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Antonio_Gramsci

Antonio Gramsci

[gram-shee; It. grahm-shee]
Antonio Gramsci ('ɡramʃi) (January 23, 1891April 27, 1937) was an Italian philosopher, writer, politician and political theorist. A founding member and onetime leader of the Communist Party of Italy, he was imprisoned by Mussolini's Fascist regime. His writings are heavily concerned with the analysis of culture and political leadership and he is notable as a highly original thinker within the Marxist tradition. He is renowned for his concept of cultural hegemony as a means of maintaining the state in a capitalist society.

Life

Early life

Gramsci was born in Ales, Italy, on the island of Sardinia. He was the fourth of seven sons of Francesco Gramsci, a low-level official. His father's family was Arbëreshë and the family name was probably related to Gramsh, an Albanian town. Francesco's financial difficulties and troubles with the police forced the family to move about through several villages in Sardinia until they finally settled in Ghilarza.

In 1898 Francesco was convicted of embezzlement, unjustly it turned out, and imprisoned, reducing his family to destitution and forcing the young Antonio to abandon his schooling and work at various casual jobs until his father's release in 1904. The boy suffered from health problems: a malformation of the spine owing to a childhood accident left him hunch-backed and underdeveloped, while he was also plagued by various internal disorders throughout his life.

Gramsci completed secondary school in Cagliari, where he lodged with his elder brother Gennaro, a former soldier whose time on the mainland had made him a militant socialist. However, Gramsci's sympathies at the time did not lie with socialism, but rather with the grievances of impoverished Sardinian peasants and miners, who saw their neglect as a result of the privileges enjoyed by the rapidly industrialising North and who tended to turn to Sardinian nationalism as a response.

Turin

A brilliant student, in 1911 Gramsci won a scholarship that allowed him to study at the University of Turin, sitting the exam at the same time as future cohort Palmiro Togliatti. At Turin, he read literature and took a keen interest in linguistics, which he studied under Matteo Bartoli. Gramsci found the city at the time going through a process of industrialization, with the Fiat and Lancia factories recruiting workers from poorer regions. Trade unions became established, and the first industrial social conflicts started to emerge. Gramsci had a close involvement with these developments, frequenting socialist circles as well as associating with Sardinian emigrants, which gave him continuity with his native culture. His worldview shaped by both his earlier experiences in Sardinia and his environment on the mainland, Gramsci joined the Italian Socialist Party in late 1913.

Despite showing talent for his studies, Gramsci's financial problems and poor health, as well as his growing political commitment, forced him to abandon his education in early 1915. By this time, he had acquired an extensive knowledge of history and philosophy. At university, he had come into contact with the thought of Antonio Labriola, Rodolfo Mondolfo, Giovanni Gentile and, most importantly, Benedetto Croce, possibly the most widely respected Italian intellectual of his day. Such thinkers espoused a brand of Hegelian Marxism to which Labriola had given the name "philosophy of praxis". Though Gramsci would later use this phrase to escape the prison censors, his relationship with this current of thought was ambiguous throughout his career.

From 1914 onward Gramsci's writings for socialist newspapers such as Il Grido del Popolo earned him a reputation as a notable journalist, and in 1916 he became co-editor of the Piedmont edition of Avanti!, the Socialist Party official organ. An articulate and prolific writer of political theory, Gramsci proved a formidable commentator, writing on all aspects of Turin's social and political life.

Gramsci was, at this time, also involved in the education and organisation of Turin workers: he spoke in public for the first time in 1916 and gave talks on topics such as Romain Rolland, the French Revolution, the Paris Commune and the emancipation of women. In the wake of the arrest of Socialist Party leaders that followed the revolutionary riots of August 1917, Gramsci became one of Turin's leading socialists when he was both elected to the party's Provisional Committee and made editor of Il Grido del Popolo.

In April 1919 with Togliatti, Angelo Tasca and Umberto Terracini Gramsci set up the weekly newspaper L'Ordine Nuovo. In October of the same year, despite being divided into various hostile factions, the Socialist Party moved by a large majority to join the Third International. The L'Ordine Nuovo group was seen by Lenin as closest in orientation to the Bolsheviks, and it received his backing against the anti-parliamentary programme of the extreme left Amadeo Bordiga.

