From Chapter 6 of The Gramsci Reader.
1-3 – Structure and Superstructure
One of the basic claims of historical materialism is that every political change is the result of a change in the structure, but we have to reject this. Gramsci thinks even Marx did not believe this. Marx cautioned us against this in four ways, three of which are noted here.
First, it is difficult, at any point in time, to determine the structure. Politics is a reflection of the tendencies of the structure, but these tendencies do not have to be realized at any particular time. A structural phase can only be analyzed after the fact.
Second, the first point allows us to deduce that a particular politician’s act could have been an error of calculation, an error which can then be corrected. Mechanical historical materialism does not allow for the possibility of error, but assumes that every political act is immediately determined by the structure. An error might be the result of an individual miscalculation, or it might be the manifestation of a hegemonic struggle.
Third, many political actions are due to the internal necessities of a given organization, such as its survival or coherence. For example, if we try to explain every struggle in the church as the result of the structure, “one would really be caught napping.” Most of these struggles are the result of sectarian necessities.
Marx’s A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy says the fact that we become conscious of structural conflicts at the level of ideology has epistemological value, not merely psychological or moral value. Hence, the theoretical-practical idea of hegemony also has epistemological value:
“The realization of a hegemonic apparatus, in so far as it creates a new ideological terrain, determines a reform of consciousness and of methods of knowledge: it is a fact of knowledge, a philosophical fact. In Crocean terms, when one succeeds in introducing a new morality in conformity with a new conception of the world, one finishes by introducing the conception as well; in other words, one determines a reform of the whole of philosophy.” (Gramsci 2000, 192)
Structures and superstructures form a historical bloc—the complex ensemble of the superstructure is a reflection of the social relations of production. He says this means that only a “totalitarian system of ideologies” rationally reflections the contradictions of the structure and represents the objective conditions for revolutionary praxis. If a fully homogenous ideological group is formed, then it means that the conditions fully exist for this.
4-6 – Historical Bloc, History, Hegemony
Croce says that the philosophy of praxis “detaches” the structure from the superstructure and turns it into a theological dualism. Gramsci thinks this is completely incorrect—rather, the structure and superstructure as seen as necessarily interrelated and reciprocal. Croce suggests the structure is seen as a hidden God, but Gramsci responds that it is seen in an “ultra-realistic way,” completely open to empirical study. The idea of the historical bloc upholds this unity.
Ethico-political history is, by Gramsci’s definition, an exclusive focus on culture which misses the moments of hegemony, political leadership, and consent in civil society. The philosophy of praxis includes ethico-political history, but goes beyond it in its assertion that culture is just one battleground alongside the state and the economy.
Croce’s idea of ethico-political history is basically a rejection of economism and fatalistic mechanism, even though he couches it as a supercession of the philosophy of praxis. Croce’s thought has some practical, instrumental value in its emphasis on cultural development. It showcases the role of intellectuals in the organic life of society. It keeps the philosophy of praxis from being too one-sided.
7 – Political Ideologies
Croce says political ideologies are instrumental tools of leadership, but we have to be careful to not see them as arbitrary appearances: “they are real historical facts which must be combatted and their nature as instruments of domination revealed, not for reasons of morality etc., but for reasons of political struggle: in order to make the governed intellectually independent of the governing, in order to destroy one hegemony and create another, as a necessary moment in the revolutionizing of praxis.” (Gramsci 2000, 196)
The superstructure is a real and operative reality, or at least can become so. When people become aware of their social position, they have become aware of an actual fact.
Gramsci says other philosophies are ideological because they seek to reconcile contradictions, while the philosophy of praxis does not seek such peaceful reconciliation. Further,
“It is not an instrument of government of dominant groups in order to gain the consent of and exercise hegemony over subaltern classes; it is the expression of these subaltern classes who want to educate themselves in the art of government and who have an interest in knowing all truths, even unpleasant ones, and in avoiding deceptions (impossible) by the ruling class and even more by themselves.” (Gramsci 2003, 197)
8-9 – Ideologies
The term ideology is often applied to both the superstructure of a particular structure and the random opinions of individuals. This confusion has gutted the word ideology of much of its value, and this shift happened in three stages. First, ideology is said to be distinct from the structure, and that the causal relation only goes from the structure to the ideology. Second, a given political solution is said to be ideological, which means it is stupid and useless. Finally, it is then said that every ideology is “pure” appearance.
