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.

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