Pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will: Gramsci’s relevance today

gramsci red

by Ian Anderson, Fightback.

In Aotearoa/NZ in 2013, revolutionary socialism seems impossible. Many believe that exploitation, ecological destruction, and greed are inevitable; as Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek puts it, “it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.”

Capitalism is ‘hegemonic,’ dominant throughout society, even in the ideas of people who want to see social change. In this context the theory of ideological hegemony, developed by Antonio Gramsci in the early 20th century, still has relevance nearly a century later.

Antonio Gramsci was an Italian revolutionary socialist who lived from 1891 to 1937, and became active in socialist politics from 1916. Along with VI Lenin, Rosa Luxemburg and others, Gramsci broke with the Second International – at that time the dominant international organisation of socialists.

Leaders of the Second International had opted to support the imperialist slaughter of World War I. Rather than fighting for socialist, internationalist politics here and now, these leaders argued that economic struggle would inevitably lead to socialism at some point in the future.

Responding to the 1917 Russian revolution, Gramsci praised Lenin and the Bolsheviks for breaking with this lifeless orthodoxy in favour of meaningful social practice;

[The Bolsheviks] are not ‘Marxists’, that’s what it comes down to: they have not used the Master’s works to draw up a superficial interpretation, dictatorial statements which cannot be disputed. They live out Marxist thought… In this kind of thinking the main determinant of history is not lifeless economics, but man; [sic] societies made up of men, men who have something in common, who get along together, and because of this civility they develop a collective social will.

Gramsci participated in the 1921 formation of a new Italian Communist Party, and was active in the Communist Party until his imprisonment by Mussolini’s fascist regime in 1926. His most famous and influential writings were written in prison, now known simply as the ‘Prison Notebooks.’

Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks explored Italian cultural and social history, but the goal was more expansive. Whereas many of Gramsci’s journalistic writings outside prison by his admission “were written with the day and were supposed to die with the day,” his Prison Notebooks were intended as a more general historical exploration, even an “absolute historicism.” This absolute historicism is a toolbox to be adapted to changing circumstances and historical conditions, with the unifying aim of overthrowing ruling-class power.

Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks developed his theory of hegemony, his most influential theoretical contribution. This was a development of Marx and Engels’ theory of the state, which held that the state ultimately serves the ruling class, by stabilising capitalism. Even by recognising demands such as the eight hour work day, the state prevents the capitalist system from collapsing through its own internal contradictions. As Engels argues in The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State:

As the state arose from the need to hold class antagonisms in check… it is as a rule the state of the powerful, economically dominant class.

Although Gramsci was a Leninist, his theory of hegemony has distinct observations from Lenin’s theory of state and revolution, dealing more extensively with ideological and cultural struggles in non-revolutionary conditions.

Russia’s Tsarist regime relied heavily on direct repression; massacres of workers and peasants who fought back. However, more developed capitalist states (particularly in the imperialist world) have a more sophisticated system for maintaining hegemony.

In non-revolutionary conditions, such as Aotearoa/NZ in the 21st century, the ruling class ensures hegemony through a combination of coercion and consent. Consent operates by meeting some needs, and through ideology; a system of ideas that justifies continued exploitation and oppression. While civil society ensures consent, political society applies coercion, or in Gramsci’s words:

State = political society + civil society, in other words hegemony protected by the armour of coercion.

This is a carrot and stick approach; consent is the carrot, coercion is the stick. The army and the police force apply direct coercion where necessary; using guns, batons, pepper spray, tasers, prison cells when workers and the oppressed get out of hand. However much of the time, guns are unnecessary, as the system relies on consent, through an ideological system that justifies capitalist rule.

Capitalism is hegemonic within trade unions, political parties, churches, media institutions and other civil society bodies. Particularly in non-revolutionary times, the dominant forces within most of these organisations lead towards collaboration with the state to ensure consent, to direct discontent into appropriate channels.

This may sound like a conspiracy theory, but any sustained engagement with civil society bodies, such as trade unions and community sector organisations, will show their limitations. Queer support organisations rely on state funding and grants, limiting their ability to openly challenge government policy, let alone the ruling order which leads many queer/trans* youth to suicide or homelessness. Trade unions must compromise with employers to settle disputes, for example the Public Sector Association agreeing to redundancies in exchange for defeating a wage freeze attempted in late 2009.

