Cultural hegemony

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The Marxist intellectual Antonio Gramsci (1891–1937) developed the theory of cultural hegemony to further the establishment of a working-class worldview.

In Marxist philosophy, the term cultural hegemony describes the domination of a culturally diverse society by the ruling class, who manipulate the culture of that society—the beliefs, explanations, perceptions, values, and mores—so that their ruling-class worldview becomes the worldview that is imposed and accepted as the cultural norm; as the universally valid dominant ideology that justifies the social, political, and economic status quo as natural, inevitable, perpetual and beneficial for everyone, rather than as artificial social constructs that benefit only the ruling class.[1][2]

In philosophy and in sociology, the term cultural hegemony has denotations and connotations derived from the Ancient Greek word ἡγεμονία hegemonia indicating "leadership" and "rule". Hegemony is the geopolitical method of indirect imperial dominance, with which the hegemon (leader state) rules subordinate states, by the threat of intervention, an implied means of power, rather than by direct military force, that is, invasion, occupation, and annexation.[3]



The etymologic and historical evolution of the Greek word hegemony, and of its denotations, has proceeded thus:

  • In Ancient Greece (8th century BC – AD 6th century), hegemony (leadership) denoted the politico–military dominance of a city-state upon other city-states, as in the Hellenic League (338 BC), a federation of Greek city–states, established by King Philip II of Macedon, to facilitate his access to and use of the Greek militaries against the Persian empire.[2]
  • In the 19th century, hegemony (rule) denoted the geopolitical and cultural predominance of one country upon other countries, as in the European colonialism imposed upon the Americas, Africa, Asia, and Australia.[4]
  • In the 20th century, the political-science denotation of hegemony (dominance) expanded to include cultural imperialism; the cultural domination, by a ruling class, of a socially stratified society. That by manipulating the dominant ideology (cultural values and mores) of the society, the ruling class can intellectually dominate the other social classes with an imposed worldview (Weltanschauung) that ideologically justifies the social, political, and economic status quo of the society as if it were a natural and normal, inevitable and perpetual state of affairs that always has been so.[2][5][6][7]


In 1848, Karl Marx proposed that the economic recessions and practical contradictions of a capitalist economy would provoke the working class to proletarian revolution, depose capitalism, restructure social institutions (economic, political, social) per the rational models of socialism, and thus begin the transition to a communist society. Therefore, the dialectical changes to the functioning of the economy of a society determine its social superstructures (culture and politics).

To that end, Antonio Gramsci proposed a strategic distinction, between a War of Position and a War of Manœuvre. The war of position is an intellectual and cultural struggle wherein the anti-capitalist revolutionary creates a proletarian culture whose native value system counters the cultural hegemony of the bourgeoisie. The proletarian culture will increase class consciousness, teach revolutionary theory and historical analysis, and thus propagate further revolutionary organisation among the social classes. On winning the war of position, socialist leaders would then have the necessary political power and popular support to begin the political manœuvre warfare of revolutionary socialism.

The initial, theoretical application of cultural domination was as a Marxist analysis of "economic class" (base and superstructure), which Antonio Gramsci developed to comprehend "social class; hence, cultural hegemony proposes that the prevailing cultural norms of a society, which are imposed by the ruling class (bourgeois cultural hegemony), must not be perceived as natural and inevitable, but must be recognized as artificial social constructs (institutions, practices, beliefs, et cetera) that must be investigated to discover their philosophic roots as instruments of social-class domination. That such praxis of knowledge is indispensable for the intellectual and political liberation of the proletariat, so that workers and peasants, the people of town and country, can create their own working-class culture, which specifically addresses their social and economic needs as social classes.

In a society, cultural hegemony is neither monolithic intellectual praxis, nor a unified system of values, but a complex of stratified social structures, wherein each social and economic class has a social purpose and an internal class-logic that allows its members to behave in a way that is particular and different from the behaviours of the members of other social classes, whilst co-existing with them as constituents of the society.

