Antonio Gramsci Biography


(History of the World: The 20th Century)

Article abstract: Gramsci gave modern social and political theory and the study of history a new method of social analysis with his writings on culture and hegemony. He was one of the first European communists to establish the theoretical foundations for a Western Marxism free of reliance on the Soviet Union. Gramsci was himself an active revolutionary who produced his most influential work during an eleven-year imprisonment under Benito Mussolini.

Early Life

Antonio Gramsci was born in Ales, a small agricultural village in Sardinia, on January 23, 1891. His family lived on modest means, supported by a father who was a clerk in the Italian state bureaucracy. The family moved frequently between several villages during much of Gramsci’s youth. At the age of four, Gramsci severely injured his spine; he remained a hunchback and suffered from poor health for the rest of his life.

Gramsci was a gifted student and an avid reader even as a young boy. He was graduated from elementary school early, at age ten. In 1908, he left home to attend secondary school, studying languages in Cagliari, the capital city of Sardinia. In 1911 he won a scholarship to study at the University of Turin. It was in Turin that Gramsci developed as an intellectual and political figure. He abandoned linguistics for the study of society and philosophy. Interested in the social questions of a new, industrial society, and particularly those of a mass working-class, Gramsci entered the youth movement of the Italian Socialist Party in 1914. Soon after Italy’s entry into World War I in 1915, Gramsci withdrew from the university, convinced that the moment had arrived to change and not merely to study society.

Gramsci displayed a remarkable talent for writing and contributed articles to the Socialist press throughout the war years. From Italy, Gramsci praised Vladimir Ilich Lenin prior to the Bolshevik Revolution and even more strongly afterward. Gramsci himself never ceased to struggle with the question of how to make a revolution in Italy. He supported the formation of workers’ councils and in 1919 helped launch a new Socialist newspaper, Ordine nuovo (new order), which promoted these councils and rapidly became the most influential paper in the Turin area. In January, 1921, Gramsci formed the Communist Party of Italy and adopted a revolutionary program for Italy.

From 1921 to 1922, Gramsci suffered from poor health, depression, and even a nervous breakdown. In 1922, while in Russia, he met Giulia Schucht; they married shortly afterward and had two sons. Gramsci was in Vienna when he was elected as a deputy to the Italian Parliament in 1924. He took advantage of his parliamentary immunity from arrest to return to Fascist Italy in May, where he became an outspoken opponent of Mussolini. In November, 1926, Gramsci was arrested by the Fascists and charged with six counts of treason. The prosecutor noted that the state had to “prevent this brain from functioning for twenty years.” Gramsci began his prison sentence near Bari. He would remain in jail for a decade, until his death in 1937.

Life’s Work

It was during his prison years that Gramsci produced his most important work—a series of notebooks entitled Quaderni del carcere (1948-1951; partial translation, Selections from the Prison Notebooks of Antonio Gramsci, 1971). He wrote these volumes under the most difficult of conditions, with little, if any, access to primary sources or secondary literature. The scrutiny of prison censors forced Gramsci to adopt an elliptical writing style and to employ code words (for example “philosophy of praxis” instead of the more direct “Marxism”) in order to have his works pass outside the prison walls. The result is a collection of writings that is incomplete and often ambiguous. Nevertheless, Quaderni del carcere stands as one of the most important revisions of social and political theory in the twentieth century.

The principal question that Gramsci set himself during the prison years was how best to explain the failure of Communism in Italy immediately after World War I. Marxists maintained that revolution would first take place in the most advanced capitalist societies. Italy certainly did not fit that description, but neither did Russia—both countries were economically and socially backward, and Gramsci, with firsthand experience of peasant Sardinia, had already written extensively on the “Southern Question” before incarceration. Why had Bolshevism triumphed in Russia—the “East” in Gramsci’s prison code—and not elsewhere? The search for an answer led Gramsci to the first of many important insights: his assertion that there was more to revolution than the mere seizure of the state. Gramsci began to explore the question of power in modern societies in a new fashion.

Power, Gramsci maintained, needed to be considered under two, related aspects: coercion and consent. The coercive element of power lay in the direct control over society that the state exercised through its political institutions—police, army, and legislature. According to Gramsci, coercion was the primary form of power in less advanced societies, where control was maintained directly by a repressive state. Czarist Russia was the best European example of a coercive state, and Lenin’s tactic of a frontal assault (Gramsci’s “war of maneuver”) was the correct strategy in such conditions.

In Western Europe, however, the issue of power was more complex. Alongside the state and its coercive strength lay the power derived from...

(The entire section is 2309 words.)

Antonio Gramsci Bibliography

(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Adamson, Walter L. Hegemony and Revolution: A Study of Antonio Gramsci’s Political and Cultural Theory. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1980. Traces the formation of Gramsci’s thought within the context of Western Marxism and the political and intellectual horizons of his time.

