Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2309
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.
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.
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 citizens’ recognition of the state’s right to rule. This was “consent,” and, according to Gramsci, this kind of power was even more important in the West than pure coercion. Consent, though, was not spontaneous; rather, it was taught by the many institutions—schools, church, family, and others—of what Gramsci termed “civil” or “private” society. All of these institutions passed along certain ideas, reinforced a way of thinking, and instilled a set of values, thereby creating a dominant culture that tended to reinforce the state and confer legitimacy on its rule.
For Gramsci, culture then played an important social role in educating consent; its conservative function lay in restricting one’s ability to view critically the present and imagine (and act on) a vision of a substantially different future. The label Gramsci gave to this phenomenon was “hegemony”: the power of a dominant way of thinking to reinforce the social status quo. The concept of hegemony and its orgins in civil society were Gramsci’s greatest theoretical contributions.
If revolution had failed in Italy (and elsewhere in the West) after World War I, Gramsci believed it was the result of a failure to understand the power of culture and the strength of consent. Gramsci also took up the issue of how to counter the hegemony of contemporary bourgeois culture over consciousness and action. He noted the need to substitute for the Eastern “war of maneuver” a different tactic for social change in the West, what he termed the “war of position.”
Two ideas were central to Gramsci’s thinking on Western revolution. The first was the creation of a separate awareness that would act as a counterconsciousness to the dominant strains of thought in bourgeois society. Gramsci called for the articulation of a working-class culture with its own ideas and ethos which would gradually spread and acquire hegemony in certain areas of society. This undertaking would be the work of individuals who could apply their intelligence and organizational abilities to questions of culture. The revolutionary character of their work would be guaranteed only when these individuals came from the working class itself and not from traditional intellectual elites. Gramsci gave the term “organic intellectuals” to these people, who—very much like himself—had working-class origins and turned their energies to the articulation of an alternative consciousness and culture. Therefore, organic intellectuals, fighting for ideas and culture, would play a key role in the revolutions in the West.
Gramsci’s second idea for the “war of position” was the creation of a new kind of political party, which he called the “Modern Prince.” Drawing inspiration from Niccolò Machiavelli, Gramsci declared that the complexity of modern societies required that revolution become the business of an organized group and not a single ruler. Hence, in the twentieth century, the Modern Prince must be the political party. In his writings on the revolutionary political party, Gramsci openly accepted the distinction between “leaders” and “led.” His Modern Prince was a reformulation of Karl Marx’s Communist Party as the “vanguard of the proletariat”—a revolutionary elite acting to inspire and direct a potentially revolutionary population. Though the goal of the Modern Prince was the elimination of the difference between “leaders” and “led,” there is little in Gramsci’s writings on politics to show how he proposed to avoid a concentration of power in the hands of his “organic intellectuals.” Indeed, Gramsci remained too enthusiastic a supporter of Lenin to consider critically Russian events after the November Revolution; later, he was too isolated in prison (and his Italian comrades often misrepresented events in the Soviet Union) to be aware of developments in Stalinist Russia in the 1930’s.
Ill health plagued Gramsci throughout the years of his incarceration. By 1935, his physical condition had deteriorated so greatly that Fascist officials transferred Gramsci to a private clinic in Rome. A year and a half later, in April, 1937, Gramsci died. The Quaderni del carcere found their way through clandestine channels from Fascist Italy to Moscow, where they were kept until after World War II. It took nearly thirty years until a complete, definitive edition was published in 1975.
Antonio Gramsci’s contribution to European communism was a significant one. In his analysis of East and West, the state and civil society, and coercion versus consent, Gramsci provided the foundations for a Western Marxism substantially different from that of the Soviet Union. His focus on culture, hegemony, and ideology allowed contemporary Marxists to emphasize the role of consciousness in the process of changing societies. Gramsci’s work thereby aided in the rediscovery of an earlier, humanist Marxism that had been lost between evolutionary socialism, Fascism, and Stalinism.
Gramsci’s greatest influence, however, lies outside strictly political circles. His writings on hegemony and culture have influenced virtually every other field of study of human society. Gramsci inaugurated the tendency to view culture not as an abstract body of knowledge, beliefs, or habits but as a social construction. Society’s institutions are now understood as contributors to the creation of well-articulated worldviews, with profound effects on human consciousness and action. Scholars influenced by Gramsci’s terms and analysis may be found in all branches of the humanities: anthropology, history, linguistics, political science, religious studies, sociology, and the study of ideas. Few other thinkers have worked under such difficult conditions; fewer still have made as significant a contribution to such a wide range of disciplines.
Cammett, John M. Antonio Gramsci and the Origins of Italian Communism. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1967. One of the best books 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 Quaderni del carcere.
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.
Davis, John A., ed. Gramsci and Italy’s Passive Revolution. New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 1979. A collection of essays by various authors who adopt Gramscian concepts and analysis to examine Italian society, economy, and politics in the fifty years following unification.
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. Femia also indicates the areas in which Gramsci has had a strong influence on the thinking of contemporary Italian communists.
Fiori, Giuseppe. Antonio Gramsci: Life of a Revolutionary. London: New Left Books, 1970. The most complete treatment of Gramsci’s life written by one of the foremost Italian specialists on Gramsci.
Gramsci, Antonio. Letters from Prison. Selected, translated, and introduced by Lynne Lawner. New York: Harper & Row, 1973. A selection from among the 450 letters Gramsci sent to family and friends during his ten-year imprisonment. The letters contain interesting insights into Gramsci’s thinking on politics and society and reveal the man behind the theory.
Gramsci, Antonio. Selections from the Prison Notebooks of Antonio Gramsci. Edited and translated by Quintin Hoare and Geoffrey Nowell Smith. New York: International Publishers, 1972. This book is the best English translation of Gramsci’s most important prison writings. Hoare’s extended introduction to Gramsci’s life and works is a valuable addition to the volume.
Joll, James. Antonio Gramsci. Edited by Frank Kermode. New York: Viking, 1977. An excellent, brief biography of Gramsci. In passing, Joll offers a few comments on the nature of Gramsci’s work in different periods.
Kolakowski, Leszek. Main Currents of Marxism. Vol. 3, The Breakdown, translated by P. S. Falla. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1978. In chapter 6, Kolakowski manages to present an impressive, critical evaluation of Gramsci’s work and contributions to Marxist thought, concluding with a revealing account of Gramsci’s place in the history of European Marxism.
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. The best 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.
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