Today, no Marxist thinker after the classical epoch is so universally respected in the West as Antonio Gramsci. Nor is any term so freely or diversely invoked on the Left as that of hegemony, to which he gave currency. Gramsci’s reputation, still local and marginal outside his native Italy in the early sixties, has a decade later become a world-wide fame. The homage due to his enterprise in prison is now— thirty years after the first publication of his notebooks—finally and fully being paid. Lack of knowledge, or paucity of discussion, have ceased to be obstacles to the diffusion of his thought. In principle every revolutionary socialist, not only in the West—if especially in the West—can henceforward benefit from Gramsci’s patrimony. Yet at the same time, the spread of Gramsci’s renown has not to date been accompanied by any corresponding depth of enquiry into his work. The very range of the appeals now made to his authority, from the most contrasted sectors of the Left, suggests the limits of close study or comprehension of his ideas. The price of so ecumenical an admiration is necessarily ambiguity: multiple and incompatible interpretations of the themes of the Prison Notebooks.
It has now become urgent, however, to look again, soberly and comparatively, at the texts that have made Gramsci most famous. For the great mass Communist Parties of Western Europe—in Italy, in France, in Spain—are now on the threshold of a historical experience without precedent for them: the commanding assumption of governmental office within the framework of bourgeois-democratic states, without the allegiance to a horizon of ‘proletarian dictatorship’ beyond them that was once the touchstone of the Third International. If one political ancestry is more widely and insistently invoked than any other for the new perspectives of ‘Eurocommunism’, it is that of Gramsci. It is not necessary to accredit any apocalyptic vision of the immediate future, to sense the solemnity of the approaching tests for the history of the working class throughout Western Europe. The present political conjuncture calls for a serious and responsible clarification of the themes in Gramsci’s work which are now commonly associated with the new design of Latin communism.
At the same time, of course, Gramsci’s influence is by no means confined to those countries where there exist major Communist Parties, poised for entry into government. The adoption of concepts from the Prison Notebooks has, in fact, been especially marked in the theoretical and historical work of the British Left in recent years, and to a lesser extent of the American Left. The sudden phenomenon of very widespread borrowing from Gramsci within Anglo-Saxon political culture provides a second, more parochial prompting to re-examine his legacy in these pages. For New Left Review was the first socialist journal in Britain— possibly the first anywhere outside Italy—to make deliberate and
The purpose of this article, then, will be to analyse the precise forms and functions of Gramsci’s concept of hegemony in his Prison Notebooks, and to assess their internal coherence as a unified discourse; to consider their validity as an account of the typical structures of class power in the bourgeois democracies of the West; and finally to weigh their strategic consequences for the struggle of the working class to achieve emancipation and socialism. Its procedure will of necessity be primarily philological: an attempt to fix with greater precision what Gramsci said and meant in his captivity; to locate the sources from which he derived the terms of his discourse; and to reconstruct the network of oppositions and correspondences in the thought of his contemporaries into which his writing was inserted—in other words, the true theoretical context of his work. These formal enquiries are the indispensable condition, it will be argued, of any substantive judgment of Gramsci’s theory of hegemony.