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International Socialism, July 1978


Martin Shaw

Back to the Maginot Line:
Harman’s new Gramsci


From International Socialism, 2:1, July 1978, pp. 55–66.
Transcribed by Christian Hogsbjerg.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Chris Harman devoted two articles in IS 98 and 99 to the theme Gramsci versus Eurocommunism. His arguments can be summarised as follows.

In his first article, Harman argues that Gramsci was a revolutionary whose ideas have been systematically distorted by the Italian Communist Party, first to fit Stalinism myths, now to present him as the founder of Eurocommunism. ‘Yet there are few Marxist thinkers whose spirit was further removed from Eurocommunism than Gramsci’s. His ideas were based on notions today’s Eurocommunists castigate as “insurrectionist”, “workerist”, “spontaneist” and “rank and filist”.’ (Not, of course, that Gramsci was really any of these things, since he did not devalue the interventionist role of marxists.)

In his second article, Harman presents the Eurocommunist argument, according to which Gramsci says that ruling class power in the West, unlike in Czarist Russia, rests on ideological domination exercised through ‘civil society’. The key struggle for revolutionaries is therefore the struggle for ‘hegemony’ (ideological dominance) not political power, and a ‘counter-hegemonic’ strategy can involve the working class sacrificing its economic interests. This is supposed to be justified by Gramsci’s distinctions between ‘war of manoeuvre’ (rapid movements by armies) and ‘war of position’ (long-drawn-out struggle), the latter only being appropriate to the West.

Against this interpretation Harman argues that Gramsci’s real arguments do not permit Eurocommunist conclusions:

  1. war of position is still war, not class collaboration;
  2. this idea is not a new one, being based on the Leninist concept of the ‘united front’;
  3. the battle for hegemony is not just an ideological battle, but is based on economic struggle;
  4. the struggle to win over other classes does not mean that the proletariat stops putting its own interests first;
  5. the struggle for hegemony cannot by itself solve the problem of state power.
  6. Gramsci’s terminology is vague, and slips between meanings;
  7. the ‘war of position’ is not specific to the West, but was dominant for long periods in Russia too;
  8. ‘civil society’ in Gramsci’s sense is declining, and advanced capitalism’s ideological power depends on centralised media; except for workplace organisation, the masses are atomised.

Crucial weaknesses in the Prison Notebooks have provided the basis for the distortions:

  1. ambiguous language made necessary by the fascist censorship;
  2. Gramsci’s failure to come to terms with Stalinism, leading to a ‘half-apology for totalitarian trends’;
  3. the lack of a concrete economic dimension to his writings.

I have given the argument in detail (1) because I believe that most of it is correct so far as it goes, (2) because I want to specify exactly the points which I think are wrong, and (3) so that I can show what Harman has left out. I will try to show our differences clearly by posing a number of questions.

I. Does Gramsci’s argument in the Prison Notebooks contain
an original contribution to revolutionary theory?

We can agree that Gramsci was certainly as Harman states at the outset, ‘a ‘professional revolutionary from 1916 until his death. Throughout this period he was insistent on the need for a revolutionary transformation of society through the overthrow of the capitalist state.’ He was working in a tradition – that of the Bolsheviks, and of the revolutionary left today – fundamentally opposed to that of Eurocommunism.

But the effect of Harman’s argument is to deny Gramsci any really original contribution to marxism. It is all being said anyway by the SWP today, or at least it was said by Lenin and Trotsky before Gramsci. Harman leaves us wondering if he added anything except an excessively abstract terminology. So what is all the fuss about – isn’t it just a nasty Eurocommunist plot to steal the legacy of a dead revolutionary?

We may be satisfied with this – but what if we have lingering doubts that Gramsci might have been saying something new and different? In that case, Harman leaves it to the Eurocommunists to interpret it for us, and so fails by an excessively possessive and defensive attitude to Gramsci’s ideas, to make an adequate reply.

