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Politics, Ideology and Hegemony in Gramsci's Theory Author(s): Joseph A. Woolcock Source: Social and Economic
Politics, Ideology and Hegemony in Gramsci's Theory Author(s): Joseph A. Woolcock Source: Social and Economic

Politics, Ideology and Hegemony in Gramsci's Theory Author(s): Joseph A. Woolcock Source: Social and Economic Studies, Vol. 34, No. 3 (SEPTEMBER 1985), pp. 199-210 Published by: Sir Arthur Lewis Institute of Social and Economic Studies, University of the West Indies Stable URL: Accessed: 20-11-2017 10:57 UTC

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Social and Economic Studiet, Volume 84, No. 8,1986

Politics, Ideology and Hegemony

in Gramsci's Theory


Joseph A. Woolcock

For nearly two decades, an unprecedented development

of interest in the theoretical contributions of Antonio

Gramsci and the influence of his thoughts on Marxist enquiry have become quite intriguing for Marxist scholars. Beginning

with the intervention of Norberto Bobbio1 at the Cagliari Conference on Marxist Studies in 1967, a new approach to

the understanding of Gramsci's contribution to Marxist

theory has emerged. This has thrown much light on the

interpretations of Gramsci's political thought and have

contributed significantly to the development of Marxist enquiry.

This paper explores the major concepts of Gramsci's

political thought, the contribution of this theory to Marx's historical materialism and the methodology underlying the

theory itself. But, before these concepts are explored, it is

useful to situate Gramsci in the historical context that shaped

and informed his theoretical contributions.


Concerned with the economistic interpretations of

Marx's thought that pervaded the Second International

Gramsci did not see them as abstract or academic problems

but, on the contrary, as practical political problems deeply

embedded in political practice. They were the root causes of

the massive defeats suffered by both German and Italian

working class movements in the decade after World War I.

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The theory of the collapse of capitalism on which the

Second International settled, was based on a mechanistic

conception of Marx's thought. It assumed the proletarian

revolution as both a necessary and inevitable consequence of

the development of economic contradictions of the capitalist

mode of production.

Since the development of socialist consciousness was

considered to result from the numerical growth of the prole

tariat as a class and from economic contradictions, ideology

was assumed to have no autonomy. More important, since

socialist consciousness was identified with the consciousness

of the social agents, the identity of the social agents was,

therefore, linked to the class to which they belonged. These

reductionist views of Marx's thought pervaded the Second

International without regard to the fact that the revolution had triumphed in the European countries where it was least

expected. These developments completely negated the view

widely held by orthodox Marxists that revolution was the

result of the unfolding of economic forces.

In addition, the traditional Marxist views failed to recog

nize that the success of the Russian Revolution resulted from

political intervention in a historical juncture which, according

to the view of the Second International, could never bring

about a socialist outcome. This type of political theo

rizing which linked all historical changes to a mechanistic

relation between forces of production and the social relations

of production, became severely discredited after the Russian


These traditional Marxist views that permeated the Second International faced other challenges as well. The

crushing defeat of socialist movements in Europe and the

consequent support working class groups gave to fascism and

nazism, pointed to the failure of orthodox Marxism as an

adequate understanding of the political realities of the time.

These historical developments posed some very serious

challenges to Gramsci in his quest for understanding the nature and role of politics and ideology in the historical

process. His earlier rejection of the traditional mechanistic

interpretation of cause and effect in the relation between

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Politics, Ideology and Hegemony 201

structure and superstructure meant searching for a dynamic

interpretation of history. It was during his imprisonment that

Gramsci reflected on the cause for the defeat of the working

class movement and the victory of fascism in Italy. And, it

was there he arrived at a thorough understanding of the

nature and role of politics in the historical process.2


The central question for Gramsci was not the adding of a supplementary field of research, that is to say, politics to

a historical materialism. On the contrary, of prime im

portance to Gramsci was

to reestablish the link between theory and practice lost in the economistic interpretations of Marx's thought, and to formulate an interpretation of historical materialism which would relocate

it as a mode of intervention in the course of the historical process.


