Monday, January 24, 2011

Final Words on Socio-Political Change

Gramsci’s theory on socio-political change and the role of the political party during that process is an interesting contribution to political theory. It differs from the utopian or mechanistic understandings of the socialist thought, and tries to explain the steps of the framework of a realizable change, or how change can be brought into a society. In doing that Gramsci starts from an individual and connects the individual with the social class he/she is in.

He pays an attention to the collective will, and how it can be formed both through consent and coercion. In that regard, he gives special importance to the role of the Jacobin force in persuading, directing the passive and apolitical masses to become active and political individuals who will take part in the political party and in the process of political change. At that point, the organic intellectuals of the political party and class plays a crucial role in persuading the masses to take part in the process, but the role of the organic intellectuals, it can be argued, is related with the consent dimension of the process. However, Gramsci believes that there must also be a Jacobin force to direct people to that process. Here, it can be argued that this is a missing gap in his theory because nowhere in his writings he explains who that Jacobin force could be, and how and through what ways this coercive force can direct, by using force, the people, the masses toward a goal, to take part in the political party, or to become a part of the socio-political change.

Another problematic point in Gramsci’s theory is that he gives a very great importance to the role of the political party as an agent or instrument through which the whole process of socio-political change can be organized and pursued. It looks like the political party embraces or includes everything and anything that is related with its social class, the masses, the intellectuals, the leaders, etc. This means that Gramsci leaves little, or even no, space for the other actors which can also play roles during the socio-political change. That makes it look like the political party is the only possible instrument through which this socio-political change can be organized and pursued. However, this loads great responsibilities and duties on the political party which, in fact, can hardly be realized only through the political party. For instance, the aim of founding a new type of State, being the founder of a new culture, a new society, raising the people to a new type or level of civilization are all considered by Gramsci as the “normal” roles and functions of the political party; however, it would be difficult to argue that a political party can be the organizer and carrier of such a great change even it can succeed in organizing its social base, its organic intellectuals, the media, the newspapers close to it, etc. and even it can succeed in convincing other social classes and thus their political parties to take part in their project and manage to create a new historical bloc.

Finally, Gramsci’s theory, if not a grand theory, is at least a middle-range theory. As a result, Gramsci doesn’t concern himself with doing micro analyses almost nowhere in his writings. For instance, Gramsci creates new theoretical concepts, such as historical bloc; however, he does not explain in details how and through what ways a historical bloc can be built. Generally, historical bloc is understood as a broad political and economical alliance between different social classes and political parties; however, one could ask whether any kind of broad political and economical alliance between social classes can be considered as historical bloc as well? For instance, from time to time, different political parties come together and form alliances, but can these be called as historical bloc, or are they just simply political alliances? These points in Gramsci’s thought, it seems, are not very clear and detailed; thus further elaboration is needed, and further micro analyses would be useful in making these concepts clearer.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Political Party and Hegemony

To understand Gramsci’s concept of social class, political party and their role in socio-political change we also need to understand his theory of hegemony since these are all connected with each other in his thought and serve as the different instruments of bringing change to a society.

For instance, in the quote below Gramsci talks about the political party as the expression of a social class; however, in addition to that, he also argues that, at some periods, a single social group, through its political party, can, or even should, exercise a balancing and arbitrating function, role between the interests of its own group, and those of other groups. Here “a balancing and arbitrating role” actually refers to being hegemonic, and through that being able to lead the other social classes under its own leadership.

“Although every party is the expression of a social group, and of one social group only, nevertheless in certain given conditions certain parties represent a single social group precisely in so far as they exercise a balancing and arbitrating function between the interests of their group and those of other groups, and succeed in securing the development of the group which they represent with the consent and assistance of the allied groups – if not out and out with that of groups which are definitely hostile.”[1]

Political parties and their role in socio-political change in Gramscian theory can only be understood through the concept of hegemony because it can be argued that political parties function as no more than the agents of change according to Gramsci. However, they are probably the most complex and mature agents which can pursue the process and carry the mission of realizing such a goal: socio-political change. The crucial point here is related with the direction of this change, and whether what it envisages for the end of the process. It can be argued that change is directed toward the establishment of a hegemony, which is a desirable type of governing according to Gramsci, and that political party can play the role of leadership in carrying out the national-popular collective will,