In fact, Gramsci is saying something original, and it is an extension of revolutionary politics rather than a basis for the new Eurocommunist reformism. By reducing his concept of hegemony to its purely strategic aspect, the war of position, Harman denies its social meaning. This is important, and it does establish a very significant difference between pre-revolutionary Russia and the contemporary West, which it is a little disingenuous for Harman to dismiss. It is surely valid to say that in the advanced West, the ruling class has relied for the most part, in ‘normal times’, on the ideological assent of the masses to the existing order.

In Russia on the other hand, as in many backward capitalist countries today, the ruling class relied to a much greater extent on coercion to assure its day-to-day control. Furthermore, the reason why this happens is not just because workers in advanced countries are economically better off. It is also because there is an immensely more complex network of institutional arrangements in ‘civil society’ refined over decades and even centuries, covering every easpect of life, through which ideological domination is maintained. In Russia, as in other more backward societies, such a network was by no means lacking altogether, but it was much cruder, less well developed, and more frequently abandoned for force and repression.

What Gramsci was indicating, cannot simply be reduced to the strategy of the united front. The united front was necessary even in Russia because the reformist parties had, until the most advanced stage of the revolutionary process, the support of the majority of the workers. In the west it was an even more fundamental strategic concept because of the solidly entrenched position of reformist political parties and trade unions.

But Gramsci’s concept of hegemony, although it takes its starting point from the same problem – the strength of the bourgeois order among the masses of workers in the West – is a much deeper and more general concept than that behind the united front. It poses the problem of the ideological incorporation of the working class at the level of social relations of ‘civil society’ – the everyday lives of workers in the workplace, home and community – and not just at that of trade union and political organisation. (The concept of civil society, while not always clear in Gramsci’s usage, basically refers to the whole complex of economic, social and cultural institutions, as opposed to the state.)

Workers accept capitalism, this concept suggests, not just through purely ideological mechanism’s but because of their practical involvement in the norms and institutions of capitalist society. The problem this poses for us is how to break the hegemony which the bourgeoisie thereby establishes – how to develop a counter-hegemony of the working class. Is it just a matter of applying united front tactics to the established reformist trade union and political organisations, in the process of economic and political struggle? Or does it require, as I would argue, the practical and ideological subversion of all the main economic, social and cultural institutions in which the working class is involved? This means 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.

II. Is civil society overwhelmingly subverted and the masses atomised
by the centralisation of ideological power?

So far I have outlined the Gramscian argument – trying not so much to summarise Gramsci’s writings as to express what has usefully been derived from them – in very abstract terms. The key issue is undoubtedly what this means in terms of the West today. On this question Harman advances what is, in terms,of the Gramsci debate, his one relatively original point. He argues, following a 1968 article of Tony Cliff, that ‘civil society’ in Gramsci’s sense has been subverted, not by the action of revolutionaries, but because:

Advanced capitalism leads to a centralisation of ideological power, to the atomisation of the masses – with the crucial exception of workplace-based union organisation – and to a weakening of old political and cultural organisations.

On the one hand the intensification of the labour process has played a role – shift work makes the organisation of local political or cultural associations difficult; on the other hand, the commercialisation of social life, the advent of radio and television, and the concentration of control over the mass media has weakened the attraction of other ‘leisure’ activities. The number of effective structures of ‘civil society’ between the individual and the state has fallen. More and more the means of mass communication provide a direct intermediary. At the same time, the significance of workplace-based trade union organisation has grown dramatically; to become the one institution of ‘civil society’ not subverted by the atomisation.

I have no wish to deny the important elements of truth in this argument: the media have greatly centralised certain kinds of ideological power; cultural life, although long since commercialised in countries like Britain, has been in one sense atomised by television, the ‘old political and cultural organisations’, by which Harman means mainly parties and churches, have generally declined in active support (although what would he make of the new upsurge of reformist politics in Southern Europe, or of religion in the USA?) finally, workplace organisation has undoubtedly been enhanced. But it must be obvious that the picture is ludicrously overdrawn. Taken too literally, it would mean that the average worker lived in a bedsit, sat glued to the box all night, and only blossomed into social life with a hectic round of meetings at work. Then, of course, we have only to insert a couple of consistent revolutionaries, arguing in the course of the workplace struggle, to break down the lies of the media and win the working class to socialism.

