Antinomies of the concept of hegemony

Submitted by AWL on 3 October, 2017 - 7:43 Author: Paul Hampton
The H Word

Hegemony is a primary concept for understanding global politics today. Principally it expresses the hierarchy of states under US leadership, but hegemony has deeper meanings associated with the ways ruling classes maintain their rule. For socialists, hegemony also encapsulates working class leadership in the struggles of other oppressed layers, along with Marxist leadership of the labour movement. Antonio Gramsci used hegemony in a rich variety of contexts in his important contributions to Marxist thinking.

Perry Anderson, for many years the editor of New Left Review, has explored the concept of hegemony for more than half a century. This year Verso has published two books by Anderson, The H-Word: The Peripeteia of Hegemony and The Antinomies of Antonio Gramsci. Anderson has undergone numerous theoretical zig-zags over the decades and has long rejected revolutionary socialism. Nevertheless his reflections repay careful reading.


Originally, hegemony was a Greek term, from the verb meaning to ‚Äėguide‚Äô or to ‚Äėlead‚Äô, going back to Homer. As an abstract noun, hńďgemonia first appears in Herodotus, to designate leadership of an alliance of city-states for a common military end. Aristotle wrote that Athens and Sparta were ‚Äúhegemonic in Greece‚ÄĚ, yet after his time the term disappeared for two millennia.

As a contemporary political term, hegemony resurfaced in Europe by the mid-nineteenth century. It expressed the ambition of Prussian and French politicians to dominate European politics. Some bourgeois thinkers continued to utilise hegemony for state power and inter-state rivalry during the twentieth century. Hegemony was defined as a form of power intermediate between domination and influence. During the Cold War, American political scientists gave it an economic as well as political meaning in international relations.

Hegemony remains part of the lexicon of unsentimental realist international relations thought today. Germany is regarded as hegemon of the European Union. The US state is a hegemon that is ‚Äúso powerful it dominates all the other states in the system. No other state has the military wherewithal to put up a serious fight against it‚ÄĚ. But this is only one facet of the concept‚Äôs power.


Marx and Engels used ‚Äúhegemony‚ÄĚ in the original sense of inter-state rivalry. However the Russian Marxist tradition came to employ ‚Äúgegemonia‚ÄĚ in a new way, to define political relations between classes within states. Plekhanov pointed the way in 1883-84, when he urged the Russian working class to wage a political struggle against tsarism. The Russian bourgeoisie was too weak to take the initiative: the organised working class would have to take up the demands of a bourgeois-democratic revolution. In 1889, Plekhanov stated that the Russian revolution would be won by the working class or not all.

Plekhanov, Axelrod and the young Lenin spoke in the 1890s of the Russian workers leading other exploited classes and oppressed peoples in the struggle against absolutism. In 1900, Axelrod stated that ‚Äúby virtue of the historical position of our proletariat, Russian Social-Democracy can acquire hegemony in the struggle against absolutism‚ÄĚ. Hegemony became an ubiquitous expression for working class leadership by the 1905 revolution. It underpinned Trotsky‚Äôs permanent revolution strategy, while Lenin chastised Menshevik opponents for abandoning working class hegemony and instead ceding leadership of the anti-tsarist struggle to the liberals.

After the Russian socialist revolution in October 1917, the Bolshevik concept of hegemony was internationalised by the Communist International. The founding documents of the Comintern speak of hegemony in traditional sense of English, French and US state rivalry, but more significantly as an injunction to communist parties to intervene in a range of peasant and national liberation struggles, with the explicit purpose of gaining working class leadership. This class sense of hegemony was a crucial advance from the early twentieth century.

Hegemony also became a battleground in the struggle between the rising Stalinist bureaucracy and the left opposition in Russia during the 1920s. Zinoviev‚Äôs article, ‚ÄėThe Bolsheviks and the Hegemony of the Proletariat‚Äô (1923) made it a canon of ‚ÄúLeninism‚ÄĚ. After Lenin‚Äôs death, Stalin would invoke the term hegemony to attack Trotsky, despite the orthodox uses of the expression throughout Trotsky‚Äôs writings.


