Posts Tagged ‘Antonio Gramsci’

The manufacture of consent… is a revolution in the practice of democracy – Walter Lippman, “Public Opinion”, 1921.

Noam Chomsky’s Manufacturing Consent argues about mass media in America and their relation to culture, society and the existing power structure.

[Background]: Hegemony refers to predominance or the preponderant influence of one state over another. A ruling or elite class dominates at the level of ideas, thus undermining any consciousness of change.According to Antonio Gramsci;
hegemony accounts for why people are willing to find a niche in existing society rather than rebel in the manner predicted by Karl Marx.In America, these constraints are inherited in the following:

  1. from social structure, and
  2. in governmental organisation

— and together they discourage alternative strategies of action. In effect, people participate in their own domination. Media provide the information.]The video shows Chomsky’s guiding belief to be that a decent society should maximize human need for creative work — not treat people as cogs in a machine so that the power elite can maintain control, continue private ownership of public resources and increase profits — all the while managing media content (while preserving the myth of a free press).This deprives a community of what Walter Lippmann called;

“the means to detect lies.”

(Recall Postman’s quote in “Amusing Ourselves to Death,” Chapter 7).Real democracy, he believes, would be one in which people participate in the political decision-making and in related economic decisions.

Chomsky asserts that America has a system of indoctrination (including a system of propaganda imposed largely by media).

He believes that the hope lies with ordinary people and in the understanding that all changes in history have come because people build a foundation for change at the grassroots level.

Ordinary people are very capable of understanding the world, yet must work TOGETHER to get beyond the imposed information and strive to act in accordance with their own decent interests and develop independent minds. (Omnia Sunt Communia?)

Concision — Noam Chomsky’s concept describing how mainstream media content is structured so that it forces those with dissenting voices to limit scope of answers to brief thoughts and soundbites that fit easily between two TV ads

Regarding Thought Control in a Democratic Society

Chomsky makes these points:

  1. Propaganda is to democracy, what violence is to a dictatorship.
  2. Ordinary people have remarkable creativity.
  3. People have a fundamental need for creative work, which is not being met in systems where people are like cogs in a machine or, machine coding of a microprocessor.
  4. What would make more sense as a way to govern is a form of rationalist-libertarian socialism — not one that increasingly functions without public input. Chomsky advocates a system where a community and its members run things in a democratic fashion and whose people do not function as some sort of wage slaves.
  5. People need to be able to detect forms of authority and coercion and challenge those that are not legitimate.
  6. The major form of authority that needs challenging is the system of private control over public resources.
  7. The First Amendment means that democracy requires free access to ideas and opinions.
  8. Democracy in America is not functioning in an ideal sense but more in the sense that Lippmann noted in Public Opinion (where a specialised class of about 20 percent of the people — but who are also a target of propaganda — manages democratic functioning) and, in effect, are under control of a power elite, who more or less own the institutions. The masses of people (80 percent) are marginalised, diverted and controlled by what he calls Necessary Illusions.
  9. “Manufacturing consent” is related to the understanding that indoctrination is the essence of propaganda.
    In a “democratic” society indoctrination occurs when the techniques of control of a propaganda model are imposed — which means imposing “Necessary Illusions“.

    Chomsky’s “Propaganda Model” says;
    American media have “filters” — ownership, advertising, news makers, news shapers — which together emphasise institutional memory, limited debate and media content emphasising the interests of those in control.

Chomsky used a CASE STUDY of how American media covered two foreign atrocities, Cambodia and East Timor, to illustrate the propaganda model at work — mainstream media (New York Times was the example used) showed bias in favour of the status quo and power elites and did not covered both atrocities in the same manner, by paying extensive attention to the one (Cambodia 1975-79) and ignoring the other (East Timor 1975-79).

If media were not an instrument of propaganda, they would have covered each equally.When media news coverage of issues is biased in favour of the status quo, these are the results:

  1. ownership of media is held by major corporations with interests and goals similar to power elite elements of society
  2. people with different views, “dissenting voices,” are not heard much
  3. the breadth of debate is limited
  4. the official stance and institutional memory prevail and become history
  5. people’s interest and attention are often diverted away from issues about which they could become concerned

These attributes come to limit a society in part because mainstream mass media play their part by imposing what Chomsky calls Necessary Illusions, which make certain the masses of the populace won’t become curious and involved in the political process and will continue submitting to the “civil rule” of the power elite (maintaining the status quo) — thus,
the masses (80%) are marginalised and diverted while the political class (20% who vote and participate in democracy) are indoctrinated into the status quo.
This system is not a conspiracy but is a HEGEMONIC system of sorts, working with propaganda, wherein people do not get all the important information that may arouse that curiosity and prompt them to get involved and create changes.

Chomsky’s concept of NECESSARY ILLUSIONS is linked to power elites dominating how life happens, with part of the population — about 20% who make up the political class and are expected to participate as cultural managers in a limited fashion — are indoctrinated, and most people — the other 80% of the population — are marginalized, diverted from political awareness and participation in self-governing, and reduced to apathy so they don’t vote or take charge. Media are a tool of society’s power elites and owned and controlled by them and are used to impose those iIllusions that are Necessary to keep people diverted from the political process.
[David Hume asserted hundreds of years ago that the power always rests with the people but that they don’t act because they are oppressed or manipulated]

Thus, indoctrination of the political class and diversion of the masses make up the essence of the democracy practiced in the U.S. (Chomsky notes also that there is no correlation between the internal freedoms in a society and violent external behavior — and that all governments are ruthless to the extent that they are powerful.)

Major media (New York Times, Washington Post, TV networks, AP) shape our perception of the world by serving as Agenda Setters, Chomsky says.

Media allow some dissenting voices but marginalize them via constraints such as CONCISION, Chomsky’s concept saying in mainstream media content, ideas must be stated briefly so it can fill up the TV content between commercials or fit in the print media newshole). Thus, dissenting views are mostly disallowed because they take longer to explain and need more complete evidence.

Chomsky asserts that in order to break free, citizens must take two actions:

  1. They must seek out information from ALTERNATIVE MEDIA (media outside the mainstream and usually having a particular point of view)

  2. they must move toward change by becoming engaged in community action — because people can use their ordinary intelligence to make changes in their lives and communities. Grassroots movements begin there.

People can organize to begin grass roots momentum to bring about wider change — but Chomsky says people must realize soon that the world is not an infinite resource and an infinite garbage can. In these ways, people can fight society’s tendency to isolate them from collective action and activism.

Chomsky says it is “profoundly contemptuous of democracy” when the American political system has stage-managed elections and uses manipulation such as testing phrases to determine their likely effect on audiences.

Chomsky argues that people need to work to develop independent minds — maybe in part by forming COMMUNITY action groups with others with parallel interests and values, not in isolation, which is where the present system tends to keep people.

Chomsky says the present conventional MYTH is that individual material gain is praiseworthy. Instead, people must concern themselves with COMMUNITY INTERESTS [which now suggests the global community] — and that may mean a spiritual transformation to help people to conceive of themselves differently.

Chomsky argues that America and the world are in deep trouble and that
2 POSSIBILITIES EXIST regarding America’s future and the future for a global community held hostage:
1. The general population will take control of its own destiny
2. Or — there will be no destiny to control.


In Chomsky’s words concluding “Manufacturing Consent”:
“The question, in brief, is whether democracy and freedom are values to be preserved or threats to be avoided [as they have been until now]. In this possibly terminal phase of human existence, democracy and freedom are … essential to survival.””The driving force of modern industrialized civilization has been individual material gain. It has long been understood that a society based on this principle will destroy itself in time. It can only persist with whatever suffering and injustice it entails as long as it is possible to pretend that the destructive forces humans create are limited, that the world is an infinite resource, [and] is an infinite garbage can.

“At this stage of history, one of two things is possible: Either the general population will take control of its own destiny and will concern itself with community interests guided by values of solidarity and sympathy and concern for others, or alternativ ely there will be no destiny to control.

“As long as some specialized class is in position of authority, it is going to set policy in the special interest it serves. But, the conditions of survival and justice require rational, special planning in the interest of the community of the whole (and by now that means the global community).

