Gramsci 101: Part 2

Second in a series of three, this piece explores how Antonio Gramsci builds on the best of Marxist theory and advances it to include concepts, such as hegemony, historic blocs, relations of forces, organic and conjunctural crises, war of maneuver and war of position, permanent and passive revolutions, and organic and traditional intellectuals.

In Part 1 of Gramsci 101, we explored the concepts of organic versus conjunctural crises and the relations of forces framework. An important takeaway from that article is that crisis is the logical outcome of a society structured by domination in which reactionary and revolutionary alliances are in constant conflict for power. Rather than understanding crisis as an aberration, Gramsci urges us to see hegemony, or moments of political stability, as the rare moment in the life of society.

Part 1 also outlined one of his most important contributions to Marxist scholarship, an analytical method he calls “relations of forces.” Gramsci describes the method “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). The relations of forces framework is based on studying power by assessing three levels of social relations: (1) the relations of the material forces of production, (2) relations of political forces, (3) and the relations of military forces.

This article builds on the concepts presented in Part 1 and offers several other key concepts, including the relationship between historical blocs and hegemony, war of maneuver and war of position, and permanent and passive revolution.

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 

Historical bloc and hegemony

The purpose of Gramsci’s relations of forces schema (described in Part 1) is to be able to assess how power operates and, more specifically, which groups are in competition for control, who is winning, and if the potential exists for another group to rise up and become the dominant class. One of Gramsci’s key points is that a ruling class’s hegemony does not work through a top-down form of domination. Instead, hegemony, or the ability to lead the masses, is only achieved when vast and critical portions of the population consent to the leadership of the ruling class, and the dissenting part of the population can be repressed through coercion and direct force. Gramsci explains, “…a class is dominant in two ways, i.e. ‘leading’ and ‘dominant’. It leads the classes which are its allies, and dominates those which are its enemies” (57).

For a group to achieve hegemony, they first need to form a power bloc. While Gramsci never used the term “power bloc,” he often referred to specific “blocs” to indicate an alliance with a shared ideology or broad set of goals that had enough power to influence the social and political terrain (e.g. ruling class bloc, dominant social bloc, productive bloc, intellectual-moral bloc, electoral bloc, fascist bloc, reactionary bloc, urban bloc, national bloc, Southern bloc). If an alliance can effectively assert their influence over critical parts of the state apparatus—including both the official state institutions, such as the judicial system, and parts of civil society, such as religious institutions, the media, and academia—then they can eventually gain enough support to achieve hegemony, which is when the masses take up their ideas and adopt them as their own, allowing for long-term political stability of a ruling class.

Once a class has achieved hegemony, they are no longer an ordinary power bloc but a historical bloc. Gramsci refers to a historical bloc as the “unity between nature and spirit (structure and superstructure), unity of opposites and of distincts” (137). In other words, a power bloc becomes a historical bloc when they can unite the material forces of production (the economic realm) with civil society institutions (the cultural realm), such as public education, so that every part of the state apparatus works in tandem to create a particular social structure. Under a capitalist regime of accumulation, all the institutions are shaped to allow for its continuation. Gramsci describes the importance of the different types of “unities” that must take place for a historical bloc to emerge:

If the relationship between intellectuals and people-nation, between the leaders and the led, the rulers and the ruled, is provided by an organic cohesion in which feeling-passion becomes understanding and thence knowledge (not mechanically but in a way that is alive), then and only then is the relationship one of representation. Only then can there take place an exchange of individual elements between the rulers and ruled, leaders [dirigenti] and led, and can the shared life be realised which alone is a social force—with the creation of the “ historical bloc.” (418)

Key to this passage is the assertion that a ruling class can only achieve hegemony when there is an “organic cohesion in which feeling-passion becomes understanding and thence knowledge.” Thus, hegemony cannot be achieved through domination, but is only possible when the ruling class’s ideas become widely adopted as a common-sense way of ordering society. To this point, Gramsci famously observes, “The system’s real strength does not lie in the violence of the ruling class or the coercive power of the state apparatus, but in the acceptance by the ruled of a conception of the world which belongs to the rulers.”

War of Maneuver and War of Position

When assessing national hegemony, Gramsci distinguishes between two different moments of political struggle—the war of maneuver and the war of position. The war of maneuver is when new leadership takes power through military force and the war of position is the protracted struggle to gain control over the state’s critical social, economic, and political institutions. Fighting a “war” for control over influential social institutions creates the conditions in which social change happens much more slowly than the “war” fought with coordinated military aggression. Yet, Gramsci observes that as societies become more complex, especially with multilayered political structures and diverse civil institutions, it is far more important to “win” the war of position.

In making a case for why the war of maneuver—winning through direct military force—is unlikely in societies with complex social systems, Gramsci points to a time before the second half of the 20th century when it was more common for leadership to change hands through military combat. As the structures that hold nation-states together became more complex, it became more difficult for a group of people to rise to power through violent forms of aggression. In the United States, there has not been a Civil War since the 1860s. Thus, the battlefield has taken on lesser importance, and civil institutions, such as public education, have become the more critical sites of struggle for political power.

