All posts tagged: Antonio Gramsci

Populism & Hegemony (series)

The broad political Left in the United States has been plagued for decades now with a culture of reaction, fragmentation, issue silo-ing, and a chasm between insiders and outsiders.  Can the concepts of populism and hegemony help to explain these challenges?  What insights might we gain through an exploration of these ideas?

A series on populism and hegemony may sound nerdy, esoteric, and less-than-fully-practical for on-the-ground organizers, campaigners, and advocates for social justice (my intended audience), but I believe that understanding the patterns and processes of these two related concepts is key to effective long-term political struggle.  

In this series I’m digging in and attempting to work out some useful frameworks. I’m a student, not an expert, on these subjects &#151 and I’d love for other folks to weigh in on these ideas.

This is the landing page for the series.  You can bookmark it and check back for new posts, which I’ll be linking to from this page.

  1. Anatomy of Political Identity
  2. Marx’s error
  3. Bonding & Bridging
  4. Long lefty laundry lists
  5. Wisconsin: How Populism Works

Activism vs. organizing | reflections on Gramsci pt.2

In his essay Voluntarism and Social Masses, Antonio Gramsci argues that “the actions and organizations of ‘volunteers’ must be distinguished from the actions and organisations of homogeneous social blocs, and judged by different criteria.”  He defines these “volunteers” as “those who have detached themselves from the mass by arbitrary individual initiative…”

His language of volunteers vs. organized social blocs aligns with a similar distinction often made between activism and organizing.  Anyone can become an activist overnight, if he or she so desires.  All you need to do is to start taking action as an individual on an issue you care about.  I’m not about to be as dismissive as Gramsci seems to be in this essay about the value of such an act.  However, he makes a good point: organizing is about finding other people to take action with you.  But there’s more – and here’s where I find Gramsci’s framework so helpful – organizing is not just about finding anyone to take action with you; it’s about working to activate an already constituted social bloc and turn the bloc itself into the historical actor.

“Spontaneity” and social change | reflections on Gramsci pt.1

I’ve been thinking a lot about the concept of hegemony, and reading Antonio Gramsci.  I’ll be posting a few reflections as I go.

Years ago, I remember growing wary of tendencies (within activist groups I was part of) to exaggerate and glorify supposedly “spontaneous” elements of activism and protest.  Some group members often recounted protests and direct actions as if what transpired had been spontaneous, even when the same individuals had themselves participated in elaborate planning meetings and preparations for the actions.  What bothered me more was when this fiction of spontaneity mutated until it held a central place in some group members’ theory of change.  The “theory” seemed to hold that if a few committed activists were willing to be “militant” enough, their actions might somehow inspire more people to do likewise; change would ultimately occur as a result of a spontaneous mass uprising of this sort.



Septima Clark and Rosa Parks at Highlander Folk School just before the Montgomery Bus Boycott, 1955.

The myth of spontaneity also seemed present in how the broader society viewed protest and collective action-when it wasn’t ignored entirely-and this bothered me too.  The story of Rosa Parks’ refusal, for example, was popularly told and retold as the story of a woman who was tired, who had had enough, and who spontaneously refused to unfairly give up her seat to a white rider on the bus.  I had learned what really happened: that Rosa Parks was a seasoned community leader; that she had had many strategic discussions with other leaders about this very action beforehand; that she had been part of strategic trainings at the Highlander Folk School, a center that had trained many Civil Rights and labor leaders (including Martin Luther King Jr.).  The story of, “I was tired,” annoyed me because it felt to me that it took political agency out of the equation.  The implied lesson seemed to be, “If you, as an individual, muster the courage to stand up and do what’s right, you may just kick off a whole movement (spontaneously).”  The more accurate and instructive lesson, in my opinion, would have been, “If you plan with others, prepare yourself and others, build strong relationships in your community, develop a strategy for action, and build community buy-in, then you may be able to effectively intervene in the historical process.”