Marxism: GRAMSCI’S CONCEPT OF ‘HEGEMONY’

Gramsci’s formulation and work on the concept of hegemony is very central to his political thought. It brings out the complexities involved in structures of power and their dynamics in bourgeois state democracies and provides valuable insights into the question of strategy that demanded the replacement of bourgeois order by proletariat power and of appropriate organization leadership in this revolutionary struggle of the proletariat to achieve emancipation and socialism.

In Marxist writings as Anderson points out, both Mensheviks and Lenin used the word ‘hegemony’  and it was prevalent in the Russian Social-Democratic movement from the late 1890s to 1917; to indicate political leadership in the democratic revolution, based on an alliance with sections of the peasantry.  The idea of hegemony in this respect first started to emerge in the writings of Plekhanov in 1883-84 where he urged the imperative necessity for the Russian working class to wage a political struggle against Tsarism, not merely an economic struggle against its employers.  He argued that the bourgeoisie in Russia was still too weak to take the initiative in the struggle against absolutism. The organized working class would have to take up the demands of a bourgeois democratic revolution.  The concept was developed by Lenin who advocated an alliance of the proletariat and the peasantry as a political indispensability for the revolutionary struggle in Russia since the ‘bourgeois-democratic’ tasks had been left unfulfilled. He called upon the proletariat to be the leader in the struggle of all exploited and marginalized classes against their oppressors and exploitators. As Lenin stated, “The proletariat is revolutionary only so far as it is conscious of and gives effect to this idea of hegemony of the proletariat”

Most commentators agree that Hegemony is the key concept in Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks and his most important contribution to Marxist theory. In the Prison Notebooks, the metamorphoses of the theory of Hegemony is to be found in the two celebrated passages – the legendary fragments in which Gramsci contrasted the political structures of the ‘East’ and the ‘West’ and the revolutionary strategies pertinent to each one of them.  Although these passages do not directly broach the topic of hegemony, they assemble all the necessary elements for its emergence into a controlling position in his discourse by bringing into focus the relationship between state and civil society, in Russia and Western Europe respectively. Gramsci here asserts that the strategy of War of Manoeuvre applied in the Russian Revolution of 1917 would not be effective in the context of the Western European nations for the establishment of socialism as the relationship between state and civil society in the two geopolitical regions are very different – “It should be seen whether Trotsky’s famous theory about the permanent character of the movement is not the political reflection of……the general economic cultural-social conditions in a country in which the structures of nation life are embryonic and loose, and incapable of becoming “trenches” or “Fortresses”……It seems to me that Lenin understood that a change was necessary from the war of manoeuvre applied victoriously in the East in 1917 to a war of position which was the only possible form in the West.”  Gramsci calls civil society in the East as ‘primordial and gelatinous” and hence, the State was ‘everything’ there. However, there is balanced ‘proper’ relationship between State and civil society in the West – “The State was only an outer ditch behind which there was a powerful system of fortresses and earthworks: more or less numerous from one state to the next, it goes without saying –  but this precisely necessitated an accurate reconnaissance of each individual country”. The Forty-Eightist formula of Permanent Revolution is expanded and superseded in political science by the formula of ‘war of position’. The distinction between East and West re-appears in Gramsci’s writings in the form of demarcation of ‘modern democracies’ from ‘backward and colonial societies’ where a war of movement still prevails.  In 1848, the state is ‘rudimentary’ and civil society is ‘autonomous from it’. After 1870, the internal and international organization of the State becomes ‘complex and massive’, while civil society also correspondingly develops. It is now that the concept of hegemony appears as the new strategy is precisely that of “civil hegemony”, which is clearly related to the ‘war of position’.

