The Revolutionary Ideas of Antonio Gramsci

by Stephen Ellis

Antonio Gramsci is one of the few Marxist historical figures who have consistently retained popularity in the halls of universities and academic journals over the last three decades. His influence is regularly cited in political, cultural, anthropological studies as an important theoretical authority. Activists on the left also credit Gramsci with having formulated innovative and useful theoretical concepts about political struggle and capitalism.

Unfortunately, with the explosion of Gramsci studies in the 1980s and 1990s, his thought has more often than not been used to advance a reformist strategy to the problems of modern society. Only in the last decade have writers in the Marxist tradition been able to re-establish Gramsci at the heart of the revolutionary tradition and show him to be an implacable foe of capitalist rule.  

Antonio Gramsci was born on January 22, 1891 on the island of Sardinia. His father was a bureaucrat in the local civil government. However, in 1897 disaster struck the family when his father was accused of embezzlement, extortion and counterfeiting.

His father was imprisoned from 1898 to 1904, and the consequences for his wife and seven children were nothing short of disastrous. The home fell into a dire misery. Gramsci’s mother attempted to ensure her children had sufficient food and a dignified life by working as a seamstress. The harsh trials of his childhood would leave a mark on Gramsci for a very long time.

It was also during this period of his childhood that the young Gramsci started to display symptoms of physical malformation. Seemingly due to a variant of tuberculosis, his spine developed abnormally. In an attempt to cure him, the town’s doctors ordered him to be suspended from a beam in the ceiling for long hours. Gramsci thus endured the humiliation of this treatment – as well as the bullying of his schoolmates, as they threw stones at him and called him “hunchback”.

However, Gramsci’s childhood health problems did not stop at his spine, and his physical state was so precarious that until 1914 his mother kept ready in the house a small coffin in which he was supposed to be buried. In 1902, he was forced, along with his older brother, to work in the local municipality’s offices. There, at the age of 11, he was compelled to carry heavy registers throughout the day, and spent his nights crying.  The physical pain it caused him stayed with him long after he had returned home.

The fate of the young Gramsci, though, was being played out at school. In 1898, he was sent to school, but he had to abandon his schoolwork at the end of his primary years to find a job and contribute to the family’s income. The release of his father in 1904 allowed Gramsci to return to his studies. He then attended middle school, succeeding in his exams, and went to the high school in the provincial capital in 1908.  

Turin Journalism

As a result of his diligence at school, Gramsci won a scholarship and entered the University of Turin in 1911. He selected a philology and linguistics curriculum.  But Gramsci’s true passion for the rest of his life was politics. Eventually his political commitments and his activity as a journalist led him to give up his studies and leave the university behind.

In 1912, Gramsci joined the Italian Socialist Party (PSI), which was affiliated to the Second International.  The PSI was the only social democratic party in Western Europe to oppose the First World War and played a key role in organising the Zimmerwald Conference, held in September 1915 to rally the European anti‑war left. It was the first mass party later to join the Communist International—the international grouping of parties which supported the October Revolution in Russia. The impact of the October Revolution was so great that every component of the left and the trade unions felt it necessary to identify with it.

One PSI leader described the revolutionary mood in Italy this way: “The towns and countryside are with us; the workers follow our calls. The peasants are no less keen: in many rural communes, the mayors have replaced the portraits of the king in the town halls with pictures of Lenin. We have the strength; we have it so absolutely that no one, friend or foe, would think of disputing it. The only problem for us is how to use that strength.”

The October Revolution radicalized Gramsci. It was also the occasion for Gramsci to write one of his most famous pre-prison articles, titled ‘The Revolution against Capital’. According to Gramsci, the conquest of power by the Bolsheviks showed that a proletarian revolution could take place in a country whose capitalism was still ‘underdeveloped’, such as Russia – or Italy.

The Biennio Rosso

1919 saw the unleashing of the biennio rosso, the ‘two red years’, centred around the revolutionary activism of the Turin workers. In the wake of the failed Spartacist revolution in Germany and soon after the short-lived Soviet Republic in Hungary, it seemed that Italy itself was entering a period of unrest and potentially revolutionary activity. Panic spread in the ruling class. Turin, together with Milan, was at this time the heart of the Italian industrial economy; a textile and metalworking centre, it was the seat of the FIAT company that employed 20,000 workers in the city in 1918. The workers, who were often female, went on strike and occupied their factories, demanding to direct production themselves.

