Chris Harman

Forward from 1968 – or back to 1928?

A reply to Martin Shaw

(Autumn 1978)

From International Socialism 2:2, Autumn 1978.
Transcribed by Christian Høgsbjerg.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

I knew I was running risks when I attempted, in two articles in the old International Socialism, to disentangle Gramsci from the pseudo-Gramscianism of the Eurocommunists. But I thought the risk was from the wrath of the new social democratic academicism that thrives in the region of King Street, not from long-time comrades like Martin Shaw.

Shaw attacks me because, he claims, I throw out Gramsci’s ‘extension of revolutionary politics’ when I argue that ‘civil society’ in Gramsci’s sense has declined as a consequence of the development of modern industrial capitalism.

Shaw admits that there are ‘important elements of truth’ in my argument and that I have ‘pin-pointed’ ‘the partial and relative decline of certain traditional hierarchies’ within civil society. But, he insists, this is not the same as the decline of civil society as such. Indeed ‘Gramsci’s concepts referred to a problem that, far from disappearing in more advanced societies, has actually become more acute since World War II. The problem and the concepts have survived the decline of the particular mechanisms on which Gramsci focused in Italy – the church, the teachers, etc.’ ‘Gramsci’s concept of hegemony ... poses the problem of the ideological incorporation of the working class at the level of the social relations of civil society – the everyday lives of workers in the workplaces, home and community ...’

The first thing to be said is that Shaw’s argument for the continuing relevance of the concept of ‘civil society’ rests upon giving the concept quite a different meaning to the one employed by Gramsci.

For Shaw, as for Marx and Hegel, ‘civil society’ includes everything not in ‘civic society’ (i.e. the state). As Shaw puts it, civil society is ‘the complex of economic, social and cultural institutions, as opposed to the state’.

But that is not Gramsci’s meaning. He excludes economic relations from civil society (see Prison Notebooks, pp. 234–235, and Perry Anderson is NLR 100, pp. 9–10) – and I suspect he would have excluded ‘relations of reproduction’, family and sexual relations,

from it too. For he saw civil society as being something not pertaining to the ‘base’ but to the ‘superstructure’ as a set of intermediate institutions between the basic social classes created by the relations of production and the state.

The definition of ‘civil society’ followed from the purpose of Gramsci’s analysis – to try to understand the different structures in Italian society that enabled the bourgeoisie to maintain its control despite the vast upsurge of workers and peasants in 1919–20. He saw as central here the mechanism that served to tie the peasants into the cultural and political life of the bourgeois nation – and the failure of the working class to come forward with a programme that would have undercut those mechanisms and created a worker-peasant alliance.

As Fransisco Consoli has pointed out:

The theoretical operation of Gramsci began with the necessity of breaking both blocs (ie the industrial ‘bloc’ of bourgeoisie and workers, and the agrarian bloc of landowners and peasants) horizontally, forming the lines of a worker-peasant alliance in a new historical bloc within which the working class would have hegemony. The Gramscian formulation constituted an important solution for the workers’ movement, from which was derived the whole problem of civil society, of culture, of the party. It provided a solution that corresponded to the conditions of struggle in a society which was still fundamentally a peasant society. (Debate, Rome, June–July 1978, p. 26)

It was precisely because industrialisation in the post-war period destroyed Italian society as Gramsci had known it, that Togliatti could provide a reading of Gramsci’s ideas that was non-revolutionary.

The PCI of Togliatti reformulated the Gramscian concept of the “historical bloc”, transforming it. The peasants were now substituted in the historical bloc by the “middle sectors”, by the little and medium bourgeoisie and by the white collar workers. The concept was adapted into the framework of a reformist project applied to modern society, concealing through its articulation of different strata and sectors the existence of two counterposed classes ... (ibid.)

Shaw’s adoption of Gramsci’s categories may not have such sinister motivations as Togliatti’s – but it is basically just as unfaithful to the original.

For Gramsci ‘civil society’ was a set of institutions which fitted the mundane interrelations of people in their everyday lives into the otherwise remote structures of the ruling class. Hence the local priest policed the community ideologically, ensuring that familial and sexual relations did not deviate too much from the pattern ordained by the church hierarchy; the local lawyer ensured that any mobilisation of the peasants around petty grievances was absorbed by one or other currents of ruling class politics; the mafia provided for rebellious spirits and outlets that did not challenge the system, and so on.

