Key thinker: Antonio Gramsci (1891–1937)

Antonio Gramsci (1891–1937)

Antonio Gramsci was born on the island of Sardinia to a father who was a low-level official and a mother who belonged to a Sardinian land-owning family. The family faced financial difficulties and troubles with police. As a gifted student, however, he secured a scholarship to study at Turin University in 1911. This was a key formative experience, because Turin was at the hub of Italy's industrial activity and trade union militancy (there was a general strike in Turin during the First World War in 1917). Gramsci joined the Italian Socialist Party (PSI), and helped to found a journal (L'Ordine Nuovo) in 1919. Two years later, he became a prominent member of a new party, the PCI (Partito Communista d'Italia). He visited Russia during the following year, and returned with instructions to form a left-wing alliance to oppose the Fascist movement, whose leader Benito Mussolini had joined the Italian government.

Gramsci was elected deputy in the Italian parliament in 1924. He had already expressed strong reservations about Stalin but this was not enough to protect him against Mussolini's fascists. He was arrested in 1926, and imprisoned until he became fatally ill.

Gramsci's notes and essays were published posthumously as Prison Notebooks, based on 32 hand-written volumes which were smuggled from his cell. While he accepted Marx's analysis of capitalism and the idea that struggle between the ruling class and the subordinate working class was the driving force of society, Gramsci rejected the materialist basis of Marxist theory, including the notion of an 'objective reality' that could be described 'scientifically'. He argued instead that 'reality' does not exist independently of human interest, purpose, or interpretation. From this position, Gramsci developed the notion of 'hegemony', by which he meant a system of ideas which underpinned the dominance of the ruling class. On this view, a successful social group generates ideas which are accepted throughout society; thus, for example, workers, who on an 'objective' view are exploited by the bourgeoisie, are persuaded to accept propaganda which portrays them as beneficiaries of the existing social order.

If a ruling class can indoctrinate its victims in this way, what hope can there be of a revolution leading to social justice? Gramsci's solution was to emphasize the importance of 'intellectuals' in raising the consciousness of the workers (see Chapter 3). Ideally, such intellectuals should be like himself—the products of humble backgrounds. But his approach also promised to explain a paradox for followers of Marx, who was not himself a member of the working class but nevertheless devoted himself to the liberation of the 'proletariat'. If socio-economic status had a decisive influence on the thinking of individuals, Marx's enlightened views were very difficult to explain. Gramsci's answer was to distinguish between 'traditional' intellectuals, who felt no special obligation to defend the existing social order (although many of them did so), and 'organic' intellectuals who were anxious to serve the class from which they arose. Gramsci hoped that the working class would be able to produce 'organic' intellectuals of its own. In the meantime, intellectuals of all classes should oppose the hegemony of capitalist ideas. Change would come, according to Gramsci, not when the capitalism had reduced the working classes to destitution, but rather at a time of 'authority crisis', when the power of ideas, rather than changes in the material world, would bring about the downfall of the existing system.

From this perspective, it is easy to understand why Gramsci was so popular amongst middle-class intellectuals in the 1960s and 1970s. His emphasis on the importance of ideas as influences of historical change can be seen as a shift from Marx's 'materialism' to Hegel's 'idealism' (see online biography). Another interpretation would see Gramsci's work as a refinement on orthodox Marxism which restored the importance of individual thinkers in preparing the ground for revolution. In this respect, Gramsci arguably proved himself a better student of history than Marx, since the French Revolution occurred at a time of relative economic prosperity when people who had suffered from oppression were able to shake off their understandable preoccupation with their material circumstances. Hence it is not surprising that Gramsci has remained a source of inspiration among intellectuals despite the decline of orthodox Marxism in recent decades. Although he wrote very little about International Relations, his concept of hegemony has proved to be a very useful tool to opponents of Realism (see Chapter 17), such as Robert Cox (see Chapter 18).

Further reading
James Joll, Antonio Gramsci, Viking Press, 1977.
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