One of the virtues of Anderson‚Äôs original essay, ‚ÄėThe Antimonies of Antonio Gramsci‚Äô (1977) ‚Äď reprinted in one of the new books ‚Äď was to explain the Bolshevik and Comintern context for discussions of hegemony. Anderson rightly regarded Gramsci as very much a ‚ÄúThird Internationalist‚ÄĚ in his political grounding.

In prison, Gramsci used hegemony as a heuristic to explore a range of difficult questions. Gramsci‚Äôs key move was to generalise hegemony beyond a working class strategy, in order to characterise stable forms of rule by any social class. Hegemony first appears in the Prison Notebooks applied to the party of Cavour in the Italian Risorgimento. Later discussing France, Gramsci observed that the ‚Äėnormal‚Äô exercise of hegemony on the classic terrain of the parliamentary regime is characterised by a combination of force and consent.

Gramsci‚Äôs originality was to theorise problems both of revolutionary strategy for the conquest of power from capital and of the construction of a workers‚Äô state within the common conceptual framework of hegemony. This was a different kind of consent from the Russian conception. As Anderson puts it, ‚Äúnot the adhesion of allies in a common cause, but the submission of adversaries to an order inimical to them‚Ķ It now included both the extraction by rulers of consent from the ruled, and the deployment of coercion to enforce their rule‚ÄĚ.

Gramsci shifted the discussion on hegemony towards how ruling classes rule, which could also incorporate the original meaning of state behaviour and international relations, as well the Russian sense of class leadership. He also explored the means by which the ruling capitalist classes, particularly in Western Europe, achieved their ideological subordination of the working class. He pointed to the role of the culturally well-equipped and long established intellectual strata and the density of voluntary associations in civil society.

Anderson identified the contradictory ways in which Gramsci grappled with the state and civil society. However he acknowledges the service Gramsci rendered to Marxism by focusing on ‚Äúthe hitherto evaded problem of the consensual legitimacy of parliamentary institutions in Western Europe‚ÄĚ. The normal structure of capitalist political power in bourgeois-democratic states is ‚Äúsimultaneously and indivisibly dominated by culture and determined by coercion‚ÄĚ.

Anderson also foregrounds Gramsci‚Äôs valuable distinction between bourgeois and working class hegemony. Bourgeois ideologies are designed to mask contradictory interests by offering the appearance of a peaceful reconciliation of them, concealing the exploitation on which the society of capital was based. They require deception. As Gramsci put it in the Prison Notebooks (Q6, ¬ß19), ‚Äúlying, knowing how to conceal astutely one‚Äôs true opinions and objectives, knowing how to make people believe the opposite of what one really wants, etc, is of the essence in the art of [bourgeois] politics‚ÄĚ. By contrast, for working class politics, ‚Äútelling the truth is, precisely, a political necessity‚ÄĚ. In another notebook (Q10, II¬ß41.xii), Gramsci wrote:

‚ÄúThe philosophy of praxis [Marxism]‚Ķ is not an instrument of government of dominant groups in order to gain the consent of and exercise hegemony over subaltern classes; it is the expression of these subaltern classes who want to educate themselves in the art of government and who have an interest in knowing all truths, even unpleasant ones, and in avoiding deceptions (impossible) by the ruling class and even more by themselves.‚ÄĚ


Anderson also discusses subsequent Gramsci-inspired efforts to develop the concept of hegemony to understand the modern world. Yet in many respects, these attempts have detracted from the Marxist tradition.

Stuart Hall developed an analysis of Thatcherism as a hegemonic project, a Gramscian ‚Äúpassive revolution‚ÄĚ involving privatisation, deregulation, home ownership and various other forms now associated with neoliberalism. However Hall disastrously concluded politically that this meant junking state ownership, supporting Kinnock against the Labour left in the 1980s and later Blair‚Äôs project in government.

Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe’s Hegemony and Socialist Strategy (1985) argued that the classical Marxist tradition was trapped in the illusion that ideologies corresponded to classes, and historical development led by economic necessity to the triumph of socialism. They concluded that the working class was too divided to be the revolutionary subject of history and dismissed the project of working class self-emancipation. In short, they gave up on Marxism.

