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Western Political Thought: Antonio Gramsci

Antonio Gramsci was renowned Italian Marxist and social philosopher. He presented work on political theory, sociology and linguistics. He was a founding member and one-time leader of the Communist Party of Italy and was imprisoned by Benito Mussolini's Fascist government. Gramsci is popular for developing theoretical framework of cultural hegemony, which defines how states use cultural institutions to maintain power in capitalist societies.

His theory was based on as origin of Marx's conception concerning the development and operation of the capitalist society, composed by the contrary duality between dominant class and subordinate class, between possessors and the poor, the capitalists and the proletariat. The private ownership both of the earth and of the means of production of the material life has, in the superstructure, i.e. in the philosophical and spiritual sphere of the society, a direct correspondence. Gramsci support the ideologies of Marx that the class which seizes the material power also seizes the conceptual power or the power of the ideas, and he took advantage of extending and to developing his political theory. His main hypothesis is that the superstructure maintains the class relationships, and that this dominance is executed by the mechanisms of hegemony of the State and of the civil society. To overawe this hegemony, it would be necessary to develop a counter-hegemony, what can be gotten if the working class, including the socialist intellectuals, encourage the creation and the development of a new culture, in opposition to the bourgeois hegemony. The emphasis of the economic and social transformation happens in the superstructure, in the field of the values and norms is in man's and world's visualisation.

Majority of Gramsci's intellectual work is well elucidated in his Prison Notebooks, a large compendium of essays, commentaries, and letters written during his internment, which began to be published in fragmentary fashion by the PCI after World War II (1939-1945). It is these writings that expose Gramsci's idiosyncratic contribution to social theory and Left analysis, even though they are highlighted by a certain cryptic style designed to manoeuvre around issues sensitive to prison censors. The most noteworthy innovations in these writings include Gramsci's thesis on hegemony, the role of intellectuals, and the status of the peasantry in Left analysis.

Theory of hegemony

The notion of hegemony was developed by Gramsci to elaborate the revolutionary character of the working class, as well as to modify the economic determinism that had plagued Marxist analysis. In some ways, "hegemony" was Gramsci's way of expounding the actual working out of Marx's famous dictum, "The ideas of the ruling class are always the ruling ideas." In Gramsci's creation, hegemony accounts for how domination is exercised apart from pressure and force. The dominated classes or groups have their own reasons for accepting the ideas of a ruling class or elite, and such reasons are the basis for the spontaneous consent given to a dominant philosophy by classes that are subjugated by it.

Gramsci's Prison Notebooks and Modern Prince and other Writings mentioned diverse issues of history, culture, politics, and philosophy. The concept of Hegemony is considered as the vital and original contribution of Gramsci to the theory and practice of Marxism. The term 'Hegemony' is derived from the Greek word 'Hegemona' meaning leader. Simply, the idea of Hegemony means the leadership or domination of one element of a system over other. Gramsci used this term to denote the ideological leadership of the bourgeoisie over subordinate classes.

The concept of hegemony first seemed in Gramsci's writings on the Southern Question (1926), where it was described as a system of class alliance in which a "hegemonic class" exercised political leadership over "subaltern classes" by "winning them over." The concept made suggestion to the proletariat in Italy in terms of such a "winning over", the proletariat had to free itself of its class corporatism so as to embrace other classes, notably the peasants, in a system of alliances within which it could then genuinely become the leading element in the society. The concept was presented in the following way.

"The Turin communists posed concretely the question of the 'hegemony of the proletariat': i.e. of the social basis of the proletarian dictatorship and the workers' State. The proletariat can become the leading (dirigent) and the dominant class to the extent that it succeeds in creating a system of alliances which allows it to mobilize the majority of the working population against capitalism and the bourgeois State. In Italy, in the real class relations which exists there, this means to the extent that it succeeds in gaining the consent of the broad peasant masses (Chantal Mouffe, 1979)".

