The Strength of an
[see also Gramsci, James Joll,
1977, Fontana Modern Masters]
Text by Monica Stillo
(Presented in seminar for Communications Research
MA in Communication Studies, University of Leeds).
The life of Antonio
Some ideas from Marx
Concept of hegemony
intellectuals in society
on communications matters
Merits of Gramsci's
Flaws of Gramsci's
in his own words
The Life of
"Telling the truth is always revolutionary"
1891 - (January 22nd.) Born at Ales in Cagliary,
Italy. Antonio was the fourth son of Francesco Gramsci,
a clerk in the local registrar's office.
1897-1898 - His father is sentenced to serve five
years in prison on charges of maladministration. On his
release he has no job, so his seven children grow up in
difficult circumstances and deep financial insecurity.
Antonio G. suffered ill health throughout his life, and
from a deformity which left him a hunchback.
1903 - After completing his elementary education,
Gramsci has to work in the registry office of Ghilarza,
Italy, where the family moved after his father's
1911 - Gramsci wins a scholarship to study at Turin
1913 - Participates in the first universal suffrage
elections and makes his first contacts with the
socialist movement in Turin.
1916 - Starts working as a journalist for the
Socialist Party paper.
1917 - Gramsci is elected to the Provisional
Committee of the Socialist Party.
1921 - (January) The Italian Communist Party is
founded and Antonio Gramsci is elected as a member of
the central committee.
1922 - (from May to November 1923) Gramsci goes to
Moscow as a member of the Communist International and
spends more than a year in this country. In a local
clinic he meets his future wife, Giulia Schucht, and
later he returns to his country as a leader of the
It is said that the concept of hegemony (gegemoniya)
was first used as part of a slogan of the Russian
Social-Democratic movement from 1890 to 1917.
1926 - (November) Because of his opposition to
Mussolini, Gramsci is arrested in Rome, and sent to a
camp for political prisoners. He was 35 years old.
During the trial, Mussolini said about Gramsci: "We
have to prevent that this mind continue thinking."
1927 - He was transferred to a prison in Milan, and
then to Rome. He was condemned to twenty years
In a letter to his family he says that he is plagued
by the idea of accomplishing something forever, and he
sets out a systematic plan of study.
1929 - Gramsci receives permission to write, and
February the 8th is the first date stated in his
"Prison Notebooks" (Quaderni di carcere). During these
years he studied Italian and European history,
linguistics and historiography.
Gramsci had a prodigious memory; in his years in
prison obviously he was not allowed to read communist
books, so every quotation he made, especially about
Marx, are the words (almost always exact) that he could
1930 - He begins a series of discussions with other
communists in prison, but his thoughts about the
compulsion of a democratic approach were not shared
with the rest of the political prisoners
1937 - (April 27th.) Gramsci died after several
years of suffering and Tatiana (his sister in law)
manages to smuggle the 33 books out of prison and send
them via diplomatic bag to Moscow to be published. He
was 46 years old.
"Historical-academic gossip": As far as I know,
every important letter that Gramsci wrote (especially
those telling about his feelings and political ideas)
was addressed to Tatiana, the sister of his wife
Giulia. Finally, she was the person who recovered his
papers to posterity. You have to draw your own
What have we learnt about his life?
Gramsci had a difficult childhood, not only because he
was a victim of capitalism, in other words of the
economical and social unfairness of the beginning of the
20th century, but also because his family (and Gramsci
himself) were in some way injured by bureaucracy;
He was punished for his thoughts by the fascist power,
and condemned to pass almost his entire life in jail. We
can say that he dedicated his short existence to his
Not only was he an important intellectual of Marxist
theories, but he was also a leader, a politician, and he
fought in the battlefield of ideas and action. We can
compare Gramsci to Lenin, and conclude that he took his
experience at the head of the Communist Party and
included it into his theoretical conceptions and his
proposals for Marxist theory.
This idea of Gramsci as a leader as well as a
theoretician is very relevant to understand his notes,
especially when we study the place he reserves for the
intellectuals in society.
