Gramsci’s Marxism and international relations

Issue: 114

Adrian Budd

Antonio Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks are not an obvious starting point for the study of international relations. However, in the past few decades a group of radical scholars has drawn on his work to challenge the dominant ‘Realist’ perspective in this field. The Realist perspective is associated with key US strategists such as Henry Kissinger, Samuel Huntington and Zbigniew Brzezinski, who provided the US state with its ‘intellectual compass’ during the Cold War.1 Realism takes the bourgeois view of human nature as a struggle between atomised individuals and transposes it onto the international system—its essence is inter-state rivalry and conflict. It assumes that since the time of the ancient Greek city-states the world’s states have had coherent national interests that they project internationally, chiefly by military means.

Given this abstract, ahistorical approach, in which there is no place for the rise and fall of modes of production or the class dynamics underpinning them, it is not surprising that there was ‘mutual neglect’ between Marxism and international relations for much of the 20th century.2 But recently, the ‘neo‑Gramscian’ perspective, initiated by the Canadian Robert Cox, has provided a convincing critique of Realism.3 Cox firmly rejects the label ‘Marxist’, and has merely applied to the study of international relations ideas derived from a selective reading of the Prison Notebooks—of which the most important is the concept of hegemony. The neo-Gramscians have helped enlarge the space for Marxist ideas in international analysis but their selective use of Gramsci and their idealist understanding of hegemony mean that they neither accurately represent Gramsci’s Marxism nor convincingly explain the dynamics of the international system.

Gramsci’s comments on international relations are fragmentary and under-developed. His use of the concept of passive revolution, however, illustrates a consistent appreciation of the interpenetration of the national and international. Passive revolution is central to Gramsci’s analysis of 19th century and early 20th century European history, including Italian unification (the Risorgimento) in the 1860s. It describes a top-down process in which a narrow, modernising elite brings about a transformation of traditional social relations by piecemeal reform. Unlike the Jacobins in the French Revolution, this elite failed to mobilise mass activity behind its revolutionary programme. The pressure behind this process arose not from domestic economic development, but was ‘instead the reflection of international developments which transmit their ideological currents to the periphery—currents born of the productive development of the more advanced countries’.4 Similarly, Gramsci argued that the Fordist development of early 20th century American industry, itself a passive revolution that transformed existing forms of capitalist relations, was reshaping European societies and forcing states to adopt structures and policies more supportive of free enterprise and economic individualism.5 Gramsci also suggested that Italian fascism represented a passive revolution designed to preserve the power of a decaying bourgeoisie faced with the revolutionary challenge from Russia.

Whatever their historical accuracy, these arguments illustrate Gramsci’s understanding of a national-international dialectic in which international forces both provide the context of change and penetrate and transform national political and social relations. There are hints of Leon Trotsky’s theory of the uneven and combined development of world capitalism here but Gramsci did not develop these ideas. Nor did he produce an analysis of imperialism like those of Lenin and Nikolai Bukharin, who both saw imperialist rivalry as a consequence of capitalism’s economic dynamic, particularly the growth of capitalist monopolies and the tendency for economic processes to transcend national limits. Nor did Gramsci place competitive processes (including capitalist accumulation, imperialist expansion and war) at the centre of the national-international dialectic, focusing instead on mechanisms of ideological transmission.6 Nevertheless, against much academic Marxism, which even today analyses social relations and state power in their specifically national dimensions, he understood that internal and international relations ‘intertwine’ and that Marxism should study how ‘the international situation should be considered in its national aspect’.7

Gramsci was a revolutionary internationalist who recognised that the capitalist world system must be overthrown internationally. Yet, while ‘the perspective is international and cannot be otherwise’, capitalism’s uneven development produces elements of national ‘originality and uniqueness’ which must be the concrete point of departure if the workers’ movement is to engage in effective struggle: the workers’ movement must ‘“nationalise” itself in a certain sense’.8 In the Italian context, this required the establishment of working class hegemony or leadership over other subordinate classes, notably the peasantry in southern Italy. The exercise of hegemony in a national context is a major theme in the Prison Notebooks but Gramsci occasionally extended it to the international system and highlighted, for instance, French attempts to establish hegemony over 19th century Europe. It is in their application of hegemony to the international system that the neo-Gramscians draw most heavily on Gramsci.

