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Citation reference: Harvey, L., 2012-17, Social Research Glossary, Quality Research International,

This is a dynamic glossary and the author would welcome any e-mail suggestions for additions or amendments. Page updated 2 January, 2017 , © Lee Harvey 2012–2017.


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Gramsci, Antonio

core definition

Antonio Gramsci (1891–1937) was an Italian Marxist who developed a historicist, humanist Marxism.

explanatory context

Gramsci was born in Sardinia, the son of a minor government official, and won a scholarship to the University of Turin in 1911. Here he began to read philology but was soon absorbed by student and labour politics joining the PSI (Parti Socialista Italiana) and then joining the breakaway group that founded the PCI (Parti Communista Italiana) in 1921. As general secretary of the PCI, Gramsci was a considerable influence in the party and spent some time in Moscow. Upon returning to Italy he resumed as general secretary but was arrested in 1927 by Benito Mussolini's Fascist regime and imprisoned. He was released days before his death in April 1937.


'Pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will' was a motto adopted from Romain Rolland was the principal theme of Gramsci's analysis of the nature of Marxist thought. In many respects, Gramsci's work anticipates Althusser and is, Tetley (1984) argues, considerably more relevant than Althusser in the analysis of contemporary society.

Gramsci’s writing was either produced as part of his task of editing newspapers in the period 1916–1921, as part of his task as general secretary, or while in prison. The most influential contributions are undoubtedly his prison writings, which were only made available in an adequate critical edition in the late 1940's and were published in English in the abbreviated collection edited by Hoare and Nowell-Smith (Gramsci, 1971). (See also Boggs (1976) for an asessment of Gramsci's Marxism.)

Tetley (1984) argues that the major conceptual contribution of Marx was the distinction between base and superstructure (between material base and ideological superstructure). In which case the analysis of Gramsci's contribution will concentrate on Gramsci's refinement of this analysis through the introduction of the concept of cultural hegemony. Cultural hegemony, as a concept, mediates the interests of the most powerful group by enabling groups of organic intellectuals to interpret the present on the basis of the interests of the dominant group. Gramsci succeeds, for Tetley, in identifying the process whereby a dominant interest group succeeds in maintaining the way of life appropriate to the dominant interest group.


Hegemony, writes Gramsci, is 'armoured by coercion'. But what is hegemony?

'Every social group, coming into existence on the original terrain of an essential function in the world of economic production, creates together with itself, organically, one or more strata of intellectuals which give it homogeneity and an awareness not only in the economic but also in the social and political fields. The capitalist entrepreneur creates alongside himself the industrial technician, the specialist in political economy, the organisers of a new culture... and an elite amongst entrepreneurs... must have the capacity to be an organiser of society in general, including all the complex organism of services, right up to the state organism. Every new class, therefore, creates 'organic' intellectuals to service the new class, to create the conditions of hegemony' (Buci-Glucksmann, 1980)

'The intellectuals are the dominant groups' deputies exercising the subaltern functions of social hegemony and political government…' (Gramsci, 1971, p. 12)

'These (the subaltern functions) comprise: (i) the 'spontaneous' consent given by the great masses of the population to the general direction imposed upon social life by the dominant fundamental group; this consent is 'historically' caused by the prestige (and consequent confidence) which the dominant group enjoys because of its position and function in the world of production.. (ii) the apparatus of state coercive power which 'legally' enjoins discipline on those groups who do not 'consent' either actively or passively. The apparatus is, however, constituted for the whole of society in anticipation of moments of crisis of command and direction when spontaneous consent has weakened' (Showstack-Sassoon, 1982)

The analysis employed by Gramsci is, Tetley (1984) argues, the source of Althusser's conception of ideological state apparatuses and, particularly in Gramsci's analysis, suggests that the superstructural levels (namely those functions offered or operated by the 'intellectuals') support the material base and the fundamental social relations of production. More particularly, Gramsci has produced an analysis of the nature of the superstructural formation that makes clear the implications of Marx's conception of false consciousness, namely, that the task of the superstructural formation is to create and sustain the hegemonic order congruent with the interests of the dominant group. Further, Gramsci identifies the process of historical transformation between one mode of production and another by pointing to the distinction between traditional intellectuals appropriate to a given mode of production and the 'organic' intellectuals appropriate to the new mode of production that will replace the old order. In other words, the process of transformation operates at both a material and superstructural level.

