It is almost fun to read Gramsci; he writes as if he were lying on a chaise-longue in the university common-room with a bowl of Belgian chocolates within easy reach, instead of sitting in a cell in a small detention centre in rural southern Italy dying of neglect. When he writes about intellectuals, he is obviously looking in the mirror, a mirror big enough to reflect the whole of Italy and perhaps the world.
Gramsci’s line, on the face of it, is both crude and obvious. Intellectuals serve the interests of their party, to establish, or else preserve, the hegemony of the interests of that party. (Obviously this doesn’t necessarily mean the Party, nor even established political parties. Let’s not forget that Gramsci was writing in jail and therefore didn’t want to write anything which would automatically get him an extended sentence or still more dire conditions if his jailers were to read it; therefore he refers to a great deal in simple code. For example, one of his main competitors in the Italian Communist Party, and a Trotsky sympathiser to boot, had the first name of Amadeo, and so Gramsci translates this into German as Gottlieb.)
Back to the message. What about intellectuals who don’t have a party? Well, such intellectuals have absorbed a particular “common sense” from parents and confreres, which usually amounts to a version of class consciousness in a narrow meaning of the word. Therefore, they will support the party which represents their consciousness, even if no such party actually exists in an organised sense. They will adopt a position to the world in common with the position adopted by others, and seek out those who share this position. So there is no intellectual who doesn’t have a party, in Gramsci’s sense.
This takes us in a direction later followed by the Frankfurt school and then by postmodernism: there is no such thing as an independent intellectual, the ideal critic who stands apart from bias and therefore can be trusted. This is simply a liberal myth — or perhaps not even a liberal one; perhaps this is more simply a fantasy invented by the ruling class in order to cover up its own ideological bias with the illusion of objectivity. The intellectual analyses situations and objects, not according to the “scientific” or “idealistic” principles of the technician or the philosopher, but according to the specific interest of the organisation or the class whose interest the intellectual serves. This is not seen as something to be condemned or praised, according to Gramsci; it simply is. The intellectual who actually wishes to accomplish anything beyond the needs of the party would first have to acknowledge her or his biases and dishonesties arising out of this adherence to a faction, a party, or other entity.
But most would not, for such actions would be anathema. Instead, intellectuals would simply perform the intellectual gymnastics appropriate to their party. They would imagine that what they were doing was exposing the truth. When other intellectuals disagreed with them, they would not see themselves as wrong — they would see the other intellectuals as blinded by ideological preconceptions which prevented them from perceiving the truth, and hence, as not true intellectuals at all, because incapable of identifying their mistakes. (Meanwhile, the intellectual in the first place would have no need to identify mistakes, for there would be no mistakes — only limpid truth.)
Notice, too, that Gramsci is not condemning these intellectuals for their adherence to a party. Instead, he is saying that this is an inevitable product of the condition of intellectuals in human society. The only problem with adherence to a party is, presumably, that some parties are more correct than others. Of course, for Gramsci this is not a problem, for he was a Communist and knew his Communism to be correct, and was opposed to Fascism and knew that Mussolini’s Fascism was wrong. On the other hand, other Communists might also be wrong, while some Fascists might get some things right. The problem was identifying how to distinguish between right and wrong when you were functioning from within the closed ideological world of a party or a faction, where almost all cases of right and wrong were decided courtesy of the interests of the party and its membership.
How does this relate to South Africa? It seems clear that most public intellectuals and all journalists are party people. It is thus unsurprising that their twin messages are, invariably, “Our gang’s better than your gang!” and “Do you wanna join our gang?”. It isn’t necessary for such messages to have any reference to reality — to the actual nature of the gang, or to the possibility of joining it. South African political parties do not attract support on the basis of their policies, their record of performance in government, or the trustworthiness of their leaders. Instead, they attract support through fear of outsiders or through lack of any alternative, and usually on the basis of the class, race and general identity politics of the party concerned — people support parties because they have traditionally supported those parties. Under such conditions there seems to be no real need for intellectuals.
But in reality, if you want to keep the interests and the concerns of the public out of party politics, you must create something which overrides those interests and those concerns. Under such conditions intellectuals exist, not to clarify things, but to obscure them — inventing small and large ideological fictions to distract the public from reality. These fictions may be absurd, but they must relate to real beliefs within the party which the intellectuals are addressing.
