CAESARISM. By Caesarism Gramsci meant much the same as other Marxists have meant by Bonapartism. Quintin Hoare (SPN p.206) argues that Gramsci's "Caesarism" was broader than other Marxists' "Bonapartism", but I read Gramsci more as considering gradations of Caesarism as well as full Caesarism (SPN p.220).
CIVIL SOCIETY. Gramsci uses the word "State" in two different senses (and explains that he is doing that). Sometimes he uses "state" to mean government in the narrow sense, which he also calls "political society". Sometimes he uses it to mean the "integral State", the whole machinery of rule and hegemony of the ruling class: "State = political society + civil society". Sometimes he makes a contrast, state vs. civil society; sometimes he apparently equates state and civil society.
The fact that Gramsci was writing with such examples in mind as fascist Italy (and a Europe where fascism was advancing), or the Stalinising USSR, may explain why Gramsci seems to overestimate the seamlessness and coherence of the "integral State" ("political society + civil society").
It may also explain why Gramsci's discussions of "the integral state" appear to show a "functionalist" or "instrumentalist" bias, an assumption that because these things serve the ruling class therefore they correspond to what the ruling class wants them to do.
"A liberal, democratic regime", wrote Gramsci, would be necessary if "the great intellectuals" were to animate civil hegemony with some leeway from the government (he was commenting on an argument by Croce: SPN p.271). In "illiberal structures of government", he wrote, "civil society merges with political society" (Buttigieg vol.3 p.48).
Gramsci came to see fascism as the dominant political form in Europe for his day. "In the present epoch, the war of movement took place politically from March 1917 to March 1921: this was followed by a war of position whose representative - both practical (for Italy) and ideological (for Europe) - is fascism" (SPN p.120). In his Prison Notebooks he cannot be taken as writing just about current events, but it is surely wrong to read the notebooks (as they are sometimes read) as discussing the patterns of bourgeois-democratic societies in contrast to authoritarian regimes like Tsarist Russia.
Gramsci refers to "civil society" as a set of private associations and networks. To that extent his usage is similar to modern journalistic and academic usage. Gramsci is concerned mostly with political parties, newspapers, schools, etc., and suggests that the dominant civil-society elements operate to "trickle down" consent to ruling-class power. Modern academic and journalistic usage looks more to NGOs, charities, think-tanks, pressure groups, etc., and sees them mostly as operating the other way round, providing channels for citizens' concerns to "trickle up" into the public sphere.
As Quintin Hoare points out (SPN p.208), Gramsci does not often talk of the economic structure as a constituent of civil society. The passage which Hoare cites as Gramsci (by way of exception) including economic structure within civil society I read as saying that civil society works to conform social psychology to the demands of the economic structure.
In a passage where Gramsci described the way he used the term "civil society" as distinct from how others used it, he equated his usage with Hegel's. Yet, in understating or neglecting economic structure as a constituent of civil society, in emphasising voluntary associations as vehicles of consent contrasted with the state as vehicle of coercion, Gramsci's usage was a bit different from Hegel's.
"A distinction must be made between civil society as understood by Hegel, and as often used in these notes (i.e. in the sense of political and cultural hegemony of a social group over the entire society, as ethical content of the State), and on the other hand civil society in the sense in which it is understood by Catholics, for whom civil society is instead political society of the State, in contrast with the society of family and that of the Church".
Hegel's ideas would have come to Gramsci by way of Benedetto Croce, the foremost liberal (and one-time Marxist) philosopher of the time in Italy, who had written a book on Hegel.
For Hegel (Philosophy of Right, §182): "Civil society is the stage of difference which intervenes between the family and the state, even if its formation follows later in time than that of the state... The creation of civil society is the achievement of the modern world which has for the first time given all determinations of the Idea their due... The whole sphere of civil society is the territory of mediation where there is free play for every idiosyncrasy, every talent, every accident of birth and fortune, and where waves of every passion gush forth, regulated only by reason glinting through them..."
Civil society was the set of economic, legal, and corporate institutions which mediated the difficulties of the market and sustained the state, though the state was the primary creative, consent-making, force.
In modern academic and journalistic discussion, "civil society" means institutions outside the market and the state (and, implicitly, outside the family too). They are seen not as a dimension of ruling-class rule, and not very much as regulators of the market, but as a counterweight to the state, and pivotal in making bourgeois democracy more than periodic vote-counting. Usually, though without much explanation, the focus is on NGOs, charities, and so on, and especially on the spectrum of "civil society" operating through grants, offices, paid staff, and so on. As Steven Rathgeb Smith notes, critically (Oxford Handbook of Civil Society, ed. Michael Edwards, 2011, p.34), the "typology has tended to minimise the importance of... the arts, sports and recreation, and social clubs... Trade unions also tend to be excluded from consideration".
Historically, the term has had different meanings. (See "Aux origines de la société civile", by Raffaele Laudani, Le Monde diplomatique, September 2012).
For Adam Ferguson, in his Essay on the History of Civil Society (1767), "civil" was an attribute which society as a whole would have or not have. Ferguson was concerned with the modes by which society could be "civil" despite the pullulating rivalries of the burgeoning capitalist market and capitalist cities, in which the old, fixed social ties of rank and place were dissolved.
Acquisitive individuals "would enter, if not restrained by the laws of civil society, on a scene of violence or meanness, which would exhibit our species, by turns, under an aspect more terrible and odious, or more vile and contemptible, than that of any animal which inherits the earth". "In a commercial state... man is sometimes found a detached and solitary being: he has found an object which sets him in competition with his fellow-creatures, and he deals with them as he does with his cattle and his soil, for the sake of the profits they bring". So statesmen would find "those public establishments which tend to keep the peace of society, a respite from foreign wars, and a relief from domestic disorders. They learn to decide every contest without tumult, and to secure, by the authority of law, every citizen in the possession of his personal rights. In this condition, to which thriving nations aspire, and which they in some measure attain, mankind having laid the basis of safety, proceed to erect a superstructure suitable to their views.
"The desire of lucre is the great motive to injuries: law therefore has a principal reference to property". It must give security to, but not cripple, bourgeois enterprise. "The object in commerce is to make the individual rich; the more he gains for himself, the more he augments the wealth of his country. If a protection be required, it must be granted; if crimes and frauds be committed, they must be repressed; and government can pretend to no more".
His contemporary Adam Smith (The Wealth of Nations, 1776) seconded this view: "The acquisition of valuable and extensive [and, he might have added, mobile] property, therefore, necessarily requires the establishment of civil government. Where there is no property, or at least none that exceeds the value of two or three days labour, civil government is not so necessary".
For such writers, "the sphere of private property... was a sphere of egoism and self-interest, where people pursue their own aims regardless of the welfare of others and use others simply as a means to their own private welfare... An authority had to be established... which would reconcile the contradictions and embody [the] social, moral, or rational aspect of human existence" (Robert Fine, Democracy and the Rule of Law, Pluto 1984, p.12).
Hegel, in his Philosophy of Right (1820), began to categorise "civil society" as an element in society distinct from the state, rather than a sort of society. He did it by building directly on the ideas of Ferguson and Smith. For Hegel, "civil society" was the complex of provisions instituted by the state to mediate between itself and the family households.
"The protection of property by the administration of justice" was fundamental to civil society, but civil society should also include "provision against possible mischances, and care for the particular interest as a common interest... general arrangements for education". With a thought that would inform Croce, whom Gramsci studied closely, Hegel described civil society as "the world of ethical appearance".
That this was a discussion of a particular society, based on market economy and bourgeois enterprise, was made explicit by Hegel in the fact that the German term he used for "civil society", "bürgerliche Gesellschaft", also and equally means "bourgeois society".
Marx did not develop Hegel's train of thought further, but rather turned off at a different angle. For Hegel, as for Ferguson and Smith, the problem of "civil society" was how to adjust institutions so that society could thrive and control the rapacity of bourgeois market economy, which had developed naturally and was "the end of history" in economic structures.
In his Preface to his Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy (1859), Marx wrote of: "... the material conditions of life, the totality of which Hegel, following the example of English [in fact, Scottish] and French thinkers of the eighteenth century, embraces within the term ‘civil society'... the anatomy of this civil society, however, has to be sought in political economy".
For Marx, like Hegel, civil society was bourgeois society. For Marx, unlike Hegel, civil society was not the creation of the state, but the base that shaped it. The economic structure was not only part of civil society, but the basis of its anatomy. Marx wanted not to harmonise social institutions with the basis, but to identify the contradictions within the basis which would result in society being revolutionarily transformed by an element within that basis, the working class.
Meanwhile, another strand feeding into modern discussions of "civil society" had been formulated by the conservative Edmund Burke. Railing against all comprehensive social change, such as executed by the French Revolution, he wrote: "To be attached to the subdivision, to love the little platoon we belong to in society, is the first principle (the germ as it were) of public affections. It is the first link in the series by which we proceed towards a love to our country" (Reflections on the Revolution in France, 1790). Like Hegel, though from a different angle, he saw a need for intermediary institutions to stabilise a society otherwise starkly divided between a remote state and atomised individuals.
The same idea was developed in a different mode by the liberal Alexis de Tocqueville in Democracy in America (1835-40). "Americans of all ages, conditions, and all dispositions constantly unite together. Not only do they have commercial and industrial associations... but also a thousand other kinds, religious, moral, serious, futile, very general and very specialised, large and small... In democratic nations, associations must take the place of those powerful individuals who have been swept away by the equality of social conditions".
For Tocqueville, this multitude of associations was the foundation of liberal bourgeois democracy.
The modern academic and journalistic use of the term "civil society" is closer to Tocqueville than to any other predecessor, though Tocqueville's concern was mainly with groups run by their memberships. As Theda Skocpol notes, in the USA since the 1970s and 80s many "civil society" groups "are not membership groups at all. Many others are staff-centred associations... that recruit most supporters individually via the mail or media messages" (Oxford Handbook of Civil Society, ed. Michael Edwards, 2011, p.112).