“The question is whether privileged elites should dominate mass communication and should use this power as they tell us they must, namely to impose NECESSARY ILLUSIONS to manipulate and deceive [whom THEY believe are] the stupid majority and remove them from the public arena. “The question, in brief, is whether democracy and freedom are values to be preserved or threats to be avoided. In this possibly terminal phase of human existence, democracy and freedom are more than values to be treasured; they may be essential to survival.”

So, Chomsky says, all states are violent to the extent they are powerful and that there is little correlation between internal “freedoms” in a society and violent external behaviour.The modern American industrial civilisation and the media system (which suggests a propaganda model) work because people don’t have the time to work and carry out the research to get the information necessary to create change.
But, the information is present.Chomsky says, he does not have the answers but we should consider moving toward some sort of libertarian-socialist democracy in which our economic institutions would be run by the people. He suggests this as an anarcho-syndicalist model. In this way, we would end private control over public resources – which are finite.To achieve change AND OVERCOME THE EFFECTIVENESS OF THE PROPAGANDA MODEL, Chomsky says, we need to rely in part on activism and alternative media.We must develop means of intellectual self-defense.
We must develop independent minds.
We need to review a wide range of press (or do so in conjunction with others), including alternative media — and work at the community level in organisations that may have different focuses but that have similar values.
We must become human participants in our social and political system and work to make a difference.Given full information, ordinary people acting on their best impulse can govern themselves.

Note: Chomsky’s ideas that touch on solutions such as alternative media sources, collective action, media literacy, and use of the intellect have similarity to solutions offered by Media Education Foundation videos.

“Common sense is a chaotic aggregate of disparate conceptions, and one can find there anything that one like.”

“The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born”

“All men are intellectuals, but not all men have in society the function of intellectuals”

“I’m a pessimist because of intelligence, but an optimist because of will.”

“Ideas and opinions are not spontaneously “born” in each individual brain: they have had a centre of formation, or irradiation, of dissemination, of persuasion-a group of men, or a single individual even, which has developed them and presented them in the political form of current reality.”

“The crisis creates situations which are dangerous in the short run, since the various strata of the population are not all capable of orienting themselves equally swiftly, or of reorganising with the same rhythm. The traditional ruling class, which has numerous trained cadres, changes men and programmes and, with greater speed than is achieved by the subordinate classes, reabsorbs the control that was slipping from its grasp. Perhaps it may make sacrifices, and expose itself to an uncertain future by demagogic promises; but it retains power, reinforces it for the time being, and uses it to crush its adversary and disperse his leading cadres, who cannot be be very numerous or highly trained.”

― Antonio Gramsci, Selections from the Prison Notebooks.


“I hate the indifferent. I believe that living means taking sides. Those who really live cannot help being a citizen and a partisan. Indifference and apathy are parasitism, perversion, not life. That is why I hate the indifferent.

The indifference is the deadweight of history. The indifference operates with great power on history. The indifference operates passively, but it operates. It is fate, that which cannot be counted on. It twists programs and ruins the best-conceived plans. It is the raw material that ruins intelligence. That what happens, the evil that weighs upon all, happens because the human mass abdicates to their will; allows laws to be promulgated that only the revolt could nullify, and leaves men that only a mutiny will be able to overthrow to achieve the power. The mass ignores because it is careless and then it seems like it is the product of fate that runs over everything and everyone: the one who consents as well as the one who dissents; the one who knew as well as the one who didn’t know; the active as well as the indifferent. Some whimper piously, others curse obscenely, but nobody, or very few ask themselves: If I had tried to impose my will, would this have happened?

I also hate the indifferent because of that: because their whimpering of eternally innocent ones annoys me. I make each one liable: how they have tackled with the task that life has given and gives them every day, what have they done, and especially, what they have not done. And I feel I have the right to be inexorable and not squander my compassion, of not sharing my tears with them.

I am a partisan, I am alive, I feel the pulse of the activity of the future city that those on my side are building is alive in their conscience. And in it, the social chain does not rest on a few; nothing of what happens in it is a matter of luck, nor the product of fate, but the intelligent work of the citizens. Nobody in it is looking from the window of the sacrifice and the drain of a few. Alive, I am a partisan. That is why I hate the ones that don’t take sides, I hate the indifferent.”
― Antonio Gramsci




Prison Notebooks

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Antonio Gramsci, depicted in 1922

The Prison Notebooks (Italian: Quaderni del carcere [kwaˈdɛrni del ˈkartʃere]) were a series of essays written by the Italian MarxistAntonio Gramsci. Gramsci was imprisoned by the Italian Fascist regime in 1926. The notebooks were written between 1929 and 1935, when Gramsci was released from prison on grounds of ill-health. He died in April 1937.

He wrote more than 30 notebooks and 3,000 pages of history and analysis during his imprisonment. Although written unsystematically, the Prison Notebooks are considered a highly original contribution to 20th century political theory. Gramsci drew insights from varying sources – not only other Marxists but also thinkers such as Niccolò Machiavelli, Vilfredo Pareto, Georges Sorel and Benedetto Croce. His notebooks cover a wide range of topics, including Italian history and nationalism, the French Revolution, Fascism, Fordism, civil society,folklore, religion and high and popular culture,

The notebooks were smuggled out of prison in the 1930s. They were not published until the 1950s and were first translated into English in the 1970s.

Some ideas in Marxist theory, critical theory and educational theory that are associated with Gramsci’s name:

  • Cultural hegemony as a means of maintaining the capitalist state.
  • The need for popular workers’ education to encourage development of intellectuals from the working class.
  • The distinction between political society (the police, the army, legal system, etc.) which dominates directly and coercively, and civil society (the family, the education system, trade unions, etc.) where leadership is constituted through ideology or by means of consent.
  • “Absolute historicism“.
  • A critique of economic determinism that opposes fatalistic interpretations of Marxism.
  • A critique of philosophical materialism.


For more details on this topic, see Cultural hegemony.

Hegemony was a concept previously used by Marxists such as Vladimir Ilyich Lenin to indicate the political leadership of the working-class in a democratic revolution, but developed by Gramsci into an acute analysis to explain why the ‘inevitable’ socialist revolution predicted by orthodox Marxism had not occurred by the early 20th century. Capitalism, it seemed, was even more entrenched than ever. Capitalism, Gramsci suggested, maintained control not just through violence and political and economic coercion, but also ideologically, through a hegemonic culture in which the values of the bourgeoisie became the ‘common sense‘ values of all. Thus a consensus culture developed in which people in the working-class identified their own good with the good of the bourgeoisie, and helped to maintain the status quo rather than revolting.

The working class needed to develop a culture of its own, which would overthrow the notion that bourgeois values represented ‘natural’ or ‘normal’ values for society, and would attract the oppressed and intellectual classes to the cause of the proletariat. Lenin held that culture was ‘ancillary’ to political objectives but for Gramsci it was fundamental to the attainment of power that cultural hegemony be achieved first. In Gramsci’s view, any class that wishes to dominate in modern conditions has to move beyond its own narrow ‘economic-corporate’ interests, to exert intellectual and moral leadership, and to make alliances and compromises with a variety of forces. Gramsci calls this union of social forces a ‘historic bloc’, taking a term from Georges Sorel. This bloc forms the basis of consent to a certain social order, which produces and re-produces the hegemony of the dominant class through a nexus of institutions, social relations and ideas. In this manner, Gramsci developed a theory that emphasised the importance of the superstructure in both maintaining and fracturing relations of the base.

Gramsci stated that, in the West, bourgeois cultural values were tied to religion, and therefore much of his polemic against hegemonic culture is aimed at religious norms and values. He was impressed by the power Roman Catholicism had over men’s minds and the care the Church had taken to prevent an excessive gap developing between the religion of the learned and that of the less educated. Gramsci believed that it was Marxism’s task to marry the purely intellectual critique of religion found inRenaissance humanism to the elements of the Reformation that had appealed to the masses. For Gramsci, Marxism could supersede religion only if it met people’s spiritual needs, and to do so people would have to recognise it as an expression of their own experience.

For Gramsci, hegemonic dominance ultimately relied on coercion, and in a “crisis of authority” the “masks of consent” slip away, revealing the fist of force.

