[Marxism] On hegemony

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Sat Dec 9 08:09:55 MST 2017

LRB, Vol. 39 No. 24 · 14 December 2017
You need a gun
by Wolfgang Streeck

The H-Word: The Peripeteia of Hegemony by Perry Anderson
Verso, 190 pp, £16.99, April, ISBN 978 1 78663 368 2

The Antinomies of Antonio Gramsci by Perry Anderson
Verso, 179 pp, £14.99, April, ISBN 978 1 78663 372 9

What is the relationship between coercion and consent? Under what 
circumstances does power turn into authority, brute force into 
legitimate leadership? Can coercion work without consent? Can consent be 
secured without coercion? Does political power depend on voluntary 
agreement and values shared in common, or does it grow out of the barrel 
of a gun? When ideas rule, how is that rule maintained? Can associations 
of equals – built on common interests, ideas and identities – endure, or 
must they degenerate into empires kept together by force? Such questions 
go to the foundations of political theory and practice. There is no 
better way to explore them than by tracing the complex career of the 
concept of hegemony, from the Greeks to today’s ‘international 
relations’. That is the task undertaken by Perry Anderson in The H-Word 
and The Antinomies of Antonio Gramsci.

The two books are closely connected. The H-Word reconstructs the long 
history of the concept of hegemony in 12 chapters, moving from 
Thucydides via Lenin and Gramsci to various German and other 
imperialists, and from there to British, American and French postwar 
international relations theory. It takes in American political science 
and US strategic doctrine; the political economy of the Thatcher years; 
the work of Ernesto Laclau and Giovanni Arrighi; and, after a 
particularly exciting treatment of Asia and China from the time before 
the Warring Kingdoms to Mao and Deng Xiaoping, ends with today’s 
European Union. Antinomies deals with Gramsci alone; essentially it is a 
reprint of a long essay published in 1977 in New Left Review. Both books 
are remarkable examples of the deep, historically situated reading of 
complex texts. Antinomies contains a preface reflecting on the interval 
since the first publication of the essay forty years ago, and in an 
appendix a fascinating report from 1933 on Gramsci in prison, written 
for the leadership of the Partito Comunista Italiano by a fellow 
prisoner, published in English here for the first time.

The concept of hegemony has been and is still applied to relations 
between and within societies, to international politics as well as to 
national class struggle. Wherever they crop up, hegemons and their 
ideologues will do what they can to identify hegemony with legitimate 
authority: a social contract among equals in which leaders govern by 
consent and their followers give that consent in grateful return for 
services rendered. Yet when push comes to shove, as it very often does, 
the indispensable element of coercion in hegemony comes to the fore. 
Hegemony has never been sustained without coercion, but has more often 
than not been secured without consent. Hegemons don’t always carry guns, 
but you can’t be an effective hegemon without a decent supply of them. 
The purpose of hegemonic ideology is to make people believe that the 
hegemon is benevolent: having been granted power, the hegemon will act 
on behalf of those who cannot help themselves, whatever the cost to the 
hegemon. In compensation, the hegemon expects to be loved. But if it is 
to be secure when the moment of truth arrives, the hegemon must be able 
to instil fear. Pace Weber, a political regime is not stabilised by 
legitimacy, but by the capacity to substitute for it with coercion.

So far, so Machiavellian (‘Is it better to be loved than feared or 
better to be feared than loved? One would of course like to be both; but 
it is difficult … and when a choice has to be made it is safer to be 
feared’). Anderson dispenses, one after another, with preachers of the 
‘white man’s burden’ school of belief in benevolent empire, among them 
Robert Keohane and Joseph Nye, with their self-serving fairy tales about 
a post-Vietnam US internationalism organised around ‘complexity’, 
‘interdependence’, ‘regime theory’ and ‘liberal institutionalism’. But 
his main focus is Gramsci, who as general secretary of the PCI was 
interned by Mussolini in 1926, and died in prison 11 years later. 
Gramsci had spent time in Moscow in the years after the Russian 
Revolution, and had been privy to the deadly serious strategic debates 
of the Third International. None of what he heard would, in his view, be 
helpful in leading the Italian party to victory. Italy was a deeply 
traditionalist European country, in which the dominance of capital was 
based on more than just brute force. It was deeply ingrained in ‘civil 
society’ and everyday life: the Church, the peasantry, small business, 
the urban bourgeoisie and parts of the intellectual and cultural elites 
were all more or less in the bourgeois-capitalist camp.

