Perry Anderson, The H-Word: The Peripeteia of Hegemony (Verso 2022), 208pp. Perry Anderson, The H-Word: The Peripeteia of Hegemony (Verso 2022), 208pp.

Chris Bambery welcomes a collection of Perry Anderson’s essays, old and new, on Gramsci as a revolutionary, and his concept of hegemony

I, like many others of my generation, owe a big debt to Perry Anderson. Back in 1976 he published an article in New Left Review, ‘The Antinomies of Antonio Gramsci’, which introduced us to the Prison Writings of the great Italian Marxist, placing them within a Leninist strategy for revolution and the debates at the first four congresses of the Communist International. Gramsci attended the Fourth, heard Lenin and met with Trotsky. Anderson insisted Gramsci remained a Leninist and a revolutionary until his death.

At the time, the Prison Writings were not available in English and what was available were on Gramsci’s argument about the factory councils, proto Soviets. These were formed during the two Red Years of 1919 and 1920, when Italy entered a revolutionary crisis. Gramsci argued at the time that these bodies could become the basis for a new socialist state.

For those of us in Scotland, Hamish Henderson published Gramsci’s letters from the jails of the fascist dictator, Benito Mussolini, which gave us an inkling that much, much more was available from the man fascism tried to silence. In 1978, the first volume of Selected Prison Writings appeared in English, allowing us to read Gramsci first hand. But I have reread ‘The Antinomies of Antonio Gramsci’ over and over because it is key to refuting those who attempt to portray the Sardinian as some kind of social democrat or even liberal espousing a peaceful path to socialism or something far less.

The H-Word: The Peripeteia of Hegemony is a collection of Perry Anderson’s essays on the historic use of that term, starting ancient Greece, which gave us the word, up to the permanent war which blights our times. The most familiar part will be the essay ‘Revolutions’ looking at how the concept of hegemony was used by Russian revolutionaries prior to 1917, and then how it was taken up and developed by Gramsci.

The Bolsheviks and hegemony

The fact that it had been a term used in Russia was news to me when I first read ‘The Antinomies’. It centred on an acceptance that in Tsarist Russia the tasks of a bourgeois revolution fell to the working class, because the bourgeoisie was too cowardly and tied into international capital, and was reliant on the Tsarist state. The key to revolution was how the Russian working class could lead an alliance for change with the peasantry. Prior to his April Theses of 1917, Lenin saw that alliance creating a dictatorship to suppress Tsarism and the bourgeoisie, but one which could not lead straight to socialism. That changed after the February 1917 Revolution which overthrow the Tsar, with Lenin accepting Trotsky’s position that this must not be an alliance of equals. The proletariat must lead, and it could not stop short of workers’ power: the dictatorship of the proletariat.

Gramsci wrote the Prison Notebooks in large part because he was developing arguments with which he was very familiar from the Communist International’s Fourth Congress (which he attended) and within the Italian Communist Party. As the 1919-20 revolutionary wave ebbed across Europe, Lenin and Trotsky fought for a new approach aimed at winning over the majority of workers who remained loyal to social-democratic parties by proposing joint work around limited demands such as fighting unemployment and fascism: the united front.

In ‘Antinomies’, Anderson argued that the Prison Notebooks are a continuation of his fight for a united front, developing also the difference Lenin and Trotsky had distinguished between revolution in Russia and in western Europe. He also looked at how the Italian state had been forged in the mid-nineteenth century by the bourgeoisie of northern Italy, who were able to win the consent of a majority of the population for unification largely carried through from above.

The period of retreat

Gramsci drew on the need for different strategies in eastern Europe, where, as he saw it, the state was all, and coercion a constant, and western Europe, where consent was crucial and coercion kept in reserve most of the time. His positions were drawn from the arguments developed by Lenin and Trotsky in 1921-1923 as the revolutionary wave in Europe subsided and parliamentary democracy reasserted itself in western Europe, with exceptions in Italy and the Iberian Peninsula. With the working class on the defensive, the young Communist Parties in western Europe, having broken with social democracy but remaining a minority within the working class, had to win a majority in preparation for a new revolutionary wave. The way to do that was via the united front, seeking to work together, in struggle, with the social democrats for limited demands: against unemployment and fascism, for instance.

