Andreas Kluth, the Hannibal man, asked me to write something about Gramsci in 300 words. I failed. These are 795 words.


I studied Gramsci in my twenties and he surely helped me greatly. I think important to say his thought to be:

1) in progress, more formative to me than any sedentary conclusions, building up upon a list of themes & reflecting on them in fragmentary notes from thousands of different viewpoints and within a dreadful context – fascism arising, jail isolation, uncertainty for his own life. All so compelling and mind expanding;

2) dialogic and dialectic.

G’s ideas bounce on one another also in relation to other authors’ even-opposite ideas – Gramsci ‘discusses with the enemy’ so to say. A solitary dialogue though, since jail solitude brought him to solipsism, which creates like a tragic, bewitching (and a bit claustrophobic) atmosphere.

The many ‘tools’ he created such as ‘cultural hegemony’ (close to ‘seduction’), or his notion of ‘intellectuals’, stem from such inner dialogue, which can be baffling to people used to clear definitions – I well understand – but, such brain storming is contagious and the attentive reader is taught to form his / her mental dialogues on anything he / she researches.

Dialectic. It refers to Heraclitus & Hegel, implying that all in history is ‘becoming’ & a contradictory process with actions, reactions, conciliations etc. Gramsci’s dialectic is concrete, anti-idealistic. For example, the Rousseauesque pedagogy – the ‘laissez-faire’ of ‘active’ schools – was seen by him as a reaction to the coercive Jesuitical schools, so not good or bad ‘per se’. But he tried to favour an education where both the elements of discipline and fascination were present.

Antonio Gramsci’s ashes in the Protestant ‘Cimitero degli Inglesi’ in Rome

Any idea had to be seen in its historical context and was hence transient (Marxism included.) When the Russian revolution burst he wrote it was a revolution ‘against the Capital’ (ie against Marx’s theories,) a scandal within the Comintern.

In many respects he considered America much more progressive than Stalin’s Russia;

3) polymathic. Gramsci is wide-ranging, like the men of the Renaissance. Besides there are similarities between his ideas and Leonardo da Vinci’s, and their writing styles too;

4) anti-platonic. Nature is ruled by blind forces, with no intelligent design. He follows the Italian tradition of Lucretius, Vico, Leonardo, Machiavelli, Leopardi, in contrast with the Platonic (and hegemonic) tendency expressed during the Renaissance by Marsilio Ficino and Pico della Mirandola;

5) anti-élite. Anti-chic, and certainly not the ‘smoking Gitanes and wearing black turtlenecks’ type of intellectual – to quote Andreas -, to him knowledge & refinement are not classy and must be spread to everyone. Born to a backward Sardinian peasant milieu he had succeeded in becoming a great European intellectual, which made him believe that everyone could be a philosopher at various degrees, and that a solid education of the working class was possible;

6) greatly written. Croce, Gramsci, Gobetti, Gentile were all great writers, like Hegel and Marx were. G’s texts are like permeated by a Hölderlin’s Heilige Nüchternheit (sacred sobriety.) As Giorgio Baratta observes, “his style, sober and exact, opens wide spaces that make the reader fly, but the flight is not grandiloquent.” His works have been recognized since they were first published as masterpieces of our language and literature. His Prison Letters have the depth of Tolstoy, an author close to him in many respects;

7) historic. Italian, European and world history are considered, from the end of the ancient Roman Republic onwards, and innumerable aspects are analysed. For a young Italian like me it meant an invaluable know-yourself experience. What I had passively learned at school could finally bear some fruit, also the teachings of my father, that I could fully appreciate only after reading Gramsci.

Gramsci’s history is as close to us as family’s history can be. It’s his magic. It touches the soul deeply.

It is also the concrete history of ideas circulating in the various socio-economic groups at a given time, with catalogues of magazines, newspapers, movements, intellectuals (often categorized with humorous nicks: it’s his peasant culture showing now and then), with the aim of understanding the currents and exact mechanisms of cultural hegemony.

