Gramsci and hegemony

Graphic from

By Trent Brown

September 22, 2009 -- Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal -- Antonio Gramsci is an important figure in the history of Marxist theory. While Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels provided a rigorous analysis of capital at the social and economic levels – particularly showing how capital antagonises the working class and gives rise to crisis – Gramsci supplemented this with a sophisticated theory of the political realm and how it is organically/dialectically related to social and economic conditions. He provides us with a theory of how the proletariat must organise politically if it is to effectively respond to capital’s crises and failures, and bring about revolutionary change.

Incidentally, this innovation has proven to be of interest not only to Marxists, but also to those involved in other forms of progressive politics, from the civil rights movement, to gender politics, to contemporary ecological struggles. The reason why his approach has proven so popular and generally adaptable is because Gramsci was himself a man of action and his fundamental concern was with progressive strategy. Thus while in this article I plan to give a give a general outline of Gramsci’s theory of hegemony and the reasons behind its formulation, it’s important that we build on this by thinking about how we can use these concepts strategically in our own struggles.

What is hegemony?

It would seem appropriate to begin this discussion by asking ``What is hegemony?’’ It turns out to be a difficult question to answer when we are talking about Gramsci, because, at least within The Prison Notebooks, he never gives a precise definition of the term. This is probably the main reason why there is so much inconsistency in the literature on hegemony – people tend to form their own definition, based on their own reading of Gramsci and other sources. The problem with this is that if people’s reading of Gramsci is partial then so too is their definition.

For example, Martin Clark (1977, p. 2) has defined hegemony as ``how the ruling classes control the media and education’’. While this definition is probably more narrow than usual, it does reflect a common misreading of the concept, namely that hegemony is the way the ruling class controls the institutions that control or influence our thought. Most of the academic and activist literature on hegemony, however, takes a slightly broader view than this, acknowledging more institutions than these being involved in the exercise of hegemony – at least including also the military and the political system. The problem is that even when these institutions are taken into account, the focus tends to be exclusively on the ruling class, and methods of control. Hegemony is frequently used to describe the way the capitalist classes infiltrate people’s minds and exert their domination. What this definition misses is the fact that Gramsci not only used the term ``hegemony’’ to describe the activities of the ruling class, he also used it to describe the influence exerted by progressive forces. Keeping this in mind, we can see that hegemony should be defined not only as something the ruling class does, it is in fact the process by which social groups – be they progressive, regressive, reformist, etc. – come to gain the power to lead, how they expand their power and maintain it.

To understand what Gramsci was trying to achieve through developing his theory of hegemony, it is useful to look at the historical context that he was responding to as well as the debates in the movement at the time. The term ``hegemony’’ had been in general use in socialist circles since the early 20th century. Its use suggests that if a group was described as ``hegemonic’’ then it occupied a leadership position within a particular political sphere (Boothman, 2008).

Lenin’s use of the term gegemoniya (the Russian equivalent of hegemony, often translated as ``vanguard’’), however, seemed to imply a process more akin to what Gramsci would describe. During his attempts to catalyse the Russian Revolution Lenin (1902/1963) made the observation that when left to their own devices, workers tended to reach only a trade union consciousness, fighting for better conditions within the existing system. To bring about revolutionary change, he argued that the Bolsheviks needed to come to occupy a hegemonic position within the struggle against the tsarist regime. This meant not only empowering the various unions by bringing them together, but also involving all of society’s ``opposition strata’’ in the movement, drawing out the connections between all forms of ``political oppression and autocratic arbitrariness’’ (Lenin, 1963, pp. 86-87).

In the post-revolutionary period, however, the implication changed. Lenin argued that it was crucial to the establishment of the ``hegemony of the proletariat’’ that (a) the urban proletariat retain an ongoing alliance with the rural peasants (who made up the majority of Russia’s population) in order to retain national leadership and (b) that the expertise of the former capitalists be utilised, by forcing them to effectively manage state industries. These dual processes of leadership via consent and the command of force in the development of hegemony would play a crucial role in Gramsci’s theory. Gramsci had been in Russia from 1922-23 while these debates were raging and it was after this time that we see hegemony begin to take a central role in his writings.


As much as he was influenced by what was going on in Russia, Gramsci was also influenced by his own political experiences. Gramsci had been heavily involved in the struggle against capitalism and fascism in Italy and for a while served as the leader of the Communist Party of Italy. In the period following the World War I, there had been a lot of optimism in Europe, and Italy in particular, that now that people had seen the atrocities that the ruling classes could unleash and the alternative that was developing in Russia, some kind of workers’ revolution in Europe was imminent.

Gramsci certainly shared this optimism. Events that took place in the early 1920s seemed to confirm this. Tensions at all strata of society were high, there were mass agitations and people were forming factory councils and workers co-operatives. But despite the intensity of the mobilisations, it fizzled out remarkably quickly. Unions were co-opted, workers’ co-ops became marginal and uncompetitive. Common people were intimidated by elites or otherwise captivated by the allure of fascist rhetoric.

Gramsci and others formed the Italian Communist Party to try to reinvigorate the movement, but it was evident that people were too disillusioned by the failures of the previous years to really become involved. Votes for the Communist Party were disappointingly low. When Gramsci was arrested in 1926 as a part of Mussolini’s emergency measures, he found himself in prison with a lot of time to reflect on what had happened and where things went wrong. How was it that the ruling class had been able to so effectively stifle the potential of the movement, and what would be required for the progressive forces to mobilise the masses in a way that would enable them to bring about a fundamental change in society? These questions would of course be central to Gramsci’s theory of hegemony.


As suggested above, in The Prison Notebooks Gramsci refers to hegemony to describe activities of both currently dominant groups as well as the progressive forces. For Gramsci, whatever the social group is, we can see that there are certain common stages of development that they must go through before they can become hegemonic. Drawing on Marx, the first requirement is economic: that the material forces be sufficiently developed that people are capable of solving the most pressing social problems. Gramsci then goes on to state that there are three levels of political development that a social group must pass through in order to develop the movement that will allow change to be initiated.

The first of these stages is referred to as ``economic-corporate’’. The corporatist is what we might understand as the self-interested individual. People become affiliated at the economic-corporate stage as a function of this self-interest, recognising that they need the support of others to retain their own security. Trade unionism is probably the clearest example of this, at least in the case of people joining a union for fear of pay cuts, retrenchment etc. One can also speak of short-term co-operation between otherwise competing capitalists in these terms. The point to emphasise is that at this stage of a group’s historical development there is no real sense of solidarity between members.

In the second stage, group members become aware that there is a wider field of interests and that there are others who share certain interests with them and will continue to share those interests into the foreseeable future. It is at this stage that a sense of solidarity develops, but this solidarity is still only on the basis of shared economic interests. There is no common worldview or anything of that nature. This kind of solidarity can lead to attempts to promote legal reform to improve the group’s position within the current system, but consciousness of how they, and others, might benefit through the creation of a new system is lacking.

It is only by passing through the third stage that hegemony really becomes possible. In this stage, the social group members becomes aware that their interests need to be extended beyond what they can do within the context of their own particular class. What is required is that their interests are taken up by other subordinate groups as their own. This was what Lenin and the Bolsheviks were thinking in forming an alliance with the peasants – that it was only through making the Bolshevik revolution also a peasants’ revolution, which peasants could see as being their own, that the urban proletariat could maintain its leading position.

Gramsci reckoned that in the historical context that he was working in, the passage of a social group from self-interested reformism to national hegemony could occur most effectively via the political party. In this complex formulation, the different ideologies of allied groups come together. There will inevitably be conflict between these ideologies, and through a process of debate and struggle, one ideology, or a unified combination thereof, will emerge representing the allied classes. This ideology can be said to be hegemonic, the group that it represents has acquired a hegemonic position over the subordinate groups. At this stage, the party has reached maturity, having a unity of both economic and political goals as well as a moral and intellectual unity – one might say a shared worldview.

With this unity behind it, the party sets about transforming society in order to lay the conditions for the expansion of the hegemonic group. The state becomes the mechanism by which this is done: policies are enacted and enforced that allow the hegemonic group to more effectively achieve its goals and to create symmetry between its goals and those of other groups. Although these goals are formulated with the interests of a single group in mind, they need to be experienced by the populace as being in the interests of everybody. In order for this to be effective, the hegemonic group must have some form of engagement with the interests of the subordinate classes. The dominant interests cannot be simplistically imposed upon them.

