“Hegemony” was most likely derived from the Greek egemonia, whose root is egemon, meaning “leader, ruler, often in the sense of a state other than his own” (Williams, Keywords 144). Since the 19th century, “hegemony” commonly has been used to indicate “political predominance, usually of one state over another” (Williams, Keywords 144). According to Perry Anderson’s “The Antinomies of Antonio Gramsci,” “hegemony” acquired a specifically Marxist character in its use (as “gegemoniya“) by Russian Social-Democrats, from the late 1890s through the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917 (15). This sense of hegemony, as articulated by Lenin, referred to the leadership exercised by the proletariat over the other exploited classes: “As the only consistently revolutionary class of contemporary society, [the proletariat] must be the leader in the struggle of the whole people for a fully democratic revolution, in the struggle of all the working and exploited people against the oppressors and exploiters” (qtd. in Anderson 17).

Portrait of Antonio Gramsci around 30 in the early 20s/ public domain
Portrait of Antonio Gramsci around 30 in the early 20s/ public domain

Italian Communist thinker, activist, and political leader Antonio Gramsci (1891-1937) is perhaps the theorist most closely associated with the concept of hegemony. As Anderson notes, Gramsci uses “hegemony” to theorize not only the necessary condition for a successful overthrow of the bourgeoisie by the proletariat and its allies (e.g., the peasantry), but also the structures of bourgeois power in late 19th- and early 20th-century Western European states (SPN 20). Gramsci, particularly in his later work encompassed in the Quaderni del Carcere or Prison Notebooks (written during the late 1920s and early 1930s while incarcerated in a Fascist prison), develops a complex and variable usage of the term; roughly speaking, Gramsci’s “hegemony” refers to a process of moral and intellectual leadership through which dominated or subordinate classes of post-1870 industrial Western European nations consent to their own domination by ruling classes, as opposed to being simply forced or coerced into accepting inferior positions. It is important to note that, although Gramsci’s prison writings typically avoid using Marxist terms such as “class,” “bourgeoisie,” and “proletariat” (because his work was read by a Fascist censor), Gramsci defines hegemony as a form of control exercised by a dominant class, in the Marxist sense of a group controlling the means of production; Gramsci uses “fundamental group” to stand in euphemistically for “class” (SPN 5 n1). For Gramsci, the dominant class of a Western Europe nation of his time was the bourgeoisie, defined in the Communist Manifesto as “the class of modern Capitalists, owners of the means of social production and employers of wage-labour,” while the crucial (because potentially revolution-leading) subordinate class was the proletariat, “the class of modern wage-labourers who, having no means of production of their own, are reduced to selling their labour-power in order to live” (SPN 473 n5). Gramsci’s use of hegemony cannot be understood apart from other concepts he develops, including those of “state” and “civil society” (see Caste in India).

State and Civil Society

For Gramsci, hegemony was a form of control exercised primarily through a society’s superstructure, as opposed to its base or social relations of production of a predominately economic character. In Marxism and Literature, Raymond Williams identifies three ways in which “superstructure” is used in the work of Karl Marx, including:

  1. (a) legal and political forms which express existing real relations of production;
  2. (b) forms of consciousness which express a particular class view of the world;
  3. (c) a process in which, over a whole range of activities, men [sic] become conscious of a fundamental economic conflict and fight it out.

These three senses would direct our attention, respectively, to (a) institutions; (b) forms of consciousness; (c) political and cultural practices” (77). (See also Colonial Education, Cricket, Anglophilia.) For purposes of analysis, Gramsci splits superstructure into “two major . . . ‘levels’: the one that can be called ‘civil society,’ that is the ensemble of organisms commonly called ‘private,’ and that of ‘political society,’ or ‘the State.’” Civil society includes organizations such as churches, trade unions, and schools, which as Gramsci notes are typically thought of as private or non-political. A major piece of Gramsci’s project is to show that civil society’s ways of establishing and organizing human relationships and consciousness are deeply political, and should in fact be considered integral to class domination (and to the possibility of overcoming it), particularly in Western Europe. According to Gramsci, civil society corresponds to hegemony, while political society or “State” — in what Gramsci will call the “narrow sense” (SPN 264) — corresponds to “‘direct domination’ or command” (SPN 12) (see Gender and Nation). Gramsci further delineates these two relatively distinct forms of control, as follows:

  • “Social hegemony” names the “‘spontaneous’ consent given by the great masses of the population to the general direction imposed on social life by the dominant fundamental group [i.e. the ruling class –- in Gramsci’s Western Europe, the bourgeoisie]; this consent is ‘historically’ caused by the prestige (and consequent confidence) which the dominant group enjoys because of its position and function in the world of production.”
  • “Political government” names the “apparatus of state coercive power which ‘legally’ enforces discipline on those groups who do not ‘consent’ either actively or passively. This apparatus is, however, constituted for the whole of society in anticipation of moments of crisis of command and direction when spontaneous consent has failed” (SPN 12).

Although they are useful for understanding different modes or aspects of social control, Gramsci does not retain “social hegemony” and “political government” as purely distinct categories, but rather brings them together under the “integral State.”

