frontline 16.

APPROPRIATING GRAMSCI

James Higney is a college lecturer, former elected national president of the CLA (College Lecturers Association) trade union, SSP member and founder member of the newly formed CampaignForFE. In this article he continues our look at the lessons the SSP can learn from some of the sometimes unappreciated socialists of the past with a look at the ideas of Antonio Gramsci.

It was interesting that in two separate articles published in the last edition of Frontline reference was made to Antonio Gramsci. It may be worthwhile reinvestigating or introducing the work of this eminent revolutionary thinker.

Antonio Gramsci was involved in the great factory councils in Turin, Italy in 1919-1920. His years of political activity culminated in 1924-1926 when he was elected general secretary of the Italian Communist Party. During his period as general secretary he won the bulk of the PCI over to his understanding of Leninist principles. Gramsci was particularly concerned as general secretary with giving the party a mass base where party decisions were accepted and understood by the rank and file members His free political life ended in November 1926 when the Italian Fascists led by Mussolini jailed him. While repeatedly plagued by ill health and severe illness he died on 27 April 1937 after only three days of release from prison.

Gramsci’s imprisonment was not unfruitful and although hampered by extremely difficult conditions; lack of books, Marxist literature, political human stimulation, and a harsh prison regime, he continued to develop a forward thinking analysis of Marxism and it’s development. Although severely restricted in jail he succeeded in filling 2,848 pages of notes in 33 notebooks that famously became the Prison Notebooks.

At the outset it has to be said that although there is now the availability of a host of secondary reading material on Gramsci, the Prison Notebooks is Gramsci as a polemical thinker usually criticising and commenting on the ideas of others, and the notebooks remain essentially fragments that he intended elaborating and fleshing out, with some of his more important concepts not defined with any real precision. As they stand, the Prison Notebooks were not intended for publication.This article is an attempt of introduction to SSP members of a Marxist ilk who are not familiar to Gramsci’s political thought, his central concepts of hegemony, war of position and, the task of the revolutionary party. By it’s length and condense nature any introduction is bound to involve interpretation.

AGAINST MECHANICAL ECONOMIC DETERMINISM

Gramscis political philosophy envisaged that a revolution and all of it’s preparatory stages needs to include active involvement in changing the consciousness of the masses. He opined that for the achievement of socialism there has to be a positive part played by all citizens in the measures of government and therefore in a socialist sense the people can no longer be passive recipients. In the notebooks Gramsci railed against Nikolai Bukharin’s influential Theory of Historical Materialism – A System of Sociology. He was against those who sought to create Marxism as a science that explained historical change through a formal system of causal laws. For Gramsci these theorists had excluded the principles of subjective perception and action. Bukharin and co’s epistemology lacked the concrete analysis of class and political forces and as a soviet reified theory it could never lead to an appropriate explanation of actual historical events, as it did not take into account the subjective side of Marxist theory. Gramsci was also concerned that this crude materialism could tend to destroy the revolutionary political potential. He objected to the theory of historical materialism on (Bukharins) insistence that Marxism was sociological rather than a historical theory.

Gramsci was unhappy at the classical Marxist distinction of the separation between the spheres of economics and politics i.e. the economic base and the political and ideological superstructure. With the analogy of base and superstructure implying that changes in the economic base are the absolute primary cause of changes in politics and ideologies in the superstructure undermining political action, Gramsci, like Lenin, sought to attribute revolutionary change to political action and to establish the primacy of politics.

Anne Showstack Sassoon elaborates in Gramscis Politics, ‘A revolutionary change can only be brought about by a class struggle that goes beyond the economic and envelops the realm of State in the full sense, challenging the hegemony of the dominant class.’ 1

She continues, ‘The fact that this is a crisis of hegemony, related to but not necessarily determined in the first instance by an economic crisis, opens up and extends a particular field of struggle for the party which the economistic deformation cannot comprehend. This field is that of ideology and politics. The comprehension of the full extent of this terrain is crucial. Otherwise any analysis based on the economistic deformation reduces the role of the party since the possibility of the subjective factor actually having any potential for political initiative within an economistic framework is practically nil.’ 2

CONCEPT OF HEGEMONY

As stated earlier, Gramsci’s main concern was to replace the economic determinism (as he saw it) in Marxism. He wished to concentrate more of the explanatory power of Marxist theory with a deliberate emphasis on the superstructural institutions.

The term hegemony, before Lenin, was used by other Russian Marxists e.g. Plekhanov, to explain the need of an alliance of the working class and the peasantry to overthrow the current ruling class of Tsarism. Lenin then developed the foundations of this idea. In it’s alliance with the peasantry the Russian working class would act as the leading force in any revolution. In the overthrow of Tsarism, the working class (at that time a small minority of the population) would take hegemonic control by winning the support of the majority of the people.

Lenin regarded hegemony as a revolutionary strategy that the working class (and it’s representatives) adopt as means of winning support. Although agreeing with Lenin, Gramsci extended the hegemonic explanation to include the workings and practices of a capitalist class or it’s representatives. Thus Gramsci used hegemony as a concept (in contrast to Lenin’s strategy) for understanding society in order to change it. Gramsci determined that the rule of one class over another does not depend solely on economic or physical power, but rather on the ruled accepting the system of beliefs of the ruling class and also to share their social, cultural and moral values. Gramsci saw hegemony as a reaction between classes and other social forces. By establishing a hegemonic class, the consent of other classes (and social forces) is created by maintaining a system of alliances through political and ideological struggle.

