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.)