Subaltern Hegemony and the Recomposition of the Left

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Autonomy, strategy, experimentation and creativity will all be necessary in order for the subaltern classes and the Left to develop their own hegemonic forms and practices. Doing so will be necessary to challenge capitalist social relations and hegemony.

Since the early 2000’s, we have seen an emergence of socialist and left-wing politics worldwide. The rapid growth of strong center-left formations, some of which were able to win elections (from Pink Tide governments in Latin America, to Podemos in Spain and SYRIZA in Greece), has generated illusions among the left. However, despite winning some scattered and temporary reforms, they have been incapable of fundamentally challenging capitalist social relations or the capitalist state. 

In this piece, Argentinean Marxist Juan Dal Maso interviews Panagiotis Sotiris, a leading Marxist scholar from Greece. Sotiris discusses the concept of hegemony, and Gramsci’s contribution on the topic, as well as Althusser’s work and its influence in Greece’s current politics. He points out the shortcomings of the concept of the ‘hegemonic project,’ or left-populist interpretations of hegemony, and highlights the value in the idea of dual power and the importance of the autonomy for what he calls the subaltern classes. Implicit in the development of a subaltern hegemony is a break from the current organizational forms, practices, and relations existing under capitalism. 

In a recent piece you were critical of the work of Ernesto Laclau & Chantal Mouffe. Specifically, you wrote that hegemony has to be more than just a project. What did you mean by that? 

Recently I did some research on the uses of the notion of hegemony. Through this research I found the first use of the term ‘hegemonic project,’ by Bob Jessop in the early 1980’s. The term also appears in the works of Laclau and Mouffe, in international relations theory, and of course in the contemporary debates of the left. Needless to say, I also have used the term a lot.

As is the case with many popular terms, we should always examine them further in order to discern how useful they really are. In this sense, I have suggested that however useful the notion of a ‘hegemonic project’ could be as a metaphor, we run into problems if and when we try to use it as a theoretical concept.

Specifically, the problem is that the notion of a ‘hegemonic project’ treats the struggle for hegemony as the elaboration of a ‘middle-range’ political project. This entails the combination of successful alliance-building and effective rhetoric. This is particularly true if we look at contemporary political projects associated with or influenced by the work of Ernesto Laclau, in which hegemony is treated only in terms of the articulation of hegemonic discourses that can appeal to broad segments of society. Treated as such, the political practice of hegemony can easily be reduced to a set of communicative practices. 

Such approaches to or understandings of hegemony as a ‘hegemonic project’ lend themselves to a top-down approach. The corresponding political projects tend to be more populist in orientation, and are characterized by the importance of a strong leader. 

In contrast to the above notions of hegemony, I would like to insist on the richness of Gramsci’s theorization of hegemony. As it is well known, Gramsci developed his notion of hegemony based on the debates taking place inside the Russian revolutionary movement up until the New Economic Policy (NEP) era. Accordingly, his conceptualization of hegemony referred to the ability of the working class to assume a leading role in a broader alliance of the subaltern classes. It served as a conceptual node which would enable us to rethink the very substance of politics in the bourgeois era.

Gramsci’s notion of hegemony therefore referred to a particular moment, or modality, of politics that emerges in modernity precisely because of the new forms of class struggle and the political forms associated with the both the ascent of the capitalist class to power (including what we refer to as “bourgeois revolutions”) and the new forms of political intervention of the subaltern classes, and in particular the working class movement.

Gramsci’s approach enriches and transforms the very notion of hegemony. It makes evident that hegemony is not only about ideology and ‘consent;’ crucially, it makes clear the fact that hegemonic practices and formsalso emerge in the terrain of capitalist production. It stresses the difference between bourgeois hegemony and a potential hegemony of the subaltern.

In a certain way hegemony emerges after Gramsci’s complex elaboration as the particular practice that enables the tentative and unstable ‘coherence’ of a social formation, in the complex interplay between economy, politics and ideology. This practice is articulated by means of a complex series of hegemonic apparatuses within the ‘integral state’ conceived not just as the combination of civil society and political society’ but also as ‘the entire complex of practical and theoretical activities with which the ruling class not only justifies and maintains its dominance, but manages to win the active consent of those over whom it rules’ (Gramsci).

In this sense, it is important to think more in terms of the practice of hegemony and in particular of the potential practice of a hegemony of the subaltern. As many theorists have suggested, including Etienne Balibar who first stressed this point but also Althusser, in Marx we do not simply find the need for a working class politics; importantly, the need for a working class politics refers to a new practice of politics. One might say that such a political practice, based on democracy, participation, mass intellectuality and collective experimentation, in sum a politics of transformation, is also exactly the basis of an antagonistic form of a potential hegemony of the subaltern. The practice, or implementation, of such practices implies the transformation of subaltern aspirations, resistances, inventions, sensitivities, and knowledges into a new hegemonic form/hegemonic practice. 

