Ideas & Debates


Gramsci’s Three Moments of Hegemony

Proletarian hegemony is paramount to winning mass support and taking power, as well as during the transition to socialism. This article describes three moments, or levels of analysis with which to understand the conditions for proletarian hegemony.

August 03, 2016

This article was originally published in the Special Dossier of Ideas de Izquierda, April 2016 edition.

It seems the question of hegemony has been analyzed and interpreted both inside and outside the realm of of Marxist theory. Following the arguments posited by Gianni Francioni’s classic study, we see Antonio Gramsci’s construction of a general theory of hegemony in Prison Notebooks as one which contributes to an understanding of bourgeois hegemony, as well as the conditions for the establishment of proletarian hegemony. [1] In this article we emphasize the latter, which has received less popular attention in general.

If we consider Gramsci’s writings prior to his imprisonment, for example, in Some Aspects of the Southern Question, he had already laid out the issue of hegemony as the capacity of the proletariat to mobilize Italy’s working population against the bourgeois state, which was only possible through gaining the support of the peasant masses. [2] There is a continuity of this position in the Notebooks.

As a starting point, we take the first definition that Gramsci offers in the Notebooks, which he elaborates later: hegemony is the leadership of allied classes and the domination over adversaries, such that when a class is in power, it becomes dominant but must continue to lead (C1 §44, written from February to March 1930). [3]

In this article [4], we propose a differentiation of three moments of its use by Gramsci: 1) the strategic moment tied to the analysis of situations and relations of forces and its connection to the question of civil war and insurrection; 2) the moment of hegemony in the transitional society towards socialism; and 3) the “historical-universal” moment in which the construction of a proletarian hegemony is part of the historical prospect of communism overcoming capitalism as a dominant system.

By “moment,” we mean a level of analysis that is part of a logical as well as historical progression, conceptual as well as political/strategic, open to diverse combinations and mediations, although with the logic of general development specified by Gramsci himself.

The Strategic Moment

In a well-known passage called “Analysis of Situations and Relations of Forces” (Prison Notebooks C13 §17, written between May 1932 and early 1934), Gramsci lays out a conceptual definition of the different moments that can be identified to perform an analysis of relations of forces. Inseparably bound to this conceptual dimension is the political/strategic dimension. In the political/strategic dimension, reality presents the different “moments” of the relations of forces with peculiar combinations, the proportions of which are determined by the progression of the relations of forces towards the “immediately decisive” political/military moment. According to Gramsci, three moments of the forces of relations must be distinguished:

1) That of the objective social relations of forces, which is a rebellious reality, i.e. independent of the will of the agents.

2) That of the political relation of forces, which in turn can be subdivided into: a “corporate economic” moment, in which a certain consciousness of class interest is gained, but limited to the sector. A second moment in which class identification extends to the entire social group, but its expression in the political sphere is limited to the prospect of achieving changes that are favorable to the group or class within the framework of the legislation in effect. A third moment that is hegemonic, strictly speaking, in which the group becomes aware that its own interests cannot be defended within corporate limits and require the establishment of alliances, political organization within a party and the struggle to take over the State.

3) That of the military relations of forces, which is the one that is immediately decisive and can be subdivided into a technical/military moment and a political/military moment, which Gramsci exemplifies with the struggle for liberation of an oppressed people against an occupying power.

Gramsci emphasizes that historical development varies continuously between the first and third moment, with the mediation of the second.

From this point of view, hegemony is a necessary condition for the resolution of the military relation of forces, but does not replace it, just as the “directly decisive” moment of military relations of forces cannot take place without the prior establishment of hegemony.

It is within this discursive framework that we refer to the “strategic moment” of hegemony, or we can say that the question of hegemony be discussed from the point of view of relations of forces—that is, hegemony from the perspective of the armed resolution of relations of forces that extend from the objective social structure to political/military confrontation.
Civil War and Insurrection

Gramsci emphasizes the question of civil war more than that of insurrection insofar as he seeks to reflect on the achievement of certain political conditions prior to the insurrectional process, which in turn converges with the civil war, to which it tends to be subordinated. To delve deeper into the discussion of this issue in the Notebooks, it is suggested to refer to Gramsci’s analysis of the political/military question in the Risorgimento process.

