Gramsci, Antonio 1891-1937
Antonio Gramsci counts among the most influential thinkers of the Left in the twentieth century. Born to a family of modest means in Caligari, Sardinia, Italy, Gramsci’s early life was characterized by poverty, and for most of his life he suffered from poor health, which was worsened by his long imprisonment in fascist Italy. He died in 1937 after more than ten years in prison.
In addition to poverty and work to support his family, Gramsci’s early years in Sardinia introduced him to socialist politics, as well as to the writings of prominent Italian thinkers of his time, including Gaetano Salvemini (1873–1957), Benedetto Croce (1866–1952), Giuseppe Prezzolini (1882–1982), and Pilade Cecchi, in addition to becoming introduced to the writings of Karl Marx (1818–1883). The beginnings of Gramsci’s entry into the larger spheres of Italian political and intellectual life can roughly be dated to the years 1911 and 1912, when after obtaining a scholarship to attend the University of Turin, he immersed himself in the study of linguistics, philosophy, and literature, and also met a number of individuals who were to exercise a profound impact on his life, notably the leaders of the future Italian Communist Party (PCI), Palmiro Togliatti (1893–1964) and Angelo Tasca (1892–1960), as well as such intellectuals as Matteo Bartoli (1873–1946) and Umberto Cosmo (1868–1944).
His early academic promise notwithstanding, Gramsci dedicated much of his time after 1915 to journalism, becoming one of the most effective public voices of the Italian Socialist Party, from whose split the PCI was born with Gramsci’s active participation in 1921. In those years he wrote regular columns for the Turin edition of the newspaper Avanti! (Forward!), and in 1919 he cofounded L’Ordine Nuovo (The New Order), which became an influential review. During those years Gramsci was constantly active in workers’ militant organizing, and devoted much time to the factory council movement, in addition to giving talks to workers’ study groups on historical revolutionary experiences, including the French Revolution and the Paris Commune, as well as on literature and Marxist philosophy.
Following the split that produced the PCI in 1921, Gramsci lived for over a year in Moscow (1922–1923) as an Italian delegate to the Communist International (Comintern), returning to Italy after his election to the Chamber of Deputies in 1924 gave him temporary immunity from arrest. During that period he also became the general secretary of the PCI. His writings at that point show concern about the main issues of the moment, including the rise of Joseph Stalin (1879–1953) in the Soviet Union and the elimination of the opposition in the Comintern, as well as the “southern question” in Italy— namely the less developed status of southern Italy, its status as a colonial periphery of the north, and the need of the communist party for a distinct strategy to mobilize the agrarian population—and the relationship between workers and intellectuals.
The bulk of Gramsci’s intellectual output, however, is contained in his Prison Notebooks, a large compendium of essays, commentaries, and letters written during his internment, which began to be published in piecemeal fashion by the PCI after World War II (1939–1945). It is these writings that reveal Gramsci’s distinctive contribution to social theory and Left analysis, even though they are colored by a certain cryptic style designed to maneuver around issues sensitive to prison censors. The most significant innovations in these writings include Gramsci’s thesis on hegemony, the role of intellectuals, and the status of the peasantry in Left analysis.
The notion of hegemony, in particular, was developed by Gramsci as a way to account for a deficiency in the revolutionary character of the working class, as well as to amend the economic determinism that had plagued Marxist analysis. In some ways, “hegemony” was Gramsci’s way of elaborating the actual working out of Marx’s famous dictum, “the ideas of the ruling class are always the ruling ideas.” In Gramsci’s formulation, hegemony accounts for how domination is exercised apart from coercion and force. The dominated classes or groups have their own reasons for accepting the ideas of a ruling class or elite, and such reasons are the ground for the spontaneous consent given to a dominant ideology by classes that are dominated by it.
This concept has obvious affinities to other terms used in the social sciences, such as unquestioned “common sense.” However, contrary to appearances, hegemony, even if taken as “common sense,” is not stable. It is liable to break down as the subordinated groups develop alternative ways of seeing the world, and as crises within established systems create room for precisely the emergence of alternative hegemonies. The key to this kind of transformation consists thus of cultural and political work in society, rather than simply revolutionary action. This is precisely what Gramsci meant by “war of position” (the long, patient work in civil society oriented to combating established hegemony), to be distinguished from “war of maneuver” (the revolutionary takeover in a society where domination is not complemented by hegemonic sway over society at large).