Shaw accepts that these intermediate institutions have wilted. But then he claims that this does not matter. Why? Because of the persistence of the mundane human interrelations they used to regulate. The power of the priests to police the structure of the family has declined, but something still identifiable as ‘the family’ remains. The fact that this itself is in the throes of a great crisis does not worry Shaw. Instead, he harps on about the family today as if it is identical in Britain in 1978 with Italy in 1928: ‘Feminist critiques of the family have taught us that sex roles embodied in it are maintained not only, or even mainly, by the media, but by the educational system, by the health and welfare machinery and by law, custom and habit in every area of social life.’

You wouldn’t think from Shaw’s account that the sucking of millions of women into employment had provided them with a new independence that weakens irreparably the old patterns of subordination and the religious superstitions that justified them. To say sex roles persist is a truism: what matters is the fact that something in advanced capitalism itself leads them to be challenged however disadvantageous this might be to the system. To see things otherwise is to fall back into the contentless generalisations of academic sociology.

In a desperate attempt to defend the thesis that civil society continues in the present just as in the past, Shaw goes as far as to pretend that the state itself can be a substitute for institutions that have decayed. ‘The structures of the state itself now reach back into civil society to bind the working class to them by a thousand and one laws, rules, administrative practices and conventions.’

Now of course, if a vacuum opens up between a centralised and remote state machine on the one hand, and the mass of population on the other, the ruling class will try to use part of the state machine to fill it. Faced, for example, with the erosion of many of the old aspects of the family as growing numbers of women are drawn into production, the state has been forced to intervene. But it finds it can no more force women into passive acceptance of the old family than can the church, and it is forced increasingly to compensate for the breakdown of the old family rather than simply to try to force its restoration (state provision of birth control facilities, a certain amount of pre-school education, family allowances for the women, limited assistance to one-parent families, and so on). Of course, this is a contradictory process. Of course, the state tries to do everything on the cheap and to off-load as much of the burden as possible on to the women. Of course, the overall effect is to oppress and destroy women at the same time as providing the impetus to the new movements for liberation that have sprung up internationally in the last ten years. But don’t let’s deny that the process is taking place and retreat into the illusion that everything is as it used to be.

The most telling point about Shaw’s attack is his attack on me for quoting an article On Perspectives written by Tony Cliff in 1968. He says that I ‘make Cliff’s sketchy old article a substitute for a social and a cultural theory’.

Now I would be the last to present Cliff’s article as a finished analysis of the development of the ideological structures of advanced industrial capitalism. But it does at least start from the changes in the institutions of working class life that took place under the impact of the post-war boom and tries to show how they laid the basis for the forms of struggle that seemed to emerge from nowhere in 1968. It is not a ‘social and cultural theory’ (whatever that might be for a marxist as opposed to an academic sociologist), but it does provide the beginnings of a materialist account of certain ‘social and cultural’ changes. By contrast, Shaw takes virtually no notice of these changes and enjoins us to theorise as if Gramsci’s just as sketchy – and much older – analyses still apply.

In practice this means turning away from the revolutionary and critical spirit that permeates Gramsci’s own writings.

Despite Shaw’s proclaimed disagreement with the Eurocommunists, the conclusions he eventually reaches turn out to be slightly reddened-up versions of theirs.

Firstly, there is his obsession with bourgeois democracy. Although he prefaces his remarks with the disclaimer that this arena is ‘secondary’, he does not go on to locate fighting elections as simply a tactic, of a certain limited practical significance in winning workers to revolutionary socialism. Instead, he elevates ‘The struggle within bourgeois democracy’ into being ‘a crucial one in breaking down the hold of established political ideologies’.

Secondly, like the Eurocommunists he sees the question of state power as something to be left for the indefinite future. But while they are completely explicit about it (see for instance Carrillo’s Eurocommunism and the State), Martin Shaw, in spite of himself, gets to the same position by omission. Because for him, all that matters at the moment is winning people to socialist ideas by showing that it is possible to begin to construct a different order of society without challenging state power:

‘The struggle for working class hegemony ... involves the struggle at the base of civil society, in the workplace, in the community, around the family – a practical struggle to advance working class self-organisation and consciousness in the fight for particular economy social and cultural goals. In this struggle the element of workers’ control, of a freer and more democratic society, including some of their organisational forms, will be forged and brought to consciousness before any decisive struggle for political power.’

