Saturday, July 14, 2012

Notes on passive revolution

I. ‘Passive revolution’ emerged at first to explain a particular kind of ‘bourgeois revolution’ (ie capitalist transition) effected without a radical-popular assault on the state.  Gramsci’s focus was on the Risorgimento, but other examples would include German Unification, and Meiji Restoration Japan.  In the period since 1848, Neil Davidson suggests in what is evidently the authoritative work on this subject, this type of transition has been the most common due to two factors: first, the emergence of the working class, whose minatory presence sapped the revolutionary afflatus of the bourgeoisie; and second, the emergence of other ruling classes or social groups capable of enacting the transition (in Germany, the feudal ruling class; in Egypt as in many neighbours, the officer corps). Since capitalism had emerged as clearly the most dynamic mode of production in a world system increasingly dominated by it, non-capitalist ruling classes could be persuaded to make the transition.  

II. Thus, for Gramsci, the period after 1848 could be characterised in ‘the West’ as a shift from the ‘war of manoeuvre’ and open struggle against the feudal ruling classes, to the ‘war of position’, in which bourgeois domination is secured through molecular transformations in the composition of social and productive forces which become the matrix of new changes.

III. Later, the scope of ‘passive revolution’ was extended so that it could apply to major transformations within capitalism once that mode of production was established.  These would be transitions aimed at overcoming otherwise potentially lethal limitations to the further accumulation of capital within the social formation – whether these limitations were posed by capital itself, by the working class, or pre-capitalist forms.  This was based on Gramsci’s reading of two insights from Marx:
1. that no social formation disappears as long as the productive forces which have developed within it still find room for further forward movement;
2. that a society does not set itself tasks for whose solution the necessary conditions have not already been incubated etc.
  ‘Passive revolution’ is thus a tendency immanent to capitalist modernity as such.

IV. ‘Passive revolution’ implements changes that are formally ‘progressive’ from the point of view of permitting the development and rationalisation of the productive forces by means of the modification of productive relations, and the rationalisation of social/demographic forces.  Despite this, 'passive revolution' is a conservative, adaptive process, and is apt to be led by conservative or reactionary forces.  An example of this type of transformation is the Fordist re-organisation of American capitalism, in which demographic rationalisation and industrial modernisation is achieved.  To the extent that this advances productive capacity, introduces collectivisation and planning, and acculturates masses to urban life, it is seen as historically progressive.

V.  'Passive revolution' is thus, in both its main senses, a particular relationship between political leadership and social transformation; political leadership becomes identical with state domination, through which transformation is achieved.  The tendency in 'passive revolution' is for the bourgeoisie to be unable to rule directly, or alone.  Partly for this reason, 'passive revolution' is internally related to the concept of 'Caesarism' which, despite being initially posited as an explicitly polemical formulation, is clearly drawn from Marx's discussion of 'Bonapartism', and which is also a tendency immanent to capitalist modernity.  According to Gramsci, 'Caesarism' occurs where the two opposing fundamental classes are deadlocked, both sides evenly matched, potentially threatening mutual ruin: in such a catastrophic stalemate, a 'Caesar' can either play a progressive or reactionary role.  It is in its reactionary sense that it is tied to 'passive revolution', as it is often the role of a 'Caesar' to carry through such a transformation.  A 'Caesar' is not necessarily a great personality.  The decisive thing is that 'Caesarism', whether it is personated in the form of a despot, or party, or faction, or alliance, represents some form of compromise between the classes, whether its general thrust is toward progress or reaction.  That is why, as Gramsci says, ""every coalition government is a first stage of Caesarism".  And, because of the enhanced role of the state in 'Caesarism', it can be an ideal type of regime to achieve 'revolution-restoration'.  It is significant in this sense that Bismarck is given as an example of regressive 'Ceasarism'.

VI. ‘Passive revolution’ has an ambiguous relationship to other Gramscian concepts, such as ‘hegemony’.  In one sense, it would seem to be a polar opposite of hegemony, insofar as ‘passive revolution’ is achieved as a form of domination without consent.  In Gramsci's main example, Risorgimento Italy, ‘passive revolution’ occurs not with the bourgeoisie in a hegemonic position, but with two opposing forces (represented by Cavour and Mazzini, respectively) in a state of almost deadlocked equilibrium.  Bourgeois domination, in this case, is not secured through a hegemonic alliance with subaltern groups, achieved through parliamentary democratic institutions.  Rather, the active and leading layers of oppositional forces and classes are co-opted to the moderate, pro-capitalist centre, in a process known as 'transformism'.  This has the effect of decapitating and disorganising the parties and organisations of the dominated classes - which is certainly a hegemonic practice, but is emphatically not the same thing as hegemony. Generally speaking, 'passive revolution' is carried out over and against the subalterns, rather than with their consent; by means of a bureaucratic organisation of the 'power bloc' rather than through the expansive unity of the 'historical bloc'.