The concept of hegemony, as developed by Gramsci in his Prison 
Notebooks, had to be useful not only as an analytic tool, but also 
strategically: it must help not only to theorise the rule of capital, 
but to end it. Revolutionary action, in Gramsci’s view, could succeed 
only once the social consent that gave capitalism its hegemony had been 
sufficiently undermined. The overthrow of capitalism must be preceded by 
cultural struggle, the changing of social life from the bottom up by 
replacing its bourgeois government and ideology with forms of collective 
solidarity and democratic self-organisation. The problem of hegemony 
posed itself also within the anti-capitalist camp. The party of the 
working class would need to build alliances with other classes, which 
must be won over – through education, co-operation and organisation – if 
they were to accept Communist Party leadership when the time came to 
dismantle the capitalist order.

Anderson’s reading of Gramsci focuses on the practical problems he faced 
as he developed his perspective on the proletarian revolution. It wasn’t 
just that Moscow might disapprove of his thinking but, perhaps more 
important, that his conceptualisation of hegemony might suggest to PCI 
members that capitalism could be defeated by cultural struggle alone, 
making revolutionary violence unnecessary. Too much theoretical 
attention to civil society risked overlooking the state, and excessive 
concern with the element of consent in hegemony might underplay the role 
of coercion, which would be brought to bear by the state in the moment 
of truth, but also by the revolutionary party in defeating the state 
and, for a transitional period after victory, to keep its allies and 
former enemies in line.

The central question for Anderson is whether Gramsci, by assigning such 
a prominent place to the notion of hegemony in his reflections on 
revolutionary strategy, crossed the line into liberal reformism, or at 
least paved the way for it. Anderson thinks he did neither, emphatically 
defending Gramsci the revolutionary against those who, in the 1970s, 
exploited the Prison Notebooks to justify Eurocommunism’s opportunistic 
switch from a revolutionary to a parliamentary path to socialism, or 
what they understood that to be. Anderson believes that the reformist 
tint of some passages in the Notebooks is owed to Gramsci’s need to fool 
the fascist censors, who apparently collected his manuscripts each day 
for inspection. (It should also be borne in mind that the Notebooks 
were, after all, no more than notes for future elaboration.) Be that as 
it may, it is in the context of the turbulent 1970s – ‘a time when there 
had recently been the largest mass strike in history in France, the 
overthrow of a government by workers in Britain, continuous outbreaks of 
revolt in Italy, the defeat of the United States in Vietnam, and a 
revolution in Portugal’ – that Anderson’s account of Gramsci must be 
read. At that time the Leninist tradition of discussing revolutionary 
strategy under advanced capitalism still made sense to some.

Anderson realises that the time has passed for debating the amount of 
violence required for revolution, or the precise character of the 
proletarian dictatorship. But Gramsci remains relevant in helping us to 
understand how the apparently unforced consent to the regime of 
contemporary, intensified capitalism comes about, and where coercion may 
be at work in the operation of today’s liberal democracies. In his 
preface to Antinomies, Anderson gives a deeply melancholic account of 
the new historical epoch that began when the revolutionary, or 
pseudo-revolutionary, surge of the 1970s ended with the terrorist 
spectacles staged by the likes of Baader-Meinhof and the Red Brigades – 
a new epoch that could dispense with ideology since capitalist hegemony 
now ‘lay in a set of lifestyles, conducts, needs, demands, whose origin 
and end was in the world of commodities’. Now, he writes, there was ‘no 
ethos, no directive idea, no concern with the inner life of the 
individual, which was delivered over to the market and the unconscious’, 
and no need either for intellectuals and their passionate devotion to 
ideas. The new era’s ‘basic value’ was ‘tolerance, that is, 
indifference’. Still living in a ‘relatively backward capitalist 
society’ – one could describe it, alternatively, as a European society 
with strong pre-capitalist social bonds – Gramsci, according to 
Anderson, was unable to imagine that there could be a hegemony without 
hegemonic ideas, and indeed a hegemony ‘that would rival in strength 
that of any in history’ because it was ‘anthropological, not ideological’.

