Monday, 27 April 2015

Antonio Gramsci - the most important political thinker that you've probably never heard of...


On this day in 1937, the Italian socialist Antonio Gramsci died, at the tender age of 46.  The chances are that you haven't heard of him, but - as you will see - he is one of the most important thinkers of
the 20th Century.

Gramsci in 1914
Gramsci was born in modest circumstances on the island of Sardinia, the fourth of seven sons.  Something of a weakling, he suffered perennial ill health and as an adult measured less than 5ft, with a permanent deformation of his spine.

Despite his physical shortcomings, Gramsci won a scholarship to study at the University of Turin and, gravitating towards the political left, joined the Italian Socialist Party in 1913.

By the end of the First World War, Gramsci - like many of his generation - had undergone a political radicalization and emerged as one of the leaders of the nascent Italian Communist Party.  In the years that followed, he would travel to Moscow and be elected as a member of parliament, before being arrested and imprisoned by Mussolini's fascists in 1926. He spent most of the remaining decade of his life in a succession of fascist prisons in deteriorating health, before dying in 1937.

The story might have ended there, with Gramsci languishing in Italian obscurity.  However, he spent most of the decade of his imprisonment writing notebooks and so emerged post mortem as one of the most important thinkers in the development of Western European Marxism.

Many Marxist thinkers of the early 20th Century expended much of their energy in trying to make sense of Marxism's apparent failure.  Marx had famously stated that his revolution was inevitable, governed by "world historical forces" - but it didn't happen; capitalism proved remarkably resilient for a system that was so scientifically doomed.

Gramsci posited that one of the reasons for capitalism's continued survival was that the anti-socialist forces of the bourgeoisie enjoyed what he called a "cultural hegemony"; that is they controlled not only the levers of economic power, but they also effectively controlled the very way people thought, and how they viewed the world, by dominating the cultural-intellectual climate.  Because the vast majority of the population did not even perceive themselves to be manipulated, it was a system that he called "consensual coercion".

Gramsci's response to this "cultural hegemony" was to suggest that the working class should develop a rival 'culture' of its own; providing moral and intellectual leadership, so as to thereby aid and speed the "inevitable" political and economic victory of Marxism.  It was to be fought for not on the factory floor or the battlefield, but in the editorial offices and in the radio studios, in the school classrooms and the university lecture halls.

Gramsci's goal was to create a Marxist cultural hegemony which would provide a new intellectual climate, and would in turn shape and limit what people discussed and how.  It would not only become an essential element of the Western Marxist canon, it would provide the theoretical underpinning for the later idea - espoused by German Marxist Rudi Dutschke - of the "long march through the institutions"; the attempted leftist takeover of the educational and media establishments.  Ultimately, Gramsci's cultural Marxism would give rise to the sinister Orwellian concept of the "thought crime".

Of course, Gramsci would not live to see his "cultural hegemony" realised.  Capitalism won the economic argument hands down in the 20th Century, but in the process left the cultural sphere undefended, to the ultimate benefit of Gramsci's acolytes.  Today - with Britain once again in the ferment of a General Election, and with domestic politics perhaps more polarised than ever before - some of us might wonder just how 'dead' Gramsci's ideas really are...

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