He does that as for Italy, other European and non European countries. He analyses the elements that, in his view, make the United States the ‘hegemonic force’ in the world and also identifies like some cracks in this hegemonic structure, in their being too virgin and too young as a nation, with a melting pot of too many cultures.

Too long a story. Americanism in Gramsci is so crucial I’m thinking of a post where, in a dialogue occurred in the 30s, a few fictional European characters try to explain to readers their view of America, ie Gramsci’s view.

The United States – as Gramsci put it – are “the greatest collective effort ever existed to create with unheard of rapidity and a consciousness of purpose never seen in history a new type of worker and man.”

Note. An inspired introduction to Gramsci is Giuseppe Fiori’s Antonio Gramsci: Life of a Revolutionary (1970).

PS. Gramsci and Croce are well known in the English-speaking countries. The British ex prime minister Gordon Brown said Gramsci was one of his mentors. No idea if this is complimenting Gramsci or not… 🙂


More on Antonio Gramsci:

American Engineer, German Philosopher & French Politician: Gramsci’s Ideal Blend for the Modern Leonardo da Vinci
“America, the Greatest Collective Effort Ever existed”. Antonio Gramsci
Is America Too Young to Maintain its Cultural Hegemony in the Long Run?

Related posts:

Democracy, Liberty & the Necessity of a Solid Education of the People
Culture, Kultur, Paideia
The Last Days of the Polymath

18 thoughts on “Seven Aspects of Antonio Gramsci’s Thought

  1. Gramsci’s “cultural hegemony” and Charles Wright Mill’s “power elite” compliment each other in many ways. I wonder if Mill’s read and knew of Gramsci’s theories? It seems possible.


    1. The idea of a military-industrial ‘complex’ is not so far from Gramsci’s notion of socio-economic ‘bloc’ cemented by intellectuals. Mill died too early maybe (1962). I wonder whether Gramsci was that known internationally at Mill’s time. Possibly not.


  2. “For a young Italian like me it meant an invaluable ‘know yourself’ experience. What I had passively learned at school could finally bear some fruit…”

    You became a believer, you declared and defended your Marxism, you were put through quite a trial for it too. So why did you abandon your faith? Or how did you do so? How has this renunciation worked out for you after all of these years?

    I am hardly an example of mine, always somehow regretting it, but always bound to it like it is the foundation of my existence. I can deny it like I could close my eyes and deny the sky. I am interested in what became of your Marxism more than an apologia for your eventual apostasy. Clearly, some of the lessons, the outlook, the ideals shaped your views today, but you too have shaped those ideas by embracing them and to some big extent repudiating them.

    I am being selfish because perhaps I can gain some insight and then one day wrestle with my own demons and reach a place of peace about faith. If it is too personal or the wrong time to ask forgive me.


    1. You became a believer … why did you abandon your faith? …. I am interested in what became of your Marxism.

      I am being selfish …perhaps … one day wrestle with my own demons

      Be in peace. You are a good man. No, not selfish at all.

      My mother taught me religion when I was a baby. It went away when I was 12. At 24 I became a Marxist, and, it is clear, Marxism was profoundly religious.

      It was beautiful to feel part of a world-wide movement. Gramsci, of the movement that followed the Russian Revolution. Us, more modestly – but less dangerously -, of the students’ movement that united the young everywhere: Europe, South and North America, China etc.

      This sense of collective struggle, this being part of something we felt big and ethical, beyond any selfishness, was so great. I miss the freshness of those days. I wonder if Gramsci was naïve. Certainly not like us. He was much more rational. And in fact, even if he too believed in a utopia, he has left something useful behind.

      Why did I lose this faith …. I guess my father’s rationality prevailed (more than his political ideas.) But, losing this second faith – third, if one considers music – was very hard. I started sailing alone, with nothing to guide me. I had my future to build up, life necessities win over dreams, and Flavia helped me keep the feet on the ground.

