Antonio Gramsci 1891-1937

Antonio Gramsci Reader: VI Hegemony, Relations of Force, Historical Bloc

11 Some Theoretical and Practical Aspects of ‘Economism’


SPN, 158-67 (Q13§18), 1932-34


Economism – theoretical movement for free trade – theoretical syndicalism. It should be considered to what degree theoretical syndicalism derives originally from the philosophy of praxis, and to what degree from the economic doctrines of free trade – i.e. in the last analysis from liberalism. Hence it should be considered whether economism, in its most developed form, is not a direct descendant of liberalism, having very little connection with the philosophy of praxis even in its origins – and what connection it had only extrinsic and purely verbal.

The nexus between free-trade ideology and theoretical syndicalism is particularly evident in Italy, where the admiration of syndicalists like Lanzillo & Co. for Pareto is well known. The significance of the two tendencies, however, is very different. The former belongs to a dominant and directive social group; the latter to a group which is still subaltern, which has not yet gained consciousness of its strength, its possibilities, of how it is to develop, and which therefore does not know how to escape from the primitivist phase.

The approach of the free trade movement is based on a theoretical error whose practical origin is not hard to identify: namely the distinction between political society and civil society, which is made into and presented as an organic one, whereas in fact it is merely methodological. Thus it is asserted that economic activity belongs to civil society, and that the state must not intervene to regulate it. But since in actual reality civil society and state are one and the same, it must be made clear that laissez-faire too is a form of state ‘regulation’, introduced and maintained by legislative and coercive means. It is a deliberate policy, conscious of its own ends, and not the spontaneous, automatic expression of economic facts. Consequently, laissez-faire liberalism is a political programme, designed to change – in so far as it is victorious – a state’s ruling personnel, and to change the economic programme of the state itself – in other words the distribution of the national income.

The case of theoretical syndicalism is different. Here we are dealing with a subaltern group, which is prevented by this theory from ever becoming dominant, or from developing beyond the economic-corporate stage and rising to the phase of ethico-political hegemony in civil society, and of domination in the state. In the case of laissez-faire liberalism, one is dealing with a fraction of the ruling class which wishes to modify not the structure of the state, but merely government policy; which wishes to reform the laws controlling commerce, but only indirectly those controlling industry (since it is undeniable that protection, especially in countries with a poor and restricted market, limits freedom of industrial enterprise and favours unhealthily the creation of monopolies). What is at stake is a rotation in governmental office of the ruling-class parties, not the foundation and organization of a new political society, and even less of a new type of civil society. In the case of the theoretical syndicalist movement the problem is more complex. It is undeniable that in it, the independence and autonomy of the subaltern group which it claims to represent are in fact sacrificed to the intellectual hegemony of the ruling class, since precisely theoretical syndicalism is merely an aspect of laissez-faire liberalism – justified with a few mutilated (and therefore banalized) theses from the philosophy of praxis. Why and how does this ‘sacrifice’ come about? The transformation of the subordinate group into a dominant one is excluded, either because the problem is not even considered (Fabianism, De Man,[13] an important part of the Labour Party), or because it is posed in an inappropriate and ineffective form (social-democratic tendencies in general), or because of a belief in the possibility of leaping from class society directly into a society of perfect equality with a syndical economy.

The attitude of economism towards expressions of political and intellectual will, action or initiative is to say the least strange – as if these did not emanate organically from economic necessity, and indeed were not the only effective expression of the economy. Thus it is incongruous that the concrete posing of the problem of hegemony should be interpreted as a fact subordinating the hegemonic group. Undoubtedly the fact of hegemony presupposes that account be taken of the interests and the tendencies of the groups over which hegemony is to be exercised, and that a certain compromise equilibrium should be formed – in other words, that the leading group should make sacrifices of an economic-corporate kind. But there is also no doubt that such sacrifices and such a compromise cannot touch the essential; for though hegemony is ethico-political, it must also be economic, must necessarily be based on the decisive function exercised by the leading group in the decisive nucleus of economic activity.