Intellectuals and education

Gramsci gave much thought to the question of the role of intellectuals in society. Famously, he stated that all men are intellectuals, in that all have intellectual and rational faculties, but not all men have the social function of intellectuals. He claimed that modern intellectuals were not simply talkers, but directors and organisers who helped build society and produce hegemony by means of ideological apparatuses such as education and the media. Furthermore, he distinguished between a ‘traditional’ intelligentsia which sees itself (wrongly) as a class apart from society, and the thinking groups which every class produces from its own ranks ‘organically’. Such ‘organic’ intellectuals do not simply describe social life in accordance with scientific rules, but rather articulate, through the language of culture, the feelings and experiences which the masses could not express for themselves. The need to create a working-class culture relates to Gramsci’s call for a kind of education that could develop working-class intellectuals, who would not simply introduce Marxist ideology from outside the proletariat, but rather renovate and make critical of the status quo the already existing intellectual activity of the masses. His ideas about an education system for this purpose correspond with the notion of critical pedagogy and popular education as theorised and practised in later decades by Paulo Freire in Brazil, and have much in common with the thought of Frantz Fanon. For this reason, partisans of adult and popular education consider Gramsci an important voice to this day. (For the results of this kind of thought in education, see the latests reports of PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) on the education in Brazil).

State and civil society

Gramsci’s theory of hegemony is tied to his conception of the capitalist state, which he claims rules through force plus consent. The state is not to be understood in the narrow sense of the government; instead, Gramsci divides it between ‘political society’, which is the arena of political institutions and legal constitutional control, and ‘civil society‘, which is commonly seen as the ‘private’ or ‘non-state’ sphere, differentiated from both the state and the economy. The former is the realm of force and the latter of consent. He stresses, however, that the division is purely conceptual and that the two, in reality, often overlap.

Gramsci claims that hegemony lies under modern capitalism and that the bourgeoisie can maintain its economic control by allowing certain demands made by trade unions and mass political parties within civil society to be met by the political sphere.

Thus, the bourgeoisie engages in Passive Revolution by going beyond its immediate economic interests and allowing the forms of its hegemony to change. Gramsci posits that movements such as reformism and fascism, as well as the ‘scientific management‘ and assembly line methods of Frederick Taylor and Henry Ford respectively, are examples of this.

Drawing from Machiavelli, he argues that ‘The Modern Prince’ – the revolutionary party – is the force that will allow the working-class to develop organic intellectuals and an alternative hegemony within civil society. For Gramsci, the complex nature of modern civil society means that the only tactic capable of undermining bourgeois hegemony and leading to socialism is a ‘war of position’ (analogous to trench warfare); this war of position would then give way to a ‘war of movement’ (or frontal attack). Gramsci saw ‘war of movement’ as being exemplified by the storming of the Winter Palace during the Russian Revolution.

Despite his claim that the lines between the two may be blurred, Gramsci rejects the state-worship that results from identifying political society with civil society, as was done by the Jacobins and Fascists. He believes the proletariat’s historical task is to create a ‘regulated society’ and defines the ‘withering away of the state‘ as the full development of civil society’s ability to regulate itself.


Gramsci, like the early Marx, was an emphatic proponent of historicism. In Gramsci’s view, all meaning derives from the relation between human practical activity (or “praxis“) and the “objective” historical and social processes of which it is a part. Ideas cannot be understood outside their social and historical context, apart from their function and origin. The concepts by which we organise our knowledge of the world do not derive primarily from our relation to things, but rather from the social relations between the users of those concepts. As a result, there is no such thing as an unchanging “human nature“, but only an idea of such which varies historically. Furthermore, philosophy and science do not “reflect” a reality independent of man, but rather are only “true” in that they express the real developmental trend of a given historical situation.

For the majority of Marxists, truth was truth no matter when and where it is known, and scientific knowledge (which included Marxism) accumulated historically as the advance of truth in this everyday sense. On this view, Marxism could not be said to not belong to the illusory realm of the superstructure because it is a science. In contrast, Gramsci believed Marxism was “true” in the socially pragmatic sense, in that by articulating the class consciousness of the proletariat, it expressed the “truth” of its times better than any other theory. This anti-scientistic and anti-positivist stance was indebted to the influence of Benedetto Croce. However, it should be underlined that Gramsci’s was an “absolute historicism” that broke with the Hegelian and idealist tenor of Croce’s thinking and its tendency to secure a metaphysical synthesis in historical “destiny”.

Though Gramsci repudiates the charge, his historical account of truth has been criticised as a form of relativism.

Critique of “economism”

In a famous pre-prison article entitled “The Revolution against Das Kapital“, Gramsci claimed that the October Revolution in Russia had invalidated the idea that socialist revolution had to await the full development of capitalist forces of production. This reflected his view that Marxism was not a determinist philosophy. The principle of the causal “primacy” of the forces of production, he held, was a misconception of Marxism. Both economic changes and cultural changes are expressions of a “basic historical process”, and it is difficult to say which sphere has primacy over the other. The fatalistic belief, widespread within the workers’ movement in its earliest years, that it would inevitably triumph due to “historical laws”, was, in Gramsci’s view, a product of the historical circumstances of an oppressed class restricted mainly to defensive action, and was to be abandoned as a hindrance once the working-class became able to take the initiative. Because Marxism is a “philosophy of praxis”, it cannot rely on unseen “historical laws” as the agents of social change. History is defined by human praxis and therefore includes human will. Nonetheless, will-power cannot achieve anything it likes in any given situation: when the consciousness of the working-class reaches the stage of development necessary for action, historical circumstances will be encountered which cannot be arbitrarily altered. It is not, however, predetermined by historical inevitability as to which of several possible developments will take place as a result.

His critique of economism also extended to that practised by the syndicalists of the Italian trade unions. He believed that many trade unionists had settled for a reformist, gradualist approach in that they had refused to struggle on the political front in addition to the economic front. While Gramsci envisioned the trade unions as one organ of a counter-hegemonic force in capitalist society, the trade union leaders simply saw these organizations as a means to improve conditions within the existing structure. Gramsci referred to the views of these trade unionists as “vulgar economism”, which he equated to covert reformism and even liberalism.

Critique of Materialism

By virtue of his belief that human history and collective praxis determine whether any philosophical question is meaningful or not, Gramsci’s views run contrary to the metaphysical materialism and ‘copy’ theory of perception advanced by Engels and Lenin, though he does not explicitly state this. For Gramsci, Marxism does not deal with a reality that exists in and for itself, independent of humanity. The concept of an objective universe outside of human history and human praxis was, in his view, analogous to belief in God; there could be no objectivity, but only a universal intersubjectivity to be established in a future communist society. Natural history was thus only meaningful in relation to human history. On his view philosophical materialism, like primitive common sense, resulted from a lack of critical thought, and could not, as Lenin[1] claimed, be said to oppose religious superstition. Despite this, Gramsci resigned himself to the existence of this arguably cruder form of Marxism: the proletariat’s status as a dependent class meant that Marxism, as its philosophy, could often only be expressed in the form of popular superstition and common sense. Nonetheless, it was necessary to effectively challenge the ideologies of the educated classes, and to do so Marxists must present their philosophy in a more sophisticated guise, and attempt to genuinely understand their opponents’ views.


External links

Further reading


Is power simply a matter of domination and resistance? Or can a ruling power be vulnerable; can subordinates find their resistance neutralised; and what is the role of culture in this? Gramsci’s work invites people to think beyond simplistic oppositions by recasting ideological domination as hegemony:

the ability of a ruling power’s values to live in the minds and lives of its subalterns as a spontaneous expression of their own interests.

Targeting readers encountering Gramsci for the first time, author Steve Jones covers key elements of his thought through detailed discussion of:

• culture

• hegemony

• intellectuals

• crisis

• Americanization

In doing so, Antonio Gramsci studies the historical context of the theorist’s thought, offers examples of putting Gramsci’s ideas into practice in the analysis of contemporary culture, and evaluates responses to his work.

[Antonio Gramsci by Steve Jones, Routledge Critical Thinkers, 2006]


This chapter analyses the central element of Gramsci’s thought, his theory of hegemony.