When broadening "Hegemony", it involves two things. First, it presumes that the "hegemonic class" takes the interests of the classes and groups over which it exercises its "hegemony." Additionally, some equilibrium between the hegemonic class and the subaltern classes is involved whereby the hegemonic class will be forced to make some sacrifices tangent to its corporate interests. Secondly, "hegemony" involves economic leadership besides ethico-political leadership. It can be said that the hegemonic is a "fundamental class", a class situated at one of the two fundamental poles in the relations of production; owner or non-owner of the means of production. It would seem that hegemony entails for a class its execution of a leadership role on the economic, political, moral, and intellectual levels vis-a-vis other classes in the system, together with the sacrificing of some of its corporate interests as a fundamental class exactly to facilitate its vanguard role. Perceptible in this notion is the abstract notion of balance; sacrifice for agreement or strict corporatism for a coercive imperative. This notion triggers Gramsci's definition of the concept of hegemony, and the notion itself is exemplified in Gramsci's elaborate concept of power.

In basic term, Gramsci was concerned to eliminate economic determinism from Marxism and to develop its descriptive power with respect to superstructural institutions. So, he held that:

Class struggle must always involve ideas and ideologies, ideas that would make the revolution and also that would prevent it.

He stressed the role performed by human agency in historical change: economic crises by themselves would not subvert capitalism.

Gramsci was more "dialectic" than "deterministic": he tried to build a theory which recognised the autonomy, independence and importance of culture and ideology.

"It can be contended that Gramsci's theory proposes that subordinated groups accept the ideas, values and leadership of the dominant group not because they are physically or mentally induced to do so, nor because they are ideologically instructed, but because they have reason of their own" (Strinati, 1995).

Gramsci's concept of power is based on the two moments of power relations that include Dominio (or coercion) and Direzione (or consensus). These two moments are essential elements, indeed the constitutive elements of a state of balance, a state of equilibrium between social forces recognized as the leaders and the led. This state of balance comprises of a combination of classes constituting an organic totality within which the use of force is risky unless there emerges an organic crisis which impends the hegemonic position and the ruling position of the leading class in the hegemonic system. Evidently, political or state rule by a hegemonic class so defined would be rule in which consensus outweighs over coercion.

Gramsci opined that consensus rests at the level of civil society and therefore must be won there. On the other hand, coercion rests at the level of the state, more specifically at the level of "political society." Consequently, hegemonic rule, characterized by the predominance of consensus over coercion, signifies an equilibrium between "political society" and "civil society." According to Gramsci, the state exemplifies "the hegemony of one social group over the whole of society exercised through so-called private organizations, such as the church, trade unions, schools," in balance with the collaborative of public (coercive) organizations such as the state, the bureaucracy, the military, the police, and the courts (John M. Cammett, 1967). Thus, state power rests in a hegemonic equilibrium with alternated moments of force and harmony but without the necessity of predominance by coercion over consensus.

Gramsci conferred that hegemony is a condition in which a fundamental class exercises a political, intellectual, and moral role of leadership within a hegemonic system covered by a common world-view or "organic ideology." The exercise of this role on the ethico-political as well as on the economic plane involves the implementation of a process of intellectual and moral transformation through which there is a "revolution" of the previous philosophical ground and a "redefinition" of hegemonic structures and institutions into a new form. This change and redefinition is accomplished through a rearticulating ideological elements into a new world-view which serves as the amalgamating principle for a new "collective will." Indeed, it is this new world view, which unifies classes into a new hegemonic bloc, which constitutes the new organic ideology of the new hegemonic class and system. Yet it is not a world-view imposed, as a class ideology by the new hegemonic class upon the subaltern group. Furthermore, in the transformation of the ideological ground, there is no complete replacement of the formerly dominant world view. Rather, the "new" world view is formed by the aspiring hegemonic class and its consensual subalterns out of the existing ideological elements held by the latter in their discourses.

The conception of the new organic ideology is effective dialectically through "ideological tussle": the ambitious hegemonic, class adopts an articulating principle which enable to absorb, rearticulate, and assimilate ideological elements in the discourse of other social classes, and to amalgamate these elements into a new collective will. In hegemony struggle, this articulating principle becomes a hegemonic principle of the emerging hegemonic class and hegemonic system. Since ideological elements have no necessary class belonging and are often shared by many classes, and since the new hegemonic system rests upon the ideological consensus of other social classes, hegemony is not philosophical power. It can be concluded that ideological struggle regarding the problem of its class basis is that it is exactly at the point of articulation through the hegemonic principle that ideological elements obtain a class character. To put it another way, once articulated into the organic ideology, ideological elements of importance to and shared by different classes enter the domain of the new hegemonic class, which may claim these elements to be its own for having a place in its general discourse. In this postulation, there is Gramsci's correlation between "fundamental class" and ideology. Nonetheless, an organic ideology is exactly that organic, the product of an absorption of different important ideological elements belonging to no class in particular.