Economism appears in many other guises besides laissez-faire liberalism and theoretical syndicalism. All forms of electoral abstentionism belong to it (a typical example is the abstentionism of the Italian clericals after 1870, which became ever more attenuated after 1900 until 1919 and the formation of the Popular Party; [14] the organic distinction which the clericals made between the real Italy and the legal Italy was a reproduction of the distinction between economic world and politico-legal world); and there are many such forms, in the sense that there can be semi-abstentionism, 25 per cent abstentionism, etc. Linked with abstentionism is the formula ‘the worse it gets, the better that will be’, and also the formula of the so-called parliamentary ‘intransigence’ of certain groups of deputies. Economism is not always opposed to political action and to the political party, but the latter is seen merely as an educational organism similar in kind to a trade union. One point of reference for the study of economism, and for understanding the relations between structure and superstructure, is the passage in The Poverty of Philosophy where it says that an important phase in the development of a social group is that in which the individual components of a trade union no longer struggle solely for their own economic interests, but for the defence and the development of the organization itself (see the exact statement; [15] The Poverty of Philosophy is an essential moment in the formation of the philosophy of praxis; it can be considered as a development of the Theses on Feuerbach, while The Holy Family – an occasional work – is a vaguely intermediate stage, as is apparent from the passages devoted to Proudhon and especially to French materialism. The passage on French materialism is more than anything else a chapter of cultural history – not a theoretical passage as it is often interpreted as being – and as cultural history it is admirable. Recall the observation that the critique of Proudhon and of his interpretation of the Hegelian dialectic contained in The Poverty of the Philosophy may be extended to Gioberti and to the Hegelianism of the Italian moderate liberals in general. The parallel Proudhon-Gioberti, despite the fact that they represent non-homogeneous politico-historical phases, indeed precisely for that reason, can be interesting and productive.) In this connection Engels’s statement too should be recalled, that the economy is only the mainspring of history ‘in the last analysis’ (to be found in his two letters on the philosophy of praxis also published in Italian), [16] this statement is to be related directly to the passage in the Preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy which says that it is on the terrain of ideologies that men become conscious of conflicts in the world of the economy.

At various points in these notes it is stated that the philosophy of praxis is far more widely diffused than is generally conceded. The assertion is correct if what is meant is that historical economism as Professor Loria [17] now calls his more or less incoherent theories – is widely diffused, and that consequently the cultural environment has completely changed from the time in which the philosophy of praxis began its struggles. One might say, in Crocean terminology, that the greatest heresy which has grown in the womb of the ‘religion of freedom’ has itself too like orthodox religion degenerated, and has become disseminated as ‘superstition’ – in other words, has combined with laissez-faire liberalism and produced economism. However, it remains to be seen whether – in contrast to orthodox religion, which has by now quite shrivelled up – this heretical superstition has not in fact always maintained a ferment which will cause it to be reborn as a higher form of religion; in other words, if the dross of superstition is not in fact easily got rid of.

A few characteristics of historical economism: 1. in the search for historical connections it makes no distinction between what is ‘relatively permanent’ and what is a passing fluctuation, and by an economic fact it means the self-interest of an individual or small group, in an immediate and ‘dirty-Jewish’ sense. In other words, it does not take economic class formations into account, with all their inherent relations, but assumes motives of mean and usurious self-interest, especially when it takes forms which the law defines as criminal; 2. the doctrine according to which economic development is reduced to the course of technical change in the instruments of work. Professor Loria has produced a splendid demonstration of this doctrine in application, in his article on the social influence of the aeroplane published in Rassegna Contemporanea in 1912; 3. the doctrine according to which economic and historical development are made to depend directly on the changes in some important element of production – the discovery of a new raw material or fuel, etc. – which necessitate the application of new methods in the construction and design of machines. In recent times there has been an entire literature on the subject of petroleum: Antonio Laviosa’s article in Nuova Antologia of 16 May 1929 can be read as a typical example. The discovery of new fuels and new forms of energy, just as of new raw materials to be transformed, is certainly of great importance, since it can alter the position of individual states; but it does not determine historical movement, etc.

It often happens that people combat historical economism in the belief that they are attacking historical materialism. This is the case, for instance, with an article in the Paris Avenir of 10 October 1930 (reproduced in Rassegna Settimanale della Stampa Estera [Weekly Review of the Foreign Press] of 21 October 1930, pp. 2303-4), which can be quoted as typical: ‘We have been hearing for some time, especially since the war, that it is self-interest which governs nations and drives the world forward. It was the Marxists who invented this thesis, to which they give the somewhat doctrinaire title of “historical materialism”. In pure Marxism, men taken as a mass obey economic necessity and not their own passions. Politics is passion; patriotism is passion; these two demanding ideas merely act as a facade in history. In reality, the history of peoples throughout the centuries is to be explained by a changing, constantly renewed interplay of material causes. Everything is economics. Many “bourgeois” philosophers and economists have taken up this refrain. They pretend to be able to explain high international politics to us by the current price of grain, oil or rubber. They use all their ingenuity to prove that diplomacy is entirely governed by questions of custom tariffs and cost prices. These explanations enjoy a high esteem. They have a modicum of scientific appearance, and proceed from a sort of superior scepticism which would like to pass for the last word in elegance. Emotions in foreign policy? Feelings in home affairs? Enough of that! That stuff is all right for the common people. The great minds, the initiates, know that everything is governed by debits and credits.

Now this is an absolute pseudo-truth. It is utterly false that peoples only allow themselves to be moved by considerations of self-interest, and it is entirely true that they are above all motivated by desire for, and ardent belief in, prestige. Anyone who does not understand this, does not understand anything. The article (entitled ‘The Desire for Prestige’) goes on to cite the examples of German and Italian politics, which it claims are governed by considerations of prestige, and not dictated by material interests. In short, it includes most of the more banal polemical gibes that are directed against the philosophy of praxis [i.e., Marxism]; but the real target of the polemic is crude economism of Loria’s kind. However, the author is not very strong in argument in other respects either. He does not understand that ‘passions’ may be simply a synonym for economic interests, and that it is difficult to maintain that political activity is a permanent state of raw emotion and of spasm. Indeed he himself presents French politics as systematic and coherent ‘rationality’, i.e. purged of all elements of passion, etc.

