The SWP and Gramsci

The SWP has published at length on Antonio Gramsci. Gramsci was a leader of the Italian Communist Party in its early and revolutionary days; his Prison Notebooks, written in fascist jails (1929-35), have become more and more famous and widely-read.

In 1970 the SWP put out a little book on Gramsci by the Italian writer Alberto Pozzolini. In May and June 1977 Chris Harman wrote, for the SWP magazine International Socialism, a two-part article on Gramsci and Eurocommunism; it was republished in 1983 as a pamphlet, Gramsci versus reformism.

In 2006 the SWP put out a booklet by Chris Bambery, A rebel's guide to Gramsci: that seems not to circulate much these days, since Bambery's departure from the SWP in 2011. In 2007, on the 70th anniversary of Gramsci's death, most of an issue of International Socialism journal was given over to "Antonio Gramsci's revolutionary legacy".

The most substantial of SWP commentaries are Harman's articles of 1977 and another article by Harman in 2007. Even they give a topped, tailed, and trimmed Gramsci, drawn on mainly as an extra dollop of authority for barebones assertions about the need for socialist revolution and socialist organisation.

Much of SWP writing has been argument, reasonable as far as it goes, that Gramsci, contrary to the image constructed by the Italian Communist Party from the late 1940s and then by diverse academics, remained in his prison years a revolutionary socialist. And in a review of Peter Thomas's The Gramscian Moment, in International Socialism 127, Chris Bambery contended that: "Peter Thomas is very clear that [Gramsci's philosophy of practice] equals the construction of a Leninist, revolutionary party".

Whether Peter Thomas argues that "very clearly", or at all, is a matter for debate. More importantly: if Gramsci remained committed to the construction of a revolutionary socialist party, and I think he did, does he have anything special to teach us about it? Were Gramsci's ideas about "the construction of a Leninist, revolutionary party" really the same as the SWP's?

In fact, core elements of Gramsci's argument about what a revolutionary socialist party must do are missing from the SWP version.

Gramsci argued that all the members of a revolutionary socialist party must act as "intellectuals". He defined "intellectual" - or, at least, functioning in society as an "intellectual" - as synonymous with "organiser".

"A 'mass' does not 'distinguish' itself, does not become 'independent', without organising itself, and there is no organisation without intellectuals, that is, without organisers and leaders. But this process of creating intellectuals is long and difficult, as has already been pointed out".

The definition is paradoxical, and at first sight nonsensical. You're an intellectual if you spend many hours pulling together and preparing meetings, rallying people for tasks, following up on allocations, doing phone-rounds, booking rooms, etc., and not if you don't? It makes sense only if we read Gramsci as advocating a new conception of how the "intellectuals" of the working-class party should operate, differently from (in his words) "the petty intellectuals who formed the organisation of the left" in the old days.

"The mode of being of the new intellectual can no longer consist in eloquence, which is an exterior and momentary mover of feelings and passions, but in active participation in practical life, as constructor, organiser, 'permanent persuader'..."

To be an effective organiser you must be an educator, a "permanent persuader"; and one who does not only repeats the same arguments again and again, but one who responds continuously and creatively to social and political developments around us. To be an effective socio-political intellectual, you must be immersed in educating and being educated as part of social life.

"That all members of a political party should be regarded as intellectuals is an affirmation that can easily lend itself to mockery and caricature. But if one thinks about it nothing could be more exact... The function... is directive and organisational, i.e. educative, i.e. intellectual".

Education, and quite specifically the organised processes of ideological education within a revolutionary socialist party, were central to Gramsci's idea of what revolutionary socialist activity must be.

He contrasted the way that a revolutionary socialist party must bring together highly-trained thinkers and writers, and a constant flow of new recruits from among working-class people with limited formal education and limited confidence in theoretical fields, with the way that the Catholic Church does it.