As mentioned above, the political party, for Gramsci, is not merely a political expression, thus representative of a social class. In addition to that, the political party is the agent of socio-political change which is found to raise the people in the society to a new level political, legal, social and economic order, that is to say, to a new level of civilization. This role or function of founding a new State is related with the concept of hegemony because as Sassoon rightly explains, “each moment of hegemony represents a certain relationship between class forces.”[2] This certain relationship, hegemony, in the State level, in Gramsci’s thought, refers to an ethical State. In that regard, Gramsci argues that;

Every State is ethical in as much as one of its most important functions is to raise the great mass of the population to a particular cultural and moral level, a level (or type) which corresponds to the needs of the productive forces for development, and hence to the interests of the ruling classes.[3]

[1] Gramsci, Selections From Prison Notebooks, ibid., p. 148.
[2] Sassoon, Gramsci’s Politics, ibid., p. 115.
[3] Gramsci, Selections From Prison Notebooks, ibid., p. 258.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Political Party and Historical Bloc

One of Gramsci’s very important theoretical concepts is historical bloc. On the one hand, the concept of historical bloc, in Prison Notebooks, is referred to a unity between the structure and the superstructure.[1] On the other hand, Gramsci uses the concept as a homogeneous politico-economic alliance which does not have internal contradictions.[2] Stephen Gill argues that a historical bloc is a process which is initiated by a conscious social force which intends to establish a new hegemony.

“An historical bloc refers to an historical congruence between material forces, institutions and ideologies, or broadly, an alliance of different class forces politically organized around a set of hegemonic ideas that gave strategic direction and coherence to its constituent elements. Moreover, for a new historical bloc to emerge, its leaders must engage in conscious planned struggle. Any new historical bloc must have not only power within the civil society and economy, it also needs persuasive ideas, arguments and initiatives that build on, catalyze and develop its political networks and organization – not political parties such.”[3]

The concept of historical bloc is important because it refers to a moment during the process of change which indicates that a political party has been built, and it is seeking to establish a hegemony. To do that, Gramsci argues that this social class, through its political party, has to organize other social classes and political parties as well to take part in their wider political, economical alliance, which in theory by Gramsci called as “historical bloc”. In that process, the organic intellectuals of the political party and the social class also play a fundamental role in producing the persuasive ideas and arguments needed in convincing other classes to be a part of their historical bloc, thus their upcoming hegemony.

However, as Anne Showstack Sassoon rightly points out, “an historical bloc is not to be reduced to a mere political alliance since it assumes a complex construction within which there can be sub-blocs such as, for example, an agrarian bloc, a complex formation of its own right, and an industrial bloc, each of these containing different elements and potential contradictions. The historical bloc can produce various political blocs made up of different combinations of political allies which none the less maintain the general configuration of the fundamental historical bloc.”[4] 

As previously mentioned, the political party, the historical bloc and the hegemony are interconnected instruments in Gramsci’s thought through which a socio-political change can be realized. As Sassoon explains, “the historical bloc in implying necessarily the existence of hegemony also implies that in order to create a new historical bloc alternative to the existing one, the new, progressive class must create its own hegemonic apparatuses. The way in which the working class is able to do this, according to Gramsci, is through the party.”[5]

[1] See Gramsci, Selections from the Prison Notebooks, ibid., p. 137. Also see p. 366. “Structures and superstructures form an historical bloc.”
[2] Ibid. p. 168.
[3] Gill, Stephen, Power and Resistance in the New World Order, Palgrave, Macmillan – 2002, p. 58.
[4] Anne Showstack Sassoon, Gramsci’s Politics, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987, p. 121.
[5] Ibid., pp. 123-124.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

What are the Roles and Functions of the Political Party?

