Gramscian Hegemony: A Brief Overview

The following analysis attempts to study one of the most important issues of Antonio Gramsci’s theoretical heritage, the Theory of Hegemony, and briefly discuss its origin, development and its relations with other theories and theorists. Nevertheless, I will try to introduce the development of the term and the theory in general from two angles which are combination forms of the traditions of two-Russian and Italian sociopolitical Marxism, and the functional peculiarities from the perspective of Gramscian development and new interpretation.

Theoretical provisions

  1. An attentive examination of Gramsci’s work shows that during his lifetime the author himself does not give a final, unquestionable and conclusive answer to the questions arising from his theory of hegemony and does not even have ones.
  2. A unique attempt of combining the political, social and cultural theories of Gramsci’s theory of hegemony and their practical fields in society has been made by the author during his years in prison 1 . Gramsci’s uniqueness is the critical work carried out with contemporary political and social-cultural theories from the perspective of the confronting reality of compulsion and persuasion. Being the follower of classical Marxist traditions, Gramsci at the same time accepted (since the 1920-s – the early period of his activity) that his interpretation of the term has a certain disruption from the accepted interpretation of Marxist ideology.
  3. The current analysis is the examination of his voluminous heritage based on his theory of hegemony and current and controversial theories of his time.
  4. The provisions of the sociology of power of the classical Marxist theory and their Gramscian alterations in combination with structuralism and Neo-Marxist theories will be mostly investigated.


First of all, what is hegemony according to Antonio Gramsci? Generally, Gramscian hegemony is a process which makes some ways of understanding the world so self-evident and natural for members of society that the existence of any alternative or even the need for organizing that alternative becomes impossible or senseless.

Unlike the classical Marxist definition of the concept, Gramscian hegemony was indeed an intellectual revolution for his time. As an examination term, it is more applicable and useful than the Marxist domination which, relying on the Weber’s and Marx’s classical essentialist interpretation of authority, refuses to accept the inferior, subordinate people, the possibility of an active engagement of groups in heterogeneous dimensions of power and within the limits of their use 2 . Gramsci was the first one to question the classical Marxist theory, this fundamental provision, and who critically reshaped it. Gramsci accepted the value of the key relationship between the base and superstructure, but he also paid attention to the fact that the institutions in the superstructure may be and are important preconditions for the existence of the base. That is, unlike the one-sided and fossilized interpretation of Marx and his epigoni, the superstructure (society and sociopolitical institutions) itself forms the establishment and control order of hegemony. Gramsci puts forward the statement that ideologies 3 , being a part of the superstructure, can build up the base of the domination establishment and reproduction. Moreover, it appears that in certain political, social and cultural situations the rulers, based on certain calculations, voluntarily tend to interact with the ruled, and the ruled also become involved in government, ruling themselves by the ruler’s will.

Linguistic Structuralism: Saussure – Gramsci

Attempting to create a necessary linguistic environment in his works, Gramsci aims at demonstrating a narrower and appropriate semantic perception of those concepts, relying on the morphosemantic analysis 1 typical of him. Gramsci himself was a linguist and was undoubtedly influenced by the ideas put forward by Ferdinand de Saussure and were considered revolutionary for his time 4 . And the terms and their interpretations raised by him were within the scopes of the same logic: when Gramsci uses such classical terms as «ideology», «hegemony», «authority», «state», etc., he gives them new meanings and elucidation, transferring them into a modern, current (for his time) semantic field. Saussure 5 mentioned that “Speech is an individual act of will and rationality where the following should be distinguished:

  1. the combinations through which a speaker uses the language code to express his own thoughts,
  2. the psychophysical mechanism which allows the speaker to realize those combinations…

That is why it is senseless to give a definition to a word: defining subjects built on words is not a correct method.” The further development of semiotics more than strengthened this tendency, and Wittgenstein had been already speaking about the fact that “the meaning of a word is in its linguistic usage”. It’s in this context that Gramsci’s glance at linguistic experience is very important for understanding how we interpret the world and create meanings. Gramsci’s attitude towards language allows us to understand the authority’s operation principles and logic at a daily and elementary level.