As a result of their different social purposes, the classes will be able to coalesce into a society with a greater social mission. When a man, a woman, or a child perceives the social structures of bourgeois cultural hegemony, personal common sense performs a dual, structural role (private and public) whereby the individual person applies common sense to cope with daily life, which explains (to himself and to herself) the small segment of the social order stratum that each experiences as the status quo of life in society; "the way things are". Publicly, the emergence of the perceptual limitations of personal common sense inhibit the individual person’s perception of the greater nature of the systematic socio-economic exploitation made possible by cultural hegemony. Because of the discrepancy in perceiving the status quo—the socio-economic hierarchy of bourgeois culture—most men and women concern themselves with their immediate (private) personal concerns, rather than with distant (public) concerns, and so do not think about and question the fundamental sources of their socio-economic oppression, and its discontents, social, personal, and political.[8]

The effects of cultural hegemony are perceptible at the personal level; although each person in a society lives a meaningful life in his and her social class, to him and to her, the discrete social classes might appear to have little in common with the private life of the individual man and woman. Yet, when perceived as a whole society, the life of each person does contribute to the greater social hegemony. Although social diversity, economic variety, and political freedom appear to exist—because most people see different life-circumstances—they are incapable of perceiving the greater hegemonic pattern created when the lives they witness coalesce as a society. The cultural hegemony is manifested in and maintained by an existence of minor, different circumstances that are not always fully perceived by the men and the women living the culture.[9]

Intellectuals and cultural hegemony

In perceiving and combating cultural hegemony, the working class and the peasantry depend upon the intellectuals produced by their society, to which ends Antonio Gramsci distinguished between bourgeois-class intellectuals and working-class intellectuals, the proponents and the opponents of the imposed, normative culture, and thus of the social status quo:

Since these various categories of traditional intellectuals [administrators, scholars and scientists, theorists, non-ecclesiastical philosophers, etc.] experience through an esprit de corps their uninterrupted historical continuity, and their special qualifications, they thus put themselves forward as autonomous and independent of the dominant social group. This self-assessment is not without consequences in the ideological and political fields, consequences of wide-ranging import. The whole of idealist philosophy can easily be connected with this position, assumed by the social complex of intellectuals, and can be defined as the expression of that social utopia by which the intellectuals think of themselves as "independent" [and] autonomous, [and] endowed with a character of their own, etc.

— Selections from the Prison Notebooks of Antonio Gramsci (1971), pp. 7–8.[10]

The traditional and vulgarized type of the intellectual is given by the Man of Letters, the philosopher, and the artist. Therefore, journalists, who claim to be men of letters, philosophers, artists, also regard themselves as the "true" intellectuals. In the modern world, technical education, closely bound to industrial labor, even at the most primitive and unqualified level, must form the basis of the new type of intellectual. . . . The mode of being of the new intellectual can no longer consist of eloquence, which is an exterior and momentary mover of feelings and passions, but in active participation in practical life, as constructor [and] organizer, as "permanent persuader", not just simple orator.

— Selections from the Prison Notebooks of Antonio Gramsci (1971), pp. 9–10.[11]

Gramsci's intellectual influence

During the 1960s, the German student leader Rudi Dutschke, of the 68er-Bewegung, said that changing the bourgeois West Germany required a long march through the society’s institutions, in order to identify and combat cultural hegemony. This quote is often mis-attributed to Antonio Gramsci.[12]

Cultural hegemony has philosophically influenced Eurocommunism, the social sciences, and the activist politics of socially liberal and progressive politicians. The analytic discourse of cultural hegemony is important to research and synthesis in anthropology, political science, sociology, and cultural studies; in education, cultural hegemony developed critical pedagogy, by which the root causes of political and social discontent can be identified, and so resolved.

