Discussion and reply: Political parties and mass consciousness

Australian Left Review, Aug 2014

Murphy, Peter

A PDF file should load here. If you do not see its contents the file may be temporarily unavailable at the journal website or you do not have a PDF plug-in installed and enabled in your browser.

Alternatively, you can download the file locally and open with any standalone PDF reader:


Discussion and reply: Political parties and mass consciousness

Su m m e r Political Parties and Mass C onsciousness A t t h e M a r x C e n t e n a r y conference on "Prospects for Socialist C h an g e in Australia", held in M elbourne in April 1983, J o h n S o U S N E Alford gave the opening speech on the topic "Class in the 1980s", He dealt Jj. trl '« *“ • with the o p p o sin g theoretical concepts s'* pf ''false consciousness" a n d the Gramscian idea of "hegemony". «***•* “ 9 From the discussion he concluded that a new orientation away from "the dow n to one single strategic idea, and propagandist organ and the correct- m any factors a r e involved in the line political party" was necessary, if present p arlous state of the left, and of we were to get socialist change in the mass consciousness o f workers in Australia. relation to the capitalist class. Given the im portance of these W~ohn Alford set out a more Strategic concepts, and the practical - m com plex theory of consciousness, event o f the resignations from the that of "hegemony", as elaborated CPA in M elbourne in April 1984, it is by Gram sci in his Prison Notebooks, worth taking a closer look at J o h n in o rd e r to show the weakness o f the Alford's arg u m en t, which was printed concept of "false consciousness". He in A L R No. 84, 1983, and is also argues th at consciousness is com posed available on tape. o f three elements: the material world ■ T h e a r g u m e n t w a s c r u d e l y and sccial relations, co m m o n sense, simplified, for the sake o f impact, as and ideology. "False consciousness" Alford himself noted. This makes it only comes to grips with the element of difficult to really come to grips with. i d e o lo g y , he say s: " id e o l o g i c a l Firstly, he dealt with the question: why argum ents d o n 't even touch the welldo the o rd inary people acquiesce in the springs o f experience and c o m m o n Ideology and social o rder ol capitalism? s e n s e w h ic h u n d e r p i n p o p u l a r He says th at because the left has conservatism". "false consciousness", and has adopted stop bashing aw ay at ideology alone, A based its answer on the concept of It follows then that the left must a propagandist a p p ro a c h , it has failed and ad o p t an a pproach which is spectacularly, and the proof is in its oriented to people's experiences and present small size. c o m m o n sense, as it app ears to them, Whatever else may be said about to change the issues we address, as well this argum ent, it is not historical. T h e as o u r language a n d arguments. history of the Australian left, and the A bove all, the left needs to develop CPA in particular, cannot be boiled w orking class "organic intellectuals" - " able to connect day-to-day reality with the direction of the whole society, and build alliances which connect up all social groups: that is, a new type of c adre and a new strategic ap p ro ach . There are two things here t o take issue with: firstly, the w a y Alford talks a b o u t t h e d i s t i n c t i o n b e tw e e n ideology, c o m m o n sense an d false consciousness; a n d , secondly, the conclusion he draw s th at the left no longer needs a "strident" new spaper or an organised political party in the tradition o f Lenin. Both aspects, I believe, are at variance with Gramsci's own ideas ab o u t hegemony, politics, and the role of the working class party and press. Common Sense Iford describes c o m m o n sense as the "diverse, contradictory, i l l - f o r m e d f r a g m e n t a r y opinions an d perceptions" people hold within their view of the world; whereas ideology is "more systematic than c o m m o n sense ... m o re or less worked out bodies of thought ab o u t what exists, what's possible and what ought to be in political terms". Ideologies directly interested in suppressing this ju stify the position o f particular social idea. g r o u p s o r c la s s e s , e.g. l ib e r a l G r a m s c i r e c o g n i s e d f a l s e democracy a n d free m arket systems of consciousness as part of the historical thought su p p o rt certain phases of m ovem ent o f individual a n d class selfcapitalist class history. awareness from passive acceptance of As Alford would have it. "com mon inherited ideas to active critical sense" is constructed by people from m a r x i s m . H e d e s c r i b e d it as the material and social conditions