by Martin Levy

15 January 2017

Writing just a few days before Donald Trump’s inauguration as US president, I recall the following quotation from Antonio Gramsci:

“If the ruling class has lost its consensus, that is, if it no longer ‘leads’ but only ‘rules’ – it possesses sheer coercive power – this actually means that the great masses have become detached from traditional ideologies, they no longer believe what they previously used to believe, etc. The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum morbid phenomena of the most varied kind come to pass.”i

Of course, Gramsci was referring to the rise of fascism, then at its height in Italy; but the US political situation does reflect the facts that “the ruling class has lost its consensus”, and the great masses “no longer believe what they previously used to believe”; while Trump is very much a “morbid phenomenon”, as was Mussolini in Italy.

We just need to look at Trump’s friends – the most right-wing, reactionary, racist government in US history, including such figures as Steve Bannon from ‘alt-right’ Breitbart News as chief strategist and senior counsellor – to understand that the US working class, and the peoples of the world, are going to be in for a rough time. Already it seems that

“the Trumpublicans are intent on manipulating the shock of Donald Trump’s victory to roll back much of the New Deal and Great Society … and intimidate opponents, professional civil servants, and the press, in a rapid Blitzkrieg”ii,

a classic case of what Naomi Klein called “The Shock Doctrine”iii. And, while Trump recognises for the time being that US policy in Syria has failed, and therefore that there needs to be an accommodation with Russia, his pronouncements on nuclear weapons, and his hostile attitude towards Iran and China, threaten a dangerous rise in international tension.

Trump may be a big businessman and a billionaire, but he’s also a maverick and a mountebank, quite clearly in the game for himself, riding a wave of populism. This is what alarms US finance capital and the military-industrial complex, which had hoped for the same as before, through the safe hands of Clinton, with the calm assertion of US military might as the No 1 power in the world. That explains the unprecedented assault on Trump by the US intelligence community and the outgoing administration in the days and weeks before the inauguration. They want either to limit his freedom of action or to find ways of levering him out before things go too badly for their interests.iv

So the US ruling class has “lost its consensus”, “the old is dying, and the new cannot yet be born”. In Britain, we see something similar, expressed in UKIP’s rise, finance capital’s defeat in the EU referendum – and its attempts since then to reclaim lost ground – and in the lack of any clear strategy in Theresa May’s government for achieving Brexit while defending finance capital’s interests. It’s a situation which is fraught with danger, but also one with opportunity if the left grasps it, and understands the nature of class society.

Gramsci went on to point out that the “interregnum” would not absolutely be resolved in favour of restoration of the old, and that “physical dejection will lead, in the long run, to widespread scepticism”, from which “one may conclude that highly favourable conditions are being created for an unprecedented expansion of historical materialism”1, ie Marxism. With hindsight, that might seem overoptimistic, in that it took 14 more years, and a world war, for the defeat of Italian fascism and for the Italian Communist Party (PCI) to emerge as a powerful force. But what enabled the PCI to achieve that was its connection with the masses, its organisation and discipline, and its clarity in Marxist theory as applied to its own situation.

In Russia, one hundred years ago this year, events had already followed the scenario that Gramsci depicted – the old Tsarist regime had gone; the government of capitalists and landowners could only rule by “coercive power”; and “morbid phenomena” were occurring, such as Kornilov’s attempted coup. All of this created highly favourable conditions for the “unprecedented expansion” of Marxism and the victory of the Russian workers, soldiers and peasants in Red October. Later issues of CR in 2017 will examine the processes leading up to that victory, and celebrate its impact and achievements. For now, let us just point out that the Revolution was led by a party, the Bolsheviks, which was immersed in the masses, disciplined and – under Lenin’s leadership – had a clear knowledge of Marxist theory applied to local conditions.

CR’s role is to help develop the necessary theoretical clarity in Britain. Following our series on state monopoly capitalism, we now publish Zoltan Zigedy’s extensive critique of Sweezy and Baran’s Monopoly Capital. In response to Andrew Murrary’s CR81 article on the centenary of Lenin’s Imperialism, we have a fraternal rejoinder from Lars Ulrik Thomsen. In our front-cover feature, Kevin Donnelly argues that Franz Fanon can be read usefully towards understanding both oppression and national culture. Paul Levy continues the philosophical series on Space, Time – and Dialectics, with reflections on mathematics and its role. Nick Wright provides insight into the reality of the recent battle for Aleppo in Syria. Finally, Soul Food extracts extensively from the poetry collection New Boots and Pantisocracies.

Notes and References in magazine