There was, however, an organ of the press that embodied the political avant-garde of the movement: The New Order, the very newspaper set up in 1919 by Gramsci and his comrades Palmiro Togliatti, Umberto Terracini and Angelo Tasca.

The New Order rapidly became the emblematic publication of the two red years. Although it never reached a circulation above 5,000 copies per issue, it managed to exert a profound influence on the workers’ movement of the time. It addressed topics that included socialism, council-based democracy, productive organization, working-class education and the conditions for the emergence of a proletarian culture.

Rapidly, though, the fever fell. In April 1920, a month-long strike by the metalworkers of Turin failed as it not only encountered a huge armed force in the city but also did not manage to secure the support of a broader layer workers. After this, the autumn’s strikes and occupations in Milan and Turin were mostly defensive in character. The two red years ended as the industrial elites of Northern Italy eventually reached their goal of ending the situation of ‘dual power’.

The Communist Party

The editors of the New Order, however, wanted to continue the struggle. To them, the socialist revolution remained an imminent possibility in 1921. Yet they had to acknowledge the failure of the attempt at revolution in Turin, which led them to reflect anew on the problem of political organization. Gramsci’s articles at this time show a change in his thinking on the role of the political party.  Although he continued immediately after the two red years to stress the need for a plurality of working-class institutions, he increasingly called for a leading role to be played by the party. However, he was clearly disillusioned with the PSI, since during the two red years it was revolutionary in words only and its leadership made little attempt to coordinate the popular struggle.

The solution to this problem of political organization came from the creation of a new party. At the Livorno Congress in January 1921 the Left of the PSI, under the impetus of Amadeo Bordiga, seceded and founded the Italian Communist Party or PCI. The four comrades from Turin – Gramsci, Togliatti, Terracini and Tasca – decided to join and, like Bordiga, felt hostile to the PSI’s indecision and impotence. However, there were strong disagreements between the four and Bordiga, whose theoretical perspective was a dogmatic economic determinism and whose practical stance was often marked by intransigence and ultra-leftism.

Yet, Gramsci decided to hide for the time being his disagreements with Bordiga, who emerged as the main figure of the PCI during its first years. The Third International demanded of the PCI, as a member party, the establishment of a ‘united front’ with the PSI.

The early life of the PCI was precarious. In October 1922, the ‘March on Rome’ led Mussolini to the presidency of the Council of Ministers. Compared to Hitler’s regime in Germany, the fascists in Italy took comparatively much longer to suppress left-wing organizations. Nonetheless, starting in 1922, the PCI endured successive waves of repression and arrests, which drained its working-class membership. The communist press eventually had to become clandestine, and the PCI cadres were forced to operate underground.

In 1922, Gramsci was nominated as a delegate of the PCI to the Comintern and moved to Moscow. He stayed in the Soviet Union from May 1922 to November 1923. When he was being treated in a sanatorium, he fell in love with Julia Schucht, a violinist. This was an unexpected source of happiness in Gramsci’s life. Antonio and Julia were married in 1923. They were to have two sons, born in 1924 and 1926, although Gramsci would never meet his younger son.

For the next two years, Gramsci worked tirelessly for a “united front” against the fascists. He understood that revolutionaries had to link arms with their fellow workers to fight a common enemy. The continued rule of the fascists meant it was just a matter of time before all workers’ organizations and democratic rights were annihilated.

In May 1924 Gramsci returned to Italy after his election to the Chamber of Deputies gave him parliamentary immunity from arrest. Struggling with Bordiga, Gramsci was able to reorient the party tactically for a united front and strategically for revolution. In the months leading up to the party congress in Lyons, France in the spring of 1926, membership of the small organization had spiked to 27,000. The fascist secret police had reported that the Communists had survived the repression better than any other organization. The fortunes of the party had finally turned around.

