Red Letter
Daily Left Theory. 15 Minutes or Less. Refreshes at Midnight.
Politics as an Autonomous Science (From The Prison Notebooks)
by Antonio Gramsci
Estimated Reading Time: 15 min

Okay, this ones goes a little wonky on Italian history and military strategy (that makes my eyes roll), but it's where Gramsci gets into the idea of the "Historic Bloc." Let's quote a little bit of the Stanford's Encyclopedia of Philosophy to get at why this part is interesting and you should grind through it:

Gramsci drew on a distinction, common in Italian political thought, between “force” and “consent”. Hegemony referred to consent, although this was understood usually to be balanced with force. Modern states aimed to absorb threats to their power by winning over potentially hostile social groups and classes, compromising the immediate interests of the dominant class to maintain general support. Such efforts may often be fragile or limited, but that basic condition fundamentally altered the terrain of political contest. States could not be reduced to mere administrative units of executive authority—that is, to a separate “political society”—but were intertwined with a “sturdy structure of civil society”—schools, churches, “private associations”, newspapers, intellectuals and so on. Unlike in Russia—where state power was strong and civil society weak (“primordial and gelatinous”)—modern states utilize the “trenches” of civil society by exercising “civil hegemony”. This protected them from the threats to their rule caused by economic crises or civil disruption.

The state, then, was a complex structure combining both force and consent: it was both the instrument by which a ruling class maintained its dominance over society and the medium through which it undertook a “civilising activity”, functioning as an “ethical state” or “educator” by promoting “a certain way of life” for its citizens. At one point Gramsci formulated this as “State = political society + civil society (in other words hegemony protected by the armour of coercion)”, or what he also called an “integral” conception of the state.

Gramsci’s remarks elaborated his earlier rejection of an exclusively insurrectionary model of revolution. In the Notebooks he was further suggesting that hegemony described a general condition applicable to both bourgeois and proletarian forms of rule. Revolutionary transformation—for any class—cannot be focused exclusively on the seizure of coercive and bureaucratic power but must engage the state’s wider system of defenses. He referred to this in the military terms that had become commonplace after the First World War as a switch from a “war of manoeuvre”—a direct and violent assault on the forces of the state—to a “war of position”—the gradual winning of tactical strongholds. A revolutionary project, he suggested, must first build consent across civil society before taking formal power. That did not mean that coercion would never be necessary, only that its status was diminished in modern states.

Understanding variations in the exercise of hegemony required a political analysis attuned to the “equilibrium” of force and consent at any conjuncture. In place of the common Marxist division of economic “structure” and “superstructure”, Gramsci proposed the concept of a “historical bloc” (blocco storico). This was a composite of distinct class and social forces joined politically and culturally under a specific form of hegemony . Additionally, it was possible to gauge the extent to which a class had sacrificed its “economic corporate” interests in expanding its leadership across civil society. Empirical analysis of hegemony would assess the “relations of forces” that combined structures and superstructures in a historical situation.

Capiche? Enjoy.

The first question that must be raised and resolved in a study of Machiavelli is the question of politics as an autonomous science, of the place that political science occupies or should occupy in a systematic (coherent and logical) conception of the world, in a philosophy of praxis.

Footnotes slightly abridged

19. Croce notably attacked any moralistic interpretation of Machiavelli (as he did of Marx), for instance that of Villari, "for whom Machiavelli's great defect is that he fails to see the moral problem . . . Machiavelli starts by establishing a fact : the conditions of struggle in which society finds itself. He then gives rules in accordance with this objective condition. Why . . . should he concern himself with the ethics of the struggle?"

The progress brought about by Croce in this respect in the study of Machiavelli and in political science consists mainly (as in other fields of Croce's critical activity) in the dissolution of a series of false, non-existent or wrongly formulated problems.19 Croce based himself on his distinction of the moments of the spirit, and on his affirmation ofa moment ofpractice, ofa practical spirit, autonomous and independent though linked in a circle to all reality by the dialectic of distincts. In a philosophy of praxis, the distinction will certainly not be between the moments of the absolute Spirit, but between the levels of the superstructure. The problem will therefore be that of establishing the dialectical position of political activity (and of the corresponding science) as a particular level of the superstructure. One might say, as a first schematic approximation, that political activity is precisely the first moment or first level; the moment in which the superstructure is still in the unmediated phase of mere wishful affirmation, confused and still at an elementary stage.