The neo-Gramscians and the Prison Notebooks

Drawing on the Prison Notebooks enables the neo-Gramscians to demolish central Realist arguments. First, where Realism largely ignores the social determinants of state power and sees states as expressions of coherent national interests, the neo-Gramscians place the class forces formed in the process of production at the centre of their analysis. By grounding state power in class relations the neo-Gramscians are consistent with both Gramsci’s view that international relations ‘follow (logically) fundamental social relations’ and his conception of states as terrains of struggle.9 Thus, against Realism, Cox argues that the essential entities of the international system are not states as such but state-society complexes, and that the international system should be understood not as an inter-state system but as an articulation of social forces, forms of state and world orders.

Second, following Gramsci’s rejection of a mechanical materialist interpretation of Marx, which sees human thought and action as automatic reflections of material circumstances, the neo-Gramscians recognise that ideas are themselves part of reality, and that, as Cox puts it, ‘theory is always for some one or some purpose’.10 The fact that mainstream theory takes state power and the inter-state system for granted, without enquiring into their social bases, is an expression of the ideological bias of those who are comfortable with prevailing structures of social power and seek merely to correct problems in their operation rather than fundamentally transform them. The neo-Gramscians label Realism as ‘problem solving theory’.

This leads to a third strength of neo-Gramscianism—its commitment to social change, including greater equality, environmental protection, justice and peace. Endorsing Marx’s eleventh thesis on Feuerbach—‘the philosophers have interpreted the world in various ways; the point, however, is to change it’—the neo-Gramscians highlight the contradictions in prevailing social relations that can form the basis for progressive change.11 Here Cox echoes Gramsci’s argument that reality is not ‘static or immobile’ but ‘a relation of forces in continuous motion and shift of equilibrium’.12

Despite these strengths, and the fact that some neo-Gramscians mobilise Marxist arguments more systematically than others, there are major problems with the neo-Gramscian perspective.13 In particular, its approach to international hegemony deviates in important ways from a Marxist understanding of the capitalist world system, seriously diminishing its explanatory power.


The neo-Gramscians Stephen Gill and David Law erect a sharp distinction between Gramsci and Lenin, arguing that Leninism sought ‘to capture state power and then shape the state and society from above’, while Gramsci was committed to ‘the building of socialism from below’.14 Yet Gramsci acknowledged his own debt to Lenin, whose stress on the importance of political and cultural hegemony stood ‘in opposition to the mechanistic and fatalistic concepts of economism’, as the ‘essential characteristic’ of Lenin’s Marxism ‘consists precisely in the historico-political concept of hegemony’.15 Lenin and Gramsci’s common approach yielded an essentially identical political practice: Lenin counselled the immature Communist International against premature attempts to seize state power without first winning majority support among both workers and the wider subordinated classes, while Gramsci, reflecting on the Turin workers’ struggles of 1919-20, argued that ‘the social basis of the proletarian dictatorship and the workers’ state’ depend upon the creation of class alliances enabling it ‘to mobilise the majority of the working population against capitalism and the bourgeois state’.16

Despite this practical affinity between Lenin and Gramsci, an important difference emerged in the Prison Notebooks with profound implications for subsequent readings of Gramsci. He extended the concept to cover not only relations between the working class and other subordinate classes, but also relations between antagonistic classes. While an aspirant ruling class, presenting its struggle against pre-capitalist relations as a universal struggle for freedom, may exercise leadership over subordinate classes to secure its rule, once in power it should not simply seek to dominate, but must ‘continue to “lead” as well’.17 Thus, while in one place in the Prison Notebooks Gramsci defined hegemony as ‘the combination of force and consent’, and while Gramsci repeatedly refers to the threat of force that underlies class rule, even under hegemony, his usual definition as simply ‘intellectual and moral leadership’ minimised the coercive element in class rule. The corollary of this was that Gramsci argued in various places that subordinate classes give their ‘active’ or ‘spontaneous’ consent to capitalist rule.18

