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Bofelo, Mphutlane Wa (2005) Gramsci and Biko on Hegemony and Counter-Hegemony, and the role of intellectuals and mass participation . Centre for Civil Society : -.

“the starting point of critical elaboration is the consciousness of what one
really is …the mode of being of the new intellectual can no longer consist
in eloquence but in active participation in practical life, as constructor,
organizer, "permanent persuader” and not just a simple orator…"

-Antonio Gramsci

“ the most potent weapon in the hands of the oppressors is the mind of the oppressed”
-Stephen Bantu Biko

Antonio Gramsci’ s expositions on the notion of hegemony; the use of both coercion and consent to sustain power and maintain the status quo and on the role of traditional and organic intellectuals and the significance of mass participation in building a counter hegemony offers a great understanding of the role of civil society; religious, labor, cultural, social and political movements and informal educators in transforming traditional forms of education and challenging the right of the dominant class to rule. This essay discuss Gramsci’ s ideas on ideology \ hegemony and counter-hegemony, organic intellectualism and mass participation and examine the extent to which Stephen Bantu Biko and the Black Consciousness Movement took into cognizance the role of ideology and the consent of the oppressed Black people in maintaining the status quo in Apartheid South Africa, and presented psychological liberation and mental emancipation, self-realization, self-reliance and Black Solidarity as essential elements of a counter-hegemony to white supremacism and a sine quo non for the replacement of Apartheid-Capitalism with an egalitarian and anti-racist society. Our point of departure is that civil society organizations; religious institutions, cultural, social and political movements, labor organizations, non-governmental organizations and social clubs, etc have the potential to be turned into organs of working class power- facilitating bottom-up, grassroots-oriented and participatory democracy by availing to the under-classes spaces, platforms and avenues, and strategies, skills, expertise, methods and mechanisms through which they can challenge the establishment, place demands on power and contest its hegemony. They could also be an effective media of imparting alternative information, knowledge and education that challenges the information, knowledge and education transmitted by mainstream educational institutions and the corporate media to entrench the philosophy, culture, ethics, mores and values of the dominant \ ruling class so as to conserve the status quo. The converse is also true; civil society organizations; religious, cultural, labor, social and political movements can also serve to legitimatize the powers that be and preserve the status quo by restricting people to a reformist agenda geared only at searching for solutions within the confines of the prevailing system instead of exploring possibilities of transforming, reconstructing and overhauling the system. To put it in simple terms, by virtue of their involvement in advocacy, lobbying, awareness and training programmes and interventions in issues related to policy formulation, civil society organizations like non-governmental organizations (NGO’s), community-based organizations (CBO’S), social movements; and religious institutions, cultural clubs and societies are an integral part of social institutions
and agencies contributing to the process of education and socialization
which is the re-establishment and re-enforcement of the prevailing and
dominant norms-and-value system in a society. This means that these
organizations and institutions have a role in legitimatizing the prevailing
socio-economic and political system and maintaining the status quo or
questioning the current dispensation and offering alternative ways of
conceptualizing social reality and organizing society for the collective
good of all of humanity and the preservation of the entire earth.

