Gramsci, Antonio

(1891–1937)
   One of the most important and influential of Marxist thinkers. Antonio Gramsci outlined an interpretation of Marxism that offers an alternative to Leninism and suggests imaginative innovations and revisions to orthodox Marxism. In particular Gramsci offered insights into the nature of the state, and the concept of ideology, wrote on factory councils and the role of intellectuals, and developed the concept of hegemony. Along with Georgii Lukács Gramsci is at the forefront of Hegelian Marxists drawing on the philosophy of Georg Friedrich Wilhelm Hegel in their interpretation of Marx. Humanist Marxism and Eurocommunism have both drawn inspiration from Gramsci’s writings.
   Gramsci was born in the small town of Ales, Sardinia in 1891. His intellectual ability was evident when he won a scholarship to Turin University in 1911. Here he was influenced by the tradition of Italian philosophical idealism and the writings of Benedetto Croce in particular. In 1913 he joined the Italian Socialist Party (PSI) and began writing articles for socialist publications. In 1919 he helped to found the socialist weekly Ordine Nuovo in Turin, which supported the growing factory council movement in the city. In January 1921 Gramsci was active in establishing the Italian Communist Party (PCI). He worked for the Comintern in Moscow and Vienna between 1922 and 1924, and it was in 1924 that he was elected to the Italian Parliament and assumed leadership of the PCI. In November 1926 the fascist government had Gramsci arrested and sentenced to 20 years’ imprisonment. It was in prison that he wrote what became his most famous writings, the Prison Notebooks. Suffering from ever-worsening health Gramsci was temporarily released from prison at the end of 1934 and spent most of the rest of his life in a hospital in Rome where he died on 27 April 1937 from a cerebral hemorrhage. Perhaps the most influential of Gramsci’s ideas is his notion of hegemony which he expounded in the Prison Notebooks. For Gramsci hegemony referred to the means by which the bourgeoisie established and maintained its dominance and rule. Gramsci saw that the rule of the bourgeoisie was not based on force or the threat of force alone. A crucial aspect of bourgeois rule was the manufacturing of consent through a combination of judicious compromise and alliance building, and the propagation of bourgeois ideas, values and culture throughout society via such institutions of socialization as schools, churches and the media. For Gramsci the rule of the bourgeoisie and the role and nature of the state was far more complex than orthodox and Leninist Marxists suggested. Control was exercised as much through ideas (ideology) as through force, and this gave a key role to intellectuals in what Gramsci called a “war of position,” a battle of ideas in which revolutionary forces must engage with bourgeois intellectuals. The function of intellectuals in capitalism is to organize beliefs and persuade the masses to embrace and accept the leadership and views of the bourgeoisie. Revolutionary intellectuals must disrupt and subvert this process of hegemony, thus making the sphere of ideology a battlefield, an arena of struggle. In the advanced capitalist countries the war of position must precede the overthrow of the state through a frontal assault (the “war of maneuver”). Broadly speaking, the political state organizes force and civil society creates consent; both must be combated.
   Gramsci was more orthodox in his emphasis of production and technology as a key element in human emancipation. Like Marx he saw the future communist society as one based on the expansion and development of productive forces. However, he did not endorse an economic determinist or “scientific” interpretation of Marxism that understood history as governed by iron laws. He described the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia as “The revolution against Capital” because it showed history did not have to progress through rigid stages, that revolutionary will could bring about socialist transformation even if a country had not yet gone through a capitalist stage of development.
   Gramsci also eschewed absolute and final truths, even viewing Marxism as only “true” in a historically relativist sense. In other words, for Gramsci Marxism was true in a historical, pragmatic sense; it grasped and expressed the needs and historical tendencies of the time better than any other theoretical viewpoint. The function of intellectuals in capitalism is to organize beliefs and persuade the masses to embrace and accept the leadership and views of the bourgeoisie. Revolutionary intellectuals must disrupt and subvert this process of hegemony, thus making the sphere of ideology a battlefield, an arena of struggle.

Historical dictionary of Marxism. . 2014.

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