Antonio Gramsci is considered one of the foremost Marxist theorists of the 20th century. Though he was not an anthropologist, his work has had a tremendous impact on the field of anthropology, and he was a major influence on social theorists of such stature as Louis Althusser, Raymond Williams, Pierre Bourdieu, Michel Foucault, Jürgen Habermas, E. P. Thompson, Eric Hobsbawm, and Stuart Hall. He reworked many of classical Marxism’s key concepts (for example, ideology, class consciousness, base and superstructure) in ways that opened them up to engagement with anthropological analyses of society, and his concept of hegemony has been particularly key to critical explorations of the intersection of culture and politics. The field of “cultural studies” is rooted largely in interpretations and applications of his ideas.
Born in Sardinia and shaped by a difficult childhood, Gramsci was no armchair theorist, but an activist deeply engaged in political struggles, especially the factory council movement in Turin. As a young man, he abandoned a promising academic career to dedicate himself to journalism. His columns, articles, theater reviews, and translations of labor news from around Europe (especially Russia) were widely read, and he eventually became a leading figure in the Italian Socialist Party and, later, the Italian Communist Party. His political activity became increasingly confrontational after Mussolini’s rise to power in 1922. He was a member of the Italian Parliament from 1924 until his arrest, along with other Communist Party deputies, in 1926. At his trial, prosecutor Michele Isgrö reportedly declared: “We must prevent this brain from functioning for 20 years.” Despite suffering severe health problems in prison, Gramsci repeatedly refused to ask for clemency from the fascist government. He was granted conditional freedom in late 1934 (though he continued under constant police surveillance), but he never regained his health and spent his last few years as an invalid, transferring from one hospital to another; these efforts proved futile, and he succumbed to a brain hemorrhage at the age of 46.
Gramsci’s most influential writings were produced in prison. Eventually collected as the Quaderni del Carcere, or Prison Notebooks, they were published piecemeal after World War II, and attracted great attention and critical commentary not only in the West but also in the new nations emerging from European colonialism. Paradoxically, the limitations under which Gramsci produced his theoretical formulations are partly what made them such fertile ground for later scholars. In order to escape the vigilance of the prison censors, Gramsci wrote in a purposefully ambiguous style, avoiding explicit references to Marxism-Leninism. The theoretical framework that he sketched out was both concrete and open-ended, inasmuch as his formulations were usually framed within specific historical struggles or political questions, but pregnant with implications that extended beyond the particular case at hand. It is precisely this flexible, nondogmatic quality of his ideas that has allowed them to be engaged by numerous disciplines and applied to a wide range of social themes and contexts.
The Notebooks’ content is wide-ranging, but it is Gramsci’s concern for integrating political action with organized cultural activity that holds particular relevance for anthropology. Central to Gramsci’s vision of political struggle is the notion of hegemony, which he conceived as a social order based on a combination of coercion and consent. Hegemony is totalizing in intent but never total in practice; since it accommodates and incorporates oppositional strains rather than repressing them by brute force, it must be constantly shored up and negotiated, and it often contains the ideological seeds of its own undoing. In order for the dominant sectors of society to construct a hegemonic bloc—a political consensus that incorporates a range of disparate social groups—the interests of the dominated must be articulated to the dominant interest. Since ideology plays a key role in this articulation, it can no longer be viewed as a merely superstructural phenomenon, derivative of economic relationships; rather, it is one of many elements shaping the evolution of political processes. This rejection of a rigid division between an exclusively determining economic “base” and a determined “superstructure,” in favor of a more dialectic relationship between levels of social activity, distinguishes Gramsci’s thought from that of more orthodox Marxists, whom he criticized for their economism and reductionism.
It is this same idea that makes the concept of hegemony so attractive for anthropologists. Whereas classical Marxism relegated symbolic activity to the realm of superstructure (recall Marx’s example from the Grundrisse, which assigned the labor of the piano maker to the base and that of the pianist to the superstructure), Gramsci recognized that cultural activities, values, and loyalties are also active elements in the maintenance and reproduction of a social order. From this perspective, many of the domains of human activity that have traditionally interested anthropologists—artistic expression, language, popular culture, religion, and ethnic and regional solidarities—take on a greater political significance.
The concept of hegemony also required a more nuanced theorization of ideology than was possible within classical Marxism. Political observers had long noted that people do not always act in accord with their apparent class interest, nor are their ideologies necessarily predictable from their class position. Whereas classical Marxism resorted to the notion of “false consciousness” to explain (or rather, explain away) the failures of the working class to assume their historical role, theorists in the Gramscian tradition view ideology as too complex and multifaceted to be characterized as mere mystification. Individuals are nexuses of multiple interests, not just class interests; hegemony consists of evoking certain interests and muting others, to the point where the dominant consensus assumes the mantle of “common sense.” The work of articulating the common sense of the masses to “the upper level of philosophy” is the stuff of politics, that is, the construction of a hegemonic bloc. Key to this task are the “organic intellectuals,” who express the interests of their class through their cultural work, while endeavoring to bring other social groups under the leadership of their ideological vision. This “war of position” tends to be protracted, engaging multiple institutions within civil society before attempting to take control of the state. Within Gramsci’s view of hegemony, neither ideological domination nor class unity can be assumed a priori; they must be produced. Thus, ideology becomes not simply a reflex of one’s position in the class structure, but crucial terrain on which political struggles are waged and political outcomes (partly) determined.
Gramsci’s rejection of the notion of an automatically unified class consciousness and his recognition that the common conditions of existence shared by members of a class are crosscut by other interests and loyalties led many anthropologists to analyze the origins of those conflicting interests and the ways in which other dimensions of oppression and identity intersect with the class dimension. In this way, Gramsci’s thought became of crucial interest to anthropologists concerned with ideological constructions of race, gender, ethnicity, religion, and the social movements and cultural forms arising out of these different types of collective experience. Social classes exist not as coherent social groups but as abstract categories that are fragmented in any actual historical formation. Politics thus cannot be seen as reducible to class, and identity itself is reconceived as multiple, fragmented, and contradictory. Ironically, the thinker who perhaps did the most to bring Marxist thought into anthropology also laid the groundwork for the decentering of Marx’s most fundamental concept— economic class—from the stage of social reproduction.
- Boggs, C. (1985). The two revolutions: Antonio Gramsci and the dilemmas of Western Marxism. Cambridge, MA: South End Press.
- Gramsci, A. (1971). Selections from the Prison Notebooks (Q. Hoare & G. Nowell, Eds., Trans. by N. Smith). London: Lawrence & Wishart.
- Laclau, E., & Mouffe, C. (2001). Hegemony and socialist strategy: Towards a radical democratic politics (2nd ed.). London: Verso.