In general, Gramsci departs from the idea shared by Clausewitz and Machiavelli that military leadership is secondary to political leadership, broadly speaking. Instead, Gramsci indicates that the problem of military leadership is political/military and consists of how to achieve a previously prepared force that for example, would allow simultaneous insurrection throughout the entire peninsula to expel the Austrians and also maintain the position gained once they attempted to return (C19 §28, written between February, 1934 and February, 1935).

Thus, he signaled that in order to expel the Austrians, a “homogeneous and coherent” Italian party with a concrete program was necessary, and this program had to be shared by the masses and peasants in particular (C17 §28, written mostly in 1933).

The essential difference between the historical processes of the bourgeois and proletarian revolutions is that the working class cannot become the economically dominant class before its rise to power, as the bourgeoisie were able to accomplish. However, Gramsci drew analogies based on elements or issues that apply equally to both types of processes: the issue of hegemony with regard to the peasantry, the relationship between organized insurrection and popular uprising, the analogy between Jacobinism and Bolshevism.

From this point of view, Gramsci’s conclusions on the political/military issues of the Risorgimento shed light on those of the proletarian revolution, supplementing his work in C13 §17.

Within this framework, we can conclude that Gramsci’s core issue in this regard is not so much the art of insurrection as such, but the political art of uniting insurrection and popular uprising. [5]

The Post-Revolutionary Moment: Hegemony in the Transitional Society

In the previous sections, we described the relationships between hegemony, civil war and insurrection and what we define as the “strategic moment” of hegemony. We have yet to analyze the specific aspect of hegemony in post-revolutionary society, which is the second moment of hegemony in Gramscian theory. We will seek to analyze certain variations, from his pre-prison stage to his formulations in the Notebooks.

In his 1926 letter to the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU), Gramsci indicated that “hegemony under the [New Economic Policy (NEP)] created an ‘unprecedented contradiction’ consisting of the fact that the working class was politically dominant but socially subordinated, and this situation could only be sustained with the unity of the leadership.” [6] He criticized the oppositional group for its recreation of traditions of unionism and social democracy, although he denounced the majority’s gangster methods. Within this context, the idea of hegemony was linked to a certain idea of “national politics,” which at least circumstantially, could even be in contradiction with the material interests of the working class.

In the Prison Notebooks, Gramsci sustains that hegemony consists of the overcoming of corporate economic interest and the establishment of a “national” politics (uniting city and country) on the basis of the struggle to form a new type of state. But he introduces the element of economic centrality more clearly than in his 1926 letter, signaling that hegemony cannot only be “ethical/political” but also economic, since “it is based on the decisive function performed by the leadership in the decisive core of economic activity” (C13 §18, written between May, 1932 and early 1934).

This passage has often been taken to mean that a class becomes hegemonic through the realization of economic concessions. One problem with this interpretation is that it is redundant, since it would be the foundation for “ethical/political” hegemony, i.e. a hegemony established on the basis of overcoming the “corporate economic” moment. The fact that Gramsci emphasized the essential role played by the leadership in economic activity is a slight modification that adds nuance to his 1926 position.

If hegemony must not solely rest on political leadership, but also on the fundamental role of the leading group in economic activity, this group (ie., the proletariat) cannot be a class that is socially subordinated in its own State.

This interpretation is also supported by the more general analysis of the question of relations of forces (referred to in the previous section), which is based on the relations of social forces (“rebellious reality”). That is to say, there is a structural, “objective basis” for the movements of the superstructure. Although it does not explain them mechanically, the latter are not absolutely autonomous.

Lastly, but on a deeper level of reasoning, this interpretation of the unity of “economic” and “ethical/political” hegemony is consistent with the idea of new immanence as a “new unitary synthetic moment.” This moment unites economy, philosophy, history and politics, a synthesis that is expressed in each discursive fragment of the philosophy of praxis, from Gramsci’s perspective.

The development of this “new concept of immanence” is almost correlative to the start of his writing of Notebook 13; therefore, our interpretation is that the development of this new concept of immanence allows Gramsci to develop an idea of “integral” hegemony that unites the three moments referred to in this article, as well as the “ethical/political” and economic sphere. [7]

The Historical-Universal Moment of Hegemony

Having described a “strategic” hegemonic moment of the relations of forces and another moment involving the economic/political relationship in a transitional society, we have yet to discuss a third moment, which, for lack of a better definition, we will refer to as “historical-universal.”