Such a perception also has political repercussions. It points towards the need to not limit hegemony to discourse, or worse, communication. It makes evident that we are not talking about a project to be elaborated outside the masses and then ‘addressed’ to them; on the contrary, it stresses the importance of class and class strategies. It also makes it evident that we talking about a hegemonic practice emanating in an ‘organic’ (in the Gramscian sense) manner from the practices of the subaltern, an expression of their struggle towards self-government and integral autonomy.

For these reasons I think that the notion of the ‘hegemonic project’ is very inadequate to describe these political and theoretical challenges.

You wrote about the necessity of rethinking the concept of dual power. How important is that question for Marxist theory and for the left today?

I believe that dual power is a very important notion. It does not simply refer to a certain ‘moment’ in a revolutionary sequence, but rather it refers to the core problems associated with the elaboration of any viable revolutionary strategy.

In the classical reading of Lenin’s texts dual power is considered to refer to a rather brief phase of acute revolutionary crisis, during which time two opposing forms of power, the capitalist state power on the one hand, and the potential power of the worker’s state in the form of the Soviets on the other, briefly co-exist.

However, I think that dual power expresses a more profound modality of any revolutionary process. In this sense, Trotsky’s description of dual power as an important element of any revolutionary process points to a necessary line of research. .

I think that the only possible way to deal with this question is by thinking of all of the complexity of the transition process as a period of intensified class struggle and as a process in which simply maintaining governmental power could not survive the counter-attacks of the bourgeoisie without the intervention of forms of popular power from below.

Moreover, I think that dual power also points to the direction of a prolonged process of confrontation not just between different forms of class power, but also between different social forms and practices. The process of transition implies a constant struggle between capitalist and socialist/communist social relations and forms. The only way that the emergent socialist or communist elements and social forms can become dominant is by way of an expansive process of social experimentation and the liberation of the potential of collective ingenuity. Such a process of experimentation requires the political forms of dual power; namely, it requires the forms of subaltern self-organization, resistance, and struggle that enable the emancipation of social experimentation, beyond the planning of the ‘worker’s state’.

The very experience of socialist experiments has made it evident that the only way to counter the constant re-emergence of capitalist social forms and hierarchies, in addition to avoiding the danger of what we have historically defined as the “bureaucracy” is through the existence and expansion of autonomous forms of organization of the subaltern classes. These autonomous organizations must even be capable of struggling against the ‘workers’ state’ itself.

The contemporary conjuncture of hegemonic crisis has opened up new possibilities, including the possibility of forms of ‘left governance’. However, the only possible way to combine such an eventuality with an actual revolutionary to strategy is to insist that we also need autonomous forms of power from below that would enable the constant expansion of political practices and the collective experimentation of the subaltern. These autonomous forms would be capable of pushing the ‘left government’ towards more radical positions, and in particular towards measures of socialist character, ultimately opening a constituent process that would enable the full deployment of new forms of popular power.

I would like to insist that such an approach is different from the classical reformist ‘democratic road to socialism’ approach which suggested that what is needed is a ‘left wing government’ with the support of a ‘strong popular movement’. In such an approach there is always the danger of treating the state as a neutral instrument, underestimating its class character, and how that class character is inscribed in the very materiality of the state. Rather, I am referring to a much more contradictory situation in which the crucial aspect will be the expansion of both the power and the actual influence of the forms of autonomous organization from below; these elements will constitute the main dynamic towards initiating a process of transformation and revolutionizing of the state. It is here where the struggle for hegemony will take place.

Continuing on the theme of dual power, you have written that Lenin’s understanding of the functions of the Soviets shares many similarities with what Gramsci called the ‘hegemonic apparatus;’ can you elaborate on that? What do you think about Trotsky’s contributions to the topic of dual power? 

I think that in order to think about the soviets and the very question of soviet power we have to realize that the question is not simply about the forms of expression of proletarian power or worker’s democracy, however important these aspects are.

Rather, the question is whether the entire period of transition to the ‘regulated society,’ to use Gramsci’s expression, and an integral socialization of political forms and politicization of social forms, can be seen as a constant expansion and development of ‘civil society’ in a much richer form than that of the bourgeois era. The soviets therefore refer to a process-as a way to actually induce a process of profound transformation of ‘political society,’ or the state in the narrow sense.

