After reading this article you will learn about the bio, life and political ideas of Antonio Gramsci.
Life and Time of Antonio Gramsci:
One of the most controversial yet original Marxist thinkers in the post-Lenin generation is Antonio Gramsci. He was born in 1891 in a village called Ales in Sardinia of Italy. His mother came from a well-to-do family.
His father was an ordinary government employee. He once became the victim of political conspiracy and lost his job.
The last and the very small source of livelihood were lost and almost starvation greeted Gramsci and other members of his family. A further misfortune fell upon him. Due to an accident in his childhood certain parts of his body were damaged and due to this he was hunchbacked and his proper physical development stopped.
Ignoring all these handicaps he began to study in ordinary educational institutions. Antonio Gramsci was a voracious reader and at the same time meritorious.
Ignoring all impediments he with indomitable energy studied socialist literature and other subjects. Antonio Gramsci completed his secondary standard and winning a scholarship got himself admitted in Turin University. Two factors sowed the seeds of socialist thought and philosophy in his young mind. His elder brother was a socialist and this encouraged him to be socialist.
While a student at Turin University he came in touch with the famous Italian Communist Palmiro Togliatti. Apart from this many of the professors of the University were socialist-minded. The First World War started in 1914 and during the war period Gramsci garnered enough knowledge about socialism.
Besides Togliatti several other persons influenced his thought and Benedetto Croce was one of them. Though influenced by Croce (1866-1952) he was not at all a Crocean. He was again influenced by another philosopher Antonio Labriola (1843-1904).
Initially Labriola was a Hegelian and after studying Marx’s writings extensively he came to be known as a Marxist.
His best known book is Essays on the Materialist Conception of History. He propagated Marxism in Italy and practically introduced the basic tenets of Marxism to Italians. His most famous concept is “philosophy of praxis” and Antonio Gramsci was attracted to it.
Practically Labriola’s philosophy of praxis was made by Antonio Gramsci on the central plank of his analysis about Marxism. Besides Labriola Croce was another Marxist whose thought created a good impact upon Gramsci. He was so much influenced by Croce that Gramsci called himself a Crocean.
Upon the thought system of Gramsci we find an influence “Council Communism”. During 1915 to 1925, in several parts of Europe and particularly in Italy, Council Communism became very popular.
Leninist model of party was looked with askance by many. That is, many were not willing to treat Leninist party as a model to fight against the bourgeoisie. The workers of many European states formed councils.
The members of the “Council Communism felt that only through the formation of council the working class can intensify its struggle against bourgeois rule.”
McLellan says, “The Council Communists saw themselves as returning to Marx in their assertion that the proletariat was the first class in history to be able to achieve self-emancipation”. The propounded of Council Communism advocated that the workers’ best weapon is to form councils and make it an instrument of fight against the capitalist.
The council strongly advocates for mass strike and propagate the methods that will raise the level of workers’ consciousness and spontaneity. A good number of Marxists lent their support to it. Turin Council Movement was a very important incident that guided Gramsci’s political career. Gramsci was considerably influenced by the Bolshevik revolution and revolutionary activities that engulfed Russia.
In 1917-18 Gramsci was inspired by the activities of the Bolshevik Party and he thought that Bolshevik type of movement could be launched in Italy to save it from the unprecedented crisis created by World War I. Particularly the economic crisis was so severe that the common people were absolutely helpless.
The workers formed militant councils and organizations to fight against the authority. The workers had practically very little faith on the trade unions as well as their movement and for that reason they formed factory councils. The militant factory councils were first formed in the metallurgical industries of Turin.
Some people are of opinion that the formation of councils and to convert them into weapons of struggle was the product of Gramsci’s brain. He thought that traditional trade unions could not be relied upon, because the time had changed and new as well as effective weapons had to be found out.
Antonio Gramsci has clearly expressed his opinion unequivocally in the following words:
“The actual process of the proletarian revolution cannot be identified with the development and activity of revolutionary organisations of a voluntary and contractual nature, such as political parties and trade unions. These organisations arise in the sphere of bourgeois democracy and political liberty”. Gramsci emphasized that the capitalists have changed their way of exploitation and at the same time the management of factory. So the workers must change their weapons of struggle against the bourgeois exploiters.