Some Ideas from
Understanding Gramsci's theory requires a review of
some basic Marxist arguments and assumptions. [These are
explained here in the simplest terms... "If Marx were to
see this, he would die again," as Monica put it].
Everything in life is determined by capital. The flow
of money affects our relations with other persons, with
nature and with the world. Our thoughts and goals are the
products of property structures. Every cultural activity
(culture in its widest sense) is reduced to a direct or
indirect expression of some preceding and controlling
Men find themselves born in a process independent of
their will, they cannot control it, they can seek only to
understand it and guide their actions accordingly.
The dynamic of a society can only be understood in
terms of a system where the dominant ideas are formulated
by the ruling class to secure its control over the
working class. The latter, exploited by the former, will
eventually try to change this situation (through
revolution), producing its own ideas as well as its own
industrial and political organisation.
Marx's deterministic economic conception divides the
society in two layers or levels: base and
The first, upon which everything grows, is composed by
the material production, money, objects, the relations of
production and the stage of development of productive
forces. The palpable and tangible world, plus the
economic relations that capital generates.
The second, determined by the first, is where we can
find the political and ideological institutions, our
social relations, set of ideas; our cultures, hopes,
dreams and spirit. The world of souls, souls shaped by
According to Marx, we can understand the
superstructure in three senses:
Legal and political expressions which expose
existing relation of production;
Forms of consciousness that express a particular
class view of the world;
The processes in which men become conscious of a
fundamental economic conflict and fight it out.
Generally, it is believed that Marx proposed this "one
way" relation between economics (down) and ideas (up) as
a rigid and severe system. However, the fact is that this
is not very clear in Marx and Engel's books.
Nevertheless, we can understand almost every Marxist
author (and particularly these concerned with cultural
issues) as people making an effort to conceive this
dependence more dynamically, in order to assume that the
analysis of history supposes a social and cultural
approach, as well as an economic consideration.
"It was Gramsci who, in the late twenties and
thirties, with the rise of fascism and the failure of the
Western European working-class movements, began to
consider why the working class was not necessarily
revolutionary, why it could, in fact, yield to fascism."
(Gitlin, 1994: 516)
Gramsci was concerned to eradicate economic
determinism from Marxism and to develop its explanatory
power with respect to superstructural institutions. So,
he held that:
Class struggle must always involve ideas and
ideologies, ideas that would make the revolution and also
that would prevent it;
He stressed the role performed by human agency in
historical change: economic crises by themselves would
not subvert capitalism;
Gramsci was more "dialectic" than "deterministic": he
tried to build a theory which recognised the autonomy,
independence and importance of culture and ideology.
"It can be argued that Gramsci's theory suggests that
subordinated groups accept the ideas, values and
leadership of the dominant group not because they are
physically or mentally induced to do so, nor because they
are ideologically indoctrinated, but because they have
reason of their own." (Strinati, 1995: 166)
From Gramsci's view, the supremacy of the bourgeoisie
is based on two, equally important, facts:
Intellectual and moral leadership
What exactly is the meaning of "hegemony"?
"...Dominant groups in society, including
fundamentally but not exclusively the ruling class,
maintain their dominance by securing the 'spontaneous
consent' of subordinate groups, including the working
class, through the negotiated construction of a
political and ideological consensus which incorporates
both dominant and dominated groups." (Strinati, 1995:
A class had succeeded in persuading the other classes
of society to accept its own moral, political and
The concept assumes a plain consent given by the
majority of a population to a certain direction suggested
by those in power;
However, this consent is not always peaceful, and may
combine physical force or coercion with intellectual,
moral and cultural inducement;
Can be understood as "common sense", a cultural
universe where the dominant ideology is practiced and
Something which emerges out of social and class
struggles, and serve to shape and influence peoples
It is a set of ideas by means of which dominant groups
strive to secure the consent of subordinate groups to
"...the practices of a capitalist class or its
representatives to gain state power and maintain it
later." (Simon, 1982: 23)
Can we conclude that "hegemony" is a strategy
exclusively of the bourgeoisie?
No. In fact the working class can develop its own
hegemony as a strategy to control the State.