Integral State

While Gramsci at times uses “State” narrowly to refer to the “governmental-coercive apparatus” (265), he also deploys a broader “general notion of State” (SPN 263) or “integral State” (SPN 267), which includes both the functions of social hegemony and political government as described above. In this general or integral sense,

  1.  State is “dictatorship + hegemony” (SPN 239)
  2. “State = political society + civil society, in other words hegemony protected by the armor of coercion” (SPN 263)
  3. “State is the entire complex of practical and theoretical activities with which the ruling class not only justifies and maintains its dominance, but manages to win the active consent of those over whom it rules” (SPN 244).

The concept of integral State seems derived from historical shifts in the forms of and relations between State and Civil Society, which Gramsci discusses in terms of a parallel shift in military strategies, from a war of movement or manoeuvre, to war of position.

War of Manoeuvre and War of Position

Gramsci theorizes historical changes in modes of political struggle by drawing parallels between political struggle and military war. World War I staged a transition from (1) war of manoeuvre/movement or frontal attack (SPN 238), characterized by relatively rapid movements of troops, to (2) war of position or trench warfare, involving relatively immobile troops who dig and fortify relatively fixed lines of trenches. For “modern States” — though not for “backward countries or for colonies” — the war of manoeuvre increasingly gives way to war of position, which “is not, in reality, constituted simply by the actual trenches, but by the whole organizational and industrial system of the territory which lies to the rear of the army in the field” (SPN 234). The “modern States” — meaning post-1870 Western European States — are marked by:

  1. Ever-wider colonial expansion
  2. Increasing complexity and massiveness of internal and international organizational relations of the State
  3. Emergence of great mass political parties and economic trade unions
  4. Diminished fluidity of society
  5. Declining autonomy of civil society from State activity
  6. Increasing importance of civil hegemony
  7. Diminishing autonomy of national markets from economic relations of the world market.

Gramsci asserts that the “massive structures of the modern democracies, both as State organizations, and as complexes of associations in civil society, constitute for the art of politics as it were the ‘trenches’ and the permanent fortifications of the front in the war of position …” (SPN 243). In other passages comparing social structures to trenches and fortifications, Gramsci stresses the importance of Civil Society, either by (1) suggesting it is stronger than the State as governmental-coercive apparatus: “when the State trembled a sturdy structure of civil society was at once revealed. The State was only an outer ditch, behind which there stood a powerful system of fortresses and earthworks” (SPN 238); or (2) omitting altogether reference to the State as “government technically understood” (SPN 267):

“civil society” has become a very complex structure and one which is resistant to the catastrophic “incursions” of the immediate economic element (crises, depressions, etc.). The superstructures of civil society are like the trench-systems of modern warfare. In war it would sometimes happen that a fierce artillery attack seemed to have destroyed the enemy’s entire defensive system, whereas in fact it had only destroyed the outer perimeter (SPN 235).

Gramsci thus develops an argument not only about the power structures of Western European states, but also about the kind of Communist revolution that might succeed in such states. He argues against a view that economic forces and crises will in themselves suffice to bring about the overthrow of capitalist relations of production and the installation of the proletariat as controllers of the means of production. Economic crisis alone will not galvanize the exploited classes, transforming them into an iron will; neither will it dishearten the “defenders” [the bourgeoisie] nor force them to “abandon their positions, even among the ruins” (SPN 253). Gramsci also argues against the view that the working classes can overthrow the bourgeoisie simply through military strikes — “to fix one’s mind on the military model is the mark of a fool: politics, here too, must have priority over its military aspect, and only politics creates the possibility for manoeuvre and movement” (SPN 232). Political struggle for Gramsci necessarily involves a struggle for hegemony, a class’s struggle to become a State and take up the role of State as educator.

Hegemony as Education

According to Gramsci, one of the most important functions of a State is “to raise the great mass of the population to a particular cultural and moral level, a level (or type) which corresponds to the needs of the productive forces for development, and hence to the interests of the ruling class” (SPN 258). The ruling class in Gramsci’s Italy (and in the other Western European states of which he writes) was the bourgeoisie, though it seems that his remarks might function also as a blueprint for Communist rule. Gramsci proceeds to claim that the State — which at one point Gramsci asserts is equivalent to the “fundamental economic group” or ruling class (bourgeoisie) itself (SPN 16) — implements its educative project through a variety of channels, both “public” and “private”, with the “school as a positive educative function, and the courts as a repressive and negative educative function” constituting “the most important State activities in this sense […][B]ut, in reality,” Gramsci maintains, “a multitude of other so-called private initiatives and activities tend to the same end — initiatives and activities which form the apparatus of the political and cultural hegemony of the ruling classes” (SPN258). Hegemony, therefore, is a process by which “educative pressure [is] applied to single individuals so as to obtain their consent and their collaboration, turning necessity and coercion into ‘freedom.’” The “freedom” produced by instruments of the ruling class thus molds the “free” subject to the needs of an economic base, “the continuous development of the economic apparatus of production” (SPN 242). It is difficult to determine the status of this educated “freedom” in Gramsci’s writing, but Gramsci does assert its “immense political value (i.e. value for political leadership)” in a discussion of political parties, which for Gramsci “must show in their specific internal life that they have assimilated as principles of moral conduct those rules which in the State are legal obligations. In the parties necessity has already become freedom” (242). The party exemplifies the “type of collective society to which the entire mass must be educated” (SPN 267) (see Colonial Education).

