Marx on hegemony

First published: September 1993

Socialist Action gives tremendous emphasis to the international class struggle, the struggle of women, the black community, and all sections of the oppressed as part of working class politics. But it does not treat these simply as individual questions, vital as each is separately. Socialist Action seeks to integrate them in a hegemonic strategy – that is, one in which the labour movement champions the demands of all the exploited and oppressed. Such an emphasis is not a peripheral question but at the core of Marxism. We consider the origins of the idea of hegemony in the views of Marx and its place in socialist strategy.

‘So one army lines up on one place and says, “We are for socialism”, and another, somewhere else and says, “We are for imperialism”, and that will be a social revolution!… Whoever expects such a “pure” social revolution will never live to see it. Such a person pays lip service to revolution without understanding what revolution is’ (Lenin, The Discussion on Self-Determination Summed Up).

Lenin strongly attacked those who counterposed the idea of ‘class politics’ to the fight of the working class for hegemony. He wrote: ‘the famous formula of one of the young leaders of our reformists… who declared that the Russian Social Democratic (Marxist) Party must represent “not hegemony but a class party”, is a formula of the most consistent reformism. More than that, is a formula of sheer renegacy.

‘To say “not hegemony, but a class party”, means to take the side of the liberal who says to the slave of our age, the wage earner: “fight to improve your conditions as a slave, but regard the thought of overthrowing slavery as a harmful utopia”! To preach to the workers that what they need is “not hegemony, but a class party” means to betray the cause of the proletariat to the liberals; it means preaching that Social Democratic (Marxist) labour policy should be replaced by a liberal labour policy.’

Lenin insisted that as long as the working class did not fight for hegemony it had not developed a class position at all – it was simply a collection of trades or guilds: ‘From the standpoint of Marxism the class, so long as it renounces the idea of hegemony or fails to fight for it, is not a class, or not yet a class, but a guild, or the sum total of various guilds.’ He stated: ‘it is the consciousness of the idea of hegemony and its implementation through their own activities that converts the guilds as a whole into a class.’1

These concepts of Lenin, of the hegemony of the working class, were however completely rooted in those of Marx – although it was Lenin who attached the specific term ‘hegemony’ to them. Marx stressed from the beginning that a revolution never develops in the simplistic form of ‘one class against another’ but through a process in which one class leads all the progressive developments of society. In Marx’s words in The German Ideology: ‘The class making a revolution comes forward from the very start… not as a class but as a representative of the whole of society, as the whole mass of society confronting the one ruling class.’2

To be victorious a class must necessarily represent not merely its own but wider interests of society: ‘no class or civil society can play this role (of leader of the revolution) without awakening a moment of enthusiasm in itself and in the masses: a moment in which this class fraternises and fuses with society in general, becomes identified with it and is experienced as its universal representative; a moment in which its claims and rights are truly the rights and claims of society itself and in which it is in reality the heart and head of society.’3

This poses the universality of a class in terms of its ideology and of social reality. In terms of its ideology: ‘Only in the name of the universal rights of society can a particular class lay claim to universal domination.’4

This universality of a class, however, is not simply, or mainly, a question of ideology. Marx stressed: ‘each class could actually overthrow its predecessors only by liberating the individuals of all classes from certain chains which had fettered them.’5 As regards the great bourgeois revolutions, for example: ‘Liberation from the standpoint of the bourgeoisie i.e. competition was, of course, for the eighteenth century the only possible way of offering the individuals a new career for freer development.’6

To achieve a social revolution a class must therefore not simply represent its ideas as liberating all progressive sections of society from bonds which bind them. It must in material reality aid their liberation. Thus for example: ‘Liberalism, i.e. liberal property owners at the beginning of the French revolution… were compelled not only to give the mass of the French (rural) population the right to seize property, (but also) to let them seize actual property.’7

A class can put forward universal goals only if its interests in reality coincide with those of wider strata of society. To complete a passage above: ‘The class making a revolution comes forward from the very start… as the representative of the whole of society… It can do this because initially its interest really is as yet mostly connected with the common interest of all other non-ruling classes… Its victory, therefore, benefits also many individuals of other classes which are not winning a dominant position.’8

The specific role of the working class is arrived at by Marx through this concept of the universality of a class.