The conception of Factory Council constitutes a very important part of Gramscis political life or his participation in the political movement in the era of agitation against economic crisis. We have noted it earlier.
Let us see what Mc Lellan thinks of it. He says – “The Factory Councils were central to Gramsci’s conception at the time of revolutionary transformation of Italy. The main task of the Council was to change the attitude of the mass of workers from an attitude of dependence to one of leadership” Gramsci treated the “Factory Council as the new proletarian state in miniature”.
This is really a new aspect of Marxist thought and its application in practice. Because before Gramsci the renowned Marxists emphasized on the class struggle led by workers. Gramsci believed that the setting up of Factory Councils would substantially revolutionize the liberation movement of the workers.
In his assessment the formation of Factory Councils will play crucial role in building up a socialist society because these rejuvenate the workers. But his assessment was not up to the mark. That is, it was not possible for workers to look after the technical aspects of production.
Workers or their councils did not have the expertise of managing a factory whose core was technical knowledge. It is said that the Factory Councils to some extent resembled the Soviets of Russia. But Gramsci had limited knowledge about the functioning of Soviets.
As a result, Gramsci’s concept of Factory Councils and its special role in proletarian movement could not achieve success. Luxemburg and several other Marxists were not hopeful about the success of Factory Councils.
“The failure of the Turin Council movement in late 1920, his growing acquaintance with the realities of the Soviet Union and his concern of the rise of Fascism led Gramsci to modify his views”.
Political Ideas of Antonio Gramsci:
1. The Intellectuals:
One of the important contributions of Antonio Gramsci in Marxist thought is his conception about intellectuals and their role in bourgeois society. Analysing Gramscis viewpoint Mc Lellan (Marxism after Marx) says that Gramsci was primarily “The theoretician of the superstructure”. Gramsci said that intellectuals are very important in a capitalist society, they play a vital role.
In his Prison Notebooks he says that the intellectuals are very active and they play vital and very often critical role in society. Their views are considered important and many educated people follow them. In his words – All men are intellectuals but not all men have in society the function of intellectuals. Each person, beyond his professional duty and function, is a philosopher, artist.
He carries with him his own view regarding politics, economics and many other subjects. He forms his own opinion about these and propagates them, tries to convince other persons about what he thinks.
Antonio Gramsci says that the intellectual contributes to sustain a conception of the world or to modify it. In this way the intellectual brings about a new mode of thought.
The intellectuals have enough power to attract the attention of other people. In their thought and action they demand that they are progressive and this mesmerizes the common people. They are influenced and try to follow the intellectuals. In this way the intellectuals build up their attractive image in society. Gramsci has divided the intellectuals into two broad groups traditional and organic.
The traditional intellectuals regard themselves to be autonomous of social classes. The traditional intellectuals demand that they embody a historical continuity above and beyond socio-political change. By propagating this view the traditional intellectuals want to prove that they are neutral and they try to maintain their neutrality.
This builds up a glazy or attractive image and common people are easily attracted to them. Writers, philosophers and social scientists fall within this category. Organic intellectuals belong to a particular class and in all issues they support their own class.
The intellectuals play very important role in moulding and modifying the views of people. Particularly the views of those persons who are not definite about their own opinions.
In other words these intellectuals exercise important power over the people of society. Since an organic intellectual belongs to a class he always endeavours the people of his class.
The organic intellectuals articulate the collective views or opinions and they finally form a collective consciousness regarding political, social and economic affairs or issues. The aim of the organic intellectuals to build up a collective opinion about the economic and political aspects of society.
Kolakowski says that the proletariat wants the “organic intellectuals” because these intellectuals do not simply analyse the social, political and other aspects of society, but they also use “the language of culture to express the real experiences and feelings which the masses cannot express for themselves”.
That is, the real function of the organic intellectuals to provide the leadership and guide the proletarians in their struggle against the bourgeoisie. In the view of Kolakowski the term “organic intellectuals” is a very favourite term of Gramsci and he very frequently used it.
Antonio Gramsci did not use the term in any narrow and restricted sense, rather in a wider sense. He used the term in the sense that all the social classes have their own intellectuals and they in one way or other guide the members of their own classes.
