Check out our new design. Click here to return to old version

Gramscian International Political Economy

Antonio Gramsci was a General Secretary of an Italian Communist Party. In the year of 1926 he was arrested by the Fascist State and sentenced to twenty years of imprisonment. Eventually, he died in prison in 1937. During this time period he elaborated what is now known to be his theory of “hegemony”. He wrote it down in the time period between 1929 and 1935 in his Quaderni del carcere, or Prison Notebooks.

The main idea of Gramsci’s hegemony concept presupposes the eternal fact that men are guided by both force and ideas. He does not argue that ideas are influential enough to remove class struggle, but he does believe they have enough power to mute it sufficiently, thus enabling the functioning of the class societies. In his notebooks, Gramsci expressed his concern with understanding capitalist societies of 1920s and 1930s, the meaning of fascism, and the possibility of building an alternative form of state and society based on the working class. His ideas were focused on the notion of state, the relations between the state and civil society, and those between politics, ethics and ideology to production. However, the Marxist ideologist did not investigate his hegemony theory in terms of international relations to the full extent. Only briefly did he consider understanding problems of world order. He also introduced his concept of hegemony accompanied by other related concepts.

All Gramsci’s theories were elaborated first and foremost on the historical basis. The author greatly relied on his own experience of social and political struggle and considered the consequences of early 1920s workers’ council’s movement, the Third International, anti-fascist movement. Thus, his concept is loose and elastic and attains precision only when brought into contact with a particular situation, which it helps to explain – a contact which also develops the significance of a concept.

Gramsci’s concepts are characterized by a high degree of historicism. This is the feature they are often criticized for, because many contemporary scientists tend to seek general knowledge, the one which can be applied to a wide variety of situations, and can be used as a sample that is not predetermined by the circumstances. They seek an abstract, systematic, universalistic, and non-historical form of knowledge. Meanwhile, Gramsci established his theory to the practical purpose of political action, practical revolutionary purpose of philosophy.

When compared to Marx’s ideas, Gramsci’s understanding of hegemony and class societies is broader in nature. He realizes that Marx’s assumption that every state is a dictatorship is rather superficial and has led to deliberate errors in the policy of the Italian Left in its opposition to Fascism.

Gramsci’s concept of hegemony has two origins:

  1. The Third International debate about the strategy of Bolshevik Revolution and the creation of Soviet socialist state;
  2. The writings of XV century Italian philosopher Niccolò Machiavelli.

Some scholars view Gramsci’s idea of hegemony of the proletariat as contrasted to the ideas of Lenin, which comprise dictatorship of the working class. Gramsci went further to apply his concepts to the bourgeoisie, to apparatus or mechanisms of hegemony of the dominant class. Bourgeoisie hegemony was most complete in north Europe, where capitalism was originally established. However, the hegemonic structures in these societies existed mainly in the domain of civil society, as long as the country rulers were put into conditions where they had to recognize the bourgeoisie as the basic limits of their political actions.

In Gramsci’s theory, the definition of the state was no longer limited to the administrative, executive and coercive apparatus of government. It also included the underpinnings of the political structure in civil society. Gramsci viewed them through the concrete terms of church, press, and educational system, which represent solid institutions that form mentality and models of behavior for entire societies. Hence, the hegemony of dominant class extended the conventional categories of state and civil society.

Gramsci inquired into the ideas of Niccolò Machiavelli, whose main concern was to find a new leadership and a supporting social basis for the united Italy. He investigated these ideas and used them to create and develop an image of power: one, which would imply both consent and a latent coercion. The latter is revealed in the marginal, deviant cases. Machiavelli’s ideas direct attention towards deepening an awareness of the social basis of all power relations.

The main task of Gramsci’s concepts was revolution in Western Europe.  In his investigation, Gramsci viewed supposable Western European revolution through the framework of Bolshevik Revolution, which has already taken place in Russia. He came to a conclusion that the Russian and European circumstances were greatly different, and therefore the required revolutionary strategies and mechanisms should not be the same either.

The basic difference between Europe and Russia was the relative strength of state and civil society. In Russia the civil society was underdeveloped. Hence, it was possible for a relatively small working class led by well organized and disciplined avant-garde, to overcome the passive rest of the society, along with the state, which also proved to be vulnerable, though formidable. This is a Leninistic idea, which generally implies that avant-garde party takes upon itself the responsibility for leading an immature working class, but only as an aspect of war or movement.

By contrast, in Western Europe the civil society was much more fully developed. It acquired a diversity of forms under the influence of bourgeoisie hegemony. Thus, a revolutionary avant-garde could eventually win control over the state apparatus. However it would not be a lasting control, due to the compliance of society.

