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Lenin’s Concept of Hegemony

Jonathan Joseph

THE CONCEPT of hegemony has never been particularly well dealt with. It is nearly always linked exclusively to the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci whose work in turn has been distorted by theoretically ambitious Euro-communists who wish to justify the reformist road to socialism. But the Euro-communists and the Trotskyists are often united in one thing – their denial that there is a valid concept of hegemony present in the works of Lenin and Trotsky. The Euro-communists wish to deny this presence because they reject the revolutionary nature of Leninism itself. But the Trotskyists are wary of hegemony too, because it has been seized on to justify a reformist practice. Yet the neglect of hegemony has seriously damaged attempts to develop a revolutionary strategy.

The concept of hegemony is usually used to indicate the ways in which different social groups achieve consent, dominance and leadership in society. In its more complex form the concept becomes associated with political projects, social alliances and historical blocs. But we will insist on two crucial points:

1. Hegemony is intimately connected to the question of leadership. The reformists reduce hegemony to a seamless muddle of indeterminacy, forgetting that hegemony requires leadership and direction. Indeed the term derives from the Greek word for leadership. Against the reformist emphasis on alliances and populism, a proper understanding of hegemony needs to see it as a strategy for winning and maintaining power. It must therefore be related to the idea of the vanguard party and the leadership of this section.

2. Hegemony must also be related to social structures. Marx wrote that people make their own history but not under conditions of their own choosing. Therefore hegemony cannot simply be understood as the relation of one group to another. It must be examined in its social context.

Euro-communists have made much of the fact that Lenin and Trotsky’s analysis can explain, at best, only the situation in the East. Gramsci is seen, therefore, as an alternative to classical Marxism, a "theorist of the West", a third option to Trotsky and Stalin. Such a view is based on pure prejudice. There are volumes of writings by Lenin and Trotsky on the situation in the "West", which are actually more explanatory and sophisticated than Gramsci’s.

This article will examine some of Lenin’s writings and will argue that a strong (if often implicit) notion of hegemony exists. In particular, it will argue that Lenin’s writings on democratic centralism and the dictatorship of the proletariat, rather than undermining the idea of hegemony, are strongly dependent on it.

Lenin’s development
Lenin’s early writings develop the theme that the proletariat fights for its hegemony in the context of the bourgeois-democratic revolution. Much of this comes from writers like Akselrod – the first to coin the phrase "the hegemony of the proletariat in the democratic revolution".1

Lenin therefore associates the striving for proletarian hegemony with a principled and consistent struggle for radical democratic demands. Only the proletariat is able to display these qualities: "From the proletarian point of view hegemony in a war goes to him who fights most energetically, who never misses a chance to strike a blow at the enemy, who always suits the action to the word, who is therefore the ideological leader of the democratic forces, who criticises half-way policies of every kind."2

Thus the role of the working class was limited by objective circumstances – the stage of development in Russian civil society. But it was still possible for the working class to play an active and radical role in fighting to extend the boundaries of political debate and struggle. Lenin makes this point in his "Two Tactics of Social-Democracy in the Democratic Revolution": "We cannot jump out of the bourgeois-democratic boundaries of the Russian revolution, but we can vastly extend these boundaries, and within these boundaries we can and must fight for the interests of the proletariat."3

However, as Lenin developed the ideas of class leadership based on the vanguard of the working class and the struggle for political independence, his concept of hegemony gets more closely attached to the struggle for state power and the application of the leading role of the proletariat through the state. The struggle around national-democratic demands naturally grows over into a struggle for political independence and working class forms of democracy. The context of national-democratic demands soon gets superseded by the need to take power. Working class hegemony is secured during the course of this struggle.

Lenin’s theory therefore leads to an acceptance of a process of permanent revolution. In the same sense that Marx used the term, the working class initially struggles to carry the bourgeois-democratic revolution to its conclusion, to make its demands permanent. But in doing so, the working class moves naturally into the struggle for its own demands and interests.

Maintaining a concept of hegemonic struggle is necessary if a mechanical materialism is to be avoided. The degenerating Second International secreted such an ideology to complement its opportunist politics. The key question for the likes of Bernstein was not how to make the revolution, but how to take advantage of the revolution once it inevitably came. Hence there is no need for any active revolutionary practice. Instead the task of the workers’ organisations is limited to the struggle for reforms that improve the conditions of workers under capitalism. This reformist practice is tied to a reliance on the capitalist state. Once those states entered into war, the Social Democrats followed with them.