To counter these pressures, Gramsci argues for a long-term war of position, a protracted cultural struggle in preparation for the war of manoeuvre, a revolution or frontal assault on the state. Gramsci notes that while frontal assault on the state was appropriate for Russia in 1917, “war of position… was the only form possible in the West,” because civil society is more developed.

In waging a war of position, socialists must develop a counter-hegemony. Hegemony operates through ideology, and through meeting needs, in ways that justify the prevailing system. Counter-hegemonic projects seek to construct a new hegemony, by formulating ideas and meeting needs in ways that sustain an oppositional culture.

This encompassing cultural struggle is the point of departure for ‘Gramscian’ approaches, particularly popular in academia. These approaches note Gramsci’s “anti-economism,” and emphasis on encompassing ideological struggle, as points of departure for a Gramscian approach, suggesting that “wherever power exists, opposition to it will emerge.”

For example, in her essay “Ideology, Hegemony and Inequality” published in Studies in New Zealand Social Problems (1990), Allanah Ryan notes the importance in a Gramscian approach of not simply seeking “narrow interests,” but incorporating “popular views” of various groups. Working in early 1990s Aotearoa/NZ, Ryan suggests “women’s rights and peace issues” as subjects that any meaningful counter-hegemonic bloc must address.

Gramsci’s ideas have been widely abused and taken out of context. In his 1977 article Gramsci versus Eurocommunism, International Socialist Chris Harman suggested that while Gramsci died in prison after years of ill treatment, “he has suffered more misfortune since his death from the distortion of his ideas by those who have nothing in common with his revolutionary principles.”

Harman details the role of Stalinism in distorting Gramsci’s ideas. When the Italian Communist Party got hold of the Prison Notebooks, they were not published for ten years. When the Communist Party finally published the Prison Notebooks, they were heavily censored, in Harman’s words, “to present Gramsci as the loyal Stalinist par excellence.”

In reality, Gramsci had become increasingly critical of the Stalinist turn in the world communist movement, particularly the ‘Third Period’ which saw a sectarian turn against reformists in the working class movement. Gramsci had returned to the idea of tactical unity with other working-class forces while retaining an independent communist organisation, recommended by Lenin in 1921. However, the Italian Communist Party sought to use Gramsci’s name in death to shore up their sectarianism.

In the early 1960s, the Italian Communist Party published Gramsci’s full works uncensored. After Stalin’s death, many Western Communist Parties took a sharp turn away from the sectarianism of the Third Period towards accommodation with ruling Western regimes. At this point the Italian Communist Party used Gramsci’s work, particularly his criticism of the Stalinist Third Period, to justify their ‘historic compromise’ with the ruling regime in Italy.

This laid the basis for what became known as Eurocommunism, defined by compromise with dominant political order. Eurocommunists came to defend the existing Social Contract, rallying to the defence of existing democratic institutions tied to capitalism.

However, socialism cannot come through defence of declining democratic institutions, through voting Labour or joining your union. Although engagement with institutions is necessary, the system is ultimately broken. Socialism can only come through sustained independent opposition in every sector; in the electoral, workplace, campus, community sectors; and the formation of a historic bloc bringing these struggles together in unified opposition to the ruling order.

Gramsci’s revolutionary work was centred on the Turin factory council movement, democratic bodies of workers which sought control over production. In the 21st century West, the Occupy movement has offered a glimpse of what this direct democracy could look like, particularly Occupy Oakland’s combination of a radical, democratic commune with militant industrial tactics in the port.

The Italian Communist Party in Gramsci’s period also contested elections, with the intention in his words “to rip the democratic mask from the double face of the bourgeois dictatorship and show it in all its horror and its repugnant ugliness.” In non-revolutionary conditions, counter-hegemonic engagement in official politics such as elections must always be oppositional. There are no short-cuts, and by entering into capitalist governments, we run the risk of sacrificing long-term strategy. Community-based organisation can both win concrete reforms, and lay the basis for winning peoples’ power.

Today many ‘Gramscians’ have no meaningful connection with attempts to develop a new communist practice, instead using the notion of a protracted cultural struggle, a “march through the institutions,” to justify their turn away from revolutionary politics. While the first generation of Eurocommunists had used Gramsci to justify a ‘historic compromise’ with liberal democracy, many current Gramscians abandon even the superficial trappings of openly communist politics.

In a particularly revolting UK example, “social entrepreneurs” The B Group grouped around capitalist Richard Branson appropriate Gramsci’s call for cultural struggle, without any notion of abolishing private property and exploitation. Subtler examples abound throughout academia, with liberal academics speaking of “hegemony” and “counter-hegemony” totally divorced from anti-capitalism.