In Gramsci’s thought, political party has a very wide meaning. In accordance with that, the responsibilities or the functions of the party are also very broadly defined. The political party, for instance, is thought to have the aim of founding a new type of State, and for Gramsci a political party is actually rationally and historically created for that end.[1] 

Secondly, it can be said that a party’s role is to represent its social base, the social class, and defend its interest in the society. Gramsci argues that a “party is the expression and the most advanced element of the social group.”[2] 

In accordance with the aim of founding a new state, we can speak of a third role of the political party in Gramsci’s thought. In that regard he argues that “the Modern Prince must be and cannot but be the proclaimer and organizer of an intellectual and moral reform, which also means creating the terrain for a subsequent development of the national popular collective will towards the realization of a superior, total form of modern civilization.”[3] 

The political party, it can be argued, has a dual relationship with the collective will. That is to say, the political party is both an expression of the collective will, but also the carrier and developer of it. This can be counted as the fourth role or function of the political party. As Gramsci puts it, “these two fundamental points – the formation of a national-popular collective will of which the modern Prince is at the same time the organizer and active working expression, and a moral and intellectual reform – should constitute the structure of the work.”[4] 

In addition to these, parties also have policing functions, that is to say they function to safeguard a certain political and legal order. In doing that, parties can either be progressive or regressive. That is to say, whether the party carries out its policing function “in order to conserve an outward, extrinsic order which is a fetter on the vital forces of history; or does it carry it out in the sense of tending to raise the people to a new level of civilization expressed programmatically in its political and legal order?”[5]

For Gramsci, the policing function of a party is progressive when “it tends to keep the dispossessed reactionary forces within the bounds of legality, and to raise the backward masses to the level of the new legality.”[6] On the other hand, “it is regressive when it tends to hold back the vital forces of history and to maintain a legality which has been superseded, which is anti-historical, which has become extrinsic.”[7] Furthermore, Gramsci argues that when the party is progressive it functions democratically, while in the second case, when it is regressive, it functions bureaucratically.[8]

[1] Ibid., p. 147.
[2] Ibid., p. 151.
[3] Gramsci, The Modern Prince and Other Writings, ibid., p. 139.
[4] Ibid., p. 140.
[5] Gramsci, Selections From Prison Notebooks, ibid., p. 155.
[6] Ibid., p. 155.
[7] Ibid., p. 155.
[8] Ibid., p. 155.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

What is Political Party?

Gramsci argues that for a party to exist, three fundamental elements have to converge. That is to say, they can exist in a certain society on their own; however, they have to come together in organized way to become a political party.

The first of these three fundamental elements, according to Gramsci, is the mass element. It is composed of ordinary, average men, whose participation takes the form of discipline and loyalty, but nothing more.[1] Without this element, a party cannot exist; however, a party cannot exist with this element alone either. As Gramsci indicates, “they are a force in so far as there is somebody to centralize, organize and discipline them. In the absence of this cohesive force, they would scatter into an impotent diaspora and vanish into nothing.”[2] Deriving from this, it can be followed that the next fundamental element should be the cohesive element which centralizes, organizes and disciplines the masses. Gramsci argues that with the power of innovation and disciplinary powers, this element becomes the basis for the other elements; but “it is also not true that neither could this element form the party alone; however, it could do so more than could the first element considered.”[3] To support this argument with an example, Gramsci, then, talks about the generals and the army relationship, and says that:

One speaks of generals without an army, but in reality it is easier to form an army than to form generals. So much is this true that an already existing army is destroyed if it loses its generals, while the existence of a united group of generals who agree among themselves and have common aims soon creates an army even where none exists.[4]

That is to say, the masses hold the potential to become formed as a party by the cohesive element: the generals, the organizers. However, without the cohesive element, the masses continue to stay in their potential form and cannot become active in the form of a party. This can only be maintained by the cohesive element. In that regard, the cohesive element turns the passive masses into an active organization which is the party or in other words, the Modern Prince.

In addition to these two elements, cohesive element being the basis, there must be one more element, which Gramsci calls the intermediate element, which articulates the first element (the mass element) with the second one (the cohesive element), and maintains contact between them, not only physically but also morally and intellectually.[5] 

From this background, it can perhaps be argued that the masses for Gramsci have relatively a secondary role in the establishment and the development of the party. Or in other words, the existence of the mass element is like necessary condition for the founding of a party, but not a sufficient condition. The sufficient condition is the existence of generals, the cohesive element, which can lead this mass element to a certain direction.