It was this "new" interpretation of historical material ism as a "science of history and politics", which according to Paggi,4 lies at the very core of Gramsci's thought, and, there fore, broke away from the positivist conception of science.

Crucial to Gramsci's thought is the Marxist notion of

contradictions. It allows for establishing a correct analysis of

antagonistic forces and the relations of force which exist

between them at a determinate historical moment. But, the

resolution of these contradictions do not involve an auto

matic outcome. Gramsci, therefore, rejected the mechanistic conception of historical development and conceived history,

instead, as a dialectical relationship. This enabled him to

relate a configuration of conflicting factors in historical

changes and the ways in whch they shape possible alterna

tives for the overcoming of crises and contradictions.

Without doubt, Gramsci's contribution to the under

standing of the nature and role of politics, ideology and hege

mony in historical development has shed new light on Marx ism. Like Marx, he locates the constitution of social classes

at the structural moment of capitalist societies. However, he

rejects the immediate connection of infrastructure and super

the com

structure which constitutes "

an historical bloc

plex, contradictory and discordant ensemble of the super

structures reflecting the ensemble of the social relations of

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production"0 to the understanding of social class domination.

According to Marx, class domination, consequently class inequality, originates in the social relations of production.

It is, however, obscured through ideological and political

mechanisms at the superstructural level. To understand how

class domination becomes obscured through these mechan

isms at the superstructural level and how one class engenders

and spreads its hegemony throughout society is the central aim of Gramsci's project.


A reconstruction of Gramsci's political thought must, of

necessity, begin with his conception of civil society because

it is in civil society that the Marxist notion of bourgeois

hegemony is given a central place. Similarly, the way in

which Gramsci uses the concept "civil society" differs as

much from Marx and Engels as from Hegel.

In Hegel, civil society is the reign of dissoluteness,

misery and physical and ethical corruption which must be

regulated, dominated and annulled by the superior order of the State. According to Bobbio,6 this meaning which Hegel

attributes to civil society and which differs from the philoso

phers of natural law (Locke to Rousseau), makes it a pre

Marxist concept in that it is the antithesis of primitive society,

no longer the reign of natural order which bad positive laws

had imposed on it.

Hegel's concept of civil society is, however, from a

certain aspect wider and from another, more restricted than

the concept as used by Marx and Engels. It is wider because Hegel's conception of civil society encompasses,

not only the sphere of economic relations and the formation of

social classes, but also the administration of justice as well as the organization of the police force and the corporations.^

It is on the other hand, more restricted because in

Hegel's system,


society constitutes the immediate stage between the family

and the state, and therefore does not include all the ^relations and

pre-state institutions (including the family ) as do on the contrary

the natural society of Locke and civil society in its most common


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Politics, Ideology and Hegemony 203

Hence, in Hegel's system, civil society is the sphere of

economic relations combined with their external regulations

based on the principles of the liberal state which is at the

same time bourgeois society and bourgeois state. In addition,

" it is in civil society that Hegel's critique of political

science is made, the first inspired by the principles of natural

law, and the second by the ones of the state of law".9

In Marx and Engels on the other hand, civil society

encompasses the whole of pre-state social life. It is a moment in the development of the economic relations which precedes

and determines the political sphere, constituting one of the two terms of the antithesis, society-state. Marx and Engels

bring this concept out quite clearly in the German


civil society embraces the whole material intercourse of indi

viduals within a definite stage of the development of the pro

ductive forces. It embraces the whole commercial and industrial life of a given stage, and in so far, transcends the State and the Nation, though on the other hand, again, it must assert itself in

its foreign relations as nationality and inwardly must organize

itself as state.11

This brief analysis of the concept of "civil society" is

precisely what leads to the identification in both Marx and Engels whereby civil society is subsumed under the state. It

is civil society which defines the state in relation to the

material intercourse at a definite stage of its material develop ment. In Gramsci, however, civil society takes on a different

meaning. It does not belong to the structural moment but to

the superstructural moment as part of the theory of the state.