Progressive hegemony

While Gramsci considers these pragmatic moves as being requirements for any group to come to power, he also has a very deep ethical concern for the way in which the process occurs. In this sense, we can detect in Gramsci’s work a qualitative difference between the operations of hegemony by regressive, authoritarian groups on the one hand, and progressive social groups on the other. At an ethical level, Gramsci was above all else an anti-dogmatist believing that truth could not be imposed from the top down, but only made real through concrete and sympathetic dialogue with people. Where a regressive hegemony involves imposing a set of non-negotiable values upon the people, chiefly through use of coercion and deceit, a progressive hegemony will develop by way of democratically acquired consent in society. To give some flesh to these differences, the remainder of this article will elaborate on the different ways in which Gramsci talks about hegemonies of currently and previously ruling classes and how these contrast with the progressive hegemony that he hoped to see in the future.

It is evident that if we look through history, the capitalist class has retained its hegemony primarily through various forms of coercion, ranging from the direct deployment of the military through to more subtle forms, for example, using economic power to marginalise political opponents. It would, however, be a great mistake to think that capitalism does not also rely heavily upon building consent. Indeed, it could be argued that it is capitalism’s consent-building that we, from a strategic point of view, need to pay more attention to, as it is on this level that we compete with them. The nature and strength of this consent varies. There are ways in which capitalism succeeds in actively selling its vision to subordinate classes. This means not only selling the distorted vision of a society of liberty, freedom, innovation, etc., but also deploying the ideas of bourgeois economics to convince working people, for example, that although capitalist policy is in the ultimate interests of the capitalist class, they too gain some of the benefits via trickle-down effects. Capitalism can also win consent among those who perhaps don’t buy the idea that the system is in their interests, but who have been convinced that there is no alternative or that the alternatives would be worse – in other words, through the promotion of the belief that the system is a necessary evil.

The 20th century saw capitalism massively expand this form of consensus, largely through the corporate control of the media and advertising. In the United States in particular, the promotion of the ``American dream’’, and all of the useless commodities required to attain it, served not only to massively boost consumption and thereby the economic interests of the capitalists, it also sold a way of life which only capitalism could deliver. This was of course aided throughout the Cold War with simultaneous attempts to smear any alternative to capitalism as slavery. The capitalist class, in opposing any policy attempts to close in on corporately owned media, used its hegemonic political power to create the conditions for the building of further consent, in turn expanding their interests. The hegemonic group will continually struggle in this fashion to reach greater levels of consent – in this case by locking people into rigid mindsets and overcoming any optimism. We can look at former Australian Prime Minister John Howard’s attempts to expand privately owned schools, and to change high school history syllabi to make them more favourable to bourgeois perspectives as a part of this ongoing hegemonic process. The ruling class will constantly try to expand its field of interests and win further consent in response to changes in context and challenges to legitimacy.


Certain forms of trade unionism can also be seen as examples of capitalist hegemony. What Gramsci calls ``syndicalism’’-- the view that the conditions of the workers can be maximally uplifted via the increasing power of the trade unions -- reflects a social group (the workers) left in the economic-corporate stage of development due to the hegemonic influence of capitalists, specifically free trade advocates, in the realm of ideology. The free trade advocates argue that the state and civil society should be kept separate, that the state should keep out of the economic sphere, which functions autonomously – leave it to the ``invisible hand of the market’’ and so on. The syndicalists had adopted this assumption of an arbitrary separation of the social and economic realms on the one hand and the political realm on the other, and assume that they could bring about radical change without political representation. The concrete result of this is that they are left to negotiate for narrowly defined improvements in the economic sphere, with no policy changes that would allow these wins to take on a more permanent basis. Meanwhile, the free trade advocates are themselves actively involved in policy, despite their claims, setting up conditions that will be favourable to the capitalist class!

When the interests of the capitalist class are directly threatened, however, the hegemonic forces will inevitably resort to coercion. There is no room to negotiate on this, within the current hegemonic order. On a simple level this can mean legislating to allow police to crack down on workers taking industrial action, who threaten profits in an immediate sense. But a far bigger threat to the capitalists is the development of a hegemonic alternative within civil society. The threat is that people will move from the economic-corporate phase, and recognise that their interests overlap with all of those whom capitalism marginalises and holds back, that they will come to recognise their power and demand radical change.

This being the greatest threat to capital, the most effective way for it to use coercion is to break apart emerging progressive alliances between subordinate groups. When confronted with force and economic bullying, the people are less able to relate to the group. Concerns for survival mean that people have to defend their own interests as individuals. The movement of the progressive hegemony is slowed, as people are forced to behave in a corporatist manner. The ruling class can also try to violently break apart movements by stirring up ideological differences, appealing to religion, for example.

Democracy and consensus

Gramsci saw the development of a progressive hegemony involving a far greater degree of openness, democracy and consensus, rather than coercion. In so far as there is coercion, it should only exist to hold back those reactionary forces that would thwart society’s development. This would allow the masses the space in which to reach their potential. A large part of The Prison Notebooks is devoted to figuring out what would be required for this kind of hegemony to develop, and a lot of Gramscian thinkers since have devoted themselves to this puzzle.

As a starting point, we can say that while the existing hegemony tries to keep all the disaffected and subordinate social groups divided, the emergent progressive hegemony must bring them together. Gramsci certainly recognised the challenge involved in this. In his own historical situation (and as is undoubtedly still the case in ours), there were considerable barriers between the marginalised groups in terms of experiences, language and worldview. What all of these groups had in common, however, was that none of them had adequate political representation within the current system. Gramsci calls these groups that lack political representation ``subaltern’’. The challenge of the hegemonic group is to provide a critique of the system such that subaltern groups are made aware of their commonality and then ``raised up’’ into the political life of the party. In order to facilitate this incorporation of others, Gramsci stressed the need for the hegemonic group to move beyond its economic-corporatist understanding of its own interests, sacrificing some of its immediate economic goals in the interest of deeper moral and intellectual unity. It would need to overcome its traditional prejudices and dogmas and take on a broader view if was to lead while maintaining trust and consensus (both necessary to overcome existing power).

If these aligned forces are to have any historical significance, they need to be enduring and organically related to conditions on the ground, not merely a temporary convergence. To develop mass momentum they would need to demonstrate, both in people’s imagination and in action, that they were capable of coming to power and achieving the tasks they had set for themselves. These tasks must effectively be everyone’s tasks – they must come to represent every aspiration, and be the fulfilment of the failed movements of the previous generations.

Such a demonstration of power and historical significance could not be achieved through a passive action, of which Gramsci provides the example of the general strike. If the movement simply represents the rejection of the existing system or non-participation in it, then it would quickly fragment into everyone’s unique ideas of what should replace the system precisely at the moment when unity is most called for. It must be an active embodiment of the collective will, crystallised in a constructive and concrete agenda for change.

Clearly this is no small ask, and Gramsci is certainly not of the view that one can just implement these strategies as though reading from a manual. What is called for is for rigorous work on the ground laying the moral and intellectual terrain upon which these historical developments can occur. One develops the unity, self-awareness and maturity of the movement, making it a powerful and cohesive force, and then patiently, with careful attention to the contextual conditions, waits for the opportune moment for this force to be exerted.

Moment of crisis

This moment is the moment of crisis within the existing, dominant hegemony: the moment at which it becomes clear to the populace that the ruling class can no longer solve the most pressing issues of humanity. Provided that the progressive forces adequately assert the alternative at this moment and the ruling group is unable to rapidly rebuild consent, it becomes visible that the conditions under which the ruling group became hegemonic are now passing away and society can collectively say ``We don’t need you anymore.’’. Gramsci calls this process of historical purging ``catharsis’’ in which ``structure ceases to be an external force which crushes man, assimilates him to itself and makes him passive; and is transformed into a means of freedom, an instrument to create a new ethico-political form and a source of new initiatives.’’ (Gramsci, 1971, p. 367.)

For Gramsci the need for this transition from the world as it is to the freedom to create the world anew should be the starting point for all Marxist strategy.

So, what does Gramsci have to offer us? His insistence that the socialist political form should be one of openness, democracy and the building of consensus certainly provides us with greater vision and focus and really ought to inform the activities of all progressive political groups – if not for ethical reasons, then at least because in the present environment, without a willingness to genuinely work on building consensus with others, one’s chances of success are very much diminished. (We’re not the ruling class – we don’t have the means to coerce). More than this, however, Gramsci provides us with a way of thinking; he gives us the conceptual tools to dissect the political situation we find ourselves in, to view it in historical context and to understand where we can find the conditions for the further development of our power.

[Trent Brown is a doctoral student at the University of Wollongong and a member of Friends of the Earth Illawarra.]


Boothman, D. (2008).`` Hegemony: Political and Linguistic Sources for Gramsci’s Concept of Hegemony’’. In R. Howson and K. Smith (Eds.), Hegemony: Studies in Consensus and Coercion. London: Routledge.

