Antonio Gramsci (1891–1937) was an Italian journalist, activist, and theorist who developed an alternative Marxist political analysis. Although the concepts Gramsci contributed were somewhat obscure during his life, they were later viewed by many as the most important developments in Marxist thinking of the twentieth century.
As a young journalist, Gramsci wrote and edited a number of Italian socialist papers focusing on political developments such as the rise of fascism. Later, after being arrested in 1926 and imprisoned by fascist dictator Benito Mussolini, Gramsci wrote his famous Prison Notebooks (1929–1935), which are more philosophical than his earlier works and are the basis for the contemporary assessment of his ideas. As these works demonstrate, his major theoretical break with early forms of Marxism was that he rejected economic determinism, or the notion that economic factors drive social and political changes. Instead, he placed more emphasis on the roles of culture, ideology, and human agency in explaining historical development.
Gramsci explored the social basis of ruling class domination in society, suggesting (in perhaps his key insight) that it was grounded in hegemony. For Gramsci, hegemony combined traditional forms of economic and coercive (or violent) forms of domination with intellectual and moral leadership that made domination seem “natural” to the dominated. He also believed hegemony had to be constructed and struggled over, as it was possible for other classes in society to pursue their own hegemonic ambitions. Indeed, Gramsci felt that for the working class to challenge the hegemony of capitalists, they would need to organize ideological alliances with other societal groups supportive of the interests of the working class—a counter hegemony. Espousing a theory perhaps more appropriate to modern democratic societies then other Marxist political strategies, Gramsci argued that through a war of position, the working class, engaged in a long ideological and organizational struggle, could undermine the cultural domination of the ruling class.
This focus on ideas and culture as key sites of social struggle also led Gramsci to place considerable emphasis on the role of intellectuals (allied to different classes) in helping to construct or undermine a particular hegemony and also to develop the distinction between civil society (the nonstate sphere of the social world) and the state in capitalist hegemony—challenging capitalism required ideological organization in civil society.
The twenty-first century popularity of Gramsci in political science and international relations is due to the fact that his Marxist analysis fits well with other contemporary currents in political philosophy—in part because Gramsci influenced later thinkers like Michel Foucault. Gramsci’s ideas seem not only a more accurate description of the world as it works (compared to economically deterministic Marxism) but also appeal to other social theorists who emphasize the role of culture and ideology in political struggle. However, views of his most important intellectual contribution vary. For cultural historian Raymond Williams, a popularizer and critic of Gramsci’s ideas in cultural studies, Gramsci’s focus on culture and ideas is key. For political philosopher Renate Holub, Gramsci’s value is the extent to which he overcomes some of the limitations of much postmodern political thought. For scholars of international relations, like Stephen Gill, Gramsci’s primary contributions are the crucial concepts, like those of hegemony and civil society, that are used to understand contemporary global order.
- Gill, Stephen. Gramsci, Historical Materialism and International Relations. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993.
- Gramsci, Antonio. The Antonio Gramsci Reader: Selected Writings, 1916–35. Edited by David Forqacs and Eric J. Hobsbawm. New York: New York University Press, 2000.
- Prison Notebooks, Volume 3. Joeseph Buttigieg (trans). New York: Columbia University Press, 2007.
- Holub, Renate. Antonio Gramsci: Beyond Marxism and Postmodernism. New York: Routledge, 1992.
- Simon, Roger. Gramsci’s Political Thought: An Introduction. London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1991.
- Williams, Raymond. Marxism and Literature. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977.