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Hegemony Revisited

Mab Seymour

IN HIS article "Lenin’s Concept of Hegemony" in What Next? No.3 Jonathan Joseph provides a state-of-the art example of how to discuss a subject, ably, intelligently and at length, without actually going so far as to say what the subject means. This somewhat weakens his argument that Marxists’ "neglect of hegemony has seriously damaged attempts to develop a revolutionary strategy". It certainly leaves one mystified as to why it would be necessary to argue, as the article states that it will, "that a strong (if often implicit) notion of hegemony exists" in the writings of Lenin.

I happen not to entirely disagree with the writer of the article on these two arguments, and so it was with frustration that I read an embryonically sensible argument going up in the smoke of "academic Marxism". If I hadn’t thought a great deal about the concept of "hegemony" before reading Comrade Jonathan’s article, I would not be any the wiser. Did Comrade Jonathan intend readers of the article to identify with him in his obvious struggle to justify his Marxism in the eyes of academia? Is it necessary for the "proletariat" to reconcile "critical realism" (or "dialectical materialism minus the dialectical and minus the materialism", as I prefer to call it) with "Marxism"). Or is it simply necessary for Comrade Jonathan to do that, and so persuade the readers of What Next? that this reconciliation will make the slightest difference to "revolutionary strategy"? It seems to me that whatever the term "hegemony" turns out to be fiendishly clever, if insignificant on a social scale a mechanism whereby the proletariat, in parts of the British state at least, is protected, ideologically from "catching" the perniciously anti-capitalist method of Marxism because Marxism’s main protagonists in this non-revolutionary period are all very busy justifying their own existence and calling it Marxism. It’s a good job that ideology is of the superstructure, otherwise we’d all be down the tubes.

In the article in question, Comrade Jonathan sets himself the task of refuting the Eurocommunists’ and the Trotskyists’ insistence that there is no "valid concept of hegemony present in the works of Lenin and Trotsky". Rather than attempt to justify the concept itself, let’s look at what it might refer to and see whether Lenin and Trotsky touched on those topics. The much-maligned Antonio Gramsci, actually a classically-Leninist revolutionary who spent a lot of years festering in prison getting slightly carried away, as one would, in flights of philosophical writing, did elaborate considerably on the subject. In one of his Prison Notebooks ("The Study of Philosophy", Lawrence and Wishart, 1986, p.357), he went so far as to say: "Everything is political, even philosophy or philosophies and the only ’philosophy’ is history in action, that is, life itself. It is in this sense that one can interpret the thesis of the German proletariat as the heir of classical German philosophy – and one can affirm that the theorisation and realisation of hegemony carried out by Illich [Leninj was also a great ’metaphysical’ event." He, evidently, believed that Lenin had given the matter some thought.

As Comrade Jonathan points out, the origin of the term "hegemony" is Greek. It refers to "leadership", and more specifically, to "predominance of one state of a confederacy". In more recent political parlance it has come to refer to the leadership of one class over another within the framework of the state, and more often than not, to the various coercive and consensual means by which the dominant class exercises social dominance, often counterposed to the direct domination of arms, and juridical and political government. It would appear, then, that Lenin and Trotsky might have touched on this issue more than fleetingly, what with the seizure of state power and the dictatorship of the proletariat looming a bit large among their preoccupations. This seems to me to deal adequately with the question of whether Lenin and Trotsky talk about leadership or not, as Comrade Jonathan suggests that the Eurocoms and the Trotskyists believe they don’t. Since they achieved the socialist revolution this century, one can assume that their conceptualisation of the power and methods of the enemy was at least partially valid.

However, here and now, there is no Bolshevik party, no vanguard to speak of, no vanguard of the vanguard, and no incipient revolution to have a strategy about. The only leadership around with real clout is that exercised by the capitalist class, ably abetted by the trade union bureaucracy and Tony Blair. Bourgeois hegemony is such, in the British state at least, in this highest stage of capitalism, that Marxism is safely and confidently consigned into the hands of the self-styled Marxists, because in their hands it can never come anywhere very near the consciousness of the mass of the working class. Is it, as Comrade Jonathan implies, through Marxists understanding this hegemony that revolutionary consciousness will arise in the proletariat? I think not.

The Marxists are a tool, themselves, of this bourgeois hegemony. In the capitalist metropolii, those who call themselves Marxists are predominantly self-selected from among a highly-specific social type: very disturbed and neurotic, often socially-dysfunctional and unable to understand their own ahenation objectively, white, male, intelligentsia, petty-bourgeois, anal-retentive train-spotters. Being determines consciousness, as we know, and it also determines how much we can understand of our own subjectivity and thus delineate where that subjectivity ends and objective reality begins. The fact that this specific social type could ever aspire to propagandise to a broader group of potential militants, or agitate effectively in the mass of the working class, is an indicator of just how unlocated in objective reality the "Marxists" are.

Most people are female, for a start. 14 million adults, according to the "official" statistics, can’t read very well. Most people are more alienated, and disaffected, and affected, by trade union bureaucracy than the Marxists are. Huge numbers of women, and increasingly, men, are bringing up children in lone-parent domestic setups. While addiction, depression, and all the other individual psychological symptoms of the social sickness that is a powerful part of the bourgeois hegemony are rife in class society at large, they are disproportionately-represented in Marxist groupings. The left groups keep themselves busy with gang-warfare disguised as political discussion, calling everyone who doesn’t agree with them "sectarian", and meanwhile opportunistically capitalising on mistakes and weaknesses, of which there are many, in this sorry bunch. This sectarianism and opportunism is often commented on, but tends to get dignified by having political motivation attributed to it. I think that reality is that politics has very little to do with it; as political activity, it is about as relevant to the future of the working class and to capital, as the gang culture which dominates the young urban poor. Like the gang-culture, with which it has a great deal in common, it is an expression of alienation, striving for social and ideological connection and cohesiveness yet fundamentally anti-social, atomising and exclusive.

Capitalism is safe, for the time being, from the teachings of history, and from the works and method of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky, and from the might of mass class-consciousness. Comrade Jonathan is in fact, of course, correct that it would be desirable for Marxists to be able to gain greater understanding of the bourgeois hegemony. By understanding, in a materialist sense, the social hegemony as a complex net of reactions of leadership (and not focusing unduly on the relative autonomy of the ideological, a distraction which always leads up the garden path), Marxists can use this understanding as a peephole into the logic of capitalism. And pigs might fly, since the bourgeois hegemony is not such that as a general rule only the socially dysfunctional can begin to see the real logic of capitalism for what it is; and the socially dysfunctional are too dysfunctional to either conceptualise what they have begun to see, or to communicate it effectively to society at large.Luckily, it is unlikely that the revolution is waiting for we Marxists to get our act together.