The concept of “relations of force” in Gramsci

Gino Severini (1883–1966), Flying Over Rheims, 1915.
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By JALDES MENESES*

The importance of the concept of power relations for understanding the Gramscian theoretical set

The most Lenin-inspired of all Gramsci's original philosophical and political concepts is the absolute historicist (or realist) concept of "relations of force". In Gramsci, the use (and not the abuse) of the concept of relations of force exceeded the strictly political use. Arrived at gait high-sounding polemic, to the territory of history and philosophy. For a long time, the true political and philosophical axiality of power relations was underestimated in the gigantic critical fortune of interpreters of the Italian revolutionary philosopher.

What nonsense is this? Does the philosophical and political tradition of Marx, Engels, Lenin and an immense gallery of authors have anything to do with the old, plural and conservative German historicism, which relativized and diluted history in the cultural differences of civilizations? To a certain extent, Marx and Engels, already in the founding text of the materialist theory of history – The German Ideology –, excuse the pun, founded a historicist theory of history alternative to conservative historicism when they wrote that, beyond the consecrated difference between “natural sciences” and “society”, “we know a single science, the science of history”. The phrase is neither naturalistic nor positivist.

Basically, it contains before la lettre, the same sense of Gramsci's absolute (or realist) historicism. Even a simple hermeneutic perceives, in this case, history is no longer relative to culture, but to history itself. Therefore, it is not funny the admiration of Marx and Engels for Charles Darwin – the genius who historicized the natural sciences. The link between Marx and Darwin is thus explained by Engels no less than in the funeral oration at Marx's funeral in terms of "As Darwin discovered the law of development of organic nature, so Marx discovered the law of development of human history". For this reason – allow me another biographical note – Marx chose to send one of the first copies of the First Book of Capital to the British naturalist, who, from the height of his nobility, certainly did not deign to read the scribbles of an unknown German exile.

Where to start unraveling the tangle of complex issues, even hermetic for the uninitiated, addressed in the first two paragraphs? In short, Gramsci formulated an analysis of relations of force. It subterraneanly underlies and underpins the whole set of the communist author's prison reflection. The exposition of this analysis, in the Prison Notebooks, can be found in note number 17 of Notebook 13, entitled Analysis of situations: power relations (Gramsci, 2000 CC13: 36-46).

At first sight, this analysis seems to compose only one method of analysis of the political conjuncture. Nothing more misleading. Gramsci's ambition is much greater. Immersed in the issue of force relations, much broader thematic cores are included, especially the great question of all social theory. Social theory must study reality as second nature or cultural value. Study society transposing/adapting the methods of the natural sciences? Or to formulate a historical-political methodology (some prefer the charming expression ontology) adequate to social phenomena?

Gramsci writes (2000 C13V3: 40): “one often reads, in historical narratives, the generic expression: relations of force favorable, unfavorable to this or that tendency. Thus, abstractly, this formulation does not explain anything or almost nothing, since what is done is nothing more than repeating the fact that must be explained, presenting it once as a fact and once as an abstract law and as an explanation. Therefore, the theoretical error consists in presenting a principle of research and interpretation as a 'historical cause'”.

Some do not realize that, in the case of analyzing a situation where the arrangement of different power relations is involved, it is essential to discern, before presenting the fact and reproducing it as a favorable or unfavorable power relationship (example: some authors describe the fact of an economic crisis of capitalism, of a cyclical character, without more, as a relation of force favorable to the dismantling of the system), the “various times and degrees” (Gramsci, 2000 C13V3: 40) intrinsic in the composition of the various power relations.

According to Gramsci (2000 C13V3: 40-46), there are three “moments” or “degrees” of a given force relationship:

1 – The relationship of power immediately untied from the objective social structure (demography, the degree of development of the productive forces, etc.). In this case, the power relationship can be explained in quantitative terms, almost like a radiograph (number of inhabitants in a given city, number of commercial establishments in the same city, etc.).

2 – The relationship of power of political content, pertinent to the degree of consciousness and organization of the classes of a given society. Gramsci divides this moment into several degrees. The first, he calls economic-corporate (when a certain profession or branch of activity feels the need to organize itself as a professional or business group). Then, still in the meshes of economo-corporatism, the group feels the need to compact the other professions or business groups, to act in the sphere of a class and not just in that of a restricted social group. As Gramsci concludes (41), “the question of the State is already being raised at this moment, but only in the field of obtaining political and legal equality with the dominant groups (...)”. Then, a third moment follows, that of universalization, when “one acquires the awareness that the corporate interests themselves, in their current and future development, surpass the corporate circle, of a merely economic group, and can and must become the interests of other subordinate groups. This is the most strictly political phase, which marks the passage (...) from the structure to the sphere of complex superstructures”.