In a turnabout from the 18th century usage, "civil society" has come to be seen as the element which civilises the state (and the capitalist market), rather than the state being the major element which civilises civil society (dominated by the capitalist market).
Marx did not use the term "civil society" for the spread of voluntary associations in bourgeois society; but he did see the spread of association, among the working class, as the engine for changing "civil society".
In the Communist Manifesto, Marx described the following evolution of associations. "The workers begin to form combinations (trade unions) against the bourgeois... This union is helped on by the improved means of communication that are created by modern industry... The organisation of the proletarians into a class, and consequently into a political party...
"The bourgeoisie... sees itself [in its political clashes] compelled to appeal to the proletariat... to drag it into the political arena. The bourgeoisie itself, therefore, supplies the proletariat with its own elements of political and general education.... Sections of the ruling classes are... precipitated into the proletariat... supply the proletariat with fresh elements of enlightenment and progress... A portion of the bourgeois ideologists... goes over to the proletariat..."
Rather than seeing voluntary associations primarily as trenches and fortresses of bourgeois power, Marx reckoned even bourgeois "civil society" associations might contribute to working-class ferment. The more "civil society" (in the Tocqueville sense), the more trade unions, the more working-class associations of all sorts, the better communications, the more schools and universities, the more political ferment, etc., the stronger the working class, at least potentially. In that sense his perception had more in common with the modern usage than with Hegel or with Gramsci. Marx's focus was on trade unions and working-class parties, not NGO operations centred on paid staff working in an office financed by grants, or charities.
To translate Gramsci's discussion of "civil society" into a left-wing politics based on building up NGOs and think-tanks is to make nonsense of it. He saw the building of a revolutionary socialist workers' party as central to developing a "hegemonic apparatus" of the working class within civil society.
What is distinctive about Gramsci is not a specially clear or useful definition of "civil society", but the explicit argument that a revolutionary socialist party must wage an ideological struggle on every front, and on a level adequate to counter the best and sharpest thinkers of the bourgeoisie. Launching his paper Ordine Nuovo in 1919, he wrote: "the journal should encourage the complete development of one's mental capacities for a higher and fuller life, richer in harmony and ideological aims..." He pursued the same theme in the Notebooks.
On one level, the idea was not new. Even pre-Marxist socialists, like the Owenites, had concerned themselves with education and enlightenment on many fronts. The German Social-Democratic Party, and the German Communist Party after it, ran a rich range of "cultural" activities. Lenin in What Is To Be Done? argued for socialist journalism to expose oppression on every front, including those which did not directly concern the working class.
But Gramsci elaborated. A revolutionary socialist party, aiming to change the world totally, must roll out a world-view capable of challenging today's rulers, at least in outline, on every front, not just on the bottom-line economic and political questions.
Gramsci also understood some necessary limitations. He contributed a chapter to Trotsky's Literature and Revolution, and will have understood Trotsky's argument there that bourgeois culture can only be superseded by absorbing its best contributions and moving on to a classless culture, not by counterposing a "proletarian culture" which is improvised amidst the poverty and the educationally-starved situation of an exploited class and is therefore necessarily the more or less arbitrary invention of a few over-confident ideologues.
On Ordine Nuovo, rather than insisting that the paper follow a strictly combative line on cultural issues, Gramsci invited a self-proclaimed liberal, Piero Gobetti, to write the paper's theatre reviews.
There may be passages in the Notebooks where Gramsci oversteps the necessary qualifications in his attempt to depict the triumphant revolutionary socialist party as the carrier of a complete world-view. But that is another issue.
How does the question of "civil society" (in the Tocqueville sense) stand today?
In Western Europe, and not only in Western Europe, in let's say the 1940s, the big elements of Tocquevillian civil society were the unions, the political parties, the press, the churches, and schools and universities.
Some of those elements have faded. The mainstream bourgeois political parties have faded. The Tory party in Britain had 2.8 million members in 1953 - three times as many individual members as the Labour Party had at its peak, around the same time - and they were organised in a web of Conservative Clubs and Associations, active in their own way. Now it has maybe 150,000 members, with an average age of around 64. Despite the Tories doing well electorally, they have fewer members even than the much-shrunken Labour Party. Their membership has halved under David Cameron's apparently-successful leadership.
The Liberal party had nearly 300,000 members in the 1960s, when they had only between six and nine MPs and had had no more than nine since 1950; today the Liberal Democrats have only 40-odd thousand, despite at one point in the run-up to the 2010 election running higher in the polls than both Tories and Labour.
Union membership has mostly declined since the early 1980s. The churches have shrunk, too. Press circulation has shrunk. It has been replaced only partly by TV viewing.
In the early 1960s, there was much discussion about this in Britain. Writers argued that we were in a new age of systematic "apathy", "end of ideology", "instrumental" attitudes, atomisation, and so on. Instead of participating in civil society, people were commuting to work, watching television, going on package holidays, and buying more and more fridges, washing machines, televisions, cars, etc.
The theorists of the early 1960s would find as early as 1968 that their extrapolation of ever-increasing apathy was wrong. And they underestimated the residual hegemonic power of the old political and trade-union apparatuses.
Today there is less atomisation. Schooling, which despite the rise of online learning is still mostly face-to-face, has expanded hugely. Social media, through which people are "networked" but not exactly organised, have expanded even more.
In the USA, people spend an average of 14 hours a month - or 20 hours a month for people aged 18-34 - on networking over social media. They overwhelmingly communicate with people they also know in real life, or with whom they are put in touch by mutual friends. When asked to describe how they feel after time spent networking, the words they by far most often choose are "connected" and "informed". Some choose the word "indifferent", but the numbers choosing the terms "excited" or "energised" are not very far behind. (Nielsen Social Media Report 2012).
We need to reckon with these trends. But can this area of "civil society" be an alternative to the unions and the old workers' movement in finding points of leverage for socialist struggle? Evidently as Marxists we must find points of leverage for socialist struggle within bourgeois civil society as it exists (even if in the short term the leverage is limited, and it takes much effort to organise even small elements of struggle) - or else we become just utopians and peddlers of blueprints.
Elsewhere (www.workersliberty.org/tweet) I have argued that this expansion of wide, loose networking in civil society cannot be seen not a substitute for the strong organised networking which the working class needs to fight and to win. It is rather one of the terrains to be built on for assembling (as fast as we can, as patiently as we must) elements for that organisation - on somewhat the same level as the older environment of smaller but tighter networks (neighbours, connections made through particular cafes or pubs, churches) was also a background terrain but not a substitute.
The "Arab Spring" of 2011, after the first eruption of loosely-networked protest toppled the dictators, was then progressively confiscated by the strong organised networks of the Islamists. Possibilities are not closed off, but the left and the worker activists in Egypt and Tunisia face big difficulties in building strong-enough alternatives. "Networking" is not a substitute for organisation.
COERCION AND CONSENT. Ruling classes, says Gramsci, rule not only through the machinery of government (coercion); they also lead in society and win consent through political parties, media, school systems, etc.
Gramsci formulates this thought many times in the Prison Notebooks, and sometimes cites "pairs" (force-consent, authority-hegemony, political society-civil society, etc.: e.g. SPN p.169) as if all these pairs are neat divisions of reality into two boxes, and equivalent ways of saying the same thing (like fish-chips, seafood-potatoes, poisson-frites, etc.)
However, this is misleading. Gramsci writes that political society (the machinery of government) and civil society are only aspects of a whole. "The distinction [between political society and civil society] is purely methodological and not organic; in concrete historical life, political society and civil society are a single entity" (Buttigieg vol.2 p.182). It may be more accurate to see political society and civil society as different strands of class activity, going on interdependently and both over a swathe of social life, than as different areas of social life.
Gramsci also writes that there are forms of power other than coercion and consent. "Between consent and force stands corruption/fraud (which is characteristic of certain situations when it is hard to exercise the hegemonic function, and when the use of force is too risky). This consists in procuring the demoralisation and paralysis of the antagonist (or antagonists) by buying its leaders... in order to sow disarray and confusion in his ranks..." (SPN p.80).
Even so, it can be objected that Gramsci neglects the "dull compulsion of economic relations" and the embedded "illusions created by competition" and "commodity fetishism" of which Marx wrote in Capital; and that he also neglects the sort of "dull compulsion of political relations" established by a developed bourgeois democracy above and beyond whatever measure of "consent" the various leading parties may get (or may not get, as in Italy in 1994).
It can also be objected that usual interpretations of Gramsci, and maybe even Gramsci himself, mislead us by pairing coercion with political society and consent with civil society.
Edward Said's usage in Orientalism is an example. "Gramsci has made the useful analytic distinction between civil and political society in which the former is made up of voluntary (or at least rational and non-coercive) affiliations like schools, families, and unions, the latter of state institutions (the army, the police, the central bureaucracy) whose role in the polity is direct domination" (p.6).
The army and the police are armed. They shoot people or lock them up for long periods, and schoolteachers, fathers, and workplace bosses do not. The army and the police are the bourgeoisie's reserve forces of coercion.
However, nagging doubts made Said insert a parenthesis, "or at least rational and non-coercive"; and the parenthesis is inadequate. Everyday coercion of working-class people in even minimally bourgeois-democratic societies is vastly more by schoolteachers, parents, workplace bosses, private security guards, and bailiffs than directly by cops or soldiers. That everyday coercion makes impositions, every day, which have "consent", if at all, only in the most grudging "no option but to put up with it" sense.
The police, by contrast, even if unpopular, rely heavily on everyday deference rather than explicit violence to regulate people. Police in the US are surely more directly coercive than in European societies, for example, but US figures find that "nearly 45 million people had face-to-face contact with police over a 12-month period and that approximately one percent, or about 500,000 of these persons, were subjected to use of force or threat of force" (Use of Force by Police: overview of national and local data, US Department of Justice, 1999, p.3). Cops' assaults on picket lines and demonstrations are significant components of bourgeois class rule, but are one element in a complex dominated by a certain sort of "consent".