At a philosophical level Lenin strove to avoid this mechanical materialism. He was responsible for returning the active political element to history. This is clearly visible in Lenin’s political writings, but it can also be found in his philosophy.

Lenin’s Materialism and Empirio-Criticism, written in 1908, still has a rather mechanistic character and a cruder materialism. This is understandable given that Lenin’s politics also had a more mechanical outlook reflected in the fact that the Russian revolution had to complete its bourgeois-democratic "phase" before a workers’ revolution was possible. At a philosophical level Lenin refers to the fact that thought is a "reflection" of reality.4

However, the later Philosophical Notebooks display a changed approach. Thought’s "reflection" of reality is given a more complex basis, developed through abstractions, concepts and laws, acting much more as a mediation.5 Thought is given a more dynamic role. Philosophy is no longer a mechanical reflection of reality. The active element is restored.

Lenin’s theorisation of political practice flows from his analysis of the dynamics of the objective situation. His starting point is the imperialist phase of capitalism. Social concentration leads to monopoly. The ownership of capital is separated from the application of that capital to production. Finance capital is separated from productive capital. This makes capital more mobile and more parasitic. It also leads to an imperialist foreign policy reflected in wars and state rivalries.

Lenin’s realism stems from the fact that his political concepts and ideas are given a very precise form based on the objective context. He takes up the matter of democracy not as some kind of abstract or universal ideal, but as a product of concrete circumstances. What does democracy mean in the imperialist epoch? What does it mean in Russia or in Germany in this epoch? How does the working class take up the struggle? For Lenin, the sell-out leaders of the Second International had failed to address these questions. Their general formulations were flawed by a failure to relate concrete demands to the reality of the objective context, the political and economic dynamics: "Kautsky broke with Marxism by advocating in the epoch of finance capital a ’reactionary ideal’, ’peaceful democracy’, ’the mere operation of economic factors’, for objectively this ideal drags us back from monopoly to non-monopolistic capitalism, and is a reformist swindle."6

However, Kautsky himself was not simply inventing his false concepts. His ideas were likewise a product of the objective situation. Social Democracy, in its legal form, had come to represent certain privileges – first the benefits gained by the Western European working class through imperialism; second a particular layer of this working class, the labour aristocracy, who had more exclusive interests. Lenin’s analysis of the development of the working class and its political parties, saw it in this stratified form. The revisionists were theorising objective developments – the conservatism of the labour aristocracy, the sectoral interests of the labour bureaucracy, the relationship of those parties to the state and so on. As Lukács puts it, revisionism is tied to realpolitik.7 Lenin’s cruder but more graphic explanation is that: "The social-chauvinists are ... bourgeois within the working class movement. They represent a stratum, or groups, or sections of the working class which, objectively, have been bribed by the bourgeoisie (by better wages, positions of honour, etc), and which help their own bourgeoisie to plunder and oppress small and weak peoples and to fight for the division of the capitalist spoils."8

We can therefore draw out Lenin’s full position. The objective situation is dominated by the imperialist phase of capitalism and colonial exploitation. This gives rise to new social compositions. Ruling blocs can be strengthened by the incorporation of privileged sections of the working class. This also has the effect of undermining working class hegemony. The task of revolutionary socialists is therefore to fight for the political independence of the working class and to break the alliances with the bourgeoisie and the state. Any alliance with the petty bourgeoisie must involve resolving the contradictions that oppose the petty bourgeoisie to the working class and winning them to the hegemony of the proletariat. This will be part of a general process in which the ruling class suffers a crisis of hegemony whilst the working class strengthens its counter-hegemony. A revolutionary situation emerges: "when it is impossible for the ruling class to maintain their rule without any change; when there is a crisis, in one form or another, among the ’upper classes’, a crisis in the policy of the ruling class, leading to a fissure through which the discontent and indication of the oppressed classes burst forth."9

A revolutionary situation does not depend simply on the position of the working class. It requires a simultaneous crisis of bourgeois hegemony located within a structural crisis of society: "for a revolution to take place it is not enough for the exploited and oppressed masses to realise the impossibility of living in the old way, and demand changes; for a revolution to take place it is essential that the exploiters should not be able to live and rule in the old way. It is only when the ’lower classes’ do not want to live in the old way and the ’upper classes’ cannot carry on in the old way that the revolution can triumph ... revolution is impossible without a nation-wide crisis."10

The totality of these objective changes is a revolutionary situation. But Lenin allows for a regeneration of a concept of hegemony by breaking from mechanical materialism and making the subjective factor a necessary component of the revolution itself. Here lies the close connection between Lenin’s realism and his implicit concept of hegemony. This relationship now develops through Lenin’s understanding of the proletarian dictatorship.

