Pablo Iglesias, leader of Podemos, the new radical party in Spain, is fond of quoting the Italian Marxist, Antonio Gramsci. A recent article of his, entitled Trench Warfare and Political Strategy, Iglesias cites Gramsci as being the first to understand the strategic importance of creating ‘hegemonic narratives’ which draw consent across the social spectrum.
Podemos, the political grouping that grew out of the mass mobilisations of the Indignados movement in Spain, is grappling with how to steer the anti-austerity movement into a successful strategy for the Spanish elections in the autumn. Quoting Gramsci as an authority shows how strong the left tradition is in Spain. But, too often, Gramsci is invoked to argue for a pathway away from radicalism to politics as normal.
Gramsci was deeply concerned with strategy and how mass movements could challenge the power structures of capitalism. In 1921, in response to the employers’ lock- out across the factories in Turin, Gramsci and other militants established workers’ committees as alternative way of organising society. Like Lenin he saw the need for revolutionaries to break with the Labour Parties of his day and founded the Italian Communist Party. Gramsci also had to endure the terrible cost of mistaken strategies as he spent the last ten years of his life in Mussolini’s jails.
But this combative revolutionary is not the Gramsci that Iglesias is referring to. For Iglesias the struggle for hegemony, , is not so much a practical strategy in the course of struggle as an ideological project aimed at changing the way politics is described. This watered-down version of Gramsci is possible because Gramsci’s writings in prison were disjointed and, taken on their own, often ambiguous.
Gramsci’s discussion of hegemony is based on the idea that struggles against the system take different forms at different times. Sometimes they involve a head-on clash with the state – what he called a war of movement – like Russian workers’ revolution in October 1917. At other times, they are long, drawn-out affairs which, like the trench warfare of the First World War, saw neither side gaining ground. At such moments, demands for social change had to stop short of revolution in order to unite people of different political persuasions against the common enemy. These battles Gramsci described as a war of position. In both instances, socialists sought win people over – or gain hegemony – within the mass of people involved.
Gramsci’s wrote about the war of position because of the specific situation that revolutionaries faced in the early 1920’s. In the wake of a defeated movement and the rise of fascism, some believed that socialists could make revolution on their own, without the involvement of wider social forces. Gramsci was against this political purism. Unity in action but also, he argued, the political challenge to ruling ideas -in every domain – was vital to winning over the majority to socialism. Strategies in the war of position had as their aim strengthening the movement politically for greater confrontations to come.
The trouble is that many on the left have taken Gramsci’s writings about the war of position as the only strategy and the end point. In the 1970s, some Communist Parties decided that Gramsci’s strategy of hegemony allowed them to sign up to electoral pacts with right-wing parties. The Spanish Communist Party, under the Eurocommunist Santiago Carrillo, used these arguments to justify the pact of Moncloa, a cross-party agreement which proposed austerity measures and social containment to ‘manage the transition’ after Franco. The ‘struggle for hegemony’ had thus come to mean little more than participating in governments and working within the institutions of capitalism.
Iglesias today is critical of these strategies of the past. But he continues to use Gramsci to justify a move to the centre. He argues that in modern capitalist societies, ‘culture’ and ‘political narratives’ are the main means through which capitalist hegemony is secured. Election campaigns – what Iglesias calls Gramsci’s ‘trench warfare of modern times’ – need to speak the language of the ‘centre of the political chessboard’, creating a new ‘common sense’ which breaks with the dominant narrative of ‘the political caste’.
Thus Iglesias and his advisory team have proposed to remove any demands and language in the Podemos programme which will ‘put people off’. For example, a universal basic income, the lowering of the retirement age, and the non-payment of illegitimate debt -Indignados movement demands – have been replaced by ‘promoting employment rights’ and ‘debt restructuring’ to be paid for by ‘boosting consumer demand’. These proposals are not being developed democratically in the course of struggles, as Gramsci envisaged, but by political ‘experts’ who supposedly know the current state of mass consciousness.
The mood in the anti-austerity movement, as the May 24 local and regional elections in Spain showed, is rather more radical. Ada Colau, the anti-eviction activist who was elected mayor of Barcelona, has promised to return decision-making in the city to the people, do away with home evictions, increase public housing and redistribute the city’s wealth. Podemos backed her as a candidate but she clearly stood for Indignados movement radicalism, not for a softer, centrist strategy.
The struggle for hegemony is not just about representations of reality but takes place amongst real social forces locked in a battle over resources and who controls what.
Colau won because she expressed the needs of the anti- eviction movement and the concerns of people suffering austerity. As an activist on the ground, she understood that her election campaign had to be the mobilising voice of the movement and aim to extend its radicalism, not dilute it. This is a lesson which should not be lost on the anti-austerity movement in Ireland.
Gramsci described the working class as holding a mix of political ideas. One set is the seeming ‘common sense’ which is pushed at us by the government and the media and which we often accept uncritically. Another is what Gramsci called ‘good sense’ that is developed in the course of struggles and which represents our interests against those who control the system.
Iglesias claims, although many in Podemos disagree, that Gramsci teaches us to taper our political programmes to the common sense of the centre ground. But the best strategy that we can take from Gramsci is spreading and popularising the ‘good sense’ that has emerged from the struggles against austerity. This is what the battle for hegemony is in practice, a strategy based on the understanding that elections should be subordinate to the needs of the movement – not the other way round.