Was Antonio Gramsci a Socialist?

This month sees the 80th anniversary of the death of an icon of the left – Antonio Gramsci. Gramsci (1891-1937) was an Italian political activist who was imprisoned by Mussolini’s Fascist regime in 1926 and died while still a captive 10 years later from a combination of illnesses. He was an undoubtedly courageous figure who fought difficult family circumstances when young to educate himself and became a prolific writer and editor for the emerging left-wing press in Italy in the second and third decade of the 20th century. He wrote intensively of the need for both workers’ rights and workers’ revolution and actively involved himself in the political action he advocated. He was a leading member of the foremost left-wing movement, the Italian Socialist Party, until, after the 1917 Bolshevik revolution in Russia, his disenchantment with what he saw as their over-timid approach led him to become, in 1921, one of the co-founders of the Italian Communist Party, which pledged allegiance to Lenin and the Bolshevik regime. Then, in 1922-23, he spent a significant period in Russia as delegate to the Communist International (‘Comintern’) and, on his return to Italy, was elected to the Chamber of Deputies and served until his arrest and imprisonment. Sentenced to 20 years for subversion, he was however able to continue writing in prison, where access to books and the extensive knowledge of history and politics he had accumulated during his years of political activity led him to produce a mass of notes, observations and essays on an astonishingly broad spread of topics, later ordered into what were called the Prison Notebooks. It is largely on these and on the collection of letters he wrote from prison – mainly to family members – that his reputation as a social and political theorist lies.


Gramsci is said, in the Prison Notebooks, to have developed a new and original kind of Marxist sociology, which, over the last half century or so, has engendered a vast range of debate, interpretation and controversy by academics and others – the so-called ‘Gramsci industry’. One of the key matters debated has been his concept of ‘hegemony’ (‘egemonia’). This was the term Gramsci used to describe what he saw as the prerequisite for a successful revolution: the building of an ideological consensus throughout all the institutions of society spread by intellectuals who saw the need for revolution and used their ability to persuade and proselytise workers to carry through that revolution. Only when that process was sufficiently widespread, would successful revolutionary action be possible. So hegemony was what might be called the social penetration of revolutionary ideas.

This outlook is very different from the fervour with which in earlier years Gramsci had greeted the Russian revolution and advocated similar uprisings in other countries. By the second half of the 1920s, with Italy ruled by a Fascist dictatorship and opposition leaders exiled or imprisoned, Gramsci came to see revolution as a longer-term prospect which would depend on the conditions existing in individual countries.

And it is this ‘long-term’ idea of revolutionary change that has been interpreted in very many different ways according to the standpoint or political position of the individual commentator. One way it could be read would seem to tie in closely with the Socialist Party’s view that only through widespread political consciousness on the part of workers and majority consent for social revolution can a society based on the satisfaction of human needs rather than on the profit imperative be established. In this light Gramsci’s hegemony could be seen to have the profoundly democratic implications of insisting on a widespread and well-informed desire among the majority of workers for socialist revolution before such a revolution can come about. Indeed it is clear that Gramsci was not unaware of Marx’s ‘majoritarian’ view of socialism (or communism – they were interchangeable for Marx) as a stateless, leaderless world where the wages system is abolished and a system of ‘from each according to ability to each according to need’ operates. In an article written in 1920, for example, Gramsci refers to ‘communist society’ as ‘the International of nations without states’, and later from prison he writes about ‘the disappearance of the state, the absorption of political society into civil society’. However, though he referred to himself as using ‘the Marxist method’, such reflections on the nature of the society he wished to see established are few and far between and cannot reasonably be said to characterise the mainstream of his thought.


When looked at closely in fact, Gramsci’s thought is overwhelmingly marked by what may be called the coercive element of his Leninist political background. So, while undoubtedly in his later writings he came to see the Soviet model as inapplicable to other Western societies, he nevertheless continued to conceive of revolution as the taking of power via the leadership of a minority group, even if in different circumstances from those experienced by Lenin in Russia. The most important pointer to this lies in Gramsci’s view of the state. Hardly ever does he view socialism other than as a form of state. The overwhelming thrust of his analysis and his recommendations for political action point not to doing away with states and the class divisions that go with them but to establishing new kinds of states. In 1919, enthused by the Bolshevik takeover in Russia, Gramsci wrote: ‘Society cannot live without a state: the state is the concrete act of will which guards against the will of the individual, faction, disorder and individual indiscipline ….communism is not against the state, in fact it is implacably opposed to the enemies of the state.’ Later too, in his prison writings, arguing now for a ‘long-term strategy’, he continued to declare the need for states and state organisation, for leaders and led, for governors and governed in the conduct of human affairs – underlined by his frequent use of three terms in particular: ‘direzione’ (leadership), ‘disciplina’ (discipline) and ‘coercizione’ (coercion).