Finally, when does a party cease to exist? A party ceases to exist when the classes, or the certain class of which the party is an expression, no longer exist since every party is only the nomenclature for a class, or in other words, the expression of a particular social class. When the cohesive element doesn’t exist, it can also be argued that a political party cannot exist. Gramsci argues that, the second element, the cohesive element, “must necessarily be in existence (if it is not, discussion is meaningless); its appearance is related to the existence of objective material conditions, even if still in fragmented and unstable state.”[6]

[1] Ibid., p. 152.
[2] Ibid., p. 152.
[3] Ibid., p. 152.
[4] Ibid., pp. 152-153.
[5] Ibid., p. 153.
[6] Ibid., p. 153.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Who/What is the Modern Prince?

In discussing the Modern Prince, Gramsci first explains why Machiavelli’s Prince cannot automatically be applied to the modern world. In that regard, Gramsci argues that the Modern Prince, which is both the expression and the carrier of the national-popular collective will, cannot be a real person, a concrete individual. The Modern Prince “can only be an organism; a complex element of society in which a collective will, which has already been recognized and has to some extent asserted itself in action, begins to take concrete form. History has already provided this organism, and it is the political party – the first cell in which there come together germs of a collective will tending to become universal and total.”[1] 

Furthermore, Gramsci says that “if one had to translate the notion ‘Prince’, as used in Machiavelli’s work, into modern political language, one would have to make a series of distinctions: the ‘Prince’ could be a Head of State, or the leader of a government, but it could also be a political leader whose aim is to conquer a State, or to found a new type of State; in this sense, ‘Prince’ could be translated in modern terms as ‘political party’.”[2] 

But how does this Modern Prince come into existence? What is the relationship between the social classes and the political parties? As Hobsbawm explains, Gramsci, like the later Marx, conceives the party as the organized class.[3] In that regard, Gramsci argues that “classes produce parties, and parties form the personnel of the State and government, the leaders of civil and political society.”[4]

“Parties come into existence, and constitute themselves as organizations, in order to influence the situation at moments which are historically vital for their class; but they are not always capable of adapting themselves to new tasks and to new epochs, nor of evolving pari passu with the overall relations of force (and hence the relative position of their class) in the country in question, or in the international field. In analyzing the development of parties, it is necessary to distinguish: their social group; their mass membership; their bureaucracy and General Staff. The bureaucracy is the most dangerously hidebound and conservative force; if it ends up by constituting a compact body, which stands on its own and feels itself independent of the mass of members, the party ends up by becoming anachronist and at moments of acute crisis it is voided of its social content and left as though suspended in mid-air.”[5]

Gramsci argues that “in fact, if it is true that parties are only the nomenclature for classes, it is also true that parties are not simply mechanical and passive expression of those classes, but react energetically upon them in order to develop, solidify and universalize them.”[6] A party, according to Gramsci, is the expression and the most advanced element of a social group and this shows the relationship between a certain party and the social classes in the society. In that regard, the history of a political party is actually the history of a particular social class.

In the existence of a single, totalitarian[7], governing party, Gramsci argues that there actually exists no political party. This is mainly because, for Gramsci, political party can also be defined in terms of its functions, thus, a totalitarian party, in that regard, does not have directly political functions, but merely technical ones, such as propaganda, public order and moral and cultural influence.[8] Furthermore, when looked from a functional perspective, according to Gramsci, the definition of the political party can be extended to the other organizations in the society which in one way or another performs a political action or function. In that regard, Gramsci argues that “this function can be studied with greater precision if one starts from the point of view that a newspaper too (or group of newspapers), a review (or groups of reviews), is a ‘party’ or ‘fraction of party’ or ‘a function of a particular party’.”[9] 

However, this doesn’t mean that the existence of political action or function is the only determinant when talking about parties. For instance, Gramsci argues that “there seem to be two types of party which reject the idea of immediate political action as such.”[10] One is the party which is constituted by elite men of culture whose function is to provide leadership of a cultural and general ideological nature for a great movement of interrelated parties, and the second is a type of party which is constituted by masses whose function is of a military kind.[11]

[1] Ibid., p. 129.
[2] Ibid., p. 253.
[3] Eric J. Hobsbawm, ibid., p. 28.
[4] Gramsci, Selections from the Prison Notebooks, ibid., p. 227.
[5] Ibid., p. 211.
[6] Ibid., p. 227.
[7] “It is important to realize that Gramsci does not use this word in the pejorative sense which it has acquired in bourgeois ideology today – it is a quite neutral term for him, meaning approximately ‘all-embracing and unifying’. We have sometimes translated it by ‘global’.”, Gramsci, Selections from the Prison Notebooks, ibid., (footnote 33), p. 147.
[8] Ibid., p. 149.
[9] Ibid., p. 148.
[10] Ibid., p. 149.
[11] Ibid., pp. 149-150.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

What is National-Popular Collective Will?