Clark, M. (1977). Antonio Gramsci and the Revolution that Failed. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Gramsci, A. (1926). ``Some aspects of the southern question’’ (V. Cox, Trans.). In R. Bellamby (Ed.), Pre-Prison Writings (pp. 313-337). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Gramsci, A. (1971). Selections from the Prison Notebooks of Antonio Gramsci, Q. Hoare & G. N. Smith, eds. & trans. London: Lawrence and Wishart.

Howson, R. (2006). Challenging Hegemonic Masculinity. London: Routledge.

Howson, R. & Smith, K. (2008). Hegemony: Studies in Consensus and Coercion. London: Routledge.

Lenin, V. I. (1963). What is to be Done? S.V. Utechin & P. Utechin, trans. Oxford: Oxford University Press.


oleh Trent Brown

Jurnal Arah-KIRI -- Antonio Gramsci ialah tokoh penting dalam sejarah teori Marxis. Sementara Karl Marx dan Friedrich Engels memberikan analisis menyeluruh tentang kapital di tingkat sosial dan ekonomi - khususnya menunjukkan bagaimana kapital mengantagoniskan kelas pekerja dan menyebabkan krisis - Gramsci melengkapi ini dengan suatu teori canggih tentang ranah politik dan bagaimana itu secara organik/dialektik berhubungan dengan kondisi-kondisi sosial dan ekonomi. Ia memberikan kita teori tentang bagaimana proletariat harus mengorganisir secara politik bila hendak secara efektif merespon krisis dan kegagalan kapital, dan menghadirkan perubahan revolusioner.

Secara kebetulan, inovasi ini terbukti bukan saja menarik perhatian kaum Marxis, tapi juga mereka yang berada di luar bentuk-bentuk politik progresif, dari gerakan hak-hak sipil (civil rights movement), politik jender, hingga perjuangan ekologis kontemporer. Pendekatannya ini terbukti begitu populer dan secara umum dapat diadaptasikan karena Gramsci sendiri ialah seorang aktivis dan kepedulian fundamentalnya adalah terhadap strategi progresif. Maka meskipun dalam artikel ini saya berencana memberikan gambaran umum tentang teori hegemoni Gramsci dan sebab-sebab di balik formulasinya, yang penting adalah agar kita meneruskan ini dengan memikirkan bagaimana kita dapat menggunakan konsep-konsep ini secara strategis dalam perjuangan kita.

Apa itu hegemoni?

Tampaknya tidaklah pantas memulai diskusi ini dengan bertanya "Apa itu hegemoni?" Ini rupanya susah untuk dijawab ketika kita membicarakan Gramsci, karena, setidaknya dalam The Prison Notebooks, ia tidak pernah memberikan definisi yang pas terhadap istilah itu. Ini mungkin alasan utama kenapa terdapat begitu banyak ketidak-konsistenan dalam literatur hegemoni - orang cenderung membentuk definisinya sendiri, berdasarkan pembacaan mereka sendiri terhadap Gramsci dan sumber-sumber lainnya. Yang menjadi masalah di sini adalah bila seseorang membaca Gramsci secara setengah-setengah maka definisi mereka pun seperti itu.

Contohnya, Martin Clark (1977, p.2) mendefinisikan hegemoni sebagai "cara kelas penguasa mengontrol media dan pendidikan". Meskipun definisi ini mungkin lebih sempit dari biasanya, ia mencerminkan kesalahan-pembacaan yang biasa terjadi terhadap konsep tersebut, yakni bahwa hegemoni adalah cara kelas penguasa mengontrol institusi-institusi yang mengontrol atau mempengaruhi pemikiran kita. Walau demikian, kebanyakan literatur hegemoni di kalangan akademik dan aktivis mengambil sudut pandang yang sedikit lebih lebar dari ini, dengan menyertakan lebih banyak institusi dalam pelakasanaan hegemoni - setidaknya menyertakan juga militer dan sistem politik. Problemnya adalah bahkan ketika institusi-institusi ini diperhitungkan, fokusnya cenderung eksklusif kepada kelas penguasa, dan metode-metode kontrolnya. Hegemoni sering kali digunakan untuk menggambarkan cara kelas-kelas kapitalis menginfiltrasi pikiran rakyat dan menerapkan dominasinya. Yang luput dari definisi ini adalah Gramsci tidak hanya menggunakan istilah "hegemoni" untuk menggambarkan aktivitas kelas penguasa, ia juga menggunakannya untuk mendeskripsikan pengaruh yang diberikan oleh kekuatan-kekuatan progresif. Dengan mencamkan hal ini, kita dapat melihat bahwa hegemoni seharusnya didefinisikan sebagai hal yang dilakukan bukan saja oleh kelas penguasa, faktanya ia adalah proses di mana kelompok-kelompok sosial - apakah mereka progresif, regresif, reformis, dsb. - meraih kekuasaan untuk memimpin, bagaimana mereka memperluas kekuasaan mereka dan mempertahankannya.

Untuk memahami apa yang coba dicapai oleh Gramsci ketika mengembangkan teori hegemoninya, kita butuh melihat konteks historis yang ia hadapi maupun perdebatan dalam pergerakan di masa itu. Istilah "hegemoni" sudah umum digunakan oleh lingkaran sosialis sejak awal abad 20. Penggunaannya menunjukkan bahwa bila suatu kelompok digambarkan sebagai "hegemonik" maka ia menempati posisi kepemimpinan dalam suatu ranah politik tertentu (Boothman, 2008).

Penggunaan istilah gegemoniya (istilah Rusia untuk hegemoni, sering diterjemahkan sebagai "vanguard") oleh Lenin tampak menyiratkan suatu proses yang lebih mirip dengan apa yang digambarkan oleh Gramsci. Dalam upayanya mengkatalisis Revolusi Rusia, Lenin (1902/1963) melakukan pengamatan bahwa ketika dibiarkan mengurus sendiri, kaum pekerja cenderung hanya mencapai kesadaran serikat buruh, memperjuangkan keadaan yang lebih baik dalam sistem yang ada. Untuk menghadirkan perubahan revolusioner, ia berargumen bahwa kaum Bolshevik perlu menempati posisi hegemonik dalam perjuangan menentang rejim tsaris. Ini artinya bukan saja memberdayakan berbagai serikat pekerja dengan menyatukan mereka, tapi juga melibatkan semua "strata oposisi" dalam masyarakat ke dalam gerakan, menarik hubungan-hubungan di antara semua bentuk "penindasan politik dan kesewenang-wenangan otokratik" (Lenin, 1963, pp 86-87).

Namun, dalam periode paska-revolusioner implikasinya berubah. Lenin berargumen bahwa hal-hal krusial untuk mendirikan "hegemoni proletariat" adalah (a) kaum proletariat perkotaan mempertahankan aliansinya dengan kaum tani pedesaan (yang merupakan mayoritas penduduk Rusia) untuk mempertahankan kepemimpinan nasional dan (b) keahlian kaum kapitalis lama digunakan, dengan memaksa mereka untuk secara efektif mengelola industri-industri negara. Kedua proses kepemimpinan ini yang dilakukan via konsensus dan penggunaan paksaan dalam pengembangan hegemoni akan memainkan peran yang krusial dalam teori Gramsci. Dari tahun 1922-23 Gramsci berada di Rusia ketika perdebatan-perdebatan ini sedang menggelora dan setelah masa-masa inilah kita melihat hegemoni mulai menempati peran sentral dalam tulisan-tulisannya.


Di samping pengaruh yang diakibatkan oleh jalannya peristiwa di Rusia, Gramsci juga dipengaruhi oleh pengalaman politiknya sendirinya. Gramsci sangat terlibat dalam perjuangan melawan kapitalisme dan fasisme di Italia dan untuk beberapa waktu ia merupakan pemimpin Partai Komunis Italia. Dalam periode setelah Perang Dunia I, terdapat optimisme yang besar di Eropa, dan khususnya di Italia, karena saat itu rakyat melihat kebiadaban yang dilakukan oleh kelas-kelas penguasa, sementara di Rusia suatu alternatif sedang berkembang, sehingga semacam revolusi kaum pekerja di Eropa pun mulai tampak di permukaan.

Gramsci tentunya meyakini optimisme ini. Peristiwa yang berlangsung di awal 1920an tampak mengonfirmasikan ini. Ketegangan dalam semua strata masyarakat adalah tinggi, terdapat agitasi massa dan rakyat membentuk dewan-dewan pabrik dan koperasi pekerja. Tapi terlepas dari mobilisasi yang intens ini, itu semua padam dengan segera. Serikat-serikat buruh terkooptasi, koperasi pekerja menjadi tersingkir dan tak kompetitif. Rakyat biasa diintimidasi oleh elit atau terpesona oleh daya tarik retorika fasis.