The police also, more or less, operate a system of laws which is regulated by democratically-elected assemblies and which prevails mostly through a form of consent rather than crude coercion. Socialists rightly and frequently say "better to break the law than break the poor", but we do so to make a case with working-class people who, most of the time, think that breaking the law is undesirable and requires special justification.
Workplace bosses, by contrast, often operate impositions which are accepted by workers with no "consent" beyond a feeling that economic coercion gives them no choice but to submit.
The pairing consent-civil, coercion-political, is thus misleading. So is the omission of workplaces from the catalogue of institutions of bourgeois rule. Perry Anderson's point, discussed elsewhere in these pages, that the engineering of consent in bourgeois-democratic societies operates in important part through "political society" rather than "civil society", is confirmed.
Gramsci does not, by emphasising the problem of consent, intend for revolutionary socialists to replace sharp class struggle by patient nudging of public opinion. He writes that forms of German ideological predominance in Europe before 1914, including the predominance in the socialist parties in many countries of the German SPD's Marxist doctrine, were "merely a phenomenon of abstract cultural influence" because they lacked "organic or disciplinary bonds". "Abstract cultural influence" was no substitute for "real activity" (SPN p.188).
COHERENCE: with Gramsci, this is to do with coherence between theory and practice, as well as coherence within theory. According to Peter Thomas, it "can be regarded as one of the ‘keywords' of the conceptual architecture of the Prison Notebooks... traversing the border between the strictly philosophical and the strictly political... Gramsci deploys the concept of coherence precisely as a synonym for... the ‘union of theory and practice' and more particularly for... ‘union of Marxist theory and the workers' movement'." (The Gramscian Moment, pp.364-5)
DUAL PERSPECTIVE. Gramsci's discussion takes as its starting point ideas from the Fifth Congress of the Comintern (June-July 1924) which were in fact a fudge rather than a valuable theoretical innovation.
Quintin Hoare explains: "The Congress followed a long series of defeats for the revolution internationally, culminating in the German October of 1923. Zinoviev... was anxious to present... the German revolution as still being on the cards in the immediate future. Trotsky and Radek were arguing that [the defeat in Germany had been serious and far-reaching and] the European bourgeoisie was moving in the direction of a [temporary] ‘labourist' resolution of its post-war political crisis, witness events in England and France".
There was some polemic against Trotsky as being soft on social democracy, but Stalin and Zinoviev - who was then allied with Stalin, and president of the Comintern - did not yet feel confident enough to dispute Trotsky head-on.
"Under Zinoviev's guidance, the Congress in effect adopted a compromise solution, allowing both for the imminence of revolution and for a generalisation of the ‘labourist' solution... The Theses... stated: ‘The whole situation is such that two perspectives are open: (a) a possible slow and prolonged development of the proletarian revolution, and (b) on the other hand... the solution in one country or another may come in the not distant future'." (SPN p.169).
It was a fudge. Gramsci didn't see it that way, and in any case seized on this formula, which at least allowed for some complexity in developments, against the Stalinist doctrine of the "Third Period" in which every crisis was deemed to lead directly towards workers' revolution.
In discussions with other communist prisoners at Turi, Gramsci spoke (so Hoare reports) "of the ‘two perspectives'... He said that of the two, the more likely was that of some form of transitional stage intervening between the fall of fascism amid the dictatorship of the proletariat, and that the party's tactics should take this into account".
Maybe Gramsci was influenced there by Trotsky's similar argument: "Expectations that Fascism, becoming steadily more and more intensified, will lead to the uprising of the proletariat, have not been justified by experience, and by no means all of us shared these expectations" (June 1924).
In the Notebooks, Gramsci discusses the "dual perspective" in what at first sight seems an entirely different way: as a matter of dual levels in the revolutionary organisation's activity rather than of expectations allowing for two possible developments in the broad political situation.
"Another point which needs to be defined and developed is the ‘dual perspective' in political action and in national life. The dual perspective can present itself on various levels, from the most elementary to the most complex; but these can all theoretically be reduced to two fundamental levels... of force and of consent, authority and hegemony, violence and civilisation... of agitation and of propaganda, of tactics and of strategy, etc."
In periods of "slow development" (as the Fifth Congress had it) the revolutionary party would chiefly be concerned with propaganda; with incremental tactics; with "civilisation" in the sense of the gradual education of its own forces and of the working class and also of small battles which win more "civilised" conditions for workers within capitalism; with gradually building up support (consent, hegemony).
In a revolutionary crisis, tasks connected with force, authority, violence, strategy, and agitation would be foremost. (The traditional Marxist usage on "propaganda" and "agitation" is that "propaganda" is about longer-term educational activity, explaining a large complex of ideas to a relatively small audience, and "agitation" is about explaining one or a few ideas to a larger audience on the basis of current events which give those ideas a wider reach. "Propaganda", then, meant education or enlightenment, without the connotations of deception and manipulation which the word acquired in later decades).
Gramsci argued that these two levels should not be separated, or seen as coming in distinct stages, with the activities to do with "force" and so on coming only after a period of gradually building up "consent". This argument runs counter to any view of Gramsci as having concluded that, not just that steady and low-key tactics were required for the next mappable period, but also that only such tactics would ever be viable in Western Europe. And despite Gramsci's polemics against Rosa Luxemburg, the argument here is very similar to Rosa Luxemburg's in The Mass Strike.
"Some have reduced the theory of the ‘dual perspective' to something trivial and banal, to nothing but two forms of ‘immediacy' which succeed each other mechanically in time, with greater or less ‘proximity'. In actual fact, it often happens that the more the first ‘perspective' is ‘immediate' and elementary, the more the second has to be ‘distant' (not in time, but as a dialectical relation), complex and ambitious.
"In other words, it may happen as in human life, that the more an individual is compelled to defend his own immediate physical existence, the more will he uphold and identify with the highest values of civilisation and of humanity, in all their complexity" (SPN p.170).
These arguments by Gramsci do not answer the points made by Trotsky and the Left Opposition in 1923-4. The Left Opposition's forecast was much more specific than just one of "slow development". They were aware that the forecast was only hypothetical and conditional. As Trotsky wrote: "We had in mind only the tendency of development. This did not mean that we were a hundred per cent convinced that things would happen exactly in that way: the tendency of development is one thing, and its living refraction in reality is another thing".
Gramsci also wrote that "relations of forces" should be analysed on three levels (not two) - basic social and economic structure, political organisation and balance, and politico-military relations.
This suggests that the dualities which Gramsci uses in his Notebooks are not about, or not only about, dividing what happens in society into two categories, but rather about distinguishing, for methodological purposes, what happens into society into simultaneous streams of different time-scales: "the present moment" is a combination of a number of different "present moments" set into those different time-scales.
EAST AND WEST. In 1924 Gramsci wrote against a schematic division of revolutionary socialist strategies into one for the "East" and another for the "West". "Amadeo [Bordiga, another leading figure in the Italian Communist Party]... thinks that the tactic of the [Communist] International reflects the Russian situation, i.e. was born on the terrain of a backward and primitive capitalist civilisation. For him, this tactic is extremely voluntaristic and theatrical, because only with an extreme effort of will was it possible to obtain from the Russian masses a revolutionary action which was not determined by the historical situation...
"[In the West] there exists the historical determinism which was lacking in Russia, and therefore the overriding tasks must be the organisation of the party as an end in itself.
"I think the situation is quite different. Firstly, because the political conception of the Russian communists was formed on an international and not on a national terrain. Secondly, because in central and western Europe the development of capitalism has not only determined the formation of the broad proletarian strata, but also - and as a consequence - has created the higher stratum, the labour aristocracy, with its appendages in the trade-union bureaucracy and the social-democratic groups.
"The determination, which in Russia was direct and drove the masses onto the streets for a revolutionary uprising, in central and western Europe is complicated by all these political superstructures, created by the greater development of capitalism. This makes the action of the masses slower and more prudent, and therefore requires of the revolutionary party a strategy and tactics altogether more complex and long-term than those which were necessary for the Bolsheviks in the period between March and November 1917..." (David Forgacs, ed., A Gramsci Reader, 1988, p.130-1).
In a 1926 article, Gramsci further specified another "complication", the greater strength of the states and the ruling classes in Western Europe.
However, better known is a passage from the Prison Notebooks: "A change was necessary from the war of manoeuvre applied victoriously in the East in 1917, to a war of position which was the only possible form in the West... In the East [i.e. in Russia of 1917], the State was everything, civil society was primordial and gelatinous; in the West, there was a proper relationship between State and civil society, and when the State trembled a sturdy structure of civil society was at once revealed. The State was only an outer ditch, behind which there was a powerful system of fortresses and earthworks..." (SPN p.238).
This is wrong. The idea that the state had ever in Russia been "everything", above only a "primordial" and not "sturdy" civil society, is an echo of the idea of the Russian state "hanging in mid-air" which the Russian socialist Pyotr Tkachev argued in the mid-1870s. At the time Frederick Engels showed that the Russian state, on the contrary, had a substantial basis in bourgeois and landowning classes.
By the time of the October 1917 revolution, the old Tsarist state was the very opposite of "everything". It had been smashed by the uprising of February 1917, which drove the police completely off the streets of the cities, destroyed the top commanders' control of the army, and disabled the old machinery of government. What the workers overthrew in October 1917 was a bourgeois semi-state, which had been uneasily coupled with the power of soviets (workers' councils) since February 1917.
The military analogies "war of position" and "war of manoeuvre" do not work well (see "war of position").
Despite what Gramsci had written in his 1924 polemic, it was in February and not in October that there was some "direct determination" which "drove the masses onto the streets for a revolutionary uprising". The February revolution was to a serious extent a surprise attack in a Petersburg where Tsarist power was weak because of the disaffection of the troops stationed there (it was a "surprise" to the workers who overthrew the Tsarist state, too). Bolshevik activity between February and October 1917 was almost entirely a matter of "patiently explaining", as Lenin put it: winning a majority in the soviets. The element of fast-moving manoeuvre was almost trivial. Even on 25-6 October, as Trotsky describes it in his History of the Russian Revolution, "demonstrations, street fights, barricades - everything comprised in the usual idea of insurrection - were almost entirely absent".