Gramsci discusses Sorel’s concept of myth and The Prince of Machiavelli with regard to their importance about the collective will. For Gramsci, the Prince was actually a symbol of the collective will.[1] Sorel’s myth serves to a similar purpose for Gramsci. Sorel, a principal theorist of revolutionary syndicalism, developed the idea of the General Strike as a myth through which a collective will can be formed and brought into action.[2] Deriving from this background, Gramsci comes up with an idea about how to connect this problematic of creating or forming a collective will in his study. He argues that “a study might be made of how it came about that Sorel never advanced from his conception of ideology-as-myth to an understanding of the political party, but stopped short at the idea of the trade union.”[3] It can be said that, in a way, Gramsci criticizes Sorel for not developing his theory further, and not building a more comprehensive uniting instrument or organization, rather than the General Strike and the trade union, which can create a collective will that is stronger, and deriving from this, he wants to develop the theory to cover broader organizations than a trade union, and through which a nation-wide change can be realized.

This point is very important for Gramsci, because for him, an instrument cannot be effective if it leaves the collective will, as Sorel did in the case of General Strike and trade union, in the primitive and elementary phase of its formation.[4] What concerns Gramsci more is that, if left in that way, that particular collective will will cease to exist, scatter into an infinity of individual wills which in the positive phase then follow separate and conflicting paths.[5] Here, it can be argued that Gramsci prefers the collective will and puts a normative emphasis on it when compared to individual will. However, this point could be criticized because one could be concerned about the individual’s place in Gramsci’s theory. Individual will is important because collective will does not happen to emerge all spontaneously and through a completely consensus-based way, and that means the individual will sometimes can be suppressed and oppressed in the name of the collective will.[6] That is to say, besides consent, Gramsci believes that there should be also a Jacobin dimension in the creation of the collective will which will use force or coercion to bring the individuals together. That would be a criticism of the idea of creation of the collective will; however, on the other hand, looked from a realistic point of view, this seems more realizable and more realistic. It can be said that the existence of this coercive factor, the Jacobin force, in Gramsci’s thought, puts the theory into a more realistic structure, and differentiates it from utopian ideas, thoughts.

How does a national-popular collective will emerge? According to Gramsci, there are mainly two preconditions for the emergence of a national-popular collective will. Firstly, the individuals should desire a common change. This forms the spontaneous part of the emergence of the collective will, and through this, the mass emerges as well. Gramsci says that “the positive conditions are to be sought in the existence of urban social groups which have attained an adequate development in the field of industrial production and a certain level of historico-political culture. Any formation of a national-popular collective will is impossible, unless the great mass of peasant farmers bursts simultaneously into political life.”[7] From that it can be understood that for Gramsci, participation of the masses to the political life is of vital importance for the development of a national-popular collective will.

However, this would not be enough. The second necessary factor would be the presence of an effective Jacobin force. That is to say, the group of individuals needs to be directed towards a goal with a leadership which can, or should have, a coercive dimension. Force and consent (or coercion and consent) in the formation of a political party is necessary as it is necessary in the establishment of hegemony. Gramsci argues that collective will disintegrates, or to be more concrete it disintegrated in Italy, due to three reasons. The first reason was “because great masses, previously passive, entered into movement – but into a chaotic and disorganized movement, without leadership, i.e. without any precise collective political will.”[8] Secondly, “because the middle classes, who during the war held positions of command and responsibility, when peace came were deprived of these and left unemployed.”[9] Finally, the collective popular will disintegrated “because the antagonistic forces proved to be incapable of organizing this situation of disorder to their own advantage.”[10] The problem, as Gramsci puts forward, was to reconstruct a hegemonic apparatus for these formerly passive and apolitical elements, which is the mass element required for the existence of a national-popular collective will, and through this for the existence of the political party.

