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.

There are, of course, good reasons for this. No Marxist work is so difficult to read accurately and systematically, because of the peculiar conditions of its composition. To start with, Gramsci underwent the normal fate of original theorists, from which neither Marx nor Lenin was exempt: the necessity of working towards radically new concepts in an old vocabulary, designed for other purposes and times, which overlaid and deflected their meaning. Just as Marx had to think many of his innovations in the language of Hegel or Smith, Lenin in that of Plekhanov and Kautsky, so Gramsci often had to produce his concepts within the archaic and inadequate apparatus of Croce or Machiavelli. This familiar problem, however, is compounded by the fact that Gramsci wrote in prison, under atrocious conditions, with a fascist censor scrutinizing everything that he produced. The involuntary disguise that inherited language so often imposes on a pioneer was thus superimposed by a voluntary disguise which Gramsci assumed to evade his jailers. The result is a work censored twice over: its spaces, ellipses, contradictions, disorders, allusions, repetitions, are the result of this uniquely adverse process of composition. The reconstruction of the hidden order within these hieroglyphs remains to be done. This difficult enterprise has scarcely yet been started. A systematic work of recovery is needed to discover what Gramsci wrote in the true, obliterated text of his thought. It is necessary to say this as a warning against all facile or complacent readings of Gramsci: he is still largely an unknown author to us.

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 systematic use of Gramsci’s theoretical canon to analyse its own national society, and to debate a political strategy capable of transforming it. The essays that sought to realize this project were published in 1964–5.footnote1 At the time, Gramsci’s work was unfamiliar in England: the articles in question were generally contested.footnote2 By 1973–5, Gramscian themes and notions of a similar tenor were ubiquitous. In particular, the central concept of ‘hegemony’, first utilized as the leitmotif of the nlr theses of the early sixties, has since enjoyed an extraordinary fortune. Historians, literary critics, philosophers, economists and political scientists have employed it with ever increasing frequency.footnote3 Amidst the profusion of usages and allusions, however, there has been relatively little inspection of the actual texts in which Gramsci developed his theory of hegemony. A more direct and exact reflection on these is now overdue. The review that first introduced their vocabulary into England is an appropriate forum in which to reconsider them.

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.

Let us start by recalling the most celebrated passages of all in the Prison Notebooks—the legendary fragments in which Gramsci contrasted the political structures of ‘East’ and ‘West’, and the revolutionary strategies pertinent to each of them. These texts represent the most cogent synthesis of the essential terms of Gramsci’s theoretical universe, which elsewhere are dispersed and scattered throughout the Notebooks. They do not immediately broach the problem of hegemony. However, they assemble all the necessary elements for its emergence into a controlling position in his discourse. The two central notes focus on the relationship between State and civil society, in Russia and in Western Europe respectively.footnote4 In each case, they do so by way of the same military analogy.

In the first, Gramsci discusses the rival strategies of the high commands in the First World War, and concludes that they suggest a supreme lesson for class politics after the war. ‘General Krasnow has asserted (in his novel) that the Entente did not wish for the victory of Imperial Russia for fear that the Eastern Question would definitively be resolved in favour of Tsarism, and therefore obliged the Russian General Staff to adopt trench warfare (absurd, in view of the enormous length of the front from the Baltic to the Black Sea, with vast marshy and forest zones), whereas the only possible strategy was a war of manoeuvre. This assertion is merely silly. In actual fact, the Russian Army did attempt a war of manoeuvre and sudden incursion, especially in the Austrian sector (but also in East Prussia), and won successes as brilliant as they were ephemeral. The truth is that one cannot choose the form of war one wants, unless from the start one has a crushing superiority over the enemy. It is well-known what losses were incurred by the stubborn refusal of the General Staffs to acknowledge that a war of position was ‘imposed’ by the overall relation of forces in conflict. A war of position is not, in reality, constituted simply by actual trenches, but by the whole organizational and industrial system of the territory which lies to the back of the army in the field. It is imposed notably by the rapid fire-power of cannons, machine-guns and rifles, by the armed strength that can be concentrated at a particular spot, as well as by the abundance of supplies that make possible the swift replacement of material lost after an enemy breakthrough or retreat. A further factor is the great mass of men under arms; they are of a very unequal calibre, and are precisely only able to operate as a mass force. It can be seen how on the Eastern Front it was one thing to make an incursion into the Austrian sector, and another into the German sector; and how even in the Austrian sector, reinforced by picked German troops and commanded by Germans, incursion tactics ended in disaster. The same thing happened in the Polish Campaign of 1920; the seemingly irresistible advance was halted before Warsaw by General Weygand, on the line commanded by French officers. The very military experts who are believers in wars of position, just as they previously were in war of manoeuvre, naturally do not maintain that the latter should be expunged from military science. They merely maintain that in wars among the more industrially and socially advanced States, war of manoeuvre must be considered reduced to more of a tactical than a strategic function, occupying the same position as siege warfare previously held in relation to it. The same reduction should be effected in the art and science of politics, at least in the case of the advanced States, where “civil society” has become a very complex structure and one that is resistant to the catastrophic “incursions” of the immediate economic element (crises, depressions, and so on). The superstructures of civil society are like the trench-systems of modern warfare. In war it would happen sometimes that a fierce artillery attack seemed to have destroyed the enemy’s entire defensive system, whereas in fact it had only destroyed the outer surface of it; and at the moment of their advance and attack the assailants would find themselves confronted by a line of defence which was still effective. The same thing happens in politics, during the great economic crises. A crisis cannot give the attacking forces the ability to organize with lightning speed in time and space; still less can it endow them with fighting spirit. Similarly, the defenders are not demoralized, nor do they abandon their positions, even among the ruins, nor do they lose faith in their own strength or in their own future. Of course, things do not remain exactly as they were; but it is certain that one will not find the element of speed, of accelerated time, of the definitive forward march expected by the strategists of political Cadornism. The last occurrence of the kind in the history of politics was the events of 1917. They marked a decisive turning-point in the history of the art and science of politics.’footnote5