How the Class Struggle Goes Today — Seen With Help from Gramsci

It’s pretty simple, really. There is still a class struggle today, no matter how few people actually understand this, and under modern conditions, one of the main things — perhaps the key thing — the owner class has to do to keep its position is to exert a strong influence over how the average person thinks about the society. If this person thinks that it’s fine for the owners of capital to run the society, that that arrangement will benefit this person and others like her/him the most, then there will be little or no opposition to the owner class.

Antonio Gramsci, born in Italy in 1891, a Marxist who struggled against the Fascists as an Italian Communist and died in prison in 1937, gave a lot of thought to what he called the “war of position,” which needs to be won if the “war of maneuvre” — an actual revolution — can ever be won. Cultural struggle over competing ideologies is a paramount part of this war of position.

Capitalism, Gramsci suggested, maintained control not just through violence and political and economic coercion, but also through ideology. The bourgeoisie developed a hegemonic culture, which propagated its own values and norms so that they became the "common sense" values of all. People in the working-class (and other classes) identified their own good with the good of the bourgeoisie, and helped to maintain the status quo rather than revolting. 

To counter the notion that bourgeois values represented "natural" or “normal" values for society, the working class needed to develop a culture of its own. Lenin held that culture was "ancillary" to political objectives, but for Gramsci it was fundamental to the attainment of power that cultural hegemony be achieved first. In Gramsci's view, a class cannot dominate in modern conditions by merely advancing its own narrow economic interests; neither can it dominate purely through force and coercion. Rather, it must exert intellectual and moral leadership, and make alliances and compromises with a variety of forces. Gramsci calls this union of social forces a "historic bloc," taking a term from Georges Sorel. This bloc forms the basis of consent to a certain social order, which produces and re-produces the hegemony of the dominant class through a nexus of institutions, social relations, and ideas. In this way, Gramsci's theory emphasized the importance of the political and ideological superstructure in both maintaining and fracturing relations of the economic base. 

For Gramsci, Marxism could supersede religion only if it met people's spiritual needs, and to do so people would have to think of it as an expression of their own experience.

For Gramsci, hegemonic dominance ultimately relied on a "consented" coercion, and in a "crisis of authority" the "masks of consent" slip away, revealing the fist of force. …

Gramsci gave much thought to the role of intellectuals in society. Famously, he stated that all men are intellectuals, in that all have intellectual and rational faculties, but not all men have the social function of intellectuals. He saw modern intellectuals not as talkers, but as practically-minded directors and organisers who produced hegemony through ideological apparatuses such as education and the media. Furthermore, he distinguished between a "traditional" intelligentsia which sees itself (wrongly) as a class apart from society, and the thinking groups which every class produces from its own ranks "organically." Such "organic" intellectuals do not simply describe social life in accordance with scientific rules, but instead articulate, through the language of culture, the feelings and experiences which the masses could not express for themselves. The need to create a working-class culture relates to Gramsci's call for a kind of education that could develop working-class intellectuals, whose task was not to introduce Marxist ideology from without the proletariat, but to renovate the existing intellectual activity of the masses and make it critical of the status quo. [from Wikipedia article: “Antonio Gramsci”]


We have seen “crises of authority” of this sort, in which the “masks of consent” slip away, in U.S. history quite often: whenever the "fist of force" is revealed against union organizing efforts, mass marches for racial equality, and many other occasions. But the mask of consent always seems to slip back on before long, and life apparently goes on as before.

It appears that, to adopt Thomas Frank’s famous phrase, “what’s wrong with Kansas” (i.e., workers — of all kinds — in the U.S. today) is that workers have lost what Gramsci thought was somehow natural or instinctive to them: the ability to develop and listen to their own “organic intellectuals.” 

Perhaps American history has developed in a way Europeans like Gramsci did not experience, in a way that makes fighting the war of position exceptionally tough. It seems that too many U.S. workers are apt to turn their backs on the “elite,” the “politically correct” Left and follow phony super-rich “men of the people” like Donald Trump. Whether this situation can be remedied at all is a big question. If it can, it will require a lot of patient, well-thought-out cultural work.

Keep in mind, though, that Gramsci firmly believed that “intellectuals” were not a special group of highly-educated specialists; in fact, the thought, everyone is a potential "intellectual,” in the sense that we all have brains and can use them, but not everyone is an intellectual “by social function” [Antonion Gramsci, Selections from the Prison Notebooks (New York, International Publishers, 1971, p. 3)]. That is, not everyone uses her brain to reorganize society into a better shape.

More on all of this later.

qedd© Jon Johanning 2011