With the British state and its leading institutions once again in flux, Chris Bambery argues we should re-apply the insights of Italian Marxist thinker Antonio Gramsci.
We live in a strange era, where forms of class rule are in turbulence. The British ruling class and the British state are an interesting case study.
They have, from the First World War, never relied primarily on repression to police the working class. Rather, they have relied primarily on the Labour Party and trade union leaders who accepted certain crucial tenets of capitalist rule: among them the separation of economics and politics, and thus narrow channels of political reform – most importantly, parliament.
That common sense has dominated working class consciousness at most times in the last hundred years. Acceptance that parliamentary democracy is the best or only practical way to achieve change underlay the domination of the western working class by Social Democratic and Labour parties throughout the 20th century.
In addition the British ruling class had significant support within civil society. For much of the past century, a mass membership Conservative Party rooted in the middle class, the established churches, newspapers with mass readership, class-based educational systems and much else besides helped to reproduce a significant base for British capitalism.
What we have seen in recent decades is the erosion of much of this mass base. The Tory membership has shrunk and is largely over-65, the churches deserted them during the Thatcher years (and in any case present a shadow of their former congregations), the tabloids suffer diminishing influence with the mass desertion from print publications (especially by the young). British nationalism, concentrated in England, has become divorced from cosmopolitan elite strata who might wear tweeds of a weekend and mimic country life in the Cotswolds, but do not identify as British beyond such jollies.
That leaves a section of the petty bourgeoisie, unsure in a globalised world, worried about the future of their children and grand children taking up the cudgel of British nationalism. Allied with a minority section of the ruling class, the hedge funders and other spivs, and aided by significant sections of a working class alienated from established politics, fatigued by anti-working class policies and wanting to kick back, who won the Brexit referendum.
But nostalgia for Empire, Spitfires and Churchill exerts limited appeal. It has alienated a majority in Scotland, a growing percentage in Wales where support for independence is rising and in London and the bigger cities of England.
In terms of policing the working class the trade union leaders of today have none of the clout or the machine of those who strode the stage in the period of 1945-1979. The Labour Party has lost its support in Scotland and registers next to none of the strength it did in the same period when it had not just MP’s but councillors rooted in their communities and a mass membership which would canvass or remain in organic contact with voters by a myriad of functions.
The mass influx of members under Jeremy Corbyn did not recreate what Labour once had because those new members were loyal to Corbyn but not necessarily the party, and certainly not to the long haul of internal change. The vast majority joined because they saw it as an extension of their social movement activism. With Corbyn removed from leadership and under constant attack, most are moving on to different projects and focuses.
So not only is Sir Keir Starmer not a Clement Attlee or Harold Wilson in programme, he also does not have the forces within civil society they could rely upon. Since the beginning of this century we have seen social movements emerge, often suddenly, involving hundreds of thousands of people, from a very broad demographic. This is a crucial feature of this era and has continued even during the pandemic.
It is not to demean movements based on street politics to point out that they are hard to sustain, and little ideological clarity has emerged. Marxist ideas have a place in these movements, but exist alongside a myriad of others. What’s more, important thinkers and historical lessons, such as those connected with the Russian Revolution, have been sidelined. The marginalisation of this history was one of the great ideological successes of the ruling class following the fall of the Berlin Wall – the collapse of Stalinism was something to be welcomed but the ruling class have largely succeeded in identifying 1917 with the vile regime of Stalin which emerged, not without a fight, in the mid-1920’s. This victory was compounded by the sectarianism of the far left, which took a standoffish, hectoring tone towards these movements and have had little or no influence on them.
Being old enough to have lived through the great, victorious mass strikes of the 1970’s, they gave working people a sense they had power, and among a militant minority belief that it could be transformed into political power. They also created forms of popular democratic organisation in which could be glimpsed the potential to implement workers power; shop steward’s organisation.
The 1970’s get a bad press – the ruling class hated them for good reason – but we should remember the upsurge of 1968-1975 was a global one in which the Vietnamese defeated US imperialism, in Portugal in 1974-1975 the west came closest to a working class revolution since Catalonia in 1936. It impacted too into popular and even high culture.
Like today, it was a period of social movements: the women’s liberation movement, the fight against racism and the fascist right, gay liberation, squatting campaigns, rent strikes and much more. Key to developments was the central role women played in the workforce and women were to the fore in strikes. The Trades Union Council, a much more important body then and almost utterly male, had to formally back a demonstration in defence of abortion rights and union banners were on it in force.