It will no doubt be conceded that the account is rather simplified. The question is, how gross is the simplification, and how much does what is left out matter in practical terms? Let us counterpose another stereotype of the average worker – equally one-sided, but that is the point. Tied at work to the line or the machine, bored as hell all day, unable to talk most of the time, a passive attender at the infrequent shop meeting, the worker’s entire life is centred in the family, pub or club, sports team, kid’s school, house, garden, allotment and car.

I suggest that what Harman has pinpointed is not the decline of civil society as such but the partial and relative decline of certain traditional hierarchies within it. There is a tendency, far from complete, for civil society to be dissolved into its more basic units. Within the workplace, this has meant a considerable strengthening of shop floor compared to national trade union organisation; outside the workplace, it means more stress on the family and purely social organisations rather than the churches and the labour movement.

What is more, while the decline of church and party may pose problems in the ideological integration of the more basic units of civil society, it does not follow that the only important mechanisms left are those of direct, centralised ideological power. Feminist critiques of the family should have taught us, for example, that the 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. Indeed 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.

Even workplace-based trade union organisation has, contrary to Harman, to be seen in this light. His idealised account – ’the one institution of civil society not subverted by the atomisation’ – does not stand up to close examination. Workplace organisation is still profoundly atomised. How many industries or even firms boast strong functioning shop stewards’ combines? How many districts have anything resembling rank and file organisations spanning different industries, firms and unions?

The fragmentation of shop-floor organisation was not just a result of the economic conditions of the boom, as IS argued in the ‘sixties. It exists because shop floor organisation too is integrated in many important ways into bourgeois society. The most obvious way, which we recognise in practice, is its incorporation into the official trade union machine, which profoundly contains militancy. But it is also true that the whole legal, managerial and customary framework of industrial relations is a very important means of practical and ideological constraint on workers’ actions. Even here, Harman will find that it is not enough to ‘expose the media’s lies’; the chief means of control are much closer to hand.

What is at stake here is something very important, it is the recognition that existing social arrangements – in the workplace, in the home, in the ‘community’ – are seen as the context within which life is carried on, and that to a significant, if limited, extent they satisfy people’s needs. Acceptance of social institutions at these levels, and acceptance of the higher-level institutions of capital and the state, are mutually reinforcing. (Obviously, the stability of these basic social institutions is undermined by the economic instability of the system, as well as by the dislocation of the traditional forms of ideological power).

The implications for practice are crucial. One, our politics must start from the contradictions within civil society as a whole – not isolating one level, that of workplace struggle, but seeing this struggle as a key focus of the wider working class struggle. Two, we must analyse the real economic, social and ideological supports within the working class for existing institutions, together with the contradictions which are arising in them – rather than assuming that only the thin line of the media lies between the workers and socialist politics. Three, we must develop a strategy for hegemony, as implied by Gramsci, which widely undermines workers’ acceptance of bourgeois institutions and ideas in every area of civil society.

III. Is ‘bourgeois democracy’ important as a field of struggle?

The Eurocommunists started out with a parliamentary strategy, and proceeded to dress it up in Gramscian, ‘hegemonic’ terms. Harman, because he rejects the parliamentary road, argues first that Gramsci’s concept of hegemony is little more than the united front in an elaborate disguise, and secondly that the specific concept on which a hegemonic strategy is based, that of civil society, is outmoded.

There is something rather paradoxical about Harman’s reasoning here. He is concerned to stress the united front concept although his own analysis – particularly his emphasis on the decay of the reformist parties as mass participatory organisations – would tend to limit the meaning of that approach. For if the reformist party is no longer very effective as a means for ideological control over the masses, why bother to seek a united front with it? One is tempted to ask if Harman’s commitment to the united front is more than a convenient way since it is based on Lenin and Trotsky) of defusing Gramsci’s concept of hegemony?

