Antonio Gramsci and the Concept of “Hegemony”

  • S Balakrishnan Executive Director, VERGAL Educational Trust, Madurai
Keywords: Marx, Lenin, Gramsci, Hegemony, Civil Society, Politics and historical materialism


The Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci remains hugely popular today across the left as well as in academic circles where a neo-Gramscian school of though crosses disciplines and generations. His most referred to works are his prison notebooks, a collection of articles and fragments that he wrote whilst languishing in Mussolini’s jail. What people value in Grasmsci is his contribution to political theory, including central concepts like hegemony and the war of position/war of manoeuvre. Gramsci was a leader and theorist of the Italian Communist party and editor of a popular Marxist journal called L’Ordine Nuovo. He was arrested by Mussolini’s fascist police in 1926 and thrown into prison where he remained until 1937 when he was released, sick and close to death. He died a few months afterwards. A vigorous and energetic thinker, he refused to let the fascist prisons silence him. In his cell he wrote several notebooks where he outlined his thoughts on several topics from historical materialism to the revolutionary party to the political world perspective. He painstakingly reconstructed quotes of Marx and Lenin from memory as he formulated ideas which are still discussed and used today. Gramsci’s position as a revolutionary communist is often downplayed by many of his modern supporters who tend to use him as a point of departure on their path to post-Marxism. They do this by addressing Gramsci as a left wing thinker, but removed from his revolutionary Marxist context, thus rendering him safe and palatable for the academic community. He is considered chiefly as a theoretician of the super structure already veering toward that cultural and linguistic turn that defines large sections of contemporary academia and this view has the result, as noted by Anderson in The Antinomies of Antonio Gramsci, to single him out as an intellectual academic, and not as a party leader and theoretician. The benefit of Gramsci for academia is that since most of his writings on method are contained in his Prison notebooks, which by their very nature had to be written in a discreet almost coded language, it is possible to read his ideas in many different ways, including in a thoroughly revisionist way which guts the actual revolutionary project from his world view. This is a revealing insight into how academia likes its Marxism – the product of being trapped in a prison cell, with a fascist censor looking over your shoulder. Indeed, a lot of the contributions that Gramsci is credited with are directly taken from or developed out of the theoretical debates that had been going on in the second and third internationals. The concept of hegemony, which Gramsci is perhaps most famous for, was discussed by Plekhanov and Lenin before him. The concept of the war of positions and war of manoeuvresfind their origins in the debates between Luxemburg and Kautsky over the mass strike. Gramsci was a Third International Marxist whose theories are grounded in the political debates of his international party, and developed in the context of the mental isolation of his imprisonment. As Emanuele Saccarelli argues, we can only understand Gramsci by rescuing him from academia, dusting him off, and then analysing his work in the light of the theoretical context of the Third international, namely the rise of Stalin and the collapse of revolutionary communism.

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