Ranajit Guha, a former Bengali communist, founded the Subaltern Studies journal in 1983. Anderson praises the contribution made by subaltern studies to South Asian historiography, with original investigations of popular forms of resistance in the ‚Äėhistory from below‚Äô tradition. However he does not offer much of a critique. Yet for all the apparent differences between East and West, along with this school‚Äôs dismissal of Marxism as indelibly Eurocentric, Asian political economy is perfectly explicable in Marxist terms. As Vivek Chibber points out, Marxism offers two crucial universals: the universalising drive of capital and the universal interest of working class agents.

Giovanni Arrighi tracked the succession of world-historical hegemonies in The Long Twentieth Century (1994), from the city-states of Venice and Genoa in Renaissance Italy to the Dutch Republic in the seventeenth century, Britain in the nineteenth century and finally the United States in the twentieth century. However for all the wide sweep, Arrighi erroneously concluded that the US was in terminal decline, and mostly omitted the role of organised labour in these historical transitions. All this is a long way from the Marxism of Gramsci.


Anderson‚Äôs books on hegemony are worth reading. His original essay ‚ÄėAntimonies‚Äô helped rescue Gramsci from the terrible politics of the Italian Communist Party (PCI), which used Gramsci‚Äôs language and image to obscure its Stalinism and help justify its class collaboration. This marred the original publication of Gramsci‚Äôs notebooks and prison letters after the Second World War, when the PCI deleted most of the passages positively discussing ideas by Trotsky and other left dissidents such as Bordiga.

Anderson also points out the wider irony of Italian nationalist usages of Gramsci. Ten years ago, it was announced that Gramsci‚Äôs works would be printed ‚Äúunder the High Patronage of the President of the Republic‚ÄĚ, nineteen volumes planned. However a decade later just three have so far appeared. Sadly the publication of the full notebooks into English seems similarly mired.

Anderson dismisses criticism by Gianni Francioni and Peter Thomas that his treatment of Gramsci’s uses of hegemony did not respect the order in which they first appeared in the Prison Notebooks. Gramsci explored the different meanings of hegemony simultaneously and therefore assessing these analytically sheds more light than a chronological reading. While Gramsci’s discussion is systematic, it is not fully coherent. Anderson is right to emphasise that the Prison Notebooks, for all their brilliant insights, were crafted in fascist prisons over a decade and consequently are fragmentary, unfinished and tentative. Gramsci said as much himself (Q11, opening page):

‚ÄúThe notes contained in this notebook, as in the others, have been dashed off, almost without pausing for the ink to dry, as a rapid aide-m√©moire. They are all to be revised since they certainly contain inexact formulations, false juxtapositions, anachronisms. Written without having at hand the books that are mentioned it is possible that, on checking, they might have to be corrected radically because just the opposite of what is written turns out to be true.‚ÄĚ

Anderson was also right to reassert Gramsci’s location at the heart of the early Comintern. Gramsci remained a Marxist to the end, never repudiating the critique of capitalism nor the necessity for working class socialism. Gramsci retained his commitment to building revolutionary working class political parties for the victory of socialism; that is after all why he was sent to prison. These fundamentals are important given the subsequent misuse of Gramsci by academics to justify ideas light-years from the original author.


When Anderson wrote ‚ÄėAntimonies‚Äô, he was politically sympathetic to the Trotskyist tradition, or at least the Fourth International version associated with Ernest Mandel. However neither at the time nor since has Anderson fully explored the extent of Trotsky‚Äôs influence on Gramsci‚Äôs politics. This is disappointing, given the subsequent publication of more of Trotsky‚Äôs works from the early 1920s (including his Military Writings), as well as the wider Comintern records.

Gramsci lived in Russia during 1922-23 and was admonished by Trotsky among others during the Fourth Comintern Congress. This shifted Gramsci towards support for the united front, a key part of his politics as leader of the PCI in 1924-26. Just prior to his arrest, Gramsci wrote a letter to the Comintern, which did not denounce the left opposition and referred to its leaders as ‚Äúour teachers‚ÄĚ.

