Posts Tagged ‘Gramsci’s theory of hegemony’


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.