Biography of Antonio Gramsci

Why His Work Remains Important in Sociology

Portrait of Antonio Gramsci, the Marxist Italian journalist, socialist activist and political prisoner renowned for writing The Prison Notebooks.
Antonio Gramsci.

Antonio Gramsci was an Italian journalist and activist who is known and celebrated for highlighting and developing the roles of culture and education within Marx's theories of economy, politics, and class. Born in 1891, he died at just 46 years of age as a consequence of serious health problems he developed while imprisoned by the fascist Italian government. Gramsci's most widely read and notable works, and those that influenced social theory, were written while he was imprisoned and published posthumously as The Prison Notebooks.

Today Gramsci is considered a foundational theorist for the sociology of culture, and for articulating the important connections between culture, the state, the economy, and power relations. Gramsci’s theoretical contributions spurred the development of the field of cultural studies, and in particular, the field’s attention to the cultural and political significance of mass media.

Gramsci's Childhood and Early Life

Antonio Gramsci was born on the island of Sardinia in 1891. He grew up in poverty amongst the peasants of the island, and his experience of the class differences between mainland Italians and Sardinians and the negative treatment of peasant Sardinians by mainlanders shaped his intellectual and political thought deeply.

In 1911, Gramsci left Sardinia to study at the University of Turin in northern Italy, and lived there as the city was industrialized. He spent his time in Turin amongst socialists, Sardinian immigrants, and workers recruited from poor regions to staff the urban factories.

He joined the Italian Socialist Party in 1913. Gramsci did not complete a formal education, but was trained at the University as a Hegelian Marxist, and studied intensively the interpretation of Karl Marx’s theory as a “philosophy of praxis” under Antonio Labriola. This Marxist approach focused on the development of class consciousness and liberation of the working class through the process of struggle.

Gramsci as Journalist, Socialist Activist, Political Prisoner

After he left school, Gramsci wrote for socialist newspapers and rose in the ranks of Socialist party. He and the Italian socialists became affiliated with Vladimir Lenin and the international communist organization known as the Third International. During this time of political activism, Gramsci advocated for workers’ councils and labor strikes as methods of taking control of the means of production, otherwise controlled by wealthy capitalists to the detriment of the laboring classes. Ultimately, he helped found the Italian Communist Party to mobilize workers for their rights.

Gramsci traveled to Vienna in 1923, where he met Georg Lukács, a prominent Hungarian Marxist thinker, and other Marxist and communist intellectuals and activists who would shape his intellectual work. In 1926, Gramsci, then the head of the Italian Communist Party, was imprisoned in Rome by Benito Mussolini’s fascist regime during its aggressive campaign of stamping out opposition politics. He was sentenced to twenty years in prison but was released in 1934 because of his very poor health. The bulk of his intellectual legacy was written in prison, and is known as “The Prison Notebooks.” Gramsci died in Rome in 1937, just three years after his release from prison.

Gramsci's Contributions to Marxist Theory

Gramsci’s key intellectual contribution to Marxist theory is his elaboration of the social function of culture and its relationship to politics and the economic system. While Marx discussed only briefly these issues in his writing, Gramsci drew on Marx’s theoretical foundation to elaborate the important role of political strategy in challenging the dominant relations of society, and the role of the state in regulating social life and maintaining the conditions necessary for capitalism. He thus focused on understanding how culture and politics might inhibit or spur revolutionary change, which is to say, he focused on the political and cultural elements of power and domination (in addition to and in conjunction with the economic element). As such, Gramsci’s work is a response to the false prediction of Marx’s theory that revolution was inevitable, given the contradictions inherent in the system of capitalist production.

In his theory, Gramsci viewed the state as an instrument of domination that represents the interests of capital and of the ruling class. He developed the concept of cultural hegemony to explain how the state accomplishes this, arguing that domination is achieved in large part by a dominant ideology expressed through social institutions that socialize people to consent to the rule of the dominant group. He reasoned that hegemonic beliefs--dominant beliefs--dampen critical thought, and are thus barriers to revolution.

Gramsci viewed the educational institution as one of the fundamental elements of cultural hegemony in modern Western society and elaborated on this in essays titled “The Intellectuals” and “On Education.” Though influenced by Marxist thought, Gramsci’s body of work advocated for a multi-faceted and more long-term revolution than that envisioned by Marx. He advocated for the cultivation of “organic intellectuals” from all classes and walks of life, who would understand and reflect the world views of a diversity of people. He critiqued the role of “traditional intellectuals,” whose work reflected the worldview of the ruling class, and thus facilitated cultural hegemony. Additionally, he advocated for a “war of position” in which oppressed peoples would work to disrupt hegemonic forces in the realm of politics and culture, while a simultaneous overthrow of power, a “war of maneuver,” was carried out.

Gramsci’s collected works include Pre-Prison Writings published by Cambridge University Press and The Prison Notebooks, published by Columbia University Press.

An abridge version, Selections from the Prison Notebooks, is available from International Publishers.

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Cole, Nicki Lisa, Ph.D. "Biography of Antonio Gramsci." ThoughtCo, Apr. 12, 2017, thoughtco.com/antonio-gramsci-3026471. Cole, Nicki Lisa, Ph.D. (2017, April 12). Biography of Antonio Gramsci. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/antonio-gramsci-3026471 Cole, Nicki Lisa, Ph.D. "Biography of Antonio Gramsci." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/antonio-gramsci-3026471 (accessed November 18, 2017).