The concept of hegemony, which is defined as leadership or dominance by one social group over others, has been furthered in the realm of Marxist thought by Gramsci in his 1971 text the Prison Notebooks which he wrote while imprisoned under Mussolini’s Fascist rule. He posited that the ruling class controls the value systems of the society so that the status quo of society is justified and their views become the views of all, or the Weltanschauung (world view). As Eagleton puts it (since critics have merely strung together assumptions due to Gramsci’s not clarifying his definition), Gramsci “uses the word hegemony to mean the ways in which a governing power wins consent to its rule from those it subjugates.” It is thus like a sort of consensual dominance, in which the consenting oppressed parties are not aware of their oppression. In this way, with the very ideology suppressed and the imagination conquered, hegemony can truly subjugate its victims, who are not even aware of their subjugation. Thus for him hegemony is not the ruling classes’ activities alone but also the process by which they come to gain power, and how they expand and maintain it, as critic A. N. Dwivedi points out.

At the time that Gramsci wrote, the world was in a state of conflict and chaos, reeling from the effects of one World War, the likes of which had before been unseen, and yet anticipating a second. Strong discrimination based on sex and race was prevalent at the beginning of the century. The century is thought ‘progressive’ at times since this attitude of racial discrimination was starting to die out and sexism looked down upon. There was also a homogenisation of culture with developments in transportation and communications, influences of Western culture, international corporations making the economy what was considered ‘global’ by the end of the 20th century but which he calls ‘cultural hegemony,’ distinct from authoritarianism or imperialism since cultural hegemony “is hegemonic only if those affected also consent to and struggle over its common sense.” The century saw numerous proxy wars as well as direct arms race until the US emerged as the clear ‘hegemon,’ following the dissolution of the USSR. His theory was thus relevant to and a response to his time, when cultural Marxism (which adds an analysis of the role of the media, art, theatre, film, and other cultural institutions in a society, often with an added emphasis on race and gender in addition to class) was gaining strength. He thus deals with culture, and how hegemony works within culture to gain consent to subjugate the lower classes.

It can be seen as a form of brainwashing or conditioning, when teachings are institutionally imparted onto children and adults alike, such as in Nazi Germany, where pro-Hitler propaganda was taught in schools and broadcast on the media, to convince the people that his actions rightly deal with the problems in society. A similar method has been taken up by Donald Trump today, who identifies several problems in the system and displaces them onto stereotyped groups such as Mexicans and Muslims, claiming that if they are purged from the society, all societal and political issues (such as of the wage gap, unemployment, and homelessness) would be resolved. Cultural hegemony is therefore maintained with these groups being viewed as the ‘enemy’ and being subjugated while the ruling classes are so allowed to continue to hold power.

Gramsci developed the theory of cultural domination with an inclusion of social class so that his cultural hegemony theory analysed the norms that established the social structures with which the ruling class exert cultural dominance to impose their weltanschauung. The world view of the ruling class is shown by them as socially, politically, and economically relevant, natural, inevitable, and beneficial to every social class, rather than as artificial social constructs beneficial to the ruling class alone. In the Marxist concept of the base and superstructure, which divides society into two parts: the infrastructure or base, which consists of the means of production and the relations of production (division of labour, work conditions, property relations), and the superstructure, or everything not directly related to production (the ideology).

The base determines the superstructure but the latter may also influence the base. Gramsci divides the superstructure into the subdivisions of political society and civil society; political society was the organised forces of the police and army, while the civil society was the element that created the consensus contributing to hegemony. Both these elements are still, however, determined by the base and seek to serve and uphold its values in society. Cultural hegemony in this manner is seen when the government tries to establish its power within the structures of the other classes. For example, when a political party like the BJP holds theatre festivals for the arts faculty of Delhi University, which is otherwise the intellectual section of society, they influence their world view, colouring it with their own, when they choose a topic like ‘nation.’

