In this prolonged moment of political, economic, and social crises, it’s more helpful than ever to engage with the work of Italian, Marxist philosopher and politician Antonio Gramsci. While in prison under Mussolini’s fascist regime, Gramsci wrote the Prison Notebooks (PN), a series of essays produced between 1929 and 1935 that addresses how crises emerge and what is required to achieve stability.
Gramsci demonstrates that political power, or hegemony, is not won through top-down forms of repression or bottom-up forms of liberal democracy. Instead, it coalesces through the formation of strategic alliances that expand to control the state’s civil institutions—examples include public education, mass media, religious organizations, law enforcement, finance and financial services, and real estate development. Furthermore, he shows that the state is not a coercive apparatus, but “an equilibrium between political society and civil society” (PN 5).
Rejecting an analysis solely rooted in economy, Gramsci builds on the best of Marxist theory and advances it to include concepts such as hegemony, relations of forces, organic and conjunctural crises, war of maneuver and war of position, and permanent and passive revolution. This article is the first part of a three-part series that outlines Gramsci’s most famous contributions.
PART ONE Organic and conjunctural crisis; relations of forces
PART TWO Historic bloc and hegemony; war of maneuver and war of position; permanent and passive revolution
PART THREE (coming soon) Good sense, common sense, and ideology; organic intellectuals and traditional intellectuals
Organic and Conjunctural Crises
Though crises are typically thought of as aberrations, as things which have diverged from the norm in ways that create unnecessary chaos, Gramsci flips this association. He argues that crisis is the logical outcome of a society where different groups of people are constantly competing against each other for power. Seen through this lens, stable political power becomes the rare moment in the life of a society.
Departing from many Marxists of his time, Gramsci argues that crises cannot be explained solely by economic factors. Not all capital accumulation crises manifest into a political or social crisis. Similarly, not all social crises are driven by changes in the economy. A social crisis can erupt when there is a sudden political regime change (e.g. the 2019 Bolivian coup). A crisis can also occur when ideologies become delinked from the material conditions. After the American Revolution, there was an ideological crisis as America’s leaders pronounced the ideals of freedom and liberty for all men while enslaving millions of people. Though racial ideologies convinced some Americans that Black people needed slavery to become “civilized” and then “liberated”, for others it presented an irreconcilable contradiction that could only be resolved through abolition. A social crisis formed as segments of the population became more divided on the issue of slavery. Crises, therefore, must be studied at all of these levels—social, political, economic, and ideological.
In addition to expanding our analytical conception of what causes crises, Gramsci demonstrates the need to assess the intensity of each crisis. He argues that failure to recognize how deeply a crisis has ruptured social life can lead to ineffective approaches to resolving it.
Gramsci defines two types of crisis—conjunctural and organic—distinguished by how deeply they untangle the structures that hold society together. Conjunctural crises “appear as occasional, immediate, almost accidental” ruptures in social life; they are “a passing fluctuation” while organic crises are “relatively permanent” (163, 177). Gramsci explains the importance of correctly assessing what is organic and what is conjunctural:
A common error in historico-political analysis consists in an inability to find the correct relation between what is organic and what is conjunctural. This leads to presenting causes as immediately operative which in fact only operate indirectly, or to asserting that the immediate causes are the only effective ones. In the first case there is an excess of “economism” , or doctrinaire pedantry; in the second, an excess of “ideologism”. (178).
Gramsci goes on to explain that without a correct understanding of what is conjunctural and what is organic, one can overestimate the “mechanical causes” or exaggerate “the voluntarist and individual element” (178). By mechanical causes, he refers to the aspects of social life that cannot be easily changed. This includes economic tendencies, such as capitalism’s falling rate of profit. By “the voluntarist element” he is referring to “conflicts on a higher plane than the immediate world of the economy” (184). This includes conflicts between political parties and the emergence of social groups that inflame “sentiments of independence, autonomy and power” (184).
Giving neither of them primacy, Gramsci shows that both mechanical and voluntarist elements cause crisis and shape moments of social stability. Therefore, neither element can be ignored. He urges us to study how they fuse to generate either a temporary conjunctural crisis or an organic crisis, which can last for decades and take many different forms throughout the process.
In making the argument for why such a detailed, objective, and impartial analysis of crises is so critical, Gramsci builds on Marx’s observation that the point is not to observe reality but to change it:
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 not be 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 particular practical activity, or initiative of will. (185).
He concludes, “if error is serious in historiography, it becomes still more serious in the art of politics, when it is not the reconstruction of past history but the construction of present and future history which is at stake” (179). Gramsci makes clear that there is much at stake in assessing the past. Effective political actions are dependent on a correct historical analysis.
Relations of forces
In studying what brings about political stability or instability, Gramsci further develops his methodology by distinguishing between three levels of social relations, what he calls the “relations of forces.” In building his argument, he first asks, “What is this effective reality?” He continues the line of inquiry, “Is it something static and immobile, or is it not rather a relation of forces in continuous motion and shift of equilibrium?” (172). As a skilled dialectician, Gramsci demonstrates that reality is made up of relations that constantly act upon each other to produce continuous change. He urges us to reject methods that study societal aspects in isolation or through static categories and instead study social relations as relations of forces.
