Gramsci and the tasks for the Left
Posted by Left Luggage on July 25, 2009
The Italian revolutionary Antonio Gramsci is one of the most abused and also most useful of Marxist thinkers. His theories of ideology and hegemony are particularly vital tools for the Left today.
But they have also been appropriated and often stripped of their class content by the liberal academy which seem to forget Gramsci was a founder member and later leader of the communist party in Italy and that this was the context of his thought. In the 1970s and 1980s the so-called “Eurocommunists” used Gramsci to justify a retreat from social struggle. His work was latterly taken up by academics involved in “discourse analysis” who, although they found regrettable the “economistic residue” of privileging the role of class in his analysis, nevertheless took up his ideas now stripped of this archaic content.
This could happen partly due to the mystifying nature of his most important work, The Prison Notebooks, written in a coded style while his was imprisoned by Mussolini, but it is also due to the power of his thought. Yet precisely because Gramsci in his notebooks written between 1929 and 1935 is reflecting on a period of utter defeat for the Left, with the triumph of fascism and the destruction of the communist party, he is useful for us today. Clearly we are not in a period of defeat in any way comparable to the moment in which Gramsci was writing. But nevertheless, the Left in Britain finds itself at low ebb historically, with its political forces small, its influence low, and its ideas marginalized.
On Left Luggage we try to avoid straying into too theoretical territory, trying to stick to straightforward analysis, strategic questions and “common sense”. Therefore, we will only summarize a selection of key points that can be found in Gramsci’s thought, focusing on what we might effectively call counterhegemony i.e. the most urgent task from the Left’s point of view today.
1. Hegemony: Gramsci’s great innovation was in developing the concept of hegemony. Reacting to both the objective political situation in Italy at the end of the 1920s and the economism of the Second International, whose dominant current argued proletarian revolution was inevitable due to the development of contradictions within capitalism. It is clear from Gramsci’s writings that hegemony involves something more than mere political ascendency. He says of the Jacobins of revolutionary France:
“…not only did they organize a bourgeois government, i.e. make the bourgeoisie the dominant class- they did more. They created the bourgeois State, made the bourgeoisie into the leading, hegemonic class of the nation, in other words gave the new State a permanent basis and created the compact modern French nation.”
Thus we can see that hegemony really entails both political dominance and the shaping of the ideological structure and the production of what Gramsci calls “common sense” by a particular class.
2. Moral and Intellectual leadership: In expounding this notion of hegemony, Gramsci makes a clear distinction between intellectual and moral leadership and political leadership. In fact he makes clear that a “hegemonic bloc” leading at this intellectual and moral level is a necessary precursor to attaining political leadership:
“…a class is dominant in two ways, i.e. ‘leading’ and ‘dominant’. It leads the classes which are its allies, and dominates those which are its enemies. Therefore, even before attaining power a class can (and must) ‘lead’; when it is in power it becomes dominant, but continues to ‘lead’ as well…there can and must be a ‘political hegemony’ even before the attainment of governmental power, and one should not count solely on the power and material force which such a position gives in order to exercise political leadership or hegemony.”
“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 formally in its grasp, it must continue to ‘lead’ as well.”
3. The cultural aspect: The previous quotation should make it clear that Gramsci does not see social change as a simply matter of one class attaining dominance over another. In fact, Gramsci constantly lays stress on how one of the major tasks facing a “subaltern group” in attaining hegemony is the winning over of other social formations which it will lead through the reshaping of the ideological field. This involves the effective creation of a revolutionary subject, a “collective man”. It is also interesting to note that Gramsci stresses the importance of language and the formation of a shared culture as a precursor to creating such a unity:
From this one can deduce the importance of the ‘cultural aspect’, even in practical (collective) activity. An historical act can only be performed by ‘collective man’, and this presupposes the attainment of a ‘cultural-social’ unity through which a multiplicity of dispersed wills, with heterogeneous aims, are welded together with a single aim, on the basis of an equal and common conception of the world […] Since this is the way things happen, great importance is assumed by the general question of language, that is, the question of collectively attaining a single cultural “climate”.
