Tuesday, January 08, 2013

All the hegemony you can eat

Lenin’s key political innovation was never the vanguard party. Look at the Communist Manifesto, it’s there already. Gramsci is correct in attributing hegemony over and over in the notebooks to ‘Illich’. Hegemony is the capacity to lead. It bridges the gap between a party that fights its cause and by extension the cause of the class it represents and the party that leads the whole of society.

One should take care applying the concept too squarely onto our society. In Gramsci’s time hegemony at the level of statecraft meant a particular class leading a multitude of other classes, each with distinct political aims. There are not coinciding revolutions any more, like there were in 1917.

It reminds me, though I’m not sure this is a perfect analogy, of the observation that socialists should be the best fighters for reforms. They should, but I have also seen the times when this has been acknowledged in the sense of “thanks for being the best fighters, don’t let the door hit you on the way out”. Leading in struggle in itself is not enough.

Similarly, there is the idea that theory serves practice, in particular that a good book or pamphlet provides an overview for activists. It is very difficult for most people to be politically active, at least as as they need to be. Tailoring theory to current activists carries the danger of reducing party culture to a narrow section of society. Theory is liable to be degraded and the party becomes in danger of talking only to itself. This is perhaps how we got to the stage where words such as ‘feminism’ and ‘autonomism’ no longer refer to political credos but make do as refined abuse.

Wider society is also left unprepared should, for example, an unexpected section of the population take up struggle. This is less that the section lose because of lack of clarity – people are often very clear about what it is they’re fighting for and how they expect to get it – but more to do with other groups who might have a secondary interest not rallying to the cause. What was the meaning of Occupy? What is the meaning of modern feminism? Why do disability rights matter? Gramsci described revolutionary activity as the critical renovation of consciousness. Questions like these must be explained.

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