Middle-class leaders were able to dominate the workers' councils in February 1917, and get them to cede power to the Provisional Government. The middle-class leaders were able to do that precisely because of their strength in "civil society" - in political parties, in the press, etc. If "civil society" in Russia was "gelatinous", that seems a factor conducive to it absorbing working-class assaults rather than being shattered by them; in any case Gramsci himself used the same adjective, "gelatinous", to described the "economic and social structure" of his part of the "West", namely Italy.
The evidence of revolutionary working-class upheavals in relatively advanced capitalist countries - Germany 1918-9, Spain 1936-7, France 1968, Portugal 1975 - is not at all that the capitalist state gives way, but then "a sturdy structure of civil society... fortresses and earthworks" saves bourgeois power. The structures of civil society gave way, or were turned around by the working class. (Gramsci himself writes that there had been a "crisis of hegemony" or a loss of ruling-class "civil hegemony" after World War One; or again that "the hegemonic apparatus of the dominant group... disintegrated in every state throughout the world as a result of the [First World] war" - Buttigieg vol. 3 p.211). Yet the state stayed strong enough that the workers could be quelled.
Moreover, as Plekhanov often pointed out in his polemics against the Russian advocates of peasant socialism and of politics for the "East" contrasted to those in the "West", there are many different "Easts" and "Wests".
Italy in Gramsci's day was probably more different from Britain (say) than from Russia. It ranked behind Russia in steel production per head and coal consumption per head; like Russia, it had a few concentrations of advanced, large-scale industry in the midst of a mostly agricultural economy. Agriculture in Italy was mostly as backward and poverty-stricken as in Russia.
Gramsci in his Prison Notebooks discussed at length another "West" - the USA. He saw it (wrongly on the facts, I think) as another country where civil society was underdeveloped, more like Russia in that respect than Western Europe.
Gramsci's comments on East and West have often been used to bolster an idea that revolutionary politics were necessary for socialists in Russia in 1917, but some more gradualist option will work better in more advanced capitalist countries. This is at best a case of picking on weak passages in Notebooks which Gramsci wrote while lacking books and materials to refer to, while in poor health, and while isolated from political and theoretical discussion. Gramsci himself wrote that his notes were fragmentary and provisional, and on some questions "the very opposite of what they asserted will be shown to be the case" (Buttigieg vol.3 p.231).
ECONOMISM. The term "Economism" was first used to name a trend in the Russian Marxist movement around 1899-1901. The "Economists" were bowled over by the success in the mid and late 1890s of leafleting on workplace issues by the underground Marxist circles which previously had mostly been unable to be much more than discussion and self-education groups. They advocated that the Marxists focus their effort more or less entirely on economic issues and for the time being leave to the liberals political issues of the struggle for democracy against Tsarism. Both Lenin and the future Mensheviks argued against the Economists.
Gramsci defined "economism" in wider terms than other Marxists do, as any trend which downgrades specifically political intervention or assumes that economic developments will (or will unless artificially restrained) mechanically produce corresponding political results. Thus for him laissez-faire ideologies, electoral abstention of any sort, and syndicalism, were all varieties of economism. Gramsci believed that often what has been diffused as "historical materialism" has in fact been "historical economism". He argues that economism tends to lead to:
1. "cheap infallibility" (since everything in a bourgeois society will eventually be accommodated to capitalist interests in one way or another, you can "infallibly" explain all measures as serving capitalist interests)
2. shallow agitation based on exposures of ruling-class individuals' venality, attributing ruling-class policies to "economic" motives in the narrowest sense
3. dialogues with the public in which the "Marxist" takes the role of the "genie with the lamp" exposing the swindles of established leaders to those hitherto too "incurably thick" to register it
4. shallow, passive tactics understating political initiative, and expecting an eventual resolution from iron economic laws which will produce an economic and then a revolutionary-political crisis to be resolved by military force.
FORDISM. The Model T Ford, launched in 1908, was the first car produced in millions and bought by millions. By the end of World War One, almost half the cars on earth were Model Ts.
In 1911 F W Taylor published his book Scientific Management, the first-ever essay in defining "management" as a profession for which people should be trained. He argued that managers should study, plan, and regulate work routines in detail. Before then, workers had generally been trained informally, by older workmates; Taylor argued that managers should take control of training.
In 1913 Ford introduced the world's first moving assembly line. Workers found it a hell-hole. In December 1913, Ford found that his workers stuck it, on average, for only three months. Only 640 of his 15,000 employees had been with the company for three years or more. Worse, trade-unionists from the Industrial Workers of the World were organising in Detroit.
Ford responded by proclaiming the "Five Dollar Day". On top of their basic pay of $2.34, some Ford workers would be paid bonuses bringing them up to the hitherto-unknown rate of $5 a day. That would consolidate a core workforce. At the same time Ford contracted out much work to other companies on much lower wages.
Ford established a Sociological Department to vet the home and sex life of employees to decide who would qualify for the promised $5-a-day wage. Ford also organised evening classes, sports facilities, a company band, and cheap loans. He strongly supported Prohibition of alcohol, which was US federal law from 1919 to 1933. (Chris Reynolds, From Ford to computers, Workers' Liberty 11).
But "in the... 1920s the Department's activities were scaled down... The moral element of Ford's labour relations was replaced by ‘strong-arm tactics' with gangland overtones" (Ralph Fevre, The New Sociology of Economic Behaviour, p.231). These methods kept Ford non-union longer than any other big car company, but eventually in the 1930s the workers unionised the factories.
In his Prison Notebooks, Gramsci saw the defeat of the open revolutionary working-class assault of 1917 and the following few years as being followed by a period of "passive revolution", or "revolution/ restoration", in which the ruling class would find reactionary and bureaucratic ways to respond to the "inherent necessity to achieve the organisation of a planned economy" in place of the revolutionary and democratic way possible if the workers of Western Europe had been able to triumph after 1917.
Fascism was one of the forms of "passive revolution". Gramsci saw Fordism (linked [p.293] to "the liberal state") as another.
Gramsci, in his notes on Americanism and Fordism, was clear that capitalists like Ford "are not concerned with the ‘humanity' and ‘spirituality' of the worker, which are immediately smashed". He was also clear that Fordism would incubate revolt: the US bosses "have understood that ‘trained gorilla' is just a phrase [of Taylor's], that ‘unfortunately' the worker remains a man and even that during his work he thinks more..." (than the worker in older industry).
However, in the sense that the most thorough and ruthless capitalist development can also be the most thorough and ruthless incubation of progressive potentialities in the working class, Gramsci also saw "Fordism" as having a greater component of "revolution" in the "revolution/ restoration" couplet than had Italian fascism, dominated as it was in Gramsci's view by a parasitic and mean-spirited petty bourgeoisie lacking technical qualifications and of rural and "rural-type" origin.
The terms "Fordism" and "post-Fordism" have been much talked about since the 1980s. By then the reference point for the concept of "Fordism" was less Gramsci's notes than Michel Aglietta's A theory of capitalist regulation, published in 1976.
For Aglietta the history of capitalism was and is a story of the bourgeoisie successively evolving different "modes of regulation". Fordism was one of those, and characterised by assembly-line production; a high development of trade-union collective bargaining, which allowed for rising wages and thus an expanding market for the new production; endemic inflation; economic stabilisation by welfare spending; and a big economic role for the state. What Aglietta meant by "Fordism" was different from what Gramsci meant. Aglietta also sketched a "neo-Fordism" which, by extrapolating from trends of the 1970s, he saw emerging. In the 1980s writers around the Eurocommunist magazine Marxism Today, extrapolating in their case from the first period of Thatcherism, sketched a "post-Fordism" on quite different lines.
Technologically, for both Gramsci and Aglietta, "Fordism" was defined by mechanised assembly lines. "Neo-Fordism" (Aglietta) or "post-Fordism" (Marxism Today) was defined by automation and computers.
Gramsci's "Fordism" was characterised by a drive to separate off a reliable and high-paid workforce from the rest of the working class, with bonuses a large part of wages, and by union-busting. Aglietta's "Fordism", by a working class more or less unified by national collective bargaining (by unions) and a welfare state.
"Neo-Fordism" was defined by state wage controls and union-bashing, but a trend to unify the working class even more; "post-Fordism", on the contrary, by flexible pay systems using bonuses and a fragmentation of the working class, so that unions were primarily sidelined rather than bashed.
Gramsci's and Aglietta's "Fordism" were both forms of regulated capitalism. Aglietta's "neo-Fordism" was an even more regulated, and statised, form of capitalism; "post-Fordism", on the contrary, was characterised by Thatcherite free enterprise.
"Neo-Fordism" was seen as bringing increased and more generalised class struggle; "post-Fordism", as bringing decreased class struggle and more struggles defined not in terms of class but of varied identities and groupings.
In his notes on the USA, Gramsci assumed that Europe, and Italy in particular, have far larger parasitic and unproductive social strata than the USA.
This may not be true. For example, Gramsci is aggrieved by the large number of lawyers in Italy: 64 per 100,000 population in 1929, a higher rate than elsewhere in Europe. But the USA has far more lawyers: 384 per 100,000 population in 2010. (Italy has become more lawyered-up over the years, but less so than the USA: 205 per 100,000 population in 2007).
The USA also has a hypertrophy of real-estate agents: 234,000 of them in 1930, 190 per 100,000 population, and 644,000 by 1980, 284 per 100,000 population. (Jeffrey M Hornstein, A nation of realtors: a cultural history of the 20th-century American middle class, p.207).
Gramsci, it seems, underestimated the vast size of the small-town bourgeoisie and petty-bourgeoisie in the USA. The USA has "31,000 local general-purpose governments with less than 10,000 residents (accounting, with rural areas, for 38 per cent of the nation's population)" http://www.newgeography.com/content/00242-america-more-small-town-we-th….