3 – The moment of the military strength ratio, of immediate, fulminant action, in a concrete historical scenario. Gramsci also divides this relationship into two degrees: one military, in the strict sense (technical-military), and the other political-military, in which the second degree subordinates the first, otherwise it would fall into a militaristic illusion, in capacity ( limited) conflict resolution through the absolute predominance of force. As Gramsci argues (2000 C13V3: 43): “In the course of history, these two degrees have presented a great variety of combinations. A typical example, which can serve as a limiting demonstration, is that of the relationship of military oppression of a State over a nation that seeks to achieve its state independence. The relationship is not exactly military, but politico-military: indeed, this type of oppression would be inexplicable without the state of social disintegration of the oppressed people and the passivity of its majority”.

Since Gramsci's thought is systematic under a fragmentary envelope, in this sense, the analysis of power relations is one of the foundations of this systematicity. Take the example of Notebook 22 (Americanism and Fordism). Anyone who takes the trouble to carefully read the architecture of this text will see that it strictly follows the elements of “analysis of power relations” contained in note 17 of Notebook 13 (Situation analysis: power relations).

I consider the concept of power relations fundamental in understanding Gramsci's theoretical set, mainly because it is a decisive piece in understanding Gramsci's method of investigation. Only by entering the Gramscian categorical laboratory is it possible to assess the entire epistemological and methodological reach expressed in this concept, namely: questions of philosophy, of the conception of the world (ideology), are also totally riddled by relations of force.

The question requires deepening, in the sense of seeking the core of this political focal point, from which Gramsci approaches the totality of social life. For some time, Gramsci was presented as a “theorist of superstructures” – with an emphasis on the political superstructure –, as opposed to “economism”, dominant in the Marxist tradition of the II and III International. The version is not naive. By considering Gramsci as a theorist of superstructures, one can operate, at the same time, with a politicalist version of Gramsci, separating economy and politics, structure and superstructure.

It is not wrong to say that politics is the focal point of gait from Gramsci. What does that mean? The systematic foundation of this focal point in politics must be sought within the scope of the theorization that I call analysis of power relations, since the proper consideration of this analysis allows unifying in a single movement of multiple determinations politics and economy, structure and superstructure, thus escaping from the pitfalls of economism and politicism (as well as from that true perversion of science that is scientism, that is, the positivist religion of science).

The best-known sentence Prison Notebooks is the one that “everything is political”, including philosophy and history – “everything is political, including philosophy or philosophies, and the only philosophy is 'history in action', that is, life itself” (Gramsci, 1999 C7V1 : 246).

However, if “everything is politics” the answer to the question will not be found simply in the closed-loop analysis of political practice and institutions, in the model of political science. mainstream. See below, by the way, the main example of the analysis of relations of force, derived and implied from/in Gramsci's reading of one of the most sung stones of Marx's global theory of history (unfortunately assumed as a dogma by the diamond; hated without further reflection by post-Marxists), the well-known Preface of 1859 to Introduction to the Critique of Political Economy (Marx). Well then, Gramsci (1999 C11V.1: 140), in an attempt to operate a synthesis, say, absolute historicist (or realist), reduces, to begin with and never to end the conversation, to two axioms – in fact, following such and what is the letter of the Marxian “reduction” enunciated in the famous Prefácio – nothing less than the universal history of the modes of production. Thus, there are two basic power relations of the modes of production in history and between them in the same historical period: “1) Humanity only ever sets itself tasks that it can solve; the task itself only arises when the material conditions for its resolution already exist or, at least, are already in the process of existing; 2) A social formation does not disappear before all the productive forces it still contains have developed; and new and superior relations of production do not take their place before the material conditions for the existence of these new relations have already been generated within the bosom of the old society – these propositions should have been analyzed in all their importance and consequences. Only on this ground is it possible to eliminate any mechanism and any trace of 'miraculous' superstition; only in it should the problem of the formation of active political groups be placed and, ultimately, also the problem of the role of great personalities in history”.

Gramsci never departs from this analysis (even when the subject is not politics, but philosophy and history) – it is exactly what has the power to give systematicity to his reflection. Imitating the harsh vocabulary of that extraordinary Marxist, Poulantzas: the analysis of power relations is the framework of gait gramscian.

*Jaldes Meneses He is a professor at the Department of History at UFPB.

Reference


The quotes from Gramsci's Prison Notebooks are from the six volumes of the Brazilian edition, published by Editora Civilização Brasileira, translated by Carlos Nelson Coutinho, Marco Aurélio Nogueira and Luiz Sérgio Henriques.

 

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