Graphic from http://www.i-italy.org.
By Trent Brown
Antonio Gramsci is an important figure in the history of Marxist theory. While Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels provided a rigorous analysis of capital at the social and economic levels – particularly showing how capital antagonises the working class and gives rise to crisis – Gramsci supplemented this with a sophisticated theory of the political realm and how it is organically/dialectically related to social and economic conditions. He provides us with a theory of how the proletariat must organise politically if it is to effectively respond to capital’s crises and failures, and bring about revolutionary change.
Incidentally, this innovation has proven to be of interest not only to Marxists, but also to those involved in other forms of progressive politics, from the civil rights movement, to gender politics, to contemporary ecological struggles. The reason why his approach has proven so popular and generally adaptable is because Gramsci was himself a man of action and his fundamental concern was with progressive strategy. Thus while in this article I plan to give a give a general outline of Gramsci’s theory of hegemony and the reasons behind its formulation, it’s important that we build on this by thinking about how we can use these concepts strategically in our own struggles.
What is hegemony?
It would seem appropriate to begin this discussion by asking ``What is hegemony?’’ It turns out to be a difficult question to answer when we are talking about Gramsci, because, at least within The Prison Notebooks, he never gives a precise definition of the term. This is probably the main reason why there is so much inconsistency in the literature on hegemony – people tend to form their own definition, based on their own reading of Gramsci and other sources. The problem with this is that if people’s reading of Gramsci is partial then so too is their definition.
For example, Martin Clark (1977, p. 2) has defined hegemony as ``how the ruling classes control the media and education’’. While this definition is probably more narrow than usual, it does reflect a common misreading of the concept, namely that hegemony is the way the ruling class controls the institutions that control or influence our thought. Most of the academic and activist literature on hegemony, however, takes a slightly broader view than this, acknowledging more institutions than these being involved in the exercise of hegemony – at least including also the military and the political system. The problem is that even when these institutions are taken into account, the focus tends to be exclusively on the ruling class, and methods of control. Hegemony is frequently used to describe the way the capitalist classes infiltrate people’s minds and exert their domination. What this definition misses is the fact that Gramsci not only used the term ``hegemony’’ to describe the activities of the ruling class, he also used it to describe the influence exerted by progressive forces. Keeping this in mind, we can see that hegemony should be defined not only as something the ruling class does, it is in fact the process by which social groups – be they progressive, regressive, reformist, etc. – come to gain the power to lead, how they expand their power and maintain it.
To understand what Gramsci was trying to achieve through developing his theory of hegemony, it is useful to look at the historical context that he was responding to as well as the debates in the movement at the time. The term ``hegemony’’ had been in general use in socialist circles since the early 20th century. Its use suggests that if a group was described as ``hegemonic’’ then it occupied a leadership position within a particular political sphere (Boothman, 2008).
Lenin’s use of the term gegemoniya (the Russian equivalent of hegemony, often translated as ``vanguard’’), however, seemed to imply a process more akin...