I will try to present the origins of the term «hegemony» and the theory of hegemony in general and their reinterpretation by Gramsci.

The Term Hegemony and Its Origins

Certainly, it is worth mentioning that Gramsci is not considered the creator of the contemporary concept of hegemony-domination. In general, in Marxist traditions and more clearly within the scopes of the Russian socialist movement in the 20th century that term already has a history of lasting use, development and continuous reinterpretation. From the perspective of political struggle, the term was subjected to a more applicable and new theoretical interpretation by Lenin. For the first time Gramsci deals with that concept during a dispute at the International communist conference in Moscow where he represented the Italian Communist party.

Speaking about the concept of hegemony in his political works Lenin especially emphasizes the importance of hegemony as a toolset from the perspective of political struggle. Lenin mostly highlights and considers necessary to pay attention to the “cultural struggle front”. At the same time Lenin develops the idea that the bourgeoisie is also in a continuous struggle for hegemony and, what is important, it tries to subject the working class to the ideas and more generally, to its worldview. Lenin writes that the working class voluntarily seeks for sociality, but the bourgeoisie ideology is spread everywhere and is constantly recovered in various ways, which is the main reason for it to be able to constantly keep the working class under its control.

As far as the Italian stems of the concept of hegemony are concerned, it is worth mentioning that the concept had quite a significant value in the 19th century Italian mind, particularly in the works of the modern Italian catholic philosopher Vincenzo Gioberti. Gioberti assumed that a particular region within a state can have a moral superiority over the others. By this, Gioberti considered the problem of the unification of Italy under the leadership of Piedmont, but he also linked the idea of hegemony with the development of national-popular culture. Gramsci, speaking about the views of Gioberti in his prison notes, mentions that Gioberti has a certain Jacobin attitude, though not immediate, that is, the national-popular and political hegemony. Gioberti’s work indeed can be considered an excellent example of practical search for hegemony’s functional realities in Italian history.

It should be taken into consideration that the concept of hegemony, as Gramsci understood it, was also a mixture of Italian and international definitions to which the author added his personal, exceptional and unique understanding, emphasizing the importance of interweaving the intellectual activity extremely important in society. In case of the Italian reality he viewed the initial theoretical situations of hegemony from the perspective of a mixture of three realities – the factor of power in society, civil society and the Southern Question.

Using the concept of hegemony, Gramsci sometimes applies it as a tool for historical and political analysis. Nevertheless, as we can see, the issue of the nature of hegemony according to Gramsci changes depending on the examination subject. Both the attitudes and the interpretation of hegemony which are applied in the Southern Question by Gramsci change and get different emphasis and coloring in his prison notes.

Speaking of the Italian Socialist Movement and especially the role of the working class, Gramsci particularly highlights the fact that initiating from the issue of historical development of the Italian society, it can be noticed that it was not a fight which could be described as a mere struggle against economic inequality. In order to lead other subordinate groups and especially the peasantry, the Italian working class movement needs to understand the problems which have a great cultural significance for the peasantry and make them its own problems. Gramsci accordingly singles out and gives primary importance to 2 problems, the Catholic Church and the Southern Question. He mentions that these 2 problems are the basis of a more inferior condition of the peasantry, and the working class movement should include the solution of these problems in its primary plans.

The Process of Hegemony and Practical Appliance Fields: Observations and Contradictions

Localizing Lenin’s attitudes concerning the ways of expressing hegemony Gramsci concludes that the group striving for real hegemony must subject the majority of inferior-subordinate (subalterne) groups to its own worldview. “As the construction of the hegemony apparatus forms new ideological structures and as it determines the ways of consciousness and recognition methods, it is an act of recognition and philosophy”. Otherwise in Croce’s language, when it becomes possible to introduce a new morality corresponding to the new worldview, the worldview itself is introduced as a result: in other words, the introduction of a new morality brings about a whole philosophical reform. Continuing this statement, Gramsci mentions that during that process the group which strives for hegemony, will itself change starting from the organization of its corporative principle, and it will become broader, more universal and more attractive.