In what sense can one identify politics with history, and hence all of life with politics? How then could the whole system of super­ structures be understood as distinctions within politics, and the introduction of the concept of distinction into a philosophy of praxis hence be justified? But can one really speak of a dialectic of distincts, and how is the concept of a circle joining the levels of the superstructure to be understood? Concept of "historical bloc", i.e. unity between nature and spirit (structure and superstructure), unity of opposites and of distincts.

Can one introduce the criterion of distinction into the structure too? How is structure to be understood? How, in the system of social relations, will one be able to distinguish the element "tech­nique", "work", "class", etc., understood in an historical and not in a metaphysical sense? Critique of Croce's position; for polemical ends, he represents the structure as a "hidden god", a "noumenon", in contrast to the "appearances" of the superstructure. "Appear­ances" both metaphorically and literally. How "historically", and as a fact of speech, was the notion of "appearances" arrived at?

It is interesting to establish how Croce developed his own in­ dividual theory of error and of the practical origin of error from this general conception. For Croce, error has its origin in an immediate "passion"-one, that is, of an individual or group character. But what will produce the "passion" of more far­ reaching historical importance, the passion as a category ? The passion/immediate interest which is the origin of error is the moment which in the Theses on Feuerbach is called schmutzig-jüdisch. But just as the passion/schmutzig-jüdisch interest determines immediate error, so does the passion of the larger social group determine the philosophical error, while between the two is the error/ideology, which Croce deals with separately. In this series: "egoism (immediate error)-ideology-philosophy", it is the common term "error" which is important. This is linked to the various levels of passion, and must be understood not in a moralistic or scholastic sense, but in the purely historical and dialectical sense of "that which is historically decayed, and deserves to fall"-in the sense of the non-defnitive character of all philosophy, of the "death/life", "being/non-being", i.e. of the term of the dialectic which the latter must transcend in its forward movement.

20. The exact quotation, from Marx' Preface to The Critique of Political Economy, is: "a distinction should always be made between the material transformation of the economic conditions of production, which can be determined with the precision of natural science, and the legal, political, religious, aesthetic or philo­sophic-in short, ideological forms in which men become conscious of this conflict [i.e. that between the material productive forces of society and the existing relations of production] and fight it out".

The terms "apparent" and "appearance" mean precisely this and nothing else, and are justifiable despite dogmatic opposition. They are the assertion of the perishable nature of all ideological systems, side by side with the assertion that all systems have an historical validity, and are necessary ("Man acquires consciousness of social relations in the field of ideology": 20 is not this an assertion of the necessity and the validity of "appearances" )

Croce's conception of politics/passion excludes parties, since it is not possible to think of an organised and permanent passion. Permanent passion is a condition of orgasm and of spasm, which means operational incapacity. It excludes parties, and excludes every plan of action worked out in advance. However, parties exist and plans of action are worked out, put into practice, and are often successful to a remarkable extent. So there is a flaw in Croce's conception. Nor is it enough to say that, even if parties exist, that has little theoretical importance, because at the moment ofaction the party in operation is not the same thing as the "party" which existed previously. There may be a partial truth in this, but the points of coincidence between the two "parties" are such that one may really be said to be dealing with the same organism.

But for Croce's conception to be valid, it would have to be possible to apply it also to war, and hence to explain the fact of standing armies, military academies, officer corps. War in progress too is "passion", the most intense and febrile of all passions; it is a moment of political life ; it is the continuation in other forms of a given policy. It is necessary therefore to explain how passion can become moral "duty"-duty in terms not of political morality but of ethics.

On political plans, which are related to the parties as permanent formations, recall what Moltke said of military plans ; that they cannot be worked out and finalised in advance in every particular, but only in so far as their nucleus and central design is concerned, since the details of the action depend to a certain extent on the moves of the adversary. It is precisely in the details that passion manifests itself, but it does not appear that Moltke's principle is such as to justify Croce's conception. There would still remain to be explained the kind of passion of the General Staffwhich worked out the plan in the light of cold reason, and "dispassionately".