Amongst the various tactical debates that took place within the party, Gramsci's group was mainly distinguished by its advocacy of workers' councils, which had come into existence in Turin spontaneously during the large strikes of 1919 and 1920. For Gramsci these councils were the proper means of enabling workers to take control of the task of organising production. Although he believed his position at this time to be in keeping with Lenin's policy of "All power to the Soviets", his stance was attacked by Bordiga for betraying a syndicalist tendency influenced by the thought of Georges Sorel and Daniel DeLeon. By the time of the defeat of the Turin workers in spring 1920, Gramsci was almost alone in his defence of the councils.

In the PCI

The failure of the workers' councils to develop into a national movement led Gramsci to believe that a Communist Party in the Leninist sense was needed. The group around L'Ordine Nuovo declaimed incessantly against the PSI's centrist leadership and ultimately allied with Bordiga's far larger "abstentionist" faction. On January 21, 1921, in the town of Livorno, the Communist Party of Italy (Partito Comunista d'Italia - PCI) was founded. Gramsci supported against Bordiga the Arditi del Popolo, a militant anti-fascist group which struggled against the Blackshirts.

Gramsci would be a leader of the party from its inception but was subordinate to Bordiga, whose emphasis on discipline, centralism and purity of principles dominated the party's programme until the latter lost the leadership in 1924.

In 1922 Gramsci travelled to Russia as a representative of the new party. Here, he met Julia Schucht, a young violinist whom Gramsci later married and by whom he had two sons.

The Russian mission coincided with the advent of Fascism in Italy, and Gramsci returned with instructions to foster, against the wishes of the PCI leadership, a united front of leftist parties against fascism. Such a front would ideally have had the PCI at its centre, through which Moscow would have controlled all the leftist forces, but others disputed this potential supremacy: socialists did have a certain tradition in Italy too, while the communist party seemed relatively young and too radical. Many believed that an eventual coalition led by communists would have functioned too remotely from political debate, and thus would have run the risk of isolation.

In late 1922 and early 1923, Mussolini's government embarked on a campaign of repression against the opposition parties, arresting most of the PCI leadership, including Bordiga. At the end of 1923, Gramsci travelled from Moscow to Vienna, where he tried to revive a party torn by factional strife.

In 1924 Gramsci, now recognised as head of the PCI, gained election as a deputy for the Veneto. He started organising the launch of the official newspaper of the party, called L'Unità (Unity), living in Rome while his family stayed in Moscow. At its Lyons Congress in January 1926, Gramsci's theses calling for a united front to restore democracy to Italy were adopted by the party.

In 1926 Stalin's manoeuvres inside the Bolshevik party moved Gramsci to write a letter to the Comintern, in which he deplored opposition led by Trotsky, but also underlined some presumed faults of the leader. Togliatti, in Moscow as a representative of the party, received the letter, opened it, read it, and decided not to deliver it. This caused a difficult conflict between Gramsci and Togliatti which they never completely resolved.

Imprisonment

On November 9, 1926 the Fascist government enacted a new wave of emergency laws, taking as a pretext an alleged attempt on Mussolini's life that had occurred several days earlier. The fascist police arrested Gramsci, despite his parliamentary immunity, and brought him to Regina Coeli, the famous Roman prison. At his trial, Gramsci's prosecutor famously stated, "For twenty years we must stop this brain from functioning". He received an immediate sentence of 5 years in confinement (on the remote island of Ustica); the following year he received a sentence of 20 years of prison (in Turi, near Bari). His condition caused him to suffer from constantly declining health, and he received an individual cell and little assistance. In 1932, a project for exchanging political prisoners (including Gramsci) between Italy and the Soviet Union failed. In 1934 his health deteriorated severely and he gained conditional freedom, after having already visited some hospitals in Civitavecchia, Formia and Rome. He died in Rome at the age of 46, shortly after being released from prison; he is buried in the Protestant Cemetery there.