"The position of the philosophy of praxis is the antithesis of the Catholic. The philosophy of praxis does not tend to leave the [rank and file] in their primitive philosophy of common sense, but rather to lead them to a higher conception of life. If it affirms the need for contact between intellectuals and [rank and file] it is not in order to restrict scientific activity and preserve unity at the low level of the masses, but precisely in order to construct an intellectual-moral bloc which can make politically possible the intellectual progress of the mass and not only of small intellectual groups".

The battle on the ideological front, conducted in liaison with battles on the political and economic fronts, was crucial. Polemicising against the concept proposed by Amadeo Bordiga, another early leader of the Communist Party, of "organic centralism" in which ideological struggle was essentially the promotion of an "invariant doctrine", a set tradition, Gramsci explained:

"[With] a rigid and rigorously formulated doctrinal system... is there a 'guarantee' of immutability? No, there is not. Formulas will be recited by heart without changing an iota, but real activity will be quite different. One must... conceive of 'ideology'... historically, as an incessant struggle. Organic centralism imagines it can construct once and for all an organism that is objectively perfect right from the start. This illusion can be dangerous..."

He also polemicised against what he saw as an old habit of the Italian Socialist Party: the substitution of loose, demagogic, off-the-cuff agitation for careful argument.

"Such activity requires an unyielding struggle against habits of dilettantism, of improvisation, of 'rhetorical' solutions or those proposed for effect..." It was necessary "to combat the habits formed in public speaking - prolixity, demagogy..."

If we understand that neither "invariant doctrine" nor agitational improvisation can suffice, then we also understand that a revolutionary socialist party needs a lively democracy. This isn't just, or even mainly, a formal matter of votes, or of rights to make dissenting statements. It is a matter of generating a continuous stream of well-informed and serious discussion, driven by intense political responsibility and a revolutionary ardour for truth.

"The philosophy of praxis... is the expression of these subaltern classes who want to educate themselves in the art of government and who have an interest in knowing all truths, even the unpleasant ones, and in avoiding the... deceptions of the upper class and - even more - their own".

"A collective consciousness, a living organism, is formed only after the unification of the multiplicity through friction on the part of the individuals... An orchestra tuning-up, every instrument playing by itself, sounds a most hideous cacophony, yet these warm-ups are the necessary condition for the orchestra to come to life as a single 'instrument'..."

"Knowledge... on the part of the leaders is no longer the product of hunches backed up by the identification of statistical laws, which leaders then translate into ideas and words-as-force... Rather it is acquired by the collective organism through 'active and conscious co-participation', through 'compassionality', through experience of immediate particulars, through a system which one could call 'living philology'..."

A particular method of conducting polemic is necessary. The method of targeting the adversary's weak points, which is good in military battle, will not serve in ideological battle.

"On the ideological front... the defeat of the auxiliaries and the minor hangers-on is of all but negligible importance. It is necessary to engage battle with the most eminent of one's adversaries... if the end proposed is that of raising the tone and intellectual level of one's followers and not just... of creating a desert around oneself by all means possible".

Gramsci held that "historical economism... is widely diffused", and that consequently "people combat historical economism in the belief that they are attacking historical materialism". Marxism had too often been reduced to a doctrine that economic development and economic class struggle would bring down capitalism, or at least would do that so long as a revolutionary socialist party had been built up organisationally to sufficient strength.

The revolutionary socialist party's battle for "hegemony" - that is, for becoming an all-round leading force on political and ideological fronts, too - could not (so Gramsci argued) be reduced to efforts to spur on and link up militancy, and to build itself organisationally. The working class had to develop its own "hegemonic apparatus" in battle against a dense web of "civil society" institutions through which the ruling class exerted not only "dominance" but also "hegemony" (political and intellectual leadership).

Whether Gramsci formulated that question of "civil society" accurately is debatable. But that a dense web of superstructures exists in developed capitalist societies, and that without an all-round effort on political and ideological, as well as economic, fronts, a revolutionary socialist organisation will be blindsided, is true. That is the foundation of Gramsci's arguments which indicated a idea of a revolutionary socialist party different from the SWP's.

  • A party where members are continuously developed both as "intellectuals" and as "organisers". The organisers in the SWP, which in practice means largely the full-timers, are no doubt selected for tenacity, commitment, drive, and resourcefulness. But in the SWP they are pretty much a distinct category from the "intellectuals", i.e. the SWP's relatively large layer of academics. "Intellectual" and "organiser" are divorced.
  • A party where the process of the educator being educated, and the educated becoming educators, was central. In the SWP, despite its relatively large material resources, ideological education (study courses, schools, etc.) gets a low priority.
  • A party of serious and democratic ideological struggle: whereas in the SWP ideology consists of the much-vaunted though somewhat-invented "tradition", in which SWP academics are licensed for small and abstruse excursions, plus "hunches... improvisation... 'rhetorical' solutions" and slogans "proposed for effect" in the day-to-day, with little connection between the two levels. A party whose polemics always take on its adversaries at their strongest: whereas the SWP characteristically polemicises by smear and caricature, as we have seen in its Central Committee's attempts to damn the opposition which emerged in early 2013 by amalgamating it with other critics outside the SWP, targeting those critics at their weakest, and thus "proving" that the oppositionists within the SWP "really" want to give up on the working class.
  • A party which is militant, but which values ideological precision above generic militancy. "It is necessary to create sober, patient people who do not despair in the face of the worst horrors and who do not become exuberant with every silliness". The SWP's characteristic method, however, is one variant or another of "economism". In the 1960s and 70s, and recurrently since then, it is classic "economism", an approach based on an implicit assumption that militancy in the economic class struggle, if warmed up enough, more or less automatically converts into revolutionary-socialist political awareness. In 1968-9, for Ireland, it followed what we called "Catholic economism", the illusions that the civil rights struggle of the Catholic minority would convert into revolutionary-socialist political awareness if warmed up enough; in recent years, it has followed a sort of "Islamic economism".

Gramsci's contrast between the revolutionary socialist party and the Catholic church was cited by Chris Harman in a 1968 article on "Party and Class". The 1968 text was in many ways a good article: to measure the SWP of today against it would be to indict it. Yet it was at the start, and has been since, printed as part of a pamphlet (of the same title) together with a text by Trotsky, a lightweight piece by Duncan Hallas, and an article by Tony Cliff expounding IS's avowedly non-Leninist party conceptions of the earlier 1960s. At no point, in the repeated reprintings of that pamphlet, has the SWP made any rigorous effort to discuss the contradictions between the texts. Harman's article thus acted as a sort of "left cover" for a process whereby IS (SWP) moved from an avowedly non-Leninist idea of linking together militants from different sectors to "Leninism" meaning administrative centralisation.

In the more recent and substantial SWP discussions of Gramsci, almost all the characteristically "Gramscian" dimensions of revolutionary-socialist party-building are deleted.

Harman's 1977 articles, to their credit, did more than just leave those dimensions unmentioned. It attempted a theoretical argument that many of Gramsci's concerns had become outdated.

"In the most advanced states...", Gramsci had argued, "'civil society' has become a very complex structure that is very resistant to the catastrophic 'irruptions' of the immediate economic factor". In my view there are serious weaknesses and confusions in Gramsci's conception of "civil society" as "a powerful system of fortresses and earthworks" for capitalist power. Some of those weaknesses were indicated in a 1976 article by Perry Anderson.

Harman's 1977 articles mention Anderson briefly, but their argument against a "Gramscian" attention to multifarious struggles within civil society is different. Harman argued that capitalism had developed in such a way that economic militancy alone, if sufficiently unleashed, could bring it down.

"The things Gramsci regards as characteristic of 'civil society' - the church, urban political and cultural association, the plethora of bourgeois and petty bourgeois parties, the influence of 'functional intellectuals' like teachers, lawyers and priests - seem today to be a transient historical phenomenon, symptomatic of Italy's backwardness in the 1920s and 1930s... Even urban-based political and cultural societies tend to decline in importance in truly advanced capitalist societies.

"In Britain, and the same is true of the other advanced capitalist countries, the post-war period has been characterised by the phenomenon of 'apathy' - a falling away of mass participation in political and cultural associations...

"Advanced capitalism leads to a centralisation of ideological power, to the atomisation of the masses - with the crucial exception of workplace-based union organisation - and to a weakening of old political and cultural organisations...

"In the circumstances, the 'defensive network of trenches' available to the ruling class in a time of crisis becomes very weak indeed once workers really move into action. Indeed, the bourgeoisie becomes critically dependent upon the trade union bureaucracy, and to a lesser extent upon the reformist political organisations, to hold back the working class..."

The argument here is based on debates in the early 1960s. Especially after the third Tory election victory in a row in 1959, sociologists argued that people were commuting, watching television, focusing on the individual consumer goods they could buy through hire purchase (the forerunner of the credit card). Old collective concerns were being washed away by apathy and consumerism.

Socialists were alarmed. In 1960 E P Thompson edited a book entitled Out of Apathy. Tony Cliff argued that socialists should not be less worried. "The increasing apathy that many workers feel and express about 'politics' (and even, perhaps, 'trade unionism') [meant]... that workers have turned their attention and their militancy to the areas where real gains can be and are being made. And the most important of these areas, of course, is the shopfloor".

From the mid-1950s to the late 1960s, in Britain, there was a growth of mostly small and short, very often unofficial, and very often successful industrial disputes. If socialists linked up the shop stewards and encouraged militancy, argued Cliff, then they could build a revolutionary challenge to capitalism. "Apathy" was a boon, because it meant that the ideological defences of capital were weak.

It is odd that Harman recycled the argument in 1977, because between the late 1960s and the early 1980s trends reversed, and in a way that undercut Cliff's argument. Explicit political activism increased. More and more often the most important industrial disputes were national and critically affected by union leadership and politics. And, surely, those things were always going to happen if class struggle escalated. That there had been a quiet period in "civil society" did not mean that its institutions would simply be bypassed when class struggle escalated, or that workers' consciousness had been reduced to a linear spectrum running from un-militant to militant. Economism did not become valid because of the quiet period.

In May 1977, when Harman's article was published, SWP was still highly focused on workplace industrial militancy as the straight route to revolution. That focus had strengthened since Labour took office in 1974: the SWP preached workplace industrial militancy as its political answer to Labour.

But Harman's article became outdated within months. The SWP changed tack. In late 1977 it launched the Anti-Nazi League. The ANL quickly gained support and that, rather than workplace militancy, became the SWP's focus.

After the Tories returned to office in 1979, the SWP soon shelved the Anti-Nazi League; but not to return to its previous orientation. By then Cliff had begun to argue that workplace trade-unionism had entered a "downturn", and shop stewards had become "bureaucratised". In the 1980s the SWP talked a lot of "the militant minority", which was engaged in "small and concrete" struggles; but emphasised that those struggles were indeed "small" and a matter of a "minority", scorned large-scale developments in the labour movement as hopeless floundering, and presented itself as the hard Marxist organisation which alone was revolutionary enough really to boost "the militant minority" in those adverse times.

The "downturn" orientation was revised from about 1988. By 2007, when Harman wrote again, the SWP was in a different phase. As in 1977, so in 2007, Harman had the misfortune to theorise a particular phase of SWP tactics only months before it would be overtaken by events.

The SWP was in Respect, the electoral coalition it had launched with the demagogue George Galloway in January 2004. The coalition would collapse in September 2007. Galloway would eject the SWP and taking a few members from the SWP with him into a new all-Galloway version of Respect. Harman didn't know that when he published his article on Gramsci in spring 2007.