This confirms one of Gramsci’s key ideas; most intellectuals operate as functionaries, mechanically serving the ruling order. Stalinist politicos, academics, “social entrepreneurs” and others have claimed Gramsci’s argument for a protracted cultural struggle, while divorcing it from anti-capitalist politics.

In his Prison Notebooks, Gramsci referred to revolutionary socialism as the “philosophy of praxis.” Praxis is the combination of theory with practice; ideas tested through action, action developed through reflection. In The Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Paulo Freire defines praxis this way:

Reflection without action = verbalism
Action without reflection = activism
Action + reflection = praxis

Criticising establishment intellectuals, Gramsci argued the need for the fusing of revolutionary intellectual work with popular philosophy. Organic intellectuals, thinkers from within the working class and oppressed groups, must play a key role in forging this new revolutionary consciousness; or to use a more contemporary slogan, “nothing about us without us.”

Gramsci himself was an organic intellectual, a worker from a poor background – unlike Marx, Engels, Lenin and other revolutionary leaders who had betrayed their privileged class origins and committed themselves to revolution. Although it is not enough, lived experience of oppression is crucial to the collective process of developing revolutionary consciousness.

Gramscian cultural approaches contrast with the ‘mechanical materialism’ often associated with vulgar Marxism. ‘Mechanical materialism’ denies lived experience of oppression, and the complex relationship between culture and lived experience, in favour of lifeless economic determinism.

Revolutionary consciousness must be rooted in local conditions, in the memory of the class. We must study our own environment, our own history, our own place in society. An encompassing cultural struggle must draw lessons and knowledge from intersecting struggles; worker, student, queer, feminist, indigenous, anti-imperialist and ecological struggles among others.

Ultimately, Gramsci argued, social forces must be brought together in the ‘Modern Prince,’ a new collective revolutionary vanguard, or communist party. While this organisation immerses itself in the immediate struggles of the workplace, and the wider community, it maintains its independent opposition to the existing state structure. As phrased by US group INCITE! Women of Colour Against Violence, “the revolution will not be funded.”

The possibility of a new communist vanguard seems remote today in Aotearoa/NZ, just as the Bolsheviks did not predict the generalised strike action that led to the 1917 Russian revolution. However, we can only forge an egalitarian society through meaningful commitment to the praxis of revolutionary socialism.

Paraphrasing Gramsci, we need pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will.

Witness to a revolution

Russia 1917

Russia 1917

Michael Kyriazopoulos, Fightback (Auckland).

As I approach the end of my life due to Motor Neurone Disease I have been reading the fragments of memoirs recorded by my maternal grandmother in the final years of her life. Virtually all of what she wrote centred on her experiences as a refugee in Russia, which clearly left a deep impression on her.

On wintry days I remember my mother looking intently at the crystal formations on the window panes. Slowly and carefully she would translate these delicate patterns into fine crochet work – fragile and intricate as spiderwebs. Mother was a person who combined her fine gifts with practicality, this would get us through the harsh days that were to shatter our beautiful world. Yes, my early childhood was filled with warmth, love and comfort.

So it begins. My gran was born Mary Blumenstock in 1907 in Tukums, Latvia. Her Jewish family enjoyed a comfortable lifestyle, keeping a maid and a summer house. Mary’s father was a successful timber merchant, but one day everything changed forever with the outbreak of the First World War. Her father and brother joined the Imperial Army and Mary and her mother went to live in a refugee settlement near Syzran. Although the language was foreign to her, Mary quickly picked up Russian and before long had won the school essay writing competition. She received a bag of sweets as a prize which she shared with her classmates and teachers. Her story was adapted as a school play which raised money to buy shoes and clothes for refugee children.

Mary helped her mother rolling cigarettes from which they eked out a meagre livelihood. Two and a half years after coming to Russia with the war still raging the situation was bleak:

Milk was now becoming scarce and the bread tasted dry as wood shavings. We could not buy kerosene for our lanterns, nor candles or soap. Our school meals usually consisted of two potatoes in their jackets and a small piece of herring. We also had a mug of black coffee without sugar, which I would give to another child. One of my potatoes I slipped into my pocket to take home to mama. [Read more…]

The Russian Revolution and National Freedom: How the early Soviet government led the struggle for liberation of Russia’s oppressed peoples

The following article, published on November 1, 2006, was written by John Riddell, then a co-editor of the now ceased Socialist Voicewhich was produced in Canada. We are publishing it in two parts. Part one, here, appeared in the July issue of The Spark and part two will appear in the August issue.

