Antonio Gramsci: The Revolutionary Thinker Who Redefined Marxism and Cultural Hegemony

Antonio Gramsci was an Italian Marxist thinker who pioneered the concept of “cultural hegemony,” emphasizing the role of culture and ideology in shaping social power dynamics and advocating for a more democratic and inclusive form of socialism.

Antonio Gramsci (1891 – 1937)

Introduction

Antonio Gramsci, a prominent Italian communist leader and Marxist philosopher, stands out as a beacon of originality among the post-Lenin generation of communists. His contemporaries included the likes of Mussolini, and he played a pivotal role in the Italian communist movement. Notably, Gramsci was the driving force behind the formation of the Communist Party of Italy. His remarkable insights, penned during his imprisonment by the fascist regime in Italy, known as the Prison Notebooks, hold profound significance for those seeking a more democratic, less dogmatic, and open interpretation of socialism. In essence, Gramsci’s work rescued Marxism from the criticism of crude economic determinism, earning him the title of the “Godfather of Cultural Marxism.”

Influences on Gramsci

Karl Marx

Gramsci’s intellectual journey was deeply influenced by the early writings of Karl Marx. His primary mission was to reposition “human subjectivity” as a central element within Marxism. Unlike classical Marxism, which prioritized objective material conditions, Gramsci sought to elevate human consciousness. In the traditional Marxist framework, human consciousness was viewed merely as a reflection of underlying social consciousness. Gramsci challenged this perspective, aiming to assign an independent and creative role to consciousness within the realm of historical materialism. He acknowledged the dual influence of ideas and the potent force of human will. In essence, Gramsci pioneered Hegelian Marxism, focusing on the intricate interplay between mental events and reality.

Read more about Karl MarxKarl Marx: Class Struggle, Historical Materialism and Communism

Conditions in Italy

To comprehend Gramsci’s ideas fully, one must consider the unique conditions prevailing in Italy during his era. Italy was a semi-developed nation marked by stark internal disparities between the north and south, industrialized regions and the countryside, and the modern and the ancient. It housed a proletariat with deep rural roots, a predominantly conservative peasantry, and a significant influence of intellectuals within the working-class leadership. Moreover, the formidable presence of the Catholic Church, supported by a vast cadre of clerics and functionaries, shaped the sociopolitical landscape. In such a multifaceted Italian context, deterministic Marxism found itself ill-suited to explain the complexities of the nation.

Historian Benedetto Croce

Another influential figure in Antonio Gramsci’s intellectual journey was the Italian historian Benedetto Croce. Croce’s philosophy of history, reminiscent of Hegel, emphasized the pivotal role of cultural and ideological factors in shaping historical events. Antonio Gramsci rejected the division of thought into scientific and unscientific categories, debunking the notion of science as an “objective, universal truth.” Instead, he regarded it as part of the superstructure. This anti-positivist and anti-scientific relativism in Gramsci’s thought drew inspiration from Croce. He considered historical relativism as the core of Marxism, referring to it as “the philosophy of praxis.”

Writings of Antonio Gramsci

Antonio Gramsci’s intellectual legacy is rich and diverse, spanning various works and essays:

Books by Antonio Gramsci:

  • A Great and Terrible World: The Pre-Prison Letters, 1908-1926
  • The Prison Notebooks (three volumes) (1929-1935) – These volumes stand as some of the most original contributions to 20th-century political theory, addressing topics ranging from Italian history and nationalism to fascism, religion, culture, and the French Revolution.
  • The Southern Question
  • The Modern Prince: And Other Writings (1949)

Essays by Antonio Gramsci:

  • Newspapers and the Workers (1916) – Antonio Gramsci critically examines bourgeois newspapers as instruments of hegemony, highlighting their role in serving the dominant class and shaping their power.
  • Men or Machines? (1916) – Here, Antonio Gramsci discusses the preference of the bourgeoisie for worker-machines over worker-men.
  • One Year of History (1918) – Antonio Gramsci provides insights into the Russian Revolution and its impact on the working class.

Major themes of political thought of Antonio Gramsci

Cultural Hegemony by Antonio Gramsci

Antonio Gramsci’s concept of hegemony is central to his political philosophy. He describes hegemony as the art of manufacturing consent, a process through which one social class exercises intellectual and moral leadership over others. Unlike domination, which relies on coercion and state machinery, hegemony operates primarily through civil society. For Gramsci, this ideological supremacy must have a solid economic foundation, and it is achieved not by force but through the voluntary acceptance of a particular worldview. In essence, working-class liberation requires imparting its values and worldview to other classes, replacing the role previously played by religion with Marxism.

As Benedetto Croce had stated, “people would leave religion only when the spiritual needs which used to be satisfied by religion, can be fulfilled by something else”. Marxism should fulfill this need. 

War of Position vs. War of Movement by Antonio Gramsci

Antonio Gramsci’s distinction between the “war of position” and the “war of movement” provides a strategic framework for socialist and communist movements. The “war of position” involves a subtle, long-term subversion of Western culture from within, compelling it to redefine itself. In Western societies, the state is seen as an outer defense, with a robust civil society supporting the capitalist economic system. Thus, socialist forces must target the cultural structures that underpin capitalism. On the other hand, the “war of movement” entails a frontal assault on the established political system, resulting in a complete social upheaval. 

