Bandiera rossa trionferà!

There’s a bit of interesting bloggerage coming out of this Jackie Ashley article in the Guardian. First, Marcus at Harry’s Place wrote a bit about why he likes Gramsci and Italy, and that prompted a bit of discussion in the comments box; and then Socialism in an Age of Waiting weighed in with some of useful observations about the history of all of this.

Richard Bayley asked Marcus in the comments to Harry’s why he’s turning to Gramsci rather than Hegel for a theorisation of civil society. Marcus said he didn’t know much about Hegel, and that’s why he didn’t mention him, but an even better reason as to why Marcus was right not to mention Hegel was that his argument has nothing to do with Hegel’s conception of civil society. For Hegel, civil society was (i) the market economy and what flowed from that, (ii) a system of law enforcement and policing and (iii) a bunch of professional associations, which aren’t quite analagous to either mediaeval guilds or modern unions. And I don’t think anyone reading Marcus’s original post would say that he was talking about that kind of thing at all.

Marcus does, however, give a very one-sided account of Gramsci on civil society, and, in fact, makes Gramsci sound far more like Tocqueville and other nineteenth century liberals than anything else. By playing up the role of “voluntary associations” in civil society and claiming that strong local associations and strong local government by the local communists conduces to flourishing modern communities in which half-dressed girls don’t throw up in public so often (his example), he hitches his bandwagon to Robert Putnam and the neo-Tocquevillians, who think that the trouble with modern life is that we’re bowling alone and don’t belong to enough organisations (and, yes, in his earlier book on Italy, Making Democracy Work he also argued that local government being run by communists made for more efficient government, other things being equal, etc.). Now there’s a lot wrong with the Putnam thesis (my stepfather-in-law explains why here), but the crucial point here is a simple one: it’s got very little to do with the socialist tradition, and quite a lot to do with a certain conception of liberal civil society. That conception might be an attractive one, for lots of reasons, but it’s not a distinctively leftist conception, let alone a socialist one, and to invoke the name of Gramsci in support of that vision rather than, say, Tocqueville or Putnam helps to disguise that fact.

What’s missing in Marcus’s description of Gramsci’s civil society is Gramsci’s communism. The point of emphasising the nature of civil society was a part of getting revolutionary political strategy right, and the political strategy Gramsci recommended in Italy — the “war of position” — was one of the democratically centralised and extremely disciplined communist party struggling to transform the institutions of civil society in its image as a constituent part of its campaign against the state and the owners of the means of production. (As I recall — I don’t have my copy of Gramsci with me right now — Gramsci used military metaphors a great deal, denied that he was advocating non-violent forms of political struggle, and suggested that the “war of position” would turn out to be a bloodier affair than the quick coup d’état that the Bolsheviks managed in Russia.) The postwar Italian Communists adapted to the postwar Italian state form, and in certain respects did quite well out of that adaptation (depends on your perspective, I suppose: for some older comments on mine on this kind of thing, go here). But they weren’t being terribly Gramscian, though they said that they were.

Socialism in an Age of Waiting (hey — can I call you Patrick, or do you prefer to be spelled out in full? I can�t quite bring myself to call you SIAW) goes on to say some useful things about the Webbs. (Does this make this the first real Webblog?) And the general point lurking in the background here which can’t be stressed enough is that whereas socialist theories have been with us for almost two hundred years (more than two hundred if we count the Babouvists, and even longer than that if we rather anachronistically include older radical societies and popular movements which taught utopianism and egalitarianism), statist socialism really isn’t that much older than the Fabians or the Webbs (and it’s not an accident in this regard that Fabianism began as a movement within the British Liberal Party). The nineteenth century nation-state wasn’t big or powerful enough to organise economic life, so socialists looked to exploring other mechanisms and building other institutions; and it was only when the ruling classes themselves built powerful, bureaucratic states which gobbled up big chunks of GDP and organised economic production in order to wage their wars — especially the First World War — that the Left came face to face with these very large capitalist nation-states and began devising strategies for taking them over and using the state machinery to pursue some of their own goals, rather than merely furthering the interests of the bourgeois politicians and officials who created them in the first place.

So the link between socialism and the large state is a contingent one, and it’s good to be able intellectually to break that link. But it does need to be broken in the right kind of way — and rewriting the history of socialist theory to make the Italian communists and Alexis de Tocqueville sing from the same hymnsheet seems to me to be a far better strategy for burying than for praising.

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