Antonio Gramsci and Neo-Marxism: An Introduction
Gramsci’s Political Thought: An Introduction Roger Simon
An Introduction to Antonio Gramsci: His Life, Thought and Legacy : George Hoare and Nathan Sperber
Gramsci’s Politics : Anne Showstack Sassoon
Click here for dramatised documentary on life of Antonio Gramsci
Click here for a good, clear introduction to Hegemony
Click here for another clear introduction to Gramsci, Ideology and Hegemomy
Click here for Gramsci and Us [Stuart Hall 1987] . [You might like to think about how this article could be updated to 2017!]
The following resources are much more detailed
Click here for a series of audio lectures with slides on Antonio Gramsci presented by Professor Bob Jessop.
Click here for information on traditional and organic intellectuals
Click here and scroll to page 25 for a detailed article by Carl Boggs on Gramsci and Euro communism
Click here for a very detailed essay on Gramsci by Sherman Tan
Click here for a pamphlet entitled Gramsci in Context
Antonio Gramsci and Neo-Marxism: An Introduction
The Italian Antonio Gramsci [1891-1937] became one of the key figures in the Italian Socialist Party and subsequently in the Italian Communist Party. When the leader of the Italian Fascist Party Benito Mussolini outlawed all Opposition political parties Gramsci was among many Communist and Socialist politicians who were either imprisoned or sent into internal exile. At his trial the State Prosecutor said of Gramsci that “For 20 years we must stop this brain from functioning” and Gramsci received a 20 year prison sentence in 1927. Gramsci had never enjoyed good health and his health deteriorated further in prison as a result of which he was released on health grounds in 1934 but died, aged 46 in 1937. However despite poor health and difficult prison conditions Gramsci was nevertheless able in prison to outline his approach to politics in voluminous writings which were published as his Prison Notebooks after his death. . [Click here for further information from Wikipedia]
Interpretations of Marx’s work differ in the degree of emphasis which is given to the importance of economic factors in shaping the nature of capitalist societies and influencing the processes of revolutionary change. In the most economic determinist interpretations [which were especially dominant in the era of the Second International ] it is argued that the economic base of capitalist societies heavily influences the organisation of the institutions of the superstructure which function to ensure the continuing existence of the capitalist system and the continuing dominance of the capitalist class and that socialist revolutions can occur only when economic circumstances are conducive to their success : i.e. when the contradictions between the forces of production and the relations of production make socialist revolution inevitable.
This may be taken also to suggest that individuals, social classes and political parties can do little to accelerate the socialist revolution which can occur only when the appropriate economic circumstances are in place. To believe otherwise is to believe in an excessive voluntarism which assigns an imagined freedom of action to individuals and social groups which they do not in reality possess and to recommend political strategies which are doomed to failure because currently existing economic conditions are not conducive to their success.
It is clear , however, that other important elements of Marxist theory militate against this economic determinist interpretation of Marxism as , for example, in Marx and Engels statement in The Communist Manifesto that “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles” and in Marx’ statement in The 18th Brumaire of Louis Napoleon  that “Men make their own history but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances but under circumstances existing already given and transmitted from the past” .Each of these statements indicate clearly that Marx believed that individual will and action could also influence the course of history even though economic circumstances do to some extent constrain the scope for individual revolutionary activity.
Thus although economic determinist versions of Marxism held a dominant position in the era of the Second International Marx’s own writings gave much greater scope to individual agency and it was the economic determinist versions of Marxism which Antonio Gramsci particularly rejected.
- Key elements of Antonio Gramsci’s political thought
Antonio Gramsci is especially associated with a non-deterministic version of Neo-Marxism in which the organisation of functions of the superstructure of capitalist societies are seen as more independent of the economic base and individuals have considerable , although certainly not total, freedom to influence political events. Thus he declared that , in his view, the Russian Revolution amounted to “A revolution against Capital” (that is : a revolution against the economic determinist reading of Capital) in that the Russian Revolution had shown that the arrival of socialist revolution did not depend upon the prior existence of a relatively advanced capitalist system and the emergence of contradictions between the forces of production and the social relations of production but could be accelerated by the political activities of a determined political party [ in this case Lenin’s Bolshevik Party] .
This encouraged Gramsci to stress the importance of individual action within any revolutionary process although he was also simultaneously aware that individual action was restricted by significant economic, political and social constraints He was aware also that political circumstances in pre-revolutionary Russia differed significantly from those in the more advanced capitalist societies of the West and that these differences would necessitate differences in political strategy as will be indicated below.
Gramsci wrote his Prison Notebooks under extremely difficult conditions and political analysts have subsequently aimed to reconstruct his overall theories out of fragmentary diffuse comments which may sometimes appear ambiguous. These difficulties apply especially to Gramsci’s variable use of the terms “State and “Political Society.