These arguments are, in my view, mistaken.19 However, they should be understood not as the definitive statement of Gramsci’s views but as an attempt to convince the Italian Communist Party to continue the struggle for hegemony, rather than follow the Stalinised Communist International’s disastrous ultra-left ‘Third Period’ perspective after 1928.20 A more accurate reflection of Gramsci’s thinking is contained in an important passage of the Prison Notebooks where he analysed what he called the working class’s ‘contradictory consciousness’, combining conformist ‘common sense’ with an oppositional ‘good sense’ deriving from direct experience and forms of collective activity that contain the embryo of the ‘practical transformation’ of society.21 This passage is ignored by the neo-Gramscians, who consistently argue that the ruling class’s ‘intellectual and moral leadership’ is accepted by the working class. Thus Cox argues that the ruling class is hegemonic where ‘the weak accept the prevailing power relations as legitimate’, while Gill refers to subordinate classes’ ‘active consent’ to bourgeois rule, albeit that this demands that the ruling class make some concessions to their interests.22 Gill and Law go further still, suggesting the possibility of a consensus constructed ‘on the basis of shared values, ideas and material interests’.23

Thirty years ago Perry Anderson warned that the belief that capitalist power in the West rests predominantly on its cultural hegemony ‘is the involuntary temptation that lurks in some of Gramsci’s notes’.24 Unfortunately, it is this interpretation of the Prison Notebooks that the neo-Gramscians have mobilised to explain the dynamics of international relations. And, just as the idea of ‘intellectual and moral leadership’ ignores more concrete economic and political realities that better explain domestic capitalist stability, so its explanatory power is limited at the international level. This is illustrated by Cox’s analysis of the post‑war world order.

Pax Americana

Cox sees what he calls the post-war Pax Americana as a hegemonic world order, defined as one in which power is exercised on a largely consensual basis. It is true that as the post-war era progressed America’s European allies broadly accepted US plans for an open world economy. But while the intra-Western imperialist rivalries that had dominated the first half of the 20th century were transformed as the economic and military aspects of rivalry became partially separated, they were far from transcended. European opposition forced the substantial moderation of plans for a US-centred world free trade system in the late-1940s, while after 1960 transatlantic relations were soured by a series of economic and political conflicts.25 If the persistence of intra-Western rivalry undermines Cox’s view of a consensually integrated world order, his focus on the West in isolation from the wider structures of superpower imperialism gives a completely misleading picture of the post-war era.

The corollary of Cox’s definition of a hegemonic world order is that ‘the more that military force has to be increased and the more it is actually employed, the less the world order rests on consent and the less it is hegemonic’.26 Yet in rejecting Realism’s exaggeration of military power in shaping the international system Cox largely expunges it as a determining factor in the Cold War. In reality, the dominant feature of the post-1945 era was the militarised rivalry between the superpowers. It was only within the framework of the Cold War that the US could hope to establish its supremacy within the non-Communist world, for its capacity to ensure Western solidarity rested crucially on its military defence of Western interests against any temptation towards Soviet expansion. If there was US ‘intellectual and moral leadership’ of the West, it rested in large part on the more material factor of what Mike Davis calls the US’s ‘nuclear imperialism’.27

A second material factor underlying the relative stability of the Western alliance was the long economic boom that was a major feature of the post-war era. Cox acknowledges the long boom but neither adequately explains it nor understands its significance. His explanation, the conventional Keynesian argument that it was sustained by expansionary fiscal policies, is contradicted by the evidence that fiscal policy was mildly deflationary during the boom. The most convincing explanation for the boom is that, for technical economic reasons, global growth and profitability achieved historically high rates due to the economic counterpart to superpower rivalry—‘the most massive rearmament effort the world had ever seen in peacetime’.28 The military aspects of world order thus had a double significance that is lost within the idealist concept of ‘intellectual and moral leadership’. Military power provided the central political mechanism of US leadership of the West, while its economic consequences helped moderate the intra-Western rivalry that may well have intensified in more economically difficult circumstances. Indeed, as profit rates declined and the boom faltered from the late-1960s, transatlantic tensions deepened, the US pursued unilateral economic measures detrimental to the interests of its Western allies, and US politicians demanded revision of the terms of Western interdependence. As US treasury secretary John Connally put it, the US should ‘screw the Europeans before they screw us’.29

Post-hegemony and globalisation

Cox notes the relative decline of US power and the transition to a new phase of global economic turbulence in his account of the decline of Pax Americana. But, failing to relate these changes to the return of economic crisis in the early-1970s, he describes, rather than explains, these changes. More importantly, his analysis of what he sees as an era of transnationalisation (more generally called globalisation) beginning in the mid-1970s is wide of the mark.