This moment is configured as the rise to power of the working class and the foundation of a new state, but extends beyond the immediate question of sustaining hegemony in the precarious conditions of transition, to the history of humanity as a whole. We are referring to the more long-term process by which the working class replaces the bourgeoisie as the dominant class in the whole of society on an international scale and clears the way for a new era in the history of humanity. By this process, the society advances towards the construction of socialism and culminates in a “regulated society,” or communism.

From this perspective, the development of an “integral” concept of hegemony, correlative to the idea of a new concept of immanence as distinctive of historical materialism, includes the question of the development of a new culture/civilization within the framework of overcoming capitalism by socialism.

The presence of this “historical-universal” moment in Gramscian thought on hegemony also reveals the complex and contradictory nature of his adherence to the mid-1920s policy of “socialism in one country” and his characterization of the concept of hegemony as essentially national.

In order to rise to the level of a new stage in the history of humanity, socialism requires development on an international scale. In this article, we are unable to elaborate on this issue in all its aspects, but in this contradictory side of Gramscian thought there may be a certain hesitation displayed in C14 §68, when Gramsci attempts to sustain both premises simultaneously, i.e. that the starting point is national, but the perspective is international, with the “two buts” statement:

To be sure, the line of development is towards internationalism, but the point of departure is ’national’ and it is from this point of departure that one must begin. But the perspective is international and cannot be otherwise. (C14 §68, written in February, 1933).

Lastly, it is important to note that upon reflecting on this issue, Gramsci is clearly opposed to those who interpreted his ideas as referring to a cultural change within the framework of the current state; that is to say, with no revolution or struggle for a new kind of state. At the same time, he is also far removed from the positions of a “proletarian culture” (Proletkult), which today is barely present, but had a significant influence at the time. This can be seen in his thoughts compiled under the title, “Reform and Renaissance,” especially in the polemic with a 1931 article by Boris Souvarine, when the latter was distanced from Marxism and criticized the lack of outstanding intellectual production in the USSR.

Gramsci indicated the need for simultaneous Reform and Rebirth, i.e. the unity of a profound change in the sphere of popular culture and the production of the intellectual elite and high culture (C7 §43, written between February and November 1931). For this reason, he also reflected on the role of Marx as intellectual originator of a historical era and that of Lenin as the person who materialized it within a specific territory (C7 §33, written between February and November, 1931). He also outlined Antonio Labriola’s philosophical enunciation as functional to a class that becomes autonomous and hegemonic and must construct a new kind of state (C11 §70, written between August and late 1932 or early 1933).

By underlining these three levels or moments, we seek to contribute to a greater understanding of the different registers with which Gramsci reflects on the issue of hegemony, uniting the elements that are methodologically inseparable in his reflections during his time in prison: history, economy, philosophy and politics.

 [1] Francioni, Gianni: L’Officina Gramsciana, ipotesi sulla struttura dei “Quaderni del carcere,” Napoli, Bibliopolis, 1984, pg. 163.

[2] All Prison Notebooks references have been taken from Quaderni del carcere, Edizione critica dell’Istituto Gramsci a cura di Valentino Gerratana, Torino, Einaudi, 2001. In addition, we included the approximate date on which the notes were written following Francioni Gianni’s dating, L’Officina Gramsciana, ipotesi sulla struttura dei “Quaderni del carcere,” Napoli, Bibliopolis, 1984.

[3] Gramsci, Antonio: “Alcuni temi della quistione meridionale” in Scritti Politici a cura di Paolo Spriano, Roma, Editori Riuniti, 1978, pg. 246

[4] This article is an adapted and abridged version of Chapter V of the author’s work Gramsci y la Revolución Permanente. Notas para una relectura de los Cuadernos de la cárcel, unpublished to date.

[5] Here, the difference with Trotsky is more of emphasis than of general conception, although it is nonetheless significant for a concrete articulation of tactic and strategy. On this topic, see Albamonte, Emilio and Maiello, Matías: “Gramsci, Trotsky y la democracia capitalista,” Estrategia Internacional 29, January, 2016.

[6] New Economic Policy implemented by the Bolsheviks as of 1921, which restored certain market mechanisms in the country and city in order to revitalize the Soviet economy and mend the relationship between the proletariat and peasantry, industry and agriculture. As of 1925 the Soviet leadership performed a “turn towards the kulak,” or rich peasant, thus reinforcing anti-socialist tendencies in Soviet society.

[7] Explained more thoroughly in C10 II §9, written in the second half of May, 1932.

Translation: Marisela Trevin
Copy editing: Michael Lynch


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