Gramsci dan beberapa lainnya membentuk Partai Komunis Italia untuk mencoba membangkitkan kembali pergerakan, tapi nyatalah bahwa rakyat telah pupus harapan akibat kegagalan di tahun-tahun sebelumnya untuk bisa terlibat kembali. Suara untuk Partai Komunis begitu sedikit dan mengecewakan. Ketika Gramsci ditahan pada 1926 sebagai bagian dari tindakan darurat Mussolini, ia mendapatkan banyak waktu di penjara untuk merefleksikan apa yang terjadi dan apa yang salah. Bagaimana kelas penguasa dapat begitu efektif mencekik potensi gerakan, dan apa yang dibutuhkan oleh kekuatan-kekuatan progresif untuk memobilisasi massa sehingga mereka mampu membawa perubahan fundamental dalam masyarakat? Pertanyaan-pertanyaan ini tentunya menjadi sentral dalam teori hegemoni Gramsci.


Sebagaimana dijelaskan di atas, dalam The Prison Notebooks Gramsci mengacu pada hegemoni untuk menggambarkan aktivitas kelompok yang sedang dominan maupun kekuatan-kekuatan progresif. Bagi Gramsci, apa pun kelompok sosialnya, kita dapat melihat bahwa terdapat tahapan perkembangan bersama tertentu yang harus mereka lalui sebelum mereka dapat menjadi hegemonik. Mengambil dari Marx, persyaratan pertama adalah ekonomi: bahwa kekuatan material telah cukup dikembangkan sehingga orang-orang di dalamnya mampu memecahkan problem-problem sosial yang paling mendesak. Gramsci kemudian berlanjut menyatakan bahwa terdapat tiga tingkat perkembangan politik yang harus dilalui suatu kelompok sosial agar dapat mengembangkan gerakan yang dapat memulai perubahan.

Tahap pertama dari ini disebut "korporat-ekonomis". Seorang korporatis mungkin adalah apa yang kita pahami sebagai individu yang mengutamakan kepentingannya sendiri. Seseorang berafiliasi dengan tahap korporat-ekonomis sebagai fungsi dari kepentingan pribadinya, menyadari bahwa mereka membutuhkan dukungan orang lain untuk memperoleh keamanan mereka sendiri. Serikat-buruhisme mungkin merupakan contoh terjelas untuk ini, setidaknya dalam kasus di mana orang bergabung dengan serikat buruh karena takut gajinya dipotong, penyusutan dsb. Dalam istilah ini, kita juga dapat memasukkan kerjasama jangka-pendek antara kapitalis-kapitalis yang sesungguhnya saling berkompetisi satu sama lainnya. Hal yang ditekankan adalah: pada tahap perkembangan historik ini, kelompok yang bersangkutan belum memiliki rasa solidaritas di antara anggota-anggotanya.

Dalam tahap kedua, anggota-anggota kelompok mulai menyadari bahwa terdapat wilayah kepentingan yang lebih luas dan bahwa terdapat orang lain yang berbagi kepentingan dengan mereka dan akan terus membagi kepentingan-kepentingan ini dalam masa depan yang terjangkau. Dalam tahap inilah rasa solidaritas berkembang, tapi solidaritas ini masihlah hanya berbasiskan kepentingan ekonomi bersama. Tidak terdapat pandangan dunia bersama atau apa pun semacam itu. Solidaritas seperti ini dapat mengarah pada upaya-upaya untuk menggalakkan reformasi-reformasi di bidang hukum untuk memperbaiki posisi kelompok tersebut dalam sistem yang ada, tapi belum ada kesadaran tentang bagaimana mereka, dan yang lainnya, dapat diuntungkan oleh pembentukan sistem yang baru.

Hanya dengan melewati tahap ketiga maka hegemoni dapat benar-benar menjadi mungkin. Dalam tahap ini, anggota-anggota kelompok sosial mulai menyadari kepentingan dan kebutuhan untuk menjangkau melampaui apa yang dapat mereka lakukan dalam konteks kelas-kelas mereka tersendiri. Yang dibutuhkan adalah agar kepentingan mereka turut diusung oleh kelompok-kelompok lainnya yang tersubordinasi seperti halnya mereka. Inilah yang dipikirkan oleh Lenin dan kaum Bolshevik dalam membentuk aliansi dengan kaum tani - bahwa hanya dengan membuat revolusi Bolshevik juga menjadi revolusi kaum tani, di mana kaum tani juga melihat itu sebagi revolusi mereka, maka kaum proletariat perkotaan dapat mempertahankan posisi kepemimpinannya.

Gramsci memahami bahwa dalam konteks historis yang sedang dikerjakannya, berjalannya suatu kelompok sosial dari reformisme atas kepentingan pribadi menuju hegemoni nasional dapat terjadi secara efektif via partai politik. Dalam formulasi yang kompleks ini, beragam ideologi kelompok-kelompok yang beraliansi akan berkumpul. Tak dielakkan lagi akan terjadi konflik antara ideologi-ideologi ini, dan melalui proses perdebatan dan pertarungan, satu ideologi, atau kombinasi penyatuan darinya, akan muncul mewakili kelas-kelas yang beraliansi. Ideologi ini dapat dibilang hegemonik, kelompok yang mewakilinya telah meraih posisi hegemonik atas kelompok-kelompok yang tersubordinasi. Dalam tahap ini, partai mencapai kedewasaan dengan meraih kesatuan antara tujuan ekonomi dan politik maupun kesatuan moral dan intelektual - dapat dikatakan sebagai saling berbagi suatu pandangan dunia.

Dengan persatuan ini di belakangnya, partai mentransformasi masyarakat untuk meletakkan persyaratan bagi ekspansi kelompok hegemonik. Negara menjadi mekanisme untuk melakukan ini: kebijakan dihasilkan dan ditegakkan untuk memungkinkan kelompok hegemonik mencapai tujuan-tujuannya secara efektif dan menciptakan simetri antara tujuannya dan tujuan kelompok-kelompok lainnya. Meskipun tujuan-tujuan ini diformulasikan dengan pemikiran untuk memajukan kepentingan satu kelompok, walau demikian tujuan-tujuan tersebut harus dialami oleh penduduk sebagai kepentingan semua orang. Agar ini berjalan efektif, kelompok hegemonik harus memiliki suatu bentuk tertentu dalam menangani kepentingan kelas-kelas yang tersubordinasi. Kepentingan yang dominan tidak dapat dengan begitu saja diterapkan kepada mereka.

Hegemoni Progresif

Meskipun Gramsci menganggap langkah-langkah pragmatis tersebut dibutuhkan oleh tiap kelompok yang hendak meraih kekuasaan, ia juga memiliki kepedulian etis yang sangat mendalam terhadap cara berjalannya proses tersebut. Dalam pengertian ini, kita dapat menemukan dalam karya Gramsci perbedaan kualitatif antara pelaksanaan hegemoni oleh kelompok regresif dan otoriter di satu pihak, dan kelompok-kelompok sosial di pihak lainnya. Dalam tingkat etika, Gramsci di atas segalanya ialah seorang anti-dogmatis yang meyakini bahwa kebenaran tak dapat diterapkan begitu saja dari atas-ke-bawah, tapi hanya melalui dialog yang konkrit dan simpatik dengan rakyat. Kalau hegemoni regresif melibatkan penerapan serangkaian nilai-nilai yang tak ternegosiasikan kepada rakyat, terutama melalui paksaan (koersi) dan penipuan, hegemoni progresif akan berkembang dengan persetujuan (konsen) masyarakat yang diraih secara demokratis. Untuk memperjelas perbedaan-perbedaan ini, sisa dari artikel ini akan mengelaborasikan berbagai cara Gramsci membicarakan tentang hegemoni kelas-kelas penguasa saat ini maupun yang lalu dan bagaimana ini bertolak belakang dengan hegemoni progresif yang diharapkan untuk disaksikannya di masa depan.

