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The Question of Hegemony

G. lowell Smith
The question of hegemony can be posed as a
political problem. How does it come about that a
class or group struggling to free itself from oppression or exploitation remains subordinated politically
to the group which oppresses or exploits it? And how
does it break free from this political subordination
in order to place itself in conditions where revolution is on the agenda? Posed in this way this is one
of the central problems of ~1arxism-Leninism, which
has received two classic solutions, in the Soviet and
Chinese revolutions. For revolutionaries in western
capitalist countries today, the study of those
solutions is less urgent than is a re-statement of
the question in terms appropriate to .the concrete
conditions under which we live, but none the less
something should be said about the way the problem
has traditionally been seen.

The starting point of politics, Gramsci observes,
is the existence of rulers and ruled, leaders and led.

The form taken by these relations does not mechanically
reflect the fundamental economic relations of
production. Even under capitalist relations of
production the capitalist class does not automatically
possess political power. It will of course exercise
economic power and therefore the ability to inflect
political relations in a certain direction, but only
in the case of sharp contradiction between the existing
system of political relations and the demands of
capitalist accumulation will the capitalist class need
to organise itself politically to acquire explicit
control of the political apparatus. It is als’o the
case, needless to add, that this control can in turn
be wrested from the capitalist class by new anticapitalist forces and a new system of political
relations established prior to the economic overthrow
of capitalism as such.

The relevance of past revolutionary experience
can be summarised briefly under two heads:

However, although political relations represent
a distinct terrain of struggle and are not unilaterally
determined by the mere existence of capital, the fact
remains that the prevalence of the capitalist mode of
production effectively restricts the forms that can
be taken by political relations and also the way in
which these relations can be thought. Capitalism
did not produce the patriarchal family or the Protestant ethic or the nation state, but their existence
en.abled it to prosper and subsequently it has refashioned them completely in forms more compatible
with its further development.

the importance of the slogan ‘politics in command’,
reminding us that an analysis of the way power is
maintained under any mode of production is
politically subordinated to the question of the
task of overthrowing that power; and

the existence of concepts and forms of action
forged in the revolutionary struggle which we can
further refine for our own purpose.

Within the Marxist tradition the question of
hegemony has been seen, broadly, in two ways, as an
aspect of the problem of class consciousness and as
a concept pertaining to the specific terrain of class
struggle, that of politics and ideology. There is no
doubt in my mind that the second way of treating the
question is the correct one and that to regard,the
question of hegemony as in any way a question of
consciousness, even class consciousness, is funda~
mentally misleading and can have dangerous political
consequences. ~his is not to deny that consciousness
is important, but rather to assert that knowledge of
the way ideology functions and of the way the
thinking subject relates to ideology in his or her
social practice is more important. In other words
the problem of consciousness is part of the problem
of ideology, rather than vice versa. The power of
capital, of the capitalist class and of the State is
sustained by ideology, not by consciousness, and it
will be overthrown by the action of people who know
what they are doing, that is to say by revolutionary
practice, not by consciousness itself.

The central theme of Gramsci’ s Prison Notebooks
[1] is the agencies through which the fundamental
relations of production are actualised and made
explicit at a political and ideological level. This
can be seen as a question of the role of ideas in
history and to a certain extent Gramsci conceived it
as such. But he makes it quite clear that in considering these agencies he is not concerned with a processin-thought but with processes whose ideal content has
no meaning except in so far as it is materialised.

Gramsci is interested in the relationship of the
structure and the superstructures, not as an
epistemological problem but in terms of their
varying forms of historical efficacy. For the crucial
thing about the Marxian superstructures is that
although their existence is ‘ideological’ in the
sens~ of their being an expression or a reflection of
basic relations grounded in material production they
also have a very real and indeed material existence
of their own. It was not the juridical-ideological
form which sent Jake Prescott down for 15 years, nor
is it bourgeois political theory which has recently
been pulverising Hanoi.

Antonio Gramsci, selections from the Prison Notebooks, Lawrence and Wishart, 1971. Notably the

(This paper was read at the Oxford Conference
on Social Control in Britain, 6-7th January, 1973)


sections ‘The Intellectuals’ and ‘State and Civil
Society’ .

It is to Gramsci that we owe the nearest thing
we have to a systematic working out of the concept of
hegemony. Although the word appears in Marxist writing before Gramsci, notably in Axelrod and in Stalin,
it does not for example play any role in Lenin’s work,
although Gramsci claims that it does. This misattribution to Lenin of a word and/or a concept which
does not in fact figure in his writings is extremely
significant, even if it is the product of what seems
at first like a philological accident. It shows us
first of all that Gramsci intended his own use of the
concept of hegemony to be understood in a Leninist
sense and secondly that Gramsci believed that Lenin’s
theory and his practical realisations as a revoluttionary could not themselves be understood without
reference to such a concept. And yet the development
of the class struggle in Russia does not appear to
have produced any such concept, except in the sense
(used by Stalin) of leadership in the political
struggle. In fact the Bolsheviks operated with the
concepts of leadership and dictatorship in the proletarian struggle for political power and with the
concepts of ideological struggle and cultural
revolution in the preparation and consolidation of
the seizure of power. They did not use the concept
of hegemony systematically to link these aspects of
the struggle. If there is an absence in their theory,
it is one of which they do not seem to have been

