Antonio and Jezza walk into a bar

Can Momentum transform the labour party into a social movement like Syriza or Podemos? Probably not but it can cause people to question some basic political assumptions, and that could be just as powerful.


For my money the greatest political thinker who ever lived, Antonio Gramsci, was born in Sardinia in 1891 to Italio-Albanian parents. His father was a minor government official and petty criminal who spent five years in jail for corruption and subsequently found himself unemployable, forcing Gramsci and his six brothers to work a number of odd jobs from an early age. Either the hard work, the malnutrition, or one of the many illnesses that plagued him throughout his life had the effect of crippling his spine, with the result that he never grew higher than 4 foot 9.

Aged 20 he won a scholarship to the University of Turin, but ill health and poverty caused him to leave after three years without a degree. He became a journalist and community organiser, becoming heavily involved with the auto workers of the Fiat factory during their long strike and factory occupations of 1920. He joined the Socialist Party, founded and co-led the Italian Communist Party, married a Russian Violinist, had two kids, and got elected to Parliament.

In 1926 he was arrested by the now fascist Italian Government, ostensibly for having participated in an attempt of the life of Mussolini. The real reason was made clear by the prosecutor at his trial, when he said “we must stop this brain from working for 20 years”. 20 years was indeed the sentence that was passed down but Gramsci would be dead in 10, prison conditions exacerbating his already failing health. He was 46.

But the fascist prosecutor’s attempts to stop his brain from working could not have been more unsuccessful. In prison he finally had time to study and write. Around 3,000 loose pages of his work were smuggled out of prison. They are fragmented and disordered, written by a man who was in a near constant state of agony, and in places their meaning is unclear because of the euphemisms he used to avoid them being confiscated by his gaolers[i]. But the ideas they contained are magnificent.

Can Corbynism work?

Can a Labour party built around a grassroots mobilisation and mass participation be as successful as the traditional conventional parliamentary Labour party? This is the question that is currently occupying the minds, not just of Corbynistas but of Labour supporters who recognise the inevitability of Corbyn’s victory.

Much ink has already been spilled. Paul Mason thinks it can. Owen Jones is on the fence. In a really rather sweet and slightly baffling piece Tom Crewe seemingly set out to write a hatchet piece on the idea, then went to a momentum meeting, became smitten, and wrote in a middle 8 that rather undermined his own conclusion. The pick of the bunch is perhaps Jeremy Gilbert who argues that Labour’s opportunity to be electorally successful in any form has passed, and the options now are respectable unelectability a la Lib Dems or to be disrespectably unelectable, yet powerful, as a UKIP of the left. While he cannot be so publicly pessimistic one feels that this is the logic that underlies Clive Lewis’ stump speech. Of course outside of the left most people feel the Labour party is falling to pieces.

I decided to look for the answers in Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks, because while nothing might sound more like intellectual masturbation than to develop a pragmatic attitude to current political problems by reading the 80-year-old works of a Marxist cultural theorist, Gramsci is not your typical intellectual.

A Gramsci Glossary

It will save us some time if I quickly define some terms and concepts here. I’m trying to keep this easy to follow, so if any actual academics are reading this please forgive my gross simplifications.

Political society and civil society. Gramsci divided up the forces that exert power into political society and civil society. Political society he defined as power exerted thanks to the threat of violence. However remote or abstract that violence might be, political society consists of all the people who you obey because, when it really comes down to it, you have to. The state and its institutions are part of political society, perhaps less obviously so are the formal structures and offices of political parties, although perhaps coercion is a less loaded term than violence when it comes to explaining how they wield power.

In contrast civil society consists of power exerted with consent. It consists of groups who come together voluntarily, and of decisions made willingly. When people freely choose to join a political party, or to participate in a demonstration, or speak their mind, they are participating in civil society.

Cultural hegemony. Cultural hegemony is the phenomenon whereby within a society certain ideas are so pervasive that they are entirely unquestioned, while ideas from outside the cultural mainstream are considered completely unthinkable. It is the idea that ideas themselves exert political power, and so culture can shape and control politics. This is not an idea that is unique to Gramsci. It’s a primary theme in Orwell’s 1984. Classical Marxists talk about the similar phenomenon of “false consciousness”. Chomsky and Hermann talk about the almost identical idea of “manufactured consent”. On the right Joseph P. Overton had his “window”.