It maps the word’s development from Russian and Italian sources to Gramsci’s conception of it as cultural and political leadership.

Gramsci’s adoption of the term represents a break with the Marxist emphasis on ideology introduced in the previous chapter of the book.

Hegemony is a more sensitive and therefore useful critical term than ‘domination’, which fails to acknowledge the active role of subordinate people in the operation of power.

The chapter proposes that Gramsci defines hegemony through a series of distinctions between different moments within the hegemonic process.

It therefore isolates his notes on coercion and consent, domination and leadership, ‘common sense’ and ‘good sense’ and ‘limited’ and ‘expansive’ hegemony to show how these details build into a nuanced conception of political and cultural authority.

Since hegemony has been such a prominent and yet contested term within applications of Gramsci’s work, a further two chapters of the book outline a series of case studies that show how a dynamic and reflexive understanding of cultural power, rooted in Gramsci’s thought, has been put to use by thinkers in the humanities and social sciences. Although centred on theories of class, these case studies will discuss the usefulness of hegemonic theory to other forms of social division, particularly the analysis of gender and race. This chapter, however, is largely located within Gramsci’s lifetime, demonstrating the genealogy of the term, issues relating to its meaning and the oppositions it seeks to reconcile.


Previous chapters have demonstrated that Gramsci’s thoughts on politics and culture were formed during a period of defeat: the crushing of workers’ revolts in Europe, and the failure of the Italian working-class movement in its struggles with factory owners, with the Italian state and with Mussolini’s Fascists. As we have seen, Gramsci’s diagnosis of this defeat hinges on the inability of the working class to form alliances with other subordinate groups, particularly the peasantry and the intellectuals. Achieving such an alliance means overcoming the mutual misunderstandings and hostilities that separate these different groups. Gramsci argues that it is necessary to surmount these deep divisions in order to form a genuinely popular national organization which can defeat fascism and achieve a transformation of society. Crucially, however, this alliance is not simply a federation of factions that carry equal weight. The industrial working class lead their allies (or, more precisely, their subalterns) through ideological means and provide the centre of any progressive movement. This, in its simplest form, is what he means by ‘hegemony’. Gramsci was not the originator of the concept of hegemony. The term had a long history in the Russian socialist movement and was given fresh theorization by Lenin (see box). Gramsci almost certainly encountered debates about the term during his period in Moscow.

LENIN Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov or ‘Lenin’ (1870–1924) was the founder of the Bolshevik tendency within the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party, a faction which evolved into the Russian Communist Party. Returning from exile in 1917, Lenin was – with Trotsky (1879–1940) – the major figure of the October Revolution that overthrew the provisional government, established in the wake of Tsar Nicholas II’s abdication. Lenin prosecuted the Civil War of 1918–20 and supervised the reconstruction policies that followed it. Operating as a virtual dictator, he silenced opposition parties and hostility from within the Communist Party, laying the foundations for the more systematic repression of the Stalin years. As a theorist, his legacy has continued to be significant, covering such issues as the development of a disciplined revolutionary party and the meanings Lenin, in fact, rarely uses the term ‘hegemony’ explicitly, though Gramsci claimed that ‘Ilich’ (the name he used for Lenin in the Prison Notebooks), was responsible for ‘the concept and the fact of hegemony’ (1971: 381). By this, Gramsci meant three things. First, that Lenin understood that revolution would not happen simply as a reflex of developing ‘contradictions’ within the economy (the positivist misconception known as ‘economism’). Instead, he gave due consideration ‘to the front of cultural struggle’. Second, Lenin developed the idea that the bourgeoisie was as committed to the struggle for hegemony as its opponents, attempting to lead the working class through its control of ideas and institutions. Lenin writes that ‘the working class spontaneously gravitates towards socialism; nevertheless, bourgeois ideology, which is the most widespread (and continuously revived in the most diverse forms), is the one which, most of all spontaneously imposes itself upon the working class’ (cited in Holst 1999: 414) – this despite the fact that Russia lacked the western democracies’ developed civil societies, through which such notions could be disseminated and embedded. Third, Lenin argued that the revolutionary party must adopt the struggles of all oppressed groups and classes, not just the economic struggle of the industrial working class. He maintained that it is only possible to understand the oppression of the working class through understanding the ‘relationships between all the classes and strata and the state and the government, the sphere of the interrelations between all the classes’ (ibid.: 416). In the case of Russia in 1917, this meant linking the discontents of the industrial working class with the desires of the peasantry for land redistribution, of the soldiers for peace and of the oppressed nationalities, such as the Ukrainians, Finns and Latvians, for freedom from Russian rule. Gramsci was certainly a ‘Leninist’ to some extent. In particular he saw the political party as having a major role in educating allied groups and thereby cementing its leadership of the working class. In certain conditions, he writes, parties arbitrate between the interests of their own group and of other groups, thereby ‘securing the development of the group which they represent with the consent and assistance of the allied groups’ (1971: 148). of imperialism and colonialism. His major works include What Is To Be Done? (1902), Two Tactics of Social Democracy (1905), The State and Revolution (1917), and Left-Wing Communism: an infantile disorder (1920). Gramsci did not, however, simply parrot those ideas of hegemony developed by Lenin. Richard Bellamy (1994) points out that the word had currency within nineteenth-century Italian thought, particularly in the writings of the Moderate Catholic philosopher Vincenzo Gioberti, who used it to suggest that one region within a nation could exert ‘moral primacy’ over others. Not only was this a justification for the unification of Italy under Piedmontese leadership, but it also linked the idea of hegemony with the development of a national-popular culture. Thus, for Gramsci, ‘Gioberti, albeit vaguely, has the concept of the Jacobin (see box) ‘national-popular’, of political hegemony, namely the alliance between bourgeoisie-intellectuals and the people’ (1985: 248). Gioberti’s work represented a search within Italian history for moments of hegemony. Likewise, Gramsci’s work, while on the one hand a political tool for the construction of a revolutionary popular coalition, is also a tool of historical and cultural analysis, enabling us to evaluate those strategies by which different groups attempted to form hegemonic blocs in the past. Gramsci’s understanding of hegemony was, therefore, influenced by both native and international uses of the word. But he also added his own unique understanding of the term, blending other thinkers’ understanding of the


The Jacobins were the radical bourgeois faction during the French Revolution. Led most notably by Maximilien Robespierre (1758–94), they are most famous for instituting the ‘Reign of Terror’ during their domination of the National Assembly. Gramsci regularly uses the terms Jacobin and Jacobinism, but not always consistently. In his pre-prison writings, Jacobinism tends to be equated with abstraction and elitism amongst some left-wing groups. In the Prison Notebooks, however, Jacobinism becomes synonymous with an expansive hegemony of the popular classes under party leadership. He writes that not only did the Jacobins ‘make the bourgeoisie the dominant class . . . [but] they [also] created the bourgeois state, made the bourgeoisie into the leading, hegemonic class of the nation, in other words gave the new state a permanent basis and created the compact modern French nation’ (1971: 79). It is arguable that this estimation downplays the Jacobins’ use of coercion to establish a centralized administration and army. term with the intellectual currents discussed in the previous chapter: the need for a war of position, the role of civil society and the Southern Question.