Lenin and the dictatorship of the proletariat
The concept of the dictatorship of the proletariat can be found in Marx and his writings on the Paris Commune, but it is Lenin who really takes it up and develops it. The concept had become all the more crucial because of the immediacy of the struggle for power and the problems of holding on to power in such a weak society.

The need for the dictatorship of proletariat is both objective and subjective. First it is demanded by the nature of objective situation – the social crisis and the need for restructuring and defence. Secondly its necessity stems from the nature of the working class and the difficulty it has in securing hegemony.

Lenin’s analysis of Russian society led him to the conclusion that a situation of dual power existed. In effect, two counterposed hegemonies stood side by side. Alongside the bourgeois government stood what effectively amounted to a workers’ government based on the soviets. These bodies had sprung up from below. They developed their own rules and laws, their own forms of proletarian democracy. Lenin’s new position on permanent revolution led him to the conclusion that although state power was in the hands of the bourgeoisie, overall political power was passing over to the Soviets. The March revolution prepared this situation. Two powers cannot exist together within the same state. The situation of dual power therefore represents a transitional phase in the revolution’s development.11

Consequently, the dictatorship of the proletariat was the only realistic course. The only alternative is bourgeois dictatorship. The idea that there might be a third way is petty-bourgeois utopianism that flies in the face of the objective situation.12

As Balibar has argued13, the dictatorship of the proletariat is neither a tactic nor a strategy but a reality borne out of a historical tendency, rooted in the nature of capitalism and the painful transition out of it.

Kautsky’s opposition to the revolution and his talk of democracy is therefore meaningless. Lenin argues that Kautsky has become a liberal who talks of democracy but fails to ask: for what class? Kautsky talks of pure, non-class or above-class democracy.14

In any case, bourgeois democracy had been established through a violent dictatorship over the majority of the population. In contrast, the proletarian dictatorship should repress only a violent minority of the population – the counter-revolutionary bourgeoisie. But there is also the international element which may intervene. Consequently, the transition to socialism will take an entire epoch, until then the bourgeoisie still cherishes the hope of restoration.15

Lenin argues that the proletariat needs to establish its hegemony through state power. It is only after victory that it can hope to win the support of the majority of the population. Then state power can be used to win over the masses from the bourgeois and petty-bourgeois forces: "the proletariat must first overthrow the bourgeoisie and win for itself state power, and then use that state power, that is, the dictatorship of the proletariat, as an instrument of its class for the purpose of winning the sympathy of the majority of the working people."16

The Proletarian Dictatorship is therefore not simply a negative concept to keep control, but the most realistic way of using and directing state power to win over the masses and to demonstrate the superiority of working-class rule. Like all hegemonies, this is based on coercion and consent: "The dictatorship of the proletariat means a persistent struggle – bloody and bloodless, violent and peaceful, military and economic, educational and administrative – against the forces and traditions of the old society."17

Christine Buci-Glucksmann rightly argues that Lenin’s concept of hegemony is not synonymous with the dictatorship of the proletariat. Hegemony is the function of the working class as a whole.18 The relationship to the vanguard is a dialectical one. She likens Lenin’s formulation to Gramsci’s: "In both cases, what is involved is a concept closely linked to that of the dictatorship of the proletariat, without however being identical with this. Hegemony qualifies the proletarian dictatorship, in particular its expansive character."19

This is reflected in Lenin’s realist distinction between the party, the vanguard and the masses. The party will play a leading and directing role, but the working class in general will enjoy social hegemony. For example, Lenin disagreed with Trotsky’s view that the trade unions should be brought under direct party control. They, along with the soviets, represent the social hegemony of the working class as a whole. The dictatorship of the proletariat concerns the more specific political role given to the party and the vanguard.

Democratic centralism and the theory of hegemony
For many, democratic centralism is an outdated product of Russian political conditions. In a post-modern vein, opponents of democratic centralism claim that because today’s world is supposedly more complex and heterogeneous, political organisation must be founded on some sort of democratic pluralism.

