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Hegemony: the struggle for ideological dominance

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Bob Fotheringham starts our series with an analysis of Antonio Gramsci’s writings on hegemony
Issue 2083

Capitalism is a system that brings misery to millions of people throughout the world.

Despite this it would appear that in countries such as Britain the majority of the population at least passively go along with it. Many believe it is not possible to organise an alternative way of running society.

The notion of hegemony developed by the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci in the early 20th century provides an important insight into how those who run the world maintain their power and control.

Hegemony is generally used to mean the domination of one social group over subordinate classes.

This does not only happen simply through a process of force and command. It also involves an element of acceptance by those who are subordinated.

Gramsci sought to explain the continuing domination of capitalism in Italy in the wake of the failure of a working class revolt of 1918-20 to initiate a successful socialist revolution.

He wanted to make clear why ruling class ideas continued to have a hold on Italian workers.

Ordinary people develop a “common sense” view of the world based on culture and history that ties them to their rulers.

Crucial to the ideological domination of the ruling class is “civil society”.

This is those parts of collective society that are separate from the political aspects of government and those areas of the state concerned with force and physical control.

Structures, such as the family, trade unions, the church and schools can provide a transmission belt for ruling class ideas, which penetrate deep into the consciousness of workers.

A system of beliefs and values is then generated that supports the established order and helps maintain control over the working class.

Hegemony therefore plays an essential role in propping up capitalism.

Ruling class ideas do not emerge out of thin air. They require a group of individuals to popularise and transmit them throughout society.

“Intellectuals” play an essential role in making ideas accepted throughout wider society.

Individuals such as priests, clerks, doctors and trade union officials – people who are in an intermediate position in society between the rulers and the ruled – reinforce the notion that workers have to look up to their betters.

The main concern for Gramsci was to develop an understanding of how capitalism and the state work so that they can be challenged and overthrown by the working class.

He believed that in advanced capitalist countries with a highly developed civil society it was not possible for the working class and socialists to launch an immediate frontal attack on the state.

It was first necessary for what he referred to as “organic intellectuals” to utilise the day to day partial struggles to fight for and win the leadership of the working class.

He used a military analogy to illustrate what he meant.

This protracted struggle was called a “war of position” as opposed to a “war of manoeuvre” which represented a frontal attack on the capitalist state.

Gramsci also believed that a successful revolution in Italy was only possible if Italian workers could win the most oppressed sections of society to their side.

This meant workers forging an alliance with the peasants of the Italian south against Italian capitalism, which was located mainly in the north.

Though the ruling class may dominate, it is possible for socialists through their involvement with the working class to challenge these ideas and win workers to an alternative view of the world.

There are those who claim that because of Gramsci’s belief in the idea of hegemony he thought it was not possible for socialists to challenge the capitalist state.

However, if there is any doubt about Gramsci’s ultimate goal then you only need read the documents written by Gramsci for the Lyons Congress of the Italian Communist Party.

This took place early in 1926 – a few months before he was jailed by the Italian state.

Gramsci wrote, “ The fundamental task of the Communist Party is to place before the proletariat and its allies the problem of insurrection against the bourgeois state and of the struggle for proletarian dictatorship, and to guide them politically and materially towards their solution, through a series of partial struggles.”

Next week I will look at how Gramsci’s ideas can be used to explain why capitalist ideas continue to dominate in a country like Britain today.


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