In its most widespread form as economistic superstition, the philosophy of praxis loses a great part of its capacity for cultural expansion among the top layer of intellectuals, however much it may gain among the popular masses and the second-rate intellectuals, who do not intend to overtax their brains but still wish to appear to know everything, etc. As Engels wrote, many people find it very convenient to think that they can have the whole of history and all political and philosophical wisdom in their pockets at little cost and no trouble, concentrated into a few short formulas. They forget that the thesis which asserts that men become conscious of fundamental conflicts on the terrain of ideologies is not psychological or moralistic in character, but structural and epistemological; and they form the habit of considering politics, and hence history, as a continuous marché de dupes, a competition in conjuring and sleight of hand. ‘Critical’ activity is reduced to the exposure of swindles, to creating scandals, and to prying into the pockets of public figures.

It is thus forgotten that since ‘economism’ too is, or is presumed to be, an objective principle of interpretation (objective-scientific), the search for direct self-interest should apply to all aspects of history, to those who represent the ‘thesis’ as well as to those who represent the antithesis’. Furthermore, another proposition of the philosophy of praxis is also forgotten: that ‘popular beliefs’ and similar ideas are themselves material forces. The search for ‘dirty-Jewish’ interests has sometimes led to monstrous and comical errors of interpretation, which have consequently reacted negatively on the prestige of the original body of ideas. It is therefore necessary to combat economism not only in the theory of historiography, but also and especially in the theory and practice of politics. In this field, the struggle can and must be carried on by developing the concept of hegemony – as has been done in practice in the development of the theory of the political party, and in the actual history of certain political parties (the struggle against the theory of the so-called permanent revolution – to which was counterposed the concept of revolutionary-democratic dictatorship; the extent of the support given to constituentist ideologies, etc.)[18] A study could be made of how certain political movements were judged during the course of their development. One could take as a model the Boulangist movement (from 1886 to 1890 approximately) or the Dreyfus trial or even the coup d'état of 2 December (one would analyse the classic work on the subject[19] and consider how much relative importance is given on the one hand to immediate economic factors, and on the other to the concrete study of ‘ideologies’). Confronted with these events, economism asks the question: ‘who profits directly from the initiative under consideration?’, and replies with a line of reasoning which is as simplistic as it is fallacious: the ones who profit directly are a certain fraction of the ruling class. Furthermore, so that no mistake shall be made, the choice falls on that fraction which manifestly has a progressive function, controlling the totality of economic forces. One can be certain of not going wrong, since necessarily, if the movement under consideration comes to power, sooner or later the progressive fraction of the ruling group will end up by controlling the new government, and by making it its instrument for turning the state apparatus to its own benefit. This sort of infallibility, therefore, comes very cheap. It not only has no theoretical significance – it has only minimal political implications or practical efficacy. In general, it produces nothing but moralistic sermons, and interminable questions of personality.

When a movement of the Boulangist type occurs, the analysis realistically should be developed along the following lines: 1. social content of the mass following of the movement; 2. what function did this mass have in the balance of forces – which is in process of transformation, as the new movement demonstrates by its very coming into existence? 3. what is the political and social significance of those of the demands presented by the movement’s leaders which find general assent? To what effective needs do they correspond? 4. examination of the conformity of the means to the proposed end; 5. only in the last analysis, and formulated in political not moralistic terms, is the hypothesis considered that such a movement will necessarily be perverted, and serve quite different ends from those which the mass of its followers expect. But economism puts forward this hypothesis in advance, when no concrete fact (that is to say, none which appears as such to the evidence of common sense – rather than as a result of some esoteric ‘scientific’ analysis) yet exists to support it. It thus appears as a moralistic accusation of duplicity and bad faith, or (in the case of the movement’s followers) of naivety and stupidity. Thus the political struggle is reduced to a series of personal affairs between on the one hand those with the genie in the lamp who know everything and on the other those who are fooled by their own leaders but are so incurably thick that they refuse to believe it.

Moreover, until such movements have gained power, it is always possible to think that they are going to fail – and some indeed have failed (Boulangism itself, which failed as such and then was definitively crushed with the rise of the Dreyfusard movement; the movement of Georges Valois; that of General Gajda).[20] Research must therefore be directed towards identifying their strengths and weaknesses. The ‘economist’ hypothesis asserts the existence of an immediate element of strength – i.e. the availability of a certain direct or indirect financial backing (a large newspaper supporting the movement is also a form of indirect financial backing) – and is satisfied with that. But it is not enough.

In this case too, an analysis of the balance of forces – at all levels can only culminate in the sphere of hegemony and ethico-political relations.