In the first usage of the terms Gramsci adopts what may be seen as a fairly orthodox analysis of the State where he argues that capitalist societies may essentially be divided into three elements .Thus:
Capitalist Society= The State [or Political Society] + The Capitalist Relations of Production + Civil Society
In this formulation the State [or Political Society] refers only to the coercive institutions of the State [ i.e. the judiciary, the armed forces, the police and the prison system]; the Capitalist Relations of Production refer to the relationships between owners and non-owners of the means of production within the capitalist system; and Civil Society refers to all other social institutions such as families, the mass media, the education system, the church, political parties, pressure groups, societies, clubs etc . Also in this formulation Gramsci does recognise that the State does exercise some non=coercive functions [e.g. the provision of state health, education and welfare] and that some social institutions are part of both the State and Civil Society: for example schools are regulated by the State but fall within Civil Society.
However in what is regarded as his more significant analysis of the State Gramsci adopts a much broader definition of the State which is now seen as an Integral State which is defined ass “the entire complex of practical and theoretical activities with which the ruling class not only justifies and maintains its dominance but manages to maintain the active consent of those over whom it rules. “ [It is the second usage of these terms which is emphasised in A Level Sociology textbooks.] Thus in this formulation
The [Integral] State = Political Society + Civil Society.
An Integral Capitalist State may sustain the capitalist system via a combination of repressive measures involving the use or threat of force/coercion against members of subordinate classes undertaken by agents of the institutions of Political Society and persuasive measures aiming to secure the consent of subordinate classes or hegemony undertaken by agents of the institutions of Civil Society. Thus “Hegemony is a relation not of domination by means of force but of consent by means of political and ideological leadership.” Capitalist hegemonic ideas include those ideas which in orthodox Marxism appear within the Marxist concept of the ruling class ideology . [Click here for some examples.]. However it should be noted that Hegemony does not derive solely from ideas but also from the kinds of economic and social policies [such as full employment, mildly redistributive tax and benefit policies and rising workers’ living standards which might persuade potential opponents of the desirability of the continuation of capitalism.
Gramsci argues that the relative significance of Political Society/Coercion and Civil Society/Hegemony within the State varies according to historical circumstances. Thus, according to Gramsci, in pre-revolutionary Russia the dominance of the ruling groups was secured primarily through the repressive activities of Political Society while the persuasive activities of Civil Society were less important whereas in more advanced Western capitalist societies in the 1920s and 1930s the continuation of capitalism is secured mainly via the ideologically persuasive activities of Civil Society although the repressive methods of Political Society are still be necessary but to a lesser extent than was the case in pre-revolutionary Russia.
Gramsci explains this point as follows [although we must note that he is here using the first formulation mentioned above of the relationship between the state and civil society]: “In the East the State was everything: civil society was primordial and gelatinous; in the West there was a proper relation between the State and civil society and when the state trembled a sturdy structure of civil society was revealed. The State was only an outer ditch behind which there stood a powerful system of fortresses and earthworks. ”
Consequently although it was possible in pre-revolutionary Russia for the Bolsheviks to take power via a direct challenge to “Political Society” in a so-called “war of movement” [also sometimes called a “war of manouevre”] inn Western capitalist societies in the 1920samd 1930s anti-capitalist revolution was still unlikely because, according to Gramsci, the hegemony of the capitalist class ensured that despite difficult economic conditions ideological opposition to capitalism was unlikely to develop on a large enough scale to foment anti-capitalist political activity. Thus because in Western capitalist societies the “Integral State is more strongly supported by the institutions of Civil Society a Western Communist party would be able to take over the capitalist state by a “war of position” which is a long process of gradual but ultimately revolutionary political change operating within the institutions of civil society. [ In the 1960s the German radical activist Rudi Duschke would argue that revolutionary change could be achieved only via “the long march through the institutions” and this phrase does seem to capture the basic meaning of Gramsci’s “war of position ” particularly well.]
Let us now investigate in more detail the main elements of Gramsci’s analysis of Western capitalist societies as they existed in the 1920s and 1930s and the nature of the war of position which Gramsci believed was necessary in order to undermine and replace the capitalist system by socialism and ultimately communism.
Gramsci argued that Western capitalist class structures by the 1920s and 1930s were becoming increasingly complex and that the relationship between the capitalist state and the capitalist class was more complex than is implied in the so-called instrumentalist Marxist theory in which it is argued that the capitalist state is simply the executive arm of the Bourgeoisie as indicated in the statement in the Communist Manifesto that ” The executive of the modern state is but a committee for the management of the common affairs of the whole Bourgeoisie.” Instead Gramsci argued that the Bourgeoisie or capitalist class itself contains different fractions with differing interests so that the capitalist state must be allowed the relative autonomy to resolve conflicts within the capitalist class and to grant concessions to the working class which the capitalist class itself may not have accepted but which are nevertheless necessary to the survival of the capitalist system as a whole.