In 1967, the German student movement leader Rudi Dutschke reformulated Antonio Gramsci's philosophy of cultural hegemony with the phrase Der lange Marsch durch die Institutionen (The long march through the Institutions), denoting the war of position, an allusion to the Long March (1934–35) of the Communist Chinese People's Liberation Army, by means of which, the working class would produce their own organic intellectuals and culture (dominant ideology) to replace those imposed by the bourgeoisie.[13][14][15][16][17]

Althusser's Critique of Gramsci: The Ideological State Apparatuses

The French structuralist Marxist philosopher Louis Althusser is prominent among leftist critics of Gramsci's theory of cultural hegemony. Between 1968-1971, Althusser developed the theory of "Ideological State Apparatuses" as a means of describing the complex structure of relationships between the different organs by which ideological concepts are disseminated.[citation needed][18]

Althusser's critique of Gramsci is nuanced, while Althusser draws heavily from Gramsci's concept of hegemony, his conception of ideology differs sharply because Althusser rejects Gramsci's absolute historicism.

Althusser conceives of the ISAs as the principle site of ideological conflict. The ISAs, in contrast to the Repressive State Apparatuses (the military and police), exist multiply and as a plurality. While the class in power may easily take hold of the Repressive State Apparatuses (the police, military, etc.), the ISAs are, according to Althusser, both the 'stake' and the 'site' of class struggle. Because the ISAs are not monolithic, but are distributed throughout the society down to its most minuscule features, they are a site of prolonged class struggle. Some are 'private' while others are 'public.' The ISAs are complexly overdetermined zones in which the ideological elements of previous modes of production are able to survive. Among them, he includes many of the elements of civil society.

-the religious ISA (the system of the different churches)

-the educational ISA (the system of the different public and private 'schools'),

-the family ISA,

-the legal ISA,

-the political ISA (the political system, including the different parties),

-the trade union ISA,

-the communications ISA (press, radio and television, etc.)

-the cultural ISA (literature, the arts, sport, etc.)
— Louis Althusser, "On the Reproduction of Capitalism" (2014), pp.243.


Althusser argues that even the parliamentary structures of the state, by which the 'will of the people' is represented electorally by elected delegates, constitute an Ideological State Apparatus. The political system is an Ideological State Apparatus because it involves the "fiction, corresponding to a 'certain' reality, that the component parts of the system, as well as the principle of its functioning, are based on the ideology of the 'freedom' and 'equality' of the individual voters and the 'free choice' of the people's representatives by the individuals that 'make up' the people."[20]

Althusser is critical of Gramsci's theory primarily on the ground of Gramsci's tendency towards 'absolute historicism.' For Gramsci, the sciences are 'true' only in a strategic and pragmatic ideological sense, and proletarian ideology is valuable insofar as it unifies the masses of the working class and promotes the development of class consciousness. This strategic position, according to Althusser, overlooks the genuinely scientific principles of Marxist theory. Marxist theory is, in his analysis, not simply an ideological philosophy, but rather, constitutes a body of objective scientific knowledge through which historical processes can be rigorously conceptualized through the structural analysis of the modes of production.

For this reason, the spontaneous ideology of the proletariat is not, by itself, sufficient. While proletarian class consciousness is a "very special kind of ideology" capable of "unifying the avant-garde of the working class in its class-struggle organizations," and thus possesses strategic value, Marxist theory provides the scientific principles by which ideology can be subjected to theoretical analysis. For Althusser, Marxist theory is not simply a "dogma" or "authoritative text," but is rather a set of scientific principles by which to concretely conceptualize the production and dissemination of ideological consciousness.

According to Gramsci, "man cannot be conceived of except as historically determined man.".[21] As such, scientific activity is conceived of as political activity and political thought. Science is not substantially different for Gramsci than ideological philosophy. Science is equivocated with speculative philosophy and dogmatic religion. The determination of a set of ideas as scientific can be traced back to the structural position of the intellectual within the class society. The 'scientist' is for Gramsci an intellectual in a general sense, afforded with the privilege of being recognized as a specialist or expert, endowed with the power to police knowledge, who presides over the procedures of the academies. The position on science which Gramsci adopts is reflective of the absolute historicism which Althusser is won't to critique.