Marx noted at the level of ideology that each of the class views put forward in history is of increasing universality. Posed purely in terms of ideology one could analyse the development of society through increasingly universal ideas: ‘If… in considering the course of history we detach the ideas of the ruling class from the ruling class itself and attribute to them an independent existence… then this conception of history… will necessarily come up against the phenomenon that ever more abstract ideas hold sway, i.e., ideas which increasingly take on the form of universality… Every new class, therefore, achieves domination only on a broader basis than that of the class ruling previously.’9

It is this fact that every new class comes to power on a broader basis than the one previously which gives practicality, as well as legitimacy, to the drive of the working class for socialism. Posed in material terms each previous revolution had stopped because of its limited, that is non-universal, social base. For example, replying to Bruno Bauer’s cynical idea that all revolutions necessarily fail, Marx noted in The Holy Family that: ‘The interest of the bourgeoisie in the 1798 (French) Revolution, far from having been a “failure”, “won” everything… The Revolution was a “failure” only for the mass… whose real conditions for emancipation were essentially different from the conditions within which the bourgeois could emancipate itself and society. If the Revolution… was a failure, it was so because the mass within whose living conditions it essentially came to a stop, was an exclusive, limited mass, not an all-embracing one. If the Revolution was a failure it was… because the most numerous part of the mass, the part distinct from the bourgeoisie, did not have its real interest in the principle of the Revolution.’10

The working class is the most universal class in history because its goals cannot be the liberation of one class, and the continuation of the oppression and exploitation of another, but the liberation of the whole of humanity. The working class is therefore, in the terms developed later by Lenin, the class capable of the greatest hegemony.

Marx outlined this in the very phrases in which he announced for the first time his view of the proletariat as the bearer of a future society. Integrating the tasks of the developing German revolution he faced at that time, Marx noted: ‘where is the positive possibility of German emancipation? This is our answer. In the formation of a class with radical chains, a class of civil society which is not a class of civil society. A class which is the dissolution of all classes, a sphere which has a universal character because of its universal suffering and which lays claim to no particular right because the wrong it suffers is not a particular wrong but wrong in general; a sphere of society which can no longer lay claim to a historical title, but merely to a human one, which does not stand in one-sided opposition to the consequences but in all-sided opposition to the premises of the German political system; and finally a sphere which cannot emancipate itself without emancipating itself from – and thereby emancipating – all other spheres of society, which is, in a word, the total loss of humanity and which can therefore redeem itself only through the total redemption of humanity. This dissolution of society as a particular class is the proletariat.’11 The victory of the working class is, in Marx’s words, the necessary step in ‘universal human emancipation.’

These phrases of Marx, in which are contained the entire core of the hegemony of the working class, have noting to do with empty sentimentality. They directly guide the working class. They mean, in the words of Lenin in What is to be Done? that: ‘Working class consciousness cannot be genuine political consciousness unless the workers are trained to respond to all cases of tyranny, oppression, violence, and abuse no matter what class is affected.’ And in the equally famous phrases of the same work: ‘The Social Democrat’s (Marxist) ideal should not be the trade union secretary, but the tribune of the people, who is able to react to every manifestation of tyranny and oppression, no matter where it appears, no matter what stratum or class of the people it affects.’12

It implies also the relation of Marxism to the whole of human culture and civilisation. Again in the words of Lenin: ‘Marxism has won its historic significance as the ideology of the revolutionary proletariat because, far from rejecting the most valuable achievements of the bourgeois epoch, it has, on the contrary, assimilated and refashioned everything of value in the more than two thousand years of the development of human culture.’13

The working class is the most universal class in history, that capable of the greatest hegemony. Simultaneously without taking up every demand of the oppressed and exploited, without in Marx’s words coming forward ‘as a representative of the whole mass of society confronting the one ruling class’ the working class is incapable of victory.

That necessity for a hegemonic strategy for the working class is the core to its politics. It is why Socialist Action gives such emphasis to international politics, to the demands of women, of the black community, and of all the oppressed. In Lenin’s words: ‘the class, so long as it renounces the idea of hegemony or fails to fight for it, is not a class, or not yet a class, but a guild, or the sum of guilds’, ‘it is the consciousness of the idea of hegemony and its implementation through their own activities that converts the guilds as a whole into a class.’


1. Lenin, Collected Works (CW) 17 p56–8
2. Marx and Engels, Collected Works (MECW) 5 p60
3. Marx and Engels, Early Writings (MEEW) p254
4. MECW 5 p60
5. MECW 5 p290
6. MECW 5 p410
7. MECW 5 p208
8. MECW 5 p60
9. ibid.
10. MECW 4 p82
11. MEEW p254
12. MEEW p253
13. CW 5 p412 and 422