In his Prison Notebooks Gramsci discussed Sinclair Lewis's novel Babbitt, a biting critique of middle-class USA. But he saw European petty-bourgeois derision of Babbitt's philistinism as hollow and hypocritical. At least for the American Babbitt, the petty-bourgeois hero of Lewis's novel, the model to emulate was the industrialist, but for the European "Babbitt" the model was the "canon of the cathedral, the petty nobleman from the provinces, the section head at the ministry" (Buttigieg vol.2 p.356).
But Babbitt is a real-estate agent. He admires his neighbour Howard Littlefield, who is a manager for the city Street Traction Company; but Babbitt had wanted to be a lawyer, and he wants his dopey son Ted to become a lawyer.
Gramsci asserted that the regulation of alcohol consumption and sexual activity attempted by Prohibition in the USA and Ford's Sociological Department is a necessary condition for workers to achieve high productivity with modern technology.
In fact Ford's regulation of his workers' sex lives had fallen away. Gramsci wrote as if he expected Prohibition to return: it was ended (in 1933), he said, "as a result of the opposition of marginal and still backward forces and certainly not because of the opposition of either the industrialists or the workers" (SPN p.279). In fact the American Federation of Labor opposed Prohibition from early on, and from 1931 ran a special campaign committee to contribute to the defeat of Prohibition.
Today, US alcohol consumption today is a bit lower than most West European countries', including Italy's, but only a bit. (On the whole, US states with more industrial development have higher rates of alcohol consumption. Many East European countries average much higher consumption than the USA or Western Europe).
An attempt to compare sexual promiscuity across countries again found the USA to be mid-range, a fair distance behind leaders such as Finland and Israel, but ahead of France and Italy. The USA also has one of the highest divorce rates in the world.
In short, there is no evidence that the patterns of the early 1920s in the USA made for a markedly different long-term trajectory of behaviour there in relation to alcohol and sex; or that teetotalism and strict monogamy are necessary or typical features of more advanced and productive capitalist society.
Over-generalising from Ford's experiment, Gramsci also wrote that in the USA "hegemony is born in the factory and requires for its exercise only a minute quantity of professional and ideological intermediaries". In the USA, he writes: "There has not been... any flowering of the ‘superstructure'." (SPN p.285-6)
On the contrary, the USA has long been characterised by the large quantity of "professional and ideological intermediaries" of bourgeois hegemony in the country. Its history shows that such intermediaries are generated by bourgeois society itself, and are not fundamentally residues of previous formations.
The USA developed mass higher education before other countries, and has more university professors than other countries; it was the country above all others where Tocqueville saw "civil society" as having developed, in the sense of a proliferation of voluntary membership organisations; it has long had vast numbers of lawyers and real estate agents, and Jeffrey Hornstein (cited above) sees the role of the real-estate agents as pivotal in the development of a widespread "middle-class" consciousness in the USA; it must have more priests, pastors, and preachers than any other country, and they are politically vocal; and it has (as Engels noted) vast numbers of professional politicians.
Maybe what the USA shows is that a "superstructure" for bourgeois society can allow broad stability in the trajectory of government while itself being quite diversified and variegated. It does not have to have, and may be stronger for not having, the tight unity suggested by Gramsci's term "hegemonic apparatus", and suggested also by the old British catchword, "the Establishment", a nexus of Tory Party, City finance, the Church of England, Oxbridge, and the "public" schools. Thatcher - and, in their time, Lloyd George, Bonar Law, and Baldwin - showed that an aggressive bourgeois policy could be carried through with the help of that nexus but also of disparate elements.
It is the bourgeois state, in the sense of the government and representative structures, which usually ensures continuity and stability in the organising-for-rule of the capitalist class, while allowing diverse groupings to develop around it and influence it. It is possible for the bourgeoisie to reconstitute a shattered government machine, using its less formal networks: the Russian bourgeoisie would eventually have reconstituted a stable government machine, probably fascistic in character, if the Russian workers had not taken power in October 1917. It is easier for the bourgeoisie to replace shattered political parties, media operations, etc. if it retains a more or less stable government machine as pivot.
HEGEMONIC APPARATUS. "In this multiplicity of private associations...", writes Gramsci, "one or more predominates relatively or absolutely - constituting the hegemonic apparatus of one social group over the rest of the population (or civil society): the basis for the State in the narrow sense of the governmental-coercive apparatus".
Peter Thomas summarises Gramsci's view thus: "A class's hegemonic apparatus is the wide-ranging series of articulated institutions (understood in the broadest sense) and practices - from newspapers to educational organisations to political parties - by means of which a class and its allies engage their opponents in a struggle for political power" (The Gramscian Moment, p.226).
However, the concept may confuse as much as it enlightens.
a. The biggest voluntary membership organisations in bourgeois Britain are Facebook (30 million), various sports clubs (27 million total), various churches (17.5 million total), the National Trust (3.8 million), the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (1 million), and the biggest trade unions (NCVO, UK Civil Society Almanac 2012). None is a big instrument of bourgeois hegemony (leadership) in society.
b. Even the political institutions of the bourgeoisie (political parties, bodies like the CBI, the media, universities) serve as much to organise and regulate the internal relations in the ruling class and its very large middle-class support network as to secure hegemony over the working class.
c. Compliance in bourgeois society is managed not so much by explicit persuasion but by what Marx called "the dull compulsion of economic relations", copper-fastened by the hold of "commodity fetishism" and the "illusions created by competition". In addition, Gramsci identified political "decapitation" as a third mode of rule besides coercion and consent; functioning bourgeois democracy makes for compliance even when none of the main parties in the bourgeois democracy can gain much positive support. In short, "apathy" or ignorance or resignation will do as well to underpin bourgeois rule as positive consent, and may even work "better" in the sense that Machiavelli wrote that it was safer for a prince to be feared than to be loved.
d. We know from Italy in 1992-4 that if the bourgeois state machine perdures, with an authority that accrues to it through "apathy", ignorance, resignation, and sway over communications, then it is possible for the whole political-party apparatus of the bourgeoisie to collapse without bourgeois rule being seriously shaken. Again: for much of the 20th century in Latin America universities had guarantees of autonomy from the government, for example prohibitions on the police or the army entering campuses, and were much more left-wing than the governments wished; yet bourgeois rule remained secure.
e. The working-class socialists cannot use apathy or ignorance or resignation as tools to secure their influence. They must organise. Gramsci was well aware of the asymmetry between working-class socialist striving for hegemony and bourgeois striving for hegemony. "The philosophy of praxis... does not aim at the peaceful resolution of existing contradictions in history and society but is rather the very theory of these contradictions. It is not the instrument of government of the dominant groups in order to gain the consent of and exercise hegemony over the subaltern classes; it is the expression of these subaltern classes who want to educate themselves in the art of government and who have an interest in knowing all truths, even the unpleasant ones, and in avoiding the... deceptions of the upper class and - even more - their own" (FSPN p.395-6). The term "hegemonic apparatus" can obscure the asymmetry.
f. Many politically-weighty voluntary membership organisations of bourgeois democratic society, for example the trade unions, are contested terrain rather than well-adjusted components of a coherent bourgeois or working-class apparatus. Gramsci was well aware of this fact, writing that in the "modern state", "certain forms of the internal life of the subaltern classes are reborn as parties, trade unions, cultural associations" (Buttigieg vol. 2 p.25): maybe he gave it little weight just because his perception was focused on fascist Italy.
g. Even the German Social Democratic Party and the early German Communist Party in their high days, with their workers' libraries, their hiking clubs and sports clubs, their theatre groups, their choirs, and so on, never came near constructing a comprehensive "apparatus" of cultural institutions comparable to that clustered round the bourgeois state, and it is hard to see how a revolutionary socialist party in a capitalist society ever could do that.
HEGEMONY. Leadership. For more on the possible nuances, see Quintin Hoare's note, SPN p.55.
HISTORIC BLOC. The term "historic bloc" is sometimes used to mean a "historic" political coalition between social classes. Gramsci, however, used the term with an entirely different meaning: an integral whole combining the material forces and the ideologies in a society (SPN p.377).
HISTORICISM. Gramsci writes of "absolute historicism or absolute humanism" (p.417), and seems to mean by it something like the idea that social reality is nothing other than what history has produced and is producing, and history is nothing other than what human beings produce by their activity in society.
In some passages he seems to extend this thought to the idea that reality is nothing other than what human beings generate by their activity in society, but that is untenable: for example, much of astronomy studies parts of the universe as they were long before human beings existed, because signals from those parts of the universe take so long to reach us.
In some passages, also, he seems to assume a greater degree of collective human awareness about the effects of our actions and how we are shaping society than really exists, or is likely to exist even in a cooperative commonwealth.
A cross-current is added by Gramsci's notes about Ricardo maybe having made a decisive methodological contribution by his use of abstraction ("suppose that..." - mental experiments using simplified models) in economic science. That model-making abstraction has run riot in modern economics, but Marx used it to some degree, evidently believing that there were long-term underlying structures which could be investigated by such a method; and Ricardo (at least) used it more than Smith. For some writers, historicism was all about rejecting that model-making abstraction.
Another cross-current comes from Gramsci's argument about the "dual perspective" and analysing situations on a number of different levels with different timescales. If that is right, then historical events cannot be understood only in the framework of their historical time, because they are simultaneously shaped on a number of different timescales. History cannot be the evolution of a single entity (for Hegel and for Croce, freedom), each stage of which defines the spirit (Zeitgeist) of its particular time.
Gramsci got the phrase "absolute historicism", and probably the very word "historicism", from Benedetto Croce.
Croce, in his turn, meant by the term "historicism" something different from previous writers. He wrote when "historicism" was on the retreat (pushed back by, for example, neo-classical economics) where it had previously been strong, in Germany.
Croce declared that "‘historicism' (the science of history), scientifically speaking, is the affirmation that life and reality are history and history alone". He took up Hegel's idea that history is "the story of liberty".
Since the early 19th century "historicism" had been a trend in Germany (the "historical school" of law, the "historical school" of economics, Ranke's history, Dilthey's philosophy, etc.).