Writing in the 1920s, Gramsci refers to the Russian Revolution as likely one of the last instances in Europe in which the state would be won internally through military force. He attributes this historical transition to relatively small civil societies and weak political apparatuses being replaced by more robust political structures. He compares pre-revolutionary Russia to nations in the “West,” and argues that the same military strategy would be unlikely to succeed in countries with liberal democracies that have variegated, interlocking, and multilayered systems of governance and social control. In the West, when there is a blow to the government, many organized institutions can help maintain the dominant social order. Evaluating attempts at revolutions in Western Europe, Gramsci explains, “when the State trembled, a sturdy structure of civil society was at once revealed” (238).

Gramsci is not suggesting that the war of maneuver is no longer an important political strategy for “developed nations”; we know that the United States often uses military aggression against other nations. It is just less likely to happen within such countries in the form of a civil war or a coup d’état. Within politically developed countries, “winning” is much more contingent on gaining control over social institutions. In these countries, it’s “the superstructures of civil society [that] are like the trench-systems of modern warfare” (235). Whoever can control the most consumed media outlets has a much better shot at becoming the dominant class than the party with the most armed civilians.

The implications of this realization are enormous. Revolutionaries in countries with highly bureaucratic, multilayered, and complex political and social structures must leave behind the illusion that power can be won through an armed rebellion. From a Gramscian point of view, the revolution will arise from the protracted war of position in which different alliances fight for control over a nation’s important social institutions (e.g., public education, higher education, mass media, think tanks, organized religions, foundations, financial communities, etc.). Only when they win control over these civilian sites of struggle can power be consolidated throughout the political system, and the state can be overthrown.

Permanent and Passive Revolution

Gramsci shows that wherever there is a crisis of hegemony and the social alliances that had supported a particular political regime start to unravel, social relations can be pieced back together either through a permanent or passive revolution. A permanent revolution occurs when a group gains enough support from the masses to lead and take over the state. In this case, power derives from the masses. Contrarily, a passive revolution occurs when a group gains control of the state without “mass participation.” In this case, the state apparatus can be wielded to enforce laws and practices that support the ruling class. As Gramsci observes, the state gives the ruling class “an army and a politico-diplomatic strength,” allowing it to assert its influence. Thus, power operates primarily through domination and coercion rather than consent. Often, the leaders of a passive revolution rely on external forces, such as the backing of other nation-states.

Gramsci emphasizes that “the greatest importance for the concept of passive revolution” is to understand that the ruling class is not leading in the sense that it has hegemony, but rather the state government is enforcing a particular set of social relations (105). He further explains that “a State replaces the local social groups in leading a struggle of renewal” (106). In other words, the ruling class has “dictatorship without hegemony” (Ibid.). Under this model of political power “Changes would take place, leading to the suppression of certain contradictions. But new contradictions would appear in their place” (278).

In his chapter on “Caesarism” Gramsci describes the conditions that make the political terrain ripe for a passive revolution. Namely, two factors contribute to a passive, rather than a permanent, revolution: (1) when the masses lose faith in the traditional ruling classes, and the primary political parties are not able to pivot and respond to regain power, and (2) when the revolutionary forces are not strong enough to gain the support of the masses. Gramsci describes such a moment as “delicate and dangerous” since “the field is open for violent solutions” (210). It is during these times when the “social classes [have] become detached from their traditional parties” that charismatic “men of destiny” can rise up and offer an explanation of the crises that resonates with key parts of the population (Ibid.).

While fascism provides a prominent example of the conditions Gramsci describes, the concept of “Caesarism” has a much wider application (206). In the introduction to “State and Civil Society,” the editors and translators of the 1971 First Edition of Selections from the Prison Notebooks, explain that Gramsci rejected “absolutely the crude equation fascism = capitalism” (206). In typical Gramscian fashion, he provides the concepts of passive and permanent revolution, not to enable crude categorizations and abstractions removed from their temporal and geographical context, but to invite us to be attentive to all factors that order society. Through analyzing the “passive revolution” which “fascism perhaps represents” we should be able to describe the “specificity of the social forces” which produce such relations (206).

Conclusion

This article reviewed some of the concepts most crucial to understanding Antonio Gramsci’s political thought. As a great revolutionary Marxist thinker, Gramsci’s work is indispensable to Marxists today because it gives us a way to understand the interplay between the economic forces of production, the institutions of civil society, and the state. While some of his theories, such as the war of position and passive revolution, can be open to reformist interpretations that minimize the importance of the political arena and the need to overthrow the state, Gramsci himself was under no illusion that reform could lead to a socialist revolution. As the editors of Selections from the Prison Notebooks (1917) assert in response to people who interpret Gramsci as a reformist, “his entire record shows that this was not the case, and that his constant preoccupation was to avoid any undialectical separation of “the ethical-political aspect of politics or theory of hegemony and consent” from “the aspect of force and economics” (207).

The third and final part of this three-part series will dive into Gramsci’s theories of knowledge. Building on Marx’s assertion that ideas become a material force when taken up by the masses, Gramsci gives us concrete tools for assessing the battle of ideas. In Part 3, we will learn about the distinctions between good sense, common sense, and ideology. We will also explore the difference between organic intellectuals and traditional intellectuals.

Source: Gramsci, A. Selections from The Prison Notebooks (11th printing: 1992).” (1971).

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