Throughout Prison Notebooks, the term ‘hegemony’ recurs in a multitude of different contexts. In the first instance the meaning of the term presented by Gramsci is clearly derived from the Comintern tradition of ‘the alliance of the proletariat with other exploited groups, above all the peasantry, in a common struggle against the oppression of capital. Reflecting on the experience of NEP, he laid somewhat greater emphasis on the need for ‘concessions’ and ‘sacrifices’ by the proletariat to its allies for it to win hegemony over them, thereby extending the nation of ‘corporatism’ from a mere confinement to guild horizons or economic struggles. For a class to exercise hegemony, Gramsci stressed that it was essential for that class to forgo some of its immediate economic interests to incorporate to as much extent possible the economic interests of its allied classes in their collective struggle against capitalism. To quote Gramsci, “The fact of hegemony presupposes that account is taken of the interests and tendencies of the groups over which hegemony is to be exercised, that a certain balance of compromise should be formed- in other words that the leading group should make sacrifices of an economic-corporative kind. But there is no doubt that although hegemony is ethico-political, it must be economic, must necessarily be based on the decisive function exercised by the leading group in the decisive nucleus of economic activity.” At the same time, Gramsci also gave supreme importance to the cultural ascendency necessary for hegemony of the proletariat over its allied classes. He expresses how “the hegemony of a fundamental social group over a series of sub-ordinate groups” occurs not through propagation of that ideology of that group as its class ideology but its propagation as the universal which then takes the form of ‘common sense’ — “it thereby achieves not only a unison of economic and political aims, but also intellectual and moral unity, posing all questions over which the struggle rages not on a corporate but on a universal plane.” In development of this concept, Gramsci theorizes that for the formation of a ‘new, homogenous politico-economic historical bloc, without internal contradictions’, it is essential for the proletariat to adopt a ‘compromise’ strategy for assimilation into itself all the other exploited and marginalized groups; before it can retort to the use of violence against the bourgeois state for its overthrow – “If the union of two forces is necessary in order to defeat a third, a recourse to arms and coercion and be nothing more than a methodological hypothesis. The only concrete possibility is compromise. Force can be applied against enemies but not against a part of one’s own side which one wants to assimilate rapidly and whose ‘goodwill’ and ‘enthusiasm’ one needs.”

Gramsci provides an important extension to the concept of hegemony which had so far been used in the perspective of the working class in its struggle against the bourgeois by using it for exploring the mechanisms of power in bourgeois state in its rule over the working class in a stabilized capitalist society. This application of hegemony for a differential analysis of the structure of bourgeois power in the West provided a new dimension to the understanding of hegemony. Gramsci argues that it is essential to distinguish between ‘domination’ and ‘hegemony’ – “the supremacy of a social group assumes two forms: “domination” and “intellectual and moral direction”. A social group exercises domination against the antagonistic groups it seeks to liquidate or subject with armed force and is ‘directive’ of ‘affinal and allied groups’; an argument that derives itself from the classical Marxist debate of ‘dictatorship’ and ‘hegemony’. Gramsci refers to Croce to assert hegemony as “the moment of consent in historico-political activity” and which is essentially different from “the moment of force, of constrain, of state legislative or police intervention” Indeed, it has been held often that Gramsci’s most original and powerful single thesis was precisely this – the idea that the working class can be hegemonic culturally before becoming the ruling class politically, within a capitalist social formation.

Gramsci then proceeds on to exploring the question of where are the two functions of domination and hegemony/direction exercised. For this purpose, he puts forward to categories, “We can now fix two major superstructural levels – one that may be called “civil society”, that is the ensemble of organisms commonly called “private” and other that of “political society” of the State.” Civil society in Gramsci does not refer to the sphere of economic relations as is stated in ‘German Ideology’, but to a system of superstructural institutions that is intermediary between economy and State. As he states, “between economic structure and the state, stands civil society”. It, has however been seen that Gramsci did not use this antimony between the State and civil society univocally. Both terms and the relationships between them undergo different mutations in his writings. He also avoids a simple undialectical separation between the concept of hegemony and consent from the aspects of force and economics. In the foregoing paragraphs, is given a presentation of these various positions of Gramsci on hegemony and its site of exercise and power in civil society and state.