It may be unfair but I cannot help recalling Bernstein’s old adage ‘the movement is everything, the goal nothing’.

Finally, Shaw gives the impression that all levels of struggle ‘in the workplace, in the community, around the family’ are of the same significance. He speaks of ‘a process of struggle which is both wider (in the areas of struggle engaged) and deeper (in the more fundamental nature of the ideological problems confronted) than those of economic and political struggle as they have usually been understood even by revolutionaries.’

No doubt Shaw will accuse me of ‘economism’ (after all, some of the trendier theories of Eurocommunism in Britain even claim that Marx was ‘economistic’) but it is necessary to insist that certain areas of struggle are more decisive than others in terms of mobilising the forces needed for revolutionising both consciousness and the world. In the family and in the community people find themselves divided one against another by the way that oppression hits them: all too often they are atomised rather than united into a powerful force. The struggle against oppression takes the form of individuals or small groups trying to come to terms with problems that they usually see as ‘personal’ problems; even when outside events fuse these into movements of protest, these tend to be ephemeral movements, affecting only a minority of the oppressed. By contrast the capitalist production process confronts thousands, millions of people with similar problems, uniting their concerns, opening up the possibilities of mass organisation, mass struggle and mass power. That is why economic struggle is not just one field of struggle among many, but the decisive struggle for those who want a fulcrum for the wholesale revolutionising of consciousness.

Of course, the revolutionaries have to intervene to give a political dimension to the new consciousness of collective power that workers learn through ‘economic’ struggle. Of course, revolutionary workers cannot truly free themselves from the ideological bonds of capitalism until they understand how they are tied down by the system in the community and the family, in their ‘play’ as well as in their work. But that does not prevent there being a decisive area for waging the struggle and areas which are less decisive. The failure to learn this has, after all, reduced many thousands of people who started off with the best of revolutionary intentions to a daily activity that amounts to little more than social work or individual therapy.

These arguments were not ones foreign to Gramsci: it was precisely the sort of argument he used (in the Prison Notebooks) to explain the failure of the radical bourgeoisie in Italy at the time of the Risorgimento to break the hold of the Vatican and of clerical ideology over the peasantry. If it is an argument that embarrasses Shaw, that just shows how far he, like the Eurocommunists, has moved from Gramsci.

Shaw accuses me of creating ‘lingering doubts that Gramsci might have been saying anything new and different’ because I do not see the analysis of civil society and hegemony as the greatest thing since sliced bread.

He also suggests that somehow I have reneged on an attitude I had ten years ago, when I praised Gramsci. The suggestion is nonsense. I wrote ten years ago (in a review Shaw has the nerve to quote) that there is in Gramsci a ‘concern with the role of intellectuals in mediating between diffuse subordinate classes and competing programmes of major classes’ because of ‘specifically Italian developments’ (IS (old series) 32, p. 37).

What I praised Gramsci for ten years ago is still what I praise him for, his account of the interaction between practice and theory, between peoples’ ideological beliefs and their struggles. This area of Gramsci’s writings is treated with disdain by the Eurocommunists because it runs counter to their own idealistic dismissal of all economic struggles as ‘economistic’ and ‘non-ideological’.

Shaw seems to show similar disdain. For Gramsci, the crucial link between theory and practice in the modern world was ‘the modern Prince’ – none other than the revolutionary party. But this surely is one of the ‘political traditions of the early communist international’ which is such anathema to Shaw. My articles on Gramsci had a very limited aim – to rescue a great revolutionary from those who would prostitute his writings. Shortly after finishing them, I came across an article by Lenin, written in 1910, that seemed to sum up much of what has happened to academic marxism since 1968:

The spirit of reconciliation which has taken possession of very wide sections of the bourgeoisie, also permeated the trend wishing to confine marxist theory and practice to “moderate and careful” channels. All that remained of Marxism here was the phraseology, used to clothe arguments about “hierarchy”, “hegemony” and so forth, that were thoroughly permeated with the spirit of liberalism. (Lenin, Collected Works, Vol. XVII, p. 83)

After reading Shaw’s attack on my efforts, I feel that perhaps the gangrene has gone further than I thought.

Last updated on 3.3.2012