Antonio Gramsci (1891-1937) was an Italian theorist, politician, journalist, and movement organizer whose work is generally linked to Marxist theoretical traditions. His contributions are derived mainly from his Prison Notebooks which were written over the course of his eight-year imprisonment under Benito Mussolini’s National Fascist Party. Gramsci was neither an academic nor a scholar in a formal sense, yet his Prison Notebooks spoke to then-ongoing politics and social upheavals within Italy during industrialization at the turn and beginning of the 20th century. Despite this, however, Gramsci has had an important impact on the social sciences with regard to the importance of culture and how power is exerted within societies.
The fourth of seven children, Gramsci worked at a young age to help financially support the family. Throughout his life, Gramsci suffered multiple illnesses and physical limitations. Given his intellect and financial need, he was awarded a scholarship to the University of Turin in 1911 – to which he would not finish his degree, but would become active in revolutionary politics and begin a career in journalism. Gramsci’s involvement with the Italian Communist Party and workers’ movements eventually would lead him into politics as a member of the Italian Parliament in 1924. His arrest in 1926 would lead to a twenty-year prison sentence for provoking class- and civil-war within Italy. Due to prison conditions, Gramsci’s physical health worsened and he died a under guard as a prisoner in a hospital in 1937.
Gramsci’s work, perhaps connected to his work as a journalist and politician, focused on the concrete conditions that shaped Italian life. Rather than focus on building grand theory, Gramsci applied larger theoretical positions and concepts to the ongoing political struggles in everyday life. Among the many issues covered in the Prison Notebooks, Gramsci’s focus on power and its practice within advanced capitalist countries remain the key theme throughout.
Gramsci’s legacy to the social sciences can be seen in his work regarding culture, intellectuals, and the concept of hegemony. However, Steve Jones (2006) notes that a “Gramsci industry” of commentaries, responses, and critiques to Gramsci’s work reflect a variety of ways in which his writings bend to particular disciplines. Most notably seen in the areas of cultural, media, and social movement studies, Gramsci holds relevance for understanding tensions that exists between – what sociologists would call – structure and agency. The conditions to which hegemony is viewed as a process speaks to the fluid nature of culture and a more complex view of the ways that power is enacted within society. Change, or revolutionary change for Gramsci, becomes a “war of position” in which the battle for ideas and meanings become the site for struggle.
Gramsci’s relevance in other areas can be seen as well. Stuart Hall (1986) has made the case for using Gramsci to understand and study issues regarding race and ethnicity – particularly the ways in which race can be used within competing discourses to prevent broader coalitions composed of various racially categorized groups. A growing body of research within the interdisciplinary field of global studies is the focus on transnational networks and the interactions between states, markets, and civil society. Although written within the context of Italy’s period of industrialization, Gramsci’s the “southern question” holds value to social science inquiries regarding relationships between the global North and the global South in means of production and exploitation.
Gramsci’s work maintains its utility within new areas of inquiry as scholars study changing shifts in the social order across national boundaries and from communities rooted within a neighbourhood or those rooted online.
Gramsci, Antonio. 1992. Prison notebooks. Ed. Joseph A. Buttigieg; Trans. Joseph A. Buttigieg and Antoino Callari. Columbia University Press, New York.
Hall, Stuart. 1986. “Gramsci’s Relevance for the Study of Race and Ethnicity.” Journal of Communication Inquiry 10(2): 5-27.
Jones, Steve. 2006. Antonio Gramsci. Routledge, New York
Legacy of Antonio Gramsci, The. 1986. Spec. issue of boundary 2 14(3): 1-232.
What role does ideology play in contemporary political issues?
Discuss the impact of Gramsci’s work toward areas of political activity outside of the state.
Can culture and ideology be enough for movement actors to challenge established power structures?
Submitted by Jason A. Smith