What Gramsci does differently is in how he links this idea to his idea of how power is wielded. His view is that cultural hegemony is generated almost exclusively by civil society (it’s very hard to force someone to think something new). However, civil society is very tightly controlled by political society, and as hegemony acts as a straitjacket upon both, civil society rarely exerts its hidden power to challenge and change the hegemon.

This idea of civil society’s hidden power is closely linked to the idea of “history from below”, the idea that individuals and their actions are of limited historical importance. A historical figure (for example Corbyn) is largely a manifestation of the social and cultural forces that created them, and if they weren’t there then someone else would fulfil the same historical role in almost exactly the same way. Corbynism doesn’t need Corbyn.[ii]

Revolution/restoration or passive revolution. Gramsci was quite extraordinarily non-dogmatic[iii]. Nowhere is this more apparent than in his hugely un-Marxist writing on revolution.

Lenin and Trotsky had an incredibly long and verbose falling out over the question of what activities should be considered “revolutionary” (ie contributing to the transformation of society) and which “revisionist/counterrevolutionary” (ie slowing down the transformation of society). Both started from the Marxist perspective that the transformation of society (to a Communist state) would eventually become inevitable, and so these were simply questions of timing. Gramsci disagreed, feeling that nothing was inevitable, and that these questions of tactics were therefore vital.

Gramsci was a keen student of the difference between holding office and wielding power, as such he felt the division of society into revolutionary and counterrevolutionary elements was a mistake. He felt there was also a third class of actors who made possible a restoration/revolution or passive revolution.

In a passive revolution revolutionary forces in civil society clamour for change. Anxious to avoid losing office, the forces of political society make concessions to the revolutionary forces. If the revolutionary forces are then sated then that is where the matter ends, and the whole ordeal can be considered counterrevolutionary. But if the forces of civil society refuse to remain quiet, they can extract concession after concession out of political society. This is when a passive revolution occurs, the same old forces of political society remain in office, but power no longer rests with them but with the revolutionary forces setting the agenda.

Problems with a British social movement

The Corbynista agenda is essentially about converting the Labour party from an institutional mechanism of political society into a mass participation civil society movement in support of the election of MPs sympathetic to their cause.

Can such a force be electorally effective? I hope I am wrong, but there are various reasons to be sceptical. Firstly, as Susan Watkins points out in a fascinating dissection of the differences between the movements of the new wave of the left wing, the transformation of the Labour party has been quite superficial and when it comes to matters of policy and direction the party is still deeply centralised and traditional.

Secondly, while Labour membership may be at an all-time high, half a million members still isn’t that many. Mass mobilisations usually require millions of people. About 1 in every 130 people is a Labour member. 1 in every 110 people in Spain is a member of Podemos and that wasn’t enough for them to win their election. Two million people wasn’t enough to stop the Iraq war.

Thirdly, the half million are not that representative. While there is an absence of detailed demographic data on the new membership, the media’s lazy claim that they mostly sway urban, upper middle class, educated, and young probably contains a kernel of truth. Momentum is therefore unlikely to have particularly good reach into the traditional Labour heartlands, and thus far the most obvious route in to these communities — the trade union movement — has not demonstrated the ability to do so either; British trade unionism having being traditionally very top-down, undynamic, and ineffective in its outreach. Furthermore, large sections of British society, particularly swing voters, live increasingly siloed lives, and the decline in civic participation and the depoliticisation of the workplace make it increasingly difficult for civil society to exert its influence.

Finally, you have Britain’s systems and structures, all of them incredibly top down, centrist, and undemocratic. The first past the post electoral system sets an absurdly high bar to entry into politics and acts as a phenomenal cosh to the development of any new political force, and centralised decision making makes community campaigning an uphill struggle. If your local NHS walk in clinic changes its opening times, the lowest ranking elected official with the power to overturn the decision is the Secretary of State for Health, and your petition is going to have to have a heck of a lot of signatures before Jeremy Hunt will bother to read it.