Gramsci described Bolshevik Revolution as a war of movement, and thought this strategy inefficient for the Western Europe. In this case he thought it reasonable to apply a mechanism of the war of position. The struggle had to be won first and foremost on the level of the civil society by slowly building up the strength of the social foundations of the new state. Any premature attacks should be avoided.

Building up the basis of an alternative state and society implies creating surrogate intellectual resources and surrogate institutions within dynamic and functioning societies, and developing connections between working class and other supplementary classes. This presupposes establishing counter-hegemony inside a hegemony, which is already authorized. Compare to the war of position, which is a long-range revolutionary strategy, social democracy is a policy of development in terms of the established order.

Western European societies were not homogeneous, and not all of them were hegemonies. Thus, Gramsci distinguished between two main types of societies. The first type was represented by the countries which have experienced an all-encompassing social revolution and elaborated its consequences to the full extent in new patterns of social relations and production. The brightest examples of this kind of societies were represented by France and England. Another type included those societies, which hastily adjusted features of a new order created abroad without the old order having been properly displaced. Gramsci defined such occurrences as “passive revolution”, which resulted in a kind of a stupor, provoked by the introduction of inefficient changes, which failed to produce the necessary effect.

The solution in such cases was introduced through a phenomenon of caesarism, which presupposes an intervention of a strong and authoritative individual determined to resolve the stalemate between the equal and opposed social forces. G. distinguished between two forms of caesarism: progressive and reactionary. The progressive caesarism implies circumstances in which a strong new rule presides over a more orderly development of a new state, whereas reactionary caesarism aims at stabilizing existing power.

Another central feature of “passive revolution” is what Gramsci defines as transformismo. It is defined as “a strategy of assimilating and domesticating potentially dangerous ideas by adjusting them to the policies of the dominant coalition and can thereby obstruct the formation of class-based organized opposition to established social and political power.”

The concept of “passive revolution” is a counterpart to the concept of hegemony. It describes a condition of a non-hegemonic society, where no dominant class has been able to establish hegemony. In contemporary world, the notion of passive revolution together with its components, caesarism and transformismo, is particularly apposite to industrializing Third World countries.

Existence of the hegemonic class is crucial to the existence of a historic block. Historic block is a structure formed by the unification of the state and the society, which together constitute a solid structure, and when within this structure develops another one, prompt enough to replace the old one, a revolution occurs. Gramsci believed that this could happen only in case when the initial structure exhausted its full potential.

In the societies where the hegemonic class is dominant, the state maintains cohesion and identity within the block through the propagation of common culture. A new block is formed when a subordinate class establishes its hegemony over the subordinate groups. This process requires intensive dialogue between leaders and followers.

Due to the fact that in Gramsci’s point of view, the war of position strategy was required in the countries of Western Europe,  the role of the party should be to develop, intensify and lead dialogue inside the working class and between the working class and other subordinate classes which could eventually ally with it. The “mass line” as a mobilization technique developed by the Chinese Communist Party is consistent with G’s thinking in this respect.

Intellectuals play the central part in the process of establishing of a historic block. Gramsci viewed them as organically related to a social class, rather than a distinct and relatively classless tantrum. Intellectuals perform the function of developing and sustaining organizations, technologies and mental images that connect the members of a class and of a historic bloc to form a common identity. Bourgeois intellectuals performed this function for the entire society where they were a hegemonic class. The organic intellectuals of the working class would play an analogous part in the process of establishing of an advanced historic bloc supporting working class hegemony in terms of that society. In order to achieve this it would be necessary for them to evolve a separate unique culture, organization and technique in continuous cooperation with the members of the emergent bloc. According to Gramsci, everyone is an intellectual to some extent, although only some perform the social function of an intellectual completely. Thus, in Gramsci’s conception, the party in these circumstances was a “collective intellectual”.

In the movement towards hegemony and the creation of a historic bloc, Gramsci distinguished three levels of consciousness:

  1. The economic-corporative (which is aware of the specific interests of a particular group);
  2. The solidarity or class consciousness (which extends to a whole social class, but remains at a purely economic level);
  3. The hegemonic consciousness (which harmonizes the interests of the leading class and of subordinate classes, incorporating them into an ideology expressed in universal terms).

Gramscy identifies the initiatives towards hegemony as a “passage from the structure to the sphere of the complex superstructures”. This implies departing from the particular convenience of a class or group to the elaboration of ideologies and establishing of institutions. The form of these institutions and ideologies may be defined as universal if they reflect hegemony. Thus, they will not appear as those of a particular class, and will provide the subordinate groups with a certain satisfaction regardless of the vital interests or leadership of the hegemonic class.

Although, in his prison notebooks Gramsci did not pay much attention to the investigation of the domain of international relations, his ideas of hegemony and related concepts may be very well implicated for this field.

