Gramsci with the feet cut off

Submitted by martin on 24 May, 2011 - 12:02

SWP splinter group Counterfire has launched a series of forums in London, and started on 19 May by inviting Peter Thomas to speak on Gramsci.

The meeting showed that Counterfire's Gramsci is a Gramsci with the feet cut off.

Peter Thomas's book shows that Gramsci was and remained a Comintern Marxist, a working-class revolutionary socialist whose framework was set by the ideas of the Bolsheviks, Lenin, Trotsky, the best of the pre-1914 Marxist movement, and the Communist International from 1919 to the early 1920s. So, in fact, do a number of older books.

Gramsci's Prison Notebooks are notebooks: unfinished drafts, sometimes tentative, sometimes written in cryptic language, never exposed to the chance to clarify through written debate and polemic. They are vulnerable to being cut adrift from the web of principles and ideas to which they originally belonged.

Peter Thomas worded his introduction to the meeting diplomatically. He "didn't want to get involved in the polemics", so he told me afterwards. But he did make it clear that Gramsci's discussions of "hegemony" - the word most famously associated with him - were not about some free-floating technique of political manipulation, but about socialist and working-class leadership in the class struggle and about developing the Comintern tactic of the working-class united front.

Counterfire are all for "united fronts". They split from the SWP on the basis of being the great aficionados of "united fronts". But they cut off Gramsci's feet. For them, a "united front" is a handy bit of political manipulation to set up a "broad" political facade - Stop The War, Unite Against Fascism, Respect, that sort of thing. Dialectical pedagogy it isn't.

In the forum, Elly Badcock of Counterfire puffed the Coalition of Resistance as the latest "united front", defined as such apparently by the fact that it puts forward "reformist demands" like the Robin Hood Tax. (Badcock later called those same proposals "transitional demands", as if "reformist" and "transitional" are the same thing).

Chris Bambery, not formally a Counterfire member yet as far as I know, but operating in the forum as the most vocal Counterfire speaker, emphasised alliances with "other social layers". The future in Egypt, he said, depends not just on the working class, but on "hegemony" over "other social layers".

On one level that's true. Gramsci was concerned to have a revolutionised labour movement in Italy draw the widest possible sections of the Italian peasantry (the majority of Italy's population) into alliances with it.

But for Gramsci it went pretty much without saying that the precondition was to organise and consolidate the labour movement as an independent and revolutionary force, as the Russian Marxists had begun to do when they separated from the populists.

Today we do not have a strong and politically independent labour movement. So Counterfire's orientation to alliances with "other social layers" means not what Gramsci (or Lenin) might have meant, but Counterfire itself, as a small group, seeking alliances with elements from "other social layers" (such as George Galloway or middle-class Islamist groups).

Gramsci opposed the smug, vulgar anti-clericalism which was part of the Italian bourgeois-liberal and reform-socialist traditions in his time. He wanted Italian revolutionary socialists not to be snooty with religious-minded peasants or workers.

In the Counterfire forum, this was transmuted into comments from the floor (not contradicted, indeed implicitly endorsed, by the Counterfire honchos there) as "Lenin said you should never offend religious people" or "we should work with religious institutions".

I doubt Lenin ever did say that. If he did, he was wrong. He certainly didn't act that way. After the 1917 revolution, the Bolshevik-led government, while respecting freedom of religion, campaigned against religions, vigorously and indeed sometimes (they had to adjust tactics in light of experience) over-stridently. Of course Lenin offended many religious people! It never crossed, or could have crossed, Gramsci's mind to jump to the defence of Russian Orthodoxy (or Islam in some southern parts of the USSR) against that "offending".

Chris Nineham, a leading Counterfire member, talked about how "proud" he was to be part of the "Enough" conference being held at the East London Mosque on 21 May, that is, an alliance with some of the most conservative and obscurantist elements in the Muslim population to "defend Islam".

Peter Thomas responded to that debate from the floor diplomatically but instructively. The Muslim population, he pointed out, is not the first large minority population in Britain tagged by religion to be regarded as dangerous. The Irish Catholic minority was long seen that way. Yet out of the Irish Catholic minority, over time, emerged many working-class fighters who both fought the widespread prejudices against them in the native population and broke with the Church.

Counterfire people nodded in assent, "hearing" Peter Thomas as saying that some Muslims would move left. But no Marxist would have proposed alliances with Catholic bishops to "defend Catholicism", or any truck with election candidates running as "fighters for Catholics" in the same way that Respect in 2004 ran as "fighters for Muslims". Counterfire's Gramsci, on this question too, is a Gramsci with the feet cut off, a Gramsci in the hands of people who have "lost the plot" of the socialist principle and morality which Gramsci took as basic.

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