Common criticisms of Marxism are that it is a theory that argues everything is determined by economics and that it offers a crude explanation of ideology.
This mirrors official “Marxism” which once ruled in Moscow and Beijing.
According to this workers were dominated by false consciousness, but would be led to true class consciousness by the party.
The Italian Marxist, Antonio Gramsci, developed Karl Marx’s analysis of ideology. He did so under terrible conditions, in the jails of Mussolini’s fascist dictatorship.
In passing sentence the judge stated the court “must stop this brain working for 20 years”. It failed. Gramsci wrote a series of notebooks in jail.
Censorship meant he wrote in code.
The immediate problem Gramsci addressed was the failure of the revolutionary upsurge which had swept western Europe in the wake of the 1917 Russian Revolution.
Italy had been the country where conditions most approximated to Russia and Gramsci had played a central role in the struggles of the Turin working class during the “red years” of 1919 and 1920. Turin was Italy’s great industrial centre.
Gramsci took up a series of arguments by Russian leaders Lenin and Trotsky on the difference between western and eastern Europe.
The ruling class was for Gramsci like the mythical centaur — half man, half beast.
It ruled through the use of state coercion and through the consent of those over whom it ruled. In Tsarist Russia civil society was only beginning to emerge—it was “primordial and gelatinous”. State coercion was dominant.
The job of revolutionaries was to lead a direct assault on that state when opportunity arose. Gramsci called that a “war of manouvre”.
In western Europe the ruling class relied for most of the time on consent and had a variety of institutions within civil society which acted like a complicated series of earthworks surrounding a great fortress.
Those institutions and the ideas that they diffused throughout society had to be undermined through a longer ideological struggle before a direct assault was possible.
A revolutionary party had to contest and win leadership over the working class and other oppressed groups. This he called a “war of position”.
For Gramsci this involved struggle. A daily battle of ideas centred on creating “organic intellectuals” within the working class. These were revolutionary workers who were an integral part of that class, engaging with it.
In both east and west the state relied on repression and consent to rule. Gramsci warned that the state was more powerful in the west and when push came to shove would be a more powerful enemy.
At some point the trench warfare involved in the “war of position” would go over onto the offensive—the “war of manouvre”.
All of this centred on a dynamic two way relationship between the revolutionary party and the working class.
Looking back on his own experience of the Turin working class he argued that the spontaneous rebellions of the working class were crucial:
“This element of ‘spontaneity’ was not neglected and even less despised. It was educated, it was directed, it was purified of everything extraneous that could pollute it.”
In 1924 he had described a revolutionary party “resulting from a dialectical process in which the spontaneous movement of the revolutionary masses, and the organisational and directive will of the centre converge.”
Elsewhere he argued for “unity of ‘spontaneity’ and of “conscious direction”:
“Precisely because the party is strongly centralised, a massive effort of propaganda and agitation within its ranks is required. It is necessary for the party to educate its members and to raise their ideological level in an organised way.”
But the party members were not mere robots following orders. He said, “It is necessary that every member of the party is an active political element, is a leader.”
The party had to provide leadership in day to day struggle:
“This leadership was not ‘abstract’. It did not consist in mechanically repeating some scientific or abstract or theoretical formula; it did not confuse politics, the real action, with theoretical dissertations. It applied itself to real men…”
Each party member had to be a leader within their own “milieu” — at work, school or in their neighbourhood.
The ultimate goal for Gramsci remained until his death in 1937, from illness and fascist ill-treatment, revolution.