Lessons from Gramsci

Anisha Faruk, Ex-Officio Member and TT18 Co-Chair, argues that the writings of Gramsci still have much to teach us.

“Ideas and opinions are not spontaneously ‘born’ in each individual brain: they have had a centre of formation, or irradiation, of dissemination, of persuasion – a group of men, or a single individual even, which has developed them and presented them in the political form of current reality.”

A founding member and one-time leader of the Italian Communist Party, Antonio Gramsci’s ideas have made a return to the forefront of our politics. The neo-Marxist political theorist’s importance and contribution to the socialist movement cannot be overstated. With his works providing the main theoretical foundation for the anti-Stalinist Eurocommunist movement of the 1970s, Eric Hobsbawm called him “the most original communist thinker produced in the twentieth-century”. He enjoys greater fame than any other Italian thinker being cited in academic papers more often than even Machiavelli. His pithy aphorisms have entered into ordinary usage: ‘pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will’ and ‘history teaches but it has no pupils’.

In 1926, using emergency powers granted by the ‘Exceptional Laws’, the fascist government of Mussolini arrested Gramsci. In the early days of his imprisonment he wrote to his sister-in-law Tatiana: “I want, following a fixed plan, to devote myself intensively and systematically to some subject that will absorb me and give a focus to my inner life.” After engaging in collective struggle all his life, he was forced into reflection to survive the mental anguish of isolation (“I turn and turn in my cell like a fly that doesn’t know where to die”). Eleven years of imprisonment saw his health deteriorate. He died at the young age of 46, becoming a martyr of the international communist movement.

Despite the anguish he suffered, his years in prison were intellectually rich, writing more than 30 notebooks and extraordinary letters to family and friends, most significantly to Tatiana. This is the context in which we must see his works for the achievement they are. His Prison Notebooks were smuggled out and published in Italy in the late 1940s; but Perry Anderson notes his reputation remained ‘local and marginal’ outside of Italy in the 1960s. It wasn’t until the early 1970s that they gained an international audience with the first comprehensive translation into another language (English) by Quintin Hoare and Geoffrey Nowell Smith.

Gramsci was preoccupied with how power works, how those who wield it maintain it and how it can be won by those who want to change society. The prevailing Marxist idea amongst radicals like him at the time was that power could be seized by taking control of the means of production and administration. But Gramsci asked why the 1917 Russian Revolution wasn’t followed by a series of similar uprisings across Western Europe. He realised that there was a fundamental difference – “In the East, the state was everything,” in Western liberal democracies, “the state was only an outer ditch, behind which there stood a powerful system of fortresses and earthworks”.

He had also seen during his youth in Turin how workers had taken over factories only to return them in a matter of weeks because they were unsure of what to do with them. Realising a new consciousness was needed in order to establish and preserve a new structure of society, he developed the concept of ‘cultural hegemony’. The ruling capitalist class were legitimised by cultural institutions propagating their worldview and values. Hegemonic culture disseminates its own norms allowing them to become the ‘common sense’. The ruling classes authority and legitimacy is thereby firmly rooted in civil society. The subtle influence of culture is where its power lies. When it looks separate to politics, it can establish itself as the ‘common sense’. It becomes harder to resist because it isn’t visible. For example, the idea of ‘pulling yourself up by the bootstraps,’ the idea that all you need to succeed is hard work, has been an idea long used to justify capitalism.

However, no culture is completely hegemonic – ‘counter-hegemonic’ cultures exist in pockets across every society and it is the job of the activist to identify and exploit these cultures to establish a new cultural hegemony. Socialism achieves victory when it infiltrates “schools, universities, churches and the media”. Culture lies at the heart of any socialist project because, as Crehan explains, it’s “how class is lived” and shapes their perceptions of whether change is possible or desirable. The Momentum organised festival ‘The World Transformed’ which ran alongside Labour Party Conference this year in Liverpool, with its displays of art, reading groups and focus on political education is a perfect example of how we can develop a counter-hegemonic culture.

His development of the ideas of the ‘War of Manoeuvre’ vs ‘War of Position’ is critical to analysis of the Britain’s political situation. The War of Manoeuvre refers to open class struggle whereas the War of Position refers to the fight to gain decisive influence in society. Rather than being mutually exclusive options, Gramsci understood them to work in tandem with each other, operating as two points on a continuum. Labour is currently winning the War of Position. In 2015, the Conservatives had controlled the narrative around what was ‘common sense’, especially that austerity was necessary for the economy to function, and Labour’s offering of what critics called ‘austerity-lite’ was nothing short of a concession to the Conservatives. A large reason the Conservatives won in 2015, therefore, was because they were seen as being able to implement austerity better than Labour could. Now, however, we see Theresa May at the Conservative Party Conference declaring that “austerity is over”. The Conservatives are battling on our natural territory.

The Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell is an avid follower of Gramsci. In a recent interview with The New Statesman, the new Gramscian direction the Labour Party is heading in was made obvious: “Hegemony is about dominating the debate, and it’s about transforming the whole reality as well…So that means…understanding the nature of the state and how you can use the state vehicle to transform it as well. We go inside the state institutions.”

Culture informs how people see the world and how they move within it. As Labour activists, we must take any opportunity to change class consciousness and defy the cultural norms imposed by the ruling class. I hope to see The World Transformed running again next year – projects like this are vital to developing a culture which specifically addresses the social and economic needs of the working class. We cannot establish socialism in society with only political and economic struggle – there must be a cultural one alongside them.

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