Thought

Gramsci is seen by many as one of the most important Marxist thinkers of the twentieth century, in particular as a key thinker in the development of Western Marxism. He wrote more than 30 notebooks and 3000 pages of history and analysis during his imprisonment. These writings, known as the Prison Notebooks, contain Gramsci's tracing of Italian history and nationalism, as well as some ideas in Marxist theory, critical theory and educational theory associated with his name, such as:

Hegemony

Hegemony was a concept previously used by Marxists such as Lenin to indicate the political leadership of the working-class in a democratic revolution, but developed by Gramsci into an acute analysis to explain why the 'inevitable' socialist revolution predicted by orthodox Marxism had not occurred by the early 20th century. Capitalism, it seemed, was even more entrenched than ever. Capitalism, Gramsci suggested, maintained control not just through violence and political and economic coercion, but also ideologically, through a hegemonic culture in which the values of the bourgeoisie became the 'common sense' values of all. Thus a consensus culture developed in which people in the working-class identified their own good with the good of the bourgeoisie, and helped to maintain the status quo rather than revolting.

The working class needed to develop a culture of its own, which would overthrow the notion that bourgeois values represented 'natural' or 'normal' values for society, and would attract the oppressed and intellectual classes to the cause of the proletariat. Lenin held that culture was 'ancillary' to political objectives but for Gramsci it was fundamental to the attainment of power that cultural hegemony be achieved first. In Gramsci’s view, any class that wishes to dominate in modern conditions has to move beyond its own narrow ‘economic-corporate’ interests, to exert intellectual and moral leadership, and to make alliances and compromises with a variety of forces. Gramsci calls this union of social forces a ‘historic bloc’, taking a term from Georges Sorel. This bloc forms the basis of consent to a certain social order, which produces and re-produces the hegemony of the dominant class through a nexus of institutions, social relations and ideas. In this manner, Gramsci developed a theory that emphasized the importance of the superstructure in both maintaining and fracturing relations of the base.

Gramsci stated that, in the West, bourgeois cultural values were tied to Christianity, and therefore much of his polemic against hegemonic culture is aimed at religious norms and values. He was impressed by the power Roman Catholicism had over men's minds and the care the Church had taken to prevent an excessive gap developing between the religion of the learned and that of the less educated. Gramsci believed that it was Marxism's task to marry the purely intellectual critique of religion found in Renaissance humanism to the elements of the Reformation that had appealed to the masses. For Gramsci, Marxism could supersede religion only if it met people's spiritual needs, and to do so people would have to recognize it as an expression of their own experience.

For Gramsci, hegemonic dominance ultimately relied on coercion, and in a "crisis of authority" the "masks of consent" slip away, revealing the fist of force.

Intellectuals and Education

Gramsci gave much thought to the question of the role of intellectuals in society. Famously, he stated that all men are intellectuals, in that all have intellectual and rational faculties, but not all men have the social function of intellectuals. He claimed that modern intellectuals were not simply talkers, but directors and organisers who helped build society and produce hegemony by means of ideological apparatuses such as education and the media. Furthermore, he distinguished between a 'traditional' intelligentsia which sees itself (wrongly) as a class apart from society, and the thinking groups which every class produces from its own ranks 'organically'. Such 'organic' intellectuals do not simply describe social life in accordance with scientific rules, but rather articulate, through the language of culture, the feelings and experiences which the masses could not express for themselves. The need to create a working-class culture relates to Gramsci's call for a kind of education that could develop working-class intellectuals, who would not simply introduce Marxist ideology from without the proletariat, but rather renovate and make critical of the status quo the already existing intellectual activity of the masses. His ideas about an education system for this purpose correspond with the notion of critical pedagogy and popular education as theorized and practised in later decades by Paulo Freire in Brazil, and have much in common with the thought of Frantz Fanon. For this reason, partisans of adult and popular education consider Gramsci an important voice to this day.

State and Civil Society

Gramsci’s theory of hegemony is tied to his conception of the capitalist state, which he claims rules through force plus consent. The state is not to be understood in the narrow sense of the government; instead, Gramsci divides it between 'political society', which is the arena of political institutions and legal constitutional control, and 'civil society', which is commonly seen as the 'private' or 'non-state' sphere, including the economy. The former is the realm of force and the latter of consent. He stresses, however, that the division is purely conceptual and that the two, in reality, often overlap.