If the Crocean concept of passion as a moment of politics comes up against the difficulty of explaining and justifying the permanent political formations, such as the parties and still more the national armies and General Staffs, since it is impossible to conceive of a passion being organised permanently without its becoming ration­ality and deliberate reflection and hence no longer passion, the solution can only be found in the identification of politics and economics. Politics becomes permanent action and gives birth to permanent organisations precisely in so far as it identifies itself with economics. But it is also distinct from it, which is why one may speak separately of economics and politics, and speak of "political passion" as of an immediate impulse to action which is born on the "permanent and organic" terrain of economic life but which transcends it, bringing into play emotions and aspirations in whose incandescent atmosphere even calculations involving the individual human life itself obey different laws from those of individual profit, etc.

Beside the merits of modern Machiavelli studies derived from Croce, the exaggerations and distortions which they have inspired should also be noted. The habit has been formed of considering Machiavelli too much as the man of politics in general, as the "scientist of politics", relevant in every period.

Machiavelli should be considered more as a necessary expression of his time, and as closely tied to the conditions and exigencies of his time, which were the result: 1. of the internal struggles of the Florentine republic, and of the particular structure of the State, which was unable to free itself from the residues of commune and municipality-i.e. from a form of feudalism which had become a hindrance; 2. of the struggles between the Italian states for a balance of power throughout Italy-which was obstructed by the existence of the Papacy and the other feudal and municipalistic residues of forms of state based on city rather than on territory; 3. of the struggles of the Italian states, more or less united, for a European balance of power-or, put in another way, of the con­tradictions between the requirements of an internal balance of power in Italy and the exigencies of the European states struggling for hegemony.

22. Ferocia, Machiavelli wrote : "Cesare Borgia was considered cruel : yet that cruelty of his had restored Rornagna, united it, rendered it peaceful and loyal. . . . Thus a prince must not mind if he has a reputation for cruelty."

Machiavelli is influenced by the examples of France and Spain, which have achieved as states a strong territorial unity; he makes an "elliptic comparison" (to use Croce's expression) and deduces the rules for a strong State in general and a strong Italian State in particular. Machiavelli is a man wholly of his period; his political science represents the philosophy of the time, which tended to the organisation of absolute national monarchies—the political form which permitted and facilitated a further development of bourgeois productive forces. In Machiavelli one may discover in embryonic form both the separation of powers and parliamentarianism (the representative regime) . His "ferocity"22 is turned against the residues of the feudal world, not against the progressive classes. The Prince is to put an end to feudal anarchy; and that is what Valentino does in Romagna, basing himself on the support of the productive classes, merchants and peasants. Given the military­ dictatorial character of the head of state, such as is needed in a period of struggle for the installation and consolidation of a new form of power, the class references contained in the Art of War must be taken as referring as well to the general structure of the State: if the urban classes wish to put an end to internal disorder and external anarchy, they must base themselves on the mass of the peasants, and constitute a reliable and loyal armed force of a kind totally different from the companies of fortune. One may say that the essentially political conception is so dominant in Machiavelli that it makes him commit errors in the military field. He gives most thought to the infantry, who can be recruited en masse through political action, and as a result he misjudges the significance of artillery.

24. Bandello (1480-1562), was the author of a popular collection of stories. One was dedicated to Giovanni de' Medici, better known as Giovanni delle Bande Nere, the famous condottiere. In his dedication, Bandello recalls somewhat maliciously how one day "Messire Niccolo [i.e. Machiavelli] kept us that day over two hours in the sun while he was about setting three thousand foot-soldiers into the order of which he had written-without ever succeeding in so ordering them". Whereupon, at Bandello's own suggestion, Giovanni had called Machia­velli back, and had himself drawn up the troops "in the twinkling of an eye".

Russo (in Prolegomeni a Machiavelli) remarks correctly that the Art of War contains The Prince within it, but he fails to draw all the conclusions from his observation. Even in the Art of War, Machia­velli must be seen as a man of politics who has to concern himself with military theory. His one-sidedness (together with other idiosyncrasies such as the phalanx theory, which give rise to facile sallies of wit, the best-known of which originated with Bandello)24 comes from the fact that the centre of his interest and of his thought does not lie in the question of military technique, which he deals with only in so far as it is necessary for his political edifice. More­ over, not only the Art of War but also the History of Florence must be related to The Prince; this was precisely intended to serve as an analysis of the real conditions in Italy and in Europe from which the immediate demands contained in The Prince spring.