In opposition to the bourgeois ‘integral state’ we need an integral political process of struggle, experimentation, transformation and emancipation, as well as the full elaboration and practice of a potential hegemony of the subaltern. In such an approach the soviets become much more than simply ‘assemblies;’ rather, they become crucial nodes in an entire complex of hegemonic apparatuses of the subaltern. In this sense, it is not simply about democratic legitimacy or a procedure within socialism, which of course by itself is of the utmost important for any revolutionary project, but rather it is about the full deployment of the political practice of subaltern hegemony. Accordingly, it refers to a new dialectical relation between civil society and political society in the aim of what Gramsci defined as the absorption of political society by civil society.

I think that there are important insights about dual power in the works of Trotsky. Of particular importance is the way he conceptualized dual power as an integral aspect of any revolutionary process. I would point to passages such as the following: ‘If the state is an organization of class rule, and a revolution is the overthrow of the ruling class, then the transfer of power from the one class to the other must necessarily create self-contradictory state conditions, and first of all in the form of the dual power. The relation of class forces is not a mathematical quantity permitting a priori computations. When the old regime is thrown out of equilibrium, a new correlation of forces can be established only as the result of a trial by battle. That is revolution’. (1)

Changing the subject a little…In recent years we have seen an increasing interest in the works of Althusser, as well as some comparisons between Althusser and Gramsci. What do you think are the main convergences in their works and thought? The main differences? 

I have been working on Althusser since the 1990s, so in a certain way I still consider myself an Althusserian. The importance of Althusser is in the very originality of his attempt to rethink the possibility of a new materialist practice of philosophy in a sharp break with all forms of historicism, teleology and metaphysical thinking. It is in a certain way the attempt to stress the radical originality of Karl Marx’s thought. At the same time, it is also important to stress that the works of Althusser represented interventions at specific conjunctures, and also that he was the philosopher par excellence of self-criticism as a philosophical strategy. 

In a certain way both Althusser, with the notion of overdetermination, and Gramsci with the notion of hegemony, attempted to answer similar questions; namely the very complexity of political practice as articulating practice in a terrain traversed by class struggle.

Moreover, it is important to note that Althusser was in many aspects influenced by Gramsci. This is exemplified in Althusserian notions such as the ideological apparatuses of the state.

At the same time, Althusser also searched for a highly original practice of philosophy, and there are analogies with Gramsci’s research on the philosophy of praxis.

However, one might talk of a missed encounter between Althusser and Gramsci, something exemplified in the very critical stance that Althusser takes against Gramsci both in Reading Capitaland also in this 1970’s texts. There are various reasons for this, including Althusser’s fear that Gramsci’s ‘absolute historicism’ would indeed lead to an idealist historicism (despite the fact that Gramsci’s actual ‘social ontology’ was much closer to Althusser’s conception of a non-teleological materialism), as well as his opposition to the use of Gramsci by the varieties of Eurocommunism.

Continuing with Althusser- can you speak about the relationship between Althusser’s influence and the militant left in Greece?

Since the 1970’s there has been a constant interest in the work of Louis Althusser in Greece. This has to do with the fact that the radical tendencies that attempted a left-wing critique of communist reformism found a useful ally in the works of Althusser. For example, they drew on his theory of the Ideological Apparatuses of the State, his insistence of the primacy of the relations of the production over the productive forces, his critique of economism and ‘humanistic’ Marxism, and on his insistence on the crisis of the communist movement. This was also aided by the fact that in the student movement Althusser was read as a radical critic of bourgeois education and in particular of bourgeois higher education. These factors were combined with the importance of the work of Poulantzas in the Greek debates, and the fact that Poulantzas also echoed some of the positions of Althusser. This made Althusser a constant point of reference for militants and organizations (such as Aristeri Anasythesi – ARAN [Left Recomposition] the current of which I am a member), in addition to the role his work played for important theoretical Journals such as Theseis.

In this sense, one might say that in Greece we have a reversal of the traditional way that Althusser is viewed in academia; whereas the most common tendency is to treat him as ‘theoreticist’ and detached from real political exigencies, in Greece, from the beginning, the reading of Althusser was much more political and in relation to pressing political questions. This is perhaps the main originality of the reception of Althusser in Greece- exactly this kind of political and politically motivated reading of Althusser. 

Although many works of Althusser had been published in the 1970’s, 1980’s, and 1990’s, we are now attempting to make a new series of translations of works that had been published in Greece, as well as some of his untranslated works. Ektos Grammis publications is making this possible, with Tassos Betzelos serving as the translator. I am really happy to be a part of the editorial collective.

On the topic of Greece- what is your opinion regarding the current situation of the country? Can you speak a little bit about the approach, or perspectives, of different left groups there? 