In his famous Lyons Theses, Gramsci reflected on the failure of the Italian Revolution and the resulting victory of fascism: “The defeat of the revolutionary proletariat in this decisive period was due to the political, organizational, tactical and strategic deficiencies of the workers’ party…The proletariat did not succeed in placing itself at the head of the insurrection of the great majority of the population, and channeling it towards the creation of a workers’ state…the victory of fascism in 1922 must be seen, therefore, not as a victory won over the revolution, but as a consequence of the defeat suffered by the revolutionary forces through their own intrinsic weaknesses.”

On November 5, 1926, following an alleged murder attempt on Mussolini by a fifteen-year-old boy, the Italian Council of Ministers put forward a series of emergency measures aimed at reinforcing the repressive powers of the State and eroding the democratic powers of parliament. Some of Gramsci’s comrades foresaw the authoritarian shift of the regime and begged him to flee to Switzerland. Gramsci, though, was reluctant to leave. As far as we know, he continued to believe in the protection of his parliamentary immunity, and at any rate he decided to stay in the country to participate in the parliamentary debates. On 8 November, though, Gramsci was arrested and imprisoned, in flagrant violation of his immunity.

Gramsci’s trial began eighteen months later, in May 1928, and he was sentenced to imprisonment for twenty years. Mussolini allegedly demanded ‘we have to stop this brain from working for twenty years’, and these words of Mussolini’s were cited during the trial by the prosecutor. But Mussolini’s wish would not be fulfilled, as witnessed by the thirty-three notebooks Gramsci had written in prison by the time of his death.

The circumstances of Gramsci’s imprisonment, though, were very unfavourable to the completion of such an undertaking. It was only in January 1929 that he was granted permission to write something other than his correspondence. Even after being allowed to write, Gramsci only had access to a fraction of the sources he requested. It is perhaps no surprise that the books of Marx, Engels and other ‘subversives’ were out of the question. Gramsci had to fall back on quoting them from memory, or had to scour the work of other writers for scattered quotations from Marx.

In addition, every page that Gramsci wrote was subjected to the examination of prison censors before being returned to him. In a 1936 letter to Julia, Gramsci explained that this humiliating practice had led him over the years to develop a ‘prison style of writing’ that would circumvent central concepts in a way bordering on self-censorship since he knew that every word he wrote would be read by the prison director.

Gramsci was thus forced to resort to paraphrases and circumlocutions in place of certain ‘sensitive’ terms. For example, Marxism became ‘the philosophy of praxis’ and Marx ‘the founder of the philosophy of praxis’, while Lenin was ‘Illich’. The subterfuge was often quite rudimentary, which suggests that the prison’s agents were not overly familiar with the revolutionary thought of Marx and his successors.

Shortly after his trial, there was an international campaign for Gramsci’s liberation. However, it was only in 1933 that a gravely ill Gramsci was transferred to Formia, where he finally started to receive the medical care that he desperately needed. He experienced a brief remission and started writing again. However, his health had already deteriorated too far, and by the time Gramsci was transferred to a clinic in Rome in 1935 he was too weak to read and write. He became unable to digest and died, exhausted, on April 27, 1937. His sister-in-law Tatiana managed to smuggle his notebooks out of the clinic and send them to Moscow through diplomatic channels.

Gramsci’s prison letters, together with reports from other inmates at the time, reveal the exceptional stoicism he displayed during his decade in prison. This is perhaps all the more remarkable given the bad health that plagued Gramsci his entire life. Writing to his mother, Gramsci stated, ‘I don’t want to be pitied. I was a soldier who had bad luck in the immediate battle.’ Gramsci wrote, ‘I’ve always refused to compromise my ideas and am ready to die for them, not just to be put in prison.’

But while Mussolini hoped “to stop Gramsci’s brain from working for twenty years,” he did not succeed. Gramsci in his Prison Notebooks wrote upwards of three thousand pages on topics ranging from the Renaissance to political economy.

So, now we will take a detour from the historical to the theoretical.

While in prison, he became one of the first Marxist theorists to identify the importance of the struggle against bourgeois values, that is to say, the ideological-cultural struggle. Gramsci’s notion of hegemony provides us with a way of coming to understand the context in which socialists operate and the possibility of critique and transformation.

Ideological Hegemony

Gramsci accepted the analysis of capitalism put forward by Marx in the previous century and accepted that the struggle between the ruling class and the subordinate working class was the driving force that moved society forward. What he found unacceptable was the traditional Marxist view of how the ruling class ruled. It was here that Gramsci made a major contribution to modern thought in his concept of the role played by ideology.