A secondary consequence of a conception of Machiavelli which takes more fully into account the period in which he lived is a more historicist evaluation of the so-called anti-Machiavellians, or at least of the most "ingenuous" of them. They are not really so much anti-Machiavellians as politicians who express exigencies of their time or of conditions different from those which affected Machia­ velli ; the polemical form is nothing but a contingent literary device. The typical example it seems to me of these anti-Machia­ vellians is Jean Bodin (1530-96), who was a delegate to the Estates General of Blois in 1576 and there persuaded the Third Estate to refuse the subsidies requested for the civil war.*

* Bodin's works: Methodus adfacilem historiarum cognitionem (1566), in which he shows the influence of climate on forms of State, hints at an idea of progress, etc.; Republique (1576), in which he expresses the opinions ofthe Third Estate on absolute monarchy and its relations with the people ; Heptaplomeres (unpublished until the modem era), in which he compares all religions and justifies them as different expressions of natural religion which alone is reasonable, and as all equally worthy of respect and tolerance.

During the civil wars in France, Bodin is the exponent of the third party-the so-called politicians' party-which defends the viewpoint of national interest, that is to say of an internal balance of classes in which hegemony belongs to the Third Estate through the monarchy. It seems evident to me that classifying Bodin among the anti-Machiavellians is an absolutely irrelevant and superficial question. Bodin lays the foundations of political science in France on a terrain which is far more advanced and complex than that which Italy offered to Machiavelli. For Bodin the question is not that of founding the territorially united (national) State-i.e. of going back to the time of Louis XI-but of balancing the con­flicting social forces within this already strong and well-implanted State. Bodin is interested in the moment of consent, not in the moment of force. With Bodin there is a tendency to develop the absolute monarchy: the Third Estate is so aware ofits strength and its dignity, it knows so well that the fortunes ofthe absolute monarchy are linked to its own fortunes and its own development, that it poses conditions for its loyalty, it presents demands, tends to limit absolutism. In France Machiavelli was already at the service of reaction, since he could serve to justify maintaining the world perpetually in the "cradle" (in Bertrando Spaventa's expression); hence it was necessary to be polemically anti-Machiavellian.

26. i.e. by fascist spokesmen, justifying the abolition of parliamentary institutions.

It should be noted that in the Italy studied by Machiavelli there existed no representative institutions already developed and sig­nificant in national life like the Estates General in France. When in modern times it is suggested tendentiously that parliamentary institutions in Italy were imported from abroad,26 it is not realised that this fact only reflects a condition of backwardness and of stagnation of Italian political and social history from 1500 until 1700-a condition which was to a great extent due to the pre­ ponderance of international relations over internal ones, which were paralysed and congealed. Is it really a national "originality", destroyed by the importation of parliamentary forms, that the State structure in Italy, as a result of foreign dominance, should have remained in the semi-feudal phase of an object of foreign suzerainty? In fact parliamentary institutions give a form to the process of national liberation, and to the transition to a modern (independent and national) territorial State. Moreover, represen­tative institutions did exist, especially in the South and in Sicily, but of a far more limited kind than in France, for the Third Estate was little developed in these regions, and hence the Parlia­ments were instruments for upholding the anarchy of the barons against the innovating attempts of the monarchy, which in the absence of a bourgeoisie had to base itself on the support of the mob. That Machiavelli should only have been able to express his programme and his tendency to relate city to countryside in military terms is understandable if one reflects that French Jacobinism would be inexplicable without the presupposition of Physiocrat culture, with its demonstration of the economic and social importance of the peasant proprietor. Machiavelli's economic theories have been studied by Gino Arias (in the Annali d' Economia of the Bocconi University in Milan) , but it might be queried whether Machiavelli really had any economic theories. One will have to see whether Machiavelli's essentially political language can be translated into economic terms, and to which economic system it could be reduced. See whether Machiavelli living in the mercantilist period was politically in advance of his time, and anticipated certain demands which later found expression in the Physiocrats.

Communism Is How We Forcibly Break Apart the Organized Power of the Capitalist Class
   If you want compare armchairs, write to   ?s    YTD From a spark a fire will flare up