These intellectuals explain the social and political issues to the members of the class which help to form opinion. This the intellectuals do in the background of class interest or from the standpoint of the class. This is a very important function.
“The fact that” observes Kolakowski, “the intellectuals appeared to form a separate metier (trade, profession or occupation) of their own, as opposed to being the mouthpieces of a particular class standpoint, inclined them towards idealistic philosophies which asserted the complete autonomy of intellectual activity”.
So we find that the intellectuals play a very important role in moulding the entire thought system of society. In practice they do not always support the particular standpoint of interests of people but in a clandestine way they try to bring the view in the limelight.
The problem, however, is the working class has no organic intellectuals because this class has not been able to produce such intellectuals to support or propagate its own views in regard to economic and political matters.
“The task of the organic intellectuals was to draw out and make coherent the latent aspirations and potentialities already inherent in working class activity” Gramsci studied the various aspects of capitalist society and after that he formed the opinion about the role of the intellectuals.
Due to the important role of the intellectuals the capitalists have been able to strengthen the structure and other aspects of bourgeois society. Because of the vital role of the intellectuals the bourgeois society has been able to withstand all sorts of onslaught against it. This is one of the vital points of Gramsci.
Antonio Gramsci has elaborated the role of intellectuals and this he has expressed through his much debated concept hegemony. The dictionary meaning of the term is; leadership or domination or dominance by state or group over others.
When Gramsci used the term he specifically meant that in bourgeois society the intellectuals dominate over the political and other spheres and justify their own views or ideology which they represent.
The intellectuals propagate the bright aspects or importance of particular ideology and in this way the ideology plays dominant role.
In his The Prison Notebooks Gramsci makes the following observation “a new homogeneous politics-economic historical bloc, without internal contradiction”. He further observes – “the dominant group is coordinated concretely with the general interests of the subordinate groups, and the life of the state is conceived of as a continuous process of formation and superseding of unstable equilibria between the interests of the fundamental and those of the subordinate groups equilibria in which the interests of the dominant group prevail”. This is, in short, the definition of hegemony.
Antonio Gramsci observed that the intellectuals of the historically progressive class exercise powers through the technique of domination over the individuals. These intellectuals (in various ways) influence the members of society to which they belong and in this act they use academic ideas and concept. They are against the application of force, but apply reason, ideas, views and method of persuasion.
Thus the purpose of the intellectuals is to exercise power of attraction mainly to influence the general public. Gramsci observes that there are several groups of intellectuals or many intellectuals and not all of them are interested in influencing others. Few or only a dominant group take initiative in influencing masses of men.
In this venture, it is generally found, generally one group of intellectuals plays the dominant role and other groups are subordinated to the powerful group. In this way the hegemony of one group is established.
The intellectuals of a dominant group control the intellectual activities of the society. There may exist small or less powerful groups of intellectuals but they are incapable of exercising power over others. This is what is called the theory of hegemony.
Gramsci’s theory of hegemony is not any concocted story or an imaginative one. He thoroughly studied the political and administrative systems of several mature capitalist countries. Jacobinism represented the French bourgeoisie. By exercising intellectual power the Jacobins were able to influence the peasants of France.
Again, the capitalists of USA have their own intellectuals and many of them are lavishly paid by the capitalists. These intellectuals act as the spokes-persons of the capitalists and they propagate the political and economic views of capitalism.
That is they present the bright side of capitalism before the mass of men and in this way common people are influenced. Gramsci also studied the concept of hegemony in the background of America’s capitalist system.
He observed that in USA the intellectuals exercise their power over the people to bring the importance of capitalist system in the limelight. We have already stated that Antonio Gramsci was directly associated with the Turin Council Movement in which he found that the ruling class obtained the consent of subordinate groups and classes to accept the domination.
Characteristics of Hegemony:
Hegemony plays a very important role in the whole thought system of Gramsci but according to Kolakowski he has used the idea in senses more than one. Sometimes hegemony implies political power and the authority uses coercive means over the masses to ensure obligation. The hegemony or overall dominance comes out of the coercion. But this does not always happen.
The authority applies other methods to establish its overall supremacy over the society. Gramsci is of opinion that in a parliamentary system hegemony comes out of the combination of force and consent. That is, the political authority tries to receive obligation or approval through democratic means such as consent or formation of public opinion or large scale public discussion.