Gramsci’s first and firmest answer to the question of the site of hegemony is that hegemony (direction) pertains to the civil society and coercion (domination) to the state. Its central text is the passage discussed earlier in which Gramsci writes of the difference between the East and the West , where the “State is everything” in the east, while in the West the State is “an outer ditch’ of the inner fortress of civil society, which can survive the worst tremors in the state. The State is the site of the armed domination or coercion of the bourgeoisie over the exploited classes which ensures that the population conforms to the mode of production and economy of a given period, while civil society is the arena of its cultural direction or consensual hegemony over them – the opposition between force and consent, coercion and persuasion, state and church, political society and civil society. The higher significance of civil society over the State in the west can be equated with the greater importance of ‘hegemony’ over ‘domination’ as the fundamental mode of bourgeois power in advanced capitalist societies. Since hegemony pertains to civil society and civil society prevails over the State, the cultural ascendency of the ruling class that essentially ensures the stability of the capitalist order. For in Gramsci’s usage, hegemony means the ideological sub-ordination of the working class by the bourgeoisie, which enables rule by consent.

Peter Anderson calls this first solution that Gramsci sketches as ‘radically unviable’ and says that it corresponds to the views of the Left Social Democrats. He states that this conception arises from the fact that the State in the West is generally not a violent machine of police repression as in Tsarist Russia. Masses thus, have excess to it through regular democratic elections, which formally does permit the possibility of a socialist government. However, elections hardly ever produce a government dedicated to the expropriation of capital and the realization of socialism. This paradox must lie in what Left social democrats regard as ‘the prior conditioning of the proletariat before the electoral moment.’ Hence for them, the central locus of power in a modern bourgeois representative democracy is to be sought within civil society and above all in capitalist control of means of communication based on control of modes of production. It is the strategic nexus of civil society which maintains the capitalist hegemony within a political democracy whose state institutions do not directly debar or repress the masses. Anderson does not agree with this conception which locates the power of the bourgeoisie in Western social formations in the sphere of civil society because he believes that such a stand “neutralizes the democratic potential of the representative State”. Anderson in fact argues that it is the ‘representative State – bourgeoisie democracy – which is the principal ideological lynchpin of Western capitalism.” – we see Gramsci moving towards an appropriation of this view in his second version of the relationship between the terms of state, civil society and hegemony. The bourgeoisie state by endowing to each individual the status of an equal citizen with equal rights, detaches the ‘totality of the population’ from their distribution into social classes to create an illusion of equality and justice. The State claims equality of men and women within its apparatus as opposed to their real unequal position in civil society. The economic divisions within the citizenry are masked by the equality of the exploiter and the exploited in front of the judiciary and the complete separation and non-participation of the masses in the work of the parliament is concealed through the entire exercise of universal suffrage wherein the masses believe that they exercise an ultimate self-determination within the existing social order. The existence of the parliamentary state thus constitutes the formal framework of all other ideological mechanisms of the ruling class. It is thus, impossible to partition the ideological formation of the bourgeois class power between civil society and the state. The fundamental form of the Western Parliamentary State – is itself the hub of the ideological apparatus of capitalism and consent is first and foremost induced by it. However, it needs to be remembered that the normal conditions of ideological subordination of the masses – the day-to-day routines of parliamentary democracy – are constituted by a silent, absent force which gives them their currency- the monopoly of legitimate violence by the State.

In Gramsci’s second version, he presents civil society in balance or equilibrium with the state – and hegemony as distributed between State/‘political society’ and the civil society while hegemony it itself is redefined to combine consent and coercion. These formulations express that Gramsci was acutely aware of the central ideological role of Western capitalist democracies. However, in this formulation, Gramsci’s pre-occupations with the ideological role of the state are concerned not so much with what Anderson calls ‘the super-ordinate institutions of the parliament or elections’ than with ‘sub-ordinate’ ones of education and law – “Every State is ethical in so far as one of its most important functions is to elevate the great mass of the population to……..a level or standard which corresponds to the needs of the development of forces of production and hence to the interests of the dominant classes. The school as a positive educational function and the courts as a negative and repressive educational function are the most important such activities of the State” or his formulations on the ‘executive, legislative and judiciary of the liberal state’ as organs of political hegemony in “Hegemony and Separation of Power”. However, in this perspective, Gramsci’s stand that “the normal exercise of hegemony is now characterized by a combination of force and consent” becomes problematic as coercion is the sole legal monopoly of a capitalist State. Thus hegemony as consent + coercion cannot co-exist in both civil society and the State as exercise of repression is juridically absent from civil society. Thus, while ideology pertains to both State and civil society, violence is the former’s exclusive domain.