It was such an orientation toward questions of culture, consciousness, and active agency that also highlighted for Gramsci the role of intellectuals. He saw that intellectuals are crucial in articulating and disseminating the outlooks of the classes for which they speak, in a way that goes beyond the simple expression of economic interests. For the working class, an intellectual who fulfilled that role was not confined in Gramsci’s thought to a stratum of educated, revolutionary elite. Rather, the “organic intellectual” could also be a lay person whose expression of the specific ideology of his class originates out of his actual working life. This conception arises out of Gramsci’s argument that all individuals are intellectual in the sense of having and using an intellect, though not all are intellectuals in terms of their formal social role.
Finally, unlike many intellectuals on the left who ignored the peasantry while highlighting the role of the working class, Gramsci emphasized the need to address the “southern question,” especially in countries like Italy (and Russia) where the peasantry comprised a large proportion of the population. His cryptic references to the “subaltern” encapsulate this orientation, and suggest the need for the party to assimilate the work of the organic intellectuals of segments of the population that it had ignored.
These various dimensions of Gramsci’s outlook have insured him great influence over twentieth-century thought. Those looking for sources of inspiration in Marxist thought beyond economic determinism have turned to his work, as have media scholars who were interested in exploring how certain ideas disseminate more broadly than others.
SEE ALSO Hegemony; Marxism; Socialism
Crehan, Kate. 2002. Gramsci, Culture, and Anthropology. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Finocchiaro, Maurice A. 1988. Gramsci and the History of Dialectical Thought. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.
Simon, Roger. 1991. Gramsci’s Political Thought: An Introduction, rev. ed. London: Lawrence and Wishart.
Mohammed A. Bamyeh
The Italian Communist leader Antonio Gramsci (1891-1937) was a highly original Marxist who, working from Leninist principles, developed a new and controversial conception of hegemony in Marxist theory.
Antonio Gramsci was born in Ales in Sardinia on January 22, 1891. As the fourth son of Francesco Gramsci, a clerk in the registrar's office at Ghilarza, Gramsci was brought up in poverty and hardship, particularly during the five years his father was in prison for alleged embezzlement. As a child Antonio was constantly ill and withdrawn, and his anguish was compounded by physical deformity.
He was compelled to leave school at the age of 12 but following his father's release he was able to resume his education at Santa Lussurgia and Cagliari. On winning a scholarship to the University of Turin in 1911 he came into contact with future Communist leader and fellow Sardinian Palmiro Togliatti. During the elections of 1913—the first to be held in Sardinia with universal male suffrage—Gramsci became convinced that Sardinia's acute problems of under-development could only be solved in the context of socialist policies for Italy as a whole. (Gramsci retained a lively interest in his native Sardinia throughout his life and wrote a major essay on The Southern Question in 1926.)
Like many of his generation at the university in Turin, Gramsci was deeply influenced by the liberal idealism of Benedetto Croce. Gramsci's hostility to positivism made him a fierce critic of all fatalistic versions of Marxism. By 1915 he was writing regularly for the socialist Il Grido del Populo (The Cry of the People) and Avanti (Forward), often on cultural questions in which he stressed the importance of educating the workers for revolution.
Following a four day insurrection in August 1917 Gramsci became a leading figure in the Turin workers' movement. He welcomed the Russian Revolution (although in Crocean style he presented it as a "Revolution against Das Kapital") and in May 1919 he collaborated with Togliatti, Angelo Tasca, and Umberto Terracini to found L'Ordine Nuovo (The New Order) as an organ of "proletarian culture." The paper saw the factory committees in Turin as Soviets in embryo and the nuclei of a future socialist state. Thousands responded to the call to establish workers' councils in the Turin area, and during the "red years" of 1919 and 1920 there was a general strike and factories were occupied. L'Ordine Nuovo's critique of the passivity and reformism of the Italian Socialist Party won the approval of Soviet leader Lenin, and although Gramsci would have preferred to continue working within the Socialist Party at a time of rising fascist reaction, a separate Communist Party of Italy was formed at Livorno in 1921.