When Bolivian President Evo Morales formally opened his country’s Constituent Assembly on August 6, 2006,

Russian Bolshevik leader V.I Lenin, in 1919

he highlighted the aspirations of Bolivia’s indigenous majority as the central challenge before the gathering. The convening of the Assembly, he said, represented a “historic moment to refound our dearly beloved homeland Bolivia.” When Bolivia was created, in 1825-26, “the originary indigenous movements” who had fought for independence “were excluded,” and subsequently were discriminated against and looked down upon. But the “great day has arrived today … for the originary indigenous peoples.” (http://boliviarising.blogspot.com/1, Aug. 14, 2006)

During the preceding weeks, indigenous organizations had proposed sweeping measures to assure their rights, including guarantees for their languages, autonomy for indigenous regions, and respect for indigenous culture and political traditions.

This movement extends far beyond Bolivia. Massive struggles based on indigenous peoples have shaken Ecuador and Peru, and the reverberations are felt across the Western Hemisphere. Measures to empower indigenous minorities are among the most prestigious achievements of the Bolivarian movement in Venezuela.

At first glance, these indigenous struggles bear characteristic features of national movements, aimed at combating oppression, securing control of national communities, and protecting national culture. Yet indigenous peoples in Bolivia and elsewhere may not meet many of the objective criteria Marxists have often used to define a nation, such as a common language and a national territory, and they are not demanding a separate state. [Read more…]

WHAT IS MARXISM?

A talk by Don Franks, Marxism 2010 conference, Wellington 5 June  2010

This is obviously a big subject, which could be approached in a number of ways.  In the small time we have this morning, my aim will be to introduce basic points and hopefully arouse some ongoing interest.

There are various contending definitions of ‘Marxism”. The one I’m tempted to offer today is that Marxism is a set of sharp political tools, which New Zealand leftists tend to leave in the box. Later on in this talk I’ll consider why that has been so frequently the case.

As a more general definition to introduce Marxism, I’ll add that it’s a theory named for its main architect and can be understood as the theory of dialectical materialism based on communist practice. The expression ‘dialectical materialism’ has a forbidding sound and is not common currency in the day-to-day life of most people. Here I see a huge contradiction, because dialectical materialism is a thoroughly practical method of understanding human society and the universe in which we’re placed. Dialectical materialism is also a philosophy which by its nature takes sides with the oppressed. [Read more…]

OPEN BORDERS OR LEFT NATIONALISM?

History
by Don Franks

Since its formation the Workers Party of New Zealand has recognised that immigration controls are essentially a boss’s device to control workers. Accordingly, the Workers Party has always stood firmly in opposition to immigration controls. Point 4 of our 5-point programme spells it out in these words:

“For working class unity and solidarity – equality for women, Maori and other ethnic minorities and people of all sexual orientations and identities; open borders and full rights for migrant workers”.

Some people see our policy of open borders as extremist. Others realise that a truly internationalist position can’t settle for anything less. Genuine socialists insist on workers absolute freedom to travel and take up residence wherever they choose. [Read more…]

Review: Teamster Rebellion

Teamster Rebellion is a classic, and highly recommended for anyone interested in strengthening the union movement as we head into recession. First in the Teamster series, this compelling account of the 1934 strikes in Minneapolis sheds light on the rewards of worker militancy. Author Farrell Dobbs was one of the central leaders at the time, and he lays out the various strategies and pitfalls of the strike with admirable clarity.

Dobbs makes it clear that the biggest setback for workers in the Great Depression was a bureaucratic union movement. In fact, membership in unions actually declined in the early days of the Depression. Dobbs describes the “business unionism” of the American Federation of Labour, involving strict division of crafts, a minimum of strikes and suppression of dissidence.

[Read more…]

Communist Party of the Philippines’ 40th anniversary

The Workers Party of New Zealand sends warm greetings to the Communist Party of the Philippines, on its 40th anniversary.

The CPP has led the struggle against feudalism, capitalism and imperialism in the Philippines for four decades. Having withstood the Marcos dictatorship through to the current brutal regime of Arroyo, the CPP has been sustained through its deep roots among the masses. When many other communist parties around the world collapsed in the 1990s, the CPP carried on the struggle, constantly reassessing itself and further developing its strengths.

 The CPP’s commitment to internationalism has given confidence to many organisations and individuals in the struggle for world revolution.