Ideological Hegemony
While Gramsci accepted the analysis of capitalism put forward by Marx in the previous century and accepted that the struggle between the ruling class and the subordinate working class was the driving force that moved society
forward, he did not embrace the traditional Marxist theory of power as very
one-sided one based on the role of force and coercion as the basis of ruling
class domination. He pointed out the role played by ideology in
legitimizing the differential power that groups hold and concentrated on the
power of the subtle but pervasive forms of ideological control and
manipulation that served to perpetuate all repressive structures. He
identified two quite distinct forms of political control: domination, which
referred to direct physical coercion by police and armed forces and hegemony which referred to both ideological control and more crucially, consent through the permeation throughout society of an entire system of values, attitudes, beliefs and morality that has the effect of supporting the status quo in power relations. [Burke, B. (1999) 'Antonio Gramsci and informal education', the encyclopedia of informal education,\thinkers\et-gram.htm Positing hegemony as the 'organizing principle' that is diffused by the process of socialization into every area of daily life, Gramsci assumed that no regime, regardless of how authoritarian it might be, could sustain itself primarily through organized state power and armed force, as it ultimately needs popular support and legitimacy in order to maintain stability. He asserts that this prevailing consciousness is internalized by the population to the extent that it becomes part of what is generally called 'common sense' so that the
philosophy, culture and morality of the ruling elite comes to appear as the
natural order of things. [Boggs 1976 :39] Gramsci took Marx’s basic division
of society into a base represented by the economic structure and a
superstructure represented by the institutions and beliefs prevalent in
society further by dividing the superstructure into those institutions that
were overtly coercive and those that were not. He identified the coercive
ones as the public institutions such as the government, police, armed forces
and the legal system, which he referred to as the state or political society
and the non-coercive ones as the churches, the schools, trade unions,
political parties, cultural associations, clubs, the family etc. which he
regarded as civil society. To a certain extent, schools could fit into both
categories, as part of school life are quite clearly coercive (compulsory
education, the national curriculum, national standards and qualifications)
whilst others are not (the hidden curriculum). Gramsci extrapolated on the
Marxist notion of society as composing of the base (the mode of economy and the relationship between labor and capital) and the superstructure (external manifestations of the system and the instrument of class control -the government, the army, the police and social institutions like schools, churches, etc), to articulate a subtle theory of power than explained how
the ruling class ruled courtesy of the productive relations (capital versus
labour); coercive institutions (the state or political society) and civil
society and all other non-coercive institutions). This provided an
understanding of why the European working class had on the whole failed to
develop revolutionary consciousness after the First World War and had
instead moved towards reformism ie tinkering with the system rather than
working towards overthrowing it. Having asserted that the ruling class
maintained its domination by the consent of the mass of the people and only
used its coercive apparatuses- the forces of law and order, as a last
resort, and that the hegemony of the ruling capitalist class resulted from
an ideological bond between the rulers and the ruled, Gramsci addressed the
question of the possibility of overthrowing the system or breaking the
ideological bond by arguing that revolutionaries have to build up a ‘counter
hegemony’ to that of the ruling class. To this end, Gramsci argued that
structural change and ideological change should be seen as part of the same
struggle. He argued that while the labour process was at the core of the
class struggle, it was the ideological struggle that had to be addressed if
the mass of the people were to come to a consciousness that allowed them to question their political and economic masters’ right to rule. In other words, popular consensus in civil society has to be challenged. Thus the role for informal education in overcoming the popular consensus that accrues from the fact that ideological hegemony causes the majority of the population accept what is happening in society as ‘common sense’ or as ‘the only way of running society’. The role of the counter-hegemony is to alter the tendency by the people to critically think of altering the whole system based on unequal power-relations between labor and capital and the commodification of labor and the means of production instead of only complain about the way things are run and calling for improvements or reforms while embracing the basic beliefs and value system underpinning society as either neutral or of general applicability in relation to the class structure of society. In other words, the purpose of the counter-hegemony is to heighten and alter the consciousness of the people to a point where they cease to ask for a bigger slice of the cake but begin to tackle the real issue, which is the ownership of the bakery. (Burke. B 999. )

Organic Intellectuals
Gramsci put great emphasis on the crucial role of the intellectual in
creating a counter hegemony that would facilitate mass participation instead
of depending on an elite group of dedicated revolutionaries acting for the
working class to bring about an equalitarian society. He asserted that
social change had to be the work of the majority of the population conscious
of what they were doing and not an organized party leadership and further
argued that the revolution led by Lenin and the Bolsheviks in Russia in
1917- which took place in a backward country with a huge peasantry and a
tiny working class, and without the involvement of the mass of the
population- was not the model suitable for Western Europe or any advanced
industrialized country. Mass consciousness and the role of the intellectual
were crucial as essential and critical requirements of the counter hegemony
strategy. Gramsci’ s definition of intellectuals went far beyond the boffins
and academics that sat in ivory towers or wrote erudite pieces for academic
journals only read by others of the same ilk, as he makes it succintly clear
in his notebooks that "all men are intellectuals" [and presumably women]
"but not all men have in society the function of intellectuals". ..
"Everyone at some time fries a couple of eggs or sews up a tear in a jacket;
we do not necessarily say that everyone is a cook or a tailor". Meaning that
everyone has an intellect and uses it but not all are intellectuals by
social function. This is clearly defined in Gramsci’ s statement that each
social group that comes into existence creates within itself one or more
strata of intellectuals (managers, civil servants, the clergy, professors
and teachers, technicians and scientists, lawyers, doctors etc) that gives
it meaning, helps to bind it together and helps it to function. The notion
that intellectuals essentially developed organically alongside the ruling
class and function for the benefit of the ruling class, dismisses the notion
of intellectuals as being a distinct social category independent of class
was a myth. Gramsci described the traditional intellectuals as those who -
despite the fact that they are essentially conservative and allied to and
assisting the ruling group in society -regard themselves as autonomous and
independent of the dominant social group and are regarded as such by the
population at large, and give themselves an aura of historical continuity.

