Antonio Gramsci was an Italian Marxist, active in the 1910s and 20s before his imprisonment by the Italian state under Mussolini. It was while he was imprisoned that Gramsci made his most well-known contributions to Marxist theory, including the key concept of hegemony.
Gramsci’s contributions are valuable not only theoretically, but for the many practical lessons that can be drawn from his life and writings.
Hegemony, the most well-known of Gramsci’s contributions, is at its essence the idea that the ruling classes are dominant in more than a purely economic sense. Not only do the classes at the top control vast amounts of wealth and the power of the state, but the ideas, theories, and values that come to be accepted by all as ‘common sense’ and ‘normal’. Through everyday life in the capitalist system – working for a wage, paying for one’s necessities, competing with fellow workers or businesses – and through the constant barrage of capitalist economics and theories in our schools and media, the capitalist system becomes naturalised. It is assumed that competition, individualism and economism are values shared by all, and that this is simply the way things are. This, in short, is the capitalist hegemony.
Just as hegemony arises through the practice of capitalism, so too do counter-hegemonies. While wage labour, competition, and capitalist economics become naturalised, many workers share in the contradictory experience of the class struggle. As wages are pushed down, living conditions worsen, and workers take action against the advances of their bosses, a different ideology is brought to life. The ideology of the working classes questions the reasons for their suffering. Working class ideology is the ruthless criticism of the existing order – and when capitalist hegemony is questioned, working class hegemony may be elaborated; a hegemony without wage-labour, extortion or competition. Capitalism, then, produces through regular practice not only a supportive hegemony, but its own opposition.
As Marxists, Gramsci’s theory of hegemony has a significant impact on the way that we operate. Gramsci himself draws several lessons from hegemony to be applied to revolutionary practice. Firstly, capitalist hegemony is widespread – a ‘common-sense’ worldview that can be applied to all issues. Thus, the revolutionary party must be involved in a broad variety of movements, supporting not only the economic demands of workers, but feminist, queer, anti-racist and other liberatory movements. This lesson is one drawn from Gramsci’s own life, as the Italian Socialist Party failed to tie the interests of the oppressed together and truly challenge capitalist hegemony.
A second lesson is that of building counter-hegemony. Even as workers begin to participate in struggle and fight back, capitalist hegemony is not immediately thrown off. Workers may realise their own economic interests are in opposition to the interests of their employers, yet remain in support of institutions such as the police or bourgeois ‘representative’ democracy, or fail to question sexist, racist, and homophobic attitudes. The role of the party, then, is to not only strengthen and support actions of struggle, but to combat the remainders of capitalist hegemony within the working class. Gramsci further writes that this should be done within existing working-class institutions.
Working class counter-hegemony must be developed within the class itself – it cannot be created and imposed by external elements like the party.
Gramsci, then, is an important figure in Marxist theory and history not only for his advances in the theoretical field, but for the vital lessons that can be drawn from his work. The concept of hegemony is useful not only for the historical analysis of capitalism, but as a guide for the actions of Marxist parties in the present.