Antonio Gramsci (1891–1937) was an Italian Marxist theoretician and politician. He wrote on political theory, sociology and linguistics. He was a founding member and one-time leader of the Communist Party of Italy and was imprisoned by Benito Mussolini’s Fascist regime. Gramsci is best known for his theory of Cultural Hegemony, which describes how states use cultural institutions to maintain power in capitalist societies.
Gramsci was born on the island of Sardinia, the son of Francesco Gramsci and Giuseppina Marcias. As a boy, Antonio Gramsci suffered from health problems, particularly a malformation of the spine that stunted his growth (his adult height was less than 5 feet) and left him seriously hunchbacked. (Gramsci may have been plagued by Pott disease, a form of tuberculosis that can cause deformity of the spine. Gramsci was also plagued by various internal disorders throughout his life.)
In 1911, Gramsci won a scholarship to study at the University of Turin. At Turin, he read extensively and took a keen interest in linguistics, which he studied under Matteo Bartoli. Gramsci was in Turin as it was going through industrialization. Trade unions became established and the first industrial social conflicts started to emerge. Gramsci frequented socialist circles as well as associating with Sardinian emigrants. Gramsci joined the Italian Socialist Party in 1913.
Despite showing talent for his studies, Gramsci had financial problems and poor health. Together with his growing political commitment, these led to his abandoning his education in 1915. At university, he had come into contact with the thought of Antonio Labriola, Rodolfo Mondolfo, Giovanni Gentile and Benedetto Croce. Such philosophers espoused a brand of Hegelian Marxism to which Labriola had given the name “philosophy of praxis”.
From 1914 onward, Gramsci’s writings for socialist newspapers earned him a reputation as a prominent journalist. An articulate and prolific writer of political theory, Gramsci proved a formidable commentator, writing on all aspects of Turin’s social and political life. In the wake of the arrest of Socialist Party leaders that followed the revolutionary riots of 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 1919 Gramsci helped set up the weekly newspaper L’Ordine Nuovo (The New Order). The L’Ordine Nuovo group was seen by Vladimir Lenin as closest in orientation to the Bolsheviks, and it received Lenin’s backing against the anti-parliamentary agenda of the extreme leftist Amadeo Bordiga.
The failure of the workers’ councils to develop into a national movement led Gramsci to believe that a Communist Party in the Leninist mode was needed. The group around L’Ordine Nuovo declaimed incessantly against the Italian Socialist Party’s centrist leadership and ultimately allied with Bordiga’s far larger “non-participation” faction. On January 1921, the Communist Party of Italy (PCI) was founded. 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 agenda until Bordiga lost the leadership in 1924.
In 1922 Gramsci traveled to Russia as a representative of the new party. In Russia, he met Julia Schucht, a young violinist whom Gramsci married in 1923 and by whom he had two sons, Delio and Giuliano. 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 center, through which Moscow would have controlled all the leftist forces, but others disputed this potential supremacy.
In late 1922 and early 1923, Benito 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 traveled from Moscow to Vienna, where he tried to revive a party torn by factional strife.
In 1924 Gramsci, now recognized as head of the PCI, gained election as a deputy for the Veneto. He started organizing the launch of the official newspaper of the party, called L’Unità (Unity), living in Rome while his family stayed in Moscow. At its Lyon Congress in January 1926, Gramsci’s theses calling for a united front to restore democracy to Italy were adopted by the party. On November 1926 the Fascist government enacted a new wave of emergency laws, taking as a pretext an alleged attempt on Mussolini’s life several days earlier. The fascist police arrested Gramsci, despite his parliamentary immunity, and brought him to a Roman prison.
At his kangaroo court trial, Gramsci received an immediate sentence of 5 years in confinement and the following year he received a prison sentence of 20 years. In prison Gramsci’s health deteriorated. In 1932, a project for exchanging political prisoners (including Gramsci) between Italy and the Soviet Union failed. In 1934 he gained parole on health grounds, after visiting hospitals in central Italy. He died in 1937, at the Quisisana Hospital in Rome at the age of 46. Gramsci’s ashes are buried in the Protestant Cemetery there.
In one interview archbishop Luigi de Magistris stated that during Gramsci’s final illness, he “returned to the faith of his infancy and died taking the sacraments.” However, Italian governmental documents on his death show that no religious official was sent for or received by Gramsci. Other witness accounts of his death also do not mention any conversion to Catholicism or recantation by Gramsci of his atheism. Cremation, which was banned for Catholics, and his ashes being buried in a Protestant cemetery, would both be further evidence that he had no deathbed conversion. (Likewise, Charles Darwin and Anton LaVey did not recant or convert on their deathbeds either.)
Gramsci was one of the most important Marxist philosophers of the twentieth century, and a particularly 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 Cultural Hegemony.
As a socialist, Gramsci’s legacy has been disputed. Palmiro Togliatti, who led the Italian Communist Party after 1945 and whose gradualist approach was a forerunner to Euro-communism, 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. G. Edward Griffin of the notorious John Birch Society hates Gramsci’s writings.