Jelaslah bila kita menelusuri sejarah, kelas kapitalis memegang hegemoninya terutama melalui berbagai bentuk paksaan (koersi), yang berkisar dari penempatan militer secara langsung hingga bentuk-bentuk yang lebih halus, contohnya, menggunakan kekuatan ekonomi untuk menyingkirkan lawan politik. Namun, adalah suatu kesalahan besar untuk berpikir bahwa kapitalisme tidak pula bergantung pada pembangunan persetujuan atau konsensus. Bahkan dapat diargumentasikan bahwa pembangunan-konsensus kapitalisme lah yang dari sudut pandang strategis perlu kita beri perhatian lebih mendalam, karena di tingkat inilah kita berkompetisi dengan mereka. Sifat dan kekuatan konsensus ini beragam. Ada cara-cara di mana kapitalisme sukses secara aktif menjual visinya kepada kelas-kelas yang tersubordinasi. Ini bukan berarti sekedar menjual visi terdistorsi tentang suatu masyarakat yang bebas, merdeka, inovatif, dsb, tapi juga menggunakan ide-ide ekonomi borjuis untuk meyakinkan kelas pekerja untuk meyakini bahwa, contohnya, meskipun kebijakan kapitalis adalah kepentingan utama kelas kapitalis, mereka pun akan meraih keuntungan via dampak tetesan-ke-bawah (trickle down effects). Kapitalisme juga dapat memenangkan persetujuan atau konsensus di antara mereka yang mungkin tidak mempercayai bahwa sistem yang ada adalah untuk kepentingan mereka, namun meyakini bahwa tidak ada alternatif atau bahwa alternatif akan lebih buruk - dengan kata lain, dengan menggalakan keyakinan bahwa sistem yang ada merupakan suatu keharusan yang dibutuhkan (necessary evil).

Abad ke-20 menyaksikan kapitalisme memperluas secara massif bentuk konsensus ini, terutama melalui kontrol korporasi dalam media dan periklanan. Di Amerika Serikat khususnya, penggalakkan "American dream", dan semua komoditas tak bermanfaat yang dibutuhkan untuk meraihnya, tidak hanya berguna untuk menggenjot konsumsi dan sekaligus menguntungkan kepentingan ekonomi kaum kapitalis; ia juga menjual suatu gaya hidup yang hanya dapat diberikan oleh kapitalisme. Ini tentunya dibantu selama Perang Dingin dengan berbagai upaya simultan untuk mencap tiap alternatif terhadap kapitalisme sebagai perbudakan. Kelas kapitalis menentang tiap kebijakan yang berupaya menyaingi media milik korporasi dengan menggunakan kekuatan politik hegemoniknya untuk menciptakan kondisi-kondisi bagi pembangunan konsensus lebih jauh, yang kemudian akan memperluas kepentingan mereka. Kelompok hegemonik akan terus berjuang dengan cara-cara ini untuk mencapai tingkat konsensus yang lebih besar - dalam kasus ini dengan mengunci rakyat ke dalam cara berpikir yang kaku dan menggilas tiap optimisme.


Beberapa bentuk serikat-buruhisme tertentu dapat juga menjadi contoh hegemoni kapitalis. Apa yang Gramsci sebut sebagai "sindikalisme" - pandangan bahwa kondisi kelas pekerja dapat diangkat secara maksimal dengan meningkatkan kekuatan serikat buruh - mencerminkan suatu kelompok sosial (para pekerja) yang terperosok dalam tahap perkembangan korporat-ekonomis akibat pengaruh hegemonik kapitalis, terutama para pembela perdagangan bebas (free trade), dalam ranah ideologi. Para pembela perdagangan bebas berargumen bahwa negara dan masyarakat sipil harus tetap terpisah, bahwa negara harus keluar dari ranah ekonomi, yang berfungsi secara otonom - serahkan itu kepada "tangan pasar yang tak kasat mata" dan seterusnya.

Kaum sindikalis mengadopsi asumsi tentang pemisahan antara ranah sosial dan ekonomi di satu sisi dan ranah politik di sisi lainnya, dan mengasumsikan bahwa mereka dapat membawa perubahan radikal tanpa perwakilan politik. Hasil konkrit dari ini adalah mereka hanya dapat bernegosiasi untuk perbaikan-perbaikan yang berpengertian sempit dalam ranah ekonomi, tanpa perubahan kebijakan yang memungkinkan kemenangan-kemenangan ini meraih basis yang lebih permanen. Sementara para pembela perdagangan bebas justru secara aktif terlibat dalam penentuan kebijakan (meskipun klaim mereka mengatakan lain) yang menciptakan kondisi-kondisi yang menguntungkan kelas kapitalis!

Namun, ketika kepentingan kelas kapitalis secara langsung terancam, kekuatan hegemonik tak pelak lagi beralih ke paksaan. Tidak ada lagi ruang untuk menegosiasikan ini, dalam tatanan hegemonik yang ada. Dalam tingkat sederhana, ini dapat berarti membuat legislasi yang memungkinkan polisi menyerang pekerja yang melaksanakan aksi-aksi industrial, yang mengancam profit secara langsung. Tapi ancaman terbesar terhadap kapitalis adalah perkembangan alternatif hegemonik dalam masyarakat sipil. Ancamannya adalah rakyat akan beralih dari fase korporat-ekonomis, dan menyadari bahwa kepentingan mereka bersinggungan dengan semua pihak yang dipinggirkan oleh kapitalisme dan melawan balik, bahwa mereka akan menyadari kekuatan mereka dan menuntut perubahan radikal.

Karena ini merupakan ancaman terbesar terhadap kapital, cara paling efektif baginya untuk menggunakan paksaan adalah dengan memecah belah aliansi-aliansi progresif antara kelompok-kelompok yang tersubordinasi. Ketika dihadapkan pada kekerasan dan ancaman-ancaman ekonomi, orang lebih tidak mampu menghubungkan dirinya dengan kelompok. Kekuatiran untuk bertahan hidup berarti bahwa tiap orang harus mempertahankan kepentingan mereka secara individual. Hegemoni progresif dari pergerakan menjadi terhambat, karena tiap orang dipaksa untuk bertindak secara korporatis. Kelas penguasa juga dapat berupaya memecah belah gerakan secara kasar dengan memanas-manasi perbedaan ideologi, contohnya dengan berseru tentang agama.

Demokrasi dan konsensus

Gramsci memandang bahwa perkembangan hegemoni progresif melibatkan lebih banyak keterbukaan, demokrasi dan konsensus, dibandingkan paksaan. Kalau pun terdapat paksaan, itu seharusnya ada untuk melawan kekuatan-kekuatan reaksioner yang hendak menjegal perkembangan masyarakat. Ini akan memberikan ruang kepada massa untuk meraih potensi mereka. Bagian yang besar dari The Prison Notebooks diberikan untuk mencari tahu apa yang dibutuhkan untuk mengembangkan hegemoni semacam ini, dan banyak pemikir Gramscian sejak itu mendedikasikan diri mereka untuk menjawab teka-teki ini.

Sebagai awalan, kita dapat mengatakan bahwa hegemoni yang ada mencoba menjaga agar kelompok-kelompok yang dikecewakan dan tersubordinasi tetap tercerai berai, hegemoni progresif yang hendak bangkit harusnya mempersatukan mereka. Gramsci tentunya melihat tantangan yang ada di sini. Dalam situasi historisnya sendiri (dan tak diragukan lagi masih demikian pada masa kita kini) terdapat rintangan-rintangan yang cukup besar antara kelompok-kelompok yang terpinggirkan dalam hal pengalaman, bahasa dan pandangan-dunia. Namun, yang sama-sama dimiliki oleh semua kelompok ini adalah tidak ada dari mereka yang memiliki perwakilan politik yang memadai dalam sistem yang ada. Gramsci menyebut kelompok-kelompok yang tak memiliki perwakilan politik ini "subalternus". Tantangan kelompok hegenomik adalah memberikan kritik terhadap sistem yang ada dengan sedemikian rupa sehingga kelompok-kelompok subalternus tersebut menyadari kesamaan nasib mereka dan kemudian "bangkit" ke dalam kehidupan politik partai. Untuk memfasilitasi penggabungan oleh pihak-pihak lainnya ini, Gramsci menekankan perlunya kelompok hegemonik untuk bergerak melampaui pemahaman kepentingannya sendiri yang korporatis-ekonomis, mengorbankan beberapa tujuan ekonomi yang mendesak demi kesatuan moral dan intelektual yang lebih mendalam. Ia harus meninggalkan prasangka-prasangka dan dogma-dogma tradisionalnya dan mengambil pandangan yang lebih luas bila hendak memimpin sambil mendapat kepercayaan dan konsensus (keduanya dibutuhkan untuk mengalahkan kekuasaan yang ada).