However, in “Voluntarism and Social Masses”, Gramsci argues that the actions and organizations of ‘volunteers’ must be distinguished from the actions and organizations of other homogenous blocs. That is to say, while a group of people within the society can voluntarily be part of the organizations and take part in the actions, processes, there are also others, perhaps even greater amount of people, who does not voluntarily take part in organizations. Where the force (coercion), or the Jacobin force, is needed is actually at this point because the great masses, Gramsci argues, cannot be brought into an organized form without a certain degree of coercion used.[11] The necessity of this coercive factor is, Gramsci believes, especially important in the case of Italy due to the traditional apoliticism and passivity of the great popular masses.[12] As Gramsci claims, “an effective Jacobin force was always missing, and could not be constituted; and it was precisely such a Jacobin force which in other nations awakened and organized the national-popular collective will, and founded the modern States.”[13] So, to conclude, we can argue that, apart from the voluntarism of some of the social masses, the Jacobin force, the coercive element, is needed when turning the great passive and, perhaps apolitical, masses into active and political forces.

Following that Gramsci discusses why passion, the Croce’s concept which can have an individualistic and group character, cannot be the real motivator of the process of the formation of the national-popular collective will, and he argues that it is mainly because passion can only provide a temporary condition of orgasm and spasm which, for Gramsci, means operational incapacity. Due to this operational incapacity and its temporality, passion excludes parties, because it excludes action.[14] However, Gramsci argues that “parties exist and plans of actions are worked out, put into practice, and are often successful to a remarkable extent.”[15] 

The reason why Gramsci focuses on action is mainly because of his commitment to the philosophy of praxis in which practical dimension is believed to be one of the most important parts, a must, of the intellectual production, science, or philosophy. He discusses the importance of the philosophy of praxis while talking about Machiavelli and Marx[16], whom he regards as the philosophers of praxis, unlike Croce whom he considers as an “isolated thinker”.[17] He argues that “Machiavelli’s style is the style of a man of action, of a man urging action, the style of a party manifesto.” That is to say, Gramsci too, as a philosopher of praxis, is not interested in doing science in the name of science, or studying political science as a pure philosophical speculation; it must have a practical dimension in it. As Eric J. Hobsbawm rightly puts, for Gramsci, “sociological analysis must be reformulated as politics, i.e. in terms of action to change the world, and not merely to interpret it.”[18] 

Finally, before starting to discuss political party, Gramsci, finally talks about the principal elements of politics. In that regard, the first element he mentions is the existence of rulers and ruled, leaders and led. Following this, he argues that “the principle once posed that there are leaders and led, rulers and ruled, it is true that parties have up till now been the most effective way of developing leaders and leadership.”[19]

[1] Ibid., p. 125.
[2] Ibid,, p. 126 (footnote 4).
[3] Ibid., p. 127.
[4] Ibid., p. 128.
[5] Ibid., p. 128.
[6] For instance the case of Hitler can be a good example to show how the collective will can suppress the opposing individual wills and create a dictatorship rather than a hegemony.
[7] Ibid., p. 132.
[8] Ibid., pp. 228-229.
[9] Ibid., p. 229.
[10] Ibid., p. 229.
[11] Ibid., p. 229.
[12] Ibid., p. 203.
[13] Gramsci, Antonio, The Modern Prince and Other Writings, International Publishers, June – 1959, p. 131.
[14] Gramsci, Selections from the Prison Notebooks, ibid., p. 138.
[15] Ibid., p. 139.
[16] Karl Marx wrote, in the most widely quoted of his theses on Feurbach, that “philosophers have only tried to understand the world in various ways. The point; however, is to change it.”,, (2009-01-27).
[17] Gramsci, Prison Notebooks, ibid., pp. 133-134.
[18] Eric J. Hobsbawm, “Gramsci and Marxist Political Theory”, in Approaches to Gramsci, (ed.) Anne Showstack Sassoon, Writers and Readers Pub., London – 1982, p. 23.
[19] Gramsci, Selections from the Prison Notebooks, ibid., p. 146.