How does one explain the survival of capitalism? Why has the working class not developed the necessary class consciousness to bring about revolution in advanced capitalist countries?
Dissatisfied with the failures of the revolution in European countries and disillusioned with orthodox Marxists at the time, Antonio Gramsci sought to explain why the revolution wasn’t taking place in advanced capitalist countries and how we could make it happen. Central to this explanation is his notion of cultural hegemony, which is omnipresent in civil society. Through the institutions of civil society, the ruling class spreads its moral, political, and social values, which are instilled by the ruled class. Through hegemony, the state apparatus can keep its subjects at bay without using violent force.
Antonio Gramsci’s Background: The Incompleteness of Traditional Marxist Theory
In October 1917, the Russian Revolution saw the Bolsheviks taking the power of the state away from the provisional government which had formed a few months prior, marking the official end of the ruthless tsarist autocracy which had kept Russia a poor, feudal state for centuries.
According to Karl Marx, socialism was supposed to be preceded by the formation of the proletariat in advanced capitalist countries. Somehow, Russia skipped one step and went from feudalism directly to socialism. Meanwhile, no other country in Europe had taken the step from capitalism to socialism. It started to become clear to Marxists at the time that the traditional Marxist framing of history might be wrong, or at least, not complete.
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Antonio Gramsci, who was living in pre-WW2 Italy, was not seeing the supposed tide of history turning in favor of the workers. On the contrary, right-wing reactionary forces were on the rise, the same forces which would later throw Gramsci in jail. Whilst traditional Marxism had paid a great deal of attention to material, objective conditions, Gramsci sought to revitalize the discourse by representing subjectivity in Marxist theory. For Gramsci, the ruling class didn’t just rule over the subjugated classes by virtue of material power, but also through cultural, political, and moral values. This is what Gramsci would develop to call “hegemony,” writing in his prison notebooks whilst he was imprisoned by Mussolini’s fascist regime.
Explaining the Concept of Hegemony
The supremacy of the ruling class manifests itself in two distinct ways, according to Gramsci. It manifests both in domination and in intellectual or moral leadership, the latter constituting the notion of hegemony.
Whilst the mode of domination serves to externally limit the choices of the subjects, the mode of Hegemony carves the values of the ruling order within the subject itself so that their choices are experienced as free instead of restricted.
Whilst domination includes coercion by the state machine, hegemony is objectified in civil society, education, religion, media, and every institution in between. These two regions can interact and shape each other. The state machine, for example, can use the realm of civil society to push for an opinion that might be unpopular. Think of the overnight mobilization of mass media institutions in the US, its deployment of anti-Islamic intellectuals who were tasked with justifying the war in Iraq and making it appealing in the public perception. The decision taken by the Bush administration was spread out through civil society, which was used to justify a war, which had no ethically justifiable reason to take place but nonetheless had really strong economic and political incentives.
On the one hand, the US could seize control of the large oil reserves in Iraq, get rid of Hussein, whose policies had become unfriendly to the west, and also retaliate for 9/11 by attacking a target which could restore the power of the US in public perception. These drivers of the state machine were then translated into different ones in the hegemonic machine, which now portrayed Hussein as a dictator with WMDs at his fingerprints and the US mission as an attempt to bring freedom to Iraqi people under his rule. This is an example of how hegemonic rule is put to use by the state machine to secure its own perpetuation.
Consent and Conflict in Capitalist Societies
Disillusioned with the fire of the revolution not spreading anywhere else besides Russia, Gramsci puts the concept of Hegemony at the forefront to explain this resistance. Traditional Marxism places class conflict at its center. The main idea is the following: capitalist society has contradictions that will eventually heighten, leading the proletariat (the working class) into conflict with the bourgeoisie (the capitalist class) and, eventually, into the state becoming a worker state. Yet, this much-anticipated standoff between the classes was nowhere in sight. On the contrary, Gramsci saw the rise of reformists and trade unionists who were happy to be assimilated into the logic of capitalism, as long as certain changes were made, changes which did not threaten the capitalist structure but reinforced it.
