Antonio Gramsci

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Written in obscurity from a prison cell, this hero's ideas about power and the roots of social inequality would change the world. 

In 1926, the dictator of Italy, Benito Mussolini, outlawed opposition parties and dropped all pretense of freedom of speech. Enemies of the dictatorship were  arrested. If Benito Mussolini didn't like the way you thought or what you believed, he had his goons eliminate you or throw you in prison on the remote island of Ustica. 

This is where our story of Antonio Gramsci begins. Mussolini had him arrested in 1926, not for his actions but his words and ideas. Gramsci's vocal point of view was simply too dangerous to allow him to walk free. He was a threat to Mussolini's power.

Antonio had been born in Italian Sardinia in 1891. As a child, he was crippled by tuberculosis (though some say he fell as a baby), leaving him with a severe hunchback. Even as an adult, he stood less than 5 feet tall. Others might have received medical treatment to reverse the condition, but Sardinia was an extremely poor island. As a youth unable to participate in physical labor, Antonio observed as miners and peasants were daily exploited by the government and power elite. He grew up to be their advocate and looked to socialism as the answer, joining the Socialist Party of Italy just as Europe plunged into the First World War. When his Party mentors were arrested for supporting Italian neutrality, young Gramsci stepped into a leadership role. By 1916, he was preaching on economic justice through socialist revolution.

Frustrated with the slow rate of social change in Italy, however, Gramsci traveled to Russia in 1920 to study communism. He grew convinced that a communist takeover was necessary to empower Italian workers. He returned to Italy ready to lead a social revolution. But he was in for a rude awakening, for in 1922, the National Fascist Party, under Benito Mussolini, seized control of the Italian government with the approval of then King Victor Emmanuel III. 

 Mussolini (center) at the March on Rome, 1922

Mussolini (center) at the March on Rome, 1922

To Gramsci's surprise, many Italians applauded. A deeply Catholic culture, they distrusted communists and intellectuals, believing them to be anti-religion fanatics. Mussolini promptly empowered wealthy capitalists and sent squads of "Blackshirt" thugs to arrest and assault anyone, like Gramsci, who opposed him.

Gramsci found himself asking why had so many Italian people, workers included, supported a demagogue whose political leanings ensured greater riches for the wealthy while turning a blind eye to the needs of the poor? He made it his life's mission to find an answer to this question. Now in prison, he had nothing else to do but think it through. 

Gramsci theorized that his fellow Italians had supported the rise of fascism because of a phenomenon he termed “cultural hegemony.” Derived from the Greek word ‘hegemon,’ which refers to a leader, country, or group that exerts control over others from a position of political and physical power, Gramsci saw that under capitalism, hegemonic power had sown roots within the culture itself. He described how the capitalist class – the bourgeoisie – manipulated the cultural systems of a society – the beliefs, explanations, perceptions, values, and mores – to impose their ruling-class worldview as “the norm.” An obvious example of this is found wherever the media is owned and operated by the government or by the incredibly wealthy. In such situations, the editorial outlook will inevitably support political parties, policies, and programs that legitimize the status quo and social inequality, even to the point of fabricating the news. Without an opposition view, the powers-that-be are therefore able to control “groupthink” and mold majority public opinion.

Italian capitalists, according to Gramsci, had created a culture in Italy that taught all Italians to believe the rich. This "cultural hegemony" disguised the systemic structures that kept most Italians poor. The only solution was for folks to rise up from the grassroots to create a common counterculture that rejected the lies of the powerful. To fight fascism, Gramsci theorized, every Italian needed to become an intellectual.

At Gramsci’s trial in 1926, the prosecutor claimed that Gramsci was so dangerous “we must stop his brain from working for 20 years.” In prison, his mind hummed, but his health quickly deteriorated. Denied medical treatment, his teeth fell out. Unable to chew, he vomited up most of his food.

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Oddly, however, he was allowed to keep a journal and he wrote in it furiously – like he was running out of time. To trick his censors he deliberately used terms they would not understand, like hegemony. Although he was denied access to outside resources, Gramsci's "prison notebooks" described the history of capitalism in the West from the French Revolution to the 20th century. By 1935, he had filled more than 30 notebooks with 3,000 pages, despite not knowing if they would ever be read.

In the mid-1930s, the notebooks were smuggled out of Ustica by Gramsci’s sister-in-law, Tatiana, and hidden. Shortly thereafter, broken by illness, Gramsci was released into a clinic. He died there in 1937 at the age of 46.

When Mussolini was overthrown in 1944, Gramsci's "Prison Notebooks" were published in Italy. For decades, they remained obscure. But in 1975, they were translated into French, German, and English and "Gramsci" became a household name to intellectuals all over the world.

Antonio Gramsci's thoughts on power and hegemony cost him his life and kept him in obscurity for forty years. But his discipline as a writer and his belief in equality as a means toward positive social change eventually led Antonio Gramsci to become one of the most important and influential thinkers of the twentieth century. Many thanks to Laura Tosi for nominating him as Time Traveler Tours #HistoryHero.

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