WORK OF THE PARTY

If Gramsci is correct that the ruling class maintains it’s domination (mainly) by the consent (tacit or willing) of the people by a hegemonic bond of the ideas etc. of the ruling class, as socialists what has to be done, and what strategy employed to break this false consciousness bond? In the Gramscian sense the answer lies in the breaking of this ‘ideological bond’ and to build a ‘counter hegemony’ opposing the ruling class. Structural and ideological change has to be regarded as part of the same struggle. Although labour, surplus value and the ownership of the mode of production is at the core of the class struggle, it is the ideological struggle that has to be won if the majority of the people’s consciousness be enlightened to enable them to seriously question their political and economic rulers right to rule. This party struggle to undermine the consent given by the masses to the authority of the ruling class, and to establish it’s own hegemony, must include non sectarian alliances: ‘The proletariat can become the leading and ruling class to the extent to which it succeeds in creating a system of class alliances which enables it to mobilise the majority of the working population against capitalism and the bourgeois state’ 3

In the hegemonic struggle the party must also: ‘Never tire of repeating its own arguments (though offering literary variation of form): repetition is the best didactic means for working on the popular mentality (and must) work incessantly to raise the intellectual level of ever-growing strata of the populace.’ 4

For Gramsci, like Lenin, the primacy of politics is as an instrument of building collective action amongst the proletariat and their alliances. Politics is the key to the revolutionary struggle. Although building on Leninism, Gramsci argued the need for a ‘popular’ ideological struggle to alleviate the problem of mass consciousness. He treated the shaping of consciousness as being one of the main contributors to the stabilisation of the ruling class and therefore the legitimation of capitalism. Gramsci’s Marxism, including revolutionary struggle, saw as absolutely essential the need for the workers (and alliances) to break the bourgeois hegemonic control of their minds, and for a workers party to maintain leadership in establishing a ruling class mentality, both politically and ethico-culturally in the making of a socialist counter-hegemony, without which permanent revolution would be difficult to achieve.

Interestingly, to John MacLean, the Socialist revolution could be carried out peacefully ‘given the adequate political education of the working class’ 5 , and even if Socialism was to be established through violent upheaval the struggle had to be primarily political: the industrial struggle was secondary. In short, the working class had to acquire political power as a class before it could proceed to socialise the production and distribution of wealth. MacLean at no time in his political thought assigned a Darwinian-like inevitability to Socialism. Workers had to become class conscious, but Socialists did not have to wait until the process was mechanically completed before they could act to challenge for political power.

WAR OF POSITION

Gramsci’s revolutionary approach was rooted in the epochal struggle for ideological dominance and the leadership and political direction that must occur in civil society to facilitate the transition from capitalism to socialism. He thought that daily ideological encounters with the ruling class should focus on a ‘war of position’ rather than the Leninist focus on the conjunctural or ‘war of movement’. The theory of a ‘catastrophic’ rupture endemic within a capitalism economic system be replaced with a counter hegemonic ‘war of position’ strategy under the leadership of the working class party, building alliances with other social movements opposed to capitalism and it’s emanations. The fortresses and earthworks of the bourgeois civil society have to be dismantled through these alliances with all the social movements linked together through the leadership of a working class revolutionary party.

War of position is clearly one of Gramsci’s main tenets. Gramsci envisaged socialist transformation as a process rather than an event or series of events. Political hegemony must be achieved before attainment of power. His ‘philosophy of praxis’ was an alternative model of revolutionary organisation and strategy based on an organic phase of transformation. Gramsci’s war of the position theory does not exclude sharp or even violent struggles The SSP has to be closely tied to everyday political struggles. In analysing and defining responses to particular issues and actions it is of vital importance the party and its platforms organise and develop a counter hegemonic working class consciousness. against the oppressive or physically coercive state. It is an alternative model of revolutionary strategy.

Authentic political education is crucial in diffusing socialist counter hegemony. This education should be firmly rooted in classical Marxian theory and the development of Marxism in general. For Gramsci, revolutionary minded intellectuals should organically develop from within the working class. The creation of working class intellectuals helping to create counter hegemony to undermine existing social relations should be an SSP goal. In order to establish a philosophical party program consisting of clarification (and therefore analysis) and the justification (and therefore argument) of our important beliefs, the organisation of a Marxist education forum is essential.

An argument could be put that the SSP have gradually adopted a Gramscian war of position to attain a socialist hegemony with the involvement, since the Scottish Socialist Alliance, of solidarity with other groups involved in political and social struggles. On issues such as anti-war, nuclear weapons, asylum seekers, women’s rights, solidarity with the people of Palestine, support for the anti-globalisation movement, M74 protesters etc.etc.

To finish, in the Prison Notebooks Gramsci states: “A social group, can, indeed must, already exercise ‘leadership’ before winning governmental power (this is indeed 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.”

Is it attainable for that social group in Scotland to be the SSP?

You can contact the CampaignForFE at campaign4fe.co.uk

REFERENCES

  1. Anne Showstack Sassoon, Gramsci's Politics, (Croom Helm London 1980), p. 187.
  2. Ibid p.187.
  3. John Molyneux, Marxism and the Party, (Bookmarks London 1986), p.151.
  4. bid p.1535. John Maclean, Nan Milton, (Pluto Press 1973), p.212.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

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