Such an argument is nonsensical. It is precisely because reality is complexly structured that organisational discipline is necessary if any meaningful changes are to be made. To argue for pluralism as an alternative is to play the game on capitalism’s terms. As effective leadership and direction are removed, any attempt at a hegemonic project descends into incoherence. Instead of pluralism we get fragmentation and the reinforcing of alienated identities.

Such objections fail to understand the connection being made between a theory of organisation and a hegemonic project. Lenin’s writings on democratic centralism are not mere organisational concerns. They are political matters relating to the organisation of the vanguard.

Hence democratic centralism refers to the organisation of the party as a vanguard party. Recognising the stratified nature of social groups and classes, the Leninist theory of organisation seeks to relate first to the political vanguard and the most advanced workers and through them to the broader masses.

Although there are competing definitions, we will define the vanguard here as the most politically developed sections of the working class with good political instincts formed by participation in the class struggle.

Leninism’s historic break with Social Democracy is founded on an idea of the revolutionary party as an active, organic party which relates to the political vanguard by organising it. Democratic centralism therefore extends beyond the organisation of the party to the vanguard as well.

"The democratic centralism of the Communist Party leadership should be a real synthesis, a fusion of centralism and proletarian democracy. This fusion can be achieved only when the party organisation works and struggles at all times together, as a united whole. Centralisation in the Communist Party does not mean formal, mechanical centralisation, but the centralisation of communist activity, i.e. the creation of a leadership that is strong and effective and at the same time flexible."20

In this sense Leninism is conceived as a more democratic form of organisation than Social Democracy. It rests on activity, organisation and participation. In contrast, Social Democracy rests on a passive relationship to its base, organising it socially, but keeping it separate from the political leadership.

Leninism sees itself as organising the most conscious layers in society and directing them through hegemonic leadership. This means that the revolutionary party takes on an important role and status. Hence Lenin’s famous words: "Class political consciousness can be brought to the workers only from without, that is, only from outside the economic struggle, from outside the sphere of relations between workers and employers. The sphere from which alone it is possible to obtain this knowledge is the sphere of relationships of all classes and strata to the state and the government.... We must ’go among all classes of the population’ as theoreticians, as propagandists, as agitators, and as organisers."21

Strongly rejecting adaptation to spontaneous consciousness, stressing instead the need for direction and leadership, Lenin argues that although the party is involved in the day to day struggles of the workers, it stands above them. Lenin is saying that class political consciousness needs organisation and leadership. This cannot be established through adaptation to spontaneous consciousness or sectoral interests of particular groups. Marxist consciousness sees things in their totality.

The party, therefore, is not simply an amalgam of different experiences. It tries to collectivise these experiences on a higher plane. By stressing the need for the most advanced theory,22 Lenin rejects the empiricist view that the party represents the mere collectivisation of experiences. The party must know something of the totality of structures, relations and conditions in which these experiences take place. Experience alone is only partial and often misleading.

There are three dialectical relationships contained in the concept of democratic centralism. First is the differentiation between democratic centralism in theory – as a principle of organisation, and democratic centralism in practice – as related to specific tasks. Second, democratic centralism needs to be seen as a specifically organisational question and as an eminently political matter. Political and organisational matters are both unified and distinctive. Finally there is the difficult relationship between the democratic and the centralist components of the concepts.

However, it is necessary to stress that democratic centralism should be seen as a strongly democratic concept. It seeks to allow for the fullest freedom of discussion and internal debate whilst recognising the need for the party to offer clear direction and leadership in action. This is based on the recognition that the revolutionary party seeks not merely to intervene, but to hegemonise.

That such a means of organisation is necessary, is derived from the role the party is required to play and the tasks that it faces. Of course the very practical and political nature of these tasks means that it is possible to abuse democratic centralism. But again, a process such as the Stalinisation of the CPSU cannot be seen in isolation from the very real and material pressures being exerted.

We have argued that democratic centralism depends on a realist view of the world. It is based on the practical needs of the struggle for hegemonic power – as opposed to idealist notions of democratic plurality. This is so precisely because the masses are seen as diverse rather than homogeneous. The real world is seen as a complex set of relations into which the party must intervene. This complexity requires that the party is unified in its activity and that it seeks to unify the vanguard around it. Given the complexity of the real world, the key political struggle is therefore to capture state power in order to direct the necessary changes.