In such a situation the government uses various organs of public opinion. Force is rarely used. In all democratic systems this is normally found.
It has been found that the intellectuals and the groups or societies formed by them generally use cultural means and sociological ways. The intellectuals influence the common people by way of dissemination.
The important intellectuals spread academic or educational ideas and concepts, their importance or bright sides among the general public. In this way the powerful group of intellectuals culturally or academically dominates common people. This is also a type of hegemony.
Explaining the precondition of the emancipation of the working class Gramsci has asserted that only through the seizure of political power this can be attained. But this is not an easy task. By it the cultural hegemony is to be achieved.
In simple language, the cultural hegemony means the particular culture of the working class must dominate. In sociology it is called cultural socialisation. Kolakowski in this connection says – the working class could only conquer by first imparting its world- views and system of values to the other classes who might be its political allies – in this way it would become the intellectual leader of society, just what the bourgeoisie had done before seizing political control Gramsci has repeatedly emphasized this essential precondition for the attainment of political power. Not only this, the bourgeoisie has applied the same technique for the sustenance of its control over society and power.
Another aspect of Gramsci’s hegemony is there is “material basis” of hegemony, and according to well-known interpreters of his doctrine this is reforms and compromises. The bourgeoisie is quite conscious that the strict adherence to its own ideology and views about economics, politics, culture etc. may cut a sorry figure. Compromises with the opposition may be required and this attitude is quite realistic.
Some of the views of other classes or groups are accommodated into the views and approaches of the bourgeoisie. It has been truly observed by a critic that the “hegemonic class in Gramsci’s definition is truly political because it goes beyond its immediate economic interests to represent the universal advancement of society”.
Antonio Gramsci understood quite well that any proliferation of interests and outlooks will ultimately lead to the numerous divisions of society. The capitalist class for that reason adopts a very realistic approach. The capitalists always adopt a middle path. It is the view of the capitalists to avoid way of severe conflict and intransigency.
Other Aspects of Gramsci’s Concept:
Gramsci’s theory of hegemony occupies a very important place in Marxist thought system; even some say that it is his “most important contribution to Marxist Theory”. This assessment is quite true. Before he was imprisoned and during his imprisonment he observed that hegemony of class or groups had important position. It helps to capture power, to hold or perpetuate power.
During the period of 1924-1926 Gramsci carefully thought the particular or crucial role of the bourgeoisie in the capitalist society and finally he arrived at a conclusion that the proletariat could capture political power through establishing its own hegemony. For that purpose it must ensure its own social basis.
An interesting aspect of Gramsci’s theory is he suggested adopting caution. He thoroughly studied history, particularly Machiavelli and many others. He felt that the application of force was not enough. That is, a group or class may be superior in respect of military force. But that cannot enable it to be the owner of authority or power.
The class or organisation must be able to establish its supremacy in the fields of intellect, morality and mass support. The class or group must provide intellectual supremacy.
Generally the dominant class adopts one or the other method and makes compromises. Adamancy is generally avoided. Through the method of consent and compromises the most powerful class builds up its own domination. What Marx and Engels called the ruling class Gramsci called the hegemonic class.
The concept of hegemony has been called by many as “fabric of hegemony”. It is woven by the intellectuals who have great network of wide organisation. So we can say that mere attainment of hegemony is not sufficient for capturing political power.
Antonio Gramsci also dealt with sectarianism while analysing hegemony. He said that the working class, for the purpose of attaining hegemony, must take an approach of an entire society. That is the working class must give priority to the interests of whole society, not the interests of any particular section.
The working class must create a confidence in the minds of the people of all sections that it is capable of achieving fulfillment of the desires of all groups and classes. Without this the hegemony will never be a reality.
The intellectuals belonging to the working class have a very important role to play, but above all they must be broad-minded. He has said that in the case of hegemony a particular class or a group of intellectuals may play a vital role, but this must not exclude the prospective role to be played by others.
What Antonio Gramsci emphasizes is that a particular group may be in leadership, but that is not all. Though Gramsci did not rule out the role or importance of force, he was against its random use.
A critic has viewed Gramsci’s theory of hegemony from a realistic point of view. We quote few lines: “A fully extended hegemony must rest on active consent, on a collective will in which various groups in society unite”.