He categorised all men as intellectuals, saying they all have intellectuals faculties, but that not all men play the social function of intellectuals. He saw modern intellectuals as practical-minded directors and organisers who produced hegemony through ideological apparatuses such as education and the media. He also believed that they were different from traditional intellectuals who wrongly thought themselves as a class apart from the society and so he brought about this distinction in the term “intelligentsia.” He thus shifted focus to the intellectuals that each class produces organically, and who articulate the feelings and experiences which the masses could not express for themselves. He thus called for education that would develop these working-class ‘organic intellectuals,’ identifying that the conditions of the working class were abysmal.

He also expanded heavily upon the term hegemony, which was previously used by Lenin to denote the political leadership of the working-class. Gramsci analysed how the bourgeoise establishes and maintains its role. Though Marx had predicated an inevitable revolution in capitalist economies, no such socialist revolution had taken place at this time and capitalism seemed deeply entrenched. Gramsci therefore suggested that capitalism maintained control not just through violence and political and economic coercion, but also through ideology, developing a set of values which became the “common sense” culture of all. Hegemony can be asserted in the form of either moment: Dominio (coercion, or repressive state apparatus) and Direzione (consensus, or ideological state apparatus). The working class identify their good as the god of the ruling class and so help maintain the status quo, much in the way that the Aam Aadmi Party in Delhi identifies themselves as representing the cause and the struggle of the common people, and so people believe their needs are being represented. It is similar to the thought of Lenin and the Bolsheviks in forming an alliance with the peasants – that it was only through making the Bolshevik revolution also a peasants’ revolution, which peasants could see as being their own, that the urban proletariat could maintain its leading position.

Although Lenin held that culture was supplementary to political objectives, Gramsci believed that, in order to attain power, it was fundamental that cultural hegemony be achieved first. In Gramsci’s view, a class cannot dominate in modern conditions by merely advancing its own narrow economic interests; neither can it dominate purely through force and coercion. Rather, it must exert intellectual and moral leadership, and make alliances and compromises with a variety of forces. Gramsci calls this union of social forces a “historic bloc,” which forms the basis of consent to a certain social order, which produces and re-produces the hegemony of the dominant class through institutions, social relations, and ideas. Dwivedi explains how, in Gramsci’s model, workers (for instance) “join trade unions in the first stage of economic corporate where the self-interested individuals realise the need of group support for protection, in fear of pay-cuts, et cetera. However, there is no real sense of solidarity between members,” and short-term cooperation between otherwise competing capitalists also becomes a real possibility to tackle trade unions. In the second stage, members begin to develop solidarity based on common field of interests, but only to this extent. This can lead to attempts to promote legal reform to improve one’s status within current structures but not beyond that: there is no idea of creating a new system. It is in the third stage that hegemony really becomes possible. Members realise that their interests need to be extended beyond what they can do within their particular class and need to be taken up by subordinate classes as their own. Thus, in Gramsci’s view, any class that wishes to dominate in modern conditions has to move beyond its own narrow ‘economic-corporate’ interests, to exert intellectual and moral leadership, and to make alliances and compromises with a variety of forces. This union of social forces is what Gramsci refers to as a ‘historic bloc,’ taking the term from Georges Sorel.

Gramsci becomes distinct from Marx in the response of the bourgeoisie to the proletariats. For example, if the proletariats accept the bourgeoisie’s offer of a ten-cent increase in hourly wages, the system of exchange has not changed. For revolution to take place, the proletariat must demand not only better wages, but also positions in higher management, and so on. However, where Marx sees this in terms of a group of labourers, Gramsci suggests that it will be the organic intellectuals who represent the interests of the proletariat to the traditional intellectuals who have power to change the rules. For both Marx and Gramsci, this axis of revolution would impact the economic superstructure, because the equal distribution of wealth in society requires a system of exchange that is non-exploitative. Despite being a Leninist Marxist, Gramsci’s views are contrary to the metaphysical materialism advanced by Engels and Lenin, due to his belief that human history and collective praxis determine whether any philosophical question is meaningful. He did however remain in keeping with Lenin’s ideas of science, proposing that the sciences are only ‘true’ as a pragmatic function of proletarian ideology, useful for politically unifying the working class, by developing their class consciousness.

