The writings of Marxists who have long past should neither be confined to their era of origination nor be reworked to the extent that eliminates from analysis of such work the context provoking them. Gramsci himself understood that ideas about the past may transcend the original context and communicate to us in the present, but only through rigorous empirical examination:
“How the present is a criticism of the past, besides [and because of] ‘surpassing’ it. But should the past be discarded for this reason? What should be discarded is that which the present has ‘intrinsically’ criticised and that part of ourselves which corresponds to it. What does this mean? That we must have an exact consciousness of this real criticism and express it not only theoretically, but politically. In other words, we must stick closer to the present, which we ourselves have helped create, while conscious of the past and its continuation (and revival).”
Below is an extract written by Gramsci on the State, civil society, and hegemony, at a time of crisis in European politics after the First World War and the Russian Revolution, from which both Italy and Germany saw the rise of fascism. His words have an eerie resonance about them as I blog in the immediate aftermath of Britain’s 2015 General Election.
State and Civil Society: Observations on Certain Aspects of the Structure of Political Parties in Periods of Organic Crisis
“At a certain point in their historical lives, social classes become detached from their traditional parties. In other words, the traditional parties in that particular organisational form, with the particular men [sic] who constitute, represent, and lead them, are no longer recognised by their class (or fraction of a class) as its expression. When such crises occur, the immediate situation becomes delicate and dangerous, because the field is open for violent solutions, for the activities of unknown forces, represented by charismatic ‘men of destiny’.
These situations of conflict between ‘represented and representatives’ reverberate out from the terrain of the parties […] throughout the State organism, reinforcing the relative power of the bureaucracy […], of high finance […]. A ‘crisis of authority’ is spoken of: this is precisely the crisis of hegemony, or general crisis of the State.
The crisis creates situations which are dangerous in the short run, since the various strata of the population are not all capable of orienting themselves equally swiftly, or of reorganising with the same rhythm. The traditional ruling class, which has numerous trained cadres, changes men [sic] and programmes and, with greater speed than is achieved by the subordinate classes, reabsorbs the control that was slipping from its grasp. […]
Parties come into existence, and constitute themselves as organisations, in order to influence the situation at moments which are historically vital for their class; but they are not always capable of adapting themselves to new tasks and to new epochs, nor of evolving pari passu with the overall relations of force (and hence the relative position of their class) in the country in question, or in the international field. In analysing the development of parties, it is necessary to distinguish: their social group; their mass membership; their bureaucracy and General Staff. The bureaucracy is the most dangerously hidebound and conservative force; if it ends up by constituting a compact body, which stands on its own and feels itself independent of the mass of members, the party ends up by becoming anachronist and at moments of acute crisis it is voided of its social content and left as though suspended in mid-air.”