Unlocking Gramsci for Challenging Times

BARRY WINTER argues that Italian thinker Antonio Gramsci’s political insights offer a way forward for the left, and can help it tackle the dominance of ideas and practices that divide and disempower us.

We live in challenging times – and that’s putting it mildly. For those of us on the political left the world looks increasingly insecure.

The global economy, still stagnant after the 2007/08 economic crash, continues to generate hardship for the many and obscene levels of wealth for the few. These glaring inequalities continue to protect and empower the rich at the expense of the rest. For more and more people, life is becoming a struggle, generating anxiety, anger, mistrust, resentment and a sense of powerlessness. Ours is a society where hunger and homelessness continue to rise.

Gramsci pic

Many of today’s younger generation face far greater difficulties than their parents and grandparents did. In the UK we are experiencing the dismantling of the welfare state, a deteriorating health service, a serious housing crisis, precarious employment, lower incomes, and education in decline (leaving many students with heavy debts).

The environmentalist, George Monbiot, notes that the number of children admitted to hospital has risen by 68 per cent in the last decade and the number of young patients with eating disorders has doubled in three years.

Add to that, the crisis in local government spending, which is hitting the most deprived communities the hardest, plus pollution and long-term environmental damage, which is impacting most heavily upon the young.

The Trade Union Congress (TUC) has warned that by 2022, 3.5 million people could be in insecure jobs (agency work, zero hours’ contracts, and low-paid self-employment). That’s nearly 300,000 more people than today.

Yet the dominant ethos tells us that markets are the solution to our woes, not their source. Echoing the bigotry of the Victorian era, with its idea of the ‘underserving poor’, today poor people are blamed, shamed and punished for their poverty.

Meanwhile, we are meant to admire the wealthy in their gated communities, on their private islands and with their tax hideaways. They, apparently, deserve their rewards.

In the process, compassion and concern for others plays second fiddle to a ‘me-first’ culture of selfishness and market worship. Meantime, up to three million children go hungry during school holidays, damaging not only their health but their future prospects.

Not surprisingly, various forms of discontent and disenchantment are rife. Much of this is undermining social solidarity and helping to sow the seeds of insularity and racism. The decline of democracy encourages even greater cynicism towards traditional politics and politicians. Many people don’t feel that their voices and concerns are being heard, believing they don’t count – and they respond accordingly.

Their discontents often benefit and reinforce right-wing forms populism which simply blames migrants, or Muslims, or whoever, for society’s woes. As a result, social cultural divisions widen.

Hope for change

While this short introduction paints a bleak picture of our times there is another side to the story. There is a broader picture which offers hope. A range of different people, parties, organisations and campaigns exist which are very eager to push our society in more socially-just directions.

We have to ask whether and how these varied formations can cooperate in ways that can take us in more hopeful and humane directions? And, if so, what’s involved? How do we build progressive alliances to challenge the socially divisive, and rightward-drifting yet dominant culture? How do we broaden and deepen public engagement and support and, in the process, renew social, racial and generational bonds?

It is in this context that this publication seeks ways to redress the balance of power in favour of a decent, fair and secure world – what some call ‘the good society’. Let’s embark on constructive and creative ways to tackle and transform our lives, to overcome what has been described as our ‘passive-aggressive’ culture.

Where does today’s Labour Party fit into the picture? Like many other European social democratic parties, it faces serious difficulties. But instead of the Blairites and the ‘hard’ left simply blaming each other for all the party’s woes, it could choose a different path. It could begin to construct a compelling narrative to counter market worship, selfish individualism and reactionary right-wing ideas. In the process, the party could start to cooperate with other movements and parties with similar ideas – and find new ways to engage with local communities.

A key question here is how can we find ways for people begin to gain genuine control over their lives, communities and the wider society? How do we tackle the dominance of ideas and practices that both divide and disempower us?

Polls regularly show that most voters oppose higher welfare spending, accusing ‘welfare scroungers’ of milking the benefits system. This makes many people resistant to the increases in taxation we need to rebuild the health service, for example.

In this forthcoming pamphlet, we argue that the political insights in the writings of Antonio Gramsci (1860-1937) provide an invaluable starting point for the journey towards a different kind of society. It’s a long journey involving formidable intellectual and political challenges. No easy solutions will be on offer. There is no magic formula nor any quick fixes but we genuinely believe that engaging with Gramsci’s ideas offer ways forward.

Of course, we don’t have all the answers: no-one does. Sure, mistakes will be made, but we have to learn from them and do so honestly. So why not see what we’ve got to say?


Barry Winter is co-writing a new pamphlet on Gramsci with Gerry Lavery, whose article ‘Common sense and Benefit Sanctions’ is available from this website.

1 Comment

  1. Nick Matthews
    2 October 2017

    Dear Barry,
    Timely intervention as usual! The rediscovery of Stuart Hall and Perry Anderson’s recent monograph The H word coupled with Corbyn’s claim that he is now the centre ground and Labour’s policies the new common sense makes a fuller understand of the Italian master’s thinking more important than ever.
    Incidentally, on a separate issue, events in Spain look like the final unravelling of the Spanish Civil War and remind us that ‘civil wars’ are always the most brutal.
    Hope you are well.
    Best wishes,

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