Antonio Gramsci considered the Russian Revolution as a war of movement. He suggested that War of Movement will not work in Western Societies, because they have a strong civil society that holds the state from inside. As described by Forgacs, “War of movement is a frontal assault on the state whereas war of position is conducted mainly on the terrain of civil society.”

Concept of Organic Intellectuals by Antonio Gramsci

Antonio Gramsci introduced the concept of “organic intellectuals” to underscore the role of intellectuals in perpetuating capitalism and manufacturing hegemony. These intellectuals, often aligned with the bourgeoisie, play a crucial part in shaping public discourse and maintaining the status quo. 

Antonio Gramsci proposed that the working class should cultivate its own organic intellectuals—individuals from their own class who are committed to advancing their interests. These organic intellectuals would play a pivotal role in creating counter-hegemony, challenging bourgeois narratives, and establishing a genuinely universal set of spiritual values. According to Gramsci, achieving cultural hegemony is a prerequisite for political power.

Antonio Gramsci viewed churches, charities, the media, and schools as organizations that needed to be invaded by socialist thinkers.

Critique of Economic Determinism by Antonio Gramsci

In stark contrast to economic determinism prevalent in some strands of Marxism, Antonio Gramsci firmly rejected this notion. While acknowledging the historical circumstances that gave rise to economic determinism in early workers’ movements, he emphasized the importance of human agency in shaping history. For Antonio Gramsci, history is a result of human praxis, driven by human will and action. He challenged the idea of fixed historical laws, asserting that history is a dynamic process shaped by the choices and actions of individuals and groups.

Historical Relativism by Antonio Gramsci

One of the central themes in Antonio Gramsci’s work is his exploration of the interplay between human thoughts, feelings, and will, and the “objective” social processes that shape our world. Antonio Gramsci rejected the conventional division between the economic “base” and the “superstructure,” challenging the idea that the superstructure is a realm of mere appearances or a less tangible aspect of society compared to the mode of production. Instead, he saw these elements as interwoven and inseparable. 

Notably Antonio Gramsci also quoted Historical Materialism of Marx based on bases and superstructure as “Vulgar Historical Materialism”.

Antonio Gramsci’s Model of Society:

Antonio Gramsci’s Model of Society:

Revolution by Antonio Gramsci

For Antonio Gramsci, the proletarian revolution was not solely a matter of seizing political power. It encompassed cultural and technical conditions, the spiritual liberation of the working masses, and the attainment of a level of social development that would enable effective socialist transformation. To him, a true proletarian revolution would not only liberate existing productive forces but also empower the working class, ultimately leading to a classless and stateless society. The production apparatus, once an instrument of oppression, must transform into an instrument of liberation. To achieve this, Antonio Gramsci advocated for a communist party that represented the masses and their aspirations, although he did not believe in achieving power through parliamentary means.

Note – Gramsci called Fascism as Passive revolution.

Workers Council

Antonio Gramsci championed the concept of “Government by Councils” as opposed to government by a single party. He criticized bureaucratic centralism and the authoritarian tendencies often associated with Leninist communism. His vision was rooted in democratic organization, aiming to reduce the distinction between civil society and the state under socialism.

Summary of Gramsci’s View: A Dynamic Perspective

Gramsci rejected the existence of universal natural laws governing human history. Instead, he believed that human praxis, or practical activity, determines the meaning of all knowledge components, including our understanding of nature itself. He challenged the notion of a strict separation between social consciousness and scientific knowledge, emphasizing the significant role of intellectuals in shaping socialist theory.

In contrast to the idea of the party as the repository of “scientific socialism,” Gramsci argued that the party should align itself with the real aspirations of the working class and reflect those aspirations in its ideology.

For Gramsci, revolution went beyond a technical seizure of power; it was a mass process in which the working masses assumed economic and political leadership. Spiritual emancipation of the working class was a necessary precursor to any meaningful revolution, where workers’ councils played a vital role as instruments of change.

Quotes by Antonio Gramsci 

  • “The old world is dying, and the new world struggles to be born: now is the time of monsters.” 
  • “Pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will”.
  • “To tell the truth is revolutionary”.
  • “The challenge of modernity is to live without illusions and without becoming disillusioned”.
  • “Every state is a dictatorship”. 
  • “Indifference is the dead weight of history”. 
  • “Man is above all else, mind, consciousness—that is, he is a product of history, not of nature”. 
  • “Civil Society as Fortress and earthworks standing behind the state”.

Conclusion

Antonio Gramsci’s most significant contribution to political thought lay in his critique of scientific socialism and the associated dogmatism. He steered his focus toward empirical reality, which can be observed through our senses. Antonio Gramsci shifted the Marxist analytical lens away from the realms of economics and natural science and directed it toward the domains of culture, philosophy, intellectual discourse, psychology, and the multifaceted channels of socialization.

His intent was to liberate Marxism from its utopian visions of an automatic revolution and to underscore the essential need for a deliberate and determined struggle to gain the support and allegiance of the masses. This emphasis on winning the “hearts and minds” of the people reflects Gramsci’s democratic inclinations.

Even in contemporary times, proponents of “humanist” or “democratic” currents within communism draw inspiration from Gramsci’s ideas. His legacy continues to shape discussions about the role of culture, ideology, and intellectual engagement in the pursuit of social and political change.

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