Nevertheless, Gramsci stated that the only way to perform
this labour class control is by taking into account the
interests of other groups and social forces and finding
ways of combining them with its own interests.
If the working class is to achieve hegemony, it needs
patiently to build up a network of alliances with social
minorities. These new coalitions must respect the
autonomy of the movement, so that each group can make its
own special contribution toward a new socialist
The working class must unite popular democratic
struggles with its own conflict against the capital
class, so as to strengthen a national popular collective
How does the hegemonic class manage to maintain its
ideology over time?
Hegemony is readjusted and re-negotiated constantly.
Gramsci said that it can never be taken for granted, in
fact during the post-revolutionary phase (when the labour
class has gained control) the function of hegemonic
leadership does not disappear but changes its
However, he describes two different modes of social
Coercive control: manifested through direct force or
its threat (needed by a state when its degree of
hegemonic leadership is low or fractured);
Consensual control: which arises when individuals
voluntarily assimilate the worldview of the dominant
group (=hegemonic leadership).
How does the process of mutation from a dominant
"hegemony" to a new one occur?
Periodically there may develop an organic crisis in
which the governing group begins to disintegrate,
creating the opportunity for a subordinate class to
transcend its limitations and build up a broad movement
capable of challenging the existing order and achieving
hegemony. But, if the opportunity is not taken, the
balance of forces will shift back to the dominant class,
which reestablishes its hegemony on the basis of a new
pattern of alliances.
"The key to 'revolutionary' social change in modern
societies does not therefore depend, as Marx had
predicted, on the spontaneous awakening of critical class
consciousness but upon the prior formation of a new
alliances of interests, an alternative hegemony or
'historical bloc', which has already developed a cohesive
world view of its own. (Williams, 1992: 27)
Is violence the only way to subvert dominant
No. The way of challenging the dominant hegemony is
political activity. But we must understand a distinction
that Gramsci proposed between two different kind of
political strategies to achieve the capitulation of the
predominant hegemony and the construction of the
War of manoeuvre:
The main goal is winning quickly;
Especially recommended for societies with a
centralised and dominant state power that have failed in
developing a strong hegemony within the civil society
(i.e. Bolshevik revolution, 1917).
War of position:
Primarily, across institutions of civil society;
Secondly, the socialist forces gain control through
cultural and ideological struggle, instead of only
political and economic contest;
Especially suggested for the liberal-democratic
societies of Western capitalism with weaker states but
stronger hegemonies (i.e.: Italy);
These countries have more extensive and intricate
civil societies that deserve a longer and more complex
"The revolutionary forces have to take civil society
before they take the state, and therefore have to build a
coalition of oppositional groups united under a hegemonic
banner which usurps the dominant or prevailing hegemony."
In this context, how do we understand the notions of
culture and ideology?
Culture: a whole social process, in which men and
women define and shape their lives.
Ideology: a system of meanings and values, it is the
expression or projection of a particular class interest.
The form in which consciousness is at once expressed and
controlled, as Raymond Williams has defined it: "...a
mistaken interpretation of how the world actually is."
(Williams, 1992: 27)
" 'Hegemony' goes beyond 'culture', as previously
defined in its insistence on relating the 'whole' social
process to specific distributions of power and influence.