It is, therefore, as a result of locating civil society at the

superstructural moment that Gramsci is able to make a pro

found innovation in the Marxist tradition. He asserts,

what we can do for the moment, is to fix two major super

structural 'levels', the one that can be called 'civil society', that

is, the ensemble of organisms commonly called 'private', and that of 'political society' or the State. These two levels correspond on the one hand to the function of 'hegemony ' which the dominant

group exercises throughout society, and on the other hand to

that of 'direct domination' or command exercised through the

State and 'juridical' government.12

For Gramsci, then, civil society includes

"not the

whole complex of material relations, of commercial and

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industrial life, but the whole ideological-cultural relations, of

spiritual and intellectual life".13 In addition, both Marx and

Gramsci conceive civil society to be the theatre of all history. Marx, however, locates civil society at the structural moment,

but for Gramsci, it is at the superstructural moment.

It is precisely in locating civil society at the super

structural moment that Gramsci is able to elevate bourgeois

hegemony to a central place. There he makes the whole

complex of ideologico-cultural relations, the spiritual and

intellectual life and the political expression of these relations

the focus of his analysis instead of focussing on the structure.

Hegemony is, therefore, the moment of junction between

determinate objective conditions and the actual domination

of a leading group. This historical juncture comes about in

civil society.


Gramsci's key concept of hegemony is the one which

tends to be the most controversial. It is, in Gramsci's matrix,

the ideological predominance of the cultural norms, values and ideas of the dominant class over the dominated. Accord

ing to Professor Gwynn Williams, Gramsci's hegemony is,

an order in which a certain way of life and thought is dominant,

irr which one concept of reality is diffused throughout society in

all its institutional manifestation, informing with its spirit, aU taste, morality, custom, religious and political principles, and all social relations, particularly in their intellectual and moral con

notations. ^

Analyzing the historical conditions necessary for one class to acquire hegemony over others, Gramsci takes the

Marxist concept of ideology as class project and through an

analysis of what he calls an "historical bloc" states three

instances. The first occurs at the level of production when this class (hegemonic class) becomes economically revolution

ary, that is to say, capable of transforming the economic base

and establishing new productive relations that permit a new

development of the productive forces themselves and also

able to shape their future development.

The second instance is the moment of a struggle for

hegemony of this class to acquire control over the state

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Politics, Ideology' and Hegemony 205

apparatuses, to reshape the political structure of domination

and to use it in its own interests. This is the moment, Gramsci

argues, when the new social class is able to maintain "

a just

equilibrium between its own fundamental interests which

must prevail, and that of secondary social groups which must

not be sacrificed".15 The economic compromise or economic alliance that is formed is the condition, which, in political

terms unites the subordinate groups and the dominant groups

under the rule of the latter.

The third instance occurs on an intellectual and moral

plane. There the dominant class is able to diffuse throughout

society a conception of the world which obscures the nature

and character of class domination. Other classes accept and

consent to it as a "natural" view of the world, thus engender

ing a new type of social integration.

The last moment of the struggle occurs at the level of

civil society when social integration is achieved. There the

dominant class forges an ideological link between the eco

nomic, political, intellectual and moral aims. It becomes the

hegemonic class and the social formation constitutes an

"historical bloc".

Gramsci's conception of ideology as organic link con

necting structure and superstructure is crucial to the under standing of hegemony. First, Gramsci conceives ideology as

class project, whereby a project emerging from a fundamental

class interest becomes elaborated at the level of the pro

ductive system, but is transformed into a project of organisa

tion directed towards society as a whole. The class which

carries out this transformation is able to reinforce its power over society by virtue of its decisive function in the nucleus

of economic activities. As Marx observed, its ideas become

the dominant ideas ? the ruling ideas ? precisely because of its decisive control over the economic activities of society.

