Cymdeithas Hanes Resolfen History Society

A web log for the Resolven History Society which publishes articles and stories related to Resolven and the immediate surroundings.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Gwyn Alf and Gramsci

Undergraduate studies in History included a range of topics and skills most of which I have either forgotten or if pressured could be dredged out from the depths of memory while watching University Challenge. However, one period of study which has never left me is the teaching of Gwyn Alf Williams during my third year in 1978, and in particular the role of Italian Marxist, Antonio Gramsci. Antonio Gramsci (1891-1937)

Professor Gwyn Williams was a marvellous figure who was an unique cross of a Welsh revivalist preacher, revolutionary communist, brilliant intellectual, expert on Goya and an approachable ordinary bloke. I enrolled in his course on International Socialism during my third year and was struck immediately that I was in a different world, an academic Everest confronted me. Professor Williams, diminutive even for a Welshman, distinctive with his shock of flowing white hair and obvious stutter would have stood out today, not only for his oratorical brilliance but by his habit of lighting a Gitane at the beginning of a seminar. His room stank of Disque Bleu, rather like a French café and he would immediately have been suspended in these politically correct days. This had its downside however since “Gwyn Alf” as he was universally known, was often a victim of bronchitis. Professor Gwyn A Williams

I will never forget the dread when I read the set essay title given out at the beginning of the course, “Marxism is a fusion of English Economics, French literature and German Philosophy”, discuss. Where on earth did you start, already struggling with Hegel, Feuerbach, Kant, Montesquieu, Mill and Smith, I was then confronted with dialectic, thesis, antithesis and synthesis! Somehow or other I finished the essay in my awful handwriting which Professor Williams described as “impenetrable as the Hegelian dialectic”, and it was marked with a figure of a haloed saint and a number, which approximated to its status in terms of degree. Seeing the number three I asked what it meant. First Class was the answer. Suddenly I was hooked on an approach of the study of history which has stayed with me all my life.

Towards the end of the course Gwyn Alf made the seminar group study the Italian communist Antonio Gramsci. Without wanting to bore the reader, (you can find the details easily on Wikipedia) Gramsci had been jailed by Mussolini in the 1930s as leader of the Italian Communist Party. The prosecutor stated that you needed to imprison Gramsci’s mind for twenty years since his ideas were so radical and brilliant. Central to his political philosophy was the concept of the Cultural Hegemony of a ruling class. In essence, Gramsci believed that social normality was set by the ruling class/elite of whatever period and he took the dominance of the medieval Roman Catholic Church as his prime example. The normality of heaven and earth, hell and purgatory, indulgences and penances were all used by the Church to instil into the general population as to what was “normal” to expect in life . To be burnt at the stake for disagreeing on a point of theology was thought perfectly normal and deserving by the general population. He also introduced the concept of the Historic Bloc, by which change would only happen if the social and economic conditions allowed it. For example, the Bastille was stormed in 1789 during the French Revolution when bread prices were at their height. Karl Marx himself had used the concept, but it had been enhanced by Gramsci in order to explain why the Communist revolution had not been successful beyond Russia in the 1920s. Bourgeois, capitalist values as now, were seen as what is normal to aspire to in general life and the scientific socialism of Lenin had failed to shake this cultural hegemony in most countries. The fall of the Warsaw Pact countries in 1989, was described rather prematurely as the “End of History”, which of course it was not, but it did signal the “triumph” of globalised capitalism and consumerism (bourgeois, capitalist values) over those of soviet style socialism and a command economy. Recently, globalised capitalism has experienced a rather bad hangover following its victory party with the present economic meltdown which started in 2008. I do not know if Antonio Gramsci had a sense of humour but I’m sure he would have uttered a chuckle if he was still here.

An exposure to Gramsci’s ideas, fortunately or unfortunately makes you sceptical of any new cultural hegemony. The current global warming/ climate change debate has certainly become the grand narrative of the current decade. In Gramscian terms, the population is bombarded with a new orthodoxy by the modern ruling elite namely the political ruling class, environmental pressure groups portraying the most extreme apocalyptic cases and a ravenous 24 hour media anxious for scare stories which sell papers and fill schedules. The subtle change of the UK Department of Energy to that of Energy and Climate Change, betrays a revision that Antonio Gramsci, Karl Popper and George Orwell would certainly have recognised (Ministry of Truth, Peace etc). This is all despite the fact that global temperatures have been static for the past eleven years, there are no more extreme events than in the past and fewer people are killed by them, world standards of living are rising and are expected to double over the next fifty years. The certainty of the priest preaching purgatory and hell is replaced by dodgy computer models cited as scientific consensus, discredited hockey stick graphs based on cherry picked data and assorted politicians, including failed presidential candidates forecasting doom and destruction for all while they fly around the world amassing fortunes. Carbon offsets are modern day indulgences and the use of the word “denier” and “heretic” in describing those who mildly or fundamentally disagree with the consensus is reminiscent of a religious order. However, as Antonio Gramsci would have foreseen this new cultural hegemony is beginning to fail, since the general population do not wish to give up their lifestyles in more than a token way. I wonder how this will pan out over the next few months and years as we lurch towards Copenhagen and a successor to the eminently unsuccessful Kyoto Protocol.

Gwyn Alf Williams went on to become a media personality himself in several high profile television documentaries including “The Dragon has Two Tongues” with Wynford Vaughan Thomas. He also published a new and very readable history of Wales – “When was Wales”.

Despite being a life long communist Professor Williams joined Plaid Cymru in his later years since presumably he saw a new political hegemony developing in Wales, and not to forget Gramsci, a new ruling class as well. He memorably coined the description Plaid “Gwerin” Cymru to describe his late political switch.

Gwyn Alf Williams died in 1995. Even in death, he remains one of Wales’s greatest and most influential historians.

Trefor Jones