Gramsci sums the specific difference between the
Russian and the Western situation in terms of a
military metaphor. In Russia, he says, ‘the State
was everything’. It was possible therefore to engage
in a war of manoeuvre culminating in a lightning
strike against the bastions of State power. In the
West, on the other hand, a long war of position and
attrition will be necessary, in order to conquer all
the various lines of trenches by which bourgeois
society organises its defence. At the same time he
is aware that to identify the State solely with its
central apparatus of political control could well be
misleading. While the primitive repressive State,
typified by the Tsarist autocracy, can perhaps be
seen as a purely political institution, this is not
necessarily the case in liberal democracies. Here
the idea of State as a mere guardian of society
(night watchman or gendarme as the case may be) is
a myth put about by that section of society whose
interests are effectively guarded. In fact, because
the State rules by consent as well as by force, the
apparatuses which guarantee consent throughout civil
society are to be seen as part of the State. In
place of the traditional opposition State/Civil
Society, Gramsci proposes the equation Civil Society
+ Political Society = State.

The place of hegemony in this system of relations
can now be defined. Hegemony is the exercise of
power through a unified system of apparatuses, in so
far as this power does not require the use of force or
the making explicit of relations of dominance. The
importance and utility of the concept, thus defined,
lie in the fact that hegemony is not a property of
all systems of social and political relations. The
domination of bourgeois ideology, the power of
capital or the use of force by the State do not in
themselves guarantee the existence of bourgeois
hegemony. Nor do the spread of class consciousness,
the increasing bargaining power of organised labour
or the development of party organisations necessarily
mean that proletarian hegemony is round the corner.

An analysis of the class forces in pre-revolutionary
Russia shows that the bourgeoisie there did not
possess full hegemony over the entire apparatus.

Nor, despite all their efforts, did the Bolsheviks
completely succeed in establishing a real hegemony of
the proletariat over all sections of Russian society.

In particular the struggle against bourgeois ideology
faltered against the barrier of the constant reproduction of bourgeois ideological relations among the
peasantry and the intelligentsia. But thereby hangs
a tale.

This small gap in the Leninist theory of
proletarian revolution becomes a yawning abyss when
the attempt is made, as it was by Gramsci, to reformulate Leninism in terms appropriate to Western
capitalist countries in the post-First World War
period. It is Gramsci himself who provides the
reason – in the different relationship between the
State, capitalism and other institutions of civil
society in Tsarist Russia and the bourgeois West.

Since Gramsci vacillates somewhat in his use of terms,
and since in any case his notes are only fragmentary,
I shall not attempt to summarise his theory but
rather to produce a statement based on indications
present in Gramsci’s text.

Gramsci takes over from Lenin the notion of a
Party which is the expression of the working class
but which concerns itself, not with the economic
conditions by which that class is initially defined
but rather with political struggle, i.e. the struggle
to transform social relations and to create the
political apparatus which will disarm the bourgeoisie
and allow the unimpeded establishment of socialist
relations of production. He also accepts the predominant role of ideological struggle in winning over
the workers from their acceptance of bourgeois dominatioQ. But his study of Western bourgeois society
leads him to some very different conclusions about
how the Party has to operate.

The differences in strategy derive from the
observation of a number of differences in the external
situation. First of all the maintenance of power in
bourgeois societies takes the form of the organisation
of consent rather than the naked use of force.

Secondly the institutions through which consent is
organised form a vast interlocking structure which is
at least as important as the official state apparatus
itself. Thirdly these institutions are not purely
ideological in function: they are in many cases the
primary economic institutions of a society which
provide the material conditions in which ideological
perception develops. The advantages possessed by the
bourgeois class are however offset by advantages
possessed by the anti-bourgeois forces, in that, for
obvious reasons, the State is reluctant to use too
manifest a display of force, except in the last resort,
and also in that the high development of the productive forces increases the economic power possessed by
the actual creators of value, the workers themselves.

The creation of a ‘historic bloc’, uniting anticapitalist forces at various levels, economic, political and ideological, is therefore a legitimate and
feasible objective of a protracted struggle.


A crucial role in the establishment and maintenance of hegemony is played by the intellectuals.

Gramsci did not make the simplistic error of assigning
all intellectuals unequivocally to either the
proletarian or the bourgeois camp, nor did he fall
into the bourgeois illusion of imagining the intellectuals as being above or outside the class syst~m. By
splitting the notion of the intellectuals into two the traditional categories of professional intellectuals
on the one hand and the active, self-conscious members
of a class who carry out its ideological and political
organisation for it on the other – he prepared the
ground for a theory of how class rule is made and unmade by intellectual intervention. Confining oneself
to the example of bourgeois power, a ~egemonic state
apparatus requires for its functionin~ the allegiance
of a mass of people who do not merely carry out its
orders but act, in their practice, as permanent
justifiers and explicitors of the existing state
system. Not all these people stand in anything like
the same relation to capital and to the State. The
‘organic’ intellectuals of the capitalist class are
capi talists and managers themselves in te role of
organisers and propagandists of their own class
interest, but attached to them are various other
strata, representatives of subordinate groups (petty
bourgeoisie”) and the professional, or ‘traditional’,
intellectuals themselves, acting as mercenary ideologues of their paymasters.