It is true that without hegemony the working class will never be able to achieve supremacy. But hegemony is not something which will fall from the sky.
The working class must make protracted efforts. Apart from this, certain ingredients are essential. The electronic and print media must be used for the purpose of propagating the views of the working class. But the fact is that in a bourgeois society these two powerful agents of public opinion are under the full control of the ruling class.
In the field of hegemony what would be the exact role of the party? Gramsci was quite aware of the importance of a party. Although he did not regard party as the vanguard of the proletarians, party can effectively shoulder the burden of propagating the views or ideology. But he differed from Lenin on several aspects regarding the role of the party.
Antonio Gramsci said that the primary responsibility of a party would be to propagate the ideology of the working class.
Commenting on the importance of party viewed by Gramsci Mc Lellan makes the following observation: “Gramsci had broader view of the party than Lenin, since he conceived of it as deeply committed to an ideological and cultural struggle as well as the seizure of the state power he advocated a party that was an educational institution offering a counter-culture whose aim was to gain ascendancy in most aspects of civil society before the attempt was made on state power”. Mere dissemination of the drawbacks of bourgeois society is not enough.
The interpreters of Gramsci’s philosophy think so. During his Turin Council Movement he observed that the party must give them proper leadership, but the workers or agitators must rise to the occasion spontaneously and consciously.
Achievement of success must not be treated as a gift; it is a hard-earned object. Kolakowski has drawn our attention to an important drawback of Gramsci’s concept.
He says that without destroying the bourgeois culture how is it possible to establish proletarian culture. Even if the proletarians are able to capture power before establishing the hegemony of its culture will it is possible for the working class to destroy the bourgeois culture? In this vital matter Gramsci’s analysis fails to provide satisfactory reply.
3. Civil Society, State and Revolution:
Another notable contribution of Gramsci to the development of Marxist thought is his conception about civil society. Marx and Engels in their The German Ideology have sporadically analyses it. But their analysis is incomplete in the sense that they did not analyse it from different standpoints.
In the thirties of the last century Gramsci focused his attention on the importance as well as its role in a bourgeois society and after that a number of scholars have shown interest in Gramsci’s view.
A recent scholar (Joseph Famia Civil Society and Marxist Tradition Published in Civil Society edited by Sudipta Kaviraj and Sunil Khilnani Cambridge University Press 2002) says: “Economic reductionism is not a charge that could be levelled against Antonio Gramsci who alone of Marx’s eminent disciples—tried to develop the concept of civil society”.
In the first few years of the 1930s Gramsci observed that in the bourgeois system the political organisation which is popularly known as the state plays important role in the whole gamut of political system.
The capitalism and its supporters do not always play rational role. Its chief objective is not to make people moral or ensure general material progress of society. Profit-making being its soul objective it aims at removing the thorns that exist on its way of attaining objective.
How the bourgeoisie performs its role created high interest in the mind of physically-handicapped but mentally alert Gramsci.
After comprehensive analysis of various aspects of bourgeois society, he raised the issue of the survival of the capitalist society. To put it in other words, Marx thoroughly scanned the capitalist’s society and drew the conclusion that because of its inherent contradictions the capitalist would collapse.
Antonio Gramsci observed that capitalism did not follow the prediction of Marx. Gramsci was a true Marxist and because of that he did not jump upon the conclusion that Marx was wrong.
Rather, he started on investigation and formed certain conclusions on the basis of his investigation. One such conclusion is his theory of hegemony which has been discussed. The other is Civil Society.
The answer to Gramsci’s question ‘why did capitalism survive’ lay in the objective condition that existed in a capitalist society. In his Prison Notebooks he writes one that can be called “Civil Society” that is the ensemble of organisms commonly called ‘private’ and that of ‘political society’ or the state.
These two levels correspond, on the one hand, to the function of ‘hegemony’ which the dominant group exercises throughout society and, on the other hand, to that of direct domination or command exercised through the ‘state’ and juridical government.
According to Gramsci the civil society includes various religious and non-religious organizations such as churches, political parties, trade unions, academic institutions, press, publishing houses etc.
All these institutions and organisations disseminate the ideology and views of the dominant (economically and politically) class. The dissemination is carried out in such a way that the subordinate or weaker classes do not get the opportunity to propagate their views among the masses of men.