Thus Anderson writes:

‘Tacitly, given the defeat of the revolutionary wave in Central Europe after the First World War, there was no immediate prospect of taking the state in Western Europe by storm, so communists should focus on the task of first undermining the ideological grip of capital on the masses in this arena, where they could fight for the hegemony of the working class as classically understood, if on much more complex and challenging terrain’ (p.22).

Anderson notes that in the Prison Notebooks, Gramsci made an important breakthrough:

‘In Russia, it had designated the role of a working class in a bourgeois revolution against absolutism that the bourgeoisie itself was incapable of realising. In Western Europe, however, agency and process had coincided, rather than been disjunct: bourgeoisies had made their own revolutions, and ruled the capitalist states that emerged from them. Where did this leave the logic of the idea? Gramsci’s response—his key move—was to generalise it beyond a working-class strategy, to characterise stable forms of rule by any social class: in the first instance, and most notably, the very possessing classes, landowners and industrialists, against whom the concept in Russia had originally been aimed.’

He continues by quoting Gramsci:

‘… the “normal” exercise of hegemony on the now classic terrain of the parliamentary regime is characterised by a combination of force and consent which balance each other, so that force does not overwhelm consent but appears to be backed by the consent of the majority, as expressed by the so-called organs of opinion’ (pp.19-20).

In doing so, Anderson points out that Gramsci remained a revolutionary to the last, delivering a succinct summation of how we saw the relationship between coercion and consent:

‘But he remained a revolutionary of the Third International, and beyond the impasses of the time, never relinquished his belief that for a deeper understanding of hegemony, coercion could not be divorced from consent, cultural ascendancy from repressive capacity’ (p.23).

Lack of space means I cannot develop this further but if you wish to do so please read my ‘Hegemony and Revolutionary Strategy’.

In a further essay, ‘Fade-Out’, he shows how, post 1945, the Italian Communist Party (PCI) published the Prison Writings, to massive acclaim in Italy, reinforcing its own intellectual standing. In fact, it bowdlerised Gramsci by presenting him as arguing for a peaceful road to socialism via the parliamentary road, in line with Moscow’s thinking and insistence at that time. Over the years, Gramsci was used to justify further and further shifts to the right (he must have been revolving constantly in the Protestant Cemetery at Pyramide in Rome!) until the party dissolved, following the dissolution of the Soviet Union, in 1991.

Within Marxism, attention to Gramsci shifted to the English speaking world. Anderson looks at the role of the Jamaican Stuart Hall, and the Scot Tom Nairn, two colleagues on the editorial board of New Left Review, and the Bengali Ranajit Guha. He looked at the British Raj and peasant resistance in India, and drew the conclusion the British had achieved ‘Dominance without Hegemony’ (p.90).

One criticism I might make is that Anderson refers to contributions from Australia and seems to be alluding to Peter Thomas, whose Gramscian Moment (2009) marked a significant advance of our understanding of Gramsci within the classical Marxist tradition. Thomas engages with Anderson at length, but in this volume, he is not referenced.

Hegemony and international relations

The bulk of this little book, however, deals with what is now called international relations, the examination of how power operates within the world order. Its beginnings lay in Germany in the mid-nineteenth century, when supporters of German unity began to look to Prussia to impose its hegemony over the sprawl of petty states.

After unification, this use of the concept would re-emerge as Germany challenged France, then the Entente in 1914 and finally Britain and France in 1939 for control of the continent. The German jurist, Heinrich Triepel, writing in the 1930s, saw hegemony as a ‘particularly strong form of influence’. As a conservative he rejected the idea that a class could exercise hegemony in society (p.26).