So, despite what Gramsci himself recognised as changed times and circumstances compared with Russia in 1917, he continued to be profoundly influenced by Lenin’s view that ‘if socialism can only be realised when the intellectual development of all the people permits it, then we shall not see Socialism for at least 500 years’ – in other words that genuine majority social consciousness was unachievable. And in line with this, when looked at closely his ‘hegemony’, far from eschewing the idea of a revolutionary vanguard, sees an intellectual leadership taking the masses with them. In other words the ‘consent’ that his hegemony, his long-term penetration of ideas, proposes is not the informed consent of a convinced socialist majority but an awakening of what, at one point he refers to as ‘popular passions’, a spontaneous spilling over of revolutionary enthusiasm which enables the leadership to take the masses with them and then govern in the way they think best.

Human nature

Underpinning this lack of confidence by Gramsci in the ability of a majority to self-organise is a factor little commented on but particularly significant – and that is his view of what may be called ‘human nature’. In writing explicitly about human nature, which Gramsci does on a number of occasions, he expresses agreement with Marx’s view that human nature is not something innate, fixed and unchanging, not something homogeneous for all people in all times but something that changes historically and is inseparable from ideas in society at a given time. This view of humanity is in fact described by Gramsci as ‘the great innovation of Marxism’ and he contrasts it favourably with other widely-held early 20th century views such as the Catholic dogma of original sin and the ‘idealist’ position that human nature was identical at all times and undeveloping. But despite Gramsci’s stated ‘theoretical’ view on this topic, scrutiny of his writings in places where ‘human nature’ is not raised explicitly but is rather present in an implicit way points his thought in a different, more pessimistic direction.

When he writes about education, for example, his pronouncements about the need for ‘coercion’ indicate little confidence in the ability of human beings to behave fundamentally differently or to adaptably change their ‘nature’ in a different social environment. In corresponding with his wife about the education of their children, in response to her view that, if children are left to interact with the environment and the environment is non-oppressive, they will develop co-operative forms of behaviour, he states ‘I think that man is a historical formation but one obtained through coercion’ and implies that without coercion undesirable behaviour will result. Then, in the Prison Notebooks, on a similar topic he writes: ‘Education is a struggle against the instincts which are tied to our elementary biological functions, it is a struggle against nature itself.’ What surfaces here as in other places, even if not stated explicitly, is a view of human nature not as the exclusive product of history but as characterised by some kind of inherent propensity towards anti-social forms of behaviour which needs to be coerced and tamed.

Viewed in this light, Gramsci’s vision of post-revolutionary society as a place where human beings will continue to need leadership and coercion should not be seen either as being in contradiction with his theory of ideological penetration (‘hegemony’) or as inconsistent with the views that emerge about human nature when his writings do not explicitly focus on that subject. So we should not be surprised that Gramsci’s vision for the future is not a society of free access and democratic control where people organise themselves freely and collectively as a majority but rather a change from one form of minority authority to another – a change from a system of the few manifestly governing in their own interests to the few claiming to govern in the interests of the majority.

The evidence of Gramsci’s writings therefore suggests that the revolution he envisages is not one in which democracy in the sense of each participating with equal understanding and equal authority prevails. Crucially, the leadership function is not abolished. The hegemonisers will essentially be in charge, since they will be the ones with the necessary understanding to run the society they have conceived. What this society might be like he does not go on to say in any detail. But it would clearly not be a socialist world of free access and democratic control that rejects authority from above together with its political expression, the state. For Gramsci any such considerations were at best peripheral to the thrust of his thought and his social vision. And though he did have a revolutionary project, it is not a socialist one in the terms that socialism is correctly understood.


Leave a Reply