation of the situation before the party. But as well as these he argues our principles of analysis must also distinguish between 'organic' movements and conjunctural (accidental) events. The accidental events of history have their roots in the various movements of capital and people that slosh around all societies, but ultimately they have little far reaching sociological significance in and of themselves. Instead they impact on the configuration of existing trends. For example, as psychologically shocking the September 11th attacks remain they were rooted in US policy toward the Middle East and the responses to it. Similarly it became a foil for the movement within the US ruling class favouring military action to impose its will on Afghanistan and Iraq. In a similar fashion personalities (history's "Great Men") emerge when they are invested in and borne aloft by these same class forces.

At moments of crisis organic forces and the conjunctural can coincide. For Gramsci the stuff of everyday politics is the attempt to preserve
and overcome structural crisis, and can steer the course of subsequent developments. For example, though the Coalition and Labour leadership favour programmes for cutting the deficit by reducing the public sector, the different speeds and depth they advocate will make a major difference to how politics and the economy unfold over the next half-decade. Because organic forces are always open to modification by political action this is necessarily the terrain of the labour movement, but if it is to shape subsequent history the working class party - in the wide sense established here - has to convince wider public opinion that it alone is capable of offering a way out of the crisis. It has to strike a fine balance and avoid economism and 'ideologism' while relating to really-existing levels of consciousness.

Gramsci then moves on to the historical development of the bourgeoisie's collective political consciousness. As European feudalism decayed and capitalism began incubating in its decomposing womb the nascent bourgeoisie began to manifest a form of consciousness at the 'economic corporate' level of guilds and trade associations. Hence consciousness was partial and limited to sectional interests: they were unaware of what they shared with other sections of the rising class. This shared consciousness is eventually realised on the economic plane but as the threshold is approached and reached, the existing state structure looms as an obstacle to their achievement of equality with established ruling classes. This opens the period of struggle for political rights (for Gramsci the lead up to the experience of the French Revolution is the quintessential realisation of this process). At the final stage when the bourgeoisie are installed as the ruling class to secure their interests they have to become the repository of the interests of other classes too. This applies to the previous aristocracies displaced by their victory and the various subaltern classes. On each and every vital "superstructural" issue the bourgeoisie seeks to establish a political lead. The state co-opts, concedes, and corrupts the interests of other classes. It attempts - and often succeeds - in presenting itself as the embodiment of the universal (or national) interest. In other words, it consistently and systematically works to subordinate the interests of other classes to the hegemony of capital.

Be that as it may, no state is an island. As we saw before there are myriad connections between its internal relations and those of other states. Social relations are no respecters of borders. Hence policies carried out in one state can influence others - depending on the position it occupies in the international order. For example, Britain's role of the last 30 years in the EU can be described as a Trojan Horse for neoliberalism.

In summary, the theory and practice of socialist politics are intimately bound up with a programme. Successful interventions in large measure depend on having a correct diagnosis of the situation, which itself must crude determinism and voluntarism. We must also understand that socialists swim against the tide of bourgeois common sense.

With this in mind, Gramsci rounds this section off with a question. Does economic crisis necessarily lead to an historic (systemic) crisis of capitalism? No. Economic crises create conditions favourable to certain ideas, interventions, and ways of resolving particular social questions. An historic crisis therefore does not happen by itself. Though capitalism systematically creates the conditions that make socialism a real possibility it does not render it an inevitability. Gramsci's understanding of Marxism is about understanding the points of least resistance, of generating strategies and tactics appropriate to them and attending to the preparation of working class organisation to the task of transcending capitalism. It is nothing less than a call to arms.

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


luna17 said...

Interesting and informed, though it's not clear why the need for a 'programme' (how is that term defined?) is the conclusion to be drawn. Quite the opposite: the natural conclusion from much of the above is that a fixed, unchanging programme is the last thing we need, as it's likely to be an impediment to adapting strategy to fit changing conditions. Or do you mean something different by 'programme'?

Next Left said...

Good stuff.

On the need for the British left to develop a correct diagnosis of the situation I compare the approach of Gregor Gall to that of Peter Taaffe here: