Discussing Gramsci: pluralism and hegemony

Submitted by martin on 20 March, 2010 - 9:09 Author: Martin Thomas

Alessandro Carlucci, organiser of a forthcoming conference on "New Insights into Gramsci's Life and Work", spoke with me at a London AWL forum on 18 March about the ideas of the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci.

Gramsci was an activist in the Italian socialist and communist movement from his early 20s (shortly before World War One) until 1926, when he was jailed by the fascist regime. He was an important figure in the factory councils and factory occupations in Turin in 1919-20, and the central leader of the Italian Communist Party from late 1923 until he was jailed. In prison, between 1929 and 1935, he wrote the "Prison Notebooks" which, while fragmentary, are today his most-read writings. He died in 1937.

Alessandro Carlucci noted that Gramsci enjoys a huge "success" today in the academic and literary world: about 7000 new books and articles on him have been published in the last twenty years. He is the only Marxist writer, other than Marx himself, who has continued to enjoy and even increase such "success" since 1989.

Some writers present Gramsci as a "post-Marxist", or at any rate someone pointing the path to "post-Marxism". Alessandro said that Gramsci was, and remained, a revolutionary Marxist. But he was also a "different" Marxist.

Unlike most well-known Marxist writers, he did not come from an urban, cultured environment. He was born in Sardinia, in the "periphery" of the Italian state, and in poverty. Italian was not his first language. When he arrived in a big city, in Turin, as a student in 1911, he will have had difficulties and keenly felt himself to be "different".

He was a man of action. He did not want to be an abstract theorist. His writings were focused on events. Even when he was in prison, forcibly distanced from events, he wrote short notes, often inspired by current publications he had received, rather than lengthy academic-type dissertations. He offered no "eternal truths".

Recent research has shown that Gramsci intervened personally to defend an Italian communist living in the USSR and persecuted by the regime.

Gramsci was constantly aware of complexity and diversity in society, and the need for pluralism. That awareness was informed partly by his own background, and partly also by the work he did as a student at university, on linguistics.

It was through that study of linguistics that he first came across the idea of hegemony, which famously figured much in his later writings.

Alessandro cited a letter from Gramsci to the Italian CP Executive Committee in April 1924 urging a stand for the rights of Slav and German minorities in Italy, and attention to the Albanian minority in southern Italy.

Gramsci counterposed democratic centralism to bureaucratic centralism, and in his "Prison Notebooks" commented sarcastically on Stalin's exiling of Trotsky: "by abolishing the barometer one can [not] abolish bad weather".

I argued that of the many "Gramscis" offered to us by later interpretations, the most instructive as well as the one most loyal to Gramsci's own thought is the revolutionary Marxist Gramsci.

To revolutionary Marxists, Gramsci is especially valuable in offering us strategic ideas for the long haul. As Trotsky commented, strategic debate, as distinct from tactical debate, figured little in the pre-1914 Marxist movement (with the exception, he could have added, of Russia). Trotsky's writings after 1917 mostly, for obvious reasons, focused on countries in times of acute revolutionary, pre-revolutionary, or counter-revolutionary crisis, of which there were many in the 1920s and 30s. Gramsci, if only by force of circumstances, wrote more about the long haul, about times which see ferment but not full-on revolutionary or counter-revolutionary crisis.

Famously, Gramsci discussed "hegemony". Although he picked up the concept before he became familiar with Russian Marxist debates (after 1917), his discussion in the "Prison Notebooks" is much shaped by what he understood from Russian Marxist thought.

Lenin and others developed the strategy of "hegemony" in counterposition to two other outlooks among Russian radicals. They differentiated from the populists, who saw revolutionary action as the work of "the people" broadly defined, with class divisions between wage-workers, peasants, and students or intellectuals being unimportant. And they also differentiated from the "Economists" of around 1900, and the advocates of a "broad legal labour party" of after 1907, who proposed that Marxists should focus on the distinctive, specific, and immediate economic interests and economic struggles of the wage-working class as such, leaving broader democratic struggles for the time being to the liberals.

Instead, Lenin and others argued that socialists should seek to organise the working class as a politically independent force. That politically-independent working class could - and should - develop itself so as to act like a would-be ruling class, that is, to develop its own answers to all the big issues of society, including those whose immediate effect was on other classes and groups than the working class.

In developing itself that way, the organised working class would both educate itself, and win allies in other social strata.

