Without revolutionary theory there can be no revolutionary movement. This idea cannot be insisted upon too strongly at a time when the fashionable preaching of opportunism goes hand in hand with an infatuation for the narrowest forms of practical activity.
- Vladimir Lenin, “What is to Be Done?”
If we had to situate this quote by Lenin in a historical context, we would explain that what Lenin was doing in 1902 with “What is to Be Done?” was examining the methods and objectives of the Russian Social-Democracy, which at the time was blindly following (tailing) the “spontaneity” of the masses. Lenin, against this opportunist tendency, aimed to transform the movement by rooting its practice in Marxist theory, that is, a revolutionary practice backed by a concrete analysis of current events. It is in this light that the concept of hegemony arose.
The term hegemony was first used by the Russian Social-Democracy, specifically by Plekhanov to indicate the need for an alliance between peasantry and proletariat led by the working class as the only viable means to overthrow Tsarism, creating a national path for the liberation of all oppressed social groups. The Russian working class, according to the Russian Social-Democrats, in alliance with the peasantry, had to lead the bourgeois-democratic revolution against the Tsarist monarchy. By becoming the hegemonic force in this revolution, the working class, despite being a minority in the Russian Empire, would’ve been able to win the support of the majority of the population.
While for Plekhanov and Lenin hegemony was the general strategy for a revolution in the Russian Empire, Gramsci extends the concept of hegemony to include the practice of the capitalist class and its repressive and ideological state apparatuses, exploring the ways in which the bourgeoisie maintains its power. In his inquiries, he makes an important distinction between the types of power utilized to maintain class rule: domination and leadership.
“A social group can, indeed must, already exercise ‘leadership’ before winning governmental power (this is indeed one of the principal conditions for the winning of such power); it subsequently becomes dominant when it exercises power, but even if it holds it firmly in its grasp, it must continue to ‘lead’ as well.”
- Antonio Gramsci
Building on the groundwork laid by Lenin, Gramsci transforms hegemony from strategy to theory, developing the idea that leadership is a necessary condition to achieve political power. Every ruling class is able to exercise varying degrees of control over people through methods of coercion and persuasion as a means to perpetuate their political pwoer. With Gramsci, the Marxist-Leninist theory of hegemony becomes an explanation of the political and ideological relationship that guarantees its political power from being questioned, to be coupled with the theory of domination, or the brute use of coercive force by a ruling class to silence its enemies.
“The proletariat can become the leading and the dominant class to the extent that it succeeds in creating a system of alliances which allows it to mobilise the majority of the population against capitalism and the bourgeois state”
- Antonio Gramsci
As revealed by the Russian and Chinese revolutionary experiences, the only way for the working class to become hegemonic in the classical Leninist sense is by taking into account the interests of other oppressed groups of society and combining their interests with its own. With Bolsheviks in practice and Gramsci in theory, we have a break with the Second International’s orthodoxy of social conflict as an opposition between two classes only, with a resulting complex model of society involving other classes and social groups, such as national groups, oppressed genders, etc. The result is a struggle to strengthen the alliance of the oppressed and to weaken the alliance of the bourgeoisie in order to shift the balance of forces in the working class’ favor, under the leadership of a revolutionary party.
This alliance, however, need not be organized on a strict class basis, for a class wouldn’t be able to become hegemonic if it confined itself only to class interests, a revolutionary class must take into account the popular demands and the already existing struggle of the people which don’t have a pure class character and don’t raise directly out of relations of production. Among these struggles we find those for national liberation, the women’s rights movement, the civil rights movement, the anti-war movement, the student movement, and so on. All these movements have specific qualities not reducible to class struggle, albeit related to them. Thus hegemony has a national-popular dimension as well as a class dimension. The fight over leadership and hegemony, in Gramscian terms, is a social war of position.
For some examples of this struggle for leadership, we can look at the Black Panther Party and the Partido Africano da Independência da Guiné e Cabo Verde.
The Black Panthers would organize clinics which provided comprehensive health care for their community. To pay for these free services, volunteers would solicit funds from individual businessmen, churches, and social clubs, other than their own individual donations. With a functioning free community health program, the community begins to see that it is possible to receive professional, competent, and, above all, preventative medical help without paying any money for it and, most importantly, they begin to ask questions and to organize themselves to change existing health services so that they truly serve the people.
The Partido Africano da Independência da Guiné, during its struggle for independence from Portoguese imperialism, mingled with the Guinean population: PAIGC troops would help the local population to grow crops with better farming techniques, tilling the land when not fighting side by side with the people. PAIGC also set up a country-wide bazaar trade system that made goods available for prices much lower than those of colonial shops, and set up hospital stations to give medical care to the populace, relying on Soviet and Swedish medical supplies. In this way, the Guinean population created a network of institutions independent and hostile to the existing colonial ones.
This is the same message revolutionaries have sent out to the population as the occasion presented itself:
It must be kept in mind by any revolutionary organization that whenever bourgeois hegemony is threatened, the bourgeoisie will try to restore it with an extensive reorganization of society, and we have an example of this in the triumph of neoliberalism. The bourgeoisie has to act through the state to transform the socioeconomic structure from above, since they don’t have the active participation of the population, as these transformations usually come in response to demands by anti-hegemonic forces. In fact, these demands may be granted just so that these forces and popular struggles are dealt with. To combat this problem inherent in spontaneity a revolutionary party must always have an anti-passive approach to revolution founded on the continual extension of class and popular struggles.
To create a counter-hegemony, a revolutionary socialist party has to work with the complex system of relations between classes and social forces, dominated by the struggle between capital and labor. In concrete terms, these relations are embodied in organizations and institutions such as churches, unions, the media, cultural associations, schools, political parties, etc. The institutions which have a monopoly on coercion, also known as repressive state apparatuses, make up the state. The social relations and the organizations which embody them found outside of the state are called civil society. Civil society is the sphere of class struggles and of popular-democratic struggles. Thus it is the sphere in which a dominant social group organizes consent and leadership. It is also the sphere where the subordinate social groups may organize their opposition and construct an alternative hegemony, a counter-hegemony.
Bourgeois political power in the sphere of civil society and its hegemony grows out of their control over the sphere of production. This control over the production of surplus value isn’t static nor monolithic, and since the days of the infancy of capitalism it has been contested by workers in their struggle over conditions of work, over terms for the introduction of new machines, over working time, etc. A preparatory phase always has to precede the conquest of political power, in which Marxist-Leninists have to expand their leadership to labor unions, student unions, social clubs, and so on. Knowing that coercive political power is what armors civil society, Marxist-Leninists understand that the takeover of the state is a decisive step, but only part of the transition to socialism.
Gramsci defined civil society as a system of “fortresses and earthworks” behind the state. This is accurate because civil society is where the war of position between socialists and capitalist hegemons takes place. The war of movement in Tsarist Russia, the takeover of state power in a single historical moment that was possible because of the high levels of power concentration in the Russian Empire are impossible in countries with a well developed civil society. Revolution today is always a process of expanding the counter-hegemony of the working class, of building up a new historic bloc, and can’t be broken down to the single moment when state power passes from one class to another.
The transition to socialism is hence two processes: the growth of working-class counter-hegemony, and the conquest of political power.