All politics is about building coalitions and building power: if Labour cannot understand this truth and grasp its implications, then it is doomed.
A quick preface
This was written as a short contribution to a Pluto Press book that was supposed to be published last year, but never finally happened. I think it’s still pretty relevant to everything so I’m posting it now.
(If you’re one of the several people who are waiting for me to finish writing something – don’t worry – I did this ages ago…it hasn’t been distracting me from what I was supposed to be writing for you)
My aim in this short essay is to explain how a particular way of understanding politics and social change can illuminate our current situation. But first a disclaimer. I won’t be saying anything new here. The ideas I will be using are very familiar to those who are trained in a particular intellectual tradition. I present them here because they remain invaluable and useful, and because lots of people have had no access to that tradition; but not because I claim any originality for them.
I am going to be explaining in very basic terms how an approach derived from the ideas of the great Italian thinker Antonio Gramsci, who died in ta fascist prison in the late 1930s, can help us understand current British politics. It seems particularly appropriate to to do this right now, because the past month has seen the launch of Stuart Hall’s Selected Political Writings [https://www.lwbooks.co.uk/stuart-hall-event]. Hall was one of the giant’s of British public and intellectual life of recent decades (https://www.opendemocracy.net/author/stuart-hall; https://www.opendemocracy.net/ourkingdom/jeremy-gilbert/tribute-to-stuart-hall). One of Hall’s great contributions to British intellectual culture was to bring to Gramsci’s ideas to on the analysis of British politics, in a number of key essays, several of which can be found in his key 1980s collection, The Hard Road to Renewal.
At the present time, Gramsci and his ideas seem to be undergoing yet another one of their periodic revivals, having been dismissed by many commentators as hopelessly outdated a few years ago. Many introductions to Gramsci are available, but one of the best has been recently updates: Roger Simon’s Gramsci’s Political Thought: An Introduction (https://www.lwbooks.co.uk/book/gramscis-political-thought). Many scholarly expositions of Gramsci’s work have been produced, but Peter Thomas’ The Gramscian Moment (2009) set a new benchmark in English-language scholarship. I don’t know much about the state of Gramsci scholarship outside the English-speaking world, but I do know that the popular French radio show and podcast Les Chemins de La Philosophie (https://www.franceculture.fr/emissions/les-chemins-de-la-philosophie) recently produced an episode on Gramsci simply because he is so widely cited by so many people. Radical publishers Verso have just published a historical study of Gramsci’s key concept – ‘hegemony’ (if you don’t know what this means don’t worry, I will explain in simple terms shortly) – by one of its most prominent writers, Perry Anderson. In fact Alex Williams and I are currently writing a book for the same publishers on the subject of hegemony in the 21st century, which due to be completed before the summer. (We are considering presenting initial arguments in a series of public seminars and videos, so if you think you might be interested in that then do follow us at @lemonbloodycola and @jemgilbert).