|Gareth Peirce, Trotskyist lawyer & defender of Abu Qatada, formerly of the SWP & Socialist Unity.|
One fundamental question motivated Antonio Gramsci throughout his entire life:
Why had it proven so difficult to promote revolution in Western Europe?
Of course this must imply that Gramsci desired a revolution in Europe. However, as the question also implies, revolution in Europe - at least the time of his writing (1920s/30s) - was not forthcoming. So what were Marxists like Gramsci going to do about that terrible situation?
Coercion & Consent
Gramsci developed one of Machiavelli’s notions of political power. Machiavelli specifically likened political power to the mythical Centaur – a creature which was half beast and half man. Gramsci applied this to the political situation – and perhaps to all political situations – of his day. The analogue of the Centaur plays out in this way:
(half) beast = political coercion
(half) man = political consent
The idea is that no state, perhaps not even a Nazi or Stalinist state, can rely entirely on coercion to uphold its position and power. But of course Gramsci wasn’t talking about totalitarian regimes such as Stalin’s or Hitler’s. He was talking about contemporary “liberal-capitalist democracies”, as Marxists today put it. It is such democracies that used both coercion (force/violence/etc.) and consent.
The thing is, the political consent part of the equation was ignored, so Gramsci argued, by traditional Marxists. Tradition Marxists concentrated entirely/exclusively on the Marxist ‘substructure’ of a given capitalist system and ignored the ‘superstructure’. (‘Substructure’: the material economic realities, including ownership, distribution, class, etc.) And, indeed, it was the state, or its system of ideology and ideas, that was responsible for the ‘consent’ - not just ‘coercive’ - part of the Gramscian equation. The state could never rely entirely on force (or coercion) alone.
The question then follows as to what things instantiated, as it were, the means to bring about this consent (between classes) in a capitalist system. How, exactly, was consent brought about? Let’s be specific here. Gramsci was asking how the working class is made to consent to the capitalist system – to its own oppression.
Gramsci, being a Marxist, was keen on political or ideological technical terms. One fundamental Gramscian technical term is “hegemony”.
It was the hegemony of the “ruling class” in a capitalist society that was responsible for both the coercive and consensual part of the Gramscian equation. More specifically, as Marx himself repeatedly states, the moral, political, and cultural values and ideas of the ruling class (the hegemonic leaders of a capitalist system) were dispersed amongst the working class and other subordinate groups. So much so, as it is still argued by leftists today, that the working class, and other “oppressed groups”, thoroughly embrace, and see as their own, the moral, political and cultural values and ideas of the said ruling class.
Now how is this massive confidence trick, on the working class, brought about by the (capitalist) ruling class? Primarily it is carried out by “the institutions of civil society” and it is this aspect that Gramsci is well-known for focusing upon.
Gramsci argued that this “network of institutions” (this phrase implies either tacit or explicit cooperation between institutions) enjoy a certain degree of autonomy from the state. That is, we are not talking about the police, the army, the Houses of Parliament, the higher levels of the civil services, or even the legal system as a whole here. (This does not mean that Gramscians are not interested in taking over these central state-institutions as well.)
So what “institutions” are Gramsci, as well as contemporary Gramscians, talking about? Primarily Gramsci had in mind the media, the education system, the universities, the legal profession/s, voluntary organisations and even the Church (or churches).
So again we can make the Gramscian point that these ‘superstructural’ institutions, or the ideas and values which emanated from them, were largely ignored by traditional Marxists. (Or so the argument goes; but which is historically not the case.)
However, because Gramsci was still a Marxist, he still believed that the substructure, the material economic realities of any given society, were still of fundamental importance. He still believed that the material substructure determined the realities of the superstructure – or the ideas and values of the institutions. Still, as a Gramscian, even though you can accept the fact that “social relations are an emanation of the economic base”, those social relations can still be studied by the Gramscian or by Marxists generally.
Indeed the fundamental Gramscian point is that the superstructure, or the institutions which are seemingly autonomous of the state, determines how society as a whole, including the working class, reacts to economic and political change. And surely that must mean that we also have a Marxist inversion here in that if the economic base determines the superstructure, the institutions, then so can the superstructure determine, at least to some extent, the economic and political realities which determine and transform society as a whole.
But isn’t this a direct contradiction of everything Marx said about the importance of material reality determining ideology, ideal, values, morals, etc.? Wasn’t that whole point of Marxism? Basically, the superstructure, including religion (in contemporary terms, say, Islam), is a mere epiphenomenon. That is, all that the superstructure can do is reflect, or be determined by, the material and economic realities which underpin them. Again, that is the essence of Marxism.
By emphasising the importance of both superstructure and substructure was Gramsci simply finessing Marx; or was he contradicting him? By emphasising a two-way relation, from base to superstructure, and from superstructure to base, was Gramsci contradicting Marx or making his general picture more complete? Indeed how much autonomy, from the economic base, did Gramsci give the superstructure or the institutions?
Gramsci accounted for this reciprocal relation between base and superstructure, or economic material realities and superstructural institutions, with the technical term “historic bloc”. The basic idea is not just that there are relations both ways between base and superstructure, but that those relations “mutually reinforce” each other. In other words, neither the economic realities of production, exchange nor class can be ignored nor the superstructure of ideas, values, and moralities which are embedded, in this instance, in the institutions of a capitalist society of state.
However, none of this would matter much if it were not for Gramsci’s general theory of “the hegemony of the ruling class”. Through the institutions, and of course through more direct examples of state power such as the police, the law and the military, the ruling class propagates its values, ideas and even its moral positions onto the working class. This situation is so effective, so Gramscians and Marxists generally believe, that the working class, and other oppressed groups, take on board, without questions, the values, ideas, moral systems and political ideologies of the ruling class. The working class, just as Muslims today, are utterly impotent consumers of ruling-class values and ideologies. In the terms of another piece of Marxist jargon, the working class, etc. are victims of “false consciousness” in that they don’t believe the things they should believe . That is, what they should believe in order to advance their own class and improve their political and economic positions within capitalist society. Moreover, they do not adopt Marxist revolutionary ideology in order to overthrow the capitalist system which oppresses them and makes them poor.
The obvious solution to all this, which can only come before a revolution, or even be the revolution, is to transform the capitalist hegemony with alternatives. In this way, the ruling hegemony will be undermined; though not through violent revolution. Indeed because Gramsci more or less gave up on the old Marxist tradition of violent revolution, taking over the institutions with the new ideologies and values of the "counter-hegemony" would be just as effective way of radically transforming society in a Marxist or revolutionary direction. This would render a violent revolution – on the streets – superfluous because the institutions would eventually be under the control of those who upheld the counter-hegemony as supplied by Gramscians/Trotskyists/Communists/, etc.