For Althusser, science itself does not simply name that which falls under the purview of the scientists. While the 'scientist' is as much a historically determined subject of ideology as much as anyone else, and the academic institutions are themselves Ideological State Apparatuses, 'science' obtains its authority primarily from itself and in accordance with its norms of demonstrability. As such, ideological philosophy differs significantly from demonstrative science. Althusser's conception of the autonomy of science is adopted from currents in French philosophy of science through the historical epistemology of Jean Cavaillès, Gaston Bachelard, and Georges Canguilhem (for Althusser's philosophy of see Louis Althusser#The epistemological break and French philosophy#Philosophy of science). As such, science is seen as constituting a break from ideology.

See also


  1. Bullock, Alan; Trombley, Stephen, Editors (1999), The New Fontana Dictionary of Modern Thought Third Edition, pp. 387–88.
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 The Columbia Encyclopedia, Fifth Edition. (1994), p. 1215.
  3. Ross Hassig, Mexico and the Spanish Conquest (1994), pp. 23–24.
  4. Bullock & Trombley 1999, pp. 387–88.
  5. Clive Upton, William A. Kretzschmar, Rafal Konopka: Oxford Dictionary of Pronunciation for Current English. Oxford University Press (2001)
  6. Oxford English Dictionary
  7. "Timeline", US Hegemony, Flagrancy 
  8. Hall, Stuart (1986). "The Problem of Ideology — Marxism without Guarantees" (PDF). Journal of Communication Inquiry. 10 (2): 28–44. doi:10.1177/019685998601000203. 
  9. Gramsci, Antonio (1992). Buttigieg, Joseph A, ed. Prison Notebooks. New York City: Columbia University Press. pp. 233–38. ISBN 0-231-10592-4. OCLC 24009547. 
  10. Selections from the Prison Notebooks of Antonio Gramsci (1971), Quentin Hoare and Geoffrey Nowell Smith, eds., pp. 7–8.
  11. Selections from the Prison Notebooks of Antonio Gramsci (1971), Quentin Hoare and Geoffrey Nowell Smith, eds., pp. 9–10.
  12. Buttigieg, J. A. (1 March 2005). "The Contemporary Discourse on Civil Society: A Gramscian Critique". boundary 2. 32 (1): 33–52. doi:10.1215/01903659-32-1-33. 
  13. Gramsci, Buttigieg, Joseph A, ed., Prison Notebooks (English critical ed.), p 50 footnote 21, Long March Through the Institutions21 
  14. Buttigieg, Joseph A. (2005). "The Contemporary Discourse on Civil Society: A Gramscian Critique". Boundary 2. 32 (1): 33–52. ISSN 0190-3659. doi:10.1215/01903659-32-1-33. Retrieved 2010-06-30. 
  15. Davidson, Carl (6 April 2006), Strategy, Hegemony & ‘The Long March’: Gramsci’s Lessons for the Antiwar Movement (web log) .
  16. Marsch durch die Institutionen at German Wikipedia.
  17. Antonio Gramsci: Misattributed at English Wikiquote for the origin of “The Long March Through the Institutions” quotation.
  18. Althusser, Louis (2014). On The Reproduction of Capitalism. London/ New York: Verso. pp. 74–75; 103–47; 177, 180, 198–206; 218–31; 242–6. ISBN 9781781681640. 
  19. Althusser, Louis (2014). On The Reproduction of Capitalism. London/ New York: Verso. ISBN 9781781681640. 
  20. Althusser, Louis (2014). On the Reproduction of Capitalism. London/New York: Verso. pp. 222–223. 
  21. Gramsci, Antonio (1971). Selections from the Prison Notebooks. International Publishers. p. 244. 

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