 We hope that 2009 will bring much success to the comrades in the Philippines.

 In solidarity
Workers Party of New Zealand

A far left reply to Chris Trotter

– Don Franks, Workers Party candidate for Wellington Central 2008

The Dominion Post warns of a malicious workers’ enemy currently lurking in New Zealand.

What “it” supposedly “wants to see (on workers tables) are scraps of stale bread and cups of cold water.” Along with “the power and the phone cut off, holes in the roof, and the car up on blocks in the front yard.”

“Nothing delights it more than the sight of padlocked factory gates, and the sobbing of laid-off workers is music to its ears.”

According to Dominion Post columnist Chris Trotter, this inhumanity embodies none other than the revolutionary component of the political left.  He specifically cites the Workers Party as an example.

According to Trotter:

“The more the National Party cuts back and hacks away at the workers’ economic and social rights the better the revolutionaries like it.

“The far Left is always at its unhappiest when Labour is in power. In no time at all they’ve got the power and the phone reconnected, filled up the fridge, got a bit of a fire going in the grate, slipped a couple of pizzas in the oven, and cracked open a few cool ones.” (From The Left, Dominion Post 12/12/2008)

Chris may have forgotten that it was under Labour that Mrs Folole Muliaga tragically lost her life when her power was cut off.

[Read more…]

Marx in the 21st century

Talk given by Tim Bowron at a public forum at the Christchurch WEA in November 2008 organised by the Workers Party.

karl_marx

It seems as though these days the only time you are likely to hear the name of Karl Marx mentioned is when he is being dismissed as the proponent of some outlandish utopian ideology which had marginal relevance in nineteenth century Europe but none at all now (the view of most standard history texts) or as a the prophet of capitalist globalisation who also had some rather funny ideas about workers and exploitation with which we need not concern ourselves too much (the view of more sophisticated bourgeois pundits such as the writers for The Economist).

It is indeed true that the idea that the working class of which Marx wrote so volubly is rapidly vanishing from the stage of history has some material basis (at least in first world countries like New Zealand).  However while the number of workers directly engaged in the creation of surplus value in areas such as manufacturing and raw material extraction has certainly decreased in New Zealand over the past few decades, the amount of exploitation i.e. the mass of surplus value created by workers in these sectors and expropriated by the capitalists has not.

In addition, although the largest occupational group as measured in the 2006 New Zealand census were labelled as “professionals” (18.85%) followed by “managers” (17.14%), the relationship of these individuals to the means of production is clearly shown in the “status in employment” category where we learn that over 75% of the population are still dependent on selling their labour power in order to earn a living.

The real problem here then is not the absence of class but rather the collapse of working class consciousness (such that a supermarket checkout supervisor may now well consider themselves a “manager”, and various politicians can proclaim that we are “all middle class now”).

[Read more…]

40 years on: The 1968 Mexican student rebellion

– Tim Bowron

Orginally published at Socialist Democracy.

The situation in most of Latin America in 1968 was vastly different to that in Europe, the United States and South East Asia. Throughout most of the continent the revolutionary dynamic seemed to be running in reverse – since the 1959 Cuban Revolution the left seemed to be everywhere on the retreat, with right-wing military dictators ruthlessly crushing any opposition.

It was not as though the left suffered from any shortage of militancy – in Venezuela and Colombia communist cadre inspired by the example of Ernesto “Che” Guevara fought heroically to overthrow capitalism by setting up guerrilla foco in the countryside. However unlike their Cuban comrades they failed in the vital task of building a parallel mass underground movement among the urban working class, and consequently were left isolated.

An attempt by Guevara himself to lead a guerrilla insurgency in Bolivia in similar conditions led to his capture and execution at the hands of local military and US intelligence officers in 1967.

In Peru the peasant leader Hugo Blanco had led a relatively successful guerrilla campaign in the early 1960s which had mass support among the indigenous population of the Cuzco region, but by the mid 60s Blanco was in jail and the insurgency crushed.

In 1968 a left-wing army officer named General Juan Velasco Alvarado took power in Peru in a coup d´état, however despite implementing land reform and some other progressive measures the workers and peasants continued to be marginalised under his regime.

In Argentina too a military regime was in power throughout the period and the left driven largely underground for most of the decade. Only in 1969 would the class struggle briefly reassert itself with the urban uprising known as the Cordobazo.

However, in the continent of Latin America there was one key flashpoint in 1968 – Mexico.

[Read more…]