Croce, however, used "historicism" to mean philosophical history, the contrary of the German "historicism" which had developed in opposition to Hegelian philosophical history.
He disdained "the attempt of the so-called historical school of economics [Roscher and others] to replace deduction and calculation... by an historical comparison of events and economic institutions", and other "historicism" which, he thought, had been only compilation of historical detail, "erudition deprived of thought". (History as the story of liberty (1941), pp.65, 84. See also "Historicism: The History and Meaning of the Term", by George G. Iggers, Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol. 56, No. 1, Jan 1995, pp. 129-152).
Gramsci located historicism as originating in conservative thought in the period after 1815: "the theoreticians of the ancien regime were in a good position to notice the abstract, ahistorical character of the petty bourgeois ideologies" (i.e. of republicanism, democracy, etc.: Buttigieg vol. 2 p.163). He also criticised Croce as writing "speculative history"; and declared that "Croce's historicism [is]... no more than a form of political moderatism", framed by a fixed assumption that each phase of development continued and conserved progress from the previous phase. (FSPN p.372).
Gramsci's historicism is different both from Croce's philosophical historicism and from the old historical-compilation historicism.
Since Gramsci, the term "historicism" has been given wide currency by Karl Popper's hatchet-job The Poverty of Historicism (1961), in which Marx was denounced as being like Hegel and wanting to impose concocted grand laws of historical destiny.
Gramsci's arguments about the impossibility of purely objective historical prediction make him not a "historicist" in Popper's sense.
See also Peter Thomas, "Historicism, absolute", Historical Materialism 15 (2007), p.249; "Immanence", Historical Materialism 16 (2008), p.239.
INTELLECTUALS AND ORGANISERS. Gramsci equates intellectuals with organisers. This can be sensibly read only as advocacy that adequate revolutionary socialist intellectuals must be organisers, and adequate revolutionary socialist organisers must be intellectuals. (Or rather, must act as intellectuals. "All men are intellectuals", wrote Gramsci, meaning all women and men, "but not all... in society have the function of intellectuals". SPN p.9).
"The mode of being of the new intellectual can no longer consist in eloquence, which is an exterior and momentary mover of feelings and passions, but in active participation in practical life, as constructor, organiser, ‘permanent persuader' and not just a simple orator..." (SPN p.10).
"A mass does not distinguish itself, does not become ‘independent', without organising itself, and there is no organisation without intellectuals, that is, without organisers and leaders. But the process of creating intellectuals is long and difficult" (Buttigieg vol.3 p,330).
"That all members of a political party should be regarded as intellectuals is an affirmation that can easily lend itself to mockery and caricature. But if one thinks about it nothing could be more exact... The function... is directive and organisational, i.e. educative, i.e. intellectual" (SPN p.16).
The task of the revolutionary socialist party in the working class is not only, or even primarily, to exhort workers to militancy, or to offer organisational resources; it is to educate, in the sense in which the educators can educate only by constantly being educated themselves, and the educated can become educated only by connecting their learning with activity, i.e. becoming educators.
"Clairvoyance is a political value only in as much as it becomes disseminated passion" (SPN p.113).
These passages in the Notebooks take up ideas proposed by Gramsci as practical imperatives as, in 1924, he set to rebuilding the Italian Communist Party from its near-collapse in 1923. (It went down from 40,000 members in early 1921 to only 5,000 in late 1923, and was then rebuilt, painstakingly, under fascist repression, to over 25,000 before the full-scale fascist clampdown at the end of 1926).
"The working class... will for a certain time generally distrust the revolutionary elements. It will... want to test their seriousness and competence...
"In Turin [in 1920] we succeeded in eliminating the reformists from their organisational positions only pari passu as worker comrades, capable of practical work and not just of shouting ‘Long live the revolution', were formed from the factory council movement... In 1921 [in the split between the Communists and the old Socialist Party] it was not possible to seize certain important positions... from the opportunists, because we did not have organising elements who were up to the job. Our majority in those centres melted away, as a result of our organisational weakness.
"By contrast, in certain centres, Venice for example, one capable comrade was enough to give us the majority, after a zealous work of propaganda and organisation of factory and trade-union cells.
"Experience in all countries has shown the following truth: the most favourable situations can be reversed as a result of the weakness of the cadres of the revolutionary party. Slogans only serve to impel the broad masses into movement and to give them a general orientation. But woe betide the party responsible if it has not thought about organising them in practice; about creating a structure which will discipline them and make them permanently strong.
"The occupation of the factories taught us many things in this respect" (editorial in the new Ordine Nuovo, 1 and 15 April 1924; Selections from Political Writings 1921-6, p.227-8). Gramsci continued that editorial by outlining what he planned to organise in political and theoretical education of the Communist activists.
The idea that adequate revolutionary socialist intellectuals must act as organisers, and adequate revolutionary socialist organisers must act as intellectuals, also links closely with Gramsci's critique of the old Italian Socialist Party.
He wrote of "phenomena of mass betrayal and desertion not witnessed in any other country". The Italian labour movement "produced whole groups of intellectuals who crossed over as groups to the other side" (Buttigieg, vol.2 p.44, p.114).
It was a "paternalistic party of petty bourgeois with a ridiculous sense of self-importance". "Petty intellectuals... formed the organisation of the left" (Buttigieg vol.3 p.41, 119).
In fact the old Italian Socialist Party membership was 90-plus per cent worker and peasant. Gramsci seems to mean that the worker and peasant members were not educated or developed or mobilised to do much more than vote and attend rallies. "The political parties were hardly solid, and they lacked consistent vitality; they only sprang into action during electoral campaigns. The newspapers: their connections with the political parties were weak, and few people read them" (Buttigieg vol.3 p.80).
He sketches a picture similar to that given by James P Cannon of the American Socialist Party before World War One: "Lawyers, doctors, teachers, preachers, writers, professors - people of this kind who lived their real lives in another world and gave an evening, or at most two evenings, a week of their time to the socialist movement for the good of their souls - they were the outstanding leaders of the prewar Socialist Party.
"They decided things. They laid down the law. They were the speakers on ceremonial occasions; they posed for their photographs and gave interviews to the newspapers. Between them and the proletarian Jimmy Higginses in the ranks there was an enormous gulf. As for the party functionaries, the people who devoted all their time to the daily work and routine of the party, they were simply regarded as flunkeys to be loaded with the disagreeable tasks, poorly paid and blamed if anything went wrong..." (The Struggle for a Proletarian Party).
Gramsci's answer is also similar to Cannon's: to work constantly at the education of "a middle stratum [in the party] which is as large as possible" (Buttigieg vol.1 p.323) and "a continuous insertion of elements thrown up from the depths of the rank and file into the solid framework of the leadership apparatus" (SPN p.189.
In the old socialist movement there had been an "imbalance between agitation and propaganda... it can also be termed opportunism" (SPN p.227) - that is, "agitationalism", basing the movement on what made easy agitation rather than also developing adequate "propaganda", which in the Marxist terminology of Gramsci's time meant detailed explanation and argument for a relatively knowledgeable audience.
Gramsci argued for making the revolutionary socialist party "monolithic", "rather than base it on secondary questions" (SPN p.158). Other passages in the Notebooks show that he would not have meant "monolithic" in the Stalinist sense, i.e. allowing no scope for debate and minority views. His thought was more like Trotsky's: "The party of the proletariat... is not at all based upon ‘such concrete issues'... The proletarian revolutionist, a leader all the more, requires a clear, far-sighted, completely thought-out world outlook. Only upon the basis of a unified Marxist conception is it possible to correctly approach ‘concrete' questions" (In Defence of Marxism).
Gramsci's critique cuts sharply against the idea that the answer in periods of setback for the socialist movement is to give up on political sharpness, and instead go for "broad", loose, "all-inclusive" parties, based on a few points of current agitation and with the grand questions of socialist politics left in an "agree-to-differ" box. It does not, however, cut against a clear and compact revolutionary socialist organisation, once one has been formed, intervening patiently and constructively in broad and open political formations.
Gramsci stressed the need for "explicative and reasoned (educative) circulars" within the party (SPN p.196) and more generally for putting ideas precisely in writing rather than relying on "rhetorical" or "conversational" answers. However: "unless the editorial boards are linked to a disciplined rank and file movement, they tend to become little coteries of ‘unarmed prophets' or to split..."; and warned of "the Sisyphean task of the little periodicals which are addressed to everyone and no-one" (Buttigieg vol.3 p.99).
The apparent supremacy in the old socialist movement of the Marxist theory of the German Social Democracy had been shallow, "merely a phenomenon of abstract cultural influence", because "no organic or disciplinary bonds ensured" it (SPN p.188). Gramsci criticised anarchists because they saw their activity as "as purely ‘educative', moral, cultural" rather than taking responsibility for seeking leadership.
The socialist party's educational-organising work has to be polemical - "the philosophy of praxis can only be conceived in a polemical form" (SPN p.421). But it has to be polemic that takes on the best ideologues among our adversaries, and in the strongest form of their argument - at least it must be that "if the end proposed is that of raising the intellectual level of one's followers and not creating a desert around oneself" (SPN p.439).
INTELLECTUALS, ORGANIC AND TRADITIONAL. Gramsci writes of "organic intellectuals" created by the main social classes - for example, capitalist entrepreneurs, technicians, economists, lawyers (SPN p.5) - and "traditional intellectuals", of which he cites ecclesiastics as the prime example (SPN p.7), and who have and consider themselves to have more autonomy.
Elsewhere he gives a slightly different characterisation: "The intellectuals of the historically (and concretely) progressive class" exert a power of attraction and thus generate a "system of solidarity between all the intellectuals", welding them into a "caste" (SPN p.60). The term "caste" reads as pejorative, but isn't it just another way of saying a tradition, a frame for research which permits systematic critique and progress beyond individual sallies and speculations?
Gramsci argues in his notes on Bukharin that revolutionary socialists should deal with the strongest arguments of the best intellectuals linked to the ruling class, rather than being content to score points against those who show ruling-class ideology in the worst light (SPN p.432, 439). So revolutionary socialists, organic intellectuals of the working class, must know how to connect (critically) to the traditions of the best bourgeois intellectuals, as Marx did in his time. The division of intellectuals into organic and traditional breaks down.
