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.

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