Gramsci's thought of ideology was unique and more matured in comparison of his predecessors and colleagues essentially because it overpowered both epiphenomenalism and class reductionism. Philosophical epiphenomenalism consisted principally of the claim that the ideological superstructure was determined mechanically by the economic infrastructure, and that dogma, being simply illusory, played no role in the economic life of society or in radical change for that matter. Revolutionary change resulted from the dynamics and tensions of economic contradictions stuck in the mode of production. More precisely, the incongruities of the relations of production and forces of production, together with the economic contradictions of antagonistic classes in the realm of production was said to determine every qualitative revolution of the institutional fabric and the ideological formation of the social system in crisis. This conception of social revolution brought about a decisive implication for capitalist society, namely "cataclysmic" interpretation of capitalist crisis: capitalist society would inexorably collapse as a result of its own economic laws and contradictions of increased proletarianization and pauperization. This crunch would be resolved through the decisive capture and smashing of the state apparatus by the proletariat, the radical class then to hold legitimate power. This successful assumption of state power was interpreted to prevent any form of class alliance based on a defined hierarchy of ideological, economic, and political interests led by the genuine fundamental interests of the proletariat. Therefore, the interpretation of state power was one of pure force as to other classes without considerations for their consent.

This idea of ideology and revolution was often joined with a reductionist interpretation of ideology which contended that ideologies essentially had a class character, so that there was an ideology of the capitalist class and an ideology of the working class, both ideologies antagonistic, defined, and mutually exclusive in their totality. The ultimate implication of this conception was that classes at the economic level and at the level of production were "duplicated" at the ideological level through ideological discourses exclusively of their own. The combination of these concepts led to formulations in which ideology was conceived to have a class nature and play no significant role in social and revolutionary dynamics (Kautsky). On other hand, ideologies were given a certain degree of efficacy vis-a-vis radical change in society while still being conceived of as having a class determination (Korsch and Luckacs). Obviously, Gramsci rectified the notion of ideology by overcoming both epiphenomenalism and class reductionism, and by redefining the term "ideology" in terms of practices, politico-ideological discourses, and elements.

This idea has obvious similarities to other terms used in the social sciences, such as unquestioned "common sense." However, opposing to appearances, hegemony, even if taken as "common sense," is not stable. It is accountable to break down as the subordinated groups develop alternative ways of seeing the world, and as crises within established systems create room for exactly the development of alternative hegemonies. Major factor of this kind of transformation consists of cultural and political work in society instead of simply revolutionary action. This is specifically "war of position" indicated by Gramsci, to be distinguished from "war of maneuver" (the revolutionary takeover in a society where domination is not complemented by hegemonic sway over society at large).

Practically, Gramsci's visions about how power is constituted in the realm of ideas and knowledge expressed through consent rather than force have inspired the use of explicit strategies to contest hegemonic norms of legitimacy. Gramsci's ideas have influenced popular education practices, including the adult literacy and consciousness-raising methods of Paulo Freire in his Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1970), liberation theology, methods of participatory action research (PAR), and many approaches to popular media, communication and cultural action.

The idea of power as 'hegemony' has also impacted discussions about civil society. According to Gramsci, civil society can also be a public sphere of political struggle and contestation over ideas and norms. The goal of civil society is to strengthen the development policy which can be pursued either in a neo-liberal sense of building civic institutions to complement (or hold to account) states and markets, or in a Gramscian sense of building civic capacities to think differently, to challenge assumptions and norms, and to articulate new ideas and visions.

Marxian thinkers' construes that in all societies, there are two classes: the class which owns the means of production and the class which owns only labour power. The class which owns the means of production establishes its rule over the class which owns labour power and exploits it. Consequently, in the Marxian theory, the capitalist state is the managing committee of the bourgeoisie, which facilitates and legitimizes the exploitative processes in the society. It is the economic power that allows the ruling class to remain in power. Gramsci rejected the above Marxian principles. He contended that the ruling class maintains it's dominating in diverse ways including the use of force, use of its economic power and the consent of the ruled.

