An Introduction to Antonio Gramsci

Austin Tannenbaum
6 min readDec 7, 2021

Born with a spinal malformation in 1891 on the Italian island of Sardinia, Antonio Gramsci was the fourth of seven children, all boys. A bright mind from the start, Gramsci suspended his schooling at age seven to support his family after his father was jailed by the Sardinian government; ostensibly for embezzlement, but likely due to his opposition to the local party elites. His father’s political imprisonment foreshadowed Gramsci’s own 25 years later.

After his father’s release, Gramsci was able to return to school at age 13, moving to Cagliari with an older brother, a former soldier and militant socialist. Spending time with his brother and witnessing the economic exploitation of Sardinian miners and farmers at the hands of mainland Italians radicalized Gramsci.

In 1911, Gramsci enrolled at the University of Turin, where he was awarded a scholarship, majoring in literature and linguistics. Two years later, he joined the Italian Socialist Party and began writing about current events in socialist newspapers, earning a reputation as a radical journalist. Poor health and financial struggles forced Gramsci to drop out of school in 1915. However, while he did not earn a degree, he became extremely well read in history and philosophy.

Over the next decade, Gramsci continued to write and organize, particularly for workers’ councils: a type of economic democracy in which municipalities are governed by labor delegates elected by the employees of local workplaces. After the councils failed to gain traction, Gramsci helped form the Communist Party of Italy in 1921 to foster broader revolutionary sentiment. In 1924, he became the party’s leader as well as a government representative of the northern Veneto region.

Parallel to Gramsci’s socialist organizing was the rise of Italian fascism, led by the once-socialist writer and academic Benito Mussolini. In 1926, Mussolini’s National Fascist Party enacted a wave of emergency laws in response to an alleged attempt on Mussolini’s life, cracking down on political dissent. Gramsci was imprisoned despite his parliamentary immunity, with his sentencing judge famously declaring, “For twenty years we must stop this brain from functioning.” But even prison could not stop Gramsci’s intellectual output. Over the next 11 years, he wrote nearly 3,000 pages of history, philosophy, and political strategy, later compiled and posthumously published as The Prison Notebooks.

Always in poor health, incarceration took a heavy toll on Gramsci: his teeth fell out and his digestive system collapsed so he could not eat solid food. He routinely vomited blood and suffered headaches so severe that he would bang his head against the wall of his cell.

After a decade-long international campaign to free him, Gramsci was scheduled to be released, but was too ill to be transported. He passed away shortly thereafter in a clinic from complications related to his many ailments of the heart, lung, joint, and stomach.

Gramsci’s philosophical project was to develop a theory of political consciousness. In the previous century, Karl Marx had suggested that consciousness was the product of how the economy was organized, and the class conflicts it entailed. Among Marx’s assertions was that the transition to socialism was only possible once a society had undergone industrialization and its accompanying division of workers into wage laborers and owners. Political developments in Gramsci’s time complicated that notion: Russia had undergone revolution despite having a relatively provincial economy, and the more developed country of Italy had failed to undergo one despite its theoretical ripeness.

As a follower of Marx, Gramsci sought to account for this contradiction, fleshing out how capitalism maintains control. Marx emphasized the role of state force: the military, the police, laws, judges, and how they worked together to enforce institutions such as private property. Gramsci acknowledged this as one means of control, which he called “coercion.” But he also identified another, less talked about form of control, variously translated as “consent” or “consensus.” Whereas coercion is a physical battle for control, consent/consensus is an ideological battle, with the ruling class utilizing schools, churches, the media and other cultural institutions to teach the working class to accept its subaltern status. The objective is to get the working class to perceive its subordination not as artificially imposed, but natural, just “the way it is.” Gramsci called this control over our social narratives “cultural hegemony,” which he defined as “the ‘spontaneous’ consent given by the great masses of the population to the general direction imposed on social life by the dominant fundamental group.”

One hegemonic idea naturalized in capitalist society is that humans are fundamentally self-interested economic actors, homo economicus. This rhetorical move justifies inequality by suggesting we must reward competitiveness and greed to supply ourselves with motivation. Otherwise, we would lose our incentive to work, and society would crumble. Exploitation and other ills are regarded as a necessary evils in a mostly good system and preferable to the imagined alternatives. Nevermind our instincts of compassion and empathy, or documented examples of cooperative societies: humans are selfish and greed is good.

Another is that our success or failure is a product of our own hard work, or lack thereof. We’re told that we get what we deserve: if we’re rich, it’s because we’ve earned it, and if we’re poor, it’s our own fault. Structural inequalities, which, from birth, advantage some and disadvantage others, are ignored or trivialized. The working class’s blame is turned inward, away from unjust social conditions and toward their own supposed inadequacies.

These sentiments are parrotted until they attain the status of self-evident truths. They are codified in declarations such as Margaret Thatcher’s “There is no alternative” and Francis Fukuyama’s “The End of History,” along with adages like “There must be winners and losers” and “Pull yourself up by your bootstraps.” In Gramsci’s view, cultural hegemony is a fundamentally linguistic project. Thought is limited to what a language permits it to think about. A cultural lexicon therefore reinforces domination by defining what can (and cannot) be articulated. By engineering “common sense,” the ruling class is able to write off anything outside of it as unreasonable or unrealistic. Efforts to create a more equitable world are written off as dangerous or utopic.

Gramsci held that social engineering is superior to violence in achieving social control. While authoritarian rule engenders rebellion, cultural hegemony trains the working class to accept its oppression and cease to struggle. Gramsci saw this as the biggest impediment to socialist revolution. His solution was to establish an opposing narrative, a “counter-hegemony” led by “organic intellectuals” from the working class. Gramsci identifies two dominant modes of social existence: “muscular-nervous” and “intellectual.” The job of organic intellectuals is to organize muscular-nervous effort for the purpose of innovating the physical and social world. In Gramsci’s envisioned intellectualism, talking is not enough — action is essential. In his words, “The mode of being of the new intellectual can no longer consist in eloquence, which is an exterior and momentary mover of feelings and passions, but in active participation in practical life as constructor, organiser, permanent persuader.”

Gramsci emphasized alternative schooling to cultivate organic intellectuals from a young age. As an influential philosopher of education, he argued that the capitalist curriculum prepares children for life as wage laborers, teaching them to obey authority and equate self-worth with productivity. From the hierarchical, disciplinary, procedural classroom to the assembly lines of Ford and “scientifically managed” shop floors of Taylor, the working class is systematically drained of its vigor. This acquiescent bourgeois consciousness is said to exist alongside a proletarian consciousness that periodically bubbles up to the surface. But the two cancel each other out, “producing a condition of moral and political passivity.” As Gramsci noted, recognizing a problem doesn’t alone beget action to change it.

To break free of this school-to-factory pipeline and crippling double consciousness, Gramsci espoused a people’s pedagogy consisting of critical thought, intellectual discipline, moral independence, and civic rights and duties. Gramsci believed that before a physical revolution, or “war of maneuver” can be fought, a “war of position” must first be won to replace the prevailing cultural hegemony with a worldview that centers the needs of the working class. Only then can society achieve the critical mass necessary to overthrow the existing system of false democracy and establish a genuinely democratic society where, as Gramsci envisions, “every citizen can govern.”