of ' c o n t r a d i c t o r y c o n s c i o u s n e s s " , day-to-day existence, and ideology is whereby a w orker or a mass of workers constructed out of c o m m o n sense. could verbally assent to the ideas of the This is far lo o simple, and Alford ruling class a n d , in their active himself contradicts it when he w orking practice, actually live by a discusses the very active role of the different conception o f the world, a capitalist class organic intellectuals in socialist one. organising "hegemony" As he says, In Gramsci's view o f hegemony, the the media's "function o f organising level of "comm on sense" itself is part of hegemony involves selecting some the hegemony (as Alford states), and aspects of reality and c o m m o n sense equally so, the business of building and suppressing others .... as the basis working-class hegemony involves for ideological formulations", for creating a new "comm on sense". This exam ple ab o u t the dangers o f strikes quite a different note from unionism ... "the task of selectively Alford's arg u m en t which urges the em phasising is ideologically driven". It left to tune-in t o the "com m on sense" is a m o re systematic version of view o f o rd in a ry people in a much c o m m o n sense from their view of the m ore uncritical way, and also diverts world, an d their criteria of selection atte n tio n from the role of ideological correspond to their position (including a rg u m e n ts in helping to change that ih f ir high pay). "co m m o n sense". his ideological element of the This is so. even th ough Alford m ade J to construct the "co m m o n sense" intellectuals in their function of capitalist hegemony in fact helps a very strong criticism o f capitalist of the ordinary working people. orIgnanising hegemony from a class m any cases, "com mon sense" is a position antagonistic to that of the c o l l e c t i o n o f h ig h ly id e o l o g i c a l people they are influencing. positions. A good exam ple is the The Role o f the Party ideology o f white supremacy which is and its Press still "com m on sense" though now generally debunked a m o n g scientists and other educated layers — that black sk in d e n o te s inherent inferiority, that warm climates p roduce lazy, unintelligent cultures, that somehow E u ro pean ascendancy is entirely natural and the poverty of the Third W orld is similarly inevitable. A n o th e r exam ple is the idea o f male suprem acy held by m any wom en and most men in our society — men are better because they are stronger, or more intelligent, or m ore like god, or the breadwinner, depending on which particular religious, pseudo-scientific or secular ideolog} is involved. A n o th e r exam ple i.s the way older Catholics simply repeat the straight ideological teachings of the Church a b o u t good and evil, ab o u t sex. ab o ut suffering, as part of their "com m on sense". T he big one is the lack o f a "working class" c o m m o n sense a m o n g very broad parts of society, precisely because o f capitalist hegem ony being I he real problem in Gramsci's view in a b o u t com bining the socialist vision with practical activity so th at both tht vision and political work become mate and more clearly defined and unified. This is carried o u t by parties which have the role of intellectual leadership or organising hegem ony in interaction, with classes and social groups. lot of revolutionary blood has flowed under the bridge since G r a m s c i c r y s t a l l i s e d his th oughts in Mussolini's jails from 1926-37. Al tliai time, he elaborated a very stron g role for the revolutionary p a m and its press in developing a new intellectual leadership which could d e f e a t c a p i t a l i s t h e g e m o n y in strIetngitsh oofftetnhesaPiCd I tohwates t haeloptrteoseintst / rreejpelcytiont o ofA l fthoer d 's"prowphagoalensdaislet, advanced capitalist societies. think S tu art Hall gave some son of G ram scian heritage. S o how does organ and the correct-line polit Alford draw an opposite conclusion p a r ty -' in his contrib u tio n .to the "Class from G ram sci's ideas on hegemony? in the |9K0s" topic; The answ er to that questio n must I f you ask m e why econom ic class appears have som ething to d o with Alford's at the level o f politics and political strugglt. view of the potential o f the left and in a fo r m which is not redouble to that of socialists within the Al P. However, capital versus labour, yo u have to he docs not deal with this al all in his introduce those things precisely whk!