LABRIOLA. Gramsci argued that the best development of Marx's ideas has been by Antonio Labriola. Labriola was the main writer in the Second International on philosophy, after Plekhanov, and the only leading figure in the International with an academic background in philosophy. He came to socialism and Marxism later in life, after first being a liberal Hegelian: he dated his socialist "confession of faith" from 1889, when he was 46. He was generally aligned with the left of the Italian Socialist Party, but in his last years supported talk of Italy seizing Libya, which it did in 1911, seven years after Labriola's death in 1904. Labriola coined the term "philosophy of praxis", emphasised that "the nature of man, his historical making, is a practical process... the history of man is the history of labour", and wrote of a tendential convergence between politics, history, and philosophy. He also, however, decried "the chase after that universal philosophy, into which socialism might be fitted as the central point of everything".
Gramsci wrote that Labriola's contribution had enjoyed a "limited fortune". Some writers such as Croce had "absorbed... certain... elements" of Marxism into an overall idealist (and, in Croce's case, liberal) theory. Would-be Marxists had linked the ideas they got from Marx with, for example, neo-Kantianism, or with "traditional materialism". Gramsci identified Plekhanov (the other main writer on philosophy of the pre-1914 socialist movement, and much respected by the Bolsheviks) as one of those who "relapses into vulgar materialism". (Plekhanov himself, however, praised Labriola's work highly).
Gramsci made a side-swipe at Trotsky's criticism of Labriola, but it is out of place. Trotsky wrote: "Unlike most Latin writers, Labriola had mastered the materialist dialectics, if not in politics - in which he was helpless - at least in the philosophy of history. The brilliant dilettantism of his exposition actually concealed a very profound insight". Labriola's style was aphoristic and unsystematic, and Labriola's attitude on Libya is enough to justify Trotsky's political criticism.
MODERN PRINCE. Gramsci adapts the phrase from the book, The Prince, written by the Florentine diplomat Niccolo Machiavelli in 1513-14, at a time when the once-resplendent city states of northern Italy were falling under patchwork foreign domination. Machiavelli's book is a plea for a "prince" who will restore Italy's strength. Unlike all previous writings, The Prince discusses politics as something distinct from morality. The prince should gain and keep the goodwill of the people; but he should also be hard-headed, stingy, and where necessary decisively cruel. "Men ought either to be well treated or crushed, because they can avenge themselves of lighter injuries, of more serious ones they cannot; therefore the injury that is to be done to a man ought to be of such a kind that one does not stand in fear of revenge". "All armed prophets have been victorious, and all unarmed prophets have been destroyed". "It is far safer to be feared than loved".
Gramsci also warned that Machiavelli must be understood in his time, very different from now, and that even in his own he ended by putting himself at the service of reaction. Gramsci was not advocating that working-class socialists should copy Machiavelli's recommendations for cruelty and deceit.
Gramsci argues that, despite appearances, Machiavelli developed a sort of "manifesto for the people", a guidebook for those "not in the know" who were "the revolutionary class" at the time, an appeal for the mobilisation of a peasant militia (which would require attention to peasant interests). Machiavelli was a realist, in the sense of basing himself on real forces, and also "a partisan, a man of powerful passions... a creator, an initiator" (SPN p.172). Gramsci set socialists the task of creating a "Modern Prince" with the same combination of qualities.
Repeatedly, and explicitly, Gramsci argued that the "Modern Prince" could only be the revolutionary socialist political party. In his book The Gramscian Moment Peter Thomas contends that really, in his last years, Gramsci saw the "Modern Prince" as something more diffuse, in relation to which a revolutionary socialist political party could only be "the tip of the iceberg".
However, in Gramsci's Prison Notebooks trade unions, factory committees, neighbourhood assemblies, workers' defence groups, and other "broader" organisations are mentioned surprisingly seldom, and the great bulk of the allusions to working-class organisation are to parties or to the party press.
That may be in part because Gramsci has in mind, as the actual form of bourgeois polity both in Italy and in increasingly many countries of Europe, a fascist regime in which "broad" organisation is difficult. It cannot be taken as indicating that Gramsci was sectarian; it does make it hard to argue that he was presenting a new scheme in which the revolutionary working-class party would be less central.
ORGANIC CENTRALISM. Amadeo Bordiga, the chief leader of the revolutionary minority in the Italian Socialist Party after World War One and of the Italian Communist Party from 1921 to 1923 (when he was jailed by the fascists), argued that revolutionary socialist party organisation should be based not on "democratic centralism" but on "organic centralism".
The party's strength, said Bordiga, depended not on whether its policies had gained this or that majority vote, but on whether they corresponded to the "invariant doctrine" of revolutionary Marxism.
"Democracy cannot be a principle for us. Centralism is indisputably one... In order to introduce the essential idea of continuity in time, the historical continuity of the struggle which, surmounting successive obstacles, always advances towards the same goal, and in order to combine these two essential ideas of unity in the same formula, we would propose that the communist party base its organisation on ‘organic centralism'."
Gramsci argued for democratic centralism as "so to speak a ‘centralism' in movement - i.e. a continual adaptation of the organisation to the real movement, a matching of thrusts from below with orders from above, a continuous insertion of elements thrown up from the depths of the rank and file into the solid framework of the leadership apparatus which ensures continuity and the regular accumulation of experience..." (SPN p.189).
However, "if the constitutive element of an organism resides in a rigidly and strictly formulated doctrinaire system, one gets a caste and priestly type of leadership. But does the ‘guarantee' of immutability still exist? It does not exist... Ideology...[is] something historically produced, as a ceaseless struggle. Organic centralism imagines that it can forge an organism once and for all, something already objectively perfect. An illusion that can be disastrous..." (Buttigieg vol.2 p.56).
Gramsci also argued that organic centralism was linked to a mechanical conception of class struggle, i.e. an idea that the required form of mass working-class mobilisation for which the "invariant doctrine" had provided would be automatically produced by economic developments. It also tended to convert political discourse into a jargon unable to recognise any information or idea not expressed in its own terms as other than a noxious prejudice.
PASSIVE REVOLUTION. Or "revolution/ restoration". Or a process of change managed from above, with the mass of the population passive rather than active.
Gramsci suggested that the French Revolution of 1789-94 had opened up the conditions for and been followed by a wave of more "passive" revolutions elsewhere in Europe (SPN p.114ff). The unification of Italy into a bourgeois state between 1859 and 1870 (ending centuries of disunity and foreign domination) was a "passive revolution": to that fact Gramsci linked what he saw as the "squalor" (SPN p.184-5) of the Italian bourgeois democracy which had in 1922 collapsed to the fascists.
World War One and the Russian Revolution of 1917 had put onto the agenda "the necessity of a planned economy". Fascism in Italy, and maybe Fordism in the USA, were responses to that necessity by way of passive revolution.
PHILOSOPHY OF PRAXIS. By "philosophy of praxis" Gramsci means, more or less, Marxism; but Marxism understood in a particular way, different from the common run of his day. He took the term from Antonio Labriola. Labriola summed it up like this: "the intellectual revolution, which has come to regard the processes of human history as absolutely objective ones, is simultaneously accompanied by that intellectual revolution which regards the philosophical mind itself as a product of history".
Gramsci contrasted his conception with one in which Marxist theory is specialist "sociology", tied to an ages-old philosophical materialism.
For him, "philosophy of praxis" was thought developed beyond "a receptive and ordering activity", or thought which "put the ‘will' (which in the last analysis equals practical or political activity) at the base of philosophy". It was "creative" thought "which modifies the way of feeling of the many and consequently reality itself" and which "teaches that reality does not exist on its own, in and for itself, but only in a historical relationship with the men who modify it" (SPN p.345-6).
He also described "philosophy of praxis" as a conception that "does not recognise transcendental... elements but is based entirely on the concrete action of man, who out of historical necessity works and transforms reality" (Buttigieg vol.2 p.378).
SUBALTERN. By subaltern or subordinate classes, Gramsci meant those that were not ruling - generally the workers and peasants in capitalist societies.
TRANSLATABILITY. Gramsci discussed the well-known theme of "the unity of theory and practice" as one of "translatability" between different elements. Thus: "Philosophy - Politics - Economics: If these three activities are the necessary constituent elements of the same conception of the world, there must necessarily be, in their theoretical principles, a convertibility from one to the others and a reciprocal translation into the specific language proper to each constituent element. Any one is implicit in the others, and the three together form a homogeneous circle".
"The philosophy of praxis has synthesised the three movements... the theoretical, the economic, or the political... the unitary ‘moment' of synthesis is to be identified in the new concept of immanence, which has been translated from the speculative form, as put forward by classical German philosophy, into a historicist form with the aid of French politics and English classical economics". (Immanence means "dwelling within"; thus in a materialist view ideas "dwell within" material reality, in an idealist view material developments "dwell within" the evolutions of the idea or ideas: SPN p.403, 400).
Elsewhere the three activities "translated" into each other are philosophy, politics, and history. Gramsci's use of "translatability" will have been informed by his own university studies in linguistics and the translation work he did in prison.
He referred to Hegel and to Marx as sources for the idea. The relevant passages from Hegel may be:
History of Philosophy, III/3/B
"Rousseau represented the absolute to be found in freedom; Kant has the same principle, but taken rather from the theoretic side. The French regard it from the side of will, which is represented in their proverb: ‘Il a la tête près du bonnet' [he is hot-headed]. France possesses the sense of actuality, of promptitude; because in that country conception passes more immediately into action, men have there applied themselves more practically to the affairs of actuality. But however much freedom may be in itself concrete, it was as undeveloped and in its abstraction that it was there applied to actuality; and to make abstractions hold good in actuality means to destroy actuality. The fanaticism which characterized the freedom which was put into the hands of the people was frightful. In Germany the same principle asserted the rights of consciousness on its own account, but it has been worked out in a merely theoretic way. We have commotions of every kind within us and around us, but through them all the German head quietly keeps its nightcap on and silently carries on its operations beneath it".
