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4 The Maintenance of Hegemony Organic crises In the previous chapter hegemony was described mainly in terms of the rise to power of a revolutionary class, and the three historical examples which were mentioned - two from Italy and one from France - concerned the achievement of hegemony by the capitalist class. Of equal importance is the maintenance of hegemony after state power has been gained. As Gramsci says in the passage already quoted (p.23), even when a social group has become dominant and holds power firmly in its grasp, it must continue to 'lead' as well. Hegemony can never be taken for granted, but has to be continually fought for afresh. This requires persistent activities to mai~tain and strengthen the social authority of the ruling class in all areas of civil society, and the making of such compromises as are needed to adapt the existing system of alliances to changing conditions and to the activities of the opposing forces. This process can be seen at work most clearly in periods when the hegemony of the ruling political forces is endangered and is tending to disintegrate. There may ensue a fairly prolonged period of instability and transition, during which the system of alliances forming the basis for the hegemony of the ruling groups may have to undergo far-reaching changes and a process of restructuring ifit is to survive. Gramsci insists on the importance 38 THE MAINTENANCE OF HEGEMONY of distinguishing between organic changes which are relatively permanent, and those which appear as occasional, immediate and almost accidental: A crisis occurs, sometimes lasting for decades. This exceptional duration means that incurable structural contradictions have revealed themselves (reached maturity) and that, despite this, the political forces which are struggling to conserve and defend the existing structure itself are making every effort to cure them, within certain limits, and to overcome them. These incessant and persistent efforts ... form the terrain ofthe 'conjunctural' and it is upon this terrain that the forces ofopposition organise (SPN 178). The term conjuncture is more widely used on the continent than in Britain; it is what Lenin used to call 'the current situation' or the balance of political forces existing at the present moment to which political tactics have to be applied. What Gramsci wishes to stress is that the current situation is to be understood, not only in terms of the immediate economic and political problems, but also in the 'incessant and persistent efforts' which are made to conserve and defend the existing system. If the crisis is deep - an organic one - these efforts cannot be purely defensive. They will consist in the struggle to create a new balance of political forces, requiring a reshaping ofstate institutions as well as the formation of new ideologies; and if the forces of opposition are not strong enough to shift the balance offorces decisively in their direction, the conservative forces will succeed in building a new system of alliances which will re-establish their hegemony. Beneath the surface of the day-to-day events, an organic and relatively permanent, structural change will have taken place. One conclusion that Gramsci draws from these considerations is that 'a social form always has marginal possibilities for further development and organisational improvement, and in particular can count on the relative weakness of the rival progressive force as a result of its specific character and way of life. It is necessary for the dominant social force to preserve this weakness' (SPN 222). 39 GRAMscrs POLmCAL THOUGHT 11le organic crisis with which Gramsci was centrally concerned was the crisis in Italy, lasting from about 1910 to 1921, which was eventually resolved by the rise ofMussolini's fascism. In his notes on Italian history Gramsci analyses the shifting system of compromises which had enabled the northern industrialists, in alliance with the southern landowners, to maintain a limited hegemony in the framework of the Italian liberal state from the time of the Risorgimento (SPN 52-120).7 Between 1910 and 1912, however, there began a profound upheaval in the structure of Italian society affecting all classes and the whole ofItalian culture; it was marked by a big rise in the militancy ofthe working class and of sections of the peasantry, by a growth of nationalism and the imperialistadventure in Libya, as well as by important shifts in the Catholic movement. Under the impact ofthe First World War and its aftermath, the system of alliances which had ensured the hegemony ofthe Northern industrialists disintegrated. 11le much greater strength...


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