Sunday, March 14, 2010

Their Gramsci and ours

Martin Thomas

Antonio Gramsci was a revolutionary Marxist of the early-1920s Lenin-Trotsky stripe. Yet his prison writings of 1929-35 have been used as a source for quite different politics.

First, the Italian Communist Party (PCI), which had cold-shouldered Gramsci in prison as his criticism of Stalinist policies emerged, took him up from the early 1950s and especially in the 1960s. The PCI took Gramsci's discussions of "hegemony" and "war of position" as justifying class-collaboration and an idea of transforming society by gradually winning more and more influence (especially, in practice, in local government).

Gramsci's writings reached the English-speaking world through a short book of extracts published by the British Communist Party in 1957, after Khrushchev's startling anti-Stalin speech of 1956, and via the "New Left" in the early 1960s. For example, in Towards Socialism, a collection of essays published by New Left Review in 1965, Perry Anderson referred to Gramsci in order to argue a strategy supposedly based on "hegemony" and supposedly "going beyond" Leninism and social democracy. The main practical recommendation in Anderson's article was to urge the Labour Party to boost or to organise Labour-aligned associations among lawyers, doctors, scientists, teachers, and "every intellectual group".

In the late 1970s and the 1980s, Gramsci was often cited by Communist Parties pursuing a new "Eurocommunist" line to try to rid themselves of the taint of Stalinism.

Since the collapse of the Communist Parties, Gramsci has been a source for a "post-Marxism", advocating "radical democracy" rather than even notionally working-class politics.

Probably as a result, Gramsci has remained a widely-cited and widely-taught author in universities, while Lenin, Trotsky, Luxemburg and the like have not. There is now a vast volume of "post-Gramscian" studies, and this note can try only to look at some main trends.

Loyal to Gramsci?

There is nothing new about the texts of a revolutionary writer being used, once he or she is safely dead, to gloss unrevolutionary politics. The operation is easier with Gramsci since his Prison Notebooks were fragmentary, never finalised for publication, and often cryptic in style.

Many Marxist writers have shown that Gramsci did not change his fundamental revolutionary Marxist views in prison (1926-37) and while writing his Prison Notebooks (1929-35). A recent and clear demonstration of Gramsci's attachment to class politics comes from Mike Donaldson [1].

However, the post-Marxists do not deny that they have "gone beyond" Gramsci. They do not particularly claim to be loyal to Gramsci. Their argument is, so to speak, that the "other shore" of the theoretical "bridge" to new thinking provided by Gramsci's writings is their "radical democratic" politics, even though Gramsci himself would not have seen or wanted that.

Richard Bellamy, an important writer in the same political spectrum as the "post-Marxists" - though he prefers the banner, "realist liberalism" - edited a useful volume of Gramsci's pre-prison writings, and agrees that most of the central concepts of the Prison Notebooks were also in the pre-prison writings. But he concludes that what Gramsci adapted from the liberal (though sometime Marxist) philosopher Benedetto Croce is sounder than Gramsci's criticisms of Croce - in other words, that Gramsci is valuable for what of Croce has filtered through him, rather than for what differentiated him from Croce.

"The recent post-Marxist reading of Gramsci can be regarded as an implicit return to [the] Crocean radical alternative", writes Bellamy; but, for him, that is a merit, not a fault, of "post-Marxism". To answer Bellamy by demonstrating that Gramsci was not a "post-Marxist" is not to answer him.


The central concept in all the discussions has been what Gramsci called "hegemony".

Before 1917, Russian Marxists saw themselves as fighting for "hegemony", meaning the organisation of the working class so that it could take a leading role in (have hegemony in) the democratic revolt of multiple sectors of the Russian empire's people against Tsarist autocracy, and specifically of the peasant revolt. They counterposed that approach to "economism", the perspective of those socialists who wanted to focus on agitation and organisation around immediate working-class economic struggles, were willing to leave the other struggles to the bourgeois liberals, and reckoned that working-class politics could develop spontaneously out of the working-class economic struggles.

