Electronic Reserve Text: from The Dictionary of Marxist Thought, ed. Tom Bottomore, Oxford: Blackwell's, 1983.
Hegemony: Any definition of hegemony is complicated by the use of the word in two diametrically opposed senses: first, to mean domination, as in 'hegemonism'; and secondly, to mean leadership, implying some notion of consent. Thus Mao Tse-tung used 'hegemonism' to indicate a kind of domination by one country over another which was not imperialism. The second meaning is more usual in Marxist writing. Anderson (1976-77) has pointed out that both the Mensheviks and Lenin use the word to indicate political leadership in the democratic revolution, based on an alliance with sections of the peasantry. Buci-Glucksmann (1979) discusses how it was used by Bukharin and Stalin in the 1920s. Its full development as a Marxist concept can be attributed to Gramsci. Most commentators agree that hegemony is the key concept in Gramsci's Prison Notebooks and his most important contribution to Marxist theory. In his pre-prison writings, on the few occasions when the term is used, it refers to a working-class strategy. In an essay written just before he was imprisoned in 1926, Gramsci used the word to refer to the system of alliances which the working class must create to overthrow the bourgeois state and to serve as the social basis of the workers' state (Gramsci 1978, p. 443). About the same time he used the term to argue that the Soviet proletariat would have to sacrifice its corporate, economic interests in order to maintain an alliance with the peasantry and to serve its own general interest (Gramsci 1978, p. 431).
In his Prison Notebooks Gramsci goes beyond this use of the term, which was similar to its use in debates in the Communist International in the period, to apply it to the way in which the bourgeoisie establishes and maintains its rule. Two historical examples which he discusses in this context are the French Revolution and the Italian Risorgimento, in which he contrasts the extended basis of consent for the new French state with the limited consent enjoyed by the state in unified Italy. In discussing the different manifestations of bourgeois domination he draws on such thinkers as Machiavelli and Pareto when he describes the state as force plus consent. In modern conditions, Gramsci argues, a class maintains its dominance not simply through a special organization of force, but because it is able to go beyond its narrow, corporative interests, exert a moral and intellectual leadership, and make compromises (within certain limits) with a variety of allies who are unified in a social blee of forces which Gramsci calls the historical bloc. This blee represents a basis of consent for a certain social order, in which the hegemony of a dominant class (see RULING CLASS) is created and re-created in a web of institutions, social relations, and ideas. This 'fabric of hegemony' is woven by the intellectuals who, according to Gramsci, are all those who have an organizational role in society. Thus, he goes beyond the definition of the state as the instrument of a class used by Marx, Engels and Lenin.
Although Gramsci writes that the institutions of hegemony are located in CIVIL SOCIETY, whereas political society is the arena of political institutions in the legal constitutional sense, he also says that the division is a purely methodological one and stresses the overlap that exists in actual societies (Gramsci 1971, p. 160). Indeed, in the political conditions of expanding state intervention in civil society, and of reformism as a response to demands made upon the political arena as trade unions and mass political parties are organized, and as the economy becomes transformed into so called 'organized capitalism', the form of hegemony changes and the bourgeoisie engages in what Gramsci calls passive revolution. Thus the material basis of hegemony is constituted through reforms or compromises in which the leadership of a class is maintained but in which other classes have certain demands met. The leading or hegemonic class is thus in Gramsci's definition truly political because it goes beyond its immediate economic interests (which it may have fought for in the political arena) to represent the universal advancement of society. Thus, Gramsci employs the concept of hegemony to argue that any economistic notion of politics or ideology which looks for immediate economic class interest in politics and culture is incapable of an accurate analysis of the political situation and of the balance of political forces and cannot produce an adequate understanding of the nature of state power (see ECONOMISM). Consequently it is inadequate as a basis for a political strategy for the working-class movement.
Gramsci's approach to what he defined as an attempt to develop a Marxist science of politics has various implications. A fully extended hegemony must rest on active consent, on a collective will in which various groups in society unite. Gramsci thus goes beyond a theory of political obligation resting on abstract civil rights to argue that full democratic control develops in the highest form of hegemony. Yet his analysis of various forms of hegemony, such as that which came to dominate the Italian Risorgimento, shows that the limited nature of consent can lead to a weak basis for a political order, which may come to rely increasingly on force.
Hegemony, it may be argued, cannot be reduced to legitimation, 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 to provide a more coherent and systematic 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 it is not a 'given' determined by the economic structure or organization of society but rather an area of struggle. It organizes action through the way it is embodied in social relations, institutions and practices, and informs all individual and collective activities (Mouffe 1979). Gramsci defines the special historical project of the proletariat as the creation of a 'regulated society' in which hegemony and civil society, or the area of consent, is fully expanded and political society, or the area of constraint, is diminished. This implies that the proletariat must create a continuous expansion of consent in which the interests of
various groups come together to form a new historical bloc. In developing a strategy
towards this end, a new hegemony must harness and systematise elements of popular
ideas and practice. The concept of hegemony is thus the basis of Gramsci's critical analysis
of folklore and popular culture and his discussion of religion and of the relationship
between the systematic philosophy of the philosophers and the unsystematic philosophy or world view of the mass of the population.
Various questions have been raised about Gramsci's concept of hegemony. Some have to
do with the adequacy of his analysis of bourgeois state power and the strategic conclusions he draws from this (Anderson 1976-77). One aspect of this debate concerns the extent to which working-class hegemony can or must be developed before state power is transformed and the extent to which it remains the task of a socialist state to develop
hegemony. Other questions concern the role of the revolutionary party in creating proletarian hegemony. Some writers emphasize the homogeneous, or unitary and possibly totalizing, character of hegemony; while others stress its diverse elements which are not necessarily rooted in economically defined classes, and the way in which it represents the coming together of quite different groups, with the compromises this implies. Some recent interpretations claim that hegemony not only provides a conceptual tool for an analysis of bourgeois society, and for the development of a strategy of transition to socialism, but can also be used to analyse the achievements and the limits of socialist societies themselves. ASS
Anderson, P. 1976-77: 'The Antinomies of Antonio Gramsci'.
Buci-Glucksmann, C. 1979: Gramsci and the State.
-- 1982: 'Hegemony and Consent'. In A. S. Sassoon ed. Approaches to Gramsci.
De Giovanni, B. et al. 1977: Egemonia, Stato, Partito in Gramsci.
Femia, J. 1981: Gramsci's Political Thought: Hegemony, Consciousness and the Revolutionary Process.
Gramsci, A. 1929-35 (1971): Selections from the Prison Notebooks.
-- 1978: Selections from Political Writings 1921-1926.
Mouffe, C. 1979. 'Hegemony and Ideology in Gramsci'. In C. Mouffe ed. Gramsci and Marxist Theory.
Sassoon, A. S. 198O: Gramsci's Politics.