\ represent class politically. Now the dassit p a p e r . W i t h o u t s o m e p o li t ic a l - not given its political consciousness by iij organisational perspective like this, econom ic position. It is represented by the there is no necessary logic to his existing political traditions, through the conclusion, ju s t as there is no e x is tin g p o lit ic a l i n s t itu ti o n s and necessary truth in his assertion th a t the organisations. Representation is an active role of the Australian left an d the tw o-w ay process .... We hear formulated: C P A has been basically propagandist However, Alford, like many othersj can n o t fail to be suggestive about the need for a new strategic approach lor the left, and a reassessment of the role o f parties such as the C P A , if we are to overcome the p articular Australian type of capitalist hegemony that does elicit the ongoing consent of the mass of workers to its exploitative, racist, sexist, environm entally destructive and w arm ongering order. On this point, Gramsci has quite a bit to say: One should stress the imporrance anti significance which, in the m odem world, political parlies have in the elaboration and diffusion o f conceptions o f the world, because essentially what they do is to wort o u t th e e th ic s a n d th e p o litita corresponding to these conceptions and act as it were as their hisrurwd 'la b o r a to r y '. The p a r tie s recruit individuals out o f the working mass, unj the selection is made on practical anJ theoretical criteria at the same time. Tht relation between theory and practUt becomes ever closer the more the conception is vitally and radically innovatory and opposed to o ld ways of thinking. For this reason one can say ihal. the parties are the elaborators o f /jew integral and totalitarian intelligentsias (unified, all-absorbing intellectual layers) and the crucibles where the unification u! theory and practice, understood as a red historical process, takes place. ) Prison Notebooks, The Study of Philosophy.) for us by a newspaper, or a parly, or somebody to whom we always talk, (emphasis added) a set o f views in which we begin to recognise the position or interest which we ourselves have .... Class .... is the structuring principle o f determ inacy on our life in the area o f m aterial production hut does not guarantee the political unity o f a class .... only the conduct o f political struggle guarantees this .... the business o f consm u tin g political program s .... is the essence o f politics .... and requires much new thought. T he material conditions and social relations of working people are the very stuff o f the eoncept o f "working class". This is equivalent to "economic class position". This position gives rise to a p a rt of "co m m o n sense" which at best is oppositional to the capitalist class. O u r present experience is that the capitalist class has its ideological and political unity ensured by an array of institutions — economic, political, legal, social, ideological — staffed by a v e r i t a b l e l e g i o n o f " o r g a n i c intellectuals". These forces also organise as m uch consent as possible from the w orking class a n d small capital, and even groups as alienated as Aborigines, and accom m odate social movements, especially feminism and environm entalism, as m uch as possible. W here necessary, force is applied (m ore o r less). As Alford put it, working class propagandists find their pumps overwhelm ed by this situation. But 1 suggest that the picture is much the same for w orking class organic intellectuals, seeking ways to unite the class, build alliances, and really change all the elements of the capitalist hegemony over to o u r favour. W hat pro bab ly keeps both forms of left activism going is the never-ending change and m ovem ent within the capitalist societies we are a part of — always challenging, always enraging, always offering new opp o rtu n ities to develop the socialist movement. But, 1 insist, the struggle requires well-organised m ature leadership — a party — if it is ever going to succeed. T o q u o te S tu a rt Hall again: I f we look not only at those (W inter Palace) m om ents, but at all those long im portant periods in between, we willfin d that politics consists o f bringing together in som e k in d o f dom inant or ruling bloc precisely different elements o f different classes a n d linking them with a variety o f popular m ovem ents which arise fr o m contradictions in other spheres o f society apart fro m the strictly economic, and that until this link is made, political forces, p o litic a l struggles, political settlements are never achieved. That is the actuals o f the instruments o f political, ideological and social struggle and contradiction. Peter M urphy works as a jo u rn a lis t w ith Tribune.

This is a preview of a remote PDF: http://ro.uow.edu.au/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=2242&context=alr

Murphy, Peter. Discussion and reply: Political parties and mass consciousness, Australian Left Review, 2014,