What about coercion? Where is it at work in an individualistic consumer 
capitalist democracy in which dollars and votes aggregate freely to 
determine the optimal allocation of economic resources and political 
power? Marx’s passage on ‘primitive accumulation’ in Capital comes to mind:

the advance of the capitalist mode of production develops a working 
class, which by education, tradition, habit, looks upon the conditions 
of that mode of production as self-evident laws of Nature. The 
organisation of the capitalist mode of production, once fully developed, 
breaks down all resistance … The dull compulsion of economic relations 
completes the subjection of the labourer to the capitalist. Direct 
force, outside economic conditions, is of course still used, but only 

Replace ‘labourer’ with ‘consumer’ and note that, like the manufacture 
of consent, the production of compliance through coercion can proceed 
invisibly if it is embedded in the taken for granted structures of 
everyday life. That isn’t to say that there is not, in this new society, 
a huge machinery of coercion, easily the largest and most expensive in 
history, maintained in readiness for the state of emergency that may one 
day have to be called: indelible records of each and every individual’s 
plane journeys, bank card transactions, email, Facebook posts and so on, 
produced through a round the clock surveillance operation conducted by 
opaque bureaucracies, national and international, bigger than ever and 
still growing, not least under the cover of the ‘war on terror’, waged 
to enable the masses to continue living their pressured lives of 
competitive production and consumption.

Another testing ground for the continuing usefulness of the concept of 
hegemony is ‘Europe’, the political organisation of a continent whose 
borders have only ever been vaguely defined. Is Germany the emerging 
hegemon of the European Union, this complex league of formally 
independent states: a Germany traditionally unwilling to play that role 
but now increasingly warming to it, even developing a sense of 
entitlement to it? What must be understood is that the business of 
post-heroic German society is business, not physical violence. It is 
true that Germany has recently become less pacifist: marginal 
participation in the illegal bombing of Serbia in 1999; a small 
detachment of troops in Afghanistan at the request of the US; air 
reconnaissance in Syria, to please Obama; minor military interventions 
in French Africa, in tribute to Franco-German friendship; an unknown 
number of special ops forces doing active duty in unknown places, 
together with colleagues from Denmark, Norway, Sweden and elsewhere, but 
always under US direction. Add the (generous) provision of airbases for 
the use of the US military and espionage facilities for the American 
‘intelligence community’, as well as the half-price sale of submarines 
to Israel, and that’s basically it – and there is unlikely to be much 
more for the foreseeable future. Casualties, not just on the German 
side, are unacceptable to the German public, so German commanders and 
their units wherever possible leave the killing (and the being killed) 
to the locals and the Americans.


How can such a country, voluntarily incapacitated and weaned, to the 
satisfaction of its allies, off the sovereign use of military violence, 
be considered hegemonic? Perhaps only if we allow that economic coercion 
can take the place of physical coercion. Germany’s most potent weapon in 
the European arena isn’t a nuclear missile, but a hard currency. The 
prospect of the Bundeswehr invading Italy or France is unimaginable, but 
the Bundesbank may be seen as having done so in the past, and today the 
European Central Bank, acting together with the Eurogroup on German 
orders, may be in the process of creating an international regime.

It’s as well to recall that the European Monetary Union (EMU) was forced 
on Germany by its partners, France in particular; Germany resisted 
because, as its monetary ‘realists’ rightly predicted, assuming the role 
of hegemon would incur demands for redistributive benevolence. The story 
is complicated, but less so in the light of two often under-examined 
aspects of hegemony (they aren’t overlooked by Anderson). First, the 
desire on the part of hegemons that their allies-turned-dependants 
organise themselves internally on the model of the hegemon – something 
that began with ancient Greece and didn’t end with the American empire 
of the 20th century. Second, that national and international struggles 
for hegemony should be considered together as interacting arenas in a 
multi-level power game. So, why did France (and Italy) force the role of 
European hegemon on an unwilling Germany? Because, in short, the French 
and Italian modernising elites, in pursuit of domestic hegemony, were 
eager to force the hard German currency onto their own soft societies in 
order to make them fit for modern capitalism. Germans liked the idea in 
so far as it eliminated devaluation in other countries as a weapon of 
last resort against German competitiveness (devaluation being, in the 
German mindset, tantamount to cheating honest, hard-working, hard-saving 
German workers and employers). But there were also fears that Germany’s 
new comrades-in-hard-money might not be up to the task of reforming 
their obstinate citizens, and that they would come looking for help in 
the form of a ‘transfer union’.