All this means it isn’t really clear what a British social movement would look like, or how it would work. There seems to be an absence of a plan, and without wishing to indulge in lazy stereotypes of slactivist millennials, there also seems to be a lack of concrete action. Paul Mason says “it is a long way from using the words “social movement” to becoming one”, which reminds me of the bit in the Life of Brian where they say “right, this calls for immediate discussion”.

Furthermore, one does have to question Corbyn’s ability to provide the leadership for such a movement. For all his undeniable strengths when it comes to mobilisation, Corbyn (or perhaps more fairly and accurately Corbyn’s senior staff) have huge weaknesses when it comes to management and organisation. Pablo Iglesias he is not, or at any rate Pablo Iglesias’ staff his staff are not.[iv]

The privilege of thinking for the long term

If the British climate is not conducive to the exertion of power by civil society groupings does that mean that Corbynism is doomed to fail? I think this depends on your definition of success: do you exert more power by holding office or by changing the attitude of society? One could argue that Corbynism is doing more to challenge and change cultural hegemony than any civil society movement in the UK since Thatcherism[v].

Expecting a civil society movement to deliver you a general election victory is, in Gramscian terms, a shortcut. That may, if you are lucky, be the end result. But the intermediary step is that your civil society movement changes the hegemon, and then, perhaps, you get the Government you desire. Or perhaps you don’t. Perhaps instead you have a passive revolution and you never achieve office yourself, but you do establish the hegemon and so dictate the terms under which office holders wield the power.

This is what social movements can achieve, and there is some evidence that Corbynism is already achieving it. Theresa May’s first speech about economics plagiarised from four different socialists, and her first speech as Prime Minister was about social justice and inequality. Owen Smith now favours a wealth tax (although he is misusing the term). And while Corbyn’s own economic policy has been somewhat shambolic, it has had the effect of drawing attention to some previously unthinkable left wing ideas. That these ideas were not always championed by Corbyn himself, but came from the civil society he engendered, is pure Gramsci.

The Overton Window is creaking in its frame, the Cultural Hegemon is shuffling nervously about, new ideas are drifting into the mainstream. Is it worth it?

Everyone will have their own view, and for many on the left it will involve weighing up the following factors in their head:

  • How much better or worse do you consider rule by the Tories to be compared to rule by the right wing of the Labour party, assuming we retain the current political culture and climate?
  • How much better or worse do you consider the right wing of the Labour Party’s electoral chances to be as compared to Corbyn’s?
  • Do you believe that Corbynism can permanently shift attitudes and change the political culture?
  • How long are you willing to wait for that to happen?

It seems that many on the moderate left feel that Corbynism is bringing new left wing ideas into the mainstream, but that his electability is lesser than that of the Labour right, and that the Labour right winning a general election is a desirable outcome. One may take issue with any part of that view, but the logical corollary of such a position would be that Corbynism does not outperform the conventional, pre 2015 Labour Party in the short term, but that it does in the long term. A pessimist would say Corbynism is likely to lead to a rougher next couple of decades, but a better century. An optimist would hope the break-even point could come a little sooner than that.

Of course, there is an extraordinary amount of privilege baked in to this kind of long term thinking. It’s very easy to be sanguine about the mere hundreds of thousands who must suffer for a matter of mere decades for the sake of the good of the millions to come in the centuries to follow when it is not you and yours struggling to afford the weekly shop after the cut to disability benefits or facing expulsion as a result of Brexit negotiations. This is something it is important to be aware of, but the logical corollary is not to become wilfully blind to the long term consequences of a particular course of action.

Gramsci wrote at great length about the need and value of an “intellectual vanguard” to shape civil society, and push it towards changing the hegemony. But he was very disdainful of the self-satisfied academic elite. He divided intellectuals into two types: “traditional intellectuals” or formal academics, for whom he had little time, and “organic intellectuals” who were intelligent working people who studied and analysed the experience of their own lives and what it might mean for society. His view was that while traditional intellectuals strive for independence, they are often incapable of thinking outside of the pervading cultural hegemon. In contrast organic intellectuals are almost always partial and partisan, but they play a vital role in shaping and changing cultural hegemony.