Gramsci refers to relations of forces “as a body of practical rules for research and of detailed observations useful for awakening an interest in effective reality and for stimulating more rigorous and more vigorous political insights” (175-176). Though Marxists had spoken of “relation of forces favourable, or unfavourable, to this or that tendency” Gramsci calls this application meaningless as “it merely repeats twice over the fact which needs to be explained” (180).
Instead, Gramsci argues that relations of forces can be distinguished between various levels of social relations that range from the “the objective relations within society” to “the relations between international forces” (176). The three levels that he considers essential to any analysis are the relations of the material forces of production, relations of political forces, and the relations of military forces.
Level 1: Relations of the Material Forces of Production
The first moment in studying the relations of forces is looking at the relations of the material forces of production. This is an empirical, objective description of what exists in society (e.g. the number of people in a region, the number of firms and employees, the number of renters versus homeowners, etc.). By “material forces of production” Gramsci is not just referring to what gets made, but also how people are kept alive — how they are employed, sheltered, fed, etc. This data should be the most fundamental and least disputed information available.
Gramsci demonstrates that by studying these fundamental data, it is possible to gain important analytical insights, such as “whether in a particular society there exist the necessary and sufficient conditions for its transformation” (181). A powerful tenant’s rights movement would be unlikely in a region where most residents are homeowners. Gramsci explains that studying the relations of the material forces of production is necessary to “check the degree of realism and practicability” of the various demands asserted by different sectors of the population (Ibid.).
Level 2: Relations of Political Forces
The second level of studying the relations of forces is looking at how communities form and the degree to which people are aware of themselves as a part of a politically oriented group and organize themselves as such. Gramsci breaks up this realization into three moments:
- The initial economic-corporate level. A teacher feels obliged to stand by another teacher.
- Solidarity expands to other members of the social class but is still purely economic. A teacher’s union supports a bus driver’s union.
- Transcendence of purely corporate interests to include alliances with members of subordinate or dominant classes. A teacher’s union forms alliances with community organizations, education-based foundations, and certain political parties.
We can see that the three levels of politicization are the stages people move through as they build broader strategic alliances. At the first level, we would expect teachers to immediately understand that their economic wellbeing is dependent on defending the value of teaching as a profession. This is why it makes sense for them to be in alliance with other teachers through formal structures, such as unions. Through their organizing and fighting for better wages, teachers often come to realize that they are not only threatened by their employers but by the broader belief that unionized jobs, in general, create fiscal waste and dysfunction. In coming up against portions of the population who believe that teachers’ unions are too powerful, they come to see their struggle as aligned with other unionized employees, especially public-sector unions. And finally, in defending public education against the push for other educational alternatives, such as the charter school movement, teachers often fight for their interests by building broad-based alliances with community-based organizations, educational advocacy foundations, and union-friendly political parties.
The last stage, when people look beyond their immediate economic interests to form broader alliances to achieve structural changes, is what Gramsci refers to as “the most purely political phase.” This is the stage in which ideas from each group coalesce into an ideology, which is the first step to achieving political stability. The next step is to use influential social institutions, such as religious organizations, cultural organizations, schools, and the media, to propagate these ideas throughout society.
Level 3: The Relations of Military Forces
The third and final level of analysis of the relations of forces that Gramsci offers us is the relation of military forces. Gramsci makes the case that the presence and strength of military forces are intimately connected to a society’s social and economic conditions. Therefore, even if the military is not in an active state of combat, he urges us to understand the unique role that its mere presence plays in shaping societies and the political terrain.
For colonized states seeking independence, their sovereignty often cannot be won solely by political forces (e.g. diplomacy) or economic forces but also requires a military presence. Gramsci explains that the military might not need to be deployed to gain independence. Still, the political actions must be backed by the potential to exert military power: “1. either through developing the capacity to destroy the war potential of the dominant nation from within; 2. that it compels the dominant military force to thin out and disperse itself over a large territory, thus nullifying a great part of its war potential” (p. 183).
The essential task, according to Gramsci, is to systematically and patiently ensure that the military force is “formed, developed, and rendered ever more homogeneous, compact, and self-aware” (p. 185). Therefore, to achieve political stability, efforts must be taken to prepare armies in advance to be able to make war at any moment.
Similarly, within a nation, the alliances that control the state apparatus must always be aligned with the military and the police forces.
Though the analytical task of trying to make sense of an overdetermined reality can feel daunting, Gramsci provides indispensable methods for studying social relations in a non-reductionist fashion. He challenges the strand of Marxism that prioritizes the economic base over the superstructure, what he calls economism. He also provides us with a principled way of studying the whole of a society without reducing our analysis to any single group’s perspective. In “On Contradiction,” Mao warned against the propensity to analyze a situation from only one side:
To be one-sided means not to look at problems all-sidedly, for example, to understand only China but not Japan, only the Communist Party but not the Kuomintang, only the proletariat but not the bourgeoisie, only the peasants but not the landlords, only the favourable conditions but not the difficult ones, only the past but not the future, only individual parts but not the whole…In a word, it means not to understand the characteristics of both aspects of a contradiction.
Gramsci’s understanding of crisis and his ‘relations of force’ framework gives us a path to study social problems from an “all-sidely” perspective. With these tools, we can better assess the forces shaping society and work to shift the equilibrium towards an anti-colonial future.
Gramsci, A. (2007). Selections from the prison notebooks. International Publishers.
Mao, Z. (1967). On contradiction. Selected Works of Mao Tse-Tung, 1.