Anderson points to a constant problem in trying to use hegemony to understand power relations between states:

‘For Triepel, hegemony was a type of power that lay between “domination” and “influence” — hegemony was stronger than influence, but weaker than domination. For Gramsci, on the other hand, hegemony was a stronger and stabler form of power than domination. The difference was not accidental. There was a structural reason for it, that reflected the respective primary focus of the two thinkers—relations between classes within a state for Gramsci, relations between states for Triepel’ (p.31).

Within a nation state, one class or social bloc (historical bloc in Gramsci’s terms) can achieve hegemony, but within the international system that is far more difficult. Within the European order, pre-1945 no state achieved it, although the Holy Roman Emperor and king of Spain Charles V (1516-58), and Philip II of Spain (1556-98), Louis XIV of France (1643-1715), and Napoleon Bonaparte tried. Violence or coercion was the rule because sovereignty meant no state would surrender to a rival without it. Peace became an interlude between constant wars.

The term gained new life with the development of the Cold War in the late 1940s, centred on how to explain America’s role in the world. Its opponent, the Soviet Union, obviously relied in the main on coercion rather than consent.

Like many I am guilty of describing present-day America as the global hegemon because of its unmatched military power and its financial dominance, buttressed by global institutions: the International Monetary Fund, World Bank and GATTS (the rule based order that China is guilty, Washington claims, of rejecting).

But is it hegemonic in combining coercion with consent? Perhaps in post-war western Europe with the popularity of Coca-Cola, Elvis Presley and rock and roll (the 1954 Italian hit Mambo Italiano springs to mind). Perhaps, but that did not stop May ’68 in France and the global insurgency that followed. American power became identified with Vietnam rather than the Beach Boys and a Californian lifestyle. Anderson looks at the debates about the nature of American power from Roosevelt up the ‘liberal interventionism’ of Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. The latter two do not come out well!

Neoliberalism is the dominant ideology globally, but is it hegemonic? Ordinary people have paid a terrible cost for it over nearly four decades and eruptions of anger punctuate out age. As I write, Britain and France are experiencing major strikes over pay and pensions, but they are limited to one or two-day stoppages and are directed by the union leaders.

What we are not seeing are all-out strikes, often led by an insurgent rank and file, as in the late 1960s, early 1970s. Working-class insurgency combined then with national liberation struggles in the Global South and rebellions and repression in the Stalinist states. The latter no longer exist in Europe and the era of national liberation struggles has ended. Yet the global working class has never been so big. The epoch of neoliberalism has not ended wars, in fact the opposite, or resolved the problems of capital.

In Gramsci’s analysis of how classes govern, their hegemony faces potential or real challenge from the subaltern classes, the working class in particular, which has the potential to establish its counter-hegemony. In terms of states, the dominant power also faces challenges. Currently, the United States has constructed two blocs, one round Nato in the West to support Ukraine after Putin’s criminal invasion, and one in the East to confront China. But Washington isn’t able to exert hegemony globally. In the case of the Ukraine war, across much of the Global South, states have refused to bow the knee to Joe Biden, Brazil and South Africa among them.

Rather than being able to use ideological power alone, the United States relies directly on its military and its financial power (coercive in so many ways) to exert control which is far weaker than in say the 1950s, reflecting the USA’s own relative decline as an economic power.

I cannot finish without mentioning the essay on the use of hegemony in China and Japan, from the very origins of Chinese civilisation through to today. This fascinating essay, written with the help of many Chinese scholars, contained much that was new to me.

The H-Word is concise but that is no fault; concise and clear is a good combination, and Anderson writes, as usual with great clarity and authority (now some bridle at his use of long German words and so forth but don’t let that put you off). This book may not be ground-breaking in the way ‘Antinomies’ was nearly half a century ago, but it is well worth reading.

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Chris Bambery

Chris Bambery is an author, political activist and commentator, and a supporter of Rise, the radical left wing coalition in Scotland. His books include A People's History of Scotland and The Second World War: A Marxist Analysis.

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