Thus, in Gramsci's view, once this class obtains the active

consent of society, it becomes the hegemonic class.

Second, Gramsci conceives ideology as practice pro

ducing subjects. Ideology, according to Gramsci, is the battle field, the terrain of the struggle, since men's acquisition of consciousness does not come about individually, but through

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the intermediary of the ideological terrain where two

hegemonic principles confront each other. It is, therefore,

through ideology that subjects are created and through

ideology rooted in the economic conditions of life that they

act. Such an active role of ideology, as practice, is articulated

by Gramsci in the notion of ideology as organisation, as

Mouffe16 properly proposes.

An organic ideology is able to organise social groups and

direct them throughout all their activities. It appears through

the concept of "hegemonic apparatuses" (schools, churches

and media) which are the instruments for the exercise of

hegemony and through which organic intellectuals become

organisers. These organisers (organic intellectuals) are the

agents of this practice. They are the ones, according to Gramsci, in charge of elaborating and spreading organic

ideologies and who will have to realise the moral and intel

lectual reform. This role of intellectuals both at the levels of

class organisations (political parties) and the hegemonic

apparatuses, is crucial for maintaining class hegemony as well

as the emergence of counter-hegemonic forms of class


For Gramsci, everything which is the expression of the

"people-nation" is the "national-popular will". Thus, a suc

cessful hegemony is one which is able to create a "collective national-popular will", and for this to occur, the dominant class must be capable of articulating its hegemonic principle

by absorbing all the national popular ideological elements.

It is only when this occurs, Gramsci contends, that the dominant class can appear as representing the national

interest. In the creation of a "national-popular will", the

dominant class is able to transform the class character of

ideological elements by articulating a hegemonic principle

which differs from the one to which they are presently

articulated.17 Such a practice, Mouffe contends, is devoid of

expressed class interests. Their class character is, nevertheless,

conferred upon them by the discourse to which they are articulated and as manifested in the type of subject this

practice creates.

A most crucial and original aspect of Gramsci's political

thought is his regard for the fundamental contradictions

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Politics, Ideology and Hegern ony 207

economically rooted in the presentation of his theory. In

this theory, hegemony is achieved through the establishment

of an organic link connecting civil society and political

society. Thus, political society effectively represents the

interests of the hegemonic class which resorts to the hege

monic apparatuses of society to organise and direct social

groups by securing consent to their leadership.

To summarise, Gramsci's conception of hegemony,

counter-hegemonic struggle and the nature and role of poli

tics and ideology are predicated on three methodological

principles: (i) the dialectical unity of the structure and super

structure; (ii) the dialectical relations between instances of

the superstructure; and (iii) the crucial role of human


It is through the notion of an historical bloc and the

concept of ideologies as organic links which enable Gramsci to assert the dialectical unity between structure and super

structure as a single totality. He asserts:

material forces are the content and ideologies the form, though

this distinction between the form and the content has purely

'didactive' value, since the material forces would be inconceivable

historically without form, and ideologies would be individual

fancies without the material forces.1**

Thus, for Gramsci, there cannot exist quantity with

out quality, or quality without quantity economy without

culture, practical activity without intelligence. Any attempt to divide this principle would be breaking the unity of the

historical process by creating a separation between the con

tent from the form. Such an approach would be a rejection

of the role of the superstructures by making them appear as

individual fancies devoid of economic roots. This leads to the

erroneous conceptions of economism and ideologism, the

same mechanistic, views Gramsci himself rejected from the

Second International.

The second methodological principle concerns the rela tions between different instances of the superstructures.

Gramsci's concepts which denote a moment or crucial aspect of historical reality are inseparable from the concepts which

designate the opposite but complementary aspects of that

reality. Thus, in contrast to the state, understood as the

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apparatus of government, stands civil society. In contrast to the moment of force and dictatorship there is the moment

of persuasion and consent. In contrast to the moment of

ethico-political struggle which transforms the infrastructure

or the economic base, stands the moment of ethico-political expansion. Hence, any separation of these elements can only be made solely for methodological reasons since in the real world all elements are inseparable.