In his third version, Gramsci argues for State to encompass both political and civil society. There is no longer merely a distribution of hegemony, as a synthesis of consent and coercion, across State and civil society, State and civil society themselves are merged into a larger suzerain unity – “By the state should be understood not merely the government apparatus, but also the private apparatus of hegemony or civil society…….In reality, civil society and State are one and the same”. This version however has grave consequences as in rejecting the concept of civil society altogether, it leaves out all those institutions and mechanisms outside the boundaries of the State system proper.

Hegemony, as Chantal Mouffe argues cannot be reduced to legitimization, false consciousness, or manipulation of the mass of the population, whose ‘common sense’ or world view, according to Gramsci, is made up of a variety of elements, some of which contradict the dominant ideology as does much of everyday experience. What a dominant hegemonic ideology can do is provide a more coherent and systemic world view which not only influences the mass of the population but serves as a principle of organization of social institutions. Ideology in his view does not simply reflect or mirror economic class interest, and in this sense is not a ‘given’ determined by the economic structure or organization of society but rather an area of struggle. Ideology, Gramsci declares, must be seen as a battle field, as a continuous struggle, since man’s acquisition of consciousness through ideology will not come individually but always through the intermediary of the ideological terrain where ‘two hegemonic principles’ confront each other. Ideology is thus seen as a practice producing subjects and this ideology organized action through the way it is embodied in social relations, institutions and practices, and informs all individual and collective activities. Thus the concept of ideological superstructures as epiphenomena which play no part in the historical process is rejected by Gramsci and his theory marks a radical departure from traditional Marxist economism. Gramsci also thus departs from the idea of hegemony being the assimilation of the masses into the ideology of a particular class, but as a world-view which includes ideological elements from varying sources as mentioned in the strategy of compromise. However, the unity of this world view with components from various elements will be derived from its articulating principle which will be provided by the hegemonic class. Gramsci calls this articulating principle the ‘hegemonic principle’ which relates to a system of values the realization of which stems from the central role played by the fundamental class at the level of the relations of production. Thus the intellectual and moral direction exercised by a fundamental class in a hegemonic system consists in providing the articulating principle of the common world-view, the value system to which the ideological elements coming from the other groups will be articulated in order to form a unified ideological system, .i.e. to say an organic ideology.

The view of hegemony being the indoctrination of masses into an ideology also denies subjectivity to the masses. Arun Patnaik argues that in such a stand, the counter hegemony process is not seen as a series of feelings or precepts represented or transformed into ‘stable’ concepts by workers themselves. In this perspective, the revolutionary urge does not seem to be central to the worker’s ‘being’. What is rather believed to be crucial is to treat the working class as a potential revolutionary force. Only via a revolutionary organization a worker becomes an actual revolutionary and realizes his/her own being. His being due to its subjection to a hegemony process does not on its own seem to determine his ‘consciousness’ until he is encountered by the ‘vanguard’. His own consciousness in the hegemony process is only a ‘reified’ one, appropriated from the dominant classes. The revolutionary spirit must hence trickle down to the workers from the vanguard and its professional intellectuals. Patnaik regards these are misplaced perspectives in Marxist thought as they undermine considerably the ‘original thought” of the subaltern groups, their own active will involved in hegemony as well as counter hegemony processes. It is essential Gramsci reiterates to examine on its own the ‘original thought’ or contradictory consciousness of the subaltern group – an elaboration independent of, but complementary to a critique of the social structure and its dominant ideologies. So long as Marxism ignores this question, its relationship with its own agency supposed to be a base of its philosophy would remain an external one. Gramsci’s concept of common sense thus offers a useful break with Marxist traditions and also supplies elements for an adequate formulation of subaltern praxis tied within the hegemony process.