Some writers have argued that Gramsci first took the idea of "hegemony" from Italian writers such as Croce, before becoming aware of the Russian Marxists' discussions, but for sure Gramsci considered Lenin's ideas on hegemony important. In the Prison Notebooks he strove to develop those ideas, and to construct what he saw as the strategic vision underlying and exemplified in the tactic of the united front argued for by Lenin and Trotsky, against much opposition, in the Communist Parties in 1921-2.

The bourgeoisie had ruled - so Gramsci argued - and the working class must prepare itself to rule, not just by pursuing sectional interests, but by generating political parties which construct a "hegemonic apparatus": a complex of organisations, united-fronts, interventions, themes of agitation, etc. which enable the fundamental class to see itself as a leader, or potential leader, of society, and which offer other groups an effective alliance.

The political party must polemicise against its opponents not by cheap shots - just picking on their weakest advocates, or just "exposing" petty corruption and mercenary motives - but by tackling their best and strongest advocates, thus achieving an expansive influence among thinking people.

Rather than dawdling with the assurance that underlying economic laws would duly rally people to them in time, the political party must constantly be creative in political initiative. The economic impulse, powerful though it be, always requires a suitable political initiative to express it.

The party's "perspective" cannot be a mechanical calculation from broad economic and historical trends, but must count the party's own intervention as a creative factor. The "perspective" is not mechanical prediction, but an always-conditional guide to action.

The revolutionary working-class party should not assume it faces an immobile enemy. There are periods of "passive revolution" in which the ruling class transforms society, in its own way and in its own interests, but meanwhile seeking to open new perspectives for subaltern sections of the population.

And the party itself must be a continuous process of self-creation, working to make all its members "intellectuals", rather than utilising the Catholic Church's method of uniting educated strata with the less-lettered, i.e. of imposing rigid dogmatic limits on the educated.

In Gramsci's writings these ideas are counterposed to the traditional "workerist" and "trade-unionist" and politically-passive "maximalism" of the Italian Socialist Party; to the more intransigent and apocalyptic version of similar ideas proposed by the Italian Communist Party's first leader, Amadeo Bordiga; and to the cursory polemics and "statistical"-materialist sociology of a Marxist handbook by Bukharin.

When Gramsci argued, however, that "an appropriate political initiative is always necessary to liberate the economic thrust from the dead weight of traditional policies", he also believed that there was an underlying, shaping, structuring "economic thrust", and that the initiative must come from a class-based force. The question is: was he wrong on that?

The PCI and Gramsci

The Italian Communist Party adapted Gramsci's ideas by fading out the working-class basis of hegemony and Gramsci's assumption that hegemony could be won only by a bold, militant working-class movement. They transformed "hegemony" into a code-word for repeated recyclings of the "Popular Front" approach of the Communist Parties in the late 1930s, when they formally renounced the political independence of the working class in favour of alliances with miscellaneous bourgeois forces supposed to "stop fascism" as a "first stage" after which direct working-class causes might be taken up in a "second stage".

In 1926 Gramsci, puzzled by the factional dispute in Russia, had complained about the Stalinists' bureaucratic abuses against the Left Opposition, but was inclined to credit the argument of Stalin and Bukharin that their policy represented a restraint on direct working-class and socialist drive necessary in order to keep an alliance with the peasantry - in other words, that the Left Opposition showed a "residue of reformist or syndicalist corporativism".

Such arguments, mistaken I believe, could be seized on by the PCI to rationalise restraining working-class combativity on the grounds that such combativity would spoil the alliance with middle-class groups necessary to win a majority.

Paradoxically, the PCI was able to transform Gramsci's ideas about the revolutionary party's responsibility to be creative, to take initiative, and to educate, into a rationalisation for a notoriously stodgy, passive, routinist policy, pursued by a very bureaucratic party in a very manipulative way.


In the ideology of the Italian Communist Party, however, the whole approach was still, at least notionally and in some supposed last analysis, tied to a specifically working-class project. The working class was admitted to have distinct immediate and historic interests, and any shelving of those for the sake of alliances was (at least notionally) presumed to be temporary.

In the mid-1970s and the early 1980s, the Italian CP ideology, reformulated to include a marked distancing from the USSR, acquired wide international influence under the name "Eurocommunism". This was the way that the Communist Parties tried to adapt both to a new generation of radicalised youth and to the distrust by those youth - and increasingly by older activists, too - of the model of the USSR.