It is worth mentioning that such a broad definition of leadership brings with it also numerous problems and controversies. The first problem is that in this case that condition allows the group which has no authority to make a choice and operate together (ability typical of a governing body). People who belong to the dominating group have an excellent opportunity to clearly observe the situation and to act, rather than to be limited by the system of ideological processes.

The second problem is: a real cooperation with subject-subordinate groups means to seriously consider the methods and values which are valuable for those groups but are not necessarily progressive. Considering the political role of the Church in his “Southern Question”, Gramsci comes to the conclusion that the Church’s role and status in the south and the north of Italy have significant differences, and going on with this idea, he arrives at the thought that depending on the historical development, the Church is progressive in the North while in the South it is more conservative and the features of the feudal system are more considerable.

Third, a question arises as to in what degree the inferior-subordinate (subaltern) groups are involved in the worldview of the dominating group. Whether the dominating group has to make economical and ideological concessions to the ruled, and if yes, to what extent?

The groups’ role in constant movements and the hierarchy of hegemony is also important because it is not excluded that the subordinate group or groups can demonstrate an initiative of a considerable unity and strive to become the ruling group in that hegemony system revolting against the dominating “primary” group.

One of the key problems is how the basic groups in the hegemony system will limit the aspirations of the ruling group to “expand” their domination.

Coercion and Persuasion in Society. Practical Fields of Power and Possible Solutions

Gramsci argues that within the limits of the hegemony process the subordinates pass from one form to the other, when they pass from the status of «an object» to the status of «a historical person», «main hero». The main contradiction is the fact that from the perspective of popular culture, the subordinates ideologically dominate the group leaders. According to Gramsci, it is an important democratic indicator and proves that the dominating group must accept the challenges directed towards its authority. As a whole, active and direct agreement between the groups in the hegemony system implies everyone’s participation in the government, even if it leads to destruction and obvious turmoil.

The acceptance of the fact of inferior-subordinate people’s aspirations and its analysis leads to the simple idea that hegemony is an endless process.

In order to maintain and reproduce its authority, the ruling group needs to beware constantly of changing demands of the subordinate groups and to maintain the limits of the mobile consensus where it dominates. The group which seeks for hegemony, needs to reach leadership before taking the authority and even after reaching the authority it has to “continue the leadership” in the same “style”. In this reference Gramsci says: “In this sense the political leadership turns into one of the aspects of hegemony, as the absorption of the enemy groups (elite) leads to their beheading and extinction, sometimes for quite a long time. …The moderates’ policy in its whole simplicity shows that the policy of hegemony can and must be realized before the stage of reaching the authority and that it is not needed to rely on the economic resources which are given by the authorities for efficient governance”.

One of the main questions is the reason why the subordinate groups adopt the worldview of the dominating group and make it their own. Whether it is simply an assimilation of values and meanings given by the dominating group, or the subordinate are given economic, material and legal-political privileges, and if yes, to what extent?

The institutional structures, which contribute to the dissemination of ideas and values of dominating group, contribute to the realization and maintenance of hegemony by the ruling group. From this perspective, Gramsci specifies the role of the civil society (family, church and trade unions) which, according to him, is a key mechanism for the attendance of the authorities and he suggests that the efficiency of the government depends on to what extent it will be possible to erase the differences between the political power and the everyday life. The more the political authorities develop the tendency of depoliticization of everyday life, the more and more it will strengthen their dominance.

It’s here that we can notice the antithesis between Gramsci and his times. The problem is: to reveal thinking ways in historical adaptation types and their positive and negative course in intra-public process, to try to devise on theoretical bases practical applicable counteraction tools in order to give a solution to that key problem in social coexistence.