This constitutes of clergy, the men of letters, the philosophers and
professors and others who are traditionally thought of as the intellectuals.
Gramsci defines organic intellectuals as the group that grows organically
within the dominant social group, the ruling class, and is their thinking
and organizing element, as it is produced by the educational system to
perform a function for the dominant social group in society and is used by
the ruling class to maintain its hegemony over the rest of society. From
this description of organic intellectual flows the logic that what is
required for those who wish to overthrow the present system is a counter
hegemony, a method of upsetting the consensus, of countering the ‘common
sense’ view of society. Gramsci maintained that the requirement for this to
happen is not only the cross over of a significant number of ‘traditional’
intellectuals to the revolutionary cause as Marx, Lenin and Gramsci had done
but also that the working class movement should produce its own organic
intellectuals. Building on his assertion that all individuals (sic) are
intellectuals but not all persons have the function of intellectuals in
society, Gramsci posited "there is no human activity from which every form
of intellectual participation can be excluded" and that everyone, outside
their particular professional activity, "carries on some form of
intellectual activity… participates in a particular conception of the world,
has a conscious line of moral conduct, and therefore contributes to sustain
a conception of the world or to modify it, that is, to bring into being new
modes of thought". At the risk of being perceived exaggerating the
possibilities, Gramsci was actually trying stress the fact that people have
the capability and the capacity to think, and that the only problem was how
to harness those capabilities and capacities.

He therefore saw one of his roles (in his capacity as a traditional intellectual won over to the side of the working class and therefore transformed into an organic intellectual of the working class) as being that of assisting in the creation of organic intellectuals from the working class and the winning over of as many traditional intellectuals to the revolutionary cause as possible. He attempted to do this through the columns of a journal called L’Ordine Nuovo (New Order), subtitled "a weekly review of Socialist culture". Gramsci’ s insistence on the fundamental importance of the ideological struggle to social change meant that this struggle was not limited to consciousness raising but must aim at consciousness transformation - the creation of a socialist consciousness.

Arguing that consciousness is not something that could be imposed on people but must arise from their actual working lives, Gramsci propounded that the intellectual realm was not to be seen as something confined to elite but to be seen as something grounded in everyday life. [Burke. B 1999.] The creation of working class intellectuals actively participating in practical life, helping to create a counter hegemony that would undermine existing social relations was Gramsci’ s contribution to the development of a philosophy that would link theory with practice and was a direct counter to those elitist and authoritarian philosophies associated with fascism and Stalinism. As Gramsci believed in the innate capacity of human beings to understand their world and to change it, his approach was open and non-sectarian. Gramsci’ s ideas on the role of the intellectual are relevant and critical in the discourse on role of informal educators in local communities, particularly on the notion of the educator working successfully in the neighbourhoods and with the local community has a commitment to that neighborhood. According to Gramsci-whether s\he may have always lived in the area and have much in common with the local people or not- an organic intellectual \ educator is someone who is not ‘here today and gone tomorrow’ . On the contrary, organic intellectuals develop relationships with the people they work with and ensure that wherever they go, they are regarded as part of the community, and strive to sustain people’s critical commitment to the social groups with whom they share fundamental interests. [ibid]

The Black Consciousness Movement on ideology and hegemony
The South African Students Organization and the Black People’s Convention(
SASO\BPC) and a host of socio-political and cultural organizations operating
under the rubric of the Black Consciousness Movement -on the ascendancy in
South African resistance \ liberation politics in the late sixties and early
seventies- highlighted the role of (the racist) ideology (of white
supremacism) in entrenching the hegemony of the ruling Afrikaner
Nationalists and acknowledged that Apartheid-capitalism thrived not only on
coercion and repression but also on the consent of the oppressed black
majority. Like Frantz Fanon, Stephen Bantu Biko believed that “ the tyranny
of the oppressors is prescribed by the endurance of the oppressors” Through
the philosophy of Black Consciousness, SASO\ BPC emphasized psychological
emancipation and mental liberation, self-definition, self-realization,
self-awareness, self-reliance and mass conscientisation, mass mobilization
and mass participation under the framework of Black Solidarity as a sine quo
non for a liberatory culture of resistance \ rebellion that would be a
counter-hegemony to the hegemony of white supremacism.