Cox argues that under transnationalisation states have ‘willy nilly became more effectively accountable to a nebuleuse personified as the global economy’.30 Far from occurring ‘willy nilly’, however, the globalisation that many mainstream commentators argue has eroded state power is itself the product of a sustained ruling class neoliberal offensive. Spearheaded by Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, this offensive depended crucially on the mobilisation of state power against earlier social gains and to inflict major defeats on important sections of national labour movements across the advanced capitalist countries in the 1970s and 1980s. Yet, despite ritual references to class struggle as a source of change, these real struggles are all but invisible in the neo-Gramscian literature. Indeed, Cox has recently argued that ‘the restructuring of world society…challenges the Marxist schema of the primacy of class-oriented identities’.31 This argument flows from Cox’s subjective conception of class and rejection of the understanding of class as the objective expression of exploitation. Consequently, the recent marginalisation of class-based discourse and retreat of class consciousness are identified with a secular decline in class as such.

Cox’s depiction of the global economy as a ‘nebuleuse’ conjures up an image of a cloud in which there is no centre of power. Yet, just as economic power is becoming more concentrated in the world’s major transnational corporations, so state power remains a cornerstone of contemporary capitalism. It is at its most naked in Iraq, where the US is pursuing its key strategists’ long-held dream of securing dominance over the world’s oil supplies and simultaneously enhancing its leverage over both its established and emerging rivals. But state power remains vital for capitalism more widely: in the provision of educational, transport, legal and telecommunications infrastructures; in promoting technological advance in the face of international competition; in seeking alliances with other states to advance the interests of home-based capitals; and, not least, in policing the working class and attempting to inhibit its unity—through racism and Islamophobia, for instance. Yet once again Cox misrepresents the actual state of affairs when he argues that the contemporary global political economy ‘is characterised by a “new capitalism” which opposes any form of state or interstate control or intervention’.32

Gramsci’s relevance today

The reason the promise of the neo-Gramscians’ application of Gramsci’s ideas to the international system has not been fulfilled stems in large part from Cox’s rejection of an essential aspect of Marxist theory, the concept of mode of production, which he argues produces ‘static and abstract’ analysis.33 Cox is mistaken, for Marxism conceives the mode of production not as a set of fixed categories but as a totality driven by internal contradictions towards constant innovation (technological, institutional, political, ideological, etc), although a mode of production’s dominant social relations do impose objective limits on the sorts of change that can be accommodated within their framework.

Rejection of this concept has a number of important consequences. The centrality of real contradictions and conflict in Marxist analysis is displaced in favour of an emphasis on ideas and on the system-integrating concept of hegemony. In mobilising this concept the neo-Gramscians pay little attention to the moments of force and coercion that Gramsci argued underpin it, but emphasise instead the ‘intellectual and moral leadership’ of leading states and ruling classes. This in turn entails a preoccupation with ruling class ideological strategies largely abstracted from the resistance of subordinate classes that always limits the exercise of hegemony.34 Finally, Cox’s failure to locate the inter-state system within the framework of the capitalist totality leads to the mistaken argument that the world order is characterised by ‘the duality of inter‑state system and world economy’, each subject to separate internationalising processes.35

Despite these criticisms of the neo-Gramscians, Gramsci’s ideas retain a powerful relevance for contemporary Marxist international theory and practice. At the theoretical level, in discussing national state-society relations Gramsci argued that ‘the complex contradictory and discordant ensemble of the superstructures is the reflection of the ensemble of the social relations of production’.36 Internationalising this argument emphasises that war and the inter-state system on the one hand and the global economy on the other are interdependent aspects of a contradictory totality rather than, as Cox argues, a duality subject to separate logics. Thus to fight against imperialist war today remains just as imperative for anti-capitalists as it was for Gramsci in the First World War.

