Raymond Williams' understanding of hegemony is based on a classical Marxist analysis about the relationships of ideology, power, and culture. According to Marx, class oppression operates as much via ideology as brute force. Members of oppressed classes assimilate the dominant ideology and become complicit in their own oppression. Thus, for example, in the United States, poor voters who vote for the Republican program of tax cuts and welfare for the rich and cuts to benefits for the poor have assimilated the ideology of the elite and are acting to increase social inequality, against their own self interest.
Williams follow Gramisci in attempting to delve more deeply into the mechanisms of how culture functions to sustain class oppression. The actual term hegemony is derived from the Greek root "hegemon" (leader), and was used by Gramisci to refer to a class that unifies and dominates a nation, and includes a systems of values, ideas, and intellectual assumptions. Williams revises Marx in arguing that cultural hegemony is not just a consequence of economic interests, but rather itself an essential element of class conflict.