The understanding of the idea of hegemony that provides the key to Gramsci’s formulation that the strength of a system lies not in the apparatus of violence, but in the acceptance by the ruled of a conception of the world which belongs to the rulers and which, filtered through a series of layers of consciousness, emerges as common sense. This is precisely what Gramsci calls the strategy of passive revolution whereby common sense assumes the form of consent and the political distance between the rulers and the masses is faithfully preserved. If passive revolution is the mainstay of class domination, Gramsci’s strategy of hegemonic intervention aims at emancipation of the masses from the trappings of common sense by making them real actors of history. His project of the national popular as distinct from the accent on economic-corporate elements in passive revolution thereby emphasizes the necessity of breaking the confines of a strategy of revolution from above by effecting a revolution from below. The act of passive revolution considers the working masses as objects awaiting manipulation and subsequently domination; Gramsci’s projected strategy was to transform these objects into subjects and this intervention had to be made in the terrain of civil society. These reflections in Prison Notebooks grew out of the failure of the revolutionary forces to confront this question in the face of fascism’s consolidation.

Another very new aspect of the Gramscian problematic of ideology and hegemony is the importance he attributes to the material and institutional nature of ideological practice. Changing socio-economic circumstances do not themselves ‘produce’ political changes. They only set the conditions in which such changes become possible. What is crucial in bringing about these changes, are the ‘relations of force’ obtaining at the political level, the degree of political organization and combativity of opposing forces, the strength of political alliances which they manage to bind together and their level of political consciousness, of preparation and struggle on the ideological terrain. Gramsci insists that this process and practice, possesses its own agents, that is to say the intellectuals. They are the ones in charge of elaborating and spreading organic ideologies, they are the ‘organic intellectuals’. To quote him, “A human mass does not “distinguish” itself, does not become independent in its own right ithout intellectuals that is without organizers and leader, in other words, without the theoretical aspect of the theory-practice nexus”. For Gramsci, the political party plays the role of the intellectuals: “One should stress the importance and significance which, in the modern world, political parties have in the elaboration and diffusion of conceptions of the world.” Here also came the question of the role of the revolutionary party in creating proletariat hegemony. Gramsci emphasized that the party cannot be treated as a command mechanism from above or as an organizational structure exterior to the masses. The Party can work out its hegemonic strategy, can bring within its fold the working class and all its potential allies like the subaltern strata and thereby emerge as the Modern Prince only if the dialectical co-ordination between mass initiative and organizational leadership is achieved. By the Lyons Congress of the PCI, it was realized that the working class, as a subject, can act successfully only if its explosive potential gets an organized articulation and is thereby mediated through the Party, which, in turn, has to be physically a part of the working class.

In conclusion, it can be said that Gramsci’s strategy of hegemonic intervention needs to be read politically, as Sobhanlal Datta Gupta argues, in terms of the fact that the Prison Notebook is tangentially related to his political experience, containing reflections on a not too distant past that is bitter, tragic and broken and simultaneously they contain elements for future projections.

Bibliography

  1. Selections from the Prison Notebooks of Antonio Gramsci: Hoare and Smith
  2. The Antimonies of Antonio Gramsci: Perry Anderson
  3. Hegemony and Ideology in Gramsci: Chantal Mouffe
  4. Notes on Hegemony: Svati Joshi
  5. A Dictionary of Marxist Thought: Tom Bottomore (Hegemony, Civil Society, Economism)
  6. Gramsci’s concept of Common Sense: Towards a theory of Subaltern Consciousness in Hegemony Processes: Arun K.Patnaik
  7. Understanding Gramsci: Some Exploratory Observations: Sobhanlal Dutta Gupt

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