Eurocommunism was said to be a new alternative both to Leninism (read: Stalinism) and to social democracy. The links of a strategy of "hegemony" with the working class were faded out further, though still not completely (in formal terms anyway). The Communist Parties attempted, rather clumsily, to court the "new social movements" (feminist, lesbian-gay, anti-nuclear, etc.); and the political goal was posed as intervening "within as well as against the state", transforming it gradually rather than confronting it, capturing it, or using it as an already-given instrument.

The British version of Eurocommunism argued that Margaret Thatcher's Tories had developed a successful "hegemonic project", ideologically capturing great sections of the working class, with the conclusion (even before the miners' defeat in 1985) that direct working-class struggle had no real prospects.

Eurocommunism's flowering was brief. By the early 1990s the Eurocommunist parties had mostly dissolved themselves, or radically shrunk, and most of the Eurocommunist ideologues had moved on.

Laclau and Mouffe

The "post-Marxist" follow-up to Eurocommunism was pioneered in an article in the British Communist Party journal Marxism Today, in January 1981, by Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe.

Laclau and Mouffe were academics - of Argentinian and Belgian origin, respectively, but settled in Britain - not members of the Communist Party, but in its orbit, and previously admirers of the French Communist Party philosopher Louis Althusser. From Althusser they valued above all his emphasis on the "relative autonomy" of politics and ideology. They found in Gramsci a similar emphasis - and, they thought, the means to move from "relative autonomy" to straight autonomy.

Laclau and Mouffe first presented their ideas as radically left-wing. In their January 1981 article they criticised the Italian CP as being too stodgy to relate to the "new social movements", and condemned the excessive "concessions to the class enemy" of pre-1914 Marxist parties.

Thirty years later, they still consider themselves left-wing. Mouffe denounces the "third way", "beyond left and right" ideas of writers like the New Labour ideologue Anthony Giddens, and insists: "Right and left are still fundamental categories of politics". She criticises New Labour as having oriented to the middle class and abandoned workers. Despite describing her politics now as "radical democratic" rather than socialist, she denounces neo-liberalism and advocates "different modes of regulation of market forces" (albeit not their subjugation), "basic income", a shorter working week, etc.

Laclau and Mouffe are also clear than they reject Marxism. In the 1981 article their argument was posed as a call for a "Copernican revolution" within Marxism, but by 1985 they described their views as post-Marxist. They are also avowedly "post-Gramscian".

Society as "discursive space"

They retained the "broad democratic alliance" orientation which went back to the Italian CP of decades before, but amputated all the notional connections to class struggle, economic determination, and revolution.

Their basic step was to extrapolate "relative autonomy" to full autonomy - and more. Even in Gramsci, they now argued, lurked remnants of "economism" and of an old-Marxist model of society in which one part ("superstructure" - ideology, politics) just expresses or reflects another (the economic "base").

They argued that the "base-superstructure" concept should be completely rejected. The argument proceeded by leaps. Social life is the actions of individuals and groups, none of which are mechanically determined by economic conditions. Yet it could be that the overall directions of social life, and the alternatives which emerge in it, are shaped and often "statistically" determined by the economic relations which structure production and distribution, people's working lives, and much of their conditions outside work too? No, said Laclau and Mouffe. In fact, they came close to inverting the "base-superstructure" idea rather than simply rejecting it.

"There does not exist an essence of the social order beyond a political relation of forces". "Political struggle [is] constitutive of the social order". "All social phenomena and objects can only acquire meaning within a discourse". "Identities - lacking any essence - are formed through political struggle". "Politico-hegemonic articulations retroactively create the interests they claim to represent". We have to recognise "the primacy of politics" even "within the economy itself".

In other words, the shaping of social life is nothing but the workings of "hegemonic" techniques, free-floating from any economic or class underpinning. Those "hegemonic" techniques create the economic or interest-group underpinning, rather than being shaped by it.

They redefined hegemony as the "a process of the production of popular-democratic subjects", a "political articulation of different identities into a common project", or a process whereby "a particular social force assumes the representation of a totality that is radically incommensurable with it", or more simply just as "processes which can bring people together".