It would be unbearably obnoxious and aggrandising for those of us in enough of a position of privilege to be able to think for the long term to call ourselves some kind of Gramscian intellectual vanguard. However, it is not unreasonable to point out that, as a cultural movement, Corbynism gives more room for organic intellectuals to think and thrive than Blairism did.

The fake choices you are confronted with when you play god.

Of course the real answer to the question “which is better?” is to say that the question is meaningless because we are not being asked to choose, but only to participate, and our forms of participation are not mutually exclusive to one particular choice.[vi]

Humans are political animals, and there are many things we can do to recalibrate and reframe the political questions we are asked. For many if not most people voting will not even be their most powerful or effective form of political expression.

My guess is Gramsci wouldn’t have voted for Corbyn or Smith. Unlike virtually every other leftist thinker (who felt that the first order of business should be to destroy the revisionist “enemy within” of slightly different kinds of left wingers — a lesson the Labour party has learned well), Gramsci could see the value in having a variety of different political and social movements from the far left, the centre left, and even the centre and moderate right, and saw how these movements could work together in the implementation of passive revolution. I’m sure he would have felt the identity of the Labour leader was a meaningless choice, and a distraction from the real work of challenging the decisions of the state and the hegemony of the status quo.

Soon either Jeremy Corbyn or Owen Smith will be elected as leader of the Labour party. Then the Labour party with either split or it won’t. Then it will either win an election or lose one. We won’t really get much of a say over any of this, save very indirectly when asked to cast but one vote among thousands.

But as organic intellectuals what we do have is a power to shape — through our conversations, our attitudes, and the way we approach our day jobs — the political climate in which these events occur. Through our thoughts and actions as part of civil society we can challenge and remould the hegemon and implement a passive revolution. Or we can fail miserably and resign ourselves to living in a version of the status quo for the foreseeable future. But the melodrama that takes place within political society will have a limited, and overstated, effect on any of this. Gramsci’s great insight was that office holders don’t lead, they follow.

[i] Marx is referred to throughout as “the founder of the philosophy of praxis” and Marxism as “the philosophy of praxis”. This gets confusing when Gramsci then starts to talk about praxis.

[ii] History from below makes more sense the longer term a view you take. To say that the individual brushstrokes in an oil painting are of very little consequence when it comes to how the overall painting looks might seem absurd if one were to look at the painting up close. But the further back one stood, the more sense the idea would make.

[iii] He was always an independent thinker, and in the prison notebooks he enjoyed the additional freedom of writing in secret, and the fact that there’s not much you can threaten a person with when they are already dying in a fascist prison.

[iv] And Podemos didn’t win either.

[v] This is not a particularly well defended crown, most currents of mainstream political thought since Thatcherism have done little to challenge the underlying political assumptions upon which British politics is built, preferring to work with what they were given.

[vi] When we think about politics, the convention is to do something I find to be quite odd. Somewhere we lost sight of the fact that that elections are exercises in collective choice and started to conceptualise them as questions of individual choice. In an election you are asked to express a preference, and the totality of these preferences determines the winner. But when we talk about elections we act as though we ourselves, individually, are being asked to choose the winner.

This is false consciousness. By placing upon the individual a responsibility for the result that is not theirs, the individual is encouraged — nay is informed that it is their duty — to vote tactically: for the least bad option in a general election, for the most electable option in an internal election. Voters don’t understand game theory as well as they think they do, but if voters were all powerful then it would be reasonable to attempt to game the system in this way. But as just one part of a collective decision, this sort of gaming serves only to weaken the impact of your viewpoint — surrendering the independence of your voice in exchange for some perceived and largely nominal additional ability to nudge the choices the hegemon presents you with in one particular direction, and in so doing recalibrating the power dynamic between party and voter, so that instead of them having to come to you and make a pitch for your vote, you have gone to them and willingly surrendered your political capital.

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