Antonio Gramsci

Have you ever wondered why the oppressed don't rise up? Why do some structural inequalities seem like the natural order of things when they could be so easy to change? Why do the oppressed often vote against their own interests?

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Antonio Gramsci


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Have you ever wondered why the oppressed don't rise up? Why do some structural inequalities seem like the natural order of things when they could be so easy to change? Why do the oppressed often vote against their own interests?

The answer, according to Marxist thinker Antonio Gramsci, is cultural hegemony. The idea that elites can control the narrative to pacify unequal societies has hugely influenced neo-Marxist thought and frames the way inequality is discussed today. So let's find out more!

Who was Antonio Gramsci?

Antonio Gramsci was an Italian Marxist and philosopher who created the Communist Party of Italy. Let's take a look at his life.

Antonio Gramsci was born in Ales, Sardinia, on 22 January 1891. Gramsci's father faced financial difficulties throughout his childhood, meaning that the family often moved. As a result, Gramsci was educated at several different schools.

In 1898, his father was imprisoned for embezzlement (misappropriating assets), disrupting the entire family's lives. Gramsci had to stop studying and worked to support his family until 1904 when his father was eventually released from prison. Antonio Gramsci also struggled with his health throughout his childhood, particularly with a malformation of his spine. He continued to experience poor health throughout his life.

Antonio Gramsci, portrait, StudySmarterFig. 1 - Photograph portrait of Antonio Gramsci, circa the early-1920s.

Antonio Gramsci attended secondary school while staying with his older brother, who had worked as a soldier in mainland Italy. Although somewhat influenced by his brother's socialist ideas, Gramsci primarily focused on the suffering of the Sardinian people and their neglect by mainland Italy. It was this sense of injustice that formed the basis of his worldview.

Gramsci gained a scholarship at the University of Turin, where he studied linguistics. Whilst he was in Turin, the city was experiencing significant political change, with the town's industrialisation leading to the growth of trade unions. This period influenced his political outlook, and he joined the Socialist Party in 1913.

Gramsci left university at the age of 24, but he continued writing for socialist publications and also made a name for himself as one of the leading socialist thinkers in Turin.

Antonio Gramsci Marxism

For more information about the theory of Marxism, read our explanation on socialism.

Gramsci lived during a period of significant political and social change, with various political movements seeking to challenge the status quo and the established political order of the time. Not long after Gramsci finished university, the Russian Revolution took place.

In 1917, near the end of WW1, a revolution led to the removal of Russia's last monarch and the establishment of the world's first Communist state. A conflict of political perspectives existed across the socialist movement, but eventually, the Bolsheviks - guided by Lenin - gained majority support and became the primary leaders of the new Soviet government.

The revolution's impact was felt worldwide, inspiring various political movements and generating opposition to it.

Gramsci's Political Involvement

Gramsci supported the rise of Leninism and believed that such a party was needed in Italy. He went on to form the Communist Party of Italy in 1921, which separated from the Italian Socialist Party.

Like the central, transnational communist movement known as the Comintern (Communist International), the Italian Communist party was riven by conflict between factions. A major faction with which Gramsci was aligned, maintained a strong connection with Bolshevik Moscow. After representing the party at meetings in Russia, Gramsci presented his view of how a united grouping of left-wing parties in Italy could effectively oppose the Fascists.

Nevertheless, Gramsci's plan placed his own communist party at the centre of this coalition, essentially enabling the Bolsheviks in Russia to influence events in Italy. In the end, the socialist parties could not agree on a plan.

Gramsci was elected as a party representative in the Veneto region in 1924.

Rise of Mussolini and the Arrest of Gramsci

The Fascists continued to gain ground in Italy amid general political instability. Threatening to overthrow the government, fascist activists marched to Rome in uniform. The King eventually conceded, allowing Mussolini to assume power as Prime Minister.

Under Mussolini, there was a gradual crackdown on opposition parties, eventually leading to widespread political persecution. By 1925, Mussolini had established dictatorial rule. After an attempt on Mussolini's life in 1926, the government used emergency laws as an excuse to imprison many opposition politicians, including Gramsci.

Gramsci was initially sentenced to five years. But at his re-trial, the prosecutor said:

For twenty years, we must stop this brain from functioning.1

Despite facing significant mistreatment in prison, some of his best-known works were written there. In 1929, he was first allowed to write, and this freedom continued as the conditions of his imprisonment were made lighter due to his ill health. His Prison Notebooks (published in 1947) were written whilst his health deteriorated.

Nevertheless, Gramsci still had to hide the political nature of his works, disguising the real meaning of certain elements - such as referring to Marxism as "the philosophy of practice".2 He wrote over 30 notebooks in total on a range of topics. His works were smuggled out of prison during the 1930s, but Gramsci never saw them published as he eventually died due to poor health and the effects of mistreatment whilst still in prison.

Antonio Gramsci Cultural Hegemony

Gramsci's most important theory presented in his Prison Notebooks is the idea of 'cultural hegemony'.

Cultural hegemony is a political theory arguing that the elite dominates the rest of society by controlling culture or ideology. Hegemony refers to dominance by one singular entity.

Cultural hegemony is a form of power through which the dominant elite rule by convincing wider society that their worldview is correct. Rather than using force or coercion, the elite only needs the people's support, which is gained through convincing society that their ideas are right or normal.

Gramsci's ideas around culture were a shift from Marx's focus on materialist control, with the elite controlling by having ownership of the means of production.