In 1977 Harman had charged that Gramsci with not "integrating a concrete economic dimension into his political writings". I am really not sure what he meant. Maybe Harman was working up to the "capitalism in permanent crisis" doctrine which he would codify in Explaining the Crisis (1984), and was concerned that Gramsci gave not enough weight to economic crisis. Anyway, by 2007, with more of Gramsci's notebooks having been translated into English, Harman was mollified on that point: "The reformist‑academic interpretations of Gramsci virtually ignore the passages on economics, which support the basic elements of Karl Marx's economics and his analysis of the tendency towards a falling rate of profit".

I do not see why it is necessary to invoke the "tendency of the rate of profit to fall" in order to be considered revolutionary; but by 2007 Harman was satisfied that Gramsci was "economic" enough.

Harman now emphasised the superstructural institutions which he had in 1977 considered to be outdated. "The 'man of the people' is influenced by the argument as carried on by the group's activists and these in turn by the arguments that take place in the national media, parliamentary institutions, the universities and so on".

He mentioned the role of intellectuals, though reducing it to a battle between those with the right attitude and those with a poor one. "The arguments at the highest level take place between 'organic intellectuals' and 'traditional intellectuals'. Organic intellectuals are people who consciously ground their ideas in the struggles of a particular class. Traditional intellectuals, by contrast, see the clash of ideas occurring simply at an intellectual level without any connection to material struggles..."

Gramsci's scheme of "organic" and "traditional" intellectuals is, I think, debatable, but he saw it as an objective distinction between different social categories, not as a division of individuals into two groups depending on how they saw themselves. Harman's reworking of the dichotomy reduced "intellectual" work to having the "right" attitude: this helped rationalise the SWP's presentation of Respect as good enough provided it had roughly the "right" attitude, and of the SWP itself as the best builder of broad movements.

In 2007 Harman was willing to take up Gramsci's arguments against economism, rather than considering them outdated. "For Gramsci, the revolutionary movement [in Italy, in 1919-20] failed because it organised around immediate economic interests (which he called 'corporatism') without drawing in other oppressed and exploited groups in a fight for a new society". Whether that is an accurate summary of Gramsci's verdict on 1919-20 is debatable; but it served Harman as a jumping-off point to quote Lenin's argument that working-class Marxists in Russia should agitate around every case of oppression by the Tsarist autocracy, even of bourgeois groups or liberal gentry.

In contrast to the SWP-IS's earlier "workerism", he wanted to encourage activists to support the grievances of whatever class he took George Galloway (who famously declared he "couldn't live on five workers' wages") to belong to.

Harman also distanced himself from Lenin. "The crude formulations to be found in Karl Kautsky, and sometimes echoed by Lenin, that socialist ideas have to be brought to the working class from 'outside'", he claimed, "are reformulated by Gramsci". "There exist within the working class the elements that lay the basis for a new conception of the world. But they have to be distilled out from the mass of conflicting notions. And that can only happen insofar as organisation develops to carry through this task. The 'multiple elements of "conscious leadership",' which exist in any spontaneous struggle, need to come together to fight for the new conceptions. The struggle for ideological hegemony therefore also involves the struggle to build a revolutionary party".

Thus, after his detour through the importance of electoral politics and media publicity, Harman ended up by reinstating, at the core of his argument, the old SWP-IS idea of the revolutionary organisation as the administrative coordination of the militants from different struggles.

Kautsky's formulation, quoted and echoed by Lenin, was in fact a sober statement of historical fact. "It was in the minds of individual members of [the bourgeois intelligentsia] that modern socialism [meaning Marxist theory] originated, and it was they who communicated it to the more intellectually developed proletarians who, in their turn, introduce it into the proletarian class struggle where conditions allow that to be done. Thus, socialist consciousness is something introduced into the proletarian class struggle from without".