For a discussion of ways in which educative practices, particularly those of literary studies, have been used to establish hegemony in a colonial setting, see Gauri Viswanathan’s Masks of Conquest: Literary Study and British Rule in India. Viswanathan’s text demonstrates how English literary studies emerged as a discipline in colonial settings — prior to its institutionalization in England itself — with “the imperial mission of educating and civilizing colonial subjects in the literature and thought of England,” thus “serv[ing] to strengthen Western cultural hegemony in enormously complex ways” (2-3). As Viswanathan argues, the process of moral and ethical formation of Indian colonial subjects through the study of English literature was intimately linked to the consolidation and maintenance of British rule in India.

Raymond Williams on Hegemony

Readers interested in a concise and brilliant exposition of “hegemony” should consult the chapter devoted to it in Raymond Williams’s Marxism and Literature (1977). Williams’s key points include the following:

  1. Hegemony constitutes lived experience, “a sense of reality for most people in the society, a sense of absolute because experienced reality beyond which it is very difficult for most members of the society to move, in most areas of their lives” (100).
  2. Hegemony exceeds ideology, “in its refusal to equate consciousness with the articulate formal system which can be and ordinarily abstracted as ‘ideology’” (109)
  3. Lived hegemony is a processnot a system or structure (though it can be schematized as such for the purposes of analysis).
  4. Hegemony is dynamic, “It does not just passively exist as a form of dominance. It has continually to be renewed, recreated, defended, and modified. It is also continually resisted, limited, altered, challenged by pressures not all its own.”
  5. Hegemony attempts to neutralize opposition, “the decisive hegemonic function is to control or transform or even incorporate [alternatives and opposition]” (113). One can argue persuasively that “the dominant culture, so to say, at once produces and limits its own forms of counter-culture.”
  6. Hegemony is not necessarily total, “It is misleading, as a general method, to reduce all political and cultural initiatives and contributions to the terms of the hegemony.” “Authentic breaks within and beyond it . . . have often in fact occurred.”

Breaks become more apparent “if we develop mode of analysis which instead of reducing works to finished products, and activities to fixed positions, are capable of discerning, in good faith, the finite but significant openness of many actual initiatives and contributions” (114, emphases mine).

Works Cited

  • Anderson, Perry. “The Antinomies of Antonio Gramsci.” New Left Review 100 (1976): 5-78.
  • Gramsci, Antonio. Prison Notebooks, I-II. Ed. and trans. Joseph A. Buttigieg. Trans. Antonio
  • Callari. European Perspectives: A Series in Social Thought and Cultural Criticism. New York: Columbia University Press, 1992-1996.
  • Quaderni del carcere / Antonio Gramsci; a cura di Valentino Gerratana. Turin: G. Einaudi, 1977.
  • Selections from the Prison Notebooks of Antonio Gramsci. Ed. and trans. Quintin Hoare and Geoffrey Nowell Smith. London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1971.
  • Viswanathan, Gauri. Masks of Conquest: Literary Study and British Rule in India. New York: Columbia University Press, 1989.
  • Williams, Raymond. Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society. Revised Edition. New York: Oxford University Press, 1985.
  • Marxism and Literature. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977.

Select Bibliography

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  • Bocock, Robert. Hegemony. New York: Tavistock Publications, 1986.
  • Butler, Judith, Ernesto Laclau, and Slavoj iek. Contingency, Hegemony, Universality:  Contemporary Dialogues on the Left. London: Verso, 2000.
  • Dombrowski, Robert S. “Ideology, Hegemony, and Literature: Some Reflections on Gramsci.” Forum Italicum 23 (105-17).
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  • Fontana, Benedetto. Hegemony and Power: On the Relation between Gramsci and Machiavelli. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993.
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  • Liu, Kang. “Hegemony and Cultural Revolution.” New Literary History 28 (1997): 69-86.
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  • Mouffe, Chantal. “Hegemony and Ideology in Gramsci.” Research in Political Economy 2 (1979), 1-31.
  • Mouffe, Chantal, ed. Gramsci and Marxist Theory. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1979.
  • Sassoon, Anne Showstack. Gramsci and Contemporary Politics: Beyond Pessimism of the  Intellect. London: Routledge, 2000.
  • Storey, John. An Introduction to Cultural Theory and Popular Culture. 2nd ed. New York: Prentice Hall/Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1997.
  • Watkins, Evan. Throwaways: Work Culture and Consumer Education. Stanford: Stanford University Press,1993.

Links to Related Sites

International Gramsci Society
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Gramsci Links Archive

Author: Dominic Mastroianni, Fall 2002
Last edited: October 2017

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