In the first column in this series we looked at how the Marxist Antonio Gramsci used the concept of hegemony to explain the continuing domination of capitalist ideas in Italy in the early 20th century.
We then looked at how his ideas could help explain the apparent continuing popularity of ruling class ideas in a modern capitalist country like Britain.
This week we will look at how socialists can challenge these ideas and fight for the leadership of the working class.
There is a view, put forward after Gramsci’s death, that he rejected mechanical deterministic Marxism based on economics and the class struggle in favour of a more “sophisticated” cultural strategy.
Nothing could be further from the truth. Having lived through the great battles of 1918-20 and the rise of fascism, Gramsci knew full well the capacity of the working class to fight and the need to challenge the power of the state.
His concern was how revolutionary socialists could win the battle of ideas which takes place within the working class movement.
He also had a much broader view of what culture encompassed than simply art, literature and music. For Gramsci culture means the sum total of human social relations, including politics and work.
His starting point was an understanding that workers’ ideas are not a simple reflection of the general opinions put forward by the ruling class.
These certainly exerted an influence, but workers can accept many ruling class ideas while at the same time being good fighters.
Nor is it the case that all workers accept socialist ideas in their totality and believe it is possible to challenge capitalism.
Racism, sexism, homophobia and acceptance that the world can never change are ideas which are prevalent to a greater or lesser degree among working people. They play an important role in keeping the working class divided.
It is possible for someone who votes Tory to take part in strikes over wages or pensions, or a trade unionist who supports New Labour to take part in an anti-war demo.
Working class consciousness is a complex process. Workers’ ideas are not fixed. A constant battle of ideas takes place in society which socialists have to be part of.
Socialists need to connect our understanding of the world with the struggle of ordinary workers around issues such as pensions or wages.
Gramsci believed that the role of intellectuals is crucial. Ruling class ideas are accepted because a layer of people – such as politicians, journalists, lawyers, academics – articulate them.
As a consequence their beliefs become the accepted view in society as a whole.
The working class therefore has to develop an alternative association of socialist activists who can challenge the ideas of the ruling class. Gramsci referred to these people as “organic intellectuals”.
He doesn’t mean by this intellectuals who stand above workers and tell them what to think.
He means a network of individuals who can learn and generalise from the battles of ordinary workers to provide leadership and direction.
This is a non-sectarian view of politics which recognises the creative potential of ordinary people.
It is this aspect of Gramsci’s understanding of hegemony that is perhaps his greatest contribution. His political legacy is above all one of active engagement.
All human endeavours for Gramsci are political. There is no area of society and human activity which socialists should be absent from, or fail to make a contribution in.
Only by doing this can we hope to challenge the conservative ideas of the ruling class and win the mass of people to the side of revolution.
When writers such as John Pilger, Robert Fisk and Noam Chomsky challenge the prevailing view of imperialism and war they make an essential contribution to building an alternative view of world.
Socialist Worker plays an important part in supporting workers’ struggles, challenging wars and fighting racism. It is a role which should not be underestimated.
However, even this is not enough. Unless socialist ideas and revolutionary practice becomes part and parcel of working class culture then all possibility of real change becomes impossible.
Gramsci called Marxism the “philosophy of praxis”. It is only through the practical involvement of a network of socialists in working class struggle and culture that the fight for a socialist hegemony will be won.