      What remained – together with the little bulbs that had been lit by Magister and by Gramsci (passion for history, languages, classics etc. I gotta find the courage and face my *Magister* one day or another, past memories, with weird tho interesting aspects) – is a focus on social justice, or the notion that the state must be something more than just a guardian and should have a bit of ethics to help the weak (which is a Hegelian concept btw.) Whatever one can think of such attitude, it is one stream of European political, juridical thought.


  3. Thank you for an interesting and insightful 795 words! For me, Gramsci adds the needed dimension to Marx that is required to understand/explain contemporary culture. I think his ideas of cultural domination and hegemony go far to explain everything from the Tea Party to Paris Hilton, and maybe Facebook and Twitter as well, but the whole technology thing needs more thought. I’m worried that saying that social media (and reality TV) are vehicles of cultural domination might sound too much like a conspiracy theory. But they certainly do support Gramsci’s view that hegemony is achieved and maintained by consent of the subordinate class.


  4. First of all, thank you for taking up my challenge!

    (Isn’t this great? Strangers connected only by their screens are teaching one another the intellectual history of the globe. Surely, this was always the ultimate promise of the internet.)

    From your post, the comments and the wikipedia page, I have formed my own simplified “index card” of Gramsci. It goes like this:

    In any society, one class or group will succeed in determining on behalf of all the other classes or groups what is normal, what is “common sense”. This is known as cultural hegemony.

    Once the norms are firmly in place, everybody is forced to wage his political battles using that same vocabulary. Therefore success in setting the norms is the first step to victory. The first Gramsci called “war of position”, the second “war of movement.”

    Relevance to America today (for example):

    Gramsci would seem to explain what we in the US now call “the culture wars”. And right wingers like Karl Rove would seem to be America’s “neo-Gramscians”. Rove, like Gramsci, understood that the first step is to coin normality, to stipulate values and let everybody else respond. For example, once you can re-name inheritance or estate taxes “death taxes”, you have already all but won the pursuant political debate (ie, the war of position determines the war of movement.”


    1. Andreas just demonstrated the universality of these principles: Gramsci, a leftist, and Rove, a rightwing man, have their actions and realisations judged from the same tenets and, seemingly, succeded each in its own way..


    2. Thanks Andreas. I’ll reply soon. I was busy and I reply one by one to comments. Gramsci to me is a long forgotten reasoning. I have to reflect (and am not as fast as you are.) 🙂


    3. @Andreas

      Isn’t this great? Strangers connected only by their screens are teaching one another the intellectual history of the globe.

      You honour me saying this Andreas. And yes, I find it fascinating – I’m addicted – and am learning so much from you guys and from you Germania, because you come from a different – explosive compared to mine – world and are both German and Anglo-Saxon.

      I have formed my own simplified “index card” of Gramsci …. one class or group will succeed in determining on behalf of all the other classes or groups what is ‘normal’ … This is known as cultural hegemony

      I very much agree. In ‘The problem of political leadership’ Gramsci says that “a social group can, and indeed should, already exercise leadership [ie cultural hegemony] before winning governance: this is indeed one of the principal pre-conditions – he argues – for winning such power.”

      And in fact we see that, when a party, group etc. succeeds in ‘seducing’ the electorate with its ideas, values etc., it wins the elections. Don’t know if we are on the same line here – our worlds and generations are different -, but in my view this ‘norm’, as you say, is established when the wave is long enough and not temporary.

      As my limited knowledge of US politics goes, the Reagan-Bush-Bush era was long enough to re-establish and re-paint certain traditional values so that they became a ‘norm’ from the 80s onwards (from the yuppies etc., a few of them ex-hippies btw).

      It is also a generational thing. People raised in that ‘culture’ couldn’t but be influenced by it … So this long wave set a vocabulary, a ‘conformism’ (said in a Gramscian, ie neutral way) so that even those who belonged to a different (and loser) ‘conformism’ had to confront with the other-side political vocabulary.