Critics find the Gramscian approach to philosophical analysis, reflected in current academic controversies, to be in conflict with open-ended, liberal inquiry grounded in apolitical readings of the classics of Western culture. Gramscians would counter that thoughts of “liberal inquiry” and “apolitical reading” are utterly naive; for the Gramscians, these are intellectual devices used to maintain the hegemony of the capitalist class. To credit or blame Gramsci for the travails of current academic politics is an odd turn of history, since Gramsci himself was never an academic, and was in fact deeply intellectually engaged with Italian culture, history, and current liberal thought.

From Gramsci’s analysis the political science denotation of hegemony as leadership is derived while, contemporarily, in Hegemony and Socialist Strategy (1985), Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe define hegemony as a political relationship of power wherein a sub-ordinate society perform social tasks that are culturally unnatural and not beneficial to them, but that are in exclusive benefit to the imperial interests of the ‘hegemon,’ the superior, ordinate power. Gramsci’s influence in terms of cultural hegemony has been relevant as it has influenced European communism, the social sciences, and activist politics of liberal and progressive politicians. It has helped to develop the field of ‘critical pedagogy’ in the field of education, by which the root causes of sociopolitical discontent can be identified and resolved, that Franz Fanon and Paulo Freire later took up.

Rudi Dutschke reformulated Antonio Gramsci’s philosophy (with the phrase “the Long March through the Institutions”) to identify the political war of position by means of which the working class would produce their own organic intellectuals and culture (dominant ideology) to replace those imposed by the bourgeoisie. Beyer takes his ideas forward to analyse the contemporary hegemony of the United States at the example of the Global War on Terrorism and presented the mechanisms and processes of American exercise of power in ‘hegemonic governance.’ Thus Gramsci’s ideas of cultural hegemony are a step forward in Marxist thought and remain relevant to this day. Gramsci’s theory emphasised the importance of the political and ideological superstructure in both maintaining and fracturing relations of the economic base, which exists to this day in power politics. He stated that, in the West, bourgeois cultural values were tied to religion, and therefore he critiques religious norms and values in his writing against hegemonic culture. He was impressed by the power Roman Catholicism had over minds and Church’s care to prevent a gap between the religion of the learned and that of the less educated. For Gramsci, Marxism could supersede religion only if it met people’s spiritual needs. For him, hegemonic dominance relied on a ‘consented’ coercion and, in a crisis, the “masks of consent” slip away, revealing the force and violence. He locates his theory in a real-world context and this makes him invaluable to Marxism, and relatable even to the present day.

Thus Gramsci has taken forward and expanded on the ideas on the existing culture given by Marx and Engels in The Communist Manifesto. The substance of either text, however, be it the Prison Notebooks or Marx and Engel’s Manifesto, remains abstract. There is no clear definition of culture even when objects of it are used to suggest societal changes (which Althusser later calls the expression of the masses). Gramsci, as well as Marx and Engels, find the masses to be in the most deplorable condition, and Engels has theorised on this in his The Conditions of the Working Class in England, where he describes and analyses their appalling state as seen by him during his stay, giving his thoughts on socialism. Thus Engels’s effect on Gramsci’s work is evident through these writings, as he takes forward his ideas, and those of Lenin, while also at times deviating from them. Gramsci therefore must have the credit for bringing the notion of ideology within the realm of truly genuine, revolutionary Marxism. If Lenin stressed the importance of political leadership of the working class in the class struggle, Gramsci went a step further by also emphasising moral and intellectual leadership and the importance of non-economic relations between classes. By dealing with hegemony as cultural and not merely violent or coercive, Gramsci has brought a great deal to the table of present Marxist and Leninist thought, widening the lens through which we see it.