10 October 2009

Gramsci and ‘Hegemony’

[CU for Monday, 12 October 2009]

On 19 September 2009 a review by Devan Pillay in the Johannesburg “Weekender”, of a collection of interviews published by Vishwas Satgar and Langa Zita, included the following sentence:

“The thinking of the late Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci featured prominently then, and formed the basis of an undogmatic, more flexible approach to Marxist thinking, which placed democratic practice at the centre of both the organisation and mobilisation for change, as well as the conduct of parties once in power.”

This review was posted (by your VC) to the “DEBATE” e-mail forum and gave rise to more than 50 e-mail responses from several countries, including more contributions from Devan Pillay. The larger part of this debate was concerned with the question of whether Antonio Gramsci was a different kind of communist from his contemporaries, V I Lenin and Rosa Luxemburg, with an “undogmatic, more flexible approach”; or whether, on the other hand, this is a mythical view of Gramsci, dishonestly propagated by anti-communists and liquidationists and renegades of various kinds including the former “Eurocommunists”.

This debate about Gramsci [Image] concluded with a complete victory of those who held that Gramsci was indeed an orthodox communist, and was not in the least bit opposed to Lenin, in particular. It showed conclusively that all the material published in recent decades to the effect that Gramsci was a soft kind of communist, or even that Gramsci had a theory of revolution that could succeed without any rudeness or unpleasantness of the Lenin kind, is all spurious and fraudulent.

Several full articles were quoted and posted. Two of them are linked below. Here is a (shortened) quotation from Perry Anderson’s article of 1976:

“The term ‘hegemony’ is frequently believed to be an entirely novel coinage—in effect, [Gramsci’s] own invention. Nothing reveals the lack of ordinary scholarship from which Gramsci’s legacy has suffered more than this widespread illusion. For in fact the notion of hegemony had a long prior history. The term gegemoniya (hegemony) was one of the most central political slogans in the Russian Social-Democratic movement, from the late 1890s to 1917.

“In a letter to Struve in 1901, demarcating social-democratic from liberal perspectives in Russia, Axelrod now stated as an axiom: ‘By virtue of the historical position of our proletariat, Russian Social-Democracy can acquire hegemony (gegemoniya) in the struggle against absolutism.’ [19] The younger generation of Marxist theorists adopted the concept immediately.

“Lenin could without further ado refer in a letter written to Plekhanov to ‘the famous “hegemony” of Social-Democracy’ and call for a political newspaper as the sole effective means of preparing a ‘real hegemony’ of the working class in Russia. [21] In the event, the emphasis pioneered by Plekhanov and Axelrod on the vocation of the working class to adopt an ‘all-national’ approach to politics and to fight for the liberation of every oppressed class and group in society was to be developed, with a wholly new scope and eloquence, by Lenin in What is to be Done? in 1902—a text read and approved in advance by Plekhanov, Axelrod and Potresov, which ended precisely with an urgent plea for the formation of the revolutionary newspaper that was to be Iskra.”

What Perry Anderson and Trent Brown (also linked) demonstrate is that “hegemony”, far from being an alternative to the working class ascendancy otherwise referred to as the “dictatorship of the proletariat”, is in fact exactly the same idea, and was understood as such without any reservations at all, by Antonio Gramsci in all his works.

All of this turns out to be useful in assessing the first discussion document prepared by the SACP for the Special National Congress to be held in December, 2009, and particularly the following section, taken from the last page of the document.

“… it is important that as communists we are clear that working class HEGEMONY doesn’t mean working class exclusivity (still less party chauvinism). Working class hegemony means the ability of the working class to provide a consistent strategic leadership (politically, economically, socially, organisationally, morally – even culturally) to the widest range of social forces – in particular, to the wider working class itself, to the broader mass of urban and rural poor, to a wide range of middle strata, and in South African conditions, to many sectors of non-monopoly capital. Where it is not possible to win over individuals on the narrow basis of class interest, it can still be possible to win influence on the basis of intellectual and moral integrity (compare, for instance, our consistent ability, particularly as the Party, to mobilise over many decades a small minority of whites during the struggle against white minority rule).”

While we may note that the discussion document never mentions Gramsci, yet clearly the above passage is the product of the same general debate, and tends to perpetuate the same false dichotomy about “hegemony” that has in the past tried to falsified Gramsci’s legacy and attempted to recruit Gramsci posthumously to the liquidationist Eurocommunist cause.

The passage also conflates (as does the entire discussion document) the National Democratic Revolution (which is a class alliance for the democratisation of the nation) with the revolution for working-class hegemony, which is likely to require a different set of alliances, ranged against a different set of opponents.

The document manages to do this by using, of all things, the example of the small fraction of the former white oppressor minority who had gone over to the revolutionary side. Not that this group of individuals is without honour or significance, but surely we cannot hang our whole revolutionary theory upon this relatively tiny number of people?

It is difficult not to read this passage as anything other than the Achilles heel of the entire document. In it we find the attempt to conflate the NDR with the direct struggle for socialism, as well as the fatal theoretical weakness of this shortcut type of thinking.

In “Petty-Bourgeois and Proletarian Socialism” (1905), Lenin wrote:

“Can a class-conscious worker forget the democratic struggle for the sake of the socialist struggle, or forget the latter for the sake of the former? No, a class-conscious worker calls himself a Social-Democrat for the reason that he understands the relation between the two struggles. He knows that there is no other road to socialism save the road through democracy, through political liberty. He therefore strives to achieve democratism completely and consistently in order to attain the ultimate goal - socialism. Why are the conditions for the democratic struggle not the same as those for the socialist struggle? Because the workers will certainly have different allies in each of those two struggles. The democratic struggle is waged by the workers together with a section of the bourgeoisie, especially the petty bourgeoisie. On the other hand, the socialist struggle is waged by the workers against the whole of the bourgeoisie. The struggle against the bureaucrat and the landlord can and must be waged together with all the peasants, even the well-to-do and the middle peasants. On the other hand, it is only together with the rural proletariat that the struggle against the bourgeoisie, and therefore against the well-to-do peasants too, can be properly waged.”

Why are we taking it for granted that the present Alliance will serve us for all future purposes? If Lenin is correct, then we will be making a trap for ourselves if we do that.

Joe Slovo wrote (in the SA Working Class and the NDR, 1988):

“There is, however, both a distinction and a continuity between the national democratic and socialist revolutions; they can neither be completely telescoped nor completely compartmentalised. The vulgar Marxists are unable to understand this. They claim that our immediate emphasis on the objectives of the national democratic revolution implies that we are unnecessarily postponing or even abandoning the socialist revolution, as if the two revolutions have no connection with one another.”

The first 2009 discussion document “telescopes” the two revolutions into one and thereby fails to focus on either of them.

Click on these links:

The Antinomies of Antonio Gramsci, 1976, Perry Anderson (36070 words)

Gramsci and Hegemony, 2009, Trent Brown (3949 words)

Building Hegemony on National Democratic Terrain, 2009, SACP (13222 words)


Post a Comment

Post a Comment