This section describes and evaluates Gramsci’s use of hegemony as a tool for historical and political analysis. Although, as we shall see, Gramsci’s use of the term changes both over time and in relation to his subject matter, the last piece of writing before his arrest, ‘Some Aspects of the Southern Question’, is unambiguous about the nature of hegemony. The working class, he writes can only ‘become the leading and the dominant [i.e. hegemonic] class to the extent that it succeeds in creating a system of class alliances which allows it to mobilize the majority of the working population against capitalism and the bourgeois State’ (Gramsci 1994: 320). Because of the historical development of Italian society, this was not a struggle that could be purely posed in terms of economic inequality. In order to lead other groups within the working population, in particular the Italian peasantry, the working-class movement had to understand those issues that were culturally important to the peasants, and make them their own. The two issues that he identifies are the Southern Question and the role of the Catholic Church. It was within these matters that the peasantry experienced their oppression most forcefully, and the industrial proletariat therefore had to incorporate hostility to these inequalities into its programme and place the demands of the peasantry among its objectives. Far from dominating its junior partners, therefore, a successful hegemonic group has to thoroughly recreate itself. It is not a question of cynically speaking on behalf of other groups’ desires in order to capture their vote, or of selecting certain issues in order to appeal to a broader constituency; a truly hegemonic group or class really must make large parts of its subalterns’ worldview its own. In the course of this, the leading group will itself become changed, since its narrow factionalism (what Gramsci calls ‘corporatism’) has been translated into a much broader, even universal, appeal. To achieve leadership, workers have to stop thinking of themselves as, say, metalworkers or carpenters, or even just as workers. Instead They must think as workers who are members of a class which aims to lead the peasants and intellectuals. Of a class which can win and build socialism only if it is aided and followed by the great majority of these social strata. (Gramsci 1994: 322)

This very broad definition of leadership throws up a number of issues. First, it grants a leading group the power to make choices and act collectively, a capacity known as agency. People in leading groups are granted a good degree of clarity in seeing a situation as it is, rather than being impaired by structural constraints or by the operations of ideology. Second, to genuinely engage with the culture of subaltern groups means treating seriously those practices and values that are meaningful to them, but which are by no means necessarily progressive. As we have seen, Gramsci identifies the Catholic Church as a major institution and set of ideas that exert force over the everyday lives of the peasantry. Yet, despite his own atheism, Gramsci did not see the Church as automatically reactionary. Early in his Socialist career, Gramsci rejected a mindless anti-clericalism and fostered links with Church activists, recognizing that most Italians were believers. Similarly, ‘Aspects of the Southern Question’ makes the point that the Church in Italy was itself divided along regional lines. In the South, priests often acted as a layer of feudal oppression, since they were themselves middle-class landlords. In the North, however, the Church often fulfilled a different role, providing a form of democratic and ethical-spiritual opposition to the state. You might ask yourself whether any political formations today hold together uneasy bedfellows, and analyse the strategies that are deployed to maintain such alliances. An example from Britain would be the antiwar coalition that formed around the 2003 invasion of Iraq, and which temporarily united secular leftists with many Muslims. The perception that Islamic membership of the alliance compromised the Left’s commitment to gay and women’s rights was hotly contested by the coalition’s organizers, who argued that Muslim social conservatism should not prevent collaboration over hostility to the war. Third, we might ask to what extent are subalterns incorporated into the worldview of a dominant group? What if a ruling group is forced to grant too many economic or ideological concessions to those it leads? What if a subaltern group develops the necessary agency to lead a hegemonic struggle itself and to challenge the authority of a ‘fundamental’ group such as the proletariat or the bourgeoisie (Gramsci observes that ‘some part of a subaltern mass is always directive and responsible’)? If this were to happen, then over the long war of position, the leading group will be transformed out of all recognition. Socialist politics today, for example, typically involves a broad coalition of the Left involving, among others, feminists, gay rights campaigners, peace activists, representatives of ethnic minorities and environmentalists. But maintaining the primacy of class among these various interests is far from straightforward – socialism begins to look like just one alternative position among many, or comes to be defined precisely as a rainbow alliance of equal interests. Moreover, political groups and parties do not simply face downwards towards the oppressed. In their electoral appeals to businesses and middleclass voters, the American Democrats and British Labour Party have been accused of taking on board the perspectives of those they sought to hegemonize. Thus, these parties, and others like them, experience transformism as they switch from being a hegemonic bloc to being a bloc hegemonized by multinational capitalism and middle-class conservatism. We may also observe that the attempt by one region to lead another sometimes has unanticipated counter-hegemonic consequences. Subaltern regions (or more precisely the elites of subaltern regions) exert hegemonic pressures of their own in, for example, the devolved governments of the UK, the American South, the Spanish autonomías (regional governments), and, indeed, in the Italian Mezzogiorno.

In fact Gramsci has no conclusive answer to how ‘fundamental’ groups can limit the hegemonic activities of those it seeks to lead and restrict the ‘expansiveness’ of its hegemony. The inability to fully theorize this problem is suggested by one of Gramsci’s rare resorts to economism.

Noting that; ‘account [must] be taken of the interests of the groups over which hegemony is to be exercised’, and that ‘the leading group should make sacrifices of an economic-corporate kind’, Gramsci still concludes that ‘such sacrifices and such a compromise cannot touch the essential’, which is ‘the function exercised by the leading group in the decisive nucleus of economic activity’ (1971: 161).

Despite this atypical reductiveness, it is precisely the porosity of a hegemonic bloc to the demands of others which provides a cause for optimism.
A ruling power that asks for consent and yet which cannot give voice to the aspirations of those in whose name it rules will not survive indefinitely.

Gramsci’s argument that, within the hegemonic process, subalterns pass from being ‘a thing’ to being ‘a historical person, a protagonist’ is a powerful counter to the mass culture position that subalterns are ideologically dominated by their leaders.

It is a sign of Gramsci’s democratic impulse that he argues that a hegemonizing group must accept challenges to its leadership. ‘Active and direct consent’, he writes, means ‘the participation of all, even if it produces a disintegration or an apparent tumult’ (in Buci-Glucksmann 1982: 119). The issue of subaltern people’s aspirations points us to a fourth point about hegemony: it is a process without an end. In order to maintain its power, a leading group must be constantly alert to the volatile demands of its subalterns and to the shifting context within which it exerts its authority. A social group, Gramsci writes, has to exercise leadership before it wins power, but even when it has won power ‘it must continue to “lead” as well’ (1971: 58). A fifth question would be broadly psychological. Why, we might ask, do people accept the leadership of others? Why do they substantially adopt the hegemonic bloc’s worldview as their own? One answer to this is that hegemony is not simply a question of meanings and values: it also takes economic, material and legal-political forms. A ruling power that ensures that its subordinates have enough to eat, are in paid employment and have adequate access to healthcare, childcare and holidays has gone a long way towards winning their hearts and minds. Equally, parliamentary democracies appear to grant subordinate people a good degree of legal-political autonomy through granting them various rights and through allowing them to vote, to regularly change their government and to stand for election themselves. ‘What uniquely distinguishes the political form of such societies’, observes Terry Eagleton, ‘is that people are supposed to believe they govern themselves’ (Eagleton 1991: 112). It is arguable that other forms of society also foster such an illusion, but Eagleton perceptively directs our attention to the institutional dimension of hegemony. For within the ‘ideological’ operation of hegemony, organizations also contribute to the dissemination of meanings and values. We saw in the previous chapter that Gramsci identified civil society as a key mechanism for the maintenance of authority, and suggested that its effectiveness lies in the way it blurs the distinction between political authority and everyday life. What takes place in our homes, in our leisure activities or in the shops seems, for the most part, apolitical. There is no need for someone to experience a blinding conversion to an idea – it is often already deeply enmeshed in the structure of their lived reality. What strikingly distinguishes Gramsci from some of his near-contemporaries is his refusal to take these forms of semiconscious, collective behaviour as evidence that people are the dupes of ruling powers. While for Gramsci’s German Marxist contemporaries Theodor Adorno (1903–69) and Max Horkheimer (1895–1973), mass culture is evidence both of capitalism’s power and of people’s unthinking conformity, Gramsci makes the anti-elitist case for everyone being part of a mass: ‘We are all conformists’, he writes, ‘of some conformism or other, always manin- the-mass or collective man’ (1971: 324). The task for Gramsci is to understand the positive and negative currents and modes of thought caught up within each historical type of conformism. Take, for example, the role of the car in everyday life. The automotive industry is a key sector of the capitalist economy and most people would probably agree that high levels of car ownership have negative consequences for the environment and for more vulnerable road users. Nonetheless, people in the developed world continue to use cars in large numbers and resist using other forms of transport. This is not entirely a consequence of the false ideas imposed upon people by the manufacturers of cars, nor evidence of overwhelming selfishness. It is also the case that the car is the technology that puts people most directly in contact with the scattered institutions of civil society – with supermarkets, extended families, schools, clinics and the dispersed social networks that make up the landscape of our world. It is the apparently freely chosen nature of this mobility, and the way that it is bound up with human relationships of love and care that makes its ties so binding. A final point to raise about Gramsci’s conception of hegemony concerns the question of force. What is a hegemonic group to do with those groups that cannot be assimilated into its cultural and political project? He writes that while a hegemonic bloc leads coalition groups, it ‘dominates antagonistic groups, which it tends to “liquidate”, or to subjugate perhaps even by armed force’ (1971: 57). What, therefore, is the distribution of coercion and consent within his theory of hegemony? The next section explains why Gramsci felt that, within modern societies, the emphasis has shifted decisively to the latter term. COERCION AND CONSENT In the Prison Notebooks, Gramsci makes an oblique comparison between Communist Party strategy and a work of Renaissance political theory, Machiavelli’s The Prince (see box). He argues that the Party must become a ‘Modern Prince’ in uniting the popular currents within Italian national life.


