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 was eventually released, 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, along with 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. Owing to poor health and financial struggles, Gramsci dropped out of school in 1915 and devoted himself to activism. While he did not earn a degree during his stay in Turin, 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 region’s workplaces. After the councils failed to gain traction, Gramsci helped found the Communist Party of Italy in 1921 to foster broader revolutionary sentiment. In 1924, he became the party’s leader as well as a political 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 prison did not stop Gramsci’s intellectual output: over the next 11 years, he wrote nearly 3,000 pages on 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 better understand 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, which he called “consent.” Whereas coercion is a physical battle for control, consent is an ideological battle, with the ruling class utilizing cultural institutions such as schools, churches, and the media to inculcate societal norms that train the working class to accept its subaltern status. The ruling class’s objective is to get the working class to perceive its subordination not as artificially imposed, but as the natural, inevitable way of the world. Gramsci called this 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 is that all humans are inherently selfish economic actors, which justifies economic exploitation by positing that given “human nature,” the only viable system is one of competition and domination. Another is that humans succeed or fail solely on their own hard work, or lack thereof, which trivializes the societal conditions that keep the working class impoverished. 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.” By establishing what is common sense, the ruling class is able to write off anything that falls outside of it. This is seen in the dismissal of socialist ideals as utopic. Fundamentally, the project of cultural hegemony is a linguistic one. Thought is limited to what our language permits it to think about. In this way, a cultural lexicon reinforces domination by defining what can (and cannot) be articulated.
Rule by consent is arguably more effective than rule by coercion: authoritarianism engenders rebellion, whereas cultural hegemony conditions the working class to acquiesce to its oppression and cease to struggle. Gramsci saw this as the biggest impediment to socialist revolution. His solution was to establish a contrary 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 paramount. 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,” a “permanent persuader” rather than a “simple orator.”
To this end, Gramsci emphasized education, which he identified as crucial in molding individuals both intellectually and emotionally. As an influential philosopher of education, Gramsci argued that capitalist education prepares working-class children for life as an exploited adult wage laborer, teaching them to obey authority and equate their self-worth with their productivity. The path from the hierarchical, proceduralized, disciplinarian classroom to Fordist assembly lines and Taylorist scientific management standardizes not just production but also humanity, rendering it docile as well as substitutable, disposable. Of course, along with its inherited bourgeois consciousness, the working class, by virtue of its economic position, also possesses a proletarian consciousness that periodically bubbles to the surface. But the two cancel each other out, “producing a condition of moral and political passivity.” As Gramsci noted, recognition of a problem does not confer the ability to change it: many of us are aware of inequality, prejudice, environmental degradation, etc. but continue behaving in ways that reproduce them.
To break out of this oppressive school-to-factory pipeline and paralyzing double consciousness, Gramsci advocated reestablishing a humanistic education that centers critical thought, intellectual discipline, moral independence, and civic rights and duties. This pedagogical approach acknowledges that before a physical revolution can be fought, a “war of position,” in which cultural hegemony is replaced with an ideology that centers the needs of the working class, must first be won. Only then can a society achieve the critical mass necessary to overthrow capitalism with its false democracy of subaltern choice and establish a genuinely democratic society where, as Gramsci envisions, “every citizen can govern,” with “society placing him, even if only abstractly, in a general condition to achieve this.”