There is an important place for the united front approach, but it must be based on a different assessment of the situation. If we accept that bourgeois society rests on something more substantial than the support of the mass media, then we can understand that reformism in general, both trade unionist and political, continues to have meaning to the extent that workers see possibilities of satisfying some of their goals through existing institutions. Reformism in everyday life – in the workplace, the community or matters affecting the family – is a basis for the larger reformisms of the trade union bureaucracies and bourgeois politics. Of course the highly successful pursuit of grassroots reformism, which we saw in the 1950s and 1960s, appeared to undermine support for the larger reformisms: but that was an incomplete assessment. The rank and file struggle of that period did not go beyond the political bounds of bourgeois society, any more indeed than it went beyond its political and economic boundaries. This period undermined the direct roots of the major reformist parties in working class struggle, but it did not lead to a serious challenge to the political and ideological superstructures of bourgeois society.

So long as there is no concrete possibility of alternative social and political forms in which workers’ interests can be expressed, we must expect them to be reflected within the framework of bourgeois politics. There will be no automatic withering away of reformist politics, as we tended to think in the late 1960s. In order for reformist politics to be seriously threatened, not only must the economic, social and cultural struggle of the working class reach a high level, but the weaknesses of the bourgeois political process must be fully exposed.

In this light, the new political forces in bourgeois society are no accident, but the inevitable consequence of its economic social and cultural crisis. The rise of Scottish Nationalism, and even the swing to the Tories, are indirect expressions of this fact in the British context, where the nature of the Labour Party and its responsibility for British capitalism have made the rise of new reformisms difficult. But the range of new mass reformist politics in Southern Europe – the ‘historic compromise’ in Italy, the recent Union of the Left in France, the Socialist Party in Spain – shows the continuing ideological hold of bourgeois democracy in the West, despite the partial decline of the hierarchical structures of the old labour movements. Bourgeois democracy, far from disappearing, is in fact renewing itself, with social democracy of sorts as its most typical, although far from universal, form.

It might of course be possible to see the new reformists as a highly transitory phenomenon, almost of the Kerensky type, thrown up by pre-revolutionary situations. But this would be to greatly underestimate the continuing strengths of bourgeois democracy in the main countries of Western Europe. It will take a prolonged struggle, in the course of the deepening economic and social crisis of capitalism, to seriously break these bases of bourgeois hegemony and reformist politics. It is recognition of these facts which imposes not only the need for a consistent united front approach towards reformist trade union leaders and political parties, but also the need for a more general hegemonic strategy.

It should be clearer by now what the struggle for working-class hegemony in Gramsci’s sense will ential. Most fundamentally, it 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 economic, social and cultural goals. In this struggle, the elements 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.

The role of the revolutionary party is above all to develop this struggle, among the working class as a whole, as a preparation for a revolutionary situation. In this process, of course, it builds itself as an organisation of that section of the working class which is committed to the struggle for a new society, and to the overthrow of the existing state as an essential part of that process.

Secondarily, however, but as an essential part of this strategy, it is essential to fight against the higher-level institutions of civil society and the state, through which the integration of these basic institutions is achieved. The forms and intensity of the struggle here will vary enormously. In the case of the trade union hierarchy, a continuing struggle is an obvious and direct extension of the struggle of the workers at the point of production. In the case of the legal system, at the other extreme, the struggle, though important, will be much more limited in scope. In the area of the production of ideology, the nature of the modern higher educational system makes a continuing struggle possible. In t,he media, too, a continuing although more restricted struggle can be waged. Finally, and very importantly, within the political system of bourgeois democracy itself it is both possible and highly necessary to wage a continuous battle. Of course, if the basis of parliamentary democracy was fundamentally undermined by the decline of some of the organic links of reformist parties with workers’ struggle, this would not matter. But Harman has ignored, first, the continuing socio-economic base for bourgeois democracy, and second, the way in which the very factor he highlights (the mass media) has reinforced it, by its direct access to the mass of the people. The struggle within bourgeois democracy is a crucial one in breaking down the hold of established political ideologies, and building the influence and credibility of the revolutionary party.