We have to be able to distinguish between ideologies that are organically attached to structures and those which are rationalistic and willed. The first actually organizes human life, while the second creates individual “movements” and polemics.
Marx often insisted on the “solidity of popular beliefs” as a real element in a specific situation. A popular belief can have the same energy as a material force. For historical blocs, material forces are the content and ideologies are the form, but this distinction is only indicative—both always go together.
10 – Analysis of Situations: Relations of Force
We need to understand the relation between structure and superstructure if we are going to understand the active forces in any particular moment of history. There are two important principles here. First, no society gives itself a task for which the initial conditions are absent, and second, no society breaks down until it has exhausted all the forms of life which are implicit in its social relations. He quotes Marx in support of this:
“No social formation is ever destroyed before all the productive forces for which it is sufficient have been developed, and new superior relations of production never replace old ones before the material conditions for their existence have matured within the framework of the old society. Mankind thus inevitably sets itself only such tasks as it is able to solve since closer examination will always show that the problem itself arises only when the material conditions for its solution are already present or at least in the course of formation.” (Preface to A Contribute to the Critique of Political Economy)
With these two principles in hand, we can develop a set of other principles for a historical methodology. When we study structures, we have to see which are relatively permanent and which are “conjectural” or accidental. Conjectural phenomena also depend on organic movements, but have little historical relevance They give rise to day-to-day criticisms of minor affairs. On the other hand, organic phenomena produce genuine socio-historical criticism focused on wider social groupings, beyond immediate situations.
This distinction is important for analyzing historical periods, because then we can see that crises can be long-term and last for decades: “This exceptional duration means that incurable structural contradictions have revealed themselves (reached maturity), and that, despite this, the political forces which are struggling to conserve and defend the existing structure itself are making every effort to cure them, within certain limits, and to overcome them” (Gramsci 2000, 201).
One of the most common errors in historico-political analyses is the failure to find the distinction between the organic and the conjectural. This error leads to confusing direct causes with indirect ones, or to saying that immediate causes are the only effective causes.
The first result is a pedantic economism, which overestimates the mechanical, while the second is an excess of “ideologism,” which overestimates the voluntaristic aspects. When we discuss relations of force, several things need to be distinguished.
First, there are relations which are closely linked to the structure, independent of human will. These need be empirically studied. These material conditions allow certain social groupings to develop, and we can study whether or not the conditions for transformation exist. The second moment is the relation of political forces, which amounts to “an evaluation of the degree of homogeneity, self-awareness and organization attained by the various social groups” (Gramsci 2000, 204-205).
These forces can be further broken down into other moments of political consciousness as they exhibit themselves. Gramsci’s example is the way a tradesman feels obliged to stand by another tradesman, or a manufacturer by another manufacturer, but the tradesman and the manufacturer feel no mutual solidarity with one another. The members of the professional group aware are aware of their homogeneity, but not the wider groups.
A second sub-moment of political forces comes when solidarity has been achieved among all members of the political group, but only on the economic level. This already presents the issue of winning state power, but usually within the frame of existing fundamental structures.
A third sub-moment of political forces comes when one becomes aware that the interests of the merely economic group has to be linked to the interests of a wide range of other subordinate groups. This is the political phase in which struggle between ideologies comes to a head. Political and economic aims are unified along with intellectual and moral issues. The struggle takes place not on the corporate level, but on a “universal plane,” and this is hegemonic struggle.
In reality, these moments are all reciprocal. He says the relations are both horizontal (socio-economic) and vertical (territorial), Each combination has its own economic and political expression. International relations also need to be considered, which, when interacting with national issues, create ever more combinations: “A particular ideology, for instance, born in a highly developed country, is disseminated in less developed countries, impinging on the local interplay of combinations” (Gramsci 2000, 206).