The third and final methodological principle under

girding Gramsci's theoretical formulation concerns human practice. The unity of infrastructure and superstructure can only be a process in which the sole agent is human activity in its various forms.' This process of historical dialectics is

conceived by Gramsci as the passage from the objective to

the subjective, from quantity to quality and from necessity

to liberty. They result periodically in an "overthrow of

praxis", and in a novel historical synthesis when the develop ment of the productive forces and the political initiatives of men have created all the conditions which make the possible


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Politics, Ideology and Hegemony 209


*The 1967 Conference on Gramsci Studies was held at Cagliari in Italy.

It witnessed the intervention of Norberto Bobbio, ''Gramsci and the Conception

of Civil Society", which set the stage for understanding Gramsci's contribution

to Marxist Theory. Bobbio's intervention has been published in English in

Gramsci and Marxist Theory, Chantal Mouffe, (ed.), Routledge & Kegan Paul,

London 1979.


For a thorough discussion on the historical background to the devlvelop

ment of Gramsci 's political thought see, "Hegemony and Ideology in Gramsci"

Gramsci and Marxist Theory, Chantal Mouffe, (ed.), Routledge & Kegan Paul,

London 1979.

3 See Chantal Mouffe, "Gramsci Today" in Gramsci and Marxist Theory,

C. Mouffe, (ed.).

4 See Leonardo Paggi, "Gramsci's General Theory of Marxism" in Gramsci

and Marxist Theory, C. Mouffe, (ed.), pp. 113-167.

^See Antonio Gramsci, Selections from the Prison Notebooks, Internal

Publishers, New York, 1971, Quintin Hoare and Geoffrey Smith, (eds.).

^On this, see Norberto Bobbio, "Gramsci and the Conception of Civil

Society", in Gramsci and Marxist Theory, C. Mouffe, (ed.).

Hegel cited in Bobbio, "Gramsci and the Conception of Civil Society" in

Gramsci and Marxist Theory, C. Mouffe, (ed.).

SOp. cit., p. 28.

9Op. cit., p. 29.


See Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, The German Ideology, Internal

Publishers, New York, 1977.

^Marx and Engels, cited in Bobbio, "Gramsci and the Conception of Civil

Society", pp. 29-30.


Gramsci, cited in Bobbio, "Gramsci and the Conception of Civil Society ,

p. 30.

13Op. cit., pp. 30-31.

14 Antonio Gramsci, cited in Gwynn Williams, "Gramsci's Conception of

Egemonia" in Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol. 21, No. 4, 1960.

^Antonio Gramsci, cited in Jacques Texier, "Gramsci, Theoretician of the

Superstructures", in Gramsci und Marxist Theory, C. Mouffe, (ed.).

See Chantal Mouffe, "Hegemony and Ideology in Gramsci , in Gramsci

and Marxist Theory, C. Mouffe, (ed.).

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11 Op. cit., pp. 178-200.

18 Gramsci, cited in Jacques Texier, "Gramsci, Theoretician of the Super

structures", in Gramsci and Marxist Theory, C. Mouffe, (ed.), p. 58.

190p. cit., pp. 63-78.


[1] CAMMETT, John M., Antonio Gramsci and the Origins of

Italian Communism, Stanford University Press, 1967.

[2] FEMIA, Joseph, Gramsci's Political Thought, Oxford Clarendon

Press, 1981.

[3] GRAMSCI, Antonio, The Modem Prime and Other Writings,

International Publishers, New York, 1978.

[4] HOARE, Quintin and Geoffrey SMITH (eds.), Selections From

the Prison Notebooks, International Publishers, New

York, 1971.

[5] MOUFFE, Chantal, Gramsci and Marxist Theory, Routledge

and Kegan Paul, London, 1979.

[6] SASSOON, Anne S., Approaches to Gramsci, Writers and

Readers, Publishers, London, 1982.

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