  Yet at the same time, 'passive revolution' is, as I have said, a process in which some compromise between the contending classes is struck.  In some form, however partial and mitigated, popular demands have to be addressed; a material substratum for acquiescence if not active assent must be created.  Moreover, although 'passive revolution' is often a repressive form of modernisation, it is worth recalling that consent is often as not produced through coercion and terror - that is, through the demonstration with physical force that 'there is no alternative, and the only people talking of an alternative are criminals and misfits who get beaten up and arrested'.  (Cf. Poulantzas: "State monopolized physical violence permanently underlies the techniques of power and mechanisms of consent".)  There is a sense in which 'passive revolution' must simulate elements of bourgeois hegemony in a context of weakness, stasis or underdevelopment.  This is why some authors refer to a 'limited hegemony' in the context of 'passive revolution', despite the fact that the dominant tendency is toward domination without consent.

VII.  The delimitations of 'passive revolution' are extremely unclear.  If Gramsci extended the concept of 'passive revolution' in his own theoretical development, a further enlargement was attempted by Christine Buci-Glucksmann as part of a sophisticated Eurocommunist 'left critique' of Stalinism.  According to Buci-Glucksmann, 'passive revolution', as a concept of transition, was not particular to bourgeois revolutions in Gramsci's useage, but was "a potential tendency intrinsic to every transitional process".  This was so particularly where the state played a dominant role, as in the USSR.  Thus, Stalinism was interpreted as 'passive revolution', resolving class antagonisms through a process of conservative reformism conducted in and through the state: far from the state withering away, it 'penetrates' civil society and assumes a 'total' dominance.  This has some basis in what Gramsci wrote, at least insofar as he referred to 'passive revolution' as a principle of interpretation "of every epoch characterised by complex historical upheavals ... a criterion of interpretation 'in the absence of other active elements to a dominant extent'".  Historically, this depends on the idea that Stalinism was carrying through the post-capitalist transition, albeit in a conservative way.  Politically, it is in the last analysis an agument for a centrist approach to the state and parliamentary democracy: the democratic form, as the arena for the consolidation of the expansive unity of the historical bloc, must be the strategic axis of the transition, the counterpoint to a narrow 'revolution from above' which always contains restorationist tendencies.  But the only way to resolve whether or not it is true to the terms of Gramsci's argument is to conduct a close philological reading.  Here, it is most likely that Buci-Glucksmann's argument hinged on an over-interpretation of the phrase "every epoch", as well as perhaps an under-interpretation of the concept of the 'integral state', which leads to a problematic acceptance of the topography in which the state and civil society occupy separate, mutually hostile terrains.

VIII. The question, then, is how can the tendencies toward 'passive revolution', immanent to capitalist modernity, be interpreted today?  The neoliberal transformation sharpened the tendencies toward 'passive revolution'. 
First of all, in the sense that it was a modernisation project, and that it rationalised the productive and demographic forces to an extent, even if it introduced all sorts of new pathologies and 'contradictions' in doing so.  Second, in the sense that it involved some partial, limited concessions to popular interests - differentiation in the proletariat allowed this to be accomplished, even while the rate of exploitation was being driven up.  Thirdly, in the sense that there were tendencies toward hegemony-building, an effort to shift the common sense, even though the main form in which transformation was achieved was through struggle.  Fourth, in the emphasis on repression as a factor in building consent.  Neoliberal reform did not merely rely on repression to enable its passage, but rather implemented a fundamental shift in the continuum toward repression: from welfare and material concessions to the carceral/punitive state.  Finally in the transformist tendencies particularly evident in the latter phase of neoliberal transformation: following the open assault on low wage earners, union militants, the oppressed, the social movements and the left, there ensues the incorporation of the leaders of defeated or at least chastened social movements, unions and left parties into a new neoliberal social democracy.

IX.  The global crisis has demonstrated the need, purely on capitalist terms, for fundamental, structural reform of the capitalist system.  In fact, the only viable solution on capitalist terms would be simultaneously the most irrational solution - the destruction of masses of capital, through profound economic contraction or through war.  But  this is not politically viable.  Not even Rick Santorum could win on that slogan, and the bourgeoisie wouldn't tolerate it if he did.  For that reason, the debate is between a set of mediating, compromise solutions with the emphasis shifting between Keynesian demand management and neoliberal regulation.  In Europe, the most punitive neoliberalism is consistent with a programme of re-regulating financial markets up to and including a continent-wide Tobin tax.  Even in Greece, the EU's austerity project is bound up with rationalising tendencies - building a better tax-collecting apparatus, etc.  So, the tendencies toward 'passive revolution' are, I would say, sharpened further.  Coterminous with this, the 'Caesarist' tendencies are sharpening as well.  If the coalition government is the beginning of Caesarism in a parliamentary age, then the emergence of cross-party coalitions around a 'technocratic' agenda of fundamental institutional and social restructuring represents the beginnings of a Caesarist legion.  One thing that Buci-Glucksmann was certainly right about was that the historic bloc, in its 'expansive unity', is the antithesis of the 'passive revolution' based on cynical, bureaucratic power bloc manouevering.  The question is whether a new historical bloc can be forged in the popular struggles, with its strategic axis the hegemony of the working class and its forms of democracy.