IV. What is the significance of the Gramsci debate, and what is
an adequate reply to Eurocommunism?

Harman deals with Gramsci purely in relation to Eurocommunism; he fails to see the wider interest in Gramsci and the significance of Eurocommunism in relation to this. But most of the books and articles on Gramsci, in the English-speaking world at any rate, have not come out of the CPs, nor has the resonance of his ideals been confined to CP-dominated circles. In this country, indeed, it is only recently, in the context of the British Road debate, that the CP has made a really systematic attempt to ‘claim’ Gramsci – hence Harman’s articles.

For Harman, the wider interest must be an anachronism, since it has revolved mainly around his notion of hegemony based on civil society. Harman refers us continually to Gramsci’s context, Italian society after the first world war, and rightly points to the huge gap between that society and ours. He does not understand that Gramsci’s concepts referred to a problem which far from disappearing in more advanced societies, has apparently become more acute since World War 2. The problem and the concepts have survived the decline of the particular mechanisms on which Gramsci focussed in Italy – the church, the rural lawyers and teachers, etc. Much of the focus has indeed moved to phenomena which Gramsci himself saw as crucial to more modern social regulation – the family and sexual relations – although beyond his particular analyses.

Gramsci’s importance is indeed the problems he poses, rather than any particular answers to them. Within marxism he has come to represent some of the issues of our time. How is the adherence of the working class to capitalism secured in our daily lives? What explains the continuing strength of bourgeois democracy? How are these to be broken? These questions were raised during the long boom, although mainly by academic critics, and they could perhaps be explained away by the purely economic gains of that era. They have been raised all the more acutely by the obstacles which the revolutionary movement has discovered in the last few years, despite the deepening economic crisis.

It is no answer, then, to Gramsci or even to the would-be Gramscians of the Communist Parties, to reduce the concept of hegemony to that of the united front, or to reduce marxism to an overwhelmingly economic method of analysis. The problems which Gramsci raises are precisely those of a working-class hegemony which is wider and deeper than that which can be derived from the relations between revolutionary and reformist organisations, and of a marxism which is more than economics.

Concretely, the proper reply to Eurocommunism is not so much a critique of Gramsci’s categories, as a demonstration that Eurocommunism in no sense represents a serious hegemonic strategy in advanced capitalist countries today. It is not based on a practical struggle for hegemony at the base of civil society. The CPs do not advocate, still less carry out, a daily fight in the workplaces against each and every mechanism of bourgeois domination, for working class autonomy and control. They do not carry out a serious struggle for the democratisation of the trade unions. On the contrary, they subordinate the concrete workers’ struggle to their own political alliances within the established framework of bourgeois hegemony. In Britain, they subordinated the fight against the Social Contract to their allies within the trade union bureaucracy. In Italy, the CP calls for working-class ‘sacrifices’ to maintain the ‘historic compromise’. Similarly, the CPs do not advocate or carry out a consistent fight for the transformation of everyday life outside the workplace. Again, in Italy they leave the fight for abortion rights to the feminists and the Radical Party, because this practical struggle for a new hegemony threatens their concept of political dominance.

What the Eurocommunists do is to subordinate the real struggle for working-class hegemony in civil society to the struggle for a narrow hegemony in the political sphere. The answer to this, however, is not to dismiss any struggle in the political sphere, but to show that is must be subordinate to a wider strategy based on the struggle of the working class in civil society. Correspondingly, their theoretical tendency is undoubtedly towards a political analysis divorced from economics. The answer to this is not just to reassert the economic dimension, but to propose an integrated marxist understanding, articulating social, political and ideological analysis with a grasp of the economic contradictions.