Gramsci’s concept of passive revolution also helps in understanding the political implications of the global extension of neoliberalism. Conceiving neoliberal transformation as a form of passive revolution, where the economic principles and priorities of the advanced countries are adopted by ruling classes in the Global South, leads to the conclusion that, in both advanced and poor countries, the working class’s immediate enemy remains the national ruling class. The Southern ruling classes’ opposition to neoliberalism, reflecting their independent interests, has been lukewarm and tempered by the common interests of the world’s rulers against the interests of subordinate classes. The world’s ruling classes remain, as Marx argued, hostile brothers.

The implication of seeing neoliberal globalisation as a passive revolution—that subordinate classes in the Global South should adopt the slogan of the contemporary anti‑capitalist movement, ‘Think global, act local’—applies equally in the advanced countries. It was recognition of the fact that the enemy is at home that led Gramsci to explore Italian history and politics so deeply, for he argued that the left must understand the elements of ‘originality and uniqueness’ in national social relations in order to ‘dominate them and direct them’.37 To achieve this demands, in turn, that the left take ruling class ideas seriously, for as Gramsci noted, following Marx, ‘it is on the level of ideologies that men become conscious of conflicts in the world of the economy’.38 Combating ruling class ideas is one of the key tasks of the sort of revolutionary party that Gramsci’s mature political life was dedicated to building. Those who wish to learn from Gramsci today should heed his words in what Perry Anderson calls ‘Gramsci’s effective political testament’. Reflecting on the coercive nature of ruling class power, Gramsci argued that ‘the violent conquest of power necessitates the creation by the party of the working class of an organisation of the military type’. Only such a party would be ‘capable of wounding and inflicting grave blows on it [the bourgeois state] at the decisive moment of struggle’.39 When a revolutionary party is able to achieve this in one or more of the world’s most advanced countries, a vital first step will have been taken towards the international transformation that, it is to be hoped, the neo-Gramscians desire.


1: Stanley Hoffman, ‘An American Social Science: International Relations’, in Daedalus, volume 106, number 3 (1977), p47.

2: John Maclean, ‘Marxism and International Relations: a Strange Case of Mutual Neglect’, in Millenium: Journal of International Studies, volume 17, number 2 (1988).

3: The founding documents of neo-Gramscianism are Robert Cox’s ‘Social Forces, States and World Orders: Beyond International Relations Theory’, in Millennium: Journal of International Studies, volume 10, number 2 (1981), and his ‘Gramsci, Hegemony and International Relations: an Essay in Method’, in Millennium: Journal of International Studies, volume 12, number 2 (1983).

4: Antonio Gramsci, Selections from Prison Notebooks (London, 1971), pp116-117. Hereafter, PN. Many of these essays are available from the Marxists internet archive

5: PN, p293.

6: PN, pp116-117, 182, 317.

7: PN, p182, 240.

8: PN, pp240-241.

9: PN, p176.

10: Robert Cox, ‘Social Forces, States and World Orders’, in Robert Cox and Timothy Sinclair (eds), Approaches to World Order (Cambridge, 1996), p87.

11: Karl Marx, Theses on Feuerbach, in Karl Marx: Selected Works, volume 1 (London, 1942), p473.

12: PN, p172. Available online.

13: The neo-Gramscian Mark Rupert systematically uses Marxist concepts. See, for instance, his ‘Alienation, Capitalism and the Inter-state System: Towards a Marxian/Gramscian Critique’, in Stephen Gill (ed), Gramsci, Historical Materialism and International Relations (Cambridge, 1993). Gill’s neo-Gramscianism shows the pitfalls of academic Marxism. His academic work is often highly abstract and unnecessarily complex, but his writing in, for instance, The Socialist Register, is frequently insightful and highly critical of ruling class projects.

14: Stephen Gill and David Law, The Global Political Economy: Perspectives, Problems and Policies (London, 1988), p63.

15: Antonio Gramsci, ‘Letter to Tania, 2 May 1932’, in Hamish Henderson (ed), Antonio Gramsci: Prison Letters (London, 1988), p214.