Since the 17th century English liberal theorists and the 18th century French enlighteners, the idea that the rulers govern rightfully with the consent of the ruled, is the most important in the theories of the political science and other related disciplines.

One of the key aspects in Gramsci’s theory of hegemony is the problem of the use of force. Here the interactions between Gramsci and the liberal discourse of the period and the contradictions in the person of Max Weber can be observed 7 , and before him, Hobbs and others. A question arises as to what the dominating group does in case it is not able to dissolve the subordinate groups in its cultural and political worldview. What role do the realities of “violence” and “consent” play in social-construction processes? Which are the applied mechanisms giving life to hegemony?

A French structural Marxist Louis Althusser speaking of the process of the establishment and maintenance of authority through the state apparatus also addresses the realities of compulsion and consent. Mentioning that the authority contains not only compulsion functions, but also those of persuasion, and of course relying on the Marxist traditions, he does not remain indifferent to the issue of appreciating the role of hegemony in the maintenance of the state authority. Emphasizing the importance and value of hegemony in the state authority reproduction process Althusser singles out two types of state apparatus. The first type is the Ideological State Apparatus – ISA (family, trade unions, media, arts, culture, religion), and its main function is to ensure the activity of the ideology, and the second is the Repressive State Apparatus – RSA (army, police, court, government) and its main function is the violence. Whereas, one of the greatest modern philosophers G. Agamben notices that the state apparatus always has a specific strategic function and is always in correlation with force.

The defeat of the Italian Socialist Movement had an enormous impact on Gramsci’s views, ideas and worldview. A long chain of failures which could not pass without leaving an impact on the further alteration, refinement and reinterpretation of the thoughts and attitudes developed during his youth.

The elimination of the Labor movement in Europe, the defeat of the Italian Labor movement on several fronts by the bourgeoisie, state apparatus, and later by the Fascist movement. It is obvious, that being a theorist and a practical politician at the same time, Gramsci should try to analyze and understand the reasons which provided basis for that defeat. Specifying and acquiring the complete image, Gramsci comes to the conclusion that the Italian labor was simply “unable” to form an urgent and necessary political alliance with other subordinate or subordinate groups, particularly with the peasantry and intelligentsia. Gramsci concluded that the most important precondition for the victory of the class struggle should be to overcome the mutual misunderstanding and hostile separatism between various and heterogeneous social groups. Gramsci sees the resolution of that opposing situation and the further settlement of the problem on behalf of inferior and subordinate classes in the unquestionable condition of overcoming the deep disagreements.

In such brief and general features is Gramsci’s comprehension and interpretation of the theory of hegemony (dominance) from the practical perspective represented.

To be continued…

1 Antonio Gramsci is considered the vehement enemy of B. Mussolini’s Fascist regime and the monofamous prisoner who was imprisoned in 1926-1937 and passed away in the same place.

2 In the classical Marxist theory the base and superstructure have one-sided and invariable functions, and the base (the economical basis of society) determines the nature and possible functional display of the superstructure (social, political, cultural systems).

3 According to the theory of hegemony brought forward by Gramsci, the ideological system is an integral and pivotal element of the hegemony system. The peculiarity of the Gramscian perception of the ideology should be remembered.

4 One of the cornerstones of Saussure’s theory is the doctrine of sign which is presented as an arbitrary and conventional (arbitraire) combination of the signifier and the signified, in the sense that the signifier has no natural connection with the signified and its choice is not motivated.

5 Ferdinand de Saussure can be considered the father of structuralism and his works and ideas have left a crucial impact on the whole palette of contemporary and subsequent ideas.

6 Thomas Hobbes, speaking of the relations between the individual and sovereign in his Leviathan, mentions that consent does not exclude compulsion. He asserts that in case of one individual it is reasonable to give consent to the superior through the potential use of the superior’s power, force and violence.

7 Weber’s famous statement is considered that only the state has a legal monopoly of committing violence, right for applying violence and compulsion in a particular area.


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Author: Gor Madoyan: © All rights are reserved

Translated by Lusine Marutyan