The term hegemony has a long and rich history. Etymologically, hegemony derives from the Greek hegemon, meaning “leader.” The most extensive and influential elaboration of hegemony is that of the Italian theorist and political activist Antonio Gramsci (1891-1937); indeed one can argue that hegemony has become synonymous with Gramsci’s theory of hegemony.
Gramsci was one of the leaders of the Italian Communist Party (PCI, founded in 1921). His steadfast refusal to align the PCI with Mussolini and his outspoken criticism of fascism landed him in prison. Gramsci occupied his time in prison reflecting upon, and writing about, a series of political concerns; foremost among these was why the working class in the most industrialized nations had failed to develop a revolutionary consciousness. It is in the course of these writings, which have come to be known as the Quaderni del Carcere or Prison Notebooks, that Gramsci developed his theory of hegemony.
Gramsci used hegemony in his Prison Notebooks in two different but related senses. First, he referred to a form of rule characterized by a consensual basis within civil society, the social terrain intermediary between the economy and the state, and contrasted it to a monopoly of the means of violence or control of the state. Second, hegemony referred to the development of class consciousness and, in particular, to the movement of a class from an “in-itself” to a “for-itself” status. Each of the two senses of hegemony relates to a set of key terms. As a form of rule, hegemony relates to consent, civil society, historical bloc, and war of position. As the development of class consciousness, it relates to organic intellectual, intellectual/moral bloc, common sense/good sense, and the party as collective intellectual. Gramsci argued that the modern Western bourgeoisie rules not only, or even predominantly, through brute strength (domination) but also through intellectual and moral direction (hegemony). Consequently, a frontal attack on the state—for example, Lenin’s military strategy during the Russian revolution—would be inadequate in the nations of the industrialized West because it would leave the bourgeoisie’s hegemony intact. In such a situation, a war of position focused on civil society and the formation of an alternative hegemony is the only viable military strategy.
With Gramsci, the concept of hegemony moves beyond a description of a form of rule to a prescription for liberation. And it is precisely Gramsci’s emphasis on liberation that accounts for the widespread influence of his theory of hegemony. According to Gramsci, the movement of a class from subordination to hegemony is a long and arduous process whose starting point is the consciousness of the aspiring hegemonic group. Gramsci, like W. E. B. Du Bois and Frantz Fanon, described the consciousness of subaltern or subordinate groups as divided or contradictory. For example, wage workers have one consciousness implicit in their practical activity, and another superficially explicit or verbal, that they have inherited from the past and uncritically absorbed. Gramsci referred to the consciousness inherited from the past and uncritically absorbed as “common sense.” Gramsci’s treatment of common sense or subordinate cultures was distinctive because it avoided the romanticization/ othering dichotomy that characterizes most scholarship on this subject and because it viewed these cultures as dynamic rather than static and as incoherent rather than as patterned wholes possessing a distinctive logic.
Common sense is a confused agglomerate of fragments from religion as well as from the history of philosophy and science. Gramsci argued that common sense is good enough to allow the subalterns to function successfully in their immediate surroundings, but it cannot provide them with any critical insight into their subordinate status and, consequently, poses no threat to the dominant group. However, within all commonsense conceptions of the world or subaltern cultures, there is a kernel of good sense that is the intuition of a future philosophy, and it is in this good sense that one finds the rough beginning of a possible counterhegemony.
For a class to launch a successful counterhegemony— that is, acquire self-consciousness and develop the intellectual and moral order consonant with its practical activity—it must produce its own set of indigenous or organic intellectuals. By intellectual, Gramsci means not simply a thinking being—indeed Gramsci argued that all human beings are intellectuals in this sense—but an individual who has the social function of producing or instilling knowledge in others. Any subaltern group that aspires to hegemony must create intellectuals from its ranks who can liberate it from common sense and elaborate its good sense into a coherent worldview.
Organic intellectuals, once formed, need to enter into intellectual-mass dialectics; that is, they must stay in constant interaction with the group they represent, educating, organizing, and developing more organic intellectuals. Intellectuals and education are considered so essential to social transformation that Gramsci envisioned the Communist Party as a collective intellectual. The final step on the road to the creation of a counterhegemony is the creation of a historical bloc; that is, the winning over of other subaltern groups to the newly constructed worldview of the aspiring hegemonic group. Gramsci emphasized that a historical bloc is not a loose association of disparate subaltern groups, each of which maintains its identity, but a fusion of subaltern groups with the aspiring hegemonic group through the appeal of the latter’s intellectual and moral worldview.
Gramsci’s theory of hegemony has had widespread influence. Within leftist—communist, socialist, and labor—political circles, it persuaded political leaders to acknowledge culture and consciousness as vital for any revolutionary transformation of society. The importance it places on education persuaded many leftist political parties throughout the South, and especially in Argentina and Brazil, to launch massive education campaigns and to make literacy among workers and peasants into a political priority. Within the academy it strongly influenced British cultural studies and, in particular, the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies at the University of Birmingham, one of the first and most prolific centers for cultural studies. Although Gramsci wrote within a Marxian paradigm and used class as his basic unit of analysis—because the theory of hegemony places the issue of power firmly at the center of any discussion of culture—his theory has also been utilized in the study of racism, sexism, and postcolonialism.
- Burgos, Raul. 2002. “The Gramscian Intervention in the Theoretical and Political Production of the Latin American Left.” Latin American Perspectives 29(1):9-37.
- Crehan, Kate. 1977. The Fractured Community: Landscapes of Power and Gender in Rural Zambia. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
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- Gramsci, Antonio. 1971. Selections from the Prison Notebooks, edited by Q. Hoare and G. N. Smith. London: Lawrence & Wishart.
- Guha, Ranajit and Gayatri Chakrovarty Spivak, eds. 1988. Selected Subaltern Studies. New York: Oxford University Press.
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- Williams, Raymond. 2000. Marxism and Literature. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.
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