Thus the concept is intimately tied to the struggle for political hegemony seeking to organise the vanguard around the party and the masses around the vanguard. The party needs to be centralised in order to play a clear and leading role. Within the party there is freedom of discussion. But this discussion must be reconciled with clear leadership. Hence the slogan, freedom of discussion, unity of action.23

Hegemony in classical Marxism especially emphasises the role of leadership – something which today’s commentators want to abandon. The post-Marxists and Euro-communists have liquidated the question of class leadership into the general concerns of "popular struggle" and "people’s revolution". These theories are no more than new editions of previous bourgeois ideas. Against this Lenin wrote: "abuse of the word &146;people&146; ... shall not be used to cover up failure to understand the class antagonisms within the people. It insists categorically on the need for complete class independence for the party of the proletariat. But it divides the &146;people&146; into &146;classes&146; ... in order that the advanced class, which does not suffer from the halfheartedness, vacillation and indecision of the intermediate classes, may with all the greater energy and enthusiasm fight for the cause of the whole of the people, at the head of the whole of the people."24

Lenin recognises the plurality of society. But from this fact he draws proper realist conclusions – that the different layers must be united behind the proletariat and its vanguard. The unity of the masses is based on a genuine struggle for hegemony, rather than on some non-realist notion of overcoming reification or achieving Lukácsian class consciousness.

The most fruitful exploration of Lenin’s realism lies not with speculation over philosophical positions, but with a concrete engagement with the specific conditions of the class struggle. From this is left a strong legacy of strategy, method and tactics, crucial to a proper understanding of hegemony.

Indeed, these concepts are based on a realist understanding of the world as it is rather than on the idealist alternatives that try to promote bourgeois democracy, new social vanguards, humanism and so on.

Above all, what is striking about the Leninist theory of hegemony is its dynamic, dialectical character. For hegemony is not a static concept; it is a relational one. It implies relations – within groups, between groups, and between groups and social structures. The world is not flat and history is not mechanical. Hegemony reflects the fact that history is an open-ended process based on a multitude of different layers, structures, groups and relations.

Hegemonic strategy is brought to life through struggle. It recognises the fact that society is complex. It recognises that the difficult terrain of struggle requires a disciplined politics and organisation. Lenin’s writings do not reject the theory of hegemony; they are its strongest confirmation.

The task for Leninists today is to recognise the role that the concept of hegemony plays in relating our understanding of the social world to the strategy necessary for its transformation. A serious reappraisal of the role of hegemony within Lenin’s work can help us in our most pressing need – the regeneration of a revolutionary strategy.


1. See N. Harding, Lenin’s Political Thought, Macmillan, London, 1977, p.47.

2. Lenin, "Working Class and Bourgeois Democracy" in Collected Works, Vol.8, Lawrence and Wishart, London and Moscow, 1962, p.79.

3. Lenin, Two Tactics of Social-Democracy in the Democratic Revolution, Peking, 1975, p.47.

4. Lenin, Materialism and Empirio-Criticism, Peking, 1976, pp.195, 218.

5. E.g. Lenin, Philosophical Notebooks, Lawrence and Wishart, London and Moscow, 1961, p.182.

6. Lenin, Imperialism the Highest Stage of Capitalism, Peking, 1975, p.136.

7. G. Lukács, Lenin, New Left Books, London, 1972, p.56.

8. Lenin, Between the Two Revolutions, Progress, Moscow, 1971, p.99.

9. Lenin, "The Collapse of the Second International" in Collected Works, Vol.21, 1965, p.213.

10. Lenin, "Left-Wing" Communism, Moscow, 1950, p.69.

11. See Lenin, Between the Two Revolutions, p.84.

12. See Lenin, Collected Works, Vol.28, 1965, pp.463-64.

13. E. Balibar, On the Dictatorship of the Proletariat, New Left Books, London, 1977, p.134.

14. Lenin, The Proletarian Revolution and the Renegade Kautsky, Peking, 1970, p.29.

15. Ibid, p.35.

16. Lenin, Collected Works, Vol.30, 1965, p.263.

17. Lenin, "Left-Wing" Communism, p.30.

18. C. Buci-Glucksmann, Gramsci and the State, Lawrence and Wishart, London, 1980, p.179.

19. Ibid, p.182.

20. A. Alder (ed.), Theses Resolutions and Manifestos of the First Four Congresses of the Third International, Pluto, 1973, p.235.

21. Lenin, What is to be Done?, Moscow, 1973, pp.75, 78.

22. Ibid, p.27.

23. Lenin, Collected Works, Vol.10, 1962, p.380.

24. Lenin, Two Tactics of Social Democracy, p.122.