V. What are the sources of Harman’s defensive approach to Gramsci?

Harman’s articles failed to understand the significance of Gramsci’s ideas for today. They were another species of what Michael Kidron, in a different context, once called ‘maginot marxism’. Overwhelmingly they reduced Gramsci to positions already established, which Harman wished to defend.

The source of this is not just to be found in Harman’s uncritical attitude to Cliffs article of 1968. Harman’s article reproduced weaknesses in IS’s theory as a whole. Since this was the subject of the subsequent issue of the journal, IS 100, it will be convenient to relate it to the arguments there. The editorial in that issue raised some of the very problems that arise in Harman’s article. ‘For one thing,’ it argued:

our theory left out a lot. Above all, it neglected the massive reality of the oppression of women and everything it involved – the nature of the family, the struggle of women workers, the position of housewives, the repression of gays, the whole gamut of sexual politics.

And a little later it admitted again, referring to the new reformism in Southern Europe, that ‘there are many problems which fall outside the scope of economic theory’. But most interesting were the remedies sought for these omissions – in the first place, a new economic theory appropriate to a capitalism which has passed from boom to crisis, and in the second, a recourse to the political traditions of the early Communist International.

We certainly do need an economic theory which helps to explain women’s oppression, and an understanding of the united front and other legacies of the Comintern of which the SWP has made light. But the editorial’s solutions do not confront the deeper failings behind these omissions: the lack of concrete social, cultural and ideological dimensions mediating between economics and politics. IS has consistently drawn too straight a line between economics and politics – something for which Kidron, for all his innovation in economic theory, bears considerable responsibility. This is a major reason for the detextured nature of IS’s politics and the baldness of the readoption of ‘Leninism’, not to mention Harman’s willingness to make Cliff’s sketchy old article a substitute for a social and cultural theory!

What Harman’s articles show is a disturbing unwillingness to subject these traditions even to the mild criticisms of the editorial. They show, indeed, a very different spirit from that of his own earlier encounters with Gramsci, whom he once hailed as one of ‘a new generation of Marxists’ after 1917 who ‘not content to reiterate established doctrines or just to extend in a quantitative sense the compass of Marxist interpretation ... ensured that the revolution in practice was accompanied by a renovation of theory’. (IS 32, Spring 1968)

Harman’s idea of the party, in 1968, was based on, Gramsci’s notion of the party as a conscious, i.e. intellectual, practical force within the working class, ‘constantly trying to make its newest members rise to the level of understanding of the oldest’. Perhaps it is the fate of this idea which explains most, it lies buried beneath the notion of the party as a machine in the hands of an all-flexible leadership, a conception expressed by Cliff in his praise of Lenin:

Lenin was absolutely single-minded. Whatever might happen, a revolutionary party had to be built, and urgently. So, consistently, doggedly, relentlessly, in the years 1900 to 1904 Lenin built a party machine. However far it might be from his ideal model, when the 1905 revolution came, he had a machine under his control. He had demonstrated in full meastire the political, organisation) and administrative talent needed to build such an apparatus. (Cliff, Lenin, Vol. I, pp. 138–9)

The SWP has proved far from Harman’s ideal: all too ready to readopt what he rightly called the ‘historically limited’ aspects of the Bolshevik experience, at the expense of those which were generally valid.

For machine-Leninism, ideas have a special function. No longer essential to revolutionaries’ appraisal of their own activity, the stuff of party life, they become mere tools in a series of tactical battles, to be picked up and discarded at will. Harman has even been reduced to quoting (at Marxism 77) Gramsci’s very dubious notion that the party must be monolithic, although this is surely an instance of the dangerous ‘half-apology for totalitiarian trends’ which in his own articles he picks out as a major weakness in Gramsci’s thought. But any bent stick to beat a dog. This is how far we have come from the creative encounter not only with Gramsci, but with the real problems which face revolutionary socialists today.

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