Gramsci's concept of hegemony - and Lenin's - involved some element of compromise, of bringing together different plebeian groups in an alliance shaped by definite core interests but also allowing room for divergences and disputes. Laclau and Mouffe moved on from that to the idea of "agonistic pluralism" as the central goal of political action. The goal is to construct a "radical democracy" in which different groups relate as "adversaries" - with mutual accommodation, dialogue, etc. - rather than as "enemies".

The core task for left-wingers is to construct a "chain of equivalence" which can bring together diverse causes into an alliance where each considers itself equally valued.

The chain is not quite all-embracing: "A chain of equivalence needs... a critical frontier. For a hegemony to have a radical focus, it needs to establish an enemy, be it capitalism, ecological destruction, or violation of human rights". But it must be broad and loose. We must reject the "very idea of a privileged subject" - that the working class, or any other pre-defined group, is determined as the core agency of change.

With that, we must reject the idea of comprehensive revolution. Laclau's and Mouffe's "organising principles are the democratic ideas of equality and liberty for all", and their goal is not revolution but "a radicalisation of ideas and values which [are] already present, although unfulfilled, in liberal capitalism".


As well as being "post-Marxist", they want to be "post-Jacobin" (though they do not use that term). In Jacobinism, the ideology of the radical wing of the French Revolution - in Marxism, too, and in some varieties of liberalism which they reject - they see an excessive rationalism, an impossible drive to meld the whole of society into a single collective will.

Insisting on the necessary partial and piecemeal nature of political action, they argue that "post-Marxism" must eschew the idea of revolution found in Marxism, as well as the ideas of economic base, class, and class interest.

The 1985 book in which Laclau and Mouffe codified their ideas - Hegemony and Socialist Strategy - made clear in its first pages that this direction in their thought was governed by revulsion against Stalinism. They cited the Russian invasion of Afghanistan (1979), the suppression of the Polish workers in 1981, the horrors following Stalinist victory in Vietnam and Cambodia (after 1975) as facts requiring a rethink of Marxism.

Like many others, they had taken the Stalinist states as more or less good coin, as more or less exemplars of revolutionary working-class socialist rule, and thus wanted to find new left-wing politics that, rejecting Stalinism, would also reject working-class socialist revolution.

Laclau and Mouffe comment that they see much of their approach as having been prefigured by a section of the pre-1914 Marxist movement, the so-called "Austro-Marxists" (ideologues of the Austrian Marxist movement of that time). They must have in mind the idea of a democratic order put together from "cultural-national autonomy", with an elaborate complex of mutually adjusting institutions for the various national groups in the mosaic of the pre-World-War-One Austro-Hungarian empire.

The test of experience

Over the last 25 years ideas like Laclau's and Mouffe's have spawned a vast literature, and I do not claim to have even a sketchy grasp of it all. In the 2001 introduction to the second edition of Hegemony and Socialist Strategy, Laclau and Mouffe seek to refer to, and draw support for their ideas from, a range of writings including those of Wittgenstein, Heidegger, Feyerabend, and Lacan. A lot of Mouffe's recent writing has been in the form of critique of the right-wing political philosopher Carl Schmitt.

However, we can reasonably do more than just gasp in awe at the length of the bibliographies. Politically, we can make some assessment of the current represented by "post-Marxism".

There is a paradox. Like many other schools of thought, their ideas were built on trends which appeared factually solid and well-established at the time they first wrote, but which in fact were soon to disappear.

In 1981, one of Laclau's and Mouffe's key arguments was that the economic base of capitalism was not determining politics, but, on the contrary, different politics in different places were visibly shaping society in decisively different ways. "The reorganisation of capitalism... increasingly depends on forms of political articulation which affect the supposed 'laws of motion'...."

The first talk of "hegemony" as the guiding principle in politics, they argued, had come after World War One when a "new mass character of political struggle", "Lloyd-Georgism" - presumably they mean a general shift towards more populist politics, away from the assured continual domination of traditional elites - had supposedly "obliged socialist politics to adopt a popular and democratic character... totally incompatible with the [alleged] strict 'class-ism' of Kautsky or Plekhanov".

