“What we need is a Gramscian Party” Prof. Richard Johnson, in lecture to Leicester Secular Society 16th September 2012.
Geoff Gay 24.09.12. writes:
This short paper is inspired by Richard’s lecture and the ensuing discussion and by Ray Sutton’s discussion of Gramsci as part of his recent series of historico-political lectures.
Richard said, ” Gramsci’s broad strategic conception was that a popular left party would act as an educator and organiser of a new hegemony within the complexity of civil society. Such a party would have to have strong popular roots in the ways of life and everyday concerns of the mass of the population.” ( This is the sort of party which Gramsci wished the Communist Party to be. In the 60s, 70s and 80s, the Communist Party of Great Britain tried hard to work towards becoming such a party, but it was hamstrung by its failure to change its own structure and name, its indelible association in the public mind with the Soviet bloc and the crimes of Stalin, and its failure to deal with its internal Stalinist opposition )
Richard continued, “No such party exists ( in Britain ) and, for a multitude of reasons, the Labour Party, which some continue to hope may perform this role, has a long history of precisely failing to do so. The party, as opposed to some of its socialist components ( my emphasis GG ) has never had a political- educational role and its New Labour leadership has made matters worse. The party lost much of its popular membership and policy-making while the Labour government became a vehicle for neo-liberal ‘reform’. When people on the left are very pessimistic about British politics, it is this ‘loss’ of Labour – including its disconnection with the unions, working-class solidarity and the tradition of public service – that is most mourned – together perhaps with the ‘beheading’, through coalition with Conservatism, of the social-liberal tendencies in the Lib-Dem Party. And neither the Greens nor the small left parties resemble yet the kind of transformative agency that Gramsci wished the Communist Party to be.” Richard then went on to say that there were possibilities here if the Greens could become more socialist ( or at least more social-democratic, and I would add “more realistic and more carefully analytical in their formulation of policy” GG ) and/or the small left parties could somehow come together ( but I would say that Trotskyism/ultra-leftism is, by its nature, divisive GG ).
So how could a modern Gramscian party come about and what would it look like ?
The answer to the first question is bound up with the history of our large political parties and with our electoral system : the great majority of parliamentary seats are in England and, particularly in England, any new political party comes up against the formidable barrier of the First Past the Post system. The Labour Party are at best reluctant to take electoral reform on board and this is almost entirely a product of their tribalism, distilled into the view that winning a Labour majority under FPTP is central almost to the point of being their raison d’etre. This ingrained one-party majoritarianism is also true of the Tories, and their implacable opposition to a more proportional system stems from a fear that it would seriously undermine their true raison d’etre which is to preserve Capitalism for the capitalists. The roots of the Conservative Party go back well over two hundred years to a time when our democracy, even now not emerging from childhood to adolescence, was no more than embryonic – when only a very small proportion of the adult population could vote and their votes were usually bought. So, by the time of the birth and growth of our democracy,
the Conservative Party was mature, organised and an essential part of “the establishment” ( along with the Church of England, the “Conservative Party at prayer” ). The Liberals were also an integral part of that embryonic stage, but were supplanted as the second main party by Labour in very particular circumstances, which can never be repeated, namely the combination of the concession of votes for working men and then for women with the development of the organised Labour Movement, in particular the trades unions from which the Labour Party was formed. The re-emergence of the Liberals also happened in very particular circumstances : the ( hypocritically-named ) Social-Democratic breakaway from the Labour Party was anything but a grass-roots movement : it was organised by the “Gang of Four” all of whom were prominent parliamentarians ; the SDP enjoyed the advantages of a ready-made base in Parliament together with a commitment to preserving the capitalist hegemony of which they were a part. As a result, the Liberal-SDP merger was much more than the sum of its parts. A new Gramscian party would have none of these advantages : it would have much more of a chance of taking off if, rather as with the SDP, an existing parliamentary base, conceivably consisting of breakaways from the left wings of Labour and the Lib-Dems , were at least a major component of its formation.
