A Short Biographical Sketch of Antonio Gramsci (1891-1937)


Below is a section taken from a speech I delivered at a discussion group a couple of weeks ago on the work of Antonio Gramsci. The speech was intended to offer an introduction to the theory of hegemony – that is, the theory of how ideas & ideology operate as dominant within a totality of society. The section reproduced constitutes a short, biographical sketch of Gramsci himself. This provides context, much need in discussions of the theory of hegemony, the Italian Communist Party & fascism. Equally, a glance at Gramsci’s life rather deftly dispels any distortions of his character, toward a parliamentarian liberal or else merely an esoteric literary-cultural theorist. 

A quick word on why Gramsci’s life & work are still relevant. To be blunt, a majority of the “theoretical” or “critical” understanding of hegemony amongst activist circles is entirely inadequate. Often, simplistic renditions of an understanding are utilised in order to obfuscate this inadequacy. For example, we posit “the media”. Whilst this phrase, “the media”, is accurate to an extent, it is not concrete. It seems to posit a single, homogenous body which controls ideas. A quick look at what these people say, on virtually anything, complicates & rejects this understanding to a great extent. Where we instead, I think, need to begin is at an understanding of the multiplicity of institutions, cultural artefacts & concrete phenomena (which includes human beings, as active agents, in motion) that constitute a hegemony. Hegemony does not tell us what to think directly – that is far too crass, far too a-historical &, in point of fact, posits a determinism. Rather, hegemony is ‘the organisation of consent’ (Peter Ives, Language and Hegemony in Gramsci, p.64.). In order to understand this, we must understand, study & take lessons from the principal Marxist theorist of hegemony – including his life & material context.

Concrete demonstrations of bourgeois ideological domination in Britain are not difficult to find. An article published by The Guardian on 28 August & titled ‘Closed shop at the top in deeply elitist Britain, says study’ is ample, if a little simple. It details a study by the Social Mobility & Child Poverty Commission on the ‘social background of those “running Britain”’. The study reveals that 7% of Britain’s total population (of course, excluding many migrants) attended a private school. This 7% makes up 71% of senior judges, 62% of senior officers in the armed forces, 53% of senior diplomats, 50% of members of the House of Lords, 45% of public body chairs, 43% of newspaper columnists, 36% of cabinet ministers, 33% of MPs, 26% of BBC executives, 22% of shadow cabinet ministers & 44% of the Sunday Times rich list. By contrast, Oxbridge graduates make up 1% of the population, but 75% of senior judges, 59% of cabinet ministers, 50% of diplomats, 47% of newspaper columnists, 44% of public body chairs, 38% of members of the House of Lords, 33% of BBC executives, 33% of shadow cabinet ministers, 24% of MPs & 12% of those on the Sunday Times rich list. Now, obviously, these figures are absolutely absurd & incredibly revealing. However, to highlight this, consider the distribution. 1% of the population makes up 75%, 59%, 50%, 47%, 44%, 38%, 33%, 33%, 24% & 12% of entirely different, but extremely important professions.

The below historical information must be forgiven for its lack of detail – it is intended as a starting point & was, originally, written to be spoken. With the full speech running to roughly 1/2 an hour, 1 can easily appreciate the reasons behind its brevity.

Antonio Gramsci was born in Ales, a small town in the Cagliari province of Sardinia, in 1891. For those of you that do not know Sardinia is a large island to the East of Italy. It has complex historical relationship with Spain, France & certain parts of West Asia, essentially serving as colony & changing hands repeatedly throughout the 14th-18th centuries. In 1848 the confederation of states, an alliance between what are now various regions of Italy, became a unitarian & constitutional state, led by the kings of Sardinia. Under the name of the Kingdom of Sardinia, these nations fought against the Austrian Empire for national liberation between 1848 & 1849. Following the Unification of Italy in 1871, when Rome became the newly formed nation’s capital, the leading role of Sardinia had entirely vanished. Essentially, Sardinia became an agrarian colony of Italy. This undoubtedly influenced Gramsci considerably & the theme of Sardinian nationalism is considered repeatedly in his work, with varying degrees of support. The peasant basis of the Sardinian economy is also considered by Gramsci repeatedly.

Know to his parents & friends as “Nino”, Gramsci was a frail but studious child. His ill health is a recurrent problem through his life – he suffered from various problems with his lungs, he was hunch-backed & he had often suffered from periods of severe depression, exhaustion & anxiety. His parents & siblings often attributed this to a servant dropping him when he was four, an idea that he despised for its simplicity. Nevertheless, Gramsci was devoted to study from a young age & his disciplined rigor was a personality trait he carried to his grave. More than anything, in later life, his health problems annoyed him. It is also worth mentioning here that Gramsci’s class-position changed considerably in his early life. His father was employed as a well-paid civil servant up until 1898, when he was suspended from his job, arrested & imprisoned for alleged administrative offences. When Gramsci completed elementary school in 1902, he took a job in the tax office for 2 years to support his family. He continued to study privately.