Eurocommunism they saw as a forced recognition of "the far-reaching transformations" of capitalist societies "consequent upon Keynesian economic policies", for example the broadening of the state to include numerous welfare institutions.

By 1981 Keynesian economic policies were already being discarded by the leading governments. At least, they were being discarded in the form common in the 1960s and 70s. Despite the brief vogues of monetarism and "supply-side economics", the ruling classes did not in fact forget Keynes's insights, as they would show in their response to crisis in 2008. But with the increasing integration of almost all countries into an increasingly fast-moving and fluid capitalist world market, even the "relative" autonomy of politics has been much reduced. Bourgeois welfare-populism of a 1960s-Keynesian, or Lloyd-George sort, has been marginalised.

Governments everywhere, of all parties, pursue much the same neo-liberal policies. They are explicit about being subject to the "economic base". "You can't buck the markets". Tony Blair told us that adjusting the Labour Party to the new era meant making it the party, not of some newly-constructed "popular-democratic subject", but "of business".

In Britain, and in many other countries, this process of making politics much more a servant of "the economic base", so to speak, has been openly institutionalised by transferring a large part of state economic decision-making to a central bank mandated to be independent from parliament or government.

The "autonomy", or the economy-shaping role, of the political is markedly less than before 1980 - and less than when Gramsci, or Trotsky, or Lenin, were writing, or when Marx was writing and exclaimed: "The 'present-day' state is... a fiction... [It] changes with a country's frontier. It is different in the Prusso-German Empire from what it is in Switzerland, and different in England from what it is in the United States". Neither Marx, nor the great revolutionary Marxists, ever thought that the state simply "expressed" the "economic base", or did not reciprocally influence it. Perhaps the only ostensible Marxists who thought that were the Stalinists who said that the USSR's governing machine must be "socialist" because it was "based" on a nationalised economy.

There is still scope today for individual governments to act differently - in fact, much more scope than they admit. There are still governments which (while going a long way with the general neo-liberal flow) flout the dominant world political trend, though in a malign rather than benign way: Iran, for one. But, especially in the core areas of the world economy, the "autonomy of politics" is visibly much reduced.

Mouffe is aware of this. She calls our times "post-political", is alarmed by this, and comments ruefully that much of the task today has to be, not to press for more radical democracy, but to defend such democratic institutions as exist.

The battle for democracy

The organised working class and the labour movement are at a lower ebb than in 1981. We have suffered from successive defeats followed by a hectic surge of capitalist economic restructuring, and the ground on which to rebuild socialist politics is still poisoned by Stalinism. But the organised working class and the labour movement still exist, and the "parties of business" still acknowledge that they they are fighting a battle chiefly against that enemy.

What of the "new social movements" which Laclau and Mouffe thought must banish from our minds all ideas of a single class movement as central? In fact they have ebbed more than the organised working class. Some of them have a vigorous sort of after-life in NGOs. But Mouffe does not pretend that NGO politics, or the localised and one-off activism more common today, is a real vehicle for hegemony: she criticises as illusory the perspectives of those who "want a pure movement of civil society" and "do not want to have anything to do with existing institutions such as parties and trade unions".

"Post-Marxism" has had a very wide diffusion. But as a perspective for the left to recover from the defeats of the late 1970s and 1980s, it cannot claim to have had much grip.

Since the 1980s, a barebones form of bourgeois parliamentary democracy has spread much more widely, to ex-Stalinist Eastern Europe and to most of Latin America for example. That bourgeois parliamentary democracy has simultaneously been more and more hollowed out in its established heartlands - by restrictions on the democratic rights of labour, by the loss of civil liberties (especially in the "war on terror"), and by the increasing transformation of politics into a game played by professional political careerists, think-tanks, and media people, propelled by financing from the wealthy and big business, above the heads of the electorate.

The "post-Marxists" are influential people. What have they done, or even proposed, to reverse that trend?

Perhaps more than any time in history, the last 25 years prove that a battle for democratic forms is ineffectual if not tied together with a socialist battle to reorganise the working-class as an assertive, militant combatant for its own interests, as the champion of democracy, and as the leader of all the oppressed and plebeians.

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