Kitchen Notebooks - Gramsci and the Mass Party

Like Antonio Gramsci found himself confined to Mussolini's dungeons, having to jot down short lines of thought in small notebooks, I at times find myself confined to the kitchen table, by a laptop, forced by an uncontrollable impulse to comment on something I have seen or read, to write a few short lines about some subject.

I recently started reading Monthly Review Press’ edition of Antonio A. Santucci’s Antonio Gramsci. Santucci there quotes Gramsci on the development of the political mass parties. Gramsci as we know was a leader of the Italian Communist Party (PCI), and did most of his political work in the 20s and 30s. This was the era of mass parties with a wide membership base.

Gramsci however criticizes elements within these parties, namely so-called charismatic leaders. This "charisma" Gramsci claims, always coincides "with a primitive phase of mass parties, when doctrine is introduced to the masses as something so nebulous and incoherent that it needs an infallible pope to interpret it and adapt it to circumstances" (Q, p. 233, Santucci p. 41).

Santucci goes on to quote Gramsci in a more satirical tone, where Gramsci compares the belief that "a politician must be [...] a great intellectual, must be 'anointed' as a genius, etc., etc." with "the backwardness of some rural regions [...] among whom one has to have a beard to be followed".

There may indeed be a sign of immaturity when a political party is judged more by the personal qualities of its leaders, rather than the political ideas - the ideology - the party represents. One could of course begin thinking of the claims of charismatic populism that are often directed towards the new Latin-American left. Although the situation is far from so dire as the propaganda from the right would have you think, there is no doubt that the personal popularity - the 'charisma' of political leaders, probably is more important than would be wanted. The situation in Venezuela is often pulled into focus when questions like this are discussed. There has however been done a huge job in building up a grass-roots movement, and a political party around Hugo Chavez, so there are positive developments. The question of whether someone else could step into Chavez shoes and continue the Bolivarian revolution is however still open.

But we, who live in (post?)industrialized countries should not overlook the beam in our own eye. What has happened to our mass parties? Mostly, the answer is that they are mass parties no more. Membership of political parties has dwindled for decades. If we realize that all formal democratic processes between elections happen within and between political parties, this should be considered a serious democratic problem.

But have we at least matured beyond the 'charismatic' leader that Gramsci criticizes? I think only seemingly. Perhaps (with notable exceptions) do we not primarily think of European political leaders as 'charismatic', but have we gotten an increased focus on the political and ideological content of the parties?

On the contrary. At least my experience from Norway, is that the focus primarily (from mass media) is on the perceived 'individual skill' of each politician. Some tabloids even give a "roll of the dice" to politicians based on their personal skill. In many ways politics is covered by media as a sports event, with focus on "skill" and fluctuations on polls, completely disconnected from the politics. It should not be surprising if there is an interconnectedness between this way of covering politics and the disconnection from politics of the population we can see through the dwindling membership of political parties.

In this sense, we have not matured at all from Gramsci’s "primitive phase" - we have not moved forward, simply sideways. And as the mass parties have disappeared in the process, we have perhaps gone both sideways and backwards, when it comes to our democratic and political maturity.

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