For examples in South Africa, the “AIDS denialism” in regard to Mbeki, and the entire debate around crime as applied to the DA, are obvious negative forces aimed at distracting the public from real issues. (Note that in both cases the fiction was rooted in certain realities — the fact that Mbeki wished to delay the provision of treatment until the price of antiretrovirals was reduced, the fact that crime is indeed a serious problem in South Africa. Moreover, in both cases the fiction not only distracted attention from real issues, but also generated important positive features for the party which these intellectuals supported — damage to the ANC’s image, and efforts to win support for a ruling-class-centric response to each crisis which would concentrate efforts on providing profits for pharmaceutical companies and on policing the urban areas, especially middle-class areas.)
This also helps to explain why intellectuals supposedly affiliated to different parties may tend to say the same things. In reality, the “parties” they belong to are the same actual “party” — usually the party of wealth and power. As Gramsci points out, often the leaders of a party decamp for another party — as when Labour in Britain became New Labour, or when the leaders of the Liberal Democrats decided to support the Tories, leaving their membership to put up, shut up or piss off. It was claimed that this was what was happening when the ANC adopted GEAR — although all the people who opposed GEAR in the 1990s are perfectly happy with the New Growth Path in 2012, which is GEAR without the positive features or the sensible arguments. In other words, these people were claiming to be in a different party to the supporters of GEAR, whereas in reality they were in the same party — just that they wished to take advantage of engineered hostility to a policy which they secretly endorsed.
Intellectuals today identify different factions within the ANC. Meanwhile they never identify different factions within the DA, even though virtually all our political intellectuals are either sympathisers of, or members of, the DA, and therefore can presumably see that there are factions within it. However, the existence of factions is, according to these intellectuals’ understanding of politics, a sign of weakness and therefore cannot be acknowledged to exist within their chosen party, but only within the ANC.
Meanwhile, however, most intellectuals identify two kinds of factions — factions based on Left and Right, and factions based on personality. The latter is actually a faction based upon someone who is fronting for a particular interest group, but the intellectuals thrust the interest group into the background. As for Left and Right, these have a very different meaning for these intellectuals than what exists in common practice. To be precise, since Left is widely considered to be good and Right bad, the intellectuals define anyone whom they do not like in the ANC as on the Right, and anyone whom they applaud as on the Left, regardless of these persons’ actual political standpoints. (If they are in the ANC or the Alliance they are usually on the Right anyway.)
The reason for this is to appear to be standing up for the Left (because good people are always purportedly on the Left) while actually depriving the public of any opportunity to understand what Left and Right might mean. The reason why it is so often said that there is no difference between Left and Right, is that political intellectuals have been working very hard to degrade this difference. Ultimately, the goal is to attain this ideal circumstance, because then the Left will be disarmed and the Right will be able to attain supreme ideological hegemony, as has already happened in the United States.
The difference between an intellectual who is an avowed party supporter (or, alternatively, who believes that s/he has found the truth, which just happens to be what the party desires) and one who is a secret party supporter but professes to support another party, is simply one of tactics — although this tactic happens to poison the intellectual wells of public debate, which is of course what they want to have happening. Under these conditions, a figure like Chomsky, who exposes the actual partisan agendas of intellectuals pretending to be objective, is a desirable one. However, it is very important to remember that the problem is the concealment of one’s bias, not the existence of bias. All intellectuals are party supporters, therefore all are biased.
But the fact that an intellectual supports a party should not mean that such an intellectual is dishonest, or that the party is corrupt. The dishonesty and the corruption is a product of the hegemony attained by the party. The fact that in South Africa (as elsewhere in the world) the capitalist party has become completely dominant and is acting against the interests of the general public means that the capitalist party urgently needs dishonest intellectuals. To challenge such a party, honest (although biased) intellectuals are needed. The way to prevent such intellectuals from arising would be to claim that all intellectuals are biased, therefore all are dishonest. In other words, such a party must ultimately also support anti-intellectualism, at least in terms of free intellectual debate; the only intellectuals who can be tolerated are the ones who are hired to speak the “truth” to “power” — in other words, to tell the story which the party wishes to hear, into the faces of those who dare to question it.
Yes, it’s fun reading Gramsci. At least in the 1930s, Gramsci knew when he was in jail and when he was out of it. These days, most of us have difficulty telling the difference any more.