To say that 'men' define and shape their whole lives is
true only in abstraction. In any actual society there are
specific inequalities in means and therefore in capacity
to realise this process. In a class society these are
primarily inequalities between classes. Gramsci therefore
introduced the necessary recognition of dominance and
subordination in what has still, however, to be
recognised as a whole process." (Williams, 1977:
Hence, having everything we just said in mind, one
could take it that, first, you have a class "building" a
specific and concrete ideology -- based in its specific
and concrete interests -- that will dominate the rest of
the society because of the unavoidable influence of
capitalist relations. This set of ideas will constitute
the hegemony that will be expressed as the nucleus of
culture. If these assumptions are correct, we can
conclude that the media are the instruments to express
the dominant ideology as an integral part of the cultural
Role of Intellectuals in Society
Historically, different intellectuals have created the
ideologies that have moulded societies; each class
creates one or more groups of intellectuals. Thus, if the
working class wants to succeed in becoming hegemonic, it
must also create its own intellectuals to develop a new
"Because of the way society develops, different
groups of individuals will be required to take on
particular tasks. Gramsci suggests that although all
tasks require a degree of intellectual and creative
ability, some individuals will be required to perform
tasks or functions which are overtly intellectual. In
the first instance, these occupations are associated
with the particular technical requirements of the
economic system. Subsequently, they may be associated
with the more general administrative and organisational
institutions which synchronise the activities of the
economy with those of society as a whole. In the
political sphere, each social group or class (which is
itself brought into being by the particular way in
which economic practices are organised) generates a
need for intellectuals who both represent the interests
of that class and develop its ideational understanding
of the world." (Ransome, 1992: 198)
For Gramsci, the revolutionary intellectuals should
originate from within the working class rather than being
imposed from outside or above it.
"They are not only thinkers, writers and artist but
also organisers such as civil servants and political
leaders, and they not only function in civil society
and the state, but also in the productive apparatus..."
(Simon, 1991: 90)
on Communication Matters
From a "Gramscian" perspective, the mass media have to
be interpreted as an instrument to spread and reinforce
the dominant hegemony... although they could be used by
those who want to spread counter-hegemonic ideas too.
"...Pop culture and the mass media are subject to
the production, reproduction and transformation of
hegemony through the institution of civil society which
cover the areas of cultural production and consumption.
Hegemony operates culturally and ideologically through
the institutions of civil society which characterises
mature liberal-democratic, capitalist societies. These
institutions include education, the family, the church,
the mass media, popular culture, etc." (Strinati, 1995:
Different authors (Foucault, Althauser, Feminist
theories, etc.) have taken Gramsci's idea of a prominent
discourse, reinterpreting and proposing it as a suitable
explanation about our culture, the construction of our
beliefs, identities, opinions and relations, everything
under the influence of a dominant "common sense".
Eventually, we can suggest that the media could operate
also as a tool of insurrection.
Every author who has studied or developed the writings
of Gramsci has something different to stress from his
theory; by way of illustration I have chosen some of
David Harris: He is responsible for the emergence of a
critical sociology of culture and for the politicisation
Raymond Williams: The forms of domination and
subordination correspond much more closely to the normal
process of social organisation and control in developed
societies than the idea of a ruling class, which are
usually based on much earlier and simpler historical
Paul Ransome: Gramsci resolved two central weakness of
Marx's original approach:
- That Marx was mistaken in assuming that social
development always originates form the economic
- That Marx placed too much faith in the possibility
of a spontaneous outburst of revolutionary
consciousness among the working class.
Todd Gitlin: Gramsci's distinction of culture was a
great advance for radical theories, it called attention
to the routine structures of everyday 'common sense',
which work to sustain class domination and tyranny.
Dominic Strinati: Gramsci suggested that there is a
dialectic between the process of production and the
activities of consumption. He also displayed a lack of
dogmatism, unlike some other Marxist authors.
Flaws of Gramsci's
As in the previous section, there are a number of
critical views about Gramsci's ideas that we could
review. Here I have taken some of the more common ones;
especially those connected with a communications angle.
Nevertheless, there are entire libraries dedicate
exclusively to Gramsci and his theories from
heterogeneous perspectives; they seem to be an unlimited
source of inspiration. Only the most fertile ideas can
provoke this amount of analysis.
From Strinati's point of view the main problem with
Gramsci's ideas is the same as with the Frankfurt
School's theories and Althusser's work: their Marxist
background. A class-based analysis is always
reductionist and tends to simplify the relation between
the people and their own culture, that is the problem
of confining a social theory within the Marxist limits.
The deterministic framework does not allow history to
contradict the theory, and the interpretation of
reality becomes rather elementary.
