UCL School of Slavonic and East European Studies (SSEES)


Making Socialists, Winning Hegemony?

10 December 2015

Peter J S Duncan, UCL SSEES

Two years ago, the growth of new left-wing movements such as Syriza in Greece, Podemos in Spain and Occupy in the UK and USA suggested that under the influence of the Western international financial crisis the hegemony of capitalist ideology was being challenged. The popularity of Why Marx was Right, written by the English Roman Catholic Terry Eagleton, showed renewed interest in the theory of political economy even in pragmatist Britain.

In response SSEES decided to climax its centenary celebrations with a conference entitled ‘Socialism, Capitalism and the Alternatives: Lessons from Russia and Eastern Europe’. This also reflected discussions within SSEES of ‘Area Studies without Borders’: a determination to use our regional expertise to enlarge our engagement in major debates within our disciplines, and also to bring our collective multidisciplinary skills, honed in Area Studies, to apply to global problems.

In 2014 and 2015 the international debate was enlivened by the publication of international best-sellers by authors such as Thomas Piketty, Naomi Klein, Paul Mason, Tomáš Sedlaček and David Graeber, and Owen Jones. This year the election and then re-election of Syriza-led governments in Greece and of women mayors supported by broad left movements in Madrid and Barcelona showed the capacity of these new movements to gain access to state office. Even in America, the grassroots groundswell in support of the self-proclaimed socialist, Senator Bernie Sanders, for his campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination, has made inroads into Hillary Clinton’s leading position.

The huge enthusiasm shown in the campaign leading to the election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the Labour Party last month suggests a paradigmatic shift in mainstream British politics. But the confident rhetoric of some on the Left belies the fact that Corbyn’s victory was only possible because of the very serious defeat endured by the Labour Party in the general election. After five years of austerity policies imposed by the Coalition government, Labour lost in its English heartland and failed catastrophically to engage with the upsurge of social radicalism and national feeling in Scotland.

Apart from the practical problem Corbyn faces as a left-wing socialist with very little ideological support within the Parliamentary Labour Party, his major problem will be to persuade the electorate of the viability of his economic policies. This will involve not only overcoming the view that Labour is responsible for the budget deficit, but the wider issues of the perceived economic failure of socialist planning in the Soviet bloc. The issue of the success or otherwise of the economies of the post-Communist states under privatization and neo-liberalism will be addressed at the conference.

A further problem, highlighted in David Cameron’s speech at the Conservative Party Conference, is posed by Corbyn’s opposition to a replacement for Britain’s strategic nuclear deterrent, Trident. To gain electoral credibility it will be essential for Corbyn to develop a robust response to Vladimir Putin’s assertive foreign policies and to transnational Islamist extremism, even in the context of a non-nuclear defence policy. A broad consensus in favour of transatlantic collective defence has survived in Britain, despite the series of Anglo-American mistakes in the Middle East.

My paper at the conference, however, will address a different problem, a perennial one: the lack of empirical examples of the combination of socialism and democracy. I’m not talking about the ability of some social-democratic parties to implement some socialist policies in the context of a predominantly market economy, but about how every attempt to implement a radical socialist transformation – in Russia, China, Cuba or elsewhere - has culminated in a one-party dictatorship.

In the Soviet occupied states of Eastern Europe, democratic socialism never had a chance because the ‘socialism’ was imposed by Soviet tanks, and occasional attempts at democratization in later decades were similarly annulled by more tanks. But in Russia, China and Cuba, where the socialist movements were rooted inside those nations, the regimes used the threat of internal and external opposition to justify the imposition of one-party rule. In each case the Communist leadership came to identify the interests of the nation with the working class and peasants, then the oppressed classes with the party and then the party with the leadership. And it is difficult not to see the roots of this dictatorship in the formula used by both Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels of the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’.

An additional factor is the way that these parties were organized, in a centralized, top-down, conspiratorial manner, partly because of the repressive or violent political situations in which they developed. As Ralph Miliband argued, and Hilary Wainwright reaffirmed using the experience of the women’s movement of the 1970s, if democracy is to be upheld under socialism, it is essential that socialists organize and conduct their discussions in their own groups in the same open, free and democratic way as they would like to see in the society which they are trying to create.

Put differently, the road to socialism does not lie through the conspiracies and violence advocated by V.I. Lenin but through persuading the majority of the population of a state or region of the superiority of socialism over capitalism. The focus in my paper will be on two thinkers who made a lasting contribution along these lines: the English designer, artist and writer William Morris (1834-1896) and the Italian Communist Antonio Gramsci (1891-1937). The connection between these two was drawn by the Welsh historian Gwyn Alf Williams in an article published in The Journal of the History of Ideas in 1960, a time when radical socialist ideas were much further away from the political mainstream than today.

Morris’s emphasis on the importance of socialist propaganda in his Socialist League in the 1880s sometimes led to a rather sectarian position. In an article of 1885 he wrote, ‘The real business of Socialists is to impress on the workers the fact that they are a class, whereas they ought to be Society; if we mix ourselves up with Parliament we shall confuse and dull this fact in people’s minds instead of making it clear and intensifying it. The work that lies before us at present is to make Socialists, [Morris’s emphasis] to cover the country with a network of associations composed of men who feel their antagonism to the dominant classes, and have no temptation to waste their time in the thousand follies of party politics’ (quoted in E.P. Thompson, William Morris: Romantic to Revolutionary, 2nd edn, New York, 1976, p. 382).

In the 1890s, however, partly resulting from the influence of Engels and of Marx’s daughter Eleanor, Morris came round to the need for a mass labour party which would use election propaganda as a means of making socialists. In contrast, for Gramsci when he began his activity there already was a mass Socialist Party to participate in. Although he sympathised from the outset with the October Revolution in Russia, and became a leader of the Italian Communist Party, he was far from dogmatic adherence to Marxism. Indeed, in December 1917 he described the Bolshevik revolution as ‘a revolution against Karl Marx’s Capital’; rather, the Bolsheviks were acting in the spirit of Marx but against the Marxist schema of the need for a period of bourgeois rule before the possibility of a socialist transition.

Gramsci’s use of political concepts is inconsistent and sometimes contradictory, and this has generated confusion in the secondary literature. While he uses the concept of ‘hegemony’ in different ways, it is still clear that he draws a distinction between two ways in which ruling classes perpetuate their rule: by coercion and violence, but also to a much greater extent by ideological hegemony, that is, by persuading the majority of the people that the existing system is the most beneficial system for them (e.g., Selections from the Prison Notebooks, London, 1971, p. 12). Gramsci stands out from earlier Marxists in his emphasis on the need to challenge this ideological hegemony.

Gramsci wrote that every emerging class, including implicitly the working class, and its party, needed to create a group of ‘organic’ intellectuals who would promote (implicitly) socialist ideology, acting as ‘permanent persuaders’ (ibid., p. 10). He insisted that the parties which would include these intellectuals ‘should be formed by individual memberships and not on the pattern of the British Labour Party’ (ibid., p. 335). It is no coincidence that the first attempt of the Labour Party to choose its leader on the basis of the individual members and not with the dominance of the parliamentary party and the trade union bloc votes should have led to the election of Corbyn.