Although the work of the diplomat and statesman Niccolò Machiavelli (1469–1527) has become synonymous with political scheming, he In one passage, Machiavelli discusses how a successful ruler must combine an appeal to people’s values with control over the means of violence. He adopts the mythological figure of the Centaur – half man and half horse – to illustrate this. A ruler, he writes, ‘must know well how to imitate beasts as well as employing properly human means’ (Machiavelli 1988: 61). At the point in the Prison Notebooks at which he discusses this ‘dual perspective’, Gramsci concedes that leadership involves combining the level of force with that of consent. He dismisses the idea that these two levels correspond to different periods in the exercise of a group’s power (though elsewhere he proposes the existence of a ‘moment of force’ at which the mode of control shifts decisively towards brutality). Gramsci’s use of Machiavelli therefore argues for the indivisibility of coercion and consent. If consent is organized through civil society, then coercion is the responsibility of what Gramsci calls political society. He defines political society as the set of apparatuses which legally enforce discipline on those groups who do not give their consent during a normative period, and which dominate the whole of society in periods when consent has broken down. This suggests that the cultural, economic and political aspects of hegemony are, in the last instance, always underpinned by the threat of violence. While this analysis undoubtedly holds true for certain sorts of politics and in certain situations (for example, in violent confrontations between the police and demonstrators, or the  was a central point of reference for both Gramsci and Mussolini. Machiavelli’s major work, The Prince, was written in 1513 as an attempt to curry favour with Florence’s ruling Medici family. It proposes that monarchs should retain absolute control of their territory and use any means to achieve this goal. Gramsci saw Machiavelli’s life and work as having a number of parallels with his own. Written within a period of foreign invasion and internal disunity, The Prince ends with an impassioned demand for Italian unity. Machiavelli’s Discourses on Livy (1517) make the case for a politically active citizenry inspired by national idealism and his Art of War (1520) advocates the formation of a citizen soldiery which would replace foreign mercenaries. For Gramsci, Machiavelli was a ‘precocious Jacobin’, an ‘integral politician’ and ‘revolutionary’ who, by understanding the need to bring the peasantry into national life, helped to make the Renaissance into a mass cultural movement. eruption of violence between different ethnic groups), it is open to question whether a dualism of coercion and consent is a valuable way of thinking about all hegemonic processes. The lack of consistency within Gramsci’s usage of this distinction suggests that he found the coercion/ consent couplet troubling, and we might suggest two reasons why this is the case. First, the opposition between coercion and consent can be dismantled. For the most part, coercive apparatuses in modern societies, such as the police, courts and armed forces, operate with a high level of consent. In the UK, for example, it is common for people to demand more, not less police officers, and in part this is a product of the circulation of benign images of the police within civil society. Similarly, when the British newspaper the Daily Mirror ran a story in 2004 purporting to show British troops abusing Iraqi prisoners of war, the resulting popular outrage led to the dismissal of the newspaper’s editor. In part this was because the army exerts its own consensual authority within British national life. In language that strikingly echoes Gramsci’s conception of hegemony as moral and intellectual leadership, the centre-left Observer noted that the British officer corps ‘insist[s] that the job of leaders is unambiguously to establish objectives, achieve common intent through moral relationships of integrity and then delegate’ (Hutton 2004: 36). Indeed, at times Gramsci acknowledges that this coercion and consent are porous to each other. We have seen already that the peaceful struggle for hegemony is presented as a ‘war of position’, and Gramsci likens civil society to a trench system. Equally, he notes that subaltern groups and individuals must actively give their consent to the use of force, and express their consent through cultural values. Thus, ‘the more an individual is compelled to defend his own immediate physical existence, the more he will uphold and identify with the highest values of civilization and humanity, in all their complexity’ (1971: 170). A second objection to seeing hegemony as being composed of both coercion and consent is that the balance between the two in modern democracies seems to have shifted markedly away from the overt use of force. Governments cannot coerce their opponents without risking a severe loss of ideological credibility. You might ask yourself, for example, whether government attempts to stifle news coverage of potentially uncomfortable stories are effective – or whether they rebound embarrassingly, and call into question the leadership of the politicians and bureaucrats. A successful hegemonic formation will be one in which conflict is minimized, since hegemony is dependent upon the existence of an ‘individual who can govern himself without his self-government entering into conflict with political society’ (1971: 268). Gramsci’s more common definition of hegemony is consequently of a situation synonymous with consent. Civil society, he argues, corresponds to the function of hegemony, while political society corresponds to ‘domination’. Yet while Gramsci here relegates coercion to the ‘moment of force’, we might wish to retain a softer version of his notion of hegemony as a Centaur. We have already seen that the coercive apparatuses have a consensual role to play within civil society. Moreover, ruling powers and their opponents do make regular use of coercion, although rarely in Gramsci’s sense of armed or judicial force. Instead, hegemony frequently relies on what the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu (1930–2002) called ‘symbolic violence’. This might take a number of forms. As we shall see in Key Idea 5, texts perform symbolic violence in the exclusions they perform and the silences they impose upon outsider groups. But symbolic violence also takes the form of taste judgements, where outsiders are marginalized and shamed; of physical behaviour and ‘ways of living’ where some feel confident and others feel awkward; and in the unequal distribution of educational qualifications. In these cases, a ruling power (particularly, for Bourdieu a ruling class) will see its authority reproduced, a subaltern group will aspire to the values and tastes of its superiors, and a ‘dominated’ group will see its lowly status reinforced.


