Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Antonio Gramsci Biography

Gramsci, Antonio 1891-1937

by Lloyd Spencer



Antonio Gramsci was born in Arles, Sardinia into the impoverished household of a disgraced petty official. Permanently crippled from his fourth year, he became a dwarf hunchback and was subject to periodical attacks of illness throughout his life. He won a scholarship that enabled him to study philology in Turin, the 'red centre' of Italy. He joined the Socialist Party (PSI) in 1913, and became involved in the militant workers' movement. In 1919 he and Palmiro Togliatti founded the L'Ordine Nuovo, a socialist weekly newspaper. In 1921 Gramsci participated in the foundation of the Italian Communist Party (PCI). From 1923, and under the shadow of the victory of fascism, Gramsci served for three years as its leader. Despite the immunity he should have gained by being a Member of Parliament, Gramsci was arrested in 1926 by the fascist government and sentenced to twenty-years' imprisonment. He spent the last ten years of his life in prison, under Mussolini's personal supervision. He suffered a number of unpleasant and incapacitating diseases but succeeded filled up thirty-two notebooks (over 2,350 printed pages) which come to be regarded as an unfinished classic of Marxist thought.

Gramsci's Prison Notebooks offer some of the most important Marxist studies of culture, ideology and politics. Gramsci died in 1937. The publication of his thoughtful and moving Letters from Prison in 1946 made the Italian public aware of this forgotten figure and ensured his continued influence on politics and on political and cultural theory.



Like many intellectuals of his generation, Gramsci began his intellectual development under the influence of the neo-Hegelian idealism of Benedetto Croce, who had made the 'ethico-political' into a driving force in history. In the Prison Notebooks Gramsci involves himself in an extended wrestling match with Croce (which Gramsci himself saw as paralleling Marx's struggle with Hegel). Also in Italy the liberal marxist philosopher Antonio Labriola had established a tradition of the 'philosophy of praxis' opposed to the orthodoxy of 'scientific' Marxism of the Second International with its concommitant economic determinism. Gramsci's is in this sense also a 'philosophy of praxis', stressing the active, and voluntary, even the spiritual, aspects of revolution. Gramsic made a genuinely original contribution in his treatment of the relationship between 'structure' and 'superstructure'. Gramsci was a thorough-going marxist in seeing the mode of production (the 'structure') as the ultimately determining force in society. But more consistently than any other marxist thinker Gramsci shifted the focus of marxist practice into the realm of the 'superstructure'. The superstructure is world of ideologies, culture, religion and politics, to which, at least in his political writings, Marx had granted a significant degree of autonomy. Gramsci modelled the revolutionary activity of the Communist Party on the activities of The Prince as analysed by Machiavelli. As a kind of collective Machiavelli, the Communist Party would apply a marxist political science to modern complex society. By creating a 'national-popular will' they would bring about the liberating dictatorship of the proletariat and effect a transformation of civilization as total as the emergence of Christianity.

There is in the marxist tradition an understandable concern with ideology in the sense of false consciousness. Gramsci's treatment of ideology goes much further. Gramsci extends the concept to embrace 'the terrain where men become conscious of themselves and of their tasks'. Gramsci attributes to the Communist Party a role in giving moral and intellectual direction, to shaping values and defining the general interests of society. The socialist revolution, therefore, should not simply be pursued through a frontal attack on the state (in a 'war of movement'). Such a final stage of revolutionary struggle must be prepared for by a long and difficult period of the 'war of position', during which the working class should be able to undermine the ideas and values of the ruling classes and prepare a new national-popular collective will, in which it will be the hegemonic force.

The concept of hegemony is crucial to Gramsci's thinking and embodies his most important legacy. By 'ideological hegemony' Gramsci means the process whereby a dominant class contrives to retain political power by manipulating public opinion, creating what Gramsic refers to as the 'popular consensus'. Through its exploitation of religion, education and elements of popular national culture a ruling class can impose its world-view and have it come to have it accepted as common sense. So total is the 'hegemony' established by bourgeois society over mind and spirit that it is almost never perceived as such at all. It strikes the mind as 'normality'. To counter this Gramsci proposes an ideological struggle as a vital element in political struggle. In such struggles for hegemony, struggles for the minds and hearts of the people, intellectuals clearly have a vital role. Gramsci conceived of his major work, the Prison Notebooks as an inquiry into the contemporary role of intellectuals in the wake of the Russian revolution, the defeat of the workers' movement in Western Europe (and in particular, in Turin), the rise of fascism and the general reorganisation of capitalism in advanced industrial countries (which Gramsci saw as typified by 'Fordism'). Gramsci vastly extended the concept of 'intellectuals' until it seems to embrace anyone who exercises an organising function in society. Gramsci evolved the suggestive idea of 'organic intellectuals' to describe those who expressed and defined the ideas and the will of a class or group as it enters into historical existence and comes to self-consciousness. To this notion he opposes a notion of 'traditional intellectuals' by which he means those whose role is that of maintaining traditions and supporting an existing hegemony. Gramsci supports his analysis with minute and suggestive explorations of Italian and European history. In particular, Gramsci remained obsessed with the political and historical role of the Catholic Church. Gramsci was, pre-eminently, a revolutionary leader in a non-revolutionary situation. He distinguished between the 'epoch' (which was revolutionary) and the 'situation' (which was not). His Prison Notebooks are a sustained effort to understand not only the military triumph of fascism but its ubiquitous 'hegemony'. The writing is episodic, uneven, sometimes contradictory. The notebooks were being constantly rework and were subject to at least three major revision. And they expand from the problems of great political urgency to embrace a perspective that is consistently long-term and allows Gramsci to explore a huge diversity of human experience.
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