Hegemony and History

The Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci, writing in the early 1930s while imprisoned by the Mussolini government, theorized that ruling classes grew entrenched through a process called cultural hegemony, the successful propagation of values and norms, which when accepted by the lower classes produced passivity and thus the continuation of domination and exploitation from above. An ideology became hegemonic when it found support from historical blocs, alliances of social groups (classes, religions, families, and so on) — meaning broad, diverse acceptance of ideas that served the interests of the bourgeoisie in a capitalist society and freed the ruling class from some of the burden of using outright force. This paper argues that Gramsci’s theory is useful for historians because its conception of “divided consciousness” offers a framework for understanding why individuals failed to act in ways that aligned with their own material interests or acted for the benefit of oppressive forces. Note this offering characterizes cultural hegemony as a whole, but it is divided consciousness that permits hegemony to function. Rather than a terminus a quo, however, divided consciousness can be seen as created, at least partially, by hegemony andas responsible for ultimate hegemonic success — a mutually reinforcing system. The individual mind and what occurs within it is the necessary starting point for understanding how domineering culture spreads and why members of social groups act in ways that puzzle later historians.

Divided (or contradictory) consciousness, according to Gramsci, was a phenomenon in which individuals believed both hegemonic ideology and contrary ideas based on their own lived experiences. Cultural hegemony pushed such ideas out of the bounds of rational discussion concerning what a decent society should look like. Historian T.J. Jackson Lears, summarizing sociologist Michael Mann, wrote that hegemony ensured “values rooted in the workers’ everyday experience lacked legitimacy… [W]orking class people tend to embrace dominant values as abstract propositions but often grow skeptical as the values are applied to their everyday lives. They endorse the idea that everyone has an equal chance of success in America but deny it when asked to compare themselves with the lawyer or businessman down the street.”[1] In other words, what individuals knew to be true from simply functioning in society was not readily applied to the nature of the overall society; some barrier, created at least in part by the process of hegemony, existed. Lears further noted the evidence from sociologists Richard Sennett and Jonathon Cobb, whose subaltern interviewees “could not escape the effect of dominant values” despite also holding contradictory ones, as “they deemed their class inferiority a sign of personal failure, even as many realized they had been constrained by class origins that they could not control.”[2] A garbage collector knew the fact that he was not taught to read properly was not his fault, yet blamed himself for his position in society.[3] The result of this contradiction, Gramsci observed, was often passivity, consent to oppressive systems.[4] If one could not translate and contrast personal truths to the operation of social systems, political action was less likely.

To understand how divided consciousness, for Gramsci, was achieved, it is necessary to consider the breadth of the instruments that propagated dominant culture. Historian Robert Gray, studying how the bourgeoisie achieved hegemony in Victorian Britain, wrote that hegemonic culture could spread not only through the state — hegemonic groups were not necessarily governing groups, though there was often overlap[5] — but through any human institutions and interactions: “the political and ideological are present in all social relations.”[6] Everything in Karl Marx’s “superstructure” could imbue individuals and historical blocs with domineering ideas: art, media, politics, religion, education, and so on. Gray wrote that British workers in the era of industrialization of course had to be pushed into “habituation” of the new and brutal wage-labor system by the workplace itself, but also through “poor law reform, the beginnings of elementary education, religious evangelism, propaganda against dangerous ‘economic heresies,’ the fostering of more acceptable expressions of working-class self help (friendly societies, co-ops, etc.), and of safe forms of ‘rational recreation.’”[7] The bourgeoisie, then, used many social avenues to manufacture consent, including legal reform that could placate workers. Some activities were acceptable under the new system (joining friendly societies or trade unions) to keep more radical activities out of bounds.[8] It was also valuable to create an abstract enemy, a “social danger” for the masses to fear.[9] So without an embrace of the dominant values and norms of industrial capitalism, there would be economic disaster, scarcity, loosening morals, the ruination of family, and more.[10] The consciousness was therefore under assault by the dominant culture from all directions, heavy competition for values derived from lived experience, despite the latter’s tangibility. In macro, Gramsci’s theory of cultural hegemony, to quote historian David Arnold, “held that popular ideas had as much historical weight or energy as purely material forces” or even “greater prominence.”[11] In micro, it can be derived, things work the same in the individual mind, with popular ideas as powerful as personal experience, and thus the presence of divided consciousness.