On the second question, the Gramscian Party would, as Richard said, have to be firmly committed to political education and to have strong popular roots. It would need to be embedded in popular culture, but, again as Richard stressed in his lecture, it would need to embrace the work of “changing or educating common sense, through a struggle over the institutions through which culture is produced, education, media, art forms,literature etc., with the aim of creating a new culture .” The Gramscian party would welcome political and democratic reform with open arms – it would, as matters of principle not narrow pragmatism, advocate a fair and proportional electoral system in which the whole of parliament was wholly elected, certainly a Bill of Rights and probably a written constitution. Its economic and social policies would be firmly geared towards creating a more equal, fairer society. And, above all, it would have to be firmly based on the understanding that 21st-century politics will not be about a system where two parties with essentially similar policies ( of course, they have to pretend to be different – otherwise what is the point of voting ? ) each waves the other in when they have had enough. In other words, the Gramscian party would be irrevocably pluralist in the sense that, at the same time as boldly advocating its own policies without fear, it would actively seek alliances and agreements with other parties to the left of the Conservatives ( perhaps even with the Conservatives in certain circumstances – I have often said that I would only ever vote Tory if I had to do that to keep out the extreme right, though a preferential voting system would greatly reduce the possibility of such a drastic move – and, of course, the 1940-45 wartime coalition was an absolute necessity).
We should also consider organisation and decision-making within the Gramscian party i.e. its “inner-party democracy” : In the world of mass instant communication, a culture in which “free-market” capitalism is deemed to be the only socio-economic game in town and “common sense”, and a straight-jacketing electoral system, the leaderships of parties which are in or aspire to government become frightened of their own members. Labour Party policy used to be determined by constituencies sending motions and delegates to Annual Conference. Even then, party policy and Labour government ( or even opposition ) policy were nowhere near the same thing. But New Labour decided that this division was (a) not enough to guarantee government or opposition autonomy, but (b) too obvious a democratic deficit. So they persuaded the Party to adopt the “Policy Forum” structure whereby an elected network of local and regional policy forums feeds into a national policy forum which draws up and presents documents to Conference on a rolling basis.
It sounds democratic but……….. the first big flaw is that Conference can only accept or reject the final documents – it cannot amend them ; then, the whole process is heavily influenced by the hierarchy and, in any case, a Labour government or opposition takes as much or ( more usually ) as little notice of the outcomes as it sees fit. The result is that the membership largely feels separated from the policy-making process. On the other hand, the leadership of a Gramscian party, being committed to pluralism and a preferential electoral system, would have far less reason to fear the members.
But I believe that any sort of purely representative structure would not be democratic enough for a Gramscian party : it would need also a more direct mechanism, woven into the structure, by which individual members or non-“official” groups of members could contribute to policy. I will not at this stage try to spell out any detail of an interwoven representative/direct structure, but I am sure it could be achieved. The reason I am not advocating a purely direct structure is that there is no substitute for voting on the basis of weighing up the pros and cons of a debate that really matters.
In the discussion following Richard’s lecture, I said that, while I agreed with his analysis that there is no sign of and probably very little hope of the Labour Party becoming the necessary agent of transformation ( or , indeed, the Gramscian party ) it remains the only party to the left of the Conservatives which is likely to form or be central to a government in the foreseeable future ; it will not go away and therefore any strategy for change must include an attempt to move the Labour Party to at least a more Gramscian, less neo-liberal position. Also, I can so far see no sign of a Gramscian party emerging from any other source, mainly because there is not yet a general understanding on the left that this is what is needed. Therefore, it remains the case that we all have to try to work towards changing the culture and consensus in the way that we consider to be most effective, depending on our particular circumstances. In my own case, in spite of major disagreements and everything else, I feel that , on balance, leaving the Labour Party would diminish not enhance my political influence. I am sure that would change if there were sufficiently strong signs of the emergence of a Gramscian Party.
Geoff Gay 24.09.12.