This is why, for Gramsci, consent takes the place of conflict. Entrenched in the structures of capitalist social relations, the worker fails to see his own exploitation. Through hegemonic rule, the subjugated class never becomes aware of the conflict they’re supposed to be a part of. Now, by consent, Gramsci doesn’t mean our individualist modern notion of consent. Consent, for Gramsci, simply means that the authority of the ruling class flows into the minds of the ruled classes without resistance or conflict.
Ruling class ideas are accepted without any scrutiny, and are seen as self-evident. The working person might even identify themselves with the morals of the ruling class. Think about how many people boast about working 60 or 70 hours a week. They wear their exploitation like a badge of honor precisely because, through the workings of hegemony, they have learned to experience their relations not as exploitative but as fair and voluntary. Other people may not like working as much, but still say “that’s just life” and accept their condition as inevitable.
In short, consent becomes not the voluntary affirmation of one’s own condition but the lack of resistance to the authority which flows from civil society, which composes the center of hegemonic production. It is commonplace in liberal societies for more than half of potential voters to not show up at all at the voting polls during an election. How could a government claim to be the democratic will of the people when more than half of potential voters didn’t even show up to vote in the first place? Nonetheless, the lack of resistance from those who do not vote is interpreted as consent to whatever government is chosen. As we can see, this form of consent is far from a meaningful stamp of one’s sovereignty and right to choose; it is simply a lack of resistance to the powers that be.
Gramsci’s break from the mechanistic/deterministic Marxists of the time is best illustrated by Gramsci himself, who wrote:
“The canons of historical materialism are valid only post-factum, to study and comprehend the events of the past; they ought not to become a mortgage on the present and future.”
This break has led many commentators to categorize Gramsci, not as a Marxist, but as an idealist. Gramsci’s denial of historical materialism, his portrayal of the world as a world of ideas that replace one another, stage after stage… isn’t that the old Hegelian heresy which Marx famously flipped on its head?
Quite the contrary. Gramsci’s notion of Hegemony serves as an extension of Marxist theory, not a contradiction of it. The introduction of consciousness isn’t a devaluation of the importance of material conditions but the opposite – it is its necessary conclusion. For Gramsci, historical materialism can accommodate consciousness in its framework without losing its essential economic core. In fact, without subjective consciousness, historical materialism becomes simply materialism and, thus, ahistorical.
A vulgar, materialistic reading of Marx couldn’t explain what was happening in Gramsci’s time. It attempted to appeal to scientific rigor by adopting a positivist epistemology, maintaining a rigid economic determinism, and, most importantly, a teleological conception of history that allowed predictions. This conception necessarily produced passivity. If one believes that capitalism will necessarily crush under the weight of its own contradictions, nothing needs to be done except to sit and wait for it to happen. By putting human consciousness back in the conversation and focusing on how hegemony could shape it, Gramsci revitalized a discourse that was practically in denial of its own failure. History isn’t going anywhere by itself. We need to carry it. Just like we’re a product of history, history is also a product of us.
The Democratic Road to Socialism According to Antonio Gramsci
We see how Gramsci isn’t simply interested in describing or theorizing about how the current order imposes itself on us but also in how we can resist it. Whilst Gramsci was a fan of Lenin’s revolution, through his concept of hegemony, he always expressed the sentiment that mass transformation in class consciousness had to precede revolution. The revolution shouldn’t be imposed on people via police states. Changing the material conditions will help the process of class consciousness, but it alone might not suffice.
Many people from ex-communist countries, for example, do not possess any theoretical understanding of the system they lived under. They only understood it practically. They saw new people telling them what they ought to do, which simply replaced the old ones. Hence, without conscious transformation, the revolution risks undermining itself. Gramsci’s road to Socialism required free exchanges of ideas, discussions, and direct participatory democracy. The means were just as important as the end. A vanguard party taking power in Russia might have been necessary, but in European countries, that wouldn’t work. A new path had to be carved out, a path of active participation against the system of domination and hegemony, one that isn’t interested in becoming another dominating hegemon.