4. Building the new from the old: A point which leads on from this is that Gramsci does not envisage “collective man” as sweeping away all former ideologies. Rather, it is clear that challenging groups must transform the existing ideological terrain to craft a new world-view built on the “hegemonic principle” of the “fundamental class”.
5. Acquiring autonomy: The creation of such a collective subject – united around a common culture and language (meant in the sense of discourse) – leads to a two-stage process for Gramsci, whereby attaining autonomy as a collective actor and gaining support from allied groups are vital phases. In discussing the Italian state, he says:
“In order to become a State, they had to subordinate or eliminate the former and win the active or passive assent of the latter. A study of how these innovatory forces developed, from subaltern groups to hegemonic and dominant groups, must therefore seek out and identify the phases through which they acquired: 1. Autonomy vis-à-vis the enemies they had to defeat, and 2. support from the groups which actively or passively assisted them; for this entire process was historically necessary before they could unite in the form of a State.”
6. Ideology as a terrain of struggle: Gramsci breaks with the idea of “class ideology” in the sense of a ruling class ideology imposing its ideas on other classes and society at large. He argues explicitly against forms of reductive Marxist thought that propose either the notion of “false consciousness” or the idea that ideology is merely an element of the superstructure determined by the economic base of society.
Gramsci conceives of ideology much more in the sense of “the terrain on which men move, acquire consciousness of their position, struggle, etc” thus it cannot be conceived of purely in the sense of ideological domination. This being the case, he argues that many elements of ideology in a given society are in a sense value-free and are given content by being articulated in a particular way by a certain “fundamental class” around a “hegemonic principle”. He seems to suggest such a principle is based upon a value-system intrinsically related to the central role of the (hence) “fundamental class” in the relations of production.
7. Ideology as a material force: Gramsci stresses the material nature of ideology. He sees how ideas are manifested always in social practice and the apparatus of the state and formations of “civil society”. Quoting Marx approvingly, Gramsci says:
“It is worth recalling the frequent affirmation made by Marx on the ‘solidity of popular beliefs’ as a necessary element of a specific situation. Another proposition of Marx is that a popular conviction often has the same energy as a material force or something of the kind, which is extremely significant.”
The use of Gramsci today
There are a number of important stresses in Gramsci’s thought that the Left would be well to take heed of today. In all of these elements, it becomes clear that ideology is a field of struggle in which some of our most important battles are waged. But this does not mean simply a retreat to ideas alone. It means refashioning existing ideas in society through social practice, crafting a shared language, and building a common culture that has the potential to lead other social groups through its reshaping of the elements of the dominant ideology.
These are not merely abstract points of theory; they have a practical application to our everyday practice. We have to recognize the centrality of relating to the working class as it is, not as we wish it to be. That means analyzing the current ideologies that are dominant and not dismissing them merely as “ruling class ideas” but seeking to transform them through practice. Gramsci also indicates the need to talk in the language – in the sense of discourse – of working class people, rather than engaging in the kind of campaigns and struggles that have little relevance to people’s everyday lives.
The final central point is the need to be in a position of moral and intellectual leadership, which can only be accomplished by creating a common culture. This implies the need for the long-term hard-work of building at community level, challenging existing ideologies through practice and forming new social institutions. This is the opposite of the “interventions” approach of many Left groups that does not have a long-term vision and views particular struggles instrumentally.
- Antonio Gramsci, 1971, Selections from the Prison Notebooks, Lawrence & Wishart: London, p. 79
- Ibid. p. f57
- Ibid., pp. 57-8
- Ibid., p. 349
- Ibid., p. 53
- Ibid., p. 377
- Ibid., p. 377
This entry was posted on July 25, 2009 at 9:33 pm and is filed under Class, Socialism, Strategy. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.