Most popular and dominant writing of Gramsci was The Prison Notebooks. It was written while he was imprisoned. Although it contains historical, social, and cultural analysis, it does not encapsulate what would be described as empirical research. Moreover, Gramsci drew mainly on others who are characterized as theorists or philosophers, including Marx, Engels, Lenin, Hegel and Italian philosopher Benedetto Croce. His considerations expand the analyses of his forerunners, and move beyond Croce's idealism (Kehoe, 2003). Written during his imprisonment as a political prisoner, the Prison Notebooks contains Gramsci's philosophies developed in response to Italian unification, and his activism with the Italian Communist Party. The incorporation of modern scholars gives currency to Gramsci's work, augments his often unclear and incomplete conceptualizations, and further discovers the epistemological and methodological implications that can be found in his thoughts.

Thoughts of Gramscian revealed in this excerpt: "The intellectual's error consists in believing that one can know without understanding and even more without feeling and being impassioned. In other words that the intellectual can be an intellectual (and not a pure pedant) if distinct and separate from the nation-people, that is, without feeling the elementary passions of the people, understanding them and therefore explaining and justifying them in the particular historical situation and connecting them dialectically to the laws of history and to a superior conception of the world, scientifically and coherently elaborated i.e. "knowledge" (Gramsci, 1971, p. 418). In this extract, Gramsci sketches his epistemological stance, which is consistent with qualitative methodologies. From this perspective, "Knowledge," emerges from the combined endeavours of intellect, emotion and engagement with "the people." However, Western traditions stress intellect as the producer of knowledge, Gramsci includes feeling and experience in his definition. For Gramsci, knowledge is also based in the concrete rather than the abstract, and is developed in a social framework.

Gramsci identified that the idea of "objective" in metaphysical materialism would appear to mean an objectivity that exists even apart from man; but when one affirms that a reality would exist even if man did not, one is either speaking metaphorically or one is falling into a form of mysticism (Gramsci, 1971, p. 446).

Irrespective of the limits of Gramsci and The Prison Notebooks, there is a consciousness of the connections between epistemology, theoretical framework, and methodology in this work. Gramsci in his 'Prison Notebooks' upholds that the bourgeois class maintains its domination not merely by force, but in several non-coercive ways. Two such non coercive ways emerge in his writings. One of them is ability of the ruling class to impose its own values and belief systems on the masses. Gramcis argued that the ruling class uses various processes of socialization to impose its own values and belief systems on the masses. Gramsci argued that the ruling class uses various processes of socialization to impose its own culture on the ruled. The ruling class tries to control the minds of men by imposing its own culture on them in several ways. Cultural hegemony, of the ruling class is the basis of its ruling power. Secondly, the ruling class does not always work for its core class interest. Gramsci stated that in order to maintain its ruling position, the ruling class enters into alliances and understanding with other groups in societies and creates a historic bloc. It is this strategy of creating a social bloc which allows the ruling class to get the consent of the ruled. Gramscian disagreement of the role of ideas and culture is a deviance from orthodox Marxism which recognizes the importance of economic factor alone instead of non-economic factors. Gramsci's clarification of hegemony of the ruling class in term of its compromises and alliances with other allies understates the conventional Marxian position in which the state is viewed just as the managing committee of the bourgeoisie. Gramsci asserted that bourgeoisie hegemony could only be challenged at the political and intellectual level, through a counter hegemonic struggle, carried out in the interests of the proletariat and on the basis of socialist principles, values and philosophies.

Role of intellectuals

Traditionally, different intellectuals have shaped the ideologies that have formed societies; each class creates one or more groups of intellectuals. Thus, if the working class wants to thrive in becoming hegemonic, it must also create its own intellectuals to develop a new ideology. Gramsci also contributed his political ideology in describing the role of intellectuals. Gramsci proposes that although all tasks require a degree of intellectual and creative ability, some persons will be required to perform tasks or functions which are visibly intellectual. In the first case, these occupations are related with the particular technical requirements of the economic system. Afterwards, they may be related with the more general administrative and organisational institutions which synchronise the activities of the economy with those of society as a whole. In the political sphere, each social group or class generates a need for intellectuals who both represent the interests of that class and develop its ideational understanding of the world (Ransome, 1992). Gramsci stated that the revolutionary intellectuals should originate from within the working class rather than being imposed from outside or above it.