16: Lenin, cited in Perry Anderson, ‘The Antinomies of Antonio Gramsci’, in New Left Review 100, November‑December 1976, p.59; Antonio Gramsci, The Modern Prince and Other Writings (New York, 1957), pp30-31.

17: PN, p58. Available online.

18: PN, pp244, 12.

19: Nicholas Abercrombie, Stephen Hill and Bryan Turner, The Dominant Ideology Thesis (London, 1980), presents a powerful critique of the argument that bourgeois ideology dominates working class consciousness. The under‑development of socialist consciousness is better explained by more material factors, including what Marx called the ‘dull compulsion of economic relations’. Additionally, Goran Therborn identified ‘ideological mechanisms of subjection’ more closely related to workers’ lived experiences than bourgeois ideology: these include accommodation to, or acquiescence in, ruling class power, fear of the consequences of resistance, and resignation towards the ways of the world. See Goran Therborn, The Ideology of Power and the Power of Ideology (London, 1980).

20: Duncan Hallas, devastating critique of Third Period Stalinism. He argues that the Comintern’s lunatic ultra‑leftism reflected the attempts of the USSR’s Stalinist ruling class to defeat its Bukharinite right wing while securing the international breathing space necessary to construct ‘socialism in one country’. Superficially, ultra-leftism appears poorly suited to the second goal, but rhetorical radicalism ensured, contrary to the politics of Lenin and Gramsci, that the Communist parties were politically passive and isolated from the wider labour movement, including social democrats (dubbed ‘social-fascists’). Thus political instability was minimised among the USSR’s neighbours and the confidence of the right was strengthened, including, of course, in Germany where the failure to pursue a United Front strategy allowed fascism to come to power.

21: PN, p333.

22: Robert Cox, ‘Social Forces, States and World Orders’, as above, p99; Stephen Gill, ‘Epistemology, Ontology and the “Italian School”,’ in Stephen Gill (ed), Gramsci, Historical Materialism and International Relations, as above, p40. Gill’s article illustrates the point made about academic Marxism in a previous note.

23: Stephen Gill and David Law, The Global Political Economy, as above, p78.

24: Perry Anderson, as above, p41.

25: On the early post‑war years see Alan Milward, The European Rescue of the Nation‑State (London, 1984), and Peter Burnham, The Political Economy of Postwar Reconstruction (London, 1990). On the 1960s see Adrian Budd, The EC and Foreign and Security Policy (London, 1993).

26: Robert Cox, Production, Power and World Order: Social Forces in the Making of History (New York, 1987), p.289.

27: Mike Davis, ‘From Fordism to Reaganism: The Crisis of American Hegemony in the 1980s’, in Ray Bush, Gordon Johnston and David Coates (eds), The World Order: Socialist Perspectives (Cambridge, 1987), p8.

28: Giovanni Arrighi, The Long Twentieth Century (New York 1994), p297. For an analysis of the long boom see Chris Harman, Explaining the Crisis (London 1999), chapter 3.

29: Cited in Michael Smith, ‘“The Devil you know”: The United States and a Changing European Community’, in International Affairs, volume 68, number 1 (1992), p110.

30: Robert Cox, Global Perestroika, in Ralph Miliband and Leo Panitch (eds), The Socialist Register 1992, p.27.

31: Robert Cox, The Political Economy of a Plural World (London, 2002), p85.

32: Robert Cox, ‘The Crisis in World Order and the Challenge to International Organisation’, in Cooperation and Conflict, volume 29, number 2 (1994), p99.

33: Robert Cox, ‘Social Forces, States and World Orders’, as above, p94.

34: See Randall Germain and Michael Kenny, ‘Engaging Gramsci: International Relations Theory and the Neo‑Gramscians’, in Review of International Studies, volume 24, number 2 (1998), pp18-19; Alejandro Colas, ‘The Class Politics of Globalisation’, in Mark Rupert and Hazel Smith (eds), Historical Materialism and Globalisation: Essays on Continuity and Change (London, 2002), p192.

35: Robert Cox, Production, Power and World Order, as above, pp107, 109.

36: PN, p366. Available online.

37: PN, p240.

38: PN, p162; see also p140. Available online.

39: Cited in Perry Anderson, as above, p72.