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Antonio Gramsci

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Antonio Gramsci (1891-1937)


Antonio Gramsci was born in Sardinia as the fourth of seven sons to a clerk in the local Registrar's office. His family were Arbëreshë (descendants from 15th Century Albanian immigrants who live in their own ethnic communities throughout Southern Italy. They have largely retained their own language and culture). When Antonio was seven his father was imprisoned for six years for embezzlement and the family became destitute. The young Gramsci was forced to leave school and do work at small jobs to help sustain the family. With his fathe's release, Gramsci attanded secondary school in Caligari and lived there with his older brother who was a socialist. He was a brilliant scholar, and at the age of 20 won a scholarship that allowed him to study at the University of Turin. He studied literature and linguistics. Turin at that time was in the process of rapid industrial development and the huge Fiat and Lancia factories were recruiting low paid workers from the provinces. Gramsci became involved in the formation of the Unions and attended many socialist meetings while at the same time attending to the small groups of Arbëreshë who lived there. In this was, his interest in the dual issues of cultural identity and hegemony, Marxism and social justice began to take shape. In 1913 he joined the Italian Socialist Party.

Although he acquired an extensive knowledge of philosophy and history, Gramsci was forced to abandon his studies in 1915 because of poor health and financial problems. He was increasingly drawn towards Marxist thinkers and had, while at University, met and befriended the leading Italian Marxist philosophers of the day. He took to journalism, and from 1914 to 1917 wrote mainly for the Socialist Newspaper Avanti on a wide variety of topics. He began to take a more prominent role in the Socialist Party. 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.(a leading Socialist newspaper). Turin at tyhat time was a hotbed of Revolutionary thought. Italy then was, like today, socially and economically divided between the North and the South. The former waqs largely industrialised, the latter mostly made up of poor peasant communities who remained largely illiterate. The city was seen as thecentre of Marxist thought. In 1919, there was a concerted effort to take over the factories and to establish Workers Councils. This led to the arrest bofall of the leaders of the Socialist Party.

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. (Wikipedia) Following the strikes of 1919 and 1920, Gramsci supported the Workers Councils as a means of establishing social change, but there were bitter arguments among Socialists between the Centrists (who wanted centralised control of the movement) and people like Gramsci who supported the workers' groups. With the failure of the workers' councils to develop into a national movement he moved towards a more Centrist philosophy and in 1921 became one of the fouder members of the Italian Communist Party in which he remained a prominent leader throughout the rest of his life.

In 1922 he traqvelled to Russia where he met and married Julia Schucht, a young violinist with whom he had two sons. While he was there, Mussolini came to power in Italy and embarked upon a Fascist purge of Communists and Socialists. Gramsci returned from Moscow with instructions to form a working relationship between the CPI and the Soviets, but this caused major disagreement in the Italian wing, which feared losing its identity and independence under a centralised system directed from Moscow.

In late 1923, the head of the CPI, Amadeo Bordiga was arrested by Mussolini, and by 1924, Gramsci has assumed to the head of the Italian Communist Party and was elected as representative of the Regional Council (Veneto) where he tried to reconcile factional differences. He launched 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. (Wikipedia)

Despite the fact that he possessed diplomatic immunity, Gramsci was arrested in another Mussolini purge. 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). He remained in prison in continuing ill health until 1934, when he was granted his conditional freedom. He died soon afterwards in Rome at the age of 46.


Imprisonment failed to stem Gramsci's influence. While incarcerated he wrote morre than 30 notebooks and 3000 pages outlining theoretical issues that hve been hugely influential since they were fiirst translated into English in the 1970s. Published as The Prison Notebooks, they contain many insightful analyses of Italian history, Marxism, Critical Theory, Education and transformative practice. In particular, his critical analysis of the notion of Hegemony has been enormously influential and has been instrumental in major developments in Cultural Studies and Education. In The Prison Notebooks, he advocates worker education and critiques the orthodox Marxist ideology of economic determinism, proposing instead the impiortance of culture in the maintenance of dominant culture hegemony. In this alone, he has been profoundly influential in Western Marxist theorising. He recognised that secular Marxism lacked the capacity to fulfill the spiritual needs of the community and advocated changes to Marxist ideology that would close this gap.

In Education, he critiqued the normative notion of the intellectual (as someone predominantly involved in mental activity, and argued instead (in advance of Freire) that such interpretations are elitist and help to cement the power structres of the ruling class. Instead, he argued that intelectual activity was an inherent human activity, andf that the false distinction made between intellectual activity and labour actually pointed to an important relationship between theory and practice. He proposed the concept of the Organic Intellectual as a necessary component of social transformation. The organic Intellectual is groubnded in the culture of the oppressed and reatains its values and imperatives while being able to move and operate within the dominant culture.

In addition , Gramsci also made clear the difference between The State and Civil Society, demonstrating how the blurring between the two allowed the dominant culture to continue to promulgate its hegemony. The former (police, army judiciary etc) is used as an element of force, while the latter (media, the Church(es), Education etc.) is used as an element of persuasion. In reality, the two often overlap.

Gramsci's advocacy of Historicism was also very important. He maintained (against the mainstream Marxist thinking) that truth was shaped by historical experience. Consequently,

"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. (Wikipedia)

Despite his short life and imprisonment, gramsci has had a profound impact upon cuiltural theorising in the late 20th Century and early 21st Century. His influence has been felt in a wide range of areas and his insights have given new impetus to the Critical Theories of his better-known contemporaries.

To see an excellent site on Gramsci, Schooling and Education click here.

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