Bellamy, Richard, and Darrow Schecter. Gramsci and the Italian State. Manchester, England: Manchester University Press, 1993. Emphasizes the political ramifications of Gramsci’s writings, focusing on the specific historical context of Gramsci’s role in contemporary political debates in Italy. Includes a biographical outline.

Cammett, John M. Antonio Gramsci and the Origins of Italian Communism. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1967. An excellent book on Gramsci, this is the text that introduced his work to an English audience. Cammett treats Gramsci’s life up to his arrest in great detail and concludes with a general overview of the principal concerns in Prison Notebooks.

Clark, Martin. Antonio Gramsci and the Revolution That Failed. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1977. This book’s concerns are the postwar revolutionary years, the rise of workers’ councils, and the period of factory occupation. It highlights Gramsci’s role and the theoretical insights developed between 1919 and 1920.

Coben, Diana. Radical Heroes: Gramsci, Freire, and the Politics of Adult Education. New York: Garland, 1998. A look at the political aspects of adult education and socialism.

Femia, Joseph. Gramsci’s Political Thought. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1981. One of the most thorough discussions of Gramsci’s work, which develops in some detail his ideas on hegemony, organic intellectuals, and the role of the modern political party.

Martin, James. Gramsci’s Political Analysis: A Critical Introduction. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1998. An important dissection of Gramsci’s political thought and his contribution to political science.

Sassoon, Anne Showstack, ed. Approaches to Gramsci. London: Writers and Readers, 1982. A collection of essays by leading scholars from many different disciplines on Gramsci, his life and work, his commitment to revolution, and the cultural applications of his theories.

Williams, Gwyn A. Proletarian Order: Antonio Gramsci, Factory Councils, and the Origins of Italian Communism, 1911-1921. London: Pluto Press, 1975. An excellent English-language treatment of the formative years in Gramsci’s political development, 1915-1920. Williams locates the stimulus to Gramsci’s later thinking in the revolutionary two years in Turin that followed World War I.

Antonio Gramsci Biography

(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Antonio Gramsci (GRAHM-shee), the founder of the Italian Communist Party, served as its foremost theoretician and provided it with active leadership until his imprisonment by Benito Mussolini in 1926. He was one of seven children, the fourth son, of Francesco Gramsci and Giusippina Marcias. The family was of moderate means until 1897, when Francesco Gramsci received a five-year jail sentence for having improperly administered his job as clerk in the registrar’s office in Ghilarza. This arrest caused serious financial problems, and young Gramsci, having just completed elementary school, was forced by circumstances to work for two years to help support his family. He returned to school in 1905, first in Santa Lussurgui and later in Cagliari. Recipient of a scholarship, he enrolled in 1911 at the University of Turin, where Luigi Einaudi was one of his teachers and Palmiro Togliatti a fellow student. Gramsci’s studies emphasized linguistics, moral philosophy, and modern history.

Gramsci first came in contact with the Socialist Party in Turin. He joined the local section (to which he was elected secretary in 1917), made his first contribution to the Socialist paper Il grido del popolo in 1914, and began writing for Avanti in 1916. In 1919 Gramsci, along with three friends—Togliatti, Angelo Tasca, and Umberto Terracini—founded the journal L’ordine nuovo (the new order). The journal, begun as a weekly and after 1921 converted to a daily, was the organ of the Turin workers’ councils and discussed a variety of timely topics. In 1920 Gramsci participated in a Socialist occupation of factories that spread throughout Italy. His dissatisfaction with the Socialists’ inability to stage a successful revolution, for which he believed the time was ripe, led him to create and lead a Communist faction within the Socialist Party. The group split in 1921, resulting in the establishment of the Italian Communist Party with Gramsci serving as a member of the central committee. Always obsessed with leading the masses into revolutionary action, Gramsci clashed with the party’s general secretary, Amadio Bordiga, who emphasized purity of doctrine. Bordiga viewed the Russian Revolution as an exception to Marxist principles, which he thought could apply easily in the West. Gramsci believed the opposite, seeing the situation in Central and Western Europe as complicated by a more complex development of capitalism...

(The entire section is 995 words.)

Antonio Gramsci Biography

(Survey of World Philosophers)

Article abstract: Gramsci, an active Italian revolutionary, was one of the first European communists to establish the theoretical foundations for a Western Marxism free of reliance on the Soviet Union. Imprisoned by Italy’s Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini, he developed a new method of social analysis with his writings on culture and hegemony.

Early Life

Antonio Gramsci was born in Ales, a small agricultural village in Sardinia, on January 23, 1891. His family lived modestly, supported by a father who was a clerk in the Italian state bureaucracy. The family moved frequently between several villages during much of Gramsci’s youth. At the age of four, Gramsci severely injured his...

(The entire section is 2158 words.)