Social Classes and Subaltern Groups: Theoretical Distinction and Political Application

By Galastri, Leandro | Capital & Class, February 2018 | Go to article overview

Social Classes and Subaltern Groups: Theoretical Distinction and Political Application


Galastri, Leandro, Capital & Class


Introduction

The aim of this article is to outline, in its essential features, the way in which Gramsci relates the concept of 'social classes' to that of 'subaltern groups' and how this link can be applied to a political analysis of the force relations within a given capitalist social formation. The first part sets out the criteria and methods employed by Gramsci for investigating the subaltern groups and explores what bearing this analysis has on the notion of social classes and with the levels of structure and superstructure. In this first part, I will also examine more closely the theoretical and political aspects of the distinction and/or common features between the concepts of 'social classes' and 'subaltern groups' in Gramsci. The second part will draw on some of the main authors concerned with the issue of social classes who have some affinity with the concepts of Gramsci, such as Bensaid, Thompson and Poulantzas. The purpose of this is to illustrate how the Gramscian concept of social classes, to some extent, directly echoes the key authors who have developed a strictly dialectical perspective of classes. As an example of the application of these features of distinction and proximity, I will conduct a brief critical discussion that will involve assimilating these Gramscian concepts (as expressed in 'Subaltern Studies'). This article will conclude with some final observations regarding this study.

Social classes and subaltern groups

The underlying assumption of this study (and which I believe to be a common feature of Gramsci and the authors that will be examined in the next section) is that social classes are not empirical groups confined to a particular time or space or simply a set of individuals who are located in a particular position in the material production process of society. (1) In conducting a political analysis of classes and fundamental social relations in the social capitalist formation, I have chosen a path that offers an escape route from the watertight dichotomy of the 'State' versus 'civil society'. This dichotomy that sees in the latter an organic, independent and autonomous social dimension that is set against a 'political society' eliminates the dialectical wholeness with regard to these levels of force that was renewed by Gramsci. How should the question of social classes and subaltern groups be addressed when this wholeness is taken into account? In Gramsci, the separation between 'political society' and 'civil society' is a methodological procedure that allows new levels of force relations to be located in society.

Gramsci adopts three kinds of approach for studying subalterns: (a) devising a methodology for subaltern historiography, (b) examining the production process in itself with regard to the history of subaltern classes and (c) adopting a political strategy of transformation based on the historical development and existence of subalterns. By means of this threefold approach, Gramsci created a nexus where a variety of Gramsci's concepts converge (Green 2007: 202). For this reason, it is only recently that the category of the 'subaltern' seems to have been studied in greater depth by researchers of Gramsci's works after a time when he was the victim of constant misunderstandings and 'improper' appropriations. In this case, perhaps a part of the explanation (at least in the anglophone world) lies in the fact that a significant proportion of the works are based on what was, for a considerable period of time, a single translation of the Notebooks, in fact a selection of articles compiled by Quentin Hoare and Geoffrey Nowell-Smith, in 1971 (New York: International Publishers, 1971). Green (2007) explains that

   the selection only contains some of Gramsci's notes about
   subalterns and from the time when these notes were included in a
   section where some notes are concerned with the Risorgimento, with
   the tide Notes on Italian History. … 

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