Looking back, we can see now that the EMU and the divisions it causes in 
Europe are the result of historical miscalculations in the 1990s by 
Germany under Helmut Kohl and France under François Mitterrand. Kohl 
wanted political union to precede monetary union, which would 
effectively have eliminated Germany as a nation-state together with all 
other European nation-states. Kohl’s imagined union would have been 
economically semi-sovereign on the model of the old Federal Republic, 
its central bank a replica of the Bundesbank. Mitterrand, by contrast, 
never once entertained the thought of letting France be subsumed into 
some multinational European state; he was too much of a Gaullist, or 
simply too French. What he had in mind wasn’t political union but the 
economic reinvigoration of his own country through the introduction of a 
German-style European currency, by means of which France would itself 
rise to become the European hegemon – over Germany in particular – with 
enhanced, nuclear-powered national sovereignty and, one may assume, a 
(European) central bank more supportive of public deficits than the 
German version. Both projects failed dismally. Now Germany is working 
hard, with the help of co-operative national governments, to have its 
domestic political economy extended to Europe as a whole, the aim being 
to keep the euro while retaining, for free, the advantages conferred on 
Germany by its superior competitiveness. So far its efforts have been in 
vain. The French and Italian elites find themselves unable to force the 
blessings of neoliberalism on their countries, which now depend on 
German beneficence for their survival. The result is, pace Anderson, not 
hegemony but a profound political deadlock that nobody knows how to resolve.

It is true, though, that underneath the European stalemate a strange 
kind of hegemonic consciousness without hegemony is developing in 
Germany. Armed with ‘values’ in place of guns, a broad German mainstream 
feels entitled to tell other Europeans, in the name of European unity, 
what they must aim to become – which is to say, more like the German 
mainstream. Consent is demanded on moral grounds, and refusal is met 
with sad disappointment. Central to this is an appeal to a version of 
universalism that denies nations the right to exist in their own way, 
indeed to exist as nations at all. There is some resemblance here to US 
liberal interventionism, although in the German case the means are 
restricted to moral admonition and, increasingly, the threat to halt 
European Union subsidies if countries do not live up to universal – that 
is, German – standards: Hungary and Poland, for example, with respect to 

The German idea, if there is one, is European hegemony as leadership, 
based not on coercion but on moral superiority – a utopia which, as 
Anderson makes clear, cannot work, either within nations or between 
them. Indeed, as seen from Berlin, Europe is far from being a 
well-ordered league of states ready to follow a German example. Keeping 
the likes of Macron in power by means of quiet economic support wasn’t 
made any easier by the results of the recent German election: there are 
now parties in the Bundestag that won’t be shy to ask impolite 
questions. Brexit will make things even more difficult. While Merkel’s 
instinct is to want a reversal of the UK referendum result, France is 
happy to be rid of the British, and sooner rather than later. The French 
will use the opportunity to pursue once again ‘ever closer union among 
the peoples of Europe’, hoping to consolidate a Mediterranean coalition 
that will keep Germany in its place. As a counterweight to the Southern 
member states, Germany needs the Eastern ones, which means maintaining a 
moderate level of tension with Russia. This, in turn, requires American 
backing, in case the going gets tough. Yet Germany also needs Russian 
energy, to a degree that the nuclear-powered French do not, and it needs 
the Eastern Europeans to accept their share of migrants – for which they 
will need to be paid off with German taxpayers’ money. Meanwhile, at 
home, any German government will have to pay tribute, symbolic and 
material, to the eurozealots in the media, and among the Greens and 
Social Democrats, who continue to clamour for ‘European integration’: 
for a union without hegemony and its discontents, based solely on 
‘European values’ and on publicly expressed disgust with Trump, Putin 
and Erdoğan. Not easy, to say the least.

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