Religion is a good example of this, and so are other international organizations like Freemasonry. They offer solutions to particular countries from diverse international sources, and work for these solutions in those countries. He continues, “But religion, Freemasonry, Rotary, Jews, etc. can be subsumed into the social category of ‘intellectuals’, whose function, on an international scale, is that of mediating the extremes, of ‘socializing’ the technical discoveries which provide the impetus for all activities of leadership, of devising compromises between, and ways out of, extreme solutions.” (Gramsci 2000, 206)
The third main moment is the relation of military forces, which can be decisive. There are two sub-moments here. First, there is the military in the strict sense, and second, there is the level he calls the politico-military. These two moments appear in a variety of combinations.
One example is a state using the military against a colony’s independence movement. This is politico-military, since it would not even be possible without a particular political situation, namely the lack of unity in the colony, which results in not having a strong enough army to repeal the hegemonic country.
The oppressed nation opposes the dominant military force in a way that can provoke military responses, forcing the military to spread itself out over a large territory.
Another important question is whether fundamental historical crises are determined by economic crises. This question has already been implicitly answered, but every question presents itself in a variety of guises, and so requires a variety of answers.
Immediate economic crises do not produce fundamental historical events; rather, “they can simply create a terrain more favourable to the dissemination of certain modes of thought, and certain ways of posing and resolving questions involving the entire subsequent development of national life” (Gramsci 2000, 208). Further:
“The specific question of economic hardship or well-being as a cause of new historical realities is a partial aspect of the question of the relations of force at their various levels. Changes can come about either because a situation of well being is threatened by the narrow self-interest of an opposing group, or because hardship has become intolerable and no force is visible in the old society capable of mitigating it and of re-establishing normality by legal means. Hence it may be said that all these elements are the concrete manifestation of the conjectural fluctuations of the totality of social relations of force, on whose terrain the passage takes place from the latter to political relations of force, and finally to the military relation which is decisive.” (Gramsci 2000, 208-209)
This is worth boiling down. He argues that immediate economic crises do not cause historical events; rather, they encourage certain ways of think, which in practice means certain ways of posing and answering questions. Change can be produced by hardship or the self-interest of a particular group, but these concerns are only part of the total relations of force which include the political and the military.
If this process through the moments is missing—and what moves the process is the will of men—then the situation has not been taken advantage of, and a variety of outcomes are possible. The old society can survive through violence, or there can be reciprocal mass destruction resulting in the “peace of the graveyard.” He continues,
“But the most important observation to be made about any concrete analysis of the relations of force is the following: that such analyses cannot and must be not ends in themselves (unless the intention is merely to write a chapter of past history), but acquire significance only if they serve to justify a particularly practical activity, an initiative of will. They reveal the points of least resistance, at which the force of will can be most fruitfully applied; they suggest immediate tactical operations, they indicate how a campaign of political agitation may best be launched, what language will best be understood by the masses, etc. The decisive element in every situation is the permanently organized and long prepared force which can be put into the field when it is judged that a situation is favourable (and it can be favourable only in so far as such a force exists, and is full of fighting spirit. Therefore the essential task is of that of systematically and patiently ensuring that this force is formed, developed and rendered ever more homogeneous, compact, and self-aware. This is clear from military history, and from the care with which in every period armies have been prepared in advance to be able to make war at any moment.” (Gramsci 2000, 209)
11 – Some Theoretical and Practical Aspects of “Economism”
This section is about whether “theoretical syndicalism” is derived primarily from the philosophy of praxis or from the economic doctrines of free trade, or liberalism: “Hence it should be considered whether economism, in its most developed form, is not a direct descendent of liberalism, having very little connection with the philosophy of praxis even in its origins—and what connection it had only extrinsic and purely verbal” (Gramsci 2000, 210).
As a sidenote, syndicalism is an economic program which says industries ought to be reorganized as confederacies, or syndicates, under the control of workers.
The relation between free-trade ideology and syndicalism is evident in Italy, though the two tendencies are very different. The first is a dominant and directive social group, while the latter remains subaltern and not yet conscious of its strength and possibilities.
The approach of the free trade movement is based on a fundamental theoretical error. It reifies the distinction between political and civil society, claiming it to be organic, when in fact the distinction is only methodological. On the basis of this error, it says that economic activity belongs to civil society, and the state must not regulate it:
“But since in actual reality civil society and state are one and the same, it must be made clear that laissez-faire too is a form of state ‘regulation’, introduced and maintained by legislative and coercive means. It is a deliberate policy, conscious of its own ends, and not the spontaneous, automatic expression of economic facts. Consequently, laissez-faire is a political programme, designed to change—in so far as it is victorious—a state’s ruling personnel, and to change the economic programme of the state itself—in other words the distribution of the national income.” (Gramsci 2000, 210)
Theoretical syndicalism has so far been prevented from becoming dominant, from rising to the phase of ethico-politico hegemony in civil society and domination in the state.
