A       Discussion Paper


Mind the Quality, and Feel the Width

or Whatever Happened to a Hegemonic Politics?

Mark Perryman

A number of commentators have made the point in recent weeks that there is a revival of left politics. The electoral analyst John Curtice has noted that the Scottish Socialist Party (SSP) and Socialist Alliance (SA) are recording votes in parliamentary and council by-elections unheard of since the CP's electoral highpoint in the 1950s. Gary Younge has written of the emergence of a 'next Left' unhindered by dyed in the wool loyalty to the Labour Party, whilst George Monbiot has suggested that public meetings are the 'new rock and roll' which tempts me to suggest that George should get out a bit more.

It is undoubtedly the case that the space for an 'outside Left' is opening up, but this development, as John Palmer tentatively suggests in the March 2001 issue of Red Pepper magazine isn't unproblematic. For a start there isn't sufficient recognition that a radical politics must be founded on the broadest possible appeal. The lack of any popular campaigning around transport is testament to the failure of this kind of broad front to emerge. Sure the opinion polls tell us that a majority are in favour of rail renationalisation, and there is at the very least a latent green consciousness around transport issues too, but there is no dynamic to shift that popular concern into the public domain. Industrial action, as on the London Underground, whatever its intentions and causes, only serves to narrow the appeal and harm any potential producer-user alliance. Were wildcat strikes based on a refusal to collect fares for a service that is both inadequate and soon to be based on private profit at least considered? Imagine the popular appeal of such an action!

As Jeremy Gilbert has argued however the failure of breadth to establish itself as a defining characteristic of a popular radicalism must at least in part be down to the retreat of intellectuals from the political. In the past Marxism, with all its undoubted faults, provided the model for fusing theoretical and practical politics. Today that model in any lage-scale sense no longer exists but precious little has come in its place. It is highly elitst to suggest that only intellectuals, or indeed the self-appointed revolutionary party, can offer ‘leadership’, though that doesn’t stop the latter in particular trying. But at the same time we have to admit that many oppositional movements are based on more of a wish-list for change rather than a strategy for change. Out of this lack, narrowness of appeal and the cult of activism is sure to emerge. The dissolution of the eighties Gramscian Left founded on a project for a hegemonic politics is a serious loss, this Left had at least the potential to combine libertarian ideals with the capacity to organise for change based on always seeking the broadest possible alliances.

But any revival of interest in Gramsci's ideas of hegemony, the historic bloc, the organic intellectual and more must not mean forcing the new oppositional politics into a left/right model. That is not to say the Left, and its core principles, no longer have any relevance, they undoubtedly do. But movements as diverse as against globalisation, anti GM foods, environmentalism, around transport, sexual liberty, lifestyle issues do not easily fit a simple left/right axis and much of the language and organisational culture associated with that framework for politics is hugely unappealing to a new generation. Those opposition movements that closely identify with a traditional leftism are very often the most conservative in their tactics and stratgy, this is no accident.

New forms of organisation are not simply a tactical question, they are the prefigurative link to a strategic hegemonic project. These forms will be based on the kind of values that John Jordan has highlighted; fluidity, nurturing, generosity. And it is hardly a sterotype to suggest that these values, and I would want to add humility too, come uneasily to a Left hung up on Leninist vanguard models of revolution.

This organisational point must be linked to a broader cultural analysis. It is a fallacy to say that interest in politics is falling, what is in catastrophic freefall is any affinity for party-politics. Politics is instead projected through quite different forms. To take a personal instance, for the last 8 years or so I have found my interest in left politics on the wane whilst a love affair with football has soared. A politics substitute? A deviation? Maybe, but increasingly I have found that it is through football that issues such as globalisation, class, ownership, race, gender really come alive and motivate many who would never think of themselves as 'politicial'. To claim that politics lives and breathes in these kinds of non-traditional domains is a trite point but one that still has to dawn on many so fixated with the narrow political agenda and way of doing things that afflicts left and right alike.

To take this discussion forward requires a remaking of the political. Both what we mean by politics and how we 'do' politics. This process has hardly begun. Out of such a process the question of agency must emerge. It is only by addressing this question will discussions have anly lasting sense of meaning, let alone purpose. Direct Action in this sense must be valued as a tactic but except for committed anarcho-syndicalists it is never going to be a strategy. And opposition movements committed to direct action cannot be allowed to escape form sorting out the issue of non-violence. Is non-violence a tactic or a strategic principle?

Oppostional politics is on the move, and may in the short-term benefit spectacularly from a growing electoral volatility. At the same a deep-seated detachment from party politics is growing that could go in a range of directions, not all of them by any means progressive. A popular radical project must be of the present, for the future, but also draw on useful legacies. A project that reconnects with an understanding of hegemony fulfils all three chaacteristics and Stuart Hall's 1987 lecture 'Gramsci and Us' is still alive with validity in just how meaningful this prospect remains, " One of the most important things Gramsci has done for us is to give us a profoundly expanded conception of what politics itself is like, and thus also of power and authority. We cannot, after Gramsci, go back to the notion of mistaking electoral politics, or party politics in a narrow sense, or even the occupancy of state power, as constituting he ground of modern power itself. Gramsci understand that politics is a much expanded field; that especially in societies of our kind, the sites on which power is constituted will be enormously varied. We are living through the proliferation of the sites of power and antagonism in modern society. The transition to this new phase is decisive for Gramsci. It puts directly on the political agenda the questions of moral and intellectual leadership, the educative and formative role of the state, the 'trenches and fortifications' of civil society, the crucial issue of the consent of the masses and the creation of a new type or level of 'civilisation' , a new culture. It draws the decisive line between the formula of 'Permanent Revolution' and the 'formula of civil hegemony'. It is the point where Gramsci's world meets ours'.

Blairism can be described as a failure of hegemony, or certainly the failure to cement a progressively inclined historic bloc. Stuart Hall, in his reading of Gramsci, offers a vision of how that hegemony, progressive historic bloc could be constructed out of Blairism's failure. The worry is that in our enthusiasm for the revival of oppositional politics the need for breadth, for a hegemonic project, will be dismissed. A blunder that would be as momentous as Blairism's failure.

February 2001

Mark Perryman was a member of the Communist Party of Great Britain 1979-90 and a member of the Marxism Today Editorial Board 1984-91. He has been involved with Signs of the Times since its inception in 1992 and in 1994 co-founded the company 'Philosophy Football: Sporting Outfitters of Intellectual Distinction."



Discussion Papers




Contact: info@signsofthetimes.org.uk

Phone: (+44) 020 8257 1440