"In this great epoch of the world's history, whose inmost essence is laid hold of in the philosophy of history, two nations only have played a part, the German and the French, and this in spite of their absolute opposition, or rather because they are so opposite. The other nations have taken no real inward part in the same, although politically they have indeed so done, both through their governments and their people. In Germany this principle has burst forth as thought, spirit, Notion; in France, in the form of actuality".
Here we have a similar idea of parallel developments in France and in Germany. In France there was the actual revolution. In Germany, where political and social conditions did not allow a revolution, the animating ideas of the revolution were elaborated in a more abstract and cryptic way, by philosophers. Both here and more specifically in the Phenomenology of Spirit and the Philosophy of History Hegel is critical of the Jacobins and at pains to distinguish his calmer philosophy from them ("the fanaticism which characterized the freedom which was put into the hands of the people was frightful").
There are asides in Hegel which license the reader to suspect an element of sarcasm in Hegel's praise for calmer philosophy and an element of prudence and accommodation in his criticism of the Jacobins. As far as I know Hegel never made a direct parallel between the Jacobins and German philosophy.
Gramsci also often refers to a passage in The Holy Family, by Marx and Engels:
"Herr Bruno Bauer based all his arguments on "infinite self-consciousness" and that he also saw in this principle the creative principle of the gospels which, by their infinite unconsciousness, appear to be in direct contradiction to infinite self-consciousness. In the same way Proudhon conceives equality as the creative principle of private property, which is in direct contradiction to equality.
"If Herr Edgar compares French equality with German ‘self-consciousness' for an instant, he will see that the latter principle expresses in German, i.e., in abstract thought, what the former says in French, that is, in the language of politics and of thoughtful observation.
"Self-consciousness is man's equality with himself in pure thought. Equality is man's consciousness of himself in the element of practice, i.e., man's consciousness of other men as his equals and man's attitude to other men as his equals. Equality is the French expression for the unity of human essence, for man's consciousness of his species and his attitude towards his species, for the practical identity of man with man, i.e., for the social or human relation of man to man. Hence, just as destructive criticism in Germany, before it had progressed in Feuerbach to the consideration of real man, tried to resolve everything definite and existing by the principle of self-consciousness, destructive criticism in France tried to do the same by the principle of equality".
As I read it, what Marx is saying here is that the political discourse developed in France around the idea of equality - specifically by Proudhon, not by the Jacobins! - had had a somewhat mystified counterpart in Germany, where open political criticism was less possible, in philosophical talk about "self-consciousness".
The point in Hegel and Marx is not really about "translatability", but more about the inability or the failure to translate.
Because the critique based on equality couldn't be translated into German politics, because the critics in Germany couldn't "pass to action", they developed critical ideas "in a merely theoretic way". Even Hegel, the champion of speculative philosophy, says: "in a merely theoretic way. We have commotions of every kind within us and around us, but through them all the German head quietly keeps its nightcap on and silently carries on its operations beneath it..."
Marx refers to the process in the Communist Manifesto, using the word "translate", but in a sarcastic way.
"In contact with German social conditions... French literature lost all its immediate practical significance and assumed a purely literary aspect. Thus, to the German philosophers of the Eighteenth Century, the demands of the first French Revolution were nothing more than the demands of ‘Practical Reason' in general, and the utterance of the will of the revolutionary French bourgeoisie signified, in their eyes, the laws of pure Will, of Will as it was bound to be, of true human Will generally.
"The work of the German literati consisted solely in bringing the new French ideas into harmony with their ancient philosophical conscience, or rather, in annexing the French ideas without deserting their own philosophic point of view.
"This annexation took place in the same way in which a foreign language is appropriated, namely, by translation.
"It is well known how the monks wrote silly lives of Catholic Saints over the manuscripts on which the classical works of ancient heathendom had been written. The German literati reversed this process with the profane French literature. They wrote their philosophical nonsense beneath the French original. For instance, beneath the French criticism of the economic functions of money, they wrote ‘Alienation of Humanity', and beneath the French criticism of the bourgeois state they wrote ‘Dethronement of the Category of the General', and so forth".
By "translation", Marx evidently means here that the German literature was derivative, not that it was equivalent.
Making much of the idea of "translatability" has to depend, I think, on seeing social life as the working-through of a world-view, or as becoming the working-through of a world-view, so that the world-view and political and historical developments are "translations" of each other. Gramsci, indeed, writes that "many idealist conceptions... may become ‘truth' after the passage" [i.e. the socialist revolution]; that "absolute idealism... could become ‘truth' after the transition from one realm to another" (Buttigieg vol.2 p.188); and that "the foundation of a directive class... is equivalent to the creation of a Weltanschauung" [world view], which suggests that once the class has been formed by economic processes and established its world-view, its rule is then equivalent to the working-through of that world-view. (There are hints of this idea also in Gramsci's picture of the ruling class forming a "hegemonic apparatus", with which both the apparatus of government and social life become closely aligned).
But even when conscious human control of social life is much greater than now, after a socialist revolution, people will differ and get lots of things wrong. Technological developments, and many natural developments, will be grossly unpredictable. Any "translation" between philosophy and politics and history (social life in movement) will at best be like the sort of Google translation that, going from English to Welsh to Vietnamese then back to English, transforms "The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles" into "History of the entire social history is so far the class struggle".
UNITED FRONT. At the origin the "united front" was a particular tactical innovation of the Communist Parties, epitomised in an Open Letter issued by the Communist Party of Germany on 8 January 1921 calling on the Social Democrats and other workers' organisations to join with the Communist Party in united action on workers' economic demands, for defence against right-wing gangs, and to free worker political prisoners. In 1921-2 and later the Communist Parties developed it into a general approach of seeking united action of all workers' organisations on practical matters of common concern, while continuing to criticise and indeed expecting that the reformists would probably at some point pull back and thus substantiate the communists' criticisms vividly. The term "united front" is sometimes used more loosely to mean alliance of differing working-class and socialistic tendencies in common practical struggle combined with free mutual criticism.
WAR OF POSITION AND WAR OF MANOEUVRE. In the first few years after World War One, revolutionary socialist energies in Europe were geared to assembling strong communist parties and taking the offensive for soviet (workers' council) power as soon as possible. Incipiently in Left-Wing Communism (1920), and more sharply in the advocacy of united-front tactics from 1921 (see "united front"), Lenin, Trotsky, and other Bolshevik leaders argued, eventually with success, for a turn to more patient and sinuous tactics, geared in the first place to winning larger or majority support in the working class by action on more immediate and detailed demands.
The Italian Communist Party resisted the turn to united-front tactics longer than others, and Gramsci was in the midst of the debate, especially after he went to Russia for the 4th Congress of the Communist International in mid-1922. In many passages of the Prison Notebooks he discusses the turn through military analogy - war of position and war of manoeuvre - and muses about the relative roles of such phases in 19th century bourgeois politics.
The analogy works poorly. The usual military terms are "war of attrition" and "war of manoeuvre". "Warfare by attrition pursues victory through the cumulative destruction of the enemy's material assets by superior firepower... Examples of warfare with a high attrition content are... the operations of both sides on the Western Front of the First World War... US operations in Korea after 1950; and most US operations in the Vietnam War.
"On the opposite end of the spectrum is warfare by manoeuvre which stems from a desire to circumvent a problem and attack it from a position of advantage rather than meet it straight on... Instead of attacking enemy strength, the goal is the application of our strength against selected enemy weakness... Examples of warfare with a high enough manoeuvre content that they can be considered manoeuvre warfare include German Blitzkrieg operations of 1939-1941, most notably the invasion of France in 1940; the failed Allied landing at Anzio in 1944, which was an effort to avoid the attrition battles of the Italian theatre..." (US Marine Corps, Warfighting, MCDP 1, 1997, pp.36ff).
Direct analogues of war of manoeuvre - surprise assaults at weak points of the enemy - can have little part in a socialist revolution which mobilises the mass of the working class to oust and replace bourgeois power at every level. As Engels put it in his 1895 Introduction to Marx's The Class Struggles in France: "The time of surprise attacks, of revolutions carried through by small conscious minorities at the head of masses lacking consciousness is past. Where it is a question of a complete transformation of the social organisation, the masses themselves must also be in on it, must themselves already have grasped what is at stake, what they are fighting for, body and soul. The history of the last fifty years has taught us that. But in order that the masses may understand what is to be done, long, persistent work is required..."
The October 1917 revolution was mostly not "war of manoeuvre".
Political tactics analogous to military war of manoeuvre can be used only in relatively small-scale struggle - lightning-fast industrial strikes, "flash mob" demonstrations, surprise workplace occupations, guerrilla warfare. It may play a bigger role under very repressive regimes (as with Luddite tactics in the repressive conditions of the Napoleonic wars) than in more liberal conditions.
Gramsci himself noted that: "comparisons between military art and politics, if made, should always be taken... with a pinch of salt... In political struggle, there also exist other forms of warfare apart from the war of movement... or the war of position... Another point to be kept in mind is that in political struggle one should not ape the methods of the ruling classes" (SPN p.484-5).
The term "war of position" may have encouraged people in the Communist Parties from the 1950s to think of activity geared to winning official posts (municipalities, union leadership posts) as good "Gramscian" tactics. The gist (poorly) indicated by the analogy is that revolutionary socialist policy has phases of steady and relatively low-key tactics, and others of fast-moving open confrontation.
Some people read some passages from Gramsci's Prison Notebooks as saying that in Western Europe only steady, low-key tactics can ever be viable, and even suggesting that socialist revolution can come through such tactics alone. That Gramsci did not intend that message is shown by his discussion of how to analyse relations of forces, where he flags up the "politico-military" level of direct confrontation as well as the straight political.
The military analogy is more confusing than helpful. Of value in Gramsci's notes which use the analogy is the light they shed on how steady and relatively low-key tactics can be made imaginative and varied, and avoid lapsing into opportunism.