This is not some nostalgic trip down memory lane. This history built our present and there are things we can learn from that period. The phase of post-war radicalism petered out at the end of the 1970s and early 1980s. Under the 1974-1979 Labour government, during the first post-war recession, there was an ideological battle. We in the militant but substantial minority in the workers’ movement lost a key argument that in such a recession, wage caps and a reduction in public spending were necessary to restore profitability. This attitude has since entrenched, and we face it to this day.
Fast forward to the Scotland of today. If we are to win independence we need to be ready for the ideological battle we will have to fight not just with the establishment Unionists but with the Andrew Wilsons of this world – those who want independence to represent a deep accommodation with ruling class interests. The lesson of 2014 was that it needed a radical campaign within working class communities to decisively connect support for Yes with radical change.
In the changing landscape of the national question there is someone we can turn to for guidance, the Italian Marxist, Antonio Gramsci. He was among the greatest radical thinkers of the post WW1 revolutionary wave, a generation renowned for the calibre of its socialist leaders and thinkers. He sought to apply the successes of the Russian experience in the conditions of his native Italy, which reflected the greater stability of social structures in western Europe.
Gramsci has often, and unfairly, been re-interpreted as a reformist, whose ideas lent themselves to gradualism. His most important writings, like his Prison Notebooks, were necessarily obscure due to them being authored in fascist jail as notes for future works. But they represent an attempt to develop revolutionary strategy that still offers insights for us today in Scotland.
Gramsci was hugely influenced by his attendance at the Fourth Congress of the Communist International (Comintern) in 1922. There the debates focused on the fall-out of the revolutionary wave which followed the Russian Revolution and ended the First World War but had now ebbed. The new Communist Parties were in all cases a minority within the working class and the Social Democrat and Labour Parties remained dominant.
The new conditions led Russian revolutionary leaders like Lenin and Trotsky to appreciate how different conditions were in western Europe. The huge social democratic parties and bureaucratised trade unions that dominated the workers movement in western Europe were absent in Russia. With an under-developed civic sphere, the Tsarist state relied heavily on repression to control dissent. In the west, the ruling elite could rely on a more sophisticated body of institutions to mediate between themselves and workers, and to exert ideological influence over them.
The consent which flows from the ruling class’s hegemony over the oppressed and exploited is not contrasted to the state’s repressive power by Gramsci, but is understood as complementary. Gramsci credited Lenin (“the greatest modern theoretician of the philosophy of practice”) with constructing “the doctrine of hegemony as a complement to the theory of the State-as-force”.
For Gramsci the state is a repressive force and a network of social relations for the production of consent in which both are united and distinct. Consent implies the coercion of its opponents or doubters. Consent is a mixture of fear (about Muslim terrorists, sexual predators, ‘feral youth’ and crime) which leads to higher levels of state repression (police stop and search, CCTV and terror raids) and ‘common sense’; ruling class ideas translated into the working class, such as the natural condition of existing hierarchies and legitimate and illegitimate demands an avenues for social change.
Someone has to translate those ideas into the working class in ways which make sense; in other words, networks of individuals. The Sun was so pernicious not because it was simply printed and distributed but because its middle class journalists were trained to write in everyday language using everyday examples and arguments. Those ideas were picked up by regular readers who carried them into a bar room argument, the family or workplace. The Labour Party leaders and trade union bureaucracy did something similar, although they had also to balance that with reflecting the concerns of their members and voters.
The construction of ideological hegemony mattered to Gramsci, because he was interested in the strategies and organisational forms necessary to break it down, by generalising the ideas of a militant minority of workers. Until that minority can achieve that working class counter-hegemony, the minority needs to find ways to mobilise and work with the majority who remain under the influence of ‘common sense’. The Prison Notebooks are in part a defence of this so-called united front approach against the narrow sectarianism then developing in the socialist movement – with some arguing that the minority should strike out alone, with disastrous consequences including the isolation of radicals and the rise of fascism.
This may all sound abstract, but it isn’t. Many of these same categories still apply, in different ways, to our own time. In this article we have charted the decline of many of the institutions which propped-up British capitalism in previous decades. That decline has helped us arrive at our present, chaotic juncture.
With the unwinding of a specific formation of institutional life and the consent it helps to develop, we have seen the breakdown of the traditional authority of Unionism and the centralised British state. In 2014 we saw the development of initiative like Radical Independence which saw to unite militant elements with broader opinion in a way that shifted the terms of debate.
As the British state lurches deeper into this breakdown, we will need to asses again the field of play – the institutional forces we face, the ideologies of consent (both within the Union camp and at the head of the independence camp) and the opportunities for helping to foster radical ideas in the debate.