Black Consciousness sought to obliterate the myths of white superiority and black inferiority and the normality or the common-sense-ness of the master-servant power-relations between Whites and Blacks \ poor and rich so as to starve white supremacism and racial capitalism of the black inferiority complex and working class compliance \ consent upon which Apartheid-capitalism thrived. In the sense that Black Consciousness was -as Donald Woods says-about the mobilization of black opinion against the established white order [Woods A. 1978:149], it could be regarded as a counter hegemony to white supremacism and racial capitalism. Biko cited the significance and purpose of Black Consciousness and Black Solidarity as helping people to develop some form of security together to look to their problems, and in this way build their humanity.[Woods A. 1978:174]. Pronouncing on the conscientisation language and methodology used by the BCM to heighten the revolutionary consciousness necessary for the development of a revolutionary mass of conscious people Biko declared that SASO\BPC make reference to the conditions of Black people “to get them to grapple realistically with their problems, to attempt to find solutions to their
problems, to develop what one might call an awareness of their situation, to
be able to provide some kind of hope.” (Wood. A 1978:174)

On the role of intellectuals and mass participation
The role of intellectual (traditional and organic)nd the significance of mass participation wereeloquently articulated by Stephen Bantu Biko in an interview with Bernard Zylstra in July 1977. Biko asserted that SASO “stressed Black Consciousness and the relations of intellectuals with the needs of the Black community.” (Woods. A.1978:118) He explained that the formation of the Black People’s Convention was a result of the realization that - though Black Consciousness had gained momentum -“we were still faced with the practical issue that people who were speaking were mainly students or graduates. There was no broad debate. For this reason we had to move from SASO to the organization of the Black People’s Convention so that the masses could get involved in the development of a new consciousness”. [Woods. A.1978:118]. Commenting on the successes of the philosophy of Black Consciousness in heightening the revolutionary consciousness that influenced the national students’ uprising of 16, June 1976, Biko declared “the power of a movement lies in the fact that it can indeed change the habits of a people. The change is not the result of force but dedication, of moral persuasion”. [Woods. A.1978:118]. To conscientise and enable black students and graduates (the traditional intellectuals) to establish an organic relationship with the grassroots communities and relate their education \ professions to their experiential reality, SASO\ BPC initiated the commemoration of events like Sharpeville Shooting and initiated commemorative services like “Suffer day”, and “compassion Day”. It also established the Black People’s Programmes, embarking on a variety of educational, awareness and self-help community development projects ranging from health clinics, literacy programmes, and poetry groups to cooperatives. The purpose of these initiatives was explained clearly by Stephen Bantu Biko in the SASO\BPC trial: “Compassion day was meant for remembrance of specific situations of affliction that the Black man was subjected to from time to time, things like starvation in places like Dimbaza, things like floods in Port Elizabeth…. The main idea of compassion day was to get students to develop a social conscience, to see themselves as a part the communities, and direct their energies to solving problems of the nature we were thinking about on compassion day.” [Woods. A 1978:160-161]

This relationship between theory and practice; education and experiential
reality, knowledge and social reality, informed the conceptualization,
design and implementation of the programmes of the Black Consciousness
Movement. This comes out clearly in Biko’s account of the research he, Jerry
Modisane and Barney Pityana conducted in preparation of the literacy program that was drawn by SASO. They listened to women in queues waiting to see a doctor or nurse at a clinic -some carrying babies on their backs, to people in shebeens and to people in buses and trains. In all these situations-Biko observed- there was a constant occurrence of “protest talk” about the general conditions of oppression and exploitation such as the de-humanizing and denigrating impact of the migratory labor and single hostels system, exploitative labor practices and unsafe and unhealthy working and living conditions. He outlined that their aim and purpose with the research was to familiarize themselves with the generic terms that the people in the target area were familiar with and to get in touch with the people’s day to day experiences, concerns and issues and their perception and conception of these issues.