Gramsci claims that under modern capitalism, the bourgeoisie can maintain its economic control by allowing certain demands made by trade unions and mass political parties within civil society to be met by the political sphere. Thus, the bourgeoisie engages in 'passive revolution' by going beyond its immediate economic interests and allowing the forms of its hegemony to change. Gramsci posits that movements such as reformism and fascism, as well as the 'scientific management' and assembly line methods of Frederick Taylor and Henry Ford respectively, are examples of this.

Drawing from Machiavelli, he argues that 'The Modern Prince' - the revolutionary party - is the force that will allow the working-class to develop organic intellectuals and an alternative hegemony within civil society. For Gramsci, the complex nature of modern civil society means that the only tactic capable of undermining bourgeois hegemony and leading to socialism is a 'war of position' (analogous to trench warfare); this war of position would then give way to a 'war of movement' (or frontal attack). Gramsci saw 'war of movement' as being exemplified by the storming of the Winter Palace during the Russian Revolution.

Despite his claim that the lines between the two may be blurred, Gramsci rejects the state-worship that results from identifying political society with civil society, as was done by the Jacobins and Fascists. He believes the proletariat's historical task is to create a 'regulated society' and defines the 'withering away of the state' as the full development of civil society's ability to regulate itself.

Historicism

Gramsci, like the early Marx, was an emphatic proponent of historicism. In Gramsci's view, all meaning derives from the relation between human practical activity (or "praxis") and the "objective" historical and social processes of which it is a part. Ideas cannot be understood outside their social and historical context, apart from their function and origin. The concepts by which we organise our knowledge of the world do not derive primarily from our relation to things, but rather from the social relations between the users of those concepts. Resultantly, there is no such thing as an unchanging "human nature", but only an idea of such which varies historically. Furthermore, philosophy and science do not "reflect" a reality independent of man, but rather are only "true" in that they express the real developmental trend of a given historical situation.

For the majority of Marxists, truth was truth no matter when and where it is known, and scientific knowledge (which included Marxism) accumulated historically as the advance of truth in this everyday sense. On this view, Marxism could not be said to not belong to the illusory realm of the superstructure because it is a science. In contrast, Gramsci believed Marxism was "true" in the socially pragmatic sense, in that by articulating the class consciousness of the proletariat, it expressed the "truth" of its times better than any other theory. This anti-scientistic and anti-positivist stance was indebted to the influence of Benedetto Croce. However, it should be underlined that Gramsci's was an "absolute historicism" that broke with the Hegelian and idealist tenor of Croce's thinking and its tendency to secure a metaphysical synthesis in historical "destiny". Though Gramsci repudiates the charge, his historical account of truth has been criticised as a form of relativism.

Critique of "Economism"

In a famous pre-prison article entitled "The Revolution against Das Kapital", Gramsci claimed that the October Revolution in Russia had invalidated the idea that socialist revolution had to await the full development of capitalist forces of production. This reflected his view that Marxism was not a determinist philosophy. The principle of the causal "primacy" of the forces of production, he held, was a misconception of Marxism. Both economic changes and cultural changes are expressions of a "basic historical process", and it is difficult to say which sphere has primacy over the other. The fatalistic belief, widespread within the workers’ movement in its earliest years, that it would inevitably triumph due to "historical laws", was, in Gramsci's view, a product of the historical circumstances of an oppressed class restricted mainly to defensive action, and was to be abandoned as a hindrance once the working-class became able to take the initiative. Because Marxism is a "philosophy of praxis", it cannot rely on unseen "historical laws" as the agents of social change. History is defined by human praxis and therefore includes human will. Nonetheless, will-power cannot achieve anything it likes in any given situation: when the consciousness of the working-class reaches the stage of development necessary for action, historical circumstances will be encountered which cannot be arbitrarily altered. It is not, however, predetermined by historical inevitability as to which of several possible developments will take place as a result.