Gramsci went to great lengths to obtain some of Trotsky‚Äôs books while in prison. Whilst in places he is critical of Trotsky in the Prison Notebooks, many of the comments are so far from Trotsky‚Äôs known views as to suggest they were a mask for criticism of other figures. Yet Anderson does not explore the links explicitly between the two thinkers. The best we get is the English translation of a report on Gramsci‚Äôs discussions in prison, published in the new ‚ÄėAntimonies‚Äô book, where Gramsci raised the demand for a Constituent Assembly in Italy to rally forces against fascism. This was also Trotsky‚Äôs position. In fact Gramsci‚Äôs conceptions of hegemony are highly compatible with Trotsky‚Äôs politics.

In ‚ÄėAntimonies‚Äô, Anderson also pointed to a fertile line of inquiry back to the Second International, in particular the debate around strategy between Kautsky and Luxemburg, which prefigured Gramsci‚Äôs war of position/war of movement typology. This is another line of inquiry Anderson has not pursued. Yet it is clear from Lars Lih‚Äôs research that the conception of hegemony as working class leadership was picked up by the Russian Marxists from the German SPD.

In his 1892 commentary on the Erfurt programme, Kautsky argued that the SPD would become ‚Äúmore and more a national party - that is, a Volkspartei, in the sense that it is the representative not only of the industrial wage-labourers but of all the labouring and exploited strata - and therefore the great majority of the population, what is commonly known as ' the Volk'.‚ÄĚ The following year, in his book Parliamentarism, Kautsky argued that ‚Äúit can even come to pass that social democracy wins the majority of the people, even in countries where waged workers do not form the majority‚ÄĚ. He stated that ‚Äúbourgeois and peasants are most welcome to join us and to march alongside us, but the proletariat will always show the way‚ÄĚ.

There are some other, lesser quibbles with these books. Anderson is gushing in his praise for Eric Hobsbawm, who promoted Gramsci‚Äôs thought but also transmitted the same kind of accommodationist politics promoted by the Eurocommunist wing of the CPGB, Stuart Hall, Laclau and Mouffe, among others from the 1970s. Their dissolution into social democracy, liberalism or populism shows that these thinkers did not provide a political alternative based on Gramsci‚Äôs Marxist politics. Similarly, Anderson is now softer on the PCI, describing it as ‚Äúa great mass party‚Ķ built around Gramsci‚Äôs fame‚ÄĚ, when in fact after Gramsci‚Äôs arrest it became a Stalinist party at the whim of Russian foreign policy, before zig-zagging itself into political oblivion.

The most distasteful element is Anderson‚Äôs blas√© abandonment of revolutionary socialism, marooning him to the watchtower of big-power commentary. He reports the verdict of a friend at the time of the original ‚ÄėAntimonies‚Äô essay, who regarded it as ‚Äúa fitting farewell to the revolutionary Marxist tradition‚ÄĚ. Anderson now states ‚Äúthat was not how I saw it then. But time was on his side‚ÄĚ. He never deigns to explain why he abandoned the politics that inspired Gramsci, or the perspective he fleetingly embraced. The irony of these books is that whilst forty years ago Anderson was exploring Gramsci‚Äôs ideas on hegemony with a view to enhancing the revolutionary socialist tradition, now he has largely reduced hegemony in its traditional meaning, as a description of how some states dominate others.

There is merit in utilising hegemony to understand present-day international relations, along with other Marxist conceptions such as uneven and combined development. But we should also retain the original Marxist adaptation of hegemony as the way a working class movement leads other social classes in social struggles, as well as Gramsci‚Äôs distinctive application of hegemony to the ways in which the bourgeois ruling class reinforces its domination of workers. The ideological front is vital for renewing working class politics. Hegemony ‚Äď along with concomitant ideas such as transitional demands and united fronts ‚Äď are at the heart of building Marxist parties capable of leading workers to power.

Add new comment

This website uses cookies, you can find out more and set your preferences here.
By continuing to use this website, you agree to our Privacy Policy and Terms & Conditions.