Why Gramsci's ideas are still relevant

5 minutes to read
Jan Blommaert

Antonio Gramsci died more than 80 years ago as an outcast who never recovered from a decade spent in Mussolini's prison. He had been forced to use that decade producing thousands of cryptically written pages in cheap notebooks, smuggled out by his few remaining friends. These Prison Notebooks, published in the 1950s and translated in the 1970s, became extraordinarily influential texts in social, cultural and political theory, and they remain essential reading in the digital era.

Gramsci's problem

Antonio Gramsci was a devout Marxist. He founded and directed the Italian Communist Party (PCI) in the early 1920s and became a prominent figure in the Comintern - the international network of communist parties led by the young Soviet Union. The PCI rapidly grew in size and influence, and Gramsci became an elected politician backed by a mass organization of industrial and agricultural workers and supported by a budding communist press. Within the Comintern, Gramsci commanded the respect of everyone - including Lenin - because of his intellectual acumen and his relentlessly critical stance towards the Soviet guidelines for organizing revolution. Gramsci was impressive and so was the PCI.

But when he wrote his Notebooks, he had a serious problem. In spite of the favorable conditions for a communist revolution in Italy, a simple 1926 act of Mussolini's fascist government prohibiting 'secret organizations' had brought the workers'movement to its knees, and its leadership in jail. So here was the great proletarian leader, reduced to nothing and at the mercy of the fascists, with his mass organization shattered and the Italian bourgeoisie safely and robustly in power. Gramsci would spend the remainder of his life analyzing that problem.

Lenin and the Comintern, Gramsci argued, had overlooked a critical factor: culture.

The problem, he argued, was the conception of power in Leninist revolutionary theory. This conception was overly simple and focused on getting hold of the economic forces in society. Lenin and the Comintern, Gramsci argued, had overlooked a critical factor: culture. In Gramsci's analysis, the thing that enabled the bourgeoisie to remain in power was not just its control over the economic infrastructure and the state - it was its control over the hearts and minds of the Italian people, including those belonging to the working class. Bourgeois ideas - the bourgeois ideology - and the bourgeois cultural canon had become normal to most people, self-evident as ideals and ambitions and unquestionable as sociopolitical values. Gramsci called this form of 'soft' cultural power hegemony, and the Notebooks laid out, page upon page, an entirely new theory of hegemony as a crucial ingredient in any revolutionary strategy.

The argument ran as follows. A successful revolutionary strategy must combine two main directions. One should be aimed at 'hard' power, at capturing the state apparatuses (government, army, police and so forth); it should be direct, active and - if needed - violent, for persistent class enemies should not be shown mercy. The second one, however, should be aimed at 'soft' power, at hegemony. Revolutionary movements must gradually change the dominant culture of the people and replace the prevailing ideas, ideals and assumptions by fundamentally different ones. This second direction is slow, indirect, passive and patient, and involves the step-by-step acquisition of influence in the worlds of education, the arts and the media. And only when such hegemony has been achieved can the first, direct and violent part of the strategy be successfully executed.

In Gramsci's view, intellectuals were the key actors in the struggle for hegemony: what was needed was a class of 'organic intellectuals' who would convincingly articulate the culture and ideology of the proletariat in the domains specified above. Revolution, according to Gramsci, demanded intellectual control of the public sphere, and class struggle was not just an economic affair but a cultural one as well.

The New Left and Cultural Studies

Gramsci never got the chance to put his carefully scripted revolutionary strategy to practice. When he died in 1937, 'Il Duce' had established an all-dominant fascist state in Italy, and he had been joined by an even more formidable brother-in-arms: Adolf Hitler and his German Nazi party. It took the massive destruction of World War 2 for a new society to become imaginable. But Gramsci's texts would play a role in that new imagination.

An edited selection of the Prison Notebooks appeared in Italian in the 1950s, and started a long and fruitful life as a text circulating in Marxist intellectual milieus, profoundly influencing generations of Cold War intellectuals and scholars. Fragments translated in other languages shaped conditions for a wholesale revision of Soviet-style Marxism-Leninism, and when an English translation of the Notebooks appeared in 1971, its worldwide impact was massive. Gramsci's theory enabled intellectuals and scholars to distance themselves from Stalinism and its rigid orthodoxies, and create a variety of Marxism in which culture was not seen as just an effect of economic power relations and in which popular culture and the arts became legitimate topics of analysis and political strategizing. This development, often called New Left, generated new forms of historiography (epitomized in the work of e.g. E.P. Thompson) and had a direct impact on the shaping of Cultural Studies

Gramsci's theory enabled intellectuals and scholars to distance themselves from Stalinism and its rigid orthodoxies.

The emphasis on ideology in Gramsci's theory of hegemony, in addition, profoundly influenced what is now known as Critical Discourse Analysis, with scholars such as Norman Fairclough searching for the 'covert' power effects of dominant discourses in politics, marketing, education and so forth. In general, Gramsci can be said to have introduced metapolitics as a field of social, political and cultural analysis: attention to the battle of ideas and values that is at the heart of the sociocultural and political process. And this obviously takes us online.

Online with Gramsci

Little can be done these days in the way of political analysis without a careful look at how metapolitics is articulated in endless online debates and forms of activism, many of which have been amply documented on Diggit. A term often used to describe these debates and forms of activism is culture wars, and the Gramscian ring of this term is self-evident. Culture wars proceed through a wide variety of old and new semiotic technologies, including memes, trolling, irony and algorithmic activism, exploiting the full range of affordances offered by the online infrastructure in attempts to change the major direction of public opinion.

It is fair to say that Gramsci has rarely been as immediately relevant for our understanding of society as he is today.

Such digital culture wars are textbook instances of the struggle for hegemony as laid out in the Prison Notebooks, and there is little doubt that Gramsci would have been amazed (and perhaps dismayed) by the efficiency of struggles for hegemony in the digital era. Leading political strategists and marketeers, it appears, have absorbed Gramsci's revolutionary theories lock, stock and barrel and meticulously implement them. It is fair to say that Gramsci has rarely been as immediately relevant for our understanding of society as he is today. And while Gramsci's influence used to be largely confined to the left wing of the political spectre, it has now been generalized. Right wing populists are happy to call themselves 'revolutionaries' in a Gramscian sense, and their message is carefully constructed culturally, as a cultural figure broadcasting visions, imageries and discursive templates to large audiences. Another now widespread term, 'influencers', also points directly to Gramsci: influencers are supposed to generate cultural influences on a mass audience. Gramsci would have nodded approvingly, no doubt, when swiping through his Instagram account.

We live in a Gramscian era, and those who think that a theorist of the late 1920s and early 1930s could not possibly be relevant for understanding our present predicament, do so at their own peril. 


Check this Diggit Magazine video-interview with Jan Blommaert on Gramsci and the internet!