Join an Inquiry into Capitalist Culture

How are we affected by the daily bombardment of radio, television, movies, newspapers, and literature?

More importantly, WHY are we thus affected? What can we do about it?

movie projectorWould you like to join an investigation into how the permeating culture that surrounds us works and what needs to be done about it? A new comrade from Oregon has written the article below as a first contribution toward a theoretical basis for cultural struggle. Let us know what you think of it and whether or not you would be interested in helping with the inquiry.

Hegemony, Culture, and Class Struggle

If the capitalist class had only the raw, coercive power of the armed forces and the police to keep itself in power, it would soon collapse from exhaustion. The way the ruling class gets its way is more subtle, more sophisticated, more complex. When people grow up in capitalist society there are many institutions – family, school, church, mass media, and the like – which teach the values of the larger culture, tell you what’s right and what’s wrong, teach you what’s possible and what isn’t. That larger culture is the culture of capitalism, and it shapes how we think and how we relate to class rule.

Antonio Gramsci, a founder and second General Secretary of the Italian Communist Party, developed the theory of hegemony to explain the way a ruling class depends on coercive power, but, even more, on cultural domination to ensure its rule.(1) Gramsci's theory did not seek to replace the distinction between economic base and socio-political superstructure proposed by Marx, but rather to explain how capitalist control of the superstructure evolves and how breaking that control is an essential step in achieving liberation of the working class. Ultimately, as Engels explained, the base determines the superstructure only "in the last instance,"(2) and the theory of hegemony helps to specify exactly how the superstructure is determined and dialectically related to the base.

By controlling the means of socialization -- institutions, practices, beliefs -- the capitalist class uses social constructs to ensure that its values are the values of society as a whole. No capitalist class can rule solely by coercive power; it needs the cooperation of the oppressed working class. Hegemony is the process whereby these social constructs of capitalist control develop and how they seduce the working class into cooperating with their own oppression. It creates what Engels termed “false consciousness”(3) and what Lenin characterized as “the power of bourgeois ideology.”(4)

Gramsci posits two phases of class struggle through which revolutionary movements must pass. The first he calls the "war of position."(5) A war of position is the cultural and intellectual struggle in which the working class and allied intellectuals articulate a class-based value system, a counter-hegemony in opposition to the hegemony of the capitalist class. This working class culture, together with the concrete experience of struggle, helps to increase class consciousness, promote the dissemination of revolutionary theory, and promote revolutionary organization among the working class. It makes revolutionary liberation possible by convincing the working class not only that it can overthrow the values of capitalism and with them the capitalist class, but also that it must.

The second phase of class struggle, which Gramsci calls the "war of manoeuvre,"(6) is the struggle for seizure of state power by the class-conscious working class which has been armed with the necessary political and cultural values to build a new and more just society. Defeating capitalist hegemony is, therefore, a necessary preliminary step to overcoming capitalist coercive power.

What we do as Communists in the current level of class struggle necessarily involves helping to create a class-conscious anti-hegemony, encouraging the necessary knowledge and values which provide working people with the intellectual weapons to realize their ability to resist capitalist oppression and to understand how practical struggles against particular oppressions are part of the general struggle to overthrow capitalism. This makes our attention to developing an alternative to capitalist culture in general – and culture in the widest possible sense -- which empowers the working class enormously important. While the concrete forms which this anti-hegemony takes are dependent on material conditions and the particular vulnerabilities of capitalist ideology at particular points in time – praxis and theory are inseparable – it is the responsibility of revolutionary activists to constantly maintain cultural pressure on capitalism and its institutions, to strip the mask away from capitalist values and reveal their explicit class basis, to encourage the working class to independently develop its own values and engage those values in constantly recruiting new strata to the struggle and to deepen the realization of those values in the lives of working people.


1 Gramsci worked out his theory of hegemony while imprisoned by the Fascist government in Italy in his Prison Notebooks; to prevent their confiscation by Fascist censors he euphemized traditional Marxist jargon, e.g., he used “fundamental group” rather than the more usual term “class.” Gramsci’s work is most available to an English-speaking audience in Selections from the Prison Notebooks of Antonio Gramsci., ed. and trans., Quintin Hoare and ?Geoffrey Nowell Smith (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1971); hereafter, SPN. Also available is the full text of the prison notebooks: Prison Notebooks, I-II, ed. and trans., Joseph A. Buttigieg. trans. Antonio ?Callari. (New ?York: Columbia University Press, 1992-1996).
2 Letter to C. Schmidt, 27 October 1890; also letter to J. Bloch, 21-22 September 1890, MECW, vol. 49.
3 Letter to F. Mehring, 14 July 1893, MECW, vol. 50.
4 What is To Be Done (1902), LCW, vol. 5. In the same work Lenin also used the Russian term hegemony in much the same way as Gramsci used “hegemony.”
5 SPN, 243.
6 SPN, 232.