In the case of laissez-faire liberalism, it is a fraction of the ruling class which does not wish to modify the structure of the state, but only government policy. What is at stake there is a rotation in the occupants of government offices, not the foundation of a new civil society.
Basically, syndicalism is a mutilated form of liberalism, justified with a few phrases taken from the philosophy of praxis.
The attitude of economism towards expressions of political and intellectual will assumes these expressions did not themselves arise from the economic situation.
The exercise of hegemony requires that the hegemonic group compromise with the interests and tendencies of subordinated groups, but these sacrifices cannot touch the essential points.
While hegemony is ethico-political, it is also economic; it “must necessarily be based on the decisive function exercised by the leading group in the decisive nucleus of economic activity” (Gramsci 2000, 212).
Economism appears in many guises other than liberalism and syndicalism. For example, all forms of “electoral abstentionism” belong to it. Economism is not always opposed to political action and parties, but views them as educational organisms similar to trade unions.
He lists a few characteristics of historical economism. First, in its search for historical connections, it makes no distinction between the relatively permanent and passing fluctuations. By “economic fact,” it means the self-interest of individuals. It does not take class formations into account, but assumes motives of self-interest.
Second, it claims that economic development is reducible to technological changes in the instruments of work.
Third, it claims that every economic and historical development is dependent on a change in an important element of production, such as a discovery of a new fuel. The discovery of new forms of energy is certainly important and can shift the position of individual states, but it does not determine historical movement.
Some people criticize historical economism, but think they are attacking historical materialism; Gramsci offers the example of one writer who thinks Marxists believe that economic self-interest is what drives history, and criticizes this by saying that men are driven by passion and desire for prestige. But as Gramsci points out, “passions” can be just another name for economic interests, and political activity is not a permanent state of raw emotion and spasm.
Gramsci cautions against oversimplifications of praxis. The simplifiers
“forget that the thesis which asserts that men become conscious of fundamental conflicts on the terrain of ideologies is not psychological or moralistic in character, but structural and epistemological; and they form the habit of considering politics, and hence history, as a continuous … competition in conjuring and sleight of hand. ‘Critical’ activity is reduced to the exposure of swindles, to creating scandals, and to prying into the pockets of public figures.” (Gramsci 2000, 215)
Since economism can lead to other theoretical errors, it has to combatted not only in historiography, but also in the theory and practice of politics. We need to develop the concept of hegemony and how certain political movements are judged.
Take the example of the 19th century French nationalist movement, the Boulangists. Economism, when explaining them, asks “who profits?” and replies that it is a certain fraction of the ruling class. This sort of claim, which is almost always true, gains its truth at the cost of any theoretical significance or practical efficacy. It produces nothing but moralistic sermons.
Movements like the nationalist Boulangist types should be analysed along these lines. First, we need to look at the social content of the mass following the movement. Second, we need to know what function this mass had in the balance of forces, since the balance must be in transition simply because the movement could appear. Third, “what is the political and social significance of those of the demands presented by the movement’s leaders which find general assent? To what effective needs do they correspond?” (Gramsci 2000, 217). Fourth, do their means conform to their proposed ends? Fifth, only in the last instance, do we consider the possibility that the movement will be perverted and serve different ends than what the followers expect.
But economism puts this last consideration first, when no facts exist to support it. This makes it appear as if the movement is nothing other than moralistic bad faith, or naiveté and stupidity on the part of its followers. Gramsci says, “Thus the political struggle is reduced to a series of personal affairs between on the one hand those with the genie in the lamp who know everything and on the other those who are fooled by their own leaders but are so incurably thick that they refuse to belief it” (Gramsci 2000, 217).
Until such movements gain power, it is always possible that they will fail, so we need to analyze their strengths and weaknesses. Economism always asserts an immediate strength, such as the availability of financial backing, and stops there.