Also the capitalist class will require the support of other social classes, most notably the middle class but also some parts of the working class if it is to maintain its overall dominance. and, furthermore, also although social class conflict is endemic in capitalist societies there are other social groupings [so-called national popular groupings] such as women, ethnic minority groups, environmentalists , gay rights activists and civil liberties organisations which may all have grievances which they wish states to address such that capitalist societies are characterised by both class conflict and a variety of highly significant non-class conflicts
Consequently if the capitalist class wishes to retain power it must sustain its position at the head of a so-called “Historic Bloc” comprising not only also parts of other social classes but also the above mentioned national popular groupings. Also the capitalist class will also require support from within the institutions of civil society [most notably the education system, the mass media and in some cases the Church] if it is to sustain its ideological dominance [i.e. its hegemony] over the other social classes and non -class groupings which make up the Historic Bloc.
It follows , therefore that the political dominance of the dominant class is far more precarious than is suggested in orthodox Marxist theories where the Bourgeoisie are described straightforwardly as an economically and politically dominant class a ruling class. Instead in the Gramscian theory the dominant economic class is itself fragmentary and it must make concessions to other subordinate social classes and national popular groups and retain a leading role within the institutions of civil society if it is to sustain its overall dominance within capitalist society. The capitalist class cannot totally control the activities of the state and concessions must be granted to subordinate classes but the considerable indirect power of the capitalist class over the institutions of the state is shown by the fact that the concessions granted to subordinate classes will never be so great as to challenge the overall dominance of the capitalist class nor the continuation of the capitalist system.
Also, very importantly, the power of the capitalist class will be gradually but significantly weakened if the working class is able to mount a successful war of position against the capitalist class. In this war of position that Gramsci hoped would be waged against the capitalist class and the capitalist state a key role was to be played by the Communist Party which Gramsci saw as the key representative of the working class which in turn was to become the new dominant class within a new anti-capitalist Historic Bloc.
So called organic intellectuals [see below] sympathetic to working class interests would aim to help the workers to develop a true working class political consciousness . An important element of Gramsci’s thinking here is the distinction which he makes between Common Sense and Good Sense. Individuals’ Common Sense is based upon the attitudes and values into which they have been socialised and which Gramsci believed to be basically pro-capitalist and conservative in nature because they are heavily subjected to pro-capitalist Hegemony. However Gramsci believes that individuals also have elements of “Good Sense” which enables them to recognise, at least to some extent, the adverse consequences of capitalist inequality so that sympathetic intellectuals would gradually be able to deepen the political consciousness of the working class.. In addition Gramsci emphasises that all workers have considerable intellectual capacities which ultimately would enable them to play an active role in their own self-emancipation rather than to depend very heavily upon the activities of a limited number of political leaders.
It would be recognised also that it is desirable where possible to seek allies among members of “higher” social classes and among national-popular groupings such as feminists, ethnic minority members, environmentalists and gay activists although in each case the aim would be to link their concerns with the transcendence of capitalism. Also the aim would be to replace the dominance of pro-capitalist organic intellectuals by the dominance of pro-working class organic intellectuals within the institutions of Civil Society. In this way it was hoped that in the long term a new anti-capitalist Counter-Hegemony would gradually develop throughout Civil Society which eventually create the conditions for a hopefully brief and primarily non-violent war of manouevre which would lead to the replacement of the pro-Capitalist Political Society by political institutions representative of the newly established anti-capitalist historic bloc.
Thus in the Gramscian schema the displacement of the capitalist state and the capitalist class in advanced capitalist societies would be achieved via along war of position operative in civil society followed by a short and hopefully largely but not entirely non violent war of movement against the institutions of political society. Then in the post revolutionary era the aim would be to widen and deepen support for communist principles with civil society so that a highly liberal, participative variant of communism would emerge rather than the authoritarian and repressive regimes which have been witnessed in the former USSR, Eastern Europe and elsewhere.
Gramsci and Neo-Marxism: Evaluation
- Gramsci’s ideas represent a useful attempt to move away from the more deterministic variants of Marxism and to focus more on the importance of human agency as a factor in societal development.
- Gramsci clarifies the extent to which the power of the state is based a combination of force [in Political Society] and Hegemony [ in Civil Society]. He also emphasises that Hegemony involves both material concessions to disadvantaged groups [most notably the working class] and attempts to establish ideological control over them.