The process of dissemination is carried out intensively and uninterruptedly and practically the powerful or dominant class succeeds in establishing its hegemonic status. In this way the dominant class establishes its all-round superior position. The dominant class in this connection performs another function.
Antonio Gramsci uses the term civil society in different ways. Sometimes he says that the civil society is outside the state, that is, it is not a part of state. But in many places he says that the state comprises both political society and civil society. This means that the civil society is part of the state.
Explaining Gramsci’s stand on the concept of civil society Mc Lellan says “Civil society denoted for Gramsci all the organisations and technical means which diffuse the ideological justification of the ruling class in all domains of culture.”
This implies that civil society generally performs cultural functions and in this way establishes its hegemony. But the activities of the civil society are not confined within the cultural sphere; they are spread over other spheres. The organs of the civil society are like the trench systems of modern warfare.
In war the army can destroy only the outer superstructure of the enemy state. It cannot destroy the entire defensive system. In the political system the same thing happens.
There is a political organisation which we call state and there is a social organisation what is generally called the civil society. In all capitalist structures or systems there exists a second line of defence.
In a capitalist society the civil society is always active and provides all sorts of protection to the state. In all capitalist states numerous changes occur. But due to the active role of the civil society these changes cannot destabilize the capitalist structure. Gramsci treats the civil society as the most effective organisation which provides protection to the state.
If there were no civil society the capitalist state would have collapsed. Modem critics are of opinion that Gramsci’s concept of civil society is full of contradictions and this is due to the fact that the central idea of the concept is derived from Hegel and this he applied for analysing Marx’s ideas.
Though Gramsci gave special emphasis to civil society and its hegemonic status in the whole gamut of politics he was well aware of the importance of political society or organisation or state.
In 1931 Gramsci wrote:
“This study (Notebooks) also leads to certain determinations of the concept of State which is usually understood as political society” He treated the state as an embodiment of coercive power used against the masses to ensure their unconditional obligation towards the political authority. Even, he did not treat the state as equilibrium between different forces that are quite active. But according to Gramsci there is a close relationship between state and civil society and Antonio Gramsci observed that. But this did not happen everywhere.
He cited the East of Russia and noted this in his Notebooks. In his opinion the State in Russia was all powerful and civil society was primordial or, to some extent, primitive. He also called the Russian state gelatinous Gramsci has exposed the exact nature of the Russian state or the states of other Western countries in the following words.
“The state was only an outer ditch behind which there stood a powerful system of fortress and earthworks”. We thus find that in the developed capitalist societies there existed two separate areas for state and civil society and, because of this difference; the strategies for revolution must be different.
Antonio Gramsci thought that in primitive societies the state was always on the frontline in the social system. There was civil society, but its existence was not important at all.
In this situation all sorts of revolutionary activities must be focused towards the state. That is, the state should be an object of attack. But where the civil society plays an important role, the purpose of the revolution should be to attack the civil society.
According to Gramsci, the war against the state and the war against the civil society are quite different. Before starting revolution the revolutionaries must take care of it. If they failed to study the different positions or importance of state and civil society their action will be in jeopardy. This means that Gramsci was against any simplistic strategy or procedure in war against capitalism.
He also warned that the Leninist method of war against capitalism was not suitable for every situation. In other words, the revolutionaries must distinguish between the crucial position of state and civil society and after that decide the course of action or nature of strategy.
In the thirties of the last century the world witnessed the Great Depression in the mature capitalist countries and the communists were jubilant at it. They prophesied that capitalism would collapse and naturally there was no need of permanent revolution.
Antonio Gramsci shared this view, that is, he did not subscribe to Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution. Gramsci not only opposed permanent revolution, he at the same time supported the Stalinist stand regarding socialism in one country.
Antonio Gramsci said that if too much importance is given to the idea of permanent revolution then there would appear inertia or disinterestedness on the part of revolutionaries of some countries.
Naturally it would be better to concentrate on the revolution of a particular country. Though Gramsci opposed Trotsky’s idea of permanent revolution he agreed with his views on Fascism. Both viewed fascism as a petty-bourgeois movement. Fascism consists of a mass organisation of the petty- bourgeoisie.