He visualized that intellectuals are decisive in articulating and disseminating the outlooks of the classes for which they speak, in a way that goes beyond the simple expression of economic interests. For the working class, an intellectual who satisfied that role was not confined in Gramsci's thought to a stratum of educated, revolutionary elite. Rather, the "organic intellectual" could also be a lay person whose expression of the specific ideology of his class instigates out of his actual working life. This notion arises out of Gramsci's disagreement that all individuals are intellectual in the sense of having and using an intellect, though not all are intellectuals in terms of their formal social role.

According to Gramsci, intellectuals are a broader group of social agents. Gramsci's group of "intellectuals" includes not only scholars and artists or, in his own terms, the "organizers of culture," but also functionaries who exercise "technical" or "directive" capacities in society. Among these officials, administrators and bureaucrats, industrial managers, politicians, are included. Furthermore, Gramsci categorizes these intellectuals in two dimensions: the horizontal and the vertical dimensions. On the vertical dimension, he categorized the "specialists," those who organize industry in particular for the capitalists (including the industrial managers and foremen). On that dimension also find the "directors", the organizers of society in general. On the horizontal dimension, Gramsci categorizes intellectuals either as traditional intellectuals or as organic intellectuals. Traditional intellectuals are those intellectuals related to tradition and to past intellectuals; those who are not so directly linked to the economic structure of their particular society and, in fact, conceive of themselves as having no basis in any social class and adhering to no particular class discourse or political discourse. Organic intellectuals are more directly related to the economic structure of their society simply because of the fact that "every social group that originates in the fulfilment of an essential task of economic production" creates its own organic intellectual (John M. Cammett, 1967). Consequently, the organic intellectual "gives his class homogeneity and mindfulness of its own function, in the economic field and on the social and political levels".

It can be said that major ground of this classification is Gramsci's discrepancy between two distinct but interconnected areas in the social superstructure: "political society" and "civil society." It is assumed that the "specialists" (vertical dimension) would be situated most likely within "civil society," and more specifically at the links between civil society and the economic infrastructure or level of production. The agents who constitute this group operate mainly at the level of industry. Conversely, on the vertical dimension, the "directors" would seem to be situated most likely within "civil society" but outside the monarchy of industrial specialization. This is rather tentative and at the most an exercise in abstraction since the categories of civil society and political society, and the category of infrastructure, are abstractions from an "organic totality" that operates dialectically and integrates all levels in that operation.

Nonetheless, Gramsci is clearer as to the positionality of the intellectual types of the horizontal dimension in the super-structural level of society. Hence, organic intellectuals, part of the dominant class, provide employees for the coercive organs of political society. Traditional intellectuals, important in civil society, are more likely to reason with the masses and try to obtain 'spontaneous' consent to a social order. Yet, in the struggle of a class aspiring for hegemony the organic intellectuals created by that class operate on the level of chase for direct consensus and as such hold no position in the coercive political structures to operate on a coercive basis. Hence, it is observed that in the struggle for social hegemony, these organic intellectuals must reason with the masses and engage in a decisive 'war of position' to combine the hegemonic status of the class the interests of which they share.

Gramsci elaborated that the intellectuals are the "deputies" of the dominant group, the functionaries, exercising the subaltern but important functions of political government and social hegemony. In particular, the organic intellectuals are most important since they are the ones who actually elaborate and spread organic ideology. The political importance of these intellectuals rests also in the fact that, normally, the organic intellectuals of a historically and realistically progressive class will be able to establish their dominance over the intellectuals of other classes, and hence will be able to create a "system of solidarity" maintained so long as the progressive class remains "progressive".

Lastly, organic intellectuals are very instrumental in a class' scuffle for hegemony. One of the most important features of any group that is developing towards dominance is its struggle to integrate and conquer 'ideologically' the traditional intellectuals, but their assimilation and conquest is made faster and more effective so that the group in question will succeed in simultaneously elaborating its own organic intellectuals. It is further stated that the traditional intellectuals can be supportive agents in the quest for "spontaneous" consent to the social order. Consequently, it would also seem that the struggle for embracing the traditional intellectuals is yet another important requisite for a class' overall struggle for hegemony.

