Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Watermelon on Gramsci

Following on from Professor Roobin's rather abstract piece last week, and then his fleshig out, I thought I'd add something, not least since I did a meeting on the subject recently.

The first thing to say, when we look at Britain in 2007, is that we are experiencing what Gramsci termed an 'organic crisis'. The mess that is the war in Iraq, and the mass opposition to it, has created dischord at the top of society. The ruling class is split over how to respond to the mess that has been made - so we see army generals calling for troops out (even if this is only so they can be sent to Afghanistan) and so on. The dischord at the top of society creates opportunities at the bottom of society, opportunities that can be expoited by revolutionaries.

Put simply, this starts to break down the hegemony of the ideas of the ruling class, which creates the consent that allows it to rule on a daily basis.

How does the ruling class make its ideas into the dominant ideas? In Gramsci's time, the likes of teachers, lawyers and priests were key to the networks that enforced the ideas of the ruling class. They took these ideas, and translated them into something that tallied with people's everyday experience. The networks remain today (notice that government's are keen for their version of history, invariably the Niall Ferguson version, to be taught in schools). However, these are no longer the central networks.

Contentiously, though I stand by this point, the media is not the key to this either, nor has it been really at any stage during the last 60 years. Yes, Rupert Murdoch's support, and the shite pumped out by the BBC, have helped Blair to win elections etc, but people ignore them when they do not tally with their day-to-day experience.

An example that a comrade of mine likes to use is that of the Sun's reporting of the Hillsborough stadium disaster, now some 18 years ago but still fresh in the mind for how depraved the Sun's coverage was. It reported that Liverpool supporters robbed from the dead, and urinated on their corpses. Far from believeing this crap, this led to protests in Liverpool against the Sun, and its sales figures have not recovered in that city to this day. More recently, during the firefighters' strike in 2002, the Sun had a front page that described a firefighter as Saddam's best mate. People didn't swallow this crap, because that's not their experience of firefighters, who if they're not saving your life are doing other nice things like getting your cat out of a tree.

So the media is not the key network, and indeed trust for it is at an all-time low, thanks largely to the influence of the anti-capitalist and anti-war movements.

The key post-war networks have in fact been the Labour Party and the Trade Union leadership. These connected with an enormous number of people, and took people's rage, their resistance and aspirations for change, and channelled it through constitutional means. So rather than mass, all-out strikes, faith was placed in trade union leaders to carry a fight economically, and Labour MP's to carry our political aspirations into the legislature. And this has been expectionally powerful. Critically as well, it has kept the economic seperate to the political. As a long-standing comrade pointed out to me recently, it wasn't through the media that he was won to the social contract (a vile piece of legislation that blunted class struglle shortly after the NUM had brought down the Heath government), it was in his union branch. Because while the economic struggle was higher in the 1970's, while people identified themselves in a collective way that is not yet in place today, the dominant ideas were Labour reformist.

The organic crisis that I mentioned above is unravelling this hegemony, at least in part. What is more, through Stop the War organisation, that exists as a series of networks on a semi-permanent basis, there is a home for those people breaking from Labour ideas (remember that Blair promised to create a mass party of 500,000 members - now it has barely 100,000). Labour is not about to collapse or disappear, but it is in serious decline. These alternative networks start from the question of the war, but generalise out of it (hence the opportunities for new left formations such as Respect). This is the first time this has happened in Britain.

Now this does not automatically lead to revolutionary consciousness (there would be no need for a party of it did), but it does create a favourable environment for revolutionaries to discuss strategy and ideas. Consciousness in this sense is higher than in the 1970's, and the environment is easier to operate inside of.

That's the significance of Stop the War, in the sense of challenging the ideas of the ruling class.

Now, the importance of building a party. A party rooted in working class life, rooted in working class struggle, trusted by its membership and supporters.
Gramsci's greatest regret, which dogged him for the rest of his life, was his failure to build such a party that could relate to and win strategy over the factory occupations that were in place for more than 5 years in the run-up to 1920. Turin was the most significant city outside of Russia in terms of workers' organisation. Factory councils were in place in Milan too, but they were set up and run by the socialist party and the trade union leadership (who did exactly what you would expect from the networks that exist to reinforce ruling class ideas, as I described above). Without the party in place, Gramsci and those around l'Ordine Nuovo could not win the battle over strategy with those workers in Milan, could not convince them that factory councils need to go beyond sectionalism, beyond the unions, beyonnd the seperation of the economic from the political (pretty essential, for example how else can a Strike Committee possibly resolve issues like food distribution); which is why revolution did not take place in Italy at that time.

There are more modern examples of where the class struggle has been harmed by the lack of such a party. Paris '68 is often alluded to, but for a more modern example, look at Nepal last year. Following a huge general strike, there was a situation the state could not deal with. It was literally at the stage of the Americans having a plane waiting on the runway to evacuate the King (see Roobin's posts on Nepal last year in the archive for more). But rather than fight to take the victory forward, to move to new forms of organisation, the 5 parties leading the agitation agreed a compromise in which the King was allowed to stay in return for him guaranteeing constitutional rule. As if that would be the end of the matter. The strike was called off, and the Maoists agreed to disarm.

What was needed in Nepal was a party that could argue to take what was offered, but also to keep on fighting to get rid of the king and the army, because otherwise they'll come back and attack us. The ruling class, as it always has done, will draw breath and attack us if we don't finish them off.

These events are arising more and more often. Bolivia in May/June 2005 was the return of dual power. Neighbourhood Committees are a form of organisation similar to factory councils. They organised an uprising and overthrew the president. Even last year's student occupations in France challenged the dominant ideas, by linking students with workers and discussing alternative forms of organisation. In 2007, the strike waves in Egypt and the Lebanon open up the potential for this to continue (Egypt, due to the importance of its working class, is getting this blogger particularly excited).

So that's why we need a party. And while we're not at the stage of struggle highlighted above in this country, we can see the kind of events that would change that, would lead to the working class realising its collective identity and strength.

And the experience of Gramsci tells us how such a party should relate to the 2 key aspects of struggle - workers' organisation and the spontaneity of the class. It means that when we look at the pay disputes going on in the public services in the country, we can work out how to engage with it. Because some (I'll name names - teh Socialist Party) are writing off the union leadership, saying it will only sell out the workers (parallels with Bordiga's sectarianism in Italy). Furthermore the SP is also encouraging sectionalism, arguing against the PCS coming out alongside the CWU as the CWU is not a public sector union - an example of a network reaching a stage where it is reinforcing the ideas of the ruling class.

Whereas we should be pushing for the one-day strikes to be as big as possible, and as broad as possible, involving posties, civil servants, teachers, nurses and others. But we want to join this to the spontaneity and strength of the class that goes beyond the union leadership - we want this to turn into mass unofficial action. Will this be the breakthrough? We don't know, but we know what we have to do.

And as an aside, how this is easier to win workers to now. 4 years ago I attempted to visit the TGWU office at a bus garage, to deliver leaflets. The reps, who had an enormous picture of John Prescott on the wall of their office, chased us out. Last year that garage was involved in a big strike. Thanks to the way we intervened in that dispute, the way we have helped to generalise those ideas, we are now welcome in that office. That's the shift, that's the dominant ideas losing their hold, or hegemony. And that's what we get from Gramsci, and why we hold in the same light as Marx, Lenin, Trotsky and Rosa Luxemberg.

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