Nutshell Biographies #2   Center for Learning Through Community 

ANTONIO GRAMSCI and the idea of "hegemony"
(Thanks to Victor Villanueva and his book Bootstraps: From an 
American academic of color.  Urbana, IL: NCTE, 1993, from which 
some of this material has been adapted.)
Gramsci's life was dramatically affected by the forces he tried 
all his life to oppose. Born in Italy of working class parents in 1891, 
he dropped out of school in sixth grade to help his family after his 
father was arrested for opposing a local political figure's bid for re-
election.  As a child, he worked ten-hour days, though he was often 
ill and in pain.  He had been dropped down a flight of stairs when he 
was six, and his body was so twisted by this accident that as an adult 
he appeared a dwarf-like hunchback.  

After some years spent carrying around accounting ledgers 
that weighed more than he did, Gramsci returned to school and then 
went on to college on a scholarship reserved for "peasantry of 
promise."  Later, he worked as a journalist for a number of radical 
newspapers, got involved in workers' political education, and helped 
to found the Italian Communist Party.  While Gramsci was traveling 
in Russia, the fascist dictator Benito Mussolini came to power in Italy.  
By now, Gramsci was well-known for his writing and political 
activity, and Mussolini commented that he had "an unquestionably 
powerful brain."  But intellect and ideas are threatening to dictators, 
so in 1928 Gramsci was sent off to prison with the words of the 
public prosecutor echoing in his ears: "For twenty years we must stop 
this brain from functioning."  Nevertheless, thinking was Gramsci's 
only solace in prison, and until he died in 1937, he spent his time 
working out his most valuable ideas in thirty-two notebooks -- 2842 
pages of tiny handwriting -- which later became his most famous 

One of Gramsci's ideas was the concept of "hegemony," or 
ideological domination.  When one ideology, or world view, 
dominates, it suppresses or stamps out, often cruelly, any other ways 
of explaining reality.  Actually, hegemony can contain a variety of 
ideologies.  Some are artificial -- theoretical explanations created by 
academics or political activists or philosophers.  Other ideologies are 
"organic," which means they come from the common people's lived 
experience.   These consist of a culture's way of seeing and believing, 
and the institutions that uphold these beliefs, like religion, education, 
family, and the media. Through these beliefs and institutions, society 
endorses the ethical beliefs and manners which "the powers that be" 
agree are true, or right, or logical, or moral.  The institutions and 
beliefs that the dominant culture support are so powerful, and get 
hold of people when they are so young, that alternative ways of 
envisioning reality are very hard to imagine.  This is how hegemony 
is created and maintained. 

According to Gramsci, hegemony locks up a society even more 
tightly because of the way ideas are transmitted by language.  The 
words we use to speak and write have been constructed by social 
interactions through history and shaped by the dominant ideology of 
the times.  Thus they are loaded with cultural meanings that 
condition us to think in particular ways, and to not be able to think 
very well in other ways.  

For a modern, U.S. example, consider the word "welfare." What 
feelings and images come to mind?  Someone who is poor.  Unhappy, 
perhaps.  Passive.  Irresponsible.  Overloaded with children. 
Struggling to go to school.  Ashamed.  Maybe out to cheat the system.  
A drain on the taxpayers. A bureaucratic institution that needs 
continual attention and reform. All negative images, evoking anger or 
pity.  Think about it. We have had no word to describe this system of 
government payments that carries a positive connotation.  No word 
that evokes images of dignity and family pride or of a nation's debt 
to those it cannot or will not furnish with the opportunity for 
meaningful work and a relevant education.  Gramsci's point is that 
we have been conditioned by our language to think -- and feel about 
that thinking -- in ways that serve the dominant ideology.  And if 
that dominant ideology insists that poverty is the fault of the 
individual while systematically keeping certain groups or classes of 
people poor, that hegemony must be dislodged by substantive, 
revolutionary change.  

Gramsci added another dimension to the definition of 
hegemony: domination by consent.  It seems impossible that anyone 
would consent to be oppressed, or that we ourselves might be 
consenting to oppress others.  But no matter how outraged we are at 
the poverty that exists in the richest country in the world, all most of 
us do to fight it is tinker with the system.  We know that the rich are 
getting richer while the poor and the middle class are feeling less 
and less secure.  We know, but we accept.  "What can one person 
do?" we say.  "The poor have always been with us."  It's a fatalistic 
feeling we have, but Gramsci doesn't blame us for it.  "Indeed," he 
says, "fatalism is nothing other than the clothing worn by real and 
active will when in a weak position."(1)

Gramsci believed that everyone, no matter what their 
occupation, their interests, or their education, is able to work out 
their own coherent ideas of how the world really works.  Despite his 
description of hegemony as society's brainwashing, he had great faith 
in people's ability to go beyond the mere acceptance of the ideas 
they grew up with and become critical thinkers.  

"To criticize one's own conception of the world means to make 
it a coherent unity and to raise it to the level reached by the most 
advanced thought in the world," Gramsci wrote from his prison cell.  
"The starting-point of critical elaboration is the product of the 
historical process to date which has deposited in you an infinity of 
traces, without leaving an inventory."(2)

In other  words, critical thinking about our own thinking 
process can move us toward our own coherent philosophy when we 
begin to trace the origins of our most deeply held beliefs.  "What do I 
really think about this difficult teenager I'm tutoring?"  "Where did 
these beliefs come from?"  "What people and what institutions taught 
me to think this way?"  "And where did their beliefs come from?" 
Gramsci's fate might lead us to think of ways people in our own 
country with disturbing ideas have been silenced -- by censorship, 
by rumor mongering, by lynching, by incarceration. If you volunteer 
for a prison education project you may be surprised by the number 
of creative, deeply  intelligent men and women who  are thinking, 
discussing, writing and growing as human beings in much the same 
way Gramsci did -- despite the sometimes cruel and retaliatory 
conditions of their incarceration.
(1) Gramsci, Antonio.  Selections from The Prison Notebooks of Antonio 
Gramsci.  NY: International Publishers, 1995 [copyright 1971]. p. 337
(2) ibid. p. 324