Against this apparatus, which does not merely
reproduce bourgeois relations in the form of
ideological representations but controls access to
knowledge and the instruments of power, the subordinate social groups have, traditionally, little
to offer. However, two things can happen or be made
to happen. One is that the hegemonic apparatus, so
massively and yet so precariously maintained, can
crack under the accumulation of its own internal
contradictions; and the other is that the subordinate
groups can offer a sustained challenge to this
crumbling hegemony. In a complex society the challenge
will not in the first instance by monolithic but will
take the form of an alliance of forces, but according
to historical materialism it is the working class
which will have to take a leading role if the result
of the process is to be the establishment of socialist
relations of production. How this role is to be
construed remains problematic, but Gramsci, for one,
saw the process in terms of the development,on the
terrain of economic relations of production, of an
organic intelligentisia of the working class, capable
of giving political form to a proletarian way of
interpreting the world and of attracting within its
orbit strata of unattached petty bourgeois intellectuals together with representatives of other subordinate and oppressed groups.

There is much that is speculative in Gramsci’s
picture and much that is not fully worked out
theoretically and requires further interpretation and
maybe correction. In conclusion I should like to
make one or two points based on a reading of Lenin
and Gramsci which it seems to me is well founded
theoretically and can be consolidated in social

Bourgeois hegemony is not static.

its survival on an equilibrium of forces which the
bourgeoisie cannot guarantee, and it has to be
constantly renewed and protected against the appearance of new contradictions through a process of
reproduction of existing ideological relations
throughout the superstructures. (Althusser’ s concept
of the reproduction of the relations of production
through the ideological state apparatus.

through the processes of reproduction themselves) [2].

There are two particular points to be borne in mind
in the struggle to prevent the existing order from
functioning hegemonically: the first is that the
struggle is already happening, and we are part of it;
we are not outside it nor have we invented it.

What we have to do, however, is to define and consolidate our position within it. Second~r the class
struggle (which is what this is) always has an
ideological aspect, which must never be under-rated.

Theoretical struggle and political struggle
both operate on ideology. There is also a struggle
within ideology itself, which has forms as diverse
as artistic activity and consciousness-raising.

~1any Marxists have traditionally been scornful of
wide-ranging forms of political activity which did
not appear at first sight to have ‘class’ content
– for example activity around slogans like ‘fighting
the system’ or ‘building the movement’. But these
are very important aspects of the struggle. They
concern struggle against the materialised ideological apparatus and in favour of a strengthening of
the opposition at the ideological level. As such
they involve hegemony directly and bring the
distant goal of revolution a step nearer.


It depends for

Olass, Oonsciousness,
Oontrol, Oommunication
In composing these notes, I imagine myself as
addressing an audience comprised of people whose
professional occupations are conventionally def~ned
in terms of their communcational content: in
particular, journalists, script-writers, teachers,
psychotherapists and, perhaps, social workers. In
other occupation~, whilst communication is indispensable to the carrying out work tasks, it does not
figure in their conventional definition: a teacher
of bricklaying teaches, but a bricklayer lays bricks.

Trelor ‘ateman

groups and their journals now existing in Britain.

There are, no doubt, other reasons than political
ones for the attempts made to be a radical professional (see the cartoon insert in RP 3, for instance),
but I am not here concerned with them. Nor am I
directly concerned with the issue staying in vs
opting out, though my own general preference is for
staying in most things, the Labour Party always

Apart from occupational roles, we all occupy
roles which are conventionally defined by their
communicational content – for example, friend or
parent, and what I say has some application to these
roles also.

A part of these notes will deal with what I
think are dominant or important features of typical
patterns and functions of communication between the
professional communicators and their audience.

Another part will propose counter-practices to the
present ones; thus placing these notes within the
frame of reference of radical professionalism (or
radicaloccupationalism). The first generation of
radical students in Britain has graduated and gone to
work, and at work many of these ‘radical ex-students’

have tried to point their performance of job-tasks
in directions dictated by broadly political considerations. This phenomenon is reflected in a number of
(An earlier version of this paper was read at
the Oxford Conference on Social Control in Britain,
6-7th January, 1973)

See L. Althusser, ‘Ideology and the State’ in
Lenin and Philosophy, and Rosaline Delmar, ‘Sexism,
Capitalism and the Family’, in Radical Philosophy 4.


I don’t wish to overlook that whilst conventionally defined by their communicational content
occupations contingently or necessarily involve other
activities – teachers still hit their students, social
workers have some say (? is this right) in decisions
about entitlement or non-entitlement to benefit.

Nor do I wish to imply in the inevitable (?) use of
words like ‘function’ and ‘role’ adherence to any
particular sociological theory. Later in these notes
I shall try to use concepts of class and control in
giving explanations of what I take to be typical
patterns of communication within British society and perhaps Western society more generally. And this

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