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War of Position at the Centres of Capitalism

In the comment section of my previous entry on Gramsci and hegemony, I indicated that I was planning on writing more about the concepts of counter-hegemony and hegemony by focusing on Gramsci's concept of "the war of position."  Generally, I was interested in expanding on some of the points made in the last two or three paragraphs of the article to discuss the importance of establishing a counter-hegemony of revolutionary forces, specifically at the centres of capitalism where myself and most of my readers live.

Gramsci's notion of "war of position" is usually defined––contrary to the "war of manoeuvre/movement" [open/frontal warfare] and underground warfare [guerrilla war, and/or the military aspect of peoples war]––as some sort of cultural/intellectual struggle where one class pursues hegemony by establishing some sort of cultural counter-hegemony.  It is class warfare where "the superstructures of civil society are like the trench-systems of modern [well "modern" in Gramsci's time] warfare." [Gramsci, Selections from the Prison Notebooks, 235] We must also note, however, that, for Gramsci, the concept is not just about the limited notion of "cultural hegemony" (a term he never uses but that is ascribed to him, and in my last entry I tried to indicate how hegemony should be understood) but about the moment of passive class warfare that persists when militaries are no longer present––the need to recognize this as still being a moment of war, the need to develop tactics within this strategic moment.  

Adopted from Clausewitz's theories of war and Gramsci's understanding of Italian history, the concept of "war of position", therefore, is broader than how it is usually applied––a point I feel I should qualify before employing it in connection to counter-hegemony.  Unfortunately, Gramsci's concepts are generally slippery.  This is because: a) his theory comes from disorganized prison notebooks that he never had a chance to edit; b) the nature of his imprisonment meant that he had to use code words to obscure the obvious political content from prison censors (i.e. the term "philosophy of praxis" is substituted for "communism", instead of "Lenin" he writes "Ilyich", etc.).  Add to these basic problems the post-modern and post-colonial distortions I discussed in my previous entry on this topic, and poor old Gramsci has had a rough time being fully understood.

Furthermore, the general broadness of the concept "war of position" means that, even without distorting Gramsci, it can have a variety of political interpretations.  Those who believe in the theory of insurrection, for example, can use the "war of position" to describe the period of protracted legal struggle that will produce the grounds of insurrection––insurrection, obviously, being a "war of manoeuvre".  In this way, the concept is seen as part of a linear progression: concentrate on a war of position, build up some forces for underground warfare but keep them in reserve, which will lead to an insurrectionary war of movement.  But those of us who believe in the theory of Protracted Peoples War will argue that the "war of position" is not just a phase but, because revolutionary warfare should not be understood as linear, a type of warfare that happens before, throughout, and after the military aspect of Peoples War.  Although it can be argued that Gramsci might have been more in line with the theory of insurrection (especially since, obviously, the theory of PPW had not yet been given a coherent expression), there are also elements in the Prison Notebooks to suggest otherwise.  That is, in order to even enter a phase of strategic defensive we need to accumulate revolutionary forces which is a war of position; during strategic defensive and strategic equilibrium we need to keep waging this war of position outside of underground warfare and wars of movement in order to extend revolutionary hegemony in the superstructure; during the dictatorship of the proletariat the war of position is extremely necessary to prevent capitalism from being reestablished––indeed, we can look at the Great Cultural Proletarian Revolution as being a class struggle that was primarily a war of position.

(Indeed, the fact that Gramsci places emphasis on the "war of position" that comes after the success of the "war of manoeuvre"––thus, to reverse Clausewitz's aphorism, "politics is war by other means"––should make us realize that the concept is not just about building a counter-hegemony before revolution, but about continuing to build hegemony after the state has been seized by a victorious revolution.  Thus, Gramsci's concept of "war of position" often seems more concerned with the passive building of hegemony post-revolutionary war––after a class has seized power––then how it is generally employed in pop-academia.  Just as he speaks of the war of position as being something that can produce a war of manoeuvre, Gramsci also speaks of the war of position as being something that can be won by the war of manoeuvre.)

In any case, I want to focus here on understanding "war of position" as it is connected to a phase of accumulating revolutionary forces––the point at which those of us who live at the centres of capitalism find ourselves since we are not even close to a period of strategic defensive, let alone in a period where the dictatorship of the proletariat has been established.  Thus, back to the basic definition of the concept that, although I've problematized its over-specificity, is what I find most pertinent in this context.  That is, the need to build a revolutionary counter-hegemony in order to make revolutionary values and ideas become more compelling than the "common sense" bourgeois values and ideas.  Waging this sort of war of position is very important at the centres of capitalism if we are ever to succeed in building a broad-based revolutionary movement; the moment we begin speaking of revolution we are faced with the "common sense" rejection of such a movement––a knee-jerk appeal to the hegemonic ideology of the bourgeoisie––a barrier that is especially strong at the centres of capitalism.

First of all, anyone who grapples seriously with the issue of class revolution will be forced to admit that, contrary to bourgeois and revisionist views of history, such a revolution will by necessity (and indeed tragically) be violent.  The class in power, as I have argued before, will not peacefully abdicate power and, indeed, possesses institutions (i.e. the police, the military) that are devoted to maintaining its power in those moments when its subjects refuse to consent to its rule.  And though revisionists such as Bernstein have argued that revolution can be accomplished through peaceful parliamentary means, those of us who have a critical and scientific understanding of revolutionary history are very much aware that this method leads only to defeat.