The strategy of "hegemony" rested on a view that broad economically-based trends alone did not entirely determine political outcomes. Broad trends might indicate that a trade-union movement was sure to develop in Russia in course of time; but they would not decide whether that trade-union movement was led by priests and charlatans, or by socialists. Broad trends might compel capitalistic transformation of the big feudal remnants in Russia's society; but they would not decide whether that transformation would come bureaucratically, from above, by a "Prussian road", or in a radical revolutionary-democratic way.

Political initiative would decide the shape of things; and it would be political initiative focused on key points of flux.

Gramsci is often said to have focused on developing a socialist strategy for "the West" different from the Bolshevik strategy allegedly specialised for "the East". There is a passage in the "Prison Notebooks" that can be read that way.

But Gramsci also remarked that Italy's social and economic structure was much closer to Russia's than other West European countries' structures were. And he expressly objected to the claim of Amadeo Bordiga, a comrade in the Italian CP leadership with whom he argued much, that different social structures in Western Europe meant that Bolshevik strategic ideas were not appropriate there.

It is more accurate to see Gramsci's work as focused on developing "Eastern" strategic ideas for a West European context.

Of course there were differences. Italy before fascism had a developed bourgeois democracy, a structure of bourgeois liberal politics with a sizeable popular base, a legal labour movement, and much bigger urban non-proletarian classes (petty bourgeoisie and semi-proletariat) than Russia.

Gramsci argued that a revolutionary Marxist party must seek to develop a "hegemonic apparatus" of the working class. Despite what it sounds like, what he had in mind was not an organisational machine, an artefact of "apparatchiks".

He had in mind a system of united fronts - constantly adjusted and revised class-based alliances, with internal dialogue and criticism, to deal with different issues. He envisaged a complex system of organisations, initiatives, campaigns, themes of agitation, all focused around the two tasks of self-education of the organised working class and establishing the organised working class as the leader of broader plebeian layers.

A revolutionary party that could develop that sort of activity would require special characteristics. It would nourish itself intellectually not just on a general programme and a general expectation of revolutionary crisis, but on specific analyses.

It would understand that analysis and activity intertwine. What you pose as a realistic perspective for action, and also, even, what you perceive in the reality around you now, is not just something given "objectively": it depends on your will, your energy, your development of yourself into an active factor in the situation.

Such a party must work constantly to break down division between "workers" and "intellectuals". It must not be like the Catholic Church, which maintains an alliance between "intellectuals" and unlettered people by imposing rigid constraints of dogma on the "intellectuals". On the contrary, it must develop every member as an "intellectual". Every person is in fact a "philosopher": the activists of the revolutionary party must become conscious "democratic philosophers".

The revolutionary party, also, cannot orient on the assumption that the ruling class is more or less immobile - that, once one has indicted it as capitalist, one has said almost all that needs to be said until some promised moment of crisis, when that ruling class will disintegrate. There are processes short of catastrophic crisis in which ruling classes actively transform society in a significant way, while simultaneously reconfiguring and reordering their domination of the other classes in society.

The revolutionary party must conduct its polemics on the level appropriate to its strategy. It must deal with its opponents, not by seizing on their weakest points, or thinking that the task of polemic is completed by exposing venal motives or financial corruption. It must deal with its opponents' strongest arguments, as expressed by their most cogent representatives.

In the debate that followed, Stuart Jordan asked what meaning the concept of hegemony can have in a society without peasants. I think that even in the most fully capitalist society, the organised working class has to pay attention to many other groups - the unorganised working class, for a start, and beyond that many other layers: students, petty bourgeoisie of different sorts, semi-proletarians, long-term unemployed. None of these vanish even in the most fully capitalist society. The general ideas to do with "hegemony" are still relevant.

Colin Waugh said that the concept of hegemony - not original to Gramsci - is not the important thing to draw from him. Much more important are the ideas which Gramsci developed in the factory council movement of 1919-20, which involved workers and intellectuals working together and learning from each other organically.

I think it is true that it is wrong to see the idea of "hegemony" as Gramsci's particular contribution. But Gramsci did develop from the idea of "hegemony" more general concepts of "dialectical pedagogy" in political activity.

We should not, however, slide into seeing Gramsci as an advocate of naive "learning-by-doing". In his writings specifically on education, he discussed school reforms introduced by the fascist government under the slogans of "active education" and of "educativity", in contrast to what they dismissed as the formalistic "instruction" of more traditional schooling.

Gramsci responded with a partial defence of the more traditional schooling, and a clear defence of an element of "academic" rather than just vocational education for all students. "It is not entirely true that 'instruction' is something quite different from 'education'... Previously, the pupils at least acquired a certain 'baggage' or 'equipment' of concrete facts... With the new curricula... there will no longer be any 'baggage' to put in order".

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