In order for ideas to gain popular acceptance, Antonio Gramsci argued, those ideas have to be carried down into society by layers of individuals.
In Gramsci’s Italy in the early 20th century, much of the population lived in small towns and villages. The dominant ideas were transmitted by priests, teachers, lawyers, doctors and so on.
Gramsci argued for the construction of networks of communists in every workplace and community that could challenge the common sense view of society.
Today many people see the media as all powerful, invading every corner of our lives. But for ruling class ideas to hegemonise society they require networks of people who feel committed to the state or governing party.
These networks can translate those ideas into the everyday life of the canteen, pub or home.
One problem faced by Tony Blair is that his party’s roots are withering. New Labour is not about to vanish, but its grassroots influence is at an all time low. Today we need to address the question of the lack of mobilising networks for alternative ideas in whole communities.
Gramsci argued, “A human mass does not ‘distinguish’ itself, does not become independent in its own right without, in the widest sense, organising itself.
“And there is no organisation without intellectuals, that is without organisers and leaders, in other words, without the theoretical aspect of the theory-practice nexus being distinguished concretely by the existence of a group of people ‘specialised’ in conceptual and philosophical elaboration of ideas.
“But the process of creating intellectuals is long, difficult, full of contradictions, advances and retreats, dispersals and regroupings, in which the loyalty of the masses is often sorely tried.”
Writing in a prison cell and facing censorship, Gramsci could not use the term “revolutionary party” instead he wrote of “organic intellectuals”.
The idea of leadership in the movement, naturally, arouses suspicion because it is associated with Blair or Stalin’s concept of leadership, where one man has all the votes.
But leadership is part of any struggle. Someone has to stand up say “we don’t cross a picket line” just as someone in Paris in 1789 raised the call to march on the Bastille.
Gramsci wrote that this kind of leadership “did not consist in mechanically repeating some scientific or abstract or theoretical formula.
“It did not confuse real action with theoretical dissertations. It applied itself to real men.”
He added, “It is a question of providing an organic leadership for the entire economically active mass, this leadership should not follow old schemas but should innovate.”
The spontaneous rebellions of the working class were crucial — Gramsci argued for a unity of “spontaneity” and of “conscious direction”.
This brings us back to the factory councils and Gramsci’s own experience of the rebellion in Turin after the First World War.
In Western society the working class identify with parliamentary or bourgeois democracy. There is common sense here. It is an advance on dictatorship or autocracy and has had to be fought for and won.
But the direct experience of proletarian democracy should enable the working class to grasp the limitations of bourgeois democracy and to go beyond that to a new, more democratic society.
Gramsci was centrally concerned with the fact that in Western Europe the working class had not been won over to revolution.
As Perry Anderson concluded in his seminal 1977 article on Gramsci, “The central problematic of the United Front — the final strategic advice of Lenin to the Western working class movements before his death, the first concern of Gramsci in prison — retains all its validity today.
“The imperative need remains to win the working class, before there can be any talk of winning power.”
Revolutionaries, recognising that this side of a revolutionary crisis we are a minority, need to engage in long term political and ideological work among the working class and the oppressed.
That means combining a non-sectarian approach of working with non-revolutionary workers and their representatives, while engaging in a dialogue where we present our ideas and strategies with maximum clarity.
The factory councils, or soviets as they were called in Russia, were the highest expression of this.
We need to engage in and win the “war of position” by getting socialist ideas to dominate the movement before we can go onto the offensive with a “war of maoeuvre”.