Biko’s presentation and articulation of the whole process is instructive: “…
this particular method we were using placed a lot of emphasis on syllabic
teaching of people. You did not just teach people the alphabet in isolation,
you had to teach them syllables, and you had to start with words that had a
particular meaning to them, what we called generative terms. Now the
preamble to it was some kind of research in the specific area in which you
were going to work, which carried you to several segments of the community, to particular places where the community congregated and talked freely. Your role there was particularly passive. You were just there to listen to the things they were talking about, and also to the words that were being used. We also used pictures to depict the themes they were talking about.”(Woods. A.1978:172) Here it is lucidly clear that the BCM saw literacy as not merely being lettered and numerate or being able to read and write alphabets and count numbers but also as the ability to read one’s world \ environment and (re)write one’s reality\ history… being socio-politically literate and culturally aware. Literacy and education were perceived as tools that capacitate a person to critically and constructively grapple with natural and social phenomena and to actively interact and engage with his\ her natural and social surroundings. The literacy programmes, political education programmes -mass rallies and political workshops or initiation schools in SASO\BPC par lance- and the self-help cooperatives and political campaigns were part of a single and integrated strategy to move the Black Person from social experience to consciousness to social action to the changing of social experience.

Biko and the BCM on revolutionary transformation
It is noteworthy that for Biko and the BCM the point was no longer to reform the system as doing so would imply the acceptance of the basic precepts around which the system evolves but to completely overhaul it. Therefore the BCM castigated Gatsha Buthelezi and other Bantustan leaders and later participants in the sham trichameral parliament and the dummy Black Local Authority councils for -in the words of Steve Biko-diluting the cause by operating on government platform. The BCM shunned attempting to change the system from within as many reformists-sometimes evoking Gramsci- sought to do. As a result the BCM placed emphasis on the principle of non-collaboration with the ruling class and its political instruments. It presented Black Solidarity and Black Power as the real force that will bring about seizure of power to prepare for a revolutionary transformation of society. While acknowledging that the BCM under the leadership of SASO\BPC was not yet at a stage to present the details of the alternative system, Biko highlighted that the BCM recognized the fact that “a change in the color of the occupier does not necessarily change the system”, and also acknowledged that “the debate about economic policy cannot be “pure”, completely separate from existing systems.” (Biko cited in Woods. A 1978:122) In its search for an alternative to Apartheid-Capitalism, SASO\ BPC identified consultation, communalism and public ownership of the land as the basic precepts and tenets of the agrarian economic system that prevailed in the rudimentary culture of traditional, pre-colonial African society and sought to appropriate these to develop a more expounded economic system accommodating industry and the relationship of industry and politics. Hence the BCM under SASO\ BPC initially spoke about black communalism and collective enterprise and started discussions around what Stephen Bantu Biko referred to as “socialist solution that is an authentic expression of black communalism.” (Biko cited in Woods. A 1978:122) By the late seventies and early eighties, Black Consciousness formations like the Azanian People’s Organization, Azanian Students Movement and later the Azanian Students’ Convention and the Azanian Youth Organization were overtly talking of scientific socialism as their official ideology. The post-apartheid South Africa saw the emergence of the Socialist Party of Azania articulating a more vociferously socialistic expression of Black Consciousness and affiliated to the International Liasons Committee of Workers and Peoples \ Fourth International.


Boggs, C. (1976) Gramsci’s Marxism. London: Pluto Press

Burke, B. (1999) 'Antonio Gramsci and informal education', the encyclopedia of informal education,\thinkers\et-gram.htm

Gramsci, A. (1971). Selections from the Prison Notebooks. London: Lawrence and Wishart

Woods. A. 1978. Biko-The true story of the young South African martyr and his struggle to raise Black Consciousness. New York: Henry Holt and Company. inc

Mphutlane wa Bofelo is winner of the Poetry Africa 2003 Slam Competition, and a life-skills facilitator, writer, orator and performer who hold a BA (Hons in Political Science) from the University of the Free State and a Diploma in Projects Management from Varsity College.

Mphutlane Wa Bofelo was instrumental in the formation of the Makana Poets in 1989 and Arts in Motion in 1998. His articles, essays, poetry and prose have been published in publications such “Africa Perspective”, “Laugh it Off”, “Fidelities”, “New Coin”, “Botsotso”, “Bliksem”, “Al-Qalam”, “Tribute”, the anthology 5-Poetry (Botsotso Publishing) and The Journey Within (Yaseen Islamic Publishers).

Currently, Wa Bofelo is the Vice -President of the Muslim Youth Movement of South Africa, Secretary-General of the African Muslim Youth Congress, Convenor of the Anti-Racism Education Forum and trustee of the Vulindlela Youth Development Trust.

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