Often the term “ideology” is seen as referring simply to a system of ideas and beliefs. However, it is closely tied to the concept of power. Its relationship to power is that it legitimises the differential power that groups hold and as such it distorts the real situation that people find themselves in.

The traditional Marxist theory of power was based on the role of force and coercion as the basis of ruling class domination. This was reinforced by Lenin whose influence was at its height after the success of the Russian Revolution in 1917. Gramsci felt that what was missing was an understanding of the subtle but pervasive forms of ideological control and manipulation that served to perpetuate all repressive structures. He identified two quite distinct forms of political control: domination, which referred to direct physical coercion by police and armed forces and hegemony which referred to both ideological control and more crucially, consent. He assumed that no regime, regardless of how authoritarian it might be, could sustain itself primarily through organised state power and armed force. In the long run, it had to have popular support and legitimacy in order to maintain stability.

By hegemony, Gramsci meant the permeation throughout society of an entire system of values, attitudes, beliefs and morality that has the effect of supporting the status quo in power relations. Hegemony in this sense might be defined as an ‘organising principle’ that is diffused by the process of socialisation into every area of daily life. To the extent that this prevailing consciousness is internalised by the population, it becomes part of what is generally called ‘common sense’ so that the philosophy, culture and morality of the ruling elite comes to appear as the natural order of things. 

Marx’s basic division of society into a base represented by the economic structure and a superstructure represented by the institutions and beliefs prevalent in society was accepted by most Marxists familiar with the concepts. Gramsci took this a step further when he divided the superstructure into those institutions that were overtly coercive and those that were not. The coercive ones, which were basically the public institutions such as the government, police, armed forces and the legal system he regarded as the state or political society and the non-coercive ones were the others such as the churches, the schools, trade unions, political parties, cultural associations, clubs, the family etc. which he regarded as civil society. To some extent, schools could fit into both categories. Parts of school life are quite clearly coercive for example, compulsory education, the national curriculum, national standards and qualifications, whilst others are not, such as the hidden curriculum.

So, for Gramsci, society was made up of the relations of production (capital vs. labour); the state or political society (coercive institutions); and civil society (all other non-coercive institutions).

Gramsci’s analysis went much further than any previous Marxist theory to provide an understanding of why the European working class had, on the whole, failed to develop revolutionary consciousness after the First World War and had instead moved towards reformism, that is to say, tinkering with the system rather than working towards overthrowing it. It was a far more subtle theory of power than any of his contemporaries, and went a long way to explain how the ruling class ruled.

Now, if Gramsci was correct that the ruling class maintains its domination by the consent of the mass of the people and only uses its coercive apparatuses as a last resort, what were the consequences for Marxists who wished to see the overthrow of that same ruling class? If the hegemony of the ruling capitalist class resulted from an ideological bond between the rulers and the ruled, what strategy needs to be employed? The answer to those questions was this:  those who wished to break that ideological bond have to build up a ‘counter-hegemony’ to that of the ruling class. They have to see structural change and ideological change as part of the same struggle. The labour process is at the core of the class struggle, but it is the ideological struggle that has to be addressed if the mass of the people are to come to a consciousness that allows them to question their political and economic masters right to rule. It is the popular consensus in civil society that has to be challenged.

Overcoming popular consensus, however, is not easy. Ideological hegemony means that the majority of the population accepts what is happening in society as ‘the only way of running society’. There may have been complaints about how the way things were run and people looked for improvements or reforms, but the basic beliefs and value system underpinning society are seen as either neutral or of general applicability in relation to the class structure of society. Marxists see people constantly asking for a bigger slice of the cake when the real issue was ownership and control of the bakery.

In the pantheon of Marxist revolutionaries, Antonio Gramsci is an exceptional figure. He had a creative intellect and a fervent revolutionary spirit.

Contrary to what many contemporary “neo-Gramscians” might contend, he had no patience for reformism and he had enormous faith in workers to forge their own destiny. In this sense, he is firmly in the tradition of socialism from below. We can learn much from Gramsci as we face economic crisis, the threat of fascism, and the hope of revolution.