If a ruling group has to resort to coercion and repression, then it has not achieved an ‘expansive’ hegemony in which great masses of people spontaneously and actively give their consent to the bloc. To understand the opposite of this – limited hegemony – we need to return to Italy in the nineteenth century. During this period, writes Gramsci, the Moderate Party secured its hegemony over the other forces that had fought for unification, particularly the radical Action Party. What this involved was the practice of trasformismo, discussed in Key Idea 1. The formation of an expanded ruling group centred on the Moderates’ political programme involved the gradual absorption of the leadership of allied and even antagonistic groups. This form of hegemony was limited, since the hegemonic class failed to genuinely adopt the interests of the popular classes and simply neutralized or ‘decapitated’ them through depriving them of their leadership. Roger Simon (1982: 53–4) has offered a similar analysis of the working-class movement in Britain, noting that right-wing leaders of the trade unions and  the Labour Party have regularly won workers’ support for the maintenance of capitalism through the offer of social reforms. We can extend the notion of limited hegemony beyond the boundaries of class politics. A government may make some environmental reforms without fundamentally altering its environmental policy, or give token political representation to women or ethnic minorities. These strategies too seek to neutralize or decapitate the demands of subaltern groups. The alternative to this is an ‘expansive’ hegemony in which a hegemonic group adopts the interests of its subalterns in full, and those subalterns come to ‘live’ the worldview of the hegemonic class as their own. In this situation, ‘a multiplicity of dispersed wills, with heterogeneous aims, are welded together with a single aim, on the basis of an equal and common conception of the world’ (quoted in Mercer 1984: 9). We have already noted that such formations are potentially unstable, as subaltern groups seek to challenge the authority of ‘fundamental’ groups. But it should be clear that only by expanding a programme can it become fully embedded in people’s lives. Tony Bennett (1986a) has given an example of such a moment of expansive hegemony in his analysis of holiday-making in Blackpool. He argues that the factory owners of the nineteenth century established a northern regional hegemony in England, in opposition to the aristocratic culture that characterized the south of England. Working people were ‘condensed’ into this regional hegemony through annual outings and holidays, during which the whole working population of northern industrial towns would travel en masse to Blackpool. There they encountered an image of the North as fundamentally modern; an image built into the town’s architecture and its pleasures. Although these activities effectively tied people into the world of work, and therefore reproduced and reinforced the power of capitalism, holidays were not experienced in this way. Instead they were understood and desired as intrinsically Northern expressions of enterprise, endeavour and cheerfulness. The fact that this identity could be combined with a seemingly contradictory identity as members of the British Empire did not lessen its force. As we shall see now, Gramsci was perfectly aware of the contradictions of thought. COMMON SENSE AND GOOD SENSE The previous chapter discussed Gramsci’s contention that folklore is a key form in which people’s worldviews are stored and transmitted. As a living ‘conception of the world and life’, folklore overlaps significantly with his category of common sense. Common sense is indeed, he writes, ‘the “folklore” of philosophy’, since, like philosophy, it is a way of thinking about the world that is grounded in material realities. Unlike philosophy, however, common sense is unsystematic, heterogeneous, spontaneous, incoherent and inconsequential, a ‘chaotic aggregate of disparate conceptions’ that holds together ‘Stone Age elements’, the principles of advanced science and ‘intuitions of a future philosophy’ (1971: 324). We should not confuse Gramsci’s notion of common sense with its normal use in English. Gramsci emphatically does not conceive of common sense as practical wisdom that contradicts theorizing or dogma. Instead it is literally thought that is common – common to a social group, or common to society as a whole. Thus, although he is largely interested in the common sense of the popular classes, and how a hegemonic bloc can intervene in it and shape it to their ends, he acknowledges that every social stratum has its common sense which is ‘continually transforming itself, enriching itself with scientific ideas and with philosophical opinions which have entered ordinary life’ (ibid.: 326). As well as being internally contradictory, a person or group may have more than one common sense. Gramsci notes that a working person may have two theoretical consciousnesses: one implicit within the labour that is performed and another that has been inherited from the past and which influences their moral conduct. The institutions of civil society must therefore try to reshape themselves in order to accommodate the uneven and multiple forms of common sense. For Gramsci it is again the Catholic Church that works hardest to hold together what is in fact a ‘multiplicity of distinct and often contradictory religions’. Similarly, in many societies today, it is the popular media that attempts such an integration of the diverse strands of common sense. It has been widely noted, for example, that the British tabloid press manifests a contradictory but consistent line on sexual attitudes, in which a notion of sex as harmless fun is accompanied both by a moralizing interest in celebrity infidelity and by demands for the most severe penalties for sex offenders. For Gramscian analysis, such condensed expressions of common sense are a cynical exercise in leadership, since they simply mimic the unevenness of popular consciousness with the intention of shaping its ‘crudely neophobe and conservative’ attitudes in a politically conservative direction. A more expansively hegemonic project would attempt to disarticulate the reactionary elements of common sense from the positive strands within it. To these progressive innovations he gives the name good sense. Good sense, in fact, is much nearer to the standard English meaning of common sense. How, Gramsci asks, could people survive if their ideas and concepts about society were all false? It is logical that there must be a kernel of practical understanding in most people’s conception of the world. Simply in order to be ruled, a person must actively participate in a particular conception of the world. A transformative project (what, in his coded nearsynonym for Marxism, he calls a ‘philosophy of praxis’) must take hold of these ways of being in the world since they have a responsible, thoughtful element to them. This is vital not only to those who are being hegemonized, but also to the hegemonic bloc itself. One danger with a progressive project is that it may appear intellectualized and abstract rather than concrete and grounded. To guard against this tendency, an engagement with, and elaboration of, what he calls the ‘simple’ must take place, for the simplicity of good sense is connected to its role within practical life. Furthermore, good sense has an affective or emotional aspect which is absent from abstract theorizing. The intellectual must combine the feelings that are prominent within good sense (including the good sense of popular cultural representations) with his or her philosophical understanding of a situation. Gramsci argues that any educational project that is not rooted in concrete experience and popular conceptions is ‘like the contacts of English merchants and the negroes of Africa’ since a fair exchange does not take place. The only way, he argues, in which the gap between leaders and lead can properly be bridged is if the intellectuals are themselves organic to those they educate and persuade. We shall look in more detail at this aspect of Gramsci’s thought in Key Idea 6.


This chapter has made clear the distinction between domination and hegemony. It has argued that hegemony is moral and intellectual leadership which treats the aspirations and views of subaltern people as an active element within the political and cultural programme of the hegemonizing bloc. This understanding of hegemony as an ongoing form of negotiation represents an advance on conceptions of power which see it as the static possession of a particular social group. The chapter has shown that Gramsci used a series of oppositions (limited/expansive,  coercion/consent, common sense/good sense) to highlight the nuances within the term. It has suggested issues within Gramsci’s conception of hegemony around the maintenance of the fundamental group’s authority and around the mechanisms by which subalterns accept the leadership of another group. The following chapter puts these questions into motion.



Rescuing Gramsci 
from his misinterpreters

The Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci wrote his Prison Notebooks from 1926 to 1937 while imprisoned by Mussolini. A veritable cottage industry has churned out countless analyses about this work, making it one of the most written about texts in the Marxist tradition. Political and intellectual tendencies with little in common have laid claim to Gramsci’s writing. The Euro-communists from the late 1960s through the 1980s used it to justify a turn to reformism and electoralism, while academics in disciplines as diverse as sociology, international relations, and literary theory use his analysis of hegemony today, for example, often divorced from any conception of working-class struggle.

Why such varied views of Gramsci’s writings? Part of the problem is that they were not written as a single, continuous project. As the title suggests, these are notebooks, not written for publication. Because Gramsci’s first audience was always the prison censors, the writing can be deliberately indirect or obtuse, and therefore difficult to read. Gramsci often had to break off writing for a time and return to his theme later, giving his analyses a disjointed quality. Luckily, Peter Thomas’s Gramscian Moment offers the clarity needed, often using Thomas’ own translation of the text, to rescue the Prison Notebooks from dead-end interpretations and places them firmly in the revolutionary Marxist tradition.

Thomas roots Gramsci’s Notebooks in the working-class movement, specifically the debates and ideas flowing out of the Communist International (Comintern) around the time of the Russian Revolution. As a leading member of the Italian Communist Party he attended the meetings of the Comintern in the early 1920s. Much of what Gramsci writes about the working class’s struggle for hegemony (that is the struggle for leadership of the oppressed classes and for dominance against the ruling classes), the “war of position” versus the “war of maneuver,” and his theories of the state are part of his attempt to adjust revolutionary strategy in the period after the major revolutionary wave of 1917 to 1923 had ebbed.

Gramsci was convinced by the idea put forth by the Russian revolutionaries, particularly V. I. Lenin and Leon Trotsky, that the capitalist world had stabilized and that what was needed was a more protracted struggle that did not involve the working class immediately taking state power. He was won to the United Front strategy that the Russians advocated, in which socialists allied with working-class parties and other “subaltern,” or oppressed, classes to fight for immediate demands. Gramsci was also influenced by Lenin’s ideas of the fight for hegemony put forward at the meetings of the Comintern and codified in Left-wing Communism: An Infantile Disorder.

Thomas shows that Gramsci did not abandon this idea of the fight for hegemony using the United Front while in prison. Much of the Notebooks’ emphasis on the protracted nature of the struggle for hegemony is an implicit critique of the “Third Period” strategy then prevalent in the Stalinized Comintern and Soviet Union, which claimed that international working-class revolution was back on the table and that socialists should avoid alliances with reformist working-class organizations, even going so far as to call social democracy and fascism two sides of the same coin. Gramsci’s writings on the fight for hegemony should be seen as his intervention in these concrete debates in the socialist movement about the nature of the period and, in turn, what strategies were best for the working-class movement in the struggle against capitalism, not mere abstractions.