Thus, following the first point of the necessity of a violent overthrow of capitalism, revolutionary movements at the centres of capitalism are faced with this secondary problem: if we accept that revolutionary violence is unavoidable, and that if we want to pursue a path of making revolution we have to be aware that this will lead to violent confrontations with the state if it will ever be successful, how do we convince the masses at the centres of capitalism to become part of such a movement?  In the global peripheries, after all, the barrier of violence is not really a problem: where people are over-exploited, where they starve to death or live brutal lives because of imperialism, where they are bombed to death just by living their lives––in this context, someone is not going to be afraid of risking their life in a revolutionary movement because they are already risking their lives just by living passively.  This is why Samir Amin, among others, has endorsed Lenin's proposition that revolutionary movements are most likely to spring up at the points of the "weakest link" in the imperialist world system––where the contradictions of capitalism are bare and violent.

At the centres of capitalism, however, the power of bourgeois hegemony often works to convince the masses that there is no need for revolution because their lives are comfortable. (Hence the reason, for example, that some of us uphold the importance of Lenin's theory of the labour aristocracy.)  And though it is true that this comfortability is generally the result of world imperialism, just pointing out that someone is living a peaceful life because a bunch of people elsewhere are getting starved, worked to death, and bombed into oblivion is not by itself necessarily going to convince people to join a movement that seeks the violent overthrow of capitalism.  After all, why overthrow something that, though exploitative, is not experienced at every moment as the violent structure that it is?  Why not, in this context, pursue a peaceful strategy of revolution rather than unnecessarily making our lives difficult by a state that is not bombing those of us at the centre?  This is why the communist movement at the centres of capitalism is affected by a default opportunism––why Lenin even once argued, long ago, that opportunism was the prime ideology of the global centres––and spends most of its time pursuing reformist strategies and entryism.  Violent revolution for people elsewhere, is the formula, but a peaceful strategy for the "advanced workers" at the centres of capitalism.

This opportunistic understanding of revolution, then, is a product of bourgeois hegemony and why, primarily, we need to pursue a "war of position" so as to position the necessity for class revolution as a counter "common sense" to the prevailing attitude of peaceful co-existence and parliamentarism.  At this moment any revolutionary movement needs to accumulate people with a revolutionary consciousness.  To do this it is necessary to ideological struggle in the cultural milieu in order to popularize revolutionary ideology.  And though this struggle must be carried out with other struggles necessary for party building, it is the primary struggle for the building of any revolutionary party.  Every party that has built itself historically, after all, has begun with ideological struggle and has only extended the sphere of this struggle to other aspects when it has become powerful enough to be treated as a compelling counter-force by the masses.  

Yes, people need to be drawn to an emergent revolutionary movement because of the actions of its cadre (who should be known as serving the people rather than using the people), but unless we are to be guilty of "putting the cart before the horse" we also cannot even be known by our actions until we are first known as a growing counter-hegemony in the ideological sphere.  This is why Lenin emphasized the need for a communist newspaper (though not in the sense, it must be pointed out, that certain dogmato-revisionist groups who only sell newspapers and do nothing else understand it).  This is also why Gramsci used the analogy of the Catholic church to explain how we properly pursue hegemony by these means.  The Catholic church, after all, was clearly hegemonic in Italy at the time Gramsci was writing and, as Gramsci pointed out, had been hegemonic for millennia; and it did not accomplish this hegemony through acts of "Christian charity".  Although the early Christians might have practiced a behaviour that stood in stark contrast to the values of the Roman Empire––and it is true that this gained the movement many adherents––it primarily became hegemonic through ideological proselytization.

If every successful revolutionary movement has begun by pursuing ideological struggle, then a revolutionary movement at the centres of capitalism needs to pursue a heightened ideological struggle because here there is a significant barrier to even thinking about revolution unless it is watered-down with reformist and movementist terminology.  While it is harder for revolutionary movements in the periphery to win victories against the imperialist mechanisms that promote the development of underdevelopment, it is easier for revolutionary movements to spring up in these contexts.  Conversely, while it is harder for revolutionary movements at the centres of capitalism to build themselves into a significant force, it might be easier to wage a revolutionary struggle in the "belly of the beast" once such a significant force emerges––we do not, after all, have to worry about the problems of New Democratic Revolution, or of building up the forces of production necessary for socialism… we do, however, have to worry about the fact that we lack, by and large, the necessary relations of production.

Hence the need for heightening a "war of position" at the centres of capitalism.  On the one hand we need to promote revolutionary ideology so that it becomes popularized, not watered down, and challenges bourgeois "common sense"––we do this by forcing ideological class struggle into all spheres of life and, at the same time, slowly accumulating revolutionary forces who will persist in this agitation and begin building structures of parallel ideology at the margins and in the cracks of the state.  On the other hand, we need to break through the ideology that, because of first world welfare capitalist privilege, is incapable of seeing revolution as a necessity.  And we must keep in mind that parliamentarism and entryism are ideological traps; in the words of Gramsci, "in political struggle one should not ape the methods of the ruling classes, or one will fall into easy ambushes." [ibid., 232]


  1. Woah, this came like a slap to my face (positive one). That is why I like reading your stuff, you are well read and have intelligence to get good insight in it. What I read here just cleared my mind what to do practically in my specific situation. Anyway, what I wanted to say besides that, is what you would say for kinda 2nd world countries, sort of Eastern and SE Europe? Not really centers of imperialism, but also not being starved to death, bombed, or no clean water type countries? At least at the moment, and if we exclude parts of Ukraine. Basically very poor, but not like most of India poor. On the other hand, ideology is in biggest part the imperialist one, or at least where it isn't, it is rising in that direction. And no class struggle as it should be based on material conditions. So, what is to be done? lol Cheers

    1. People in those countries are better to ask than me. The same general rules apply: start revolutionary party, extend orbit of influence, etc. The fact that there isn't the same kind of hegemonic consensus might make a difference, but probably all of the post-Soviet ideology that still lingers would also produce different difficulties. A concrete analysis of a concrete situation made by comrades in these contexts, though, would make your question of "what is to be done" more concrete.


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