Between 1905 & 1915, Gramsci was able to resume his studies. He studied a huge amount of subjects including, notably, Linguistics, Philosophy, Literature & Law. It is in this period that Gramsci began to formulate his political views. He lived with his brother Genaro between 1908 & 1911, who frequented Socialist study groups & operated as secretary of the local Italian Socialist Party (PSI) branch. Gramsci began to read the Socialist periodical Avanti! within this period & studied some works by Marx ‘out of intellectual curiosity’. In 1910 he published his 1st political article in L’Unione Sarda, a Sardinia nationalist publication. He became the newspaper’s correspondent for Aidomaggiore, a small town near Ghilarza, the capital of Sardinia. The main shift in Gramsci’s political ideology in this period occurs in 1913, when he published an article against pro-Capitalist trade union laws in the October issue of La Voce – another Socialist newspaper. It was in this period that Italy held its 1st elections under universal suffrage (26 October-2 November), the result of a huge campaign within the peasantry. He wrote to his friend Tasca about how impressed he was by the mass participation of the peasantry within this campaign & the changes it brought to political consciousness. In the following months, Gramsci moved to Turin in the mainland of Italy & established contacts with the Socialist movement there. It is in this period he became a member of the PSI.

Following his graduation in 1915, Gramsci began to publish frequently in Avanti!. Later in his life, he remarked that ‘My tendency was still rather Crocean.’ – ie that he still held Idealist views up until this point. In 1917, with the political storm left by the success of the Bolshevik Revolution, Gramsci began to throw himself into politics with a greater sincerity. His support for the revolution was, however, not incidental to its success. As early as August, before the seizure of power, Gramsci was a key orgainser of a demonstration in support of Lenin & the Bolshevik faction. In September, Gramsci began the secretary of the PSI in Turin & the editor of Il Grido del Popolo – the Turin faction’s newspaper. In December he began to attempt to organise cultural activity within Turin, founding the “Club of Moral Life” – a Marxist discussion group. He also published an article on the significance of the Bolshevik Revolution entitled ‘The Revolution Against Capital’ in the national edition of Avanti!. By 1918 Gramsci had become editor of the Turin edition of Avanti!.

Gramsci’s trajectory over this period is complex & would involve a great deal more time for discussion than we have available today. Key breakages with the leadership of the PSI began to occur on issues of cultural organization & the role on the Comintern. In 1919, Gramsci founded L’Ordine Nuovo or The New Order: A Review of Socialist Culture, which argued for the formation of a Communist Party in Italy, in the same sense as the Bolshevik Party in Russia. The key disagreements between Gramsci & the leadership of the PSI emerged between 1920 & 1921, over issues of factory organization & association to the Comintern. Gramsci argued for the formation of ‘communist factory groups’, along the lines of the Soviets in Russia, whereas the PSI leadership, headed by the now Social-Democratic Tasca, argued for a more bureaucratic & centralized formation. At the 2nd Congress of the 3rd Communist International the Comintern called on the PSI to expel reformists from its ranks, to participate in parliamentary elections (which the PSI did not) & set down the conditions for membership to the Comintern – referred to as the “21 points”. Lenin declared the position argued for by Gramsci & the L’Ordine Nuovo faction to correspond with the position of the Comintern. The PSI refused to accept the conditions set out by the Comintern & by January 1921, the Communist Party of Italy (PCd’I) was formed as a section of the Comintern, with Gramsci on its Central Committee. He remained a member of the PSI.

The crisis in Italy grew more acute in the period between 1921 & the Fascist election to power on 28 October 1922. Gramsci split his time between organising in Italy & attending Comintern meetings. He was elected to the Comintern Executive Committee in June 1922. Following Mussolini’s rise to power, he remained in Moscow with his family for greater & greater lengths of time. In the December of 1922, Fascist violence escalated & L’Ordine Nuovo was shut down & destroyed by Fascist death squads. Several members of the PCd’I central committee were arrested under charges of possession of arms & explosives. They were found innocent & released, but again arrested in February 1923. An arrest warrant was released for Gramsci, who was then living in Moscow, essentially in exile.

Gramsci’s return to Italy & subsequent arrest are, again, complex beyond the time available to us. On 6 April 1924, Gramsci was elected to parliament by a constituency of the Veneto region. This meant that he was able to return to Italy under a legalistic caveat – his role in parliament granted him diplomatic immunity to Fascist arrest. Between 1924 & his arrest in 1926, Gramsci attempted to agitate within the liberal & Communist factions of parliament, & to re-establish L’Ordine Nuovo & the PCd’I as serious political bodies. Both of these attempts met with very little success. On 31 October 1926, an attempt upon Mussolini’s life led to a further escalation of Fascist violence & repression. On the 8 November, the Fascist government issued its “Exceptional Decrees” – legislation legitimizing the arrest of Communist members of parliament. Gramsci was arrested that year & moved from prison to prison. Between 28 May & 4 June 1926, a show trial for members of the Communist leadership was held & Gramsci was given over 20 years in prison. The judge declared that ‘We must prevent this brain from functioning for twenty years’, referring to Gramsci.

For the rest of his life, Gramsci remained in prison. He was moved several times & allowed to work on his most famous work, The Prison Notebooks, intermittently. He viewed this work as an act of resistance to his ideological domination & physical imprisonment. Over time his health degraded consistently & he was hospitalized in 1937, having suffered a cerebral hemorrhage on the evening of 25 April. He died on the morning of 27 April & was buried the next day, under police surveillance, in an unmarked grave.


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