Hegemony: A Passive Revolution
Building upon the recent intense season of philological research on the Prison Notebooks, this article argues that the concept of hegemony is better understood as a ‘dialectical chain’ composed of four integrally related ‘moments’: hegemony as social and political leadership, as a political project, as a hegemonic apparatus, and as the social and political hegemony of the workers’ movement.
This project is encapsulated in Antonio Gramsci’s notion of the formation of a ‘Modern Prince’, conceived as both political party and civilizational process, which represents an emancipatory alternative to the dominant forms of political modernity.
Gramsci’s concept of hegemony has become influential in a wide range of humanistic, social-scientific and historical disciplines. It represents a singular ‘success’ of the vocabulary of the Marxist Tradition, continuing to find a much wider audience than integrally related concepts such as the dictatorship of the proletariat or the abolition of the capitalist state. Frequently, however, the word seems to have very different when not directly contradictory meanings ascribed to it, leaving new and old readers alike uncertain as to its precise theoretical significance or contemporary relevance.
According to one influential interpretation, hegemony for Gramsci involves a leading social group securing the (active or passive) ‘consent’ of other social strata, rather than unilaterally imposing its decrees upon unwilling subjects. It relies more upon subtle mechanisms of ideological integration, cultural influence or even psychological dependency, than upon the threat of censure or violence. In this version, hegemony-consent is conceived as the opposite of domination-coercion, according to presuppositions that effectively reduce hegemonic politics to an unmediated ethical relationship. This reading has accompanied the reception of the Prison Notebooks from the outset, beginning with the Partito Comunista Italiano (PCI’s) attempt to present Gramsci as the theorist of a ‘different’ communism after the rupture of 1956.
This interpretation now constitutes a sort of ‘beginner’s guide’ to the meaning of hegemony, in its most widely diffused and generic forms. It is particularly prevalent, albeit often contested, in the academic fields of cultural studies, sociology and anthropology.
A second interpretation regards Gramsci’s concept of hegemony as the forerunner of a theory of the political constitution of the social via a ‘logic of equivalence’, or a unifying process of the articulation of heterogeneity in the formation of a ‘political subject’.
Hegemony here figures fundamentally as a theory of the unification of the diverse in a composite socio-political body, on whose unity alone ‘true’ politics can arise. This version posits Gramsci’s concept of hegemony in the radical-liberal tradition of the collective political agent, whether conceived as groups, class, caste or, most frequently, ‘the people’.
Historically, this reading emerged from the encounter between communist and liberal thought in the Italian post-war constitutional process. Insofar as the concept of hegemony is to be found in contemporary international discussions in political philosophy, it is often represented in these terms.
A third interpretation builds further upon the presuppositions of the first two readings, arguing that hegemony-consent is a political technique proper to the terrain of civil society, while the state is the locus of domination-coercion. Hegemony works away surreptitiously at the foundations of bourgeois rule in a molecular or even rhizomatic fashion in civil society; direct confrontation on the terrain of the state is deferred to a future that remains indeterminate, when not declared to be unnecessary. In effect, this version presents Gramsci’s concept of hegemony as a form of ‘anti-politics’, which finds its strength instead in the valorization of the ‘social’. Derived from readings of the New Left in the 1960s and 1970s, often inflected by the experience of Western Maoism and later left-wing Eurocommunism, this interpretation is frequently operative in contemporary discussions in political science and political theory.
Finally, a fourth interpretation situates the contemporary significance of the term of hegemony on the terrain of geopolitics, in accordance with an established usage that stems back at least as far as Thucydides.
Hegemony is here configured at the level of a now open, now hidden, struggle for influence and power between states, prior to but sometimes including the outright declaration of military hostilities. This version effectively inscribes Gramsci’s concept of hegemony as a critical perspective within a tradition of political realism that regards the state as the key political actor of modernity. Precedents for this usage can be found in the debates of the early Third International, though in more complicated forms.
Today, this interpretation is often encountered as an established ‘image of Gramsci’ in mainstream discussions in International Relations, though increasingly contested by ‘new’ neo-Gramscian perspectives.