- He recognises that in the West opposition to capitalism must be built gradually via “War of Position” in Civil Society followed by a hopefully brief and relatively non-violent “War of Movement ” against Political Society.
- He recognises the importance of the building a new anti-Capitalist Historic Bloc [ an alliance of class and non-class opposition to capitalism ]if the capitalist system is to be brought to an end. However his claim that the Communist Party as representative of the working class must play the dominant role with the new Historic Bloc has attracted criticism.
- Organic intellectuals of the working class are to play an important role in the creation of the new Historic Bloc but these intellectuals can also learn from the experiences of working class people who also have much to contribute to the revolutionary process. Thus the movement is to be build on collaboration rather than on a distinction between leaders and followers.
Several criticisms which are applied to Marxist theory in general may also be applied to Gramsci’s variant of Neo=Marxism.
- Functionalist and New Right theorists argue that the Marxist analysis of capitalism is inaccurate and that in reality the economic and political inequalities generated under capitalism promote economic efficiency and good government from which all, including the poorest can benefit whereas actually existing communist regimes has resulted in extreme political repression and economic stagnation.
- Also Social Democrats have argued that although unregulated capitalist laissez faire results in exploitation, inequality and injustice the capitalist system can nevertheless be regulated via social democratic reforms involving selective nationalisation , egalitarian taxation and benefit policies and welfare state expansion all of which render Marxist-inspired revolution unnecessary and counterproductive. It is the regulated mixed economy which is best able to secure economic justice and rising living standards for all.
- Postmodernists in turn have criticised Marxism [and all other sociological perspectives] as mere metanarratives designed to entrench the power of privileged elites of various types.
Specific criticisms may also be made directly of Gramsci’s variant of Neo-Marxism
- There are more structuralist inclined Marxists such as Louis Althusser who claim that Gramsci has underestimated the impact of economic factors on the course of history and the effects of structural constraints on individual behaviour which means that he has also over-estimated the capacities of individuals to transform the capitalist system unless economic conditions unless economic conditions are favourable to such transformation. In a nutshell Gramsci is here accused of excessive voluntarism. [We might note however that there do seem to be considerable similarities between Gramsci’s distinction between Political Society and Civil Society and Althusser’s distinction between Repressive State Apparatuses and Ideological State Apparatuses.]
- Some revolutionary Marxists have criticised the uses to which Gramsci’s theories have allegedly been put by more reformist Euro-Communist parties most notably in Italy. Thus it is that Euro-Communists have over-emphasised Gramsci’s emphasis on the War of Position and the need to build alliances among non-class oppositional groups and de-emphasised Gramsci’s concerns with class politics and the need for and ultimately revolutionary strategy. I shall not pursue these disputes any further here but they are widely considered to be very important on the revolutionary Left.
- It may be that Gramsci has overestimated the role of ideology as a factor sustaining the dominant position of the capitalist class within the pro-capitalist historic bloc. Instead it may be that the material circumstances of workers inhibit their capacity for rebellion even though they recognise the injustices of the capitalist system. For example they may be prepared to work for low wages without protest because they cannot afford to go on strike or fear that if they do and the strike is lost they will lose their jobs in future. Thus they are being inhibited via economic coercion not via ideological control in this case.
- In recent years it has often seemed possible that the development of New Right Ideology has entrenched a pro-capitalist hegemony even more powerful than Gramsci himself could have imagined so that the prospects for socialist advance are currently weak indeed. Time will tell whether the newly radicalised Labour Party under the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn will be able to challenge the current pro-capitalist hegemony.
- Gramsci argued that his “War of Position” within Civil Society would be led by a Communist Policy representing the interests of the working class and those of other oppositional groupings which in contemporary capitalist societies includes feminists, environmentalists , gay rights activists , defenders of civil liberties and opponents of global capitalism from all social classes. However in reality throughout Western capitalist societies the influence of Communist Parties has declined very significantly and it has been called into question whether it is any longer plausible to describe the working class as a potentially revolutionary class. Others argue that the hegemony of neoliberalism is finally in decline. We shall see!
Political Economy can remain a science only so long as the class-struggle is latent or manifests itself only in isolated and sporadic phenomena. … In France and in England the bourgeoisie had conquered political power. Thenceforth, the class-struggle, practically as well as theoretically, took on more and more outspoken and threatening forms. It sounded the knell of scientific bourgeois economy. It was thenceforth no longer a question, whether this theorem or that was true, but whether it was useful to capital or harmful, expedient or inexpedient, politically dangerous or not. In place of disinterested inquirers, there were hired prize fighters; in place of genuine scientific research, the bad conscience and the evil intent of apologetic.
Marx, Afterword to the Second German Edition of Capital (1873)