Thinking about hegemony

Hegemony.jpg picture by adam_freedom  Today a friend handed back to me a long borrowed copy of Arif Dirlik’s Anarchism and the Chinese Revolution (University of California Press, 1991). Full of nuggets and insights, the work is composed of several essays discussing the influence and role of anarchism from about 1900 to 1930; a period of tremendous social upheaval in China. During this period anarchism occupied center stage in the radical left and had a wide impact in the themes and discourse of the left as a whole; which is only being slowly acknowledged in history and by those in the contemporary left.

  The role of culture and ideas and the role they have in either supporting or resisting oppression is widely seen as crucial for most revolutionaries today. But this wasn’t always the case up until a few decades ago as the writings of Italian Communist Antonio Gramsci (1891–1937) became wider known. In this passage from Dirlik’s conclusion, he takes up the question of hegemony and the important place it held within Chinese anarchist discourse, as well as their particular stance on the matter, which differs from Gramsci. The anarchist writer Dirlik quotes, Italian Anarchist Errico Malatesta (18531932), wrote the excerpted piece from Anarchy in 1891, the year of Gramsci’s birth.

“I suggest here the most important aspect of anarchism is its consistent critique of hegemony- in a basic Gramscian Marxist sense, but with greater consistency and different intentions than those of Gramsci, who among all Marxists has come close to a democratic interpretation of Marxism. Gramsci’s goal, in his analysis of hegemony, was to reveal the cultural roots of hegemony so as to show the way to the substitution of revolutionary for bourgeois hegemony.(1) Anarchists in China, as we have seen, in seeking to eliminate authority from social institutions and language, sought to abolish hegemony as a social principle in general. The coincidence of the problem of social revolution with that of cultural revolution in Chinese society may have dramatically illustrated this antihegemonic thrust of anarchism, but the critique of hegemony is common to most social anarchism. As the Italian anarchist Errico Malatesta wrote on one occasion:

Someone whose legs have been bound from birth had but had managed nevertheless to walk as best he could, might attribute his ability to move to those very bonds which in face serve only to weaken and paralyze the muscular energy of his legs.

If to the normal effects of habit is then added the kind of education offered by the master, the priest, the teachers, etc., who have a vested interest in preaching that the masters and the government are necessary; if one were to add the judge and the policeman who are at pains to reduce to silence those who might think differently and be tempted to propagate their ideas, then it will not be difficult to understand how the prejudiced view of the usefulness of, and the necessity for, the master and the government took root in the unsophisticated minds of the labouring masses.

Just imagine if the doctor were to expound to our fictional man with the bound legs a theory, cleverly illustrated with a thousand invented cases to prove that if his legs were freed he would be unable to walk and would not live, then that man would ferociously defend his bonds and consider as his enemy anyone who tried to remove them. (2)

The question here is not coercion but hegemony; and it is the thoroughgoing critique of hegemony in anarchism, I would suggest, that has enabled anarchists to think what culturally seems unthinkable, and therefore, to imagine social possibilities beyond the ideological horizons established by political ideology. This is also the reason, I think, that anarchists- in China and elsewhere- have devoted more attention than other socialists to problems of quotidian [everyday or routine -Ed] social and cultural practices in which hegemony, at its most fundamental level, is embedded.” (pp. 302-202)

Dirlik’s Notes:

(1)    A concise but uncritical exposition of the idea of hegemony is to be found in Chantel Mouffe, “Hegemony and Ideology in Gramsci,” in Gramsci and Marxist Theory, ed. C. Mouffe (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1979).

(2)    E. Malatesta, Anarchy London: Freedom Press, 1984), 12.


  Below this excerpt of Dirlik is a quote from Manuel González Prada (18441918) discussing what I think amounts to Gramsci’s analogy of ‘war of position’ versus ‘war of maneuver’ a decade or perhaps two before Gramsci’s discussion of the topic. Borrowed from military terms, war of maneuver is Gramsci’s analogy for frontal, armed insurrection against the state. One can picture an American Civil War battle, where rows of troops maneuver on a field and face off yards away from each other. War of position is basically protracted trench warfare, each side dug into place and launching a series of coordinated, strategic charges to win. Gramsci believed that in more industrialized countries, (such as Europe and the US) with a developed state and civil society, frontal assault would not work and rather a protracted series of successive battles was necessary to achieve social revolution.

  Prada was a leading intellectual and literary figure in Perú in the early twentieth century and later was named director of the National Library in 1912. A founder of the National Union Party in May 1891, he later broke from liberal republican politics and moved towards anarchism. He wrote on issues of class, labor and the indigenous people’s of Perú.

“If bourgeois society can’t be uprooted in a single day and in a single assault, it can be undermined little by little, through many successive attacks, not in a decisive battlefield victory but in a prolonged siege with victories and defeats, advances and retreats. What is needed is a series of partial revolutions.” (232)

González Prada, Free Pages and Hard Times: Anarchist Musings. Oxford University Press (2003).



2 Responses

  1. Hmmm. Interesting piece. I just finished reading Stuart Christie’s book on the FAI. In it he attributes the degeneration of the Spanish revolution to the decision of the CNT and FAI militants to leave the state intact, and in fact participate in the government. The CNT leadership vacillated, refusing to establish an “anarchist dictatorship” through the state, and also refusing to smash the state and allow grassroots committees to flourish, which would have allowed them to defeat the reaction.

    Because of this, elements of the liberal and fascist organizations were able to regroup, eventually winning state power again.

    It seems to me that there must be proletarian hegemony, expressed through democratic, grassroots revolutionary organs, or the reaction will succeed. The question that divides anarchists from Marxists is if the state should be used to establish proletarian hegemony. There can be no “live and let live” when the bosses attempt to reassert their power.

  2. If I understand your argument right, I think I largely agree with you. I don’t think that there is a dichotomy between believing that revolution requires a protracted struggle and that the revolution must gain hegemony (of working/oppressed classes) over capital and the state– popular power created during revolution must assert its power and sweep away the state and take control of the economy and communities. I don’t think that’s the issue here.

    I think the point in Prada’s quote is that a protracted battle is necessary. Reading Bookchin’s account of the Spanish anarchist movement in “The Spanish Anarchists: The Heroic Years 1868-1936” makes it clear that the events of 1936-1939 were only possible through decades of movement building and the fighting of many smaller battles.

    As far as Dirlik’s point of “abolish[ing] hegemony as a social principle in general,” this could go two ways. First, if hegemony is taken literally in the Gramscian sense- that is the ability to create/mold/maintain the consent of those ruled over, in other words the ideological rule of the powerful over the oppressed- then yes, I would agree that anarchists should seek on principle to end hegemony and this separates us from much of the Marxist camp. But if we are to take hegemony in a more general sense- being the dominant force or power in society- then yes, our goal is to assert this over state and capital.

    I think we shouldn’t get lost in words on this one, as many do with the concept of “power.” There is clearly a difference between “power to” and “power over” or vertical and horizontal power in the words of the Argentinean movement. I think this is accepted by any anarchist worth their salt, but I don’t think folks are clear on hegemony.

    Perhaps its useful to think of a “horizontal hegemony” and “vertical hegemony” or the “hegemony of the oppressors” against the “hegemony of the working/popular classes” as well. Its a discussion worth exploring and I’m curious to any other thinking or writing that touches on this.

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