Thomas begins the book with responses to two major critiques of Gramsci, one by the French Marxist philosopher, Louis Althusser, the other by British Marxist, Perry Anderson. I will leave aside the engagement with Althusser because his work on Gramsci is actually quite limited. Anderson’s The Antimonies of Antonio Gramsci is much richer and likely to be of more interest to readers of the International Socialist Review; it is a valuable contribution to understanding Gramsci.

Thomas does, however, correct a flaw in Anderson’s analysis, which is that Anderson views Gramsci’s development of his ideas in the Notebooks as proceeding chronologically. So when looking at the capitalist state, Anderson believes Gramsci is saying that the state has moved away from ruling by coercion and toward ruling by consent of the masses, which the ruling class achieves through ideological and cultural institutions like schools, universities, churches, and the media. Gramsci’s term for these institutions, still in common use, is “civil society.” Anderson sees this as breaking away from the Marxist idea of the state being a coercive force, which he illustrates by quoting Lenin, who refers to the state as being comprised of “bodies of armed men, prisons, etc.”

Thomas disputes Anderson’s claim that here Gramsci has moved away from the classical Marxist analysis. In 1930 Gramsci introduced the idea of the “integral state.” This conception of the capitalist state integrates “civil society,” the aforementioned means of hegemony, with the coercive elements of the state. They are separate methods and functions but are part of a single integrated whole.

As Thomas writes, “Hegemony, then, emerges as a ‘consensual’ political practice distinct from mere coercion (a dominant means of previous ruling classes) on this terrain of civil society; but, like civil society, integrally linked to the state, hegemony’s full meaning only becomes apparent when it is related to its dialectical distinction of coercion.” Bourgeois society has moved away from mere coercion in how it rules—but its hegemony is always backed up by force. When ideological and cultural means fail to keep the population in line, the police, the military, and other repressive means are always waiting just offstage.

This view fits well with the politics of the United States today. The criminalization of African Americans and people of color generally is used to justify increased policing and imprisonment of minority communities and poor people. Demonizing Arabs and Muslims as terrorists serves as justification for the surveillance state and its gradual chipping away of civil liberties. And when the Occupy movement, with its class-based rhetoric, began to create cracks in the state’s capitalist ideology, it was crushed by force. Thomas’s highlighting of Gramsci’s “integral state” is an important corrective to Anderson’s view and shows Gramsci’s theory of the state as an extension of the classical Marxist tradition.

The utility of Gramsci’s theory of hegemony was not limited to his simply analyzing the dominance of the ruling class, however. He also applied it to the working-class movement. The working class, through its political parties, struggles to achieve hegemony among the oppressed classes (the subaltern) and in its struggle with the ruling class. As Gramsci put it, “A class is dominant in two ways, that is, it is ‘leading’ and ‘dominant.’ It leads the allied classes, and dominates over the adversarial classes.”

As in his theory of the state, ideological struggle and physical struggle are not counterposed here—as those who attempt to claim Gramsci as advocating reformism would claim—but are two strategies whose utility depends on the historical period at hand. While the capitalist world was in a period of stability, the working class would have to take a long-term perspective toward its struggle for hegemony, all the while keeping as its goal the eventual conquest of state power. To separate the struggle for hegemony from the latter goal is to distort Gramsci’s thought and rob it of its revolutionary content, according to Thomas.

Also, within the long-term struggle, coercive methods such as strikes, pickets, and street battles would be necessary: in other words, physical struggle. Thomas elaborates on Gramsci’s point: “A class’s ability to lead, to secure the consent of allies . . . also relies upon its ability to coordinate domination over the opponents of this alliance, just as its capacity to exert such coercive force depends upon its prior securing of the consent of such an alliance.”

The struggle for dominance by the working class within the movement of the oppressed classes isn’t just about ideas. In his chapters about the “philosophy of practice,” Thomas is very clear that Gramsci did not think that anything about the struggle for hegemony was automatic. He was strongly opposed to the determinism of Stalinism, which reduced Marxism to a series of historical stages through which societies inevitably passed. By contrast, Gramsci argued that class struggle was the motor force in history and that socialists had to consciously intervene in movements—not as preachers from the sidelines but as an integral part of the class struggle.

Gramsci calls such socialists “philosophers.” But he is not thinking of the ivory-tower types the term brings to mind:

For the intellectuals organically linked to this hegemonic project, it no longer suffices to make “individual ‘original’ discoveries”; rather, their role is much more one of becoming “permanently active persuaders,” engaged in demonstrating the capacity of the practices of proletarian hegemony to form the basis for a new society. These permanently active persuaders find their intellectual resources not in the “perennial questions of philosophy,” but precisely in their organic integration with the masses, in a reciprocal relationship of “democratic pedagogy” in which those “intellectuals” with the “social function” of an intellectual are at least as often “the educated” as “the educators.” They are intellectuals who are “organically the intellectuals of these masses,” working out and making coherent the principles and problems which the masses have posed in their own practical activity.

For Gramsci, the “permanently active persuaders” should be organized in a working-class party that functions as an “organization of struggle.” Thomas mentions that of the “themes explored in the Prison Notebooks few are as little discussed today as Gramsci’s theory of the working-class political party.” This is an important and still relevant discussion; Thomas deserves credit for focusing on it when most Gramsci scholars fail to.

There is much more to The Gramscian Moment than a review of this size can do justice to. It is a rich text that deserves multiple readings. Indeed, and this is fair warning, it might take many readers multiple readings to get through it. The early chapters are not the easiest of reads, and the book assumes some familiarity with the subject matter, which can make it difficult for those new to the subject. It took me until chapter 4, “Contra the Passive Revolution,” to realize that the book was going to deserve the praise of this review.

Not all of this is Thomas’s fault: he has to engage with the scholarship on the subject and with Gramsci’s difficult writings. But the effort involved in trying to crack the early chapters might dissuade some readers from engaging with a book that is well worth the effort. There is an inherent contradiction in a book that aims to reinvigorate Gramsci’s thought as firmly rooted in revolutionary class struggle and its less than accessible format.

You do not need to “dumb down” the concepts. Some ideas are difficult to grasp for various reasons. Many of Marx’s writings are difficult because of the subject matter or antiquated concepts that are hard for a modern reader to understand. As mentioned, in writing about Gramsci you do need to engage with some difficult writing and novel concepts, both by Gramsci himself and by those who write about him.

However, Thomas tends to err on the side of using language in a way that will alienate those who would really benefit from reading the book. For example, activists in movements against international capital, where versions of Gramsci’s writings have some sway through the lens of theorists like Hardt and Negri, should read Thomas’ explanation of Gramsci’s view of the “passive revolution” and the “integral state.” Unfortunately, the book often reads as if it is meant for specialists in the field, not for the wider audience who could benefit most from this rich text.

In addition, despite Thomas’s much-needed corrective of Perry Anderson’s essay, he sometimes seems to invent criticisms of Anderson even when their approaches have more in common than not. Lastly, while he does mention Gramsci’s sometimes inconsistent and confusing formulations, he downplays the role of these formulations in allowing for the distortions he wants to dispel. Gramsci was dealing with censors and did not intend to publish the Prison Notebooks, true, but when divorced from its much-contested context, some of what he writes can be problematic. For example, Thomas’ takes Anderson to task for viewing “Gramsci’s definition of the state, oscillating between three alternatives:

State contrasts with Civil Society

State encompasses Civil Society

State is identical with Civil society.

Thomas’ argument that these are not oscillations but concepts within one “integral state” is convincing. But a reading of the Prison Notebooks in the places that Anderson cites do easily give the impression that Gramsci was, in fact, describing different concepts. This is certainly a view that I held until reading Thomas’s contribution. I was very excited to be convinced that I was wrong about Gramsci’s weakness on the theory of the state. The ease of which some of the distortions are made and gain currency are, at least in part, Gramsci’s doing because of his circumstances in prison.

These are relatively minor criticisms, however. Even if you do not agree with Thomas’s interpretations completely, The Gramscian Moment is a book with which anyone who wants to take Antonio Gramsci seriously will have to engage. Thomas has done the Left, and socialists in particular a great service in rescuing a great revolutionary’s thought and legacy from a multiplicity of distortions.