Gramsci considers that intellectuals has vital role in the revolutionary transformation of society. He debated that intellectuals provide a philosophy as well as advice for the masses so that they do not question the ruling position of the bourgeoisie.

The ideas of Antonio Gramsci (1971) have been taken up by researchers in many disciplines and fields from sociology and political science to communications, education and cultural studies. Nevertheless of the arena in which Gramsci's thoughts have been incorporated, scholars typically look to his writing about concepts as motivation for a theoretical framework. Some scholars have also revolved their attention to the implications of Gramsci's concepts for practice. Other theorists dismiss Gramsci's work as immaterial. They claim that it is time and place specific to be of use or that the lack of consistency and comprehensiveness of its conceptualizations limits its consistency (Morton, 1999).

Many intellectuals supported the Gramsci's political dogmas. According to David Harris, he is responsible for the development of a critical sociology of culture and for the politicisation of culture. Raymond Williams stated that the forms of domination and subordination correspond to the normal process of social organisation and control in developed societies than the idea of a ruling class, which are usually based on much earlier and simpler historical phases. Paul Ransome opined that Gramsci resolved two central flaws of Marx's original approach. First is that Marx was incorrect in assuming that social development always originates from the economic structure. Secondly, Marx gave too much faith in the possibility of a spontaneous upsurge of revolutionary consciousness among the working class. Todd Gitlin construed that Gramsci's distinction of culture was a great improvement for radical theories, it called attention to the routine structures of everyday 'common sense', which work to withstand class domination and oppression. According to Dominic Strinati, Gramsci recommended that there is a dialectic between the process of production and the activities of consumption. He also displayed a lack of dogmatism, dissimilar some other Marxist authors.

Besides merits, there are some criticism of Gramsci's theory. From the standpoint of Strinati's, the main problem with Gramsci's ideas is their Marxist background. A class-based analysis is always reductionist and tends to shorten the relation between the people and their own culture that is the problem of restricting a social theory within the Marxist limits. The deterministic framework does not allow history to contradict the theory, and the interpretation of reality becomes rather basic. According to Strinati, "People can accept the prevailing order because they are compelled to do so by devoting their time to 'making a living', or because they cannot conceive another way of organising society, and therefore fatalistically accept the world as it is. This, moreover, assumes that the question why people should accept a particular social order is the only legitimate question to ask. It can be claimed that an equally legitimate question is why should people not accept a particular social order?" (1995).

Another critic, Raymond Williams stated that a lived hegemony is always a process. It is not, except analytically, a system or a structure. It is a realised complex of experiences, relationships and activities, with specific and changing pressures and limits. In practice, that is, hegemony can never be singular. Its internal structures are highly complex, as can readily be seen in any concrete analysis. Moreover (and this is crucial, reminding us of the necessary thrust of the concept), it does not just passively exist as a form of dominance. It has continually to be renewed, recreated, defended, and modified. It is also continually resisted, limited, altered, and challenged by pressures not at all its own (Williams, 1977, Pp: 112).

David Harris has declared that Gramsci's ideas about the role of intellectuals in society are slightly elitist, and all the theory is too political and biased to be credible. He further argued that another problem of Gramsci's thought is the lack of empiricism, there is no scope for studies of audiences, surveys or something related directly with the people and their behaviour.

To summarize, Antonio Gramsci credited as the most influential philosophers of the Left in the twentieth century. In early years of academic life, Gramsci published writing and he contributed articles on a number of subjects, essays on general themes, literary and theatre criticism and, increasingly as the war went on, he initiated writing for the Turin edition of the principal Socialist newspaper Avanti, political commentaries (Joll, p.29-30). Gramsci showed, by his work in developing his concept of hegemony. Gramsci's notion of hegemony revealed that popular democratic struggles, and the parliamentary institutions which they have helped to shape, do not have a necessary class character. Instead, they are a territory for political struggle between the two major classes the working class and the capitalist class (simon, p.17). Gramsci had great contribution to Marxist theory. Gramsci brought new theoretical bases into truly dialectical Marxist revolutionary theory with concepts such as "organic ideology," "civil society" and "political society," "organic intellectuals," "hegemony," as well as his unique distinction between political society and civil society.