Gramsci was on the Communist Party's central committee, but the newly formed party was dominated by Amadeo Bordiga, a powerful figure whose purist elitism brought him into increasing conflict with the Third Communist International (Comintern). Gramsci became his party's representative on the Comintern, and it was while recovering from acute depression in a clinic in Moscow that Gramsci met his future wife Julia in 1922. They had two children, Delio and a younger boy—Giuliano—whom Gramsci never actually saw. Despite some happy moments, particularly when the two were together in Rome in 1925 and 1926, the relationship between Gramsci and Julia was a fraught one. Julia was in poor mental health, and later with Gramsci's imprisonment all communication between them more or less ceased. It was with Julia's sister, Tatiana, who was devoted to Gramsci's well-being during the torturing years of incarceration, that he found real companionship.
In October 1922 Mussolini seized power. The head of the Communist Party was arrested, and Gramsci found himself party leader. He was elected parliamentary deputy in 1924 and by 1926, when the party held its third congress in Lyons, Gramsci had won wide membership support for a Leninist strategy of an alliance with the peasants under proletarian hegemony. In his one and only speech to the Chamber of Deputies Gramsci brilliantly analyzed the distinctive and lethal character of fascism and in 1926 he was arrested. Two years later he was brought to trial—"we must prevent this brain from functioning for twenty years," declared the prosecutor—and Gramsci spent the first five years of his sentence in the harsh penal prison at Turi. He was able to start work on his famous Prison Notebooks early in 1929, but by the middle of 1932 his health was beginning to deteriorate rapidly. Suffering from (among other ailments) Potts disease and arterio-sclerosis, he was eventually moved as a result of pressure from an international campaign for his release to a prison hospital in Formia, but by August 1935 he was too ill to work. Transferred to a clinic in Rome, he died on April 27, 1937, after a cerebral hemorrhage.
Tatiana had his 33 notebooks smuggled out of Italy and taken to Moscow via the diplomatic bag. These notebooks, despite the often rudimentary state of their drafts, are undeniably Gramsci's masterpiece. They contain sharply perceptive analyses of Italian history, Marxist philosophy, political strategy, literature, linguistics, and the theater. At their core stands Gramsci's over-riding preoccupation with the need to develop critical ideas rooted in the everyday life of the people so that the Communist cause acquires irresistible momentum. Opposed both to Bordiga's elitism and the sectarian policies of the Comintern between 1929 and 1934, Gramsci's stress on the moral and intellectual element in political movements offers a challenge not only to Marxists but to all seeking to change the world radically.
An entry on Gramsci appears in A Dictionary of Marxist Thought edited by Bottomore (1983). Giuseppe Fiori's Antonio Gramsci: Life of a Revolutionary (1970) is particularly useful, as is Paolo Spriano's The Prison Years (1979). A select bibliography of the now enormous literature on Gramsci can be found in Roger Simon's Gramsci's Political Thought (1982), and John Hoffman seeks to place Gramsci's ideas within a classical Marxist framework in The Gramscian Challenge (1984). □
Without denying in any way his immense political importance before and after his death, it nevertheless seems reasonable to say that his current exalted reputation amongst Marxist social scientists rests on the writings now known as The Prison Notebooks (1929–35, edited and translated into English in 1971). Among the topics discussed in the notebooks are: intellectuals, education, Italian history, political parties, fascism, hegemony, and fordism.
These, then, are the ideas and concepts that made Gramsci a pivotal figure in the debates and developments within Marxist social science during the 1970s—as, first, Nicos Poulantzas used them to develop his political sociology; and, later, numerous others used them as a conceptual bridge connecting the Marxist tradition with that of discourse analysis. A good introduction to his life and work, which discusses most of the sociological concepts and topics mentioned above, is James Joll's Gramsci (1977). See also IDEOLOGY.