Some Notes of Gramsci


Antonio Gramsci, The Antonia Gramsci Reader: Selected Writings 1916-1935, ed. David Forgacs (New York: New York University Press, 1999)

Gramsci was an Italian Marxist who argued that Marxism was primarily a moral tradition based on the “categorical imperative… ‘Workers of the world, unite!’ The duty of organizing, the propagation of the duty to organize and associate, should therefore be what distinguishes Marxists from non-Marxists” (36). He is the source of a number of important concepts, most notably hegemony and civil society. He was very critical of “mechanistic forms of historical materialism” (Forgacs 189). He believed that while socio-economic conditions created the possibility of political change they did not produce political change in and of themselves. In order for change to occur there had to be forces that could challenge the state and the reigning hegemony. He differentiated between the structure (economic dimension of life) and superstructure (politics and culture) and believed that superstructure was not determined by structure alone. One definition he offers of superstructure is “the terrain on which determinate social groups become conscious of their own social being, their own strength, their own tasks, their own becoming” (196).

Amongst other things, Gramsci emphasized the importance of ideology as a space for struggle. He differentiated between those ideologies which were “necessary to a given structure” and those which are “arbitrary, rationalistic, ‘willed’” (199). His rejection of a purely “economist” reading of Marxism led him to emphasize, again and again, that political change required “an initiative of will” and those who would change society must “systematically and patiently” focus on developing a force which can bring about change when the right conditions emerge (209).

A few key concepts from Gramsci defined:

Civil Society: one of two “major superstructural ‘levels’…that ensemble of organisms commonly called ‘private’” as opposed to “that of ‘political society’ of the state” (306). Civil society includes trade unions and other forms of voluntary associations.

Hegemony: “leadership of a class alliance” (Forgacs 422). It includes both proletarian leadership and other leadership by other classes. It’s features include “‘cultural, moral and ideological’ leadership over allied and subordinate groups” (Forgacs 423).

Intellectuals: “Gramsci defines intellectuals… as those people who give a fundamental social group ‘homogeneity and awareness of its own function.’ Intellectuals are educators, organizers, leaders. ‘Organic’ intellectuals are those who emerge from out the group itself: for instance a worker who becomes a political activist. ‘Traditional’ intellectuals are those who have remained from earlier social formations and who may attach themselves to one or the other fundamental class…” (Forgacs 425)

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