His critique of economism also extended to that practiced by the syndicalists of the Italian trade unions. He believed that many trade unionists had settled for a reformist, gradualist approach in that they had refused to struggle on the political front in addition to the economic front. While Gramsci envisioned the trade unions as one organ of a counter-hegemonic force in capitalist society, the trade union leaders simply saw these organizations as a means to improve conditions within the existing structure. Gramsci referred to the views of these trade unionists as "vulgar economism," which he equated to covert reformism and even liberalism.

Critique of Materialism

By virtue of his belief that human history and collective praxis determine whether any philosophical question is meaningful or not, Gramsci’s views run contrary to the metaphysical materialism and 'copy' theory of perception advanced by Engels and Lenin, though he does not explicitly state this. For Gramsci, Marxism does not deal with a reality that exists in and for itself, independent of humanity. The concept of an objective universe outside of human history and human praxis was, in his view, analogous to belief in God; there could be no objectivity, but only a universal intersubjectivity to be established in a future communist society. Natural history was thus only meaningful in relation to human history. On his view philosophical materialism, like primitive common sense, resulted from a lack of critical thought, and could not, as Lenin claimed, be said to oppose religious superstition. Despite this, Gramsci resigned himself to the existence of this arguably cruder form of Marxism: the proletariat’s status as a dependent class meant that Marxism, as its philosophy, could often only be expressed in the form of popular superstition and common sense. Nonetheless, it was necessary to effectively challenge the ideologies of the educated classes, and to do so Marxists must present their philosophy in a more sophisticated guise, and attempt to genuinely understand their opponents’ views.

Influence

Although Gramsci's thought emanates from the organized left, he has also become an important figure in current academic discussions within cultural studies and critical theory. Political theorists from the center and the right have also found insight in his concepts; his idea of hegemony, for example, has become widely cited. His influence is particularly strong in contemporary political science, on the subject of the prevalence of neoliberal thinking among political elites, in the form of Neo-gramscianism. His work also heavily influenced intellectual discourse on popular culture and scholarly popular culture studies in whom many have found the potential for political or ideological resistance to dominant government and business interests.

His critics charge him with fostering a notion of power struggle through ideas. They find the Gramscian approach to philosophical analysis, reflected in current academic controversies, to be in conflict with open-ended, liberal inquiry grounded in apolitical readings of the classics of Western culture. To credit or blame Gramsci for the travails of current academic politics is an odd turn of history, since Gramsci himself was never an academic, and was in fact deeply intellectually engaged with Italian culture, history, and current liberal thought.

As a socialist, Gramsci's legacy has been disputed. Togliatti, who led the Party (renamed as PCI) after World War II and whose gradualist approach was a forerunner to Eurocommunism, claimed that the PCI's practices during this period were congruent with Gramscian thought. Others, however, have argued that Gramsci was a Left Communist, who would likely have been expelled from his Party if prison had not prevented him from regular contact with Moscow during the leadership of Stalin.

Influences on Gramsci's thought

  • Niccolò Machiavelli — 16th century Italian writer who greatly influenced Gramsci's theory of the state.
  • Karl Marx — philosopher, historian, economist and founder of Marxism.
  • Antonio Labriola — Italy's first notable Marxist theorist, believed Marxism's main feature was the nexus it established between history and philosophy.
  • Georges Sorel — French syndicalist writer who rejected the inevitability of historical progress.
  • Vilfredo Pareto — Italian economist and sociologist, known for his theory on mass and elite interaction.
  • Henri Bergson — French philosopher.
  • Benedetto Croce — Italian liberal, anti-Marxist and idealist philosopher whose thought Gramsci subjected to careful and thorough critique.

Later thinkers influenced by Gramsci

See also

Endnotes

Sources

  • Boggs, Carl (1984). The Two Revolutions: Gramsci and the Dilemmas of Western Marxism. South End Press.
  • Bottomore, Tom (1992). The Dictionary of Marxist Thought. Blackwell Publishers.
  • Gramsci, Antonio (1971). Selections from the Prison Notebooks. International Publishers.
  • Jay, Martin (1986). Marxism and Totality: The Adventures of a Concept from Lukacs to Habermas. University of California Press.
  • Joll, James (1977). Antonio Gramsci. Viking Press.
  • Kolakowski, Leszek (1981). Main Currents of Marxism, Vol. III: The Breakdown. Oxford University Press.

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