“Do international relations precede or follow (logically) fundamental social relations? There can be no doubt that they follow. Any organic innovation in the social structure, through its technical-military expressions, modifies organically absolute and relative relations in the international field too.” It is evident from this passage that Gramsci observes basic changes in international power relations or world order as changes in the military-strategic and geo-political balance, which can be traced to fundamental changes in social relations. He defines state as the basic entity in international relations, its primary focus being social struggle. The place where social conflicts occur – is the place where hegemonies of social classes can be built.

According to Gramsci’s concept of hegemony, the economic life of subordinate nations is penetrated by and intertwined with that of powerful nations. Thus, the development of the US power may also be evaluated through the framework of Gramsci’s concepts and described as a nation-based development which spilled over national boundaries to become internationally expansive phenomena. Other countries have received the impact of these developments in a more passive way, an instance of what Gramsci described at the national level as a passive revolution. This effect occurs when the stimulus to change fails to emerge out of “a vast local economic development … but is instead the reflection of international developments which transmit their ideological currents to the periphery.”

In the time period following the Second World War (1945 - 1965), the USA founded a new hegemonic world order. It implied institutions and doctrines adjusted to a complex world economy and to national societies, sensitive to the political repercussions of economic crisis. However, from the later 1960s to the early 1970s it became evident that the US-based world order would not prove to be lasting.

World hegemony is a complex and multi-leveled unity of social structure, economic structure and political structure. According to Robert Cox, “it is expressed in universal norms, institutions and mechanisms which lay down general rules of behavior for states and for those forces of civil society that act across national boundaries – rules which support the dominant mode of production.”

Gramsci’s concepts of hegemony were re-established in the early 1980s by Robert Cox into a critical theory of hegemony. This initiated emergence of a variety of consequent contributions in this domain of International Relationships. Series of diverse, yet similar theories came to be known as neo-Gramscian perspectives. Their common feature is that they place the main emphasis on the structure of hegemony. This structure is initially constructed by social forces, which obtain a dominant role within the boundaries of a certain state. In the course of time, it is projected onto an international level.

The time period of early 1980s marked a new course in the realm of international relations. It was a period of continuous cultural change and reestablishing of social values, approaches, strategies and methodologies. This process was accompanied by the emergence of a number of new historical sociology, post-structuralism and critical feminist theories, which manifested a cardinal challenge to prevailing approaches. All these new theories and concepts shared one major common feature: an exclusion of the positivist belief that the goal of social science is to give identity to every productive relationships in the objective world. Thus, it is important to view the emergence of neo-Gramscian theories as part of this reformation and rejection process.  It was high time that traditional international relations resolutions, such as neo-realist, neoliberal institutionalist approaches and world system theory, gave way to the new perspectives. Hence, neo-Gramscian theory aims to analyze and explain how contemporary orders originated, and how leading institutions, practices and norms were established. The theory was designed to serve as a starting point for further investigation of those sources, enabling the development of an emancipated basis for an advanced world order. Neo-Gramscian perspectives resonate with other post-positivist approaches and suggest that every theory is supposed to serve a concrete purpose.

The central notion in the neo-Gramscian perspective introduces by Cox is that of hegemony. By contrast to the neo-realist hegemonic stability theory, which disputes that international order may prevail only under the circumstances in which there is one authoritative state dominating all other states through its prevalence in economic and military capabilities, the neo-Gramsian perspective extends the domain of hegemony. Neo-Gramscians argue that a situation of hegemony may remain prevalent within a world order when established on a basis of a consistent juxtaposition or correlative conjunction of configuration of the accustomed collective ideas of the world order, material power, and a cluster of institutions administering the order with separate features of universality.

Within a historical structure, hegemony is incorporated through the following spheres of activity: social relations of production, forms of state, and world orders.

Of course, neo-Gramsian perspectives encounter a certain amount of criticism among contemporary scholars. This criticism mainly concentrates on such features as the crucial role of ideas, along with the declared empirical pluralism, which promotes ideas as sovereign analytical variables, which eventually acquire the same weight as production. Neo-Gramscian concepts are also criticized for the lack of engagement with potential alternatives to the current order. They are also said to underestimate such vital issues as creative forms of resistance. Such scientists as Morton also tend to subject the neo-Gramscian concepts to critics based on their historicism, as this feature limits the concepts in both practical and theoretical translations of ideas of the past to the conditions and consequences of the contemporary world. Certain ideas of Robert Cox are also widely disputed. For example, his notion of the state internationalization is said to reduce the state to the level of a transmission belt, which adjusts the domestic economy in accordance with the requirements of the economy of the global community.

It is believed that only through thorough engagement with every constructive piece of criticism the neo-Gramscian perspectives will be able to improve their perceptive and systematic concepts and expand their explanatory power to the full extent.