The Italian Communist leader Antonio Gramsci (1891-1937) was a highly original Marxist who, working from Leninist principles, developed a new and controversial conception of hegemony in Marxist theory.
Antonio Gramsci was born in Ales in Sardinia on January 22, 1891. As the fourth son of Francesco Gramsci, a clerk in the registrar's office at Ghilarza, Gramsci was brought up in poverty and hardship, particularly during the five years his father was in prison for alleged embezzlement. As a child Antonio was constantly ill and withdrawn, and his anguish was compounded by physical deformity.
He was compelled to leave school at the age of 12 but following his father's release he was able to resume his education at Santa Lussurgia and Cagliari. On winning a scholarship to the University of Turin in 1911 he came into contact with future Communist leader and fellow Sardinian Palmiro Togliatti. During the elections of 1913—the first to be held in Sardinia with universal male suffrage—Gramsci became convinced that Sardinia's acute problems of under-development could only be solved in the context of socialist policies for Italy as a whole. (Gramsci retained a lively interest in his native Sardinia throughout his life and wrote a major essay on The Southern Question in 1926.)
Like many of his generation at the university in Turin, Gramsci was deeply influenced by the liberal idealism of Benedetto Croce. Gramsci's hostility to positivism made him a fierce critic of all fatalistic versions of Marxism. By 1915 he was writing regularly for the socialist Il Grido del Populo (The Cry of the People) and Avanti (Forward), often on cultural questions in which he stressed the importance of educating the workers for revolution.
Following a four day insurrection in August 1917 Gramsci became a leading figure in the Turin workers' movement. He welcomed the Russian Revolution (although in Crocean style he presented it as a "Revolution against Das Kapital") and in May 1919 he collaborated with Togliatti, Angelo Tasca, and Umberto Terracini to found L'Ordine Nuovo (The New Order) as an organ of "proletarian culture." The paper saw the factory committees in Turin as Soviets in embryo and the nuclei of a future socialist state. Thousands responded to the call to establish workers' councils in the Turin area, and during the "red years" of 1919 and 1920 there was a general strike and factories were occupied. L'Ordine Nuovo's critique of the passivity and reformism of the Italian Socialist Party won the approval of Soviet leader Lenin, and although Gramsci would have preferred to continue working within the Socialist Party at a time of rising fascist reaction, a separate Communist Party of Italy was formed at Livorno in 1921.
Gramsci was on the Communist Party's central committee, but the newly formed party was dominated by Amadeo Bordiga, a powerful figure whose purist elitism brought him into increasing conflict with the Third Communist International (Comintern). Gramsci became his party's representative on the Comintern, and it was while recovering from acute depression in a clinic in Moscow that Gramsci met his future wife Julia in 1922. They had two children, Delio and a younger boy—Giuliano—whom Gramsci never actually saw. Despite some happy moments, particularly when the two were together in Rome in 1925 and 1926, the relationship between Gramsci and Julia was a fraught one. Julia was in poor mental health, and later with Gramsci's imprisonment all communication between them more or less ceased. It was with Julia's sister, Tatiana, who was devoted to Gramsci's well-being during the torturing years of incarceration, that he found real companionship.
In October 1922 Mussolini seized power. The head of the Communist Party was arrested, and Gramsci found himself party leader. He was elected parliamentary deputy in 1924 and by 1926, when the party held its third congress in Lyons, Gramsci had won wide membership support for a Leninist strategy of an alliance with the peasants under proletarian hegemony. In his one and only speech to the Chamber of Deputies Gramsci brilliantly analyzed the distinctive and lethal character of fascism and in 1926 he was arrested. Two years later he was brought to trial—"we must prevent this brain from functioning for twenty years," declared the prosecutor—and Gramsci spent the first five years of his sentence in the harsh penal prison at Turi. He was able to start work on his famous Prison Notebooks early in 1929, but by the middle of 1932 his health was beginning to deteriorate rapidly. Suffering from (among other ailments) Potts disease and arterio-sclerosis, he was eventually moved as a result of pressure from an international campaign for his release to a prison hospital in Formia, but by August 1935 he was too ill to work. Transferred to a clinic in Rome, he died on April 27, 1937, after a cerebral hemorrhage.
Tatiana had his 33 notebooks smuggled out of Italy and taken to Moscow via the diplomatic bag. These notebooks, despite the often rudimentary state of their drafts, are undeniably Gramsci's masterpiece. They contain sharply perceptive analyses of Italian history, Marxist philosophy, political strategy, literature, linguistics, and the theater. At their core stands Gramsci's over-riding preoccupation with the need to develop critical ideas rooted in the everyday life of the people so that the Communist cause acquires irresistible momentum. Opposed both to Bordiga's elitism and the sectarian policies of the Comintern between 1929 and 1934, Gramsci's stress on the moral and intellectual element in political movements offers a challenge not only to Marxists but to all seeking to change the world radically.
Further Reading on Antonio Gramsci
An entry on Gramsci appears in A Dictionary of Marxist Thought edited by Bottomore (1983). Giuseppe Fiori's Antonio Gramsci: Life of a Revolutionary (1970) is particularly useful, as is Paolo Spriano's The Prison Years (1979). A select bibliography of the now enormous literature on Gramsci can be found in Roger Simon's Gramsci's Political Thought (1982), and John Hoffman seeks to place Gramsci's ideas within a classical Marxist framework in The Gramscian Challenge (1984).