After the capitulation of the SYRIZA-led government in 2015 and the singing of yet another “Memorandum of Understanding’ (namely, a bail-out, austerity, and a capitalist restructuring program) with the EU-IMF-ECB ‘Troika, the opportunity that was opened by both the tremendous 2010-2012 movement and by the display of force by the part of the subaltern classes in the 2015 referendum was lost. Instead, the popular forces of society suffered a defeat.. This was an expression of the limits, shortcomings, and contradictions of all the currents of the Greek left: the reformism and Europeanism of SYRIZA that has progressively become a social-democratic party; the inability of the anti-capitalist left to actually elaborate a viable strategy for power and hegemony; finally, the sectarianism of the Communist Party. This has resulted in the defeat and desperation of the subaltern classes and the widespread disaggregation of the subaltern, exemplified in the inability to mount a serious resistance to the policies of SYRIZA.

Moreover, despite the fact that Greece is now nominally no longer suffering under the austerity programs, the social landscape is still very difficult for the majority of Greeks. Unemployment is still very high (more than 18%) and most new jobs are part time and precarious. A large segment of the youth has migrated, especially those who have completed university. The far Right, in the form of the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn Party, still has considerable influence. Social movements are fragmented and lack that kind of commitment to a common cause that characterized the 2010-2015 period.

As a result the Greek left is going through a period of deep crisis. SYRIZA is an openly social-democratic party and there is no point of treating it as either a progressive or even reformist force. Popular Unity, the coalition of the left of SYRIZA that split in 2015 in addition to some segments of the anti-capitalist left, did not manage to offer an alternative to SYRIZA. Moreover, it failed to avoid some nationalist positions regarding the ‘Macedonian question.’ ANTARSYA, the coalition of the anti-capitalist left is in a strategic crisis and turning towards more sectarian positions, while the Communist Party (KKE) is still insisting on a line that combines anti-capitalist rhetoric with sectarianism and a defeatist conception that ‘the conditions are not ripe enough’.

The results of the European elections made this strategic crisis of the Greek anti-capitalist left even more evident. Although SYRIZA suffered a big defeat, paying the price for the neoliberal policies it has implemented, the main electoral beneficiary was not the radical left. Popular Unity had an electoral disaster taking only 0,56% of the vote (in the 2015 general election its share of the vote was 2,86%) and ANTARSYA also had a fall, taking 0,64% in contrast to 0,85% in the 2015 general election. In contrast, MeRA25 the party of Yanis Varoufakis, which insisted on the reformist ‘left Europeanism’ line of its founder, got 2,99% and polls suggest that it could pass the 3% threshold in the upcoming general election of July 7. All these point towards a deeper strategic, political and even cultural crisis of the radical left, expressed not only in the variations of sectarianism but also in the disregard for real work on questions of program and strategy. 

Accordingly, what is needed is indeed a process of recomposition of both the left and the social movements, as well as the creation of new collective forms and new forms of coordination of movement. Furthermore, however, new forms for rebuilding the left as a laboratory for a potential hegemony of the subaltern are necessary as well. This requires a profound rethinking of strategies, but also of organizational forms. It also requires the realization that what we need are movements, resistances and collectivities than can really act as laboratories and meeting points where we develop and learn new practices. Doing so will actually enabled the emergence of new forms of subaltern political intellectuality, as well as new political projects organically related to the practices, struggles and collective aspirations of the subaltern classes.

Only in such a way can we really work towards the formation of a new historical bloc, which should not be considered as simply an alliance of classes, but rather as the combination of a broad alliance in the struggle of the subaltern through which it elaborates a transition program and new forms and practices of politics.

And as mentioned already, this requires a rethinking of the organization, especially today as we see many signs of a crisis of authority within traditional organizations, as the “Modern Prince’. This means that we see the political front as a laboratory and as a point of encounter, as the ‘integral United Front.’ Namely, the development of a subaltern hegemony will both require and represent the ensemble of all the activities and practices it is capable of elaborating.

To such a challenge a return to Gramsci and all the richness of his carceral research is more than necessary. When questions of power and hegemony return to the forefront, even by means of defeats such as that of the Greek popular movement, then Gramsci becomes much more urgently needed, in all the richness of his writings.

Interview by Juan Dal Maso

1 L.Trotsky, History of the Russian Revolution, translated by Max Eastman, Chicago: Haymarket, p. 155.

About author

Juan Dal Maso

Juan Dal Maso

Juan is a Marxist from Neuquén in Argentina and an author of two books about the thought of Antonio Gramsci. He is a member of the Party of Socialist Workers (PTS).

Panagiotis Sotiris

Panagiotis Sotiris

Panagiotis is a Marxist scholar from Greece and a member of Popular Unity.