Further, Tetley suggests that this analysis enables Althusser's argument to be more appreciated by enabling the appropriate group of 'organic 'intellectuals to be attached to each element of the superstructure. That is to say education, media, law, the military, etc. will all have the appropriate group of 'organic' intellectuals to legitimise practice in the interests of the dominant group. Second, Althusser's analysis fails to do justice to the complexity of the modern state.

Tetley, incidentally, takes the view that Althusser misreads Marx by attributing an epistemological break as a basis for distinguishing between the early and the late works. Althusser reads Marx as an economism rather than an interpretation of the human condition under capitalism.

Gramsci, Tetley argues, tends to interpret Marx more humanistically (partly because of the influence of Croce).

Gramsci's analysis of the problems of history and the nature of the intellectual life enables a more adequate understanding of the contemporary state to be achieved. Gramsci's analysis, Tetley argues, enables us to understand the precise locus of the dominant ideology, the precise functions of the intellectuals in determining it and the precise process whereby individudal and collective needs of other groups are subordinated to the dominant interest group.

Cultural hegemony asserted by the dominant group sustains the elements of the superstructure and forms a state which mobilises and maintains the dominant group…' The State welds together the organic intellectuals of the dominant class and the traditional intellectuals. Changes in the nature of the state can only occur, Gramsci argued, through the transformation effected by the revolutionary party where 'an intellectual and moral transformation is offered' The party is such that 'when it is conceived, led and organised in ways and in forms that it will develop integrally into a State and into a conception of the world' (Femia, 1981)

At the limit, this process must, at some time, bring about the 'the fading away of the State'. In this he reflects Lenin's view of the withering of the State under Communism.

Schmidt (1982) refers to Gramsci's theory and approach as 'absolute historicism' or 'humanism of history'. Gramsci, he argues, identifies the theoretical process with the real course of history and with historiography [writing history].

Althusser, Schmidt suggests, sees 'Marxist doctrine' as 'pure' theory averse to any substantive idea of history and averse to humanism.

Gramsci is concerned with the scientific theoretical status of Marx's theory.

Gramsci refuses to detach Marx's philosophy from his economics and political writing. He does not accept the ontological determinism of the economic base (as is implied, according to Schmidt, by Marxist structuralist analyses) nor does he view Marx's approach as nomological. (Here, according to Schmidt, Gramsci predates a more refined analysis by Adorno (1966).

'Marxist Structuralists' (Schmidt, 1981) accused Gramsci of naive historicism because of his identification of theory and history, his 'purist' view of praxis, (the future entirely subject to human action) and the primacy of the subject.) Gramsci saw Marxism as a philosophy of praxis that required a general methodology of history. He wanted a historiography that would, without degenerating into a descriptive chronicle, conform to historical sequence and retain the specificity and non-repeatability of events and not sacrifice them to abstract laws.

Marx's approach was to get at the essentials of capitalism and then to trace them through structural elements such as the division of labour in an historical fashion, using highly generalised material. Gramsci's historiographical approach is less abstract and more philological, specifying the detail of historical 'units'. Gramsci wanted a philosophy of praxis to present a 'concrete historicization of philosophy and its identification with history'. For Gramsci, philosophy without history is nothing but metaphysics. Desite his leanings towards Gramsci, Schmidt is unable to ignore the logical element of historical construction and can see in Gramsci nothing adequately analytic to use in the contemporary analysis of capitalism.

analytical review

associated issues


related areas

See also







Adorno, T.W., 1966, Negative Dialectics, New York, Continuum.

Boggs, C., 1976, Gramsci's Marxism. Perseus Books Group.

Buci-Glucksmann, C., 1980, Gramsci and the State (translated by David Fernbach). London, Lawrence and Wishart.

Femia, J.V., 1981, Gramsci's political thought: hegemony, consciousness, and the revolutionary process. New York: Clarendon Press/Oxford University Press.

Gramsci, A., 1971, Selections from Prison Notebooks. (Edited by Hoare, Q. and Nowell-Smith, G.) London, Lawrence & Wishart.

Schmidt, A., 1981, History and Structure: An Essay on Hegelian Marxist and Structuralist Theories of History. Boston, MIT.

Showstack-Sassoon, A., 1982, Approaches to Gramsci, London, Writers and Readers.

Tetley, P. 1984, 'Marxist thought: Gramsci (1891–1937)'. lecture Foundations of Sociaological Thought, No. 4, Birmingham, Birmingham Polytechnic.

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