Bila kekuatan yang segaris ini hendak memiliki pengaruh historis yang penting, mereka harus langgeng dan secara organik/menyatu berhubungan dengan kondisi-kondisi di lapangan, bukan sekedar konvergensi sesaat. Untuk mengembangkan momentum massa, mereka harus mendemonstrasikan, baik dalam imajinasi rakyat maupun dalam aksi, bahwa mereka mampu meraih kekuasaan dan melaksanakan tugas-tugas yang mereka tetapkan sendiri. Tugas-tugas ini harus secara efektif menjadi tugas setiap orang - mereka harus mewakili tiap aspirasi, dan menjadi pemenuhan dari tugas gerakan-gerakan yang tidak berhasil dalam generasi sebelumnya.

Demonstrasi kekuasaan dan pengaruh historis seperti itu tidak dapat dicapai melalui aksi pasif. Contoh yang Gramsci gunakan di sini adalah pemogokan umum. Bila gerakan tersebut sekedar mewakili penolakan terhadap sistem yang ada atau non-partisipasi terhadapnya, maka itu akan segera berfragmentasi menjadi ide-ide unik tiap individu tentang apa yang harus menggantikan sistem yang ada justru pada saat ketika persatuan adalah yang paling dibutuhkan. Ia harus merupakan perwujudan aktif kehendak kolektif, yang terkristalisasi dalam suatu agenda perubahan yang konstruktif dan konkrit. [garis miring tebal oleh penerjemah] Jelaslah ini bukan tugas mudah, dan Gramsci tentunya tidak berpandangan bahwa kita dapat menerapkan strategi-strategi ini seperti halnya mengikuti manual. Yang dibutuhkan adalah kerja sungguh-sungguh di lapangan untuk meletakkan medan-medan moral dan intelektual di mana perkembangan historis ini dapat muncul. Kita harus mengembangkan kesatuan, kesadaran dan kedewasaan gerakan, membuatnya menjadi kekuatan yang kuat dan kohesif, dan kemudian dengan sabar, dengan perhatian seksama terhadap kondisi kontekstual, menanti momen yang menguntungkan untuk menggunakan kekuatan ini.

Momen krisis

Momen ini adalah momen krisis dalam hegemoni dominan yang ada: momen di mana penduduk semakin melihat jelas bahwa kelas penguasa tidak lagi mampu menyelesaikan isu-isu paling mendesak bagi kemanusiaan. Asalkan kekuatan progresif dapat secara memadai memberikan alternatif pada saat ini dan kelas penguasa tidak mampu dengan segera membangun kembali konsensus, menjadi jelaslah bahwa kondisi di mana kelompok penguasa menjadi hegemonik mulai berlalu dan masyarakat dapat secara kolektif berkata "Kami tak membutuhkanmu lagi." Gramsci menyebut proses pembersihan sejarah ini "katarsis" di mana "struktur berhenti menjadi kekuatan eksternal yang menekan manusia, mengasimilasi manusia dan membuatnya pasif; dan ia ditransformasikan menjadi alat kebebasan, suatu instrumen untuk menciptakan bentuk etika-politik baru dan sumber inisiatif baru." (Ggramsci, 1971, p.367.)

Bagi Gramsci, kebutuhan akan transisi ini dari dunia sebagaimana apa adanya menuju kebebasan menciptakan dunia baru harus menjadi awalan dari semua strategi Marxis.

Jadi, apa yang ditawarkan Gramsci kepada kita? Penekanannya bahwa bentuk politik sosialis haruslah berupa keterbukaan, demokrasi dan pembangunan konsensus. Ini tentunya memberikan kita visi dan fokus yang lebih luas dan kita benar-benar perlu menginformasikan aktivitas semua kelompok politik. Bila bukan karena alasan etis, setidaknya karena dalam lingkungan saat ini, tanpa kesediaan untuk bekerja secara tulus membangun konsensus dengan lainnya, peluang keberhasilan kita akan sangat sempit. (Kita bukan kelas penguasa - kita tidak memiliki alat paksaan). Namun lebih dari ini, Gramsci memberikan kita cara berpikir; ia memberikan kita alat konseptual untuk membedah situasi politik yang kita hadapi, untuk memandangnya dalam konteks historis dan untuk memahami di mana-mana saja kita dapat menemukan persyaratan-persyaratan untuk mengembangkan kekuatan kita lebih jauh lagi.

[Trent Brown adalah mahasiswa doktoral di Universitas Wollongong dan anggota dari Friends of the Earth Illawarra]


Boothman, D. (2008).`` Hegemony: Political and Linguistic Sources for Gramsci’s Concept of Hegemony’’. In R. Howson and K. Smith (Eds.), Hegemony: Studies in Consensus and Coercion. London: Routledge.

Clark, M. (1977). Antonio Gramsci and the Revolution that Failed. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Gramsci, A. (1926). ``Some aspects of the southern question’’ (V. Cox, Trans.). In R. Bellamby (Ed.), Pre-Prison Writings (pp. 313-337). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Gramsci, A. (1971). Selections from the Prison Notebooks of Antonio Gramsci, Q. Hoare & G. N. Smith, eds. & trans. London: Lawrence and Wishart.

Howson, R. (2006). Challenging Hegemonic Masculinity. London: Routledge.

Howson, R. & Smith, K. (2008). Hegemony: Studies in Consensus and Coercion. London: Routledge.

Lenin, V. I. (1963). What is to be Done? S.V. Utechin & P. Utechin, trans. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Pernah dimuat di, dan diterjemahkan ke dalam bahasa Indonesia oleh Data Brainanta, Staff Dept. Kaderisasi dan Komunikasi Massa DPP Papernas

Published on Workers' Liberty (

The other shore of Gramsci's bridge
By martin
Created 14 Mar 2010 - 5:11pm

Martin Thomas

Antonio Gramsci was a revolutionary Marxist of the early-1920s Lenin-Trotsky stripe. Yet his prison writings of 1929-35 have been used as a source for quite different politics.

First, the Italian Communist Party (PCI), which had cold-shouldered Gramsci in prison as his criticism of Stalinist policies emerged, took him up from the early 1950s and especially in the 1960s. The PCI took Gramsci's discussions of "hegemony" and "war of position" as justifying class-collaboration and an idea of transforming society by gradually winning more and more influence (especially, in practice, in local government).

Gramsci's writings reached the English-speaking world through a short book of extracts published by the British Communist Party in 1957, after Khrushchev's startling anti-Stalin speech of 1956, and via the "New Left" in the early 1960s. For example, in Towards Socialism, a collection of essays published by New Left Review in 1965, Perry Anderson referred to Gramsci in order to argue a strategy supposedly based on "hegemony" and supposedly "going beyond" Leninism and social democracy. The main practical recommendation in Anderson's article was to urge the Labour Party to boost or to organise Labour-aligned associations among lawyers, doctors, scientists, teachers, and "every intellectual group".

In the late 1970s and the 1980s, Gramsci was often cited by Communist Parties pursuing a new "Eurocommunist" line to try to rid themselves of the taint of Stalinism.

Since the collapse of the Communist Parties, Gramsci has been a source for a "post-Marxism", advocating "radical democracy" rather than even notionally working-class politics.

Probably as a result, Gramsci has remained a widely-cited and widely-taught author in universities, while Lenin, Trotsky, Luxemburg and the like have not. There is now a vast volume of "post-Gramscian" studies, and this note can try only to look at some main trends.

Loyal to Gramsci?

There is nothing new about the texts of a revolutionary writer being used, once he or she is safely dead, to gloss unrevolutionary politics. The operation is easier with Gramsci since his Prison Notebooks were fragmentary, never finalised for publication, and often cryptic in style.

Many Marxist writers have shown that Gramsci did not change his fundamental revolutionary Marxist views in prison (1926-37) and while writing his Prison Notebooks (1929-35). A recent and clear demonstration of Gramsci's attachment to class politics comes from Mike Donaldson [1].

However, the post-Marxists do not deny that they have "gone beyond" Gramsci. They do not particularly claim to be loyal to Gramsci. Their argument is, so to speak, that the "other shore" of the theoretical "bridge" to new thinking provided by Gramsci's writings is their "radical democratic" politics, even though Gramsci himself would not have seen or wanted that.

Richard Bellamy, an important writer in the same political spectrum as the "post-Marxists" - though he prefers the banner, "realist liberalism" - edited a useful volume of Gramsci's pre-prison writings, and agrees that most of the central concepts of the Prison Notebooks were also in the pre-prison writings. But he concludes that what Gramsci adapted from the liberal (though sometime Marxist) philosopher Benedetto Croce is sounder than Gramsci's criticisms of Croce - in other words, that Gramsci is valuable for what of Croce has filtered through him, rather than for what differentiated him from Croce.

"The recent post-Marxist reading of Gramsci can be regarded as an implicit return to [the] Crocean radical alternative", writes Bellamy; but, for him, that is a merit, not a fault, of "post-Marxism". To answer Bellamy by demonstrating that Gramsci was not a "post-Marxist" is not to answer him.