There is no elitism in saying that the ideas expounded in Marx's Capital, or for that matter Gramsci's Prison Notebooks, do not all well up spontaneously in every trade-union struggle. The complex of ideas comes "from outside" to every group. Workers, especially workers in large struggles, can sometimes learn and redevelop those ideas much faster and more clearly than middle-class people. But, as Engels, also quoted by Lenin, put it: "socialism, since it has become a science, demands that it be pursued as a science, i.e., that it be studied". Study can be greatly, even decisively, sharpened by the experience of struggle, but it cannot be replaced by a simple collation of elements from current battles.

As Gramsci put it: "It will be necessary to resist the tendency to render easy that which cannot become easy without being distorted. If our aim is to produce a new stratum of intellectuals, including those capable of the highest degree of specialisation, from a social group which has not traditionally developed the appropriate attitudes, then we have unprecedented difficulties to overcome".

It is true that Gramsci asked in one passage of the Prison Notebooks: "Can modern theory [Marxism] be in opposition to the 'spontaneous' feelings of the masses?... It cannot be in opposition to them. A reciprocal 'reduction' so to speak, a passage from one to the other and vice versa, must be possible. (Recall that Immanuel Kant believed it important for his philosophical theories to agree with common sense)..."

Whatever about Kant, in fact, as Lewis Wolpert puts it in the title of his book, science does not make (common) sense. "It's not common sense to think that Earth orbits the Sun". Marx often points out in Capital that in capitalist society the essence of social phenomena conflicts with their "appearance", that is, their common-sense reality.

And Gramsci's main arguments were much at odds with the idea that all the theories needed for revolutionary socialist struggle could be garnered from "spontaneous" outbursts. On the contrary, in his Prison Notebooks he argued (unjustly, I think, but that's another argument) that even the most learned Marxist writers, like Plekhanov, had crudified Marxist theory too much in order to serve the "struggle against the ideology most widespread amongst the popular masses". He commented that: "In its most widespread form as economistic superstition, the philosophy of praxis loses a great part of its capacity for cultural expansion among the top layer of intellectuals, however much it may gain among the popular masses and the second-rate intellectuals, who do not intend to overtax their brains but still wish to appear to know everything, etc." And he considered the task of developing the theory so that it could win over a section of "the top layer of intellectuals", and refute without demagogy the other "top" intellectuals, essential.

Gramsci's sentences denying "opposition" between Marxism and "'spontaneous' feelings" are within an argument by Gramsci that he and his comrades had been right in 1919-20 (as they surely were) to intervene in the factory councils movement in Turin in such a way that the "element of 'spontaneity' was not neglected and even less despised. It was educated, directed, purged of extraneous contaminations; the aim was to bring it into line with modern theory - but in a living and historically effective manner". Other Italian socialist leaders - even the outstanding revolutionary Amadeo Bordiga - had been stand-offish. By standing above the ferment in Italy in those years, and in effect waiting for the ferment to adopt the correct revolutionary form, they had condemned the socialists to losing the initiative and allowing hegemony to be won by the fascists.

Maybe in the sentences denying the possibility of opposition between Marxism and spontaneous sentiment, Gramsci meant only to contest attitudes like Bordiga's. In any case, he "stressed that 'pure' spontaneity does not exist in history... In the 'most spontaneous' movement it is simply the case that the elements of 'conscious leadership' cannot be checked, have left no reliable document". He scorned the "political adventurers who uphold spontaneity as the political 'method'... a vulgar and immediate contradiction that betrays its own obvious practical origin: namely the immediate intent to replace a given leadership by another one".

To say that working-class sentiments are "spontaneous" generally only means that they "have been formed through everyday experience illuminated by 'common sense', i.e. by the traditional popular conception of the world" formed by the deposits of hundreds of years of class society.

As Lenin pointed out, "bourgeois ideology is far older in origin than socialist ideology... it is more fully developed, and... it has at its disposal immeasurably more means of dissemination". Thus sustained battle on the ideological front, and not just a collation of spontaneous elements, is necessary.