The issue of government surveillance has increasingly been in the public eye since the Guardian revelations about the level of data collected by the NSA and GCHQ. However, government surveillance of its citizens is not a new phenomenon. In the tenth Picturing Politics, Dr Rory Cormac examines a photograph taken in 1949 at a May Day demonstration and looks at what the placards in the photograph tell us about the politics of surveillance, both in 1949 and today.
Picturing Politics is a series of audio and video clips featuring academics commenting on the political significance of a diverse range of images. The series is intended to offer an invaluable insight into the many ways in which politics has been imagined – quite literally – throughout history, and also the ways in which images have been used to shape and influence our understanding of politics.
Across ten densely packed but concisely organised paragraphs, Antonio Gramsci penned a piece of journalism entitled ‘Towards the Communist International’, printed in the newspaper L’Ordine Nuovo on 26 July 1919. Although the egregious Michael Gove, UK Secretary of State for Education, may claim Gramsci as one of two individuals that have most influenced him (the other was reality TV star Jade Goody!), there is little in Gramsci to relate to the content of Conservative policies currently ripping apart contemporary British society. Specifically in this piece of journalism, Gramsci poses the fundamental problem of proletarian revolution in the tumultuous years following the Russian Revolution. We can surmise that proletarian revolution was not a top priority for Gove during his time at Oxford University or writing for Rupert Murdoch’s The Times and that this remains the case today. In contrast to Gove’s social function, Gramsci’s article is interesting for two reasons: (1) it demonstrates Gramsci’s wider role in shaping the politics of the Communist International (or Comintern) (1919-1943); and (2) it clarifies that Gramsci was very much a thinker of “the international” referring to a grasp of the geopolitical circumstances of capitalism in shaping state development. How is this so?
Gramsci’s aim in and beyond Italian politics in 1919 was how to channel the revolutionary ferment of the time into the sort of organisational structures needed to accomplish revolutionary consciousness and power. My previous post detailed how Gramsci would come to conceive of the role of the ‘Modern Prince’ as the form to forge a new organisational and political party as a revolutionary agent. Earlier in his thinking Gramsci viewed the Soviets as the new institutions of self-government capable of expressing the sovereign autonomy of labour in the production and distribution of material goods in the internal and external relations of the State.
In one illuminating comment, Gramsci states that these workers’ organisations ‘must be further developed and systematised on a national and international basis: the anti-State must be organised’ within the productive process of capitalism in order to to control and immobilise it. It is worth citing him at length on issues of political organisation that go to the heart of recent debates on radical Left organising:
The Communist International is not a bureaucratic headquarters of “leaders” of the masses . . . it must consist of a network of proletarian institutions which themselves give birth to a complex and well-articulated hierarchy, capable of waging all aspects of the class struggle such as it takes place today both nationally and internationally.
Following World War I, the Entente Powers in Gramsci’s view had formed an enormous administrative and political apparatus that was ‘effectively the instrument of Anglo-Saxon world hegemony’. In anticipation of the global reach of industrial and international organisation – in today’s parlance transnational capitalism – Gramsci makes explicit reference to ‘the global politico-economic system controlled by Anglo-Saxon capitalism’. Recall that this is in 1919. As argued some time ago in my article ‘Waiting for Gramsci’, it is always therefore rash to assume that Gramsci refused the international dimension any constitutive status, as a causal factor, in his analysis of historical development and social transformation.
Perhaps, then Gramsci’s insights can still clarify today’s world in relation to his activism within the Comintern and with reference to his understanding ‘the international’, rather than him simply becoming a flippant reference point for the political class. In order to generate ‘teeming communist forces’ the immediate task for Gramsci was to organise ‘from the base upwards, from the inner reality of the industrial process, from the capillary sources of capitalist profit’. These are conclusions that surely have contemporary resonance and relevance like never before.