The central concept in all the discussions has been what Gramsci called "hegemony".

Before 1917, Russian Marxists saw themselves as fighting for "hegemony", meaning the organisation of the working class so that it could take a leading role in (have hegemony in) the democratic revolt of multiple sectors of the Russian empire's people against Tsarist autocracy, and specifically of the peasant revolt. They counterposed that approach to "economism", the perspective of those socialists who wanted to focus on agitation and organisation around immediate working-class economic struggles, were willing to leave the other struggles to the bourgeois liberals, and reckoned that working-class politics could develop spontaneously out of the working-class economic struggles.

Some writers have argued that Gramsci first took the idea of "hegemony" from Italian writers such as Croce, before becoming aware of the Russian Marxists' discussions, but for sure Gramsci considered Lenin's ideas on hegemony important. In the Prison Notebooks he strove to develop those ideas, and to construct what he saw as the strategic vision underlying and exemplified in the tactic of the united front argued for by Lenin and Trotsky, against much opposition, in the Communist Parties in 1921-2.

The bourgeoisie had ruled - so Gramsci argued - and the working class must prepare itself to rule, not just by pursuing sectional interests, but by generating political parties which construct a "hegemonic apparatus": a complex of organisations, united-fronts, interventions, themes of agitation, etc. which enable the fundamental class to see itself as a leader, or potential leader, of society, and which offer other groups an effective alliance.

The political party must polemicise against its opponents not by cheap shots - just picking on their weakest advocates, or just "exposing" petty corruption and mercenary motives - but by tackling their best and strongest advocates, thus achieving an expansive influence among thinking people.

Rather than dawdling with the assurance that underlying economic laws would duly rally people to them in time, the political party must constantly be creative in political initiative. The economic impulse, powerful though it be, always requires a suitable political initiative to express it.

The party's "perspective" cannot be a mechanical calculation from broad economic and historical trends, but must count the party's own intervention as a creative factor. The "perspective" is not mechanical prediction, but an always-conditional guide to action.

The revolutionary working-class party should not assume it faces an immobile enemy. There are periods of "passive revolution" in which the ruling class transforms society, in its own way and in its own interests, but meanwhile seeking to open new perspectives for subaltern sections of the population.

And the party itself must be a continuous process of self-creation, working to make all its members "intellectuals", rather than utilising the Catholic Church's method of uniting educated strata with the less-lettered, i.e. of imposing rigid dogmatic limits on the educated.

In Gramsci's writings these ideas are counterposed to the traditional "workerist" and "trade-unionist" and politically-passive "maximalism" of the Italian Socialist Party; to the more intransigent and apocalyptic version of similar ideas proposed by the Italian Communist Party's first leader, Amadeo Bordiga; and to the cursory polemics and "statistical"-materialist sociology of a Marxist handbook by Bukharin.

When Gramsci argued, however, that "an appropriate political initiative is always necessary to liberate the economic thrust from the dead weight of traditional policies", he also believed that there was an underlying, shaping, structuring "economic thrust", and that the initiative must come from a class-based force. The question is: was he wrong on that?

The PCI and Gramsci

The Italian Communist Party adapted Gramsci's ideas by fading out the working-class basis of hegemony and Gramsci's assumption that hegemony could be won only by a bold, militant working-class movement. They transformed "hegemony" into a code-word for repeated recyclings of the "Popular Front" approach of the Communist Parties in the late 1930s, when they formally renounced the political independence of the working class in favour of alliances with miscellaneous bourgeois forces supposed to "stop fascism" as a "first stage" after which direct working-class causes might be taken up in a "second stage".

In 1926 Gramsci, puzzled by the factional dispute in Russia, had complained about the Stalinists' bureaucratic abuses against the Left Opposition, but was inclined to credit the argument of Stalin and Bukharin that their policy represented a restraint on direct working-class and socialist drive necessary in order to keep an alliance with the peasantry - in other words, that the Left Opposition showed a "residue of reformist or syndicalist corporativism".

Such arguments, mistaken I believe, could be seized on by the PCI to rationalise restraining working-class combativity on the grounds that such combativity would spoil the alliance with middle-class groups necessary to win a majority.

Paradoxically, the PCI was able to transform Gramsci's ideas about the revolutionary party's responsibility to be creative, to take initiative, and to educate, into a rationalisation for a notoriously stodgy, passive, routinist policy, pursued by a very bureaucratic party in a very manipulative way.


In the ideology of the Italian Communist Party, however, the whole approach was still, at least notionally and in some supposed last analysis, tied to a specifically working-class project. The working class was admitted to have distinct immediate and historic interests, and any shelving of those for the sake of alliances was (at least notionally) presumed to be temporary.

In the mid-1970s and the early 1980s, the Italian CP ideology, reformulated to include a marked distancing from the USSR, acquired wide international influence under the name "Eurocommunism". This was the way that the Communist Parties tried to adapt both to a new generation of radicalised youth and to the distrust by those youth - and increasingly by older activists, too - of the model of the USSR.

Eurocommunism was said to be a new alternative both to Leninism (read: Stalinism) and to social democracy. The links of a strategy of "hegemony" with the working class were faded out further, though still not completely (in formal terms anyway). The Communist Parties attempted, rather clumsily, to court the "new social movements" (feminist, lesbian-gay, anti-nuclear, etc.); and the political goal was posed as intervening "within as well as against the state", transforming it gradually rather than confronting it, capturing it, or using it as an already-given instrument.

The British version of Eurocommunism argued that Margaret Thatcher's Tories had developed a successful "hegemonic project", ideologically capturing great sections of the working class, with the conclusion (even before the miners' defeat in 1985) that direct working-class struggle had no real prospects.

Eurocommunism's flowering was brief. By the early 1990s the Eurocommunist parties had mostly dissolved themselves, or radically shrunk, and most of the Eurocommunist ideologues had moved on.

Laclau and Mouffe

The "post-Marxist" follow-up to Eurocommunism was pioneered in an article in the British Communist Party journal Marxism Today, in January 1981, by Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe.

Laclau and Mouffe were academics - of Argentinian and Belgian origin, respectively, but settled in Britain - not members of the Communist Party, but in its orbit, and previously admirers of the French Communist Party philosopher Louis Althusser. From Althusser they valued above all his emphasis on the "relative autonomy" of politics and ideology. They found in Gramsci a similar emphasis - and, they thought, the means to move from "relative autonomy" to straight autonomy.

Laclau and Mouffe first presented their ideas as radically left-wing. In their January 1981 article they criticised the Italian CP as being too stodgy to relate to the "new social movements", and condemned the excessive "concessions to the class enemy" of pre-1914 Marxist parties.

Thirty years later, they still consider themselves left-wing. Mouffe denounces the "third way", "beyond left and right" ideas of writers like the New Labour ideologue Anthony Giddens, and insists: "Right and left are still fundamental categories of politics". She criticises New Labour as having oriented to the middle class and abandoned workers. Despite describing her politics now as "radical democratic" rather than socialist, she denounces neo-liberalism and advocates "different modes of regulation of market forces" (albeit not their subjugation), "basic income", a shorter working week, etc.

Laclau and Mouffe are also clear than they reject Marxism. In the 1981 article their argument was posed as a call for a "Copernican revolution" within Marxism, but by 1985 they described their views as post-Marxist. They are also avowedly "post-Gramscian".

Society as "discursive space"

They retained the "broad democratic alliance" orientation which went back to the Italian CP of decades before, but amputated all the notional connections to class struggle, economic determination, and revolution.

Their basic step was to extrapolate "relative autonomy" to full autonomy - and more. Even in Gramsci, they now argued, lurked remnants of "economism" and of an old-Marxist model of society in which one part ("superstructure" - ideology, politics) just expresses or reflects another (the economic "base").

They argued that the "base-superstructure" concept should be completely rejected. The argument proceeded by leaps. Social life is the actions of individuals and groups, none of which are mechanically determined by economic conditions. Yet it could be that the overall directions of social life, and the alternatives which emerge in it, are shaped and often "statistically" determined by the economic relations which structure production and distribution, people's working lives, and much of their conditions outside work too? No, said Laclau and Mouffe. In fact, they came close to inverting the "base-superstructure" idea rather than simply rejecting it.

"There does not exist an essence of the social order beyond a political relation of forces". "Political struggle [is] constitutive of the social order". "All social phenomena and objects can only acquire meaning within a discourse". "Identities - lacking any essence - are formed through political struggle". "Politico-hegemonic articulations retroactively create the interests they claim to represent". We have to recognise "the primacy of politics" even "within the economy itself".