We can consider this through this analogy:

What is the most effective way of securing a prisoner? Rather than investing in higher and higher levels of security , it is easier to convince them to stay. By convincing them it is in their best interests to remain in prison (such as for safety or due to the impossibility of escape), conflict or attempts to escape can be avoided.

Yet Gramsci argued that consent is still necessary for this domination to occur, so the elite adapt to make their ideas more relevant or attractive. This relationship of agreements occurred through 'civil society'.

Civil society is the platform where ideas and norms are established and consent is gained. It is opposite to 'the state', where control is often coerced or forced.

But how do the elite convince people?

Gramsci argued that this process occurred through elite control over the means of cultural production, key institutions that influence and shape society's information landscape:

Methods:How they can control:
Education and schools.Embed certain ideas or values into people when they are young - making the dominant values the societal norm.
Media.Presenting particular perspectives as the truth through controlled media - allows the dominant narrative to be taken as fact.
Church and family.Instilling and reinforcing shared values throughout society.

Essentially, the ideas and values of the elite become shared by broader society, making force unnecessary.

Gramsci and Counterhegemony

However, Gramsci didn't see hegemonic power as unchallenged and described counterhegemony as the reaction to dominant control.

He claimed that the proletariat (or working class) faced an internal struggle called dual consciousness.

Dual consciousness is the idea that people can be influenced by two things at once - in this context, influenced by the dominant culture and their social and economic position.

This awareness of their struggle may lead people to fight against hegemonic power, and establish a counter-hegemonic culture.

Antonio Gramsci, cultural hegemony, StudySmarterFig. 2 - Mural in Orgosolo, Sardinia, depicting a young Gramsci.

Antonio Gramsci Ideology

At the centre of hegemonic control is Gramsci's idea of ideology. Ideology is the tool that the elite use to convince and control.

In politics, ideology refers to a group or system of particular concepts and ideas central to a political theory.

Previous Marxist thinkers had discussed the role and influence of ideology, and Karl Marx himself was certainly sensitive to the idea. Nevertheless, they saw ideology as being determined by the current economic system rather than as an independent entity. Previous thinkers had also stressed ideologies as being separated across classes - such as a proletariat (working-class) ideology, and a bourgeoisie ideology.

Gramsci instead argued that ideology was a "terrain" of particular ideas, concepts, and beliefs that individuals may follow. He believed it was an independent concept that could impact economic and political society and operate across classes.3 Rather than ideology being separated across classes, Gramsci emphasised that the ruling class would spread their ideas across societal boundaries through ideology.

This universally-spread ideology formed the basis of Gramsci's notion of hegemony.

Antonio Gramsci Works

Gramsci's most famous works were written during his time in prison.

Many of his earlier works are published together (posthumously) in 'Gramsci: Pre-Prison Writings.'

Before prison, Gramsci published much of his political reflections in his socialist newspaper 'L'Ordine Nuovo', meaning The New Order. Distributed in Turin, the newspaper supported the ideals of the Russian Revolution and the creation of a Communist system in Italy.

He had also written in Avanti!, another publication of the Italian Socialist Party, while at university.

His prison works, which include some of his most influential ideas like hegemony, are published together as the Prison Notebooks.

In these, he wrote about various other topics, including education, history, and industrialisation. His work is primarily associated today with Marxism, constructivism, and sociology. The Prison Notebooks were first published in 1947 and have since been translated into several languages.

Antonio Gramsci - Key takeaways

  • Antonio Gramsci was born on the island of Sardinia in 1891. He faced a troubled childhood as his father spent time escaping the law, who eventually ended up in prison.
  • Gramsci attended the University of Turin, where he learnt about Linguistics and developed his Marxist views.
  • Gramsci founded the Communist Party of Italy in 1921 and wrote a variety of pieces in socialist newspapers. He was even elected in 1924 but was eventually arrested by the fascist party, ruled under Mussolini.
  • Whilst in prison, he was able to write some of his most significant theories. Cultural hegemony is his most famous principle, arguing that the elite can control society through ideas, culture, and consent.
  • Although Gramsci died in prison, his works were published posthumously. There are two main publications: 'Gramsci: Pre-Prison Writings', and the 'Prison Notebooks'.


  1. Jean-Yves Frétigné, To Live Is to Resist, 16 February 2022
  2. Chris Harman, Gramsci, the Prison Notebooks and philosophy, 9th April 2007
  3. https://www.marxists.org/history/erol/ncm-7/tr-gramsci.htm

Frequently Asked Questions about Antonio Gramsci

Antonio Gramsci was an Italian Marxist and philosopher who created the Communist Party of Italy. He lived through the rule of Mussolini and was imprisoned from 1926. In prison, Gramsci wrote some of his most important works on politics.

Gramsci's main theory is cultural hegemony. Cultural hegemony is a theory which argues that the elite dominates society by controlling culture and ideology. This is done through institutions such as education, media, and the church.

Hegemony to Gramsci is the dominant power or control by the elite, where they convince the rest of society to a particular world-view. Rather than being coercive, or by force, people follow such ideas by consent. 

Gramsci was a Marxist, following the ideas of Marxism and being supportive of the Russian Revolution. He founded the Communist Party of Italy and even represented them at meetings in Russia. 

Although Gramsci mostly followed the ideas of Marxism, he did differ in his ideas on hegemony and the influence of ideas. 

Marx saw Bourgeoisie control primarily being operated through economics, and that classes were split ideologically.

Gramsci instead stressed the role of ideas and culture in dominating society, and that ideology can operate across class boundaries.

Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

Where was Gramsci from (born) in Italy?

What was Gramsci's father arrested for (which disrupted Antonio's education)?


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