Hegemony and the Philosophy of Praxis

After reading Antonio Santucci’s short political biography on Gramsci and after re-reading some of the Prison Notebooks (edited and translated by J. Buttigieg), I want to offer a reading of the relation and significance of “hegemony” within what Gramsci conceives of as a “philosophy of praxis”—his name for Marxism. (But I think this was more than a code name to confuse his prison censors and overseers.) This is a different kind of interpretation of hegemony, that I’ve normally assumed in my research. I guess you can say I want to “try on” something else.

At several points in his notes, Gramsci paraphrases Marx from memory: “people become conscious of their social position on the terrain of the superstructures” (Q8 §167, Q4 §15 §38, SPN 365). Within debates of his day, this was one key political point of departure for his efforts to stake out positions and strategies against both “economism” and “voluntarism.”

It should be noted that throughout his texts Gramsci carefully reminds us that the structure/superstructure metaphor is a methodological/analytic distinction and not, as he puts it, an “organic” one (Q4 §38, p. 182). Gramsci writes of a “necessary reciprocity between structure and superstructures (a reciprocity that is, precisely, the real dialectical process)” (Q8 §182). [Much the same could be said of the (importantly related) analytic distinction between civil and political society.] Opening note §38 in Notebook Four, he writes: “Relations between structure and superstructures. This is the crucial problem of historical materialism, in my view.” (This fits well with Sayer’s take on the metaphor.)

I think the “crucial problem” he identifies is intimately bound to the “philosophy of praxis” he’s developing in the notebooks. Gramsci’s obsession with building critical self-awareness among subaltern subjects and groups is manifest in his belief that everyone is a philosopher; everyone is an intellectual. For him, philosophy can and should be—and usually is, for better or worse—eminently practical; it conditions how we conceptualize and act in the world (common sense works similarly, but is qualitatively and “procedurally” different). From here, stems his concern and reformulation of “hegemony.” Taking into account his view of philosophy and praxis, hegemony can be understood as the consummate material of politics; it is how social power is exercised.

In a broad sense, hegemony refers to the always-ongoing struggles over theoretical-practical ways of being in the world, and the momentary “result” of those struggles—thus, a class can be said to exercise hegemony over another. The reading I want to offer is that what defines the realization of “hegemony” is the dominance of one form of praxis against others. Processually, this means that contests for hegemony are, by definition, struggles between historically situated praxes. Hence, the importance that Gramsci affords the intellectual as a sort of social “amplifier” in the production of a hegemonic praxis, or one aspiring to be such.

In a key passage, Gramsci explains:

The average worker has a practical activity but has no clear theoretical consciousness of his activity in and understanding of the world; indeed, his theoretical consciousness can be “historically” in conflict with his activity. In other words, he will have two theoretical consciousnesses: one that is implicit in his activity and that really unites him with all his fellow workers in the practical transformation of the world and a superficial, “explicit” one that he has inherited from the past. The practical-theoretical position, in this case, cannot help becoming “political”—that is, a question of “hegemony.” (Q8 §169).

The intellectual, whether revolutionary or reactionary, helps articulate the practical and the theoretical; they help materialize the hyphen between “practical-theoretical”—in a word, praxis. In this process, which is fraught by struggle, some social relations are naturalized and coercively enforced, while others are made unthinkable and unviable. An intricate modulation—an economy—of consent and coercion is constantly (and, in fact, already) at work in these struggles. Hegemony itself, writes Gramsci, “presupposes that the interests and tendencies of those groups over whom hegemony is exercised have been taken into account and that a certain equilibrium is established” (Q4 §38, p. 183). In other words, the interests and tendencies of the subaltern groups are at least partly articulated within the hegemony of dominant groups. But taking praxis as the point of departure for considering how this hegemony is produced and maintained helps us get away from dualistic-mechanical conceptions of hegemony as a carefully mediated process of consent or coercion, which Gramsci anyway saw as working in tandem and in dialectical movement.

The “philosophy of praxis” alone, says Gramsci, offers a way out of this hegemonic morass, because it’s aim is to socialize and mobilize the critical capacity and self-awareness that already exists—in albeit latent form—among subordinated groups. This seems to me the cornerstone of the “philosophy of praxis,” as Gramsci defines it.

Its aim is not the concoction of systematic concepts aimed at an idealized form of rule. Gramsci criticizes this approach as the “philosopher’s philosophies,” which he defines as “ideological initiatives undertaken by a specific class of people to change, correct or perfect conceptions of the world that exist in any particular age and thus to change the norms of conduct that go with them; in other words, to change practical activity as a whole” (SPN 344). Such approaches are nonetheless a praxis in some form, but the sources of their incited changes in practical activity and thought are diametrically different from those of the philosophy of praxis.

Instead, the philosophy of praxis offers the possibility of organically fostering a critical-practical wherewithal for a destructive critique of the hegemonic configurations of rule, while at the same time formulating the bases of popular self-government. The role of intellectuals is critically important in the formation of this project. But unlike their Catholic or bourgeois counterparts, as Gramsci notes, the role of the intellectual in the philosophy of praxis is to efface any practical distinction between the intellectual and the active man-in-the-mass.

More on Gramsci to come…

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