      Conformisms and hegemonies from a generational perspective, I was saying: id est Reagan’s values were more or less alien to the previous generation – the boomers, ie us.

      In any case complex Western societies always imply diverse positions (hence normalities), some hegemonic at a given time, some not. Which brings possibly to the ‘culture wars’ concept you mention.

      I know nothing about Rove and about ‘culture wars’ as they are meant in the US – except what I just read in the wiki. Of course Gramsci provides tools for understanding idea battles that can benefit any party – as Paul well observes -, left or right-wing, and any society, democratic and non democratic. I apply some of them to understand Rome and Greece, as you may have noticed in your blog.

      I don’t know if this guy, Rove, is making use of Gramsci or if it is you that are trying to see whether Gramscian notions can help in the present US idea debate. Generally speaking, battles of ideas have always existed in any society past and present.

      I cannot help in all this, and especially in the ‘war of position’ / ‘war of movement’ Gramscian notions, too polysemic in him for me not to get confused after such a long time. Generally I can say that Gramsci – who came from a total defeat of the working class movement in West Europe – dedicated in his prison years a lot of time to try to grasp why the frontal attack on the State – war of movement – had succeeded in the East (Russia) while it had failed in the West (Italy, Germany, France etc.).

      He concluded that the East was too backward and socially unjust, plus of course WW1 helped to make things explode in the more fragile East.

      So he conceived a strategy he called ‘war of position’, a metaphor taken from military wars since 1800. 19th centuries revolutions plus 20th century Russian revolution had used frontal attack, and had succeeded. It was high time for him – in Western more complex societies – to develop a strategy based on the intellectuals and on ‘seduction’. More I cannot say.


      1. That all makes perfect sense.

        Just adding a bit to the “Rovian” (ie, conservative) cultural hegemony: It actually started with a deliberate war of position in the 1970s, as US think tanks set out to write a new set of norms with a new vocabulary. People like Reagan adopted that vocabulary, and its ideas and values. People like Rove then tried to extend it further.

        In the American grudge match between the Sarah Palin “real Americans” and the Jon Stewart “real (wink) Americans” you see essentially a war for cultural hegemony.

        Gramsci indeed makes the cut as a great thinker.


      2. Fascinating! I would only add that Rove and his ilk (or really anyone today) is probably not “making use” of Gramsci. Rather, their success or failure is validating Gramsci’s insights. The challenge to applying his thinking to contemporary society is the very point you make–“In any case complex Western societies always imply diverse positions (hence normalities), some hegemonic at a given time, some not.”

        With the nature of the media, technology and the internet it is hard to tell exactly which positions are ‘hegemonic’ at any particular point. The solution, I think, is to follow the money, a crass way of tying Marx to the discussion.


  5. @All commentators
    I’ll be in hospital because of my dog, Lilla. My replies might be late. Best to all of you dear friends from beyond the oceans. And yes, Andreas, Internet is a great thing, and we owe it to America.


  6. @Paul

    Andreas just demonstrated the universality of these principles: Gramsci, a leftist, and Rove, a rightwing man, have their actions and realisations judged from the same tenets and, seemingly, succeded each in its own way..

    Yes, as you can read in my reply to Andreas above, I quite agree. Very few die-hard communists care about Gramsci’s Marxism.

    He created analysis tools that are useful no matter who makes use of them. Here in Italy it is the right that more and more says: Gramsci is our man too, Mussolini was a socialist!

    Ironically, G created those (superstructural) tools for the benefit of the left only, in an effort to envisage how to defeat capitalism in Western Europe and America, where societies were not so unjust as in Russia, ie not so anti-democratic tho at various degrees. In Latin America (Cuba), or in China, it was in fact easier for communism, and violent – non Gramscian – revolution was successful.


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