The concept of contradictory consciousness helps historians answer compelling questions and solve problems. Arnold notes Gramsci’s questions: “What historically had kept the peasants [of Italy] in subordination to the dominant classes? Why had they failed to overthrow their rulers and to establish a hegemony of their own?”[12] Contextually, why wasn’t the peasantry more like the industrial proletariat — the more rebellious, presumed leader of the revolution against capitalism?[13] The passivity wrought from divided consciousness provided an answer. While there were “glimmers” of class consciousness — that is, the application of lived experience to what social systems should be, and the growth of class-centered ideas aimed at ending exploitation — the Italian peasants “largely participated in their own subordination by subscribing to hegemonic values, by accepting, admiring, and even seeking to emulate many of the attributes of the superordinate classes.”[14] Their desires, having “little internal consistency or cohesion,” even allowed the ruling class to make soldiers of peasants,[15] meaning active participation in maintaining oppressive power structures. Likewise, Lears commented on the work of political theorist Lawrence Goodwyn and the question of why the Populist movement in the late nineteenth century United States largely failed. While not claiming hegemony as the only cause, Lears argued that the democratic movement was most successful in parts of the nation with democratic traditions, where such norms were already within the bounds of acceptable discussion.[16] Where they were not, where elites had more decision-making control, the “received culture” was more popular, with domination seeming more natural and inevitable.[17] Similarly, Arnold’s historiographical review of the Indian peasantry found that greater autonomy (self-organization to pursue vital interests) of subaltern groups meant hegemony was much harder to establish, with “Gandhi [coming] closest to securing the ‘consent’ of the peasantry for middle-class ideological and political leadership,” but the bourgeoisie failing to do the same.[18] Traditions and cultural realities could limit hegemonic possibilities; it’s just as important to historians to understand why something does not work out as it is to comprehend why something does. As a final example, historian Eugene Genovese found that American slaves demonstrated both resistance to and appropriation of the culture of masters, both in the interest of survival, with appropriation inadvertently reinforcing hegemony and the dominant views and norms.[19] This can help answer questions regarding why slave rebellions took place in some contexts but not others, or even why more did not occur — though, again, acceptance of Gramscian theory does not require ruling out all causal explanations beyond cultural hegemony and divided consciousness. After all, Gramsci himself favored nuance, with coexisting consent and coercion, consciousness of class or lived experience mixing with beliefs of oppressors coming from above, and so on.

The challenge of hegemonic theory and contradictory consciousness relates to parsing out aforementioned causes. Gray almost summed it up when he wrote, “[N]or should behavior that apparently corresponds to dominant ideology be read at face value as a direct product of ruling class influence.”[20] Here he was arguing that dominant culture was often imparted in indirect ways, not through intentionality of the ruling class or programs of social control.[21] But one could argue: “Behavior that apparently corresponds to dominant ideology cannot be read at face value as a product of divided consciousness and hegemony.” It is a problem of interpretation, and it can be difficult for historians to parse out divided consciousness or cultural hegemony from other historical causes and show which has more explanatory value. When commenting on the failure of the Populist movement, Lears mentioned “stolen elections, race-baiting demagogues,” and other events and actors with causal value.[22] How much weight should be given to dominant ideology and how much to stolen elections? This interpretive nature can appear to weaken the usefulness of Gramsci’s model. Historians have developed potential solutions. For instance, as Lears wrote, “[O]ne way to falsify the hypothesis of hegemony is to demonstrate the existence of genuinely pluralistic debate; one way to substantiate it is to discover what was left out of public debate and to account historically for those silences.”[23] If there was public discussion of a wide range of ideas, many running counter to the interests of dominant groups, the case for hegemony is weaker; if public discussion centered around a narrow slate of ideas that served obvious interests, the case is stronger. A stolen election may be assigned less casual value, and cultural hegemony more, if there existed restricted public debate. However, the best evidence for hegemony may remain the psychoanalysis of individuals, as seen above, that demonstrate some level of divided consciousness. Even in demonstrability, contradictory consciousness is key to Gramsci’s overall theory. A stolen election may earn less casual value if such insightful individual interviews can be submitted as evidence.  

In sum, for Gramscian thinkers divided consciousness is a demonstrable phenomenon that powers (and is powered by) hegemony and the acceptance of ruling class norms and beliefs. While likely not the only cause of passivity to subjugation, it offers historians an explanation as to why individuals do not act in their own best interests that can be explored, given causal weight, falsified, or verified (to degrees) in various contexts. Indeed, Gramsci’s theory is powerful in that it has much utility for historians whether true or misguided.

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[1] T.J. Jackson Lears, “The Concept of Cultural Hegemony: Problems and Possibilities,” The American Historical Review 90, no. 3 (June 1985): 577.

[2] Ibid, 577-578.

[3] Ibid, 578.

[4] Ibid, 569.

[5] Robert Gray, “Bourgeois Hegemony in Victorian Britain,” in Tony Bennet, ed., Culture, Ideology and Social Process: A Reader (London: Batsford Academic and Educational, 1981), 240.

[6] Ibid, 244.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid, 246.

[9] Ibid, 245.

[10] Ibid.

[11] David Arnold, “Gramsci and the Peasant Subalternity in India,” The Journal of Peasant Studies 11, no. 4 (1984):158.

[12] Ibid, 157.

[13] Ibid, 157.

[14] Ibid, 159.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Lears, “Hegemony,” 576-577.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Arnold, “India,” 172.

[19] Lears, “Hegemony,” 574.

[20] Gray, “Britain,” 246.

[21] Ibid, 245-246.

[22] Ibid, 276.

[23] Lears, “Hegemony,” 586.