In other words, the shaping of social life is nothing but the workings of "hegemonic" techniques, free-floating from any economic or class underpinning. Those "hegemonic" techniques create the economic or interest-group underpinning, rather than being shaped by it.

They redefined hegemony as the "a process of the production of popular-democratic subjects", a "political articulation of different identities into a common project", or a process whereby "a particular social force assumes the representation of a totality that is radically incommensurable with it", or more simply just as "processes which can bring people together".

Gramsci's concept of hegemony - and Lenin's - involved some element of compromise, of bringing together different plebeian groups in an alliance shaped by definite core interests but also allowing room for divergences and disputes. Laclau and Mouffe moved on from that to the idea of "agonistic pluralism" as the central goal of political action. The goal is to construct a "radical democracy" in which different groups relate as "adversaries" - with mutual accommodation, dialogue, etc. - rather than as "enemies".

The core task for left-wingers is to construct a "chain of equivalence" which can bring together diverse causes into an alliance where each considers itself equally valued.

The chain is not quite all-embracing: "A chain of equivalence needs... a critical frontier. For a hegemony to have a radical focus, it needs to establish an enemy, be it capitalism, ecological destruction, or violation of human rights". But it must be broad and loose. We must reject the "very idea of a privileged subject" - that the working class, or any other pre-defined group, is determined as the core agency of change.

With that, we must reject the idea of comprehensive revolution. Laclau's and Mouffe's "organising principles are the democratic ideas of equality and liberty for all", and their goal is not revolution but "a radicalisation of ideas and values which [are] already present, although unfulfilled, in liberal capitalism".


As well as being "post-Marxist", they want to be "post-Jacobin" (though they do not use that term). In Jacobinism, the ideology of the radical wing of the French Revolution - in Marxism, too, and in some varieties of liberalism which they reject - they see an excessive rationalism, an impossible drive to meld the whole of society into a single collective will.

Insisting on the necessary partial and piecemeal nature of political action, they argue that "post-Marxism" must eschew the idea of revolution found in Marxism, as well as the ideas of economic base, class, and class interest.

The 1985 book in which Laclau and Mouffe codified their ideas - Hegemony and Socialist Strategy - made clear in its first pages that this direction in their thought was governed by revulsion against Stalinism. They cited the Russian invasion of Afghanistan (1979), the suppression of the Polish workers in 1981, the horrors following Stalinist victory in Vietnam and Cambodia (after 1975) as facts requiring a rethink of Marxism.

Like many others, they had taken the Stalinist states as more or less good coin, as more or less exemplars of revolutionary working-class socialist rule, and thus wanted to find new left-wing politics that, rejecting Stalinism, would also reject working-class socialist revolution.

Laclau and Mouffe comment that they see much of their approach as having been prefigured by a section of the pre-1914 Marxist movement, the so-called "Austro-Marxists" (ideologues of the Austrian Marxist movement of that time). They must have in mind the idea of a democratic order put together from "cultural-national autonomy", with an elaborate complex of mutually adjusting institutions for the various national groups in the mosaic of the pre-World-War-One Austro-Hungarian empire.

The test of experience

Over the last 25 years ideas like Laclau's and Mouffe's have spawned a vast literature, and I do not claim to have even a sketchy grasp of it all. In the 2001 introduction to the second edition of Hegemony and Socialist Strategy, Laclau and Mouffe seek to refer to, and draw support for their ideas from, a range of writings including those of Wittgenstein, Heidegger, Feyerabend, and Lacan. A lot of Mouffe's recent writing has been in the form of critique of the right-wing political philosopher Carl Schmitt.

However, we can reasonably do more than just gasp in awe at the length of the bibliographies. Politically, we can make some assessment of the current represented by "post-Marxism".

There is a paradox. Like many other schools of thought, their ideas were built on trends which appeared factually solid and well-established at the time they first wrote, but which in fact were soon to disappear.

In 1981, one of Laclau's and Mouffe's key arguments was that the economic base of capitalism was not determining politics, but, on the contrary, different politics in different places were visibly shaping society in decisively different ways. "The reorganisation of capitalism... increasingly depends on forms of political articulation which affect the supposed 'laws of motion'...."

The first talk of "hegemony" as the guiding principle in politics, they argued, had come after World War One when a "new mass character of political struggle", "Lloyd-Georgism" - presumably they mean a general shift towards more populist politics, away from the assured continual domination of traditional elites - had supposedly "obliged socialist politics to adopt a popular and democratic character... totally incompatible with the [alleged] strict 'class-ism' of Kautsky or Plekhanov".

Eurocommunism they saw as a forced recognition of "the far-reaching transformations" of capitalist societies "consequent upon Keynesian economic policies", for example the broadening of the state to include numerous welfare institutions.

By 1981 Keynesian economic policies were already being discarded by the leading governments. At least, they were being discarded in the form common in the 1960s and 70s. Despite the brief vogues of monetarism and "supply-side economics", the ruling classes did not in fact forget Keynes's insights, as they would show in their response to crisis in 2008. But with the increasing integration of almost all countries into an increasingly fast-moving and fluid capitalist world market, even the "relative" autonomy of politics has been much reduced. Bourgeois welfare-populism of a 1960s-Keynesian, or Lloyd-George sort, has been marginalised.

Governments everywhere, of all parties, pursue much the same neo-liberal policies. They are explicit about being subject to the "economic base". "You can't buck the markets". Tony Blair told us that adjusting the Labour Party to the new era meant making it the party, not of some newly-constructed "popular-democratic subject", but "of business".

In Britain, and in many other countries, this process of making politics much more a servant of "the economic base", so to speak, has been openly institutionalised by transferring a large part of state economic decision-making to a central bank mandated to be independent from parliament or government.

The "autonomy", or the economy-shaping role, of the political is markedly less than before 1980 - and less than when Gramsci, or Trotsky, or Lenin, were writing, or when Marx was writing and exclaimed: "The 'present-day' state is... a fiction... [It] changes with a country's frontier. It is different in the Prusso-German Empire from what it is in Switzerland, and different in England from what it is in the United States". Neither Marx, nor the great revolutionary Marxists, ever thought that the state simply "expressed" the "economic base", or did not reciprocally influence it. Perhaps the only ostensible Marxists who thought that were the Stalinists who said that the USSR's governing machine must be "socialist" because it was "based" on a nationalised economy.

There is still scope today for individual governments to act differently - in fact, much more scope than they admit. There are still governments which (while going a long way with the general neo-liberal flow) flout the dominant world political trend, though in a malign rather than benign way: Iran, for one. But, especially in the core areas of the world economy, the "autonomy of politics" is visibly much reduced.

Mouffe is aware of this. She calls our times "post-political", is alarmed by this, and comments ruefully that much of the task today has to be, not to press for more radical democracy, but to defend such democratic institutions as exist.

The battle for democracy

The organised working class and the labour movement are at a lower ebb than in 1981. We have suffered from successive defeats followed by a hectic surge of capitalist economic restructuring, and the ground on which to rebuild socialist politics is still poisoned by Stalinism. But the organised working class and the labour movement still exist, and the "parties of business" still acknowledge that they they are fighting a battle chiefly against that enemy.

What of the "new social movements" which Laclau and Mouffe thought must banish from our minds all ideas of a single class movement as central? In fact they have ebbed more than the organised working class. Some of them have a vigorous sort of after-life in NGOs. But Mouffe does not pretend that NGO politics, or the localised and one-off activism more common today, is a real vehicle for hegemony: she criticises as illusory the perspectives of those who "want a pure movement of civil society" and "do not want to have anything to do with existing institutions such as parties and trade unions".

"Post-Marxism" has had a very wide diffusion. But as a perspective for the left to recover from the defeats of the late 1970s and 1980s, it cannot claim to have had much grip.

Since the 1980s, a barebones form of bourgeois parliamentary democracy has spread much more widely, to ex-Stalinist Eastern Europe and to most of Latin America for example. That bourgeois parliamentary democracy has simultaneously been more and more hollowed out in its established heartlands - by restrictions on the democratic rights of labour, by the loss of civil liberties (especially in the "war on terror"), and by the increasing transformation of politics into a game played by professional political careerists, think-tanks, and media people, propelled by financing from the wealthy and big business, above the heads of the electorate.

The "post-Marxists" are influential people. What have they done, or even proposed, to reverse that trend?

Perhaps more than any time in history, the last 25 years prove that a battle for democratic forms is ineffectual if not tied together with a socialist battle to reorganise the working-class as an assertive, militant combatant for its own interests, as the champion of democracy, and as the leader of all the oppressed and plebeians.

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