"People can accept the prevailing order because they
are compelled to do so by devoting their time to
'making a living', or because they cannot conceive
another way of organising society, and therefore
fatalistically accept the world as it is. This,
moreover, assumes that the question why people should
accept a particular social order is the only legitimate
question to ask. It can be claimed that an equally
legitimate question is why should people not accept a
particular social order?" (Strinati, 1995: 174)
Williams understands that culture is not only a
vehicle of domination, he finds preferable a definition
of culture as a language of co-operative shaping, of
common contribution. He also thinks that Gramsci
proposed the concept of hegemony as a uniform, static
and abstract structure.
"A lived hegemony is always a process. It is not,
except analytically, a system or a structure. It is a
realised complex of experiences, relationships and
activities, with specific and changing pressures and
limits. In practice, that is, hegemony can never be
singular. Its internal structures are highly complex,
as can readily be seen in any concrete analysis.
Moreover (and this is crucial, reminding us of the
necessary thrust of the concept), it does not just
passively exist as a form of dominance. It has
continually to be renewed, recreated, defended, and
modified. It is also continually resisted, limited,
altered, challenged by pressures not at all its own."
(Williams, 1977: 112)
Williams finds a third theoretical problem: how the
modern citizen can distinguish between alternative and
opposed initiatives, between the independent and the
reactionary ideas. Because everything in society could
be tied to the hegemonic thoughts, one can say that the
dominant culture produces and limits its own forms of
counter-culture. The notions of revolution and social
change have no sense in these circumstances.
He has mentioned that Gramsci's ideas about the role
of intellectuals in society are rather elitist, and all
the theory is too political and partisan to be
credible. He adds later that another problem of
Gramsci's thought is the lack of empiricism, there is
no room for studies of audiences, surveys or something
related directly with the people and their
"...A suitable theory must be capable of avoiding
determinism and prioritising struggle; it must contain,
or be capable of containing, a suitable linguistics; it
must be flexible enough to license, as proper politics,
the women's movement, black activism, and any other new
social movements as may be announced by the management;
it should be able to function in the absence of a
strong Communist Party; it must be capable of being
applied to an infinite range of specific circumstance;
it must be fun to work with, with witty and well
written arguments, and intriguing neologism." (Harris,
Gitlin's opinion is that Gramsci's ideas, and the
later works based upon them, propose a debate that is
rather abstract with a concept of cultural hegemony as
a "substance with a life of its own" settled over the
whole public of capitalist societies to confuse the
reality. A kind of evil power seeking to colonise our
consciousness. But, Gitlin wonders if the fact that the
same film (or the same advertisement, or the same
article, or the same t.v. programme) is subject to a
variety of interpretations, may suggest a crisis of
hegemonic ideology, a failure in the cultural
programmed minds. Moreover, the success of media in
modern societies implies a certain sensitivity to
audience tastes, desires and tolerances, in order to
perpetuate the system. From Gitlin's perspective the
relationship between audiences, media products and
culture structures is less inflexible, and more
"The cultural hegemony system that results is not a
closed system. It leaks. Its very structure leaks, at
the least because it remains to some extend
competitive." (Gitlin in Newcomb, 1994: 531).
Gramsci in His Own
(Selection from the Prison
"What we can do, for the moment, is to fix two major
superstructural 'levels': the one that can be called
'civil society', that is, the ensemble of organisms
commonly called 'private', and that of 'political
society' or 'the state'. These two levels correspond on
the one hand to the functions of 'hegemony' which the
dominant group exercises throughout society and on the
other hand to that of 'direct domination' or command
exercised through the state and 'juridical'
"A social group can, indeed must, already exercise
'leadership' before winning governmental power (this is
indeed one of the principal conditions for the winning
of such power); it subsequently becomes dominant when
it exercises power, but even if it holds it firmly in
its grasp, it must continue to 'lead' as well."
"A crisis occurs, sometimes lasting for decades.
This exceptional duration means that incurable
structural contradictions have revealed themselves
(reached maturity) and that, despite this, the
political forces which are struggling to conserve and
defend the existing structure itself are making every
effort to cure them, within certain limits, and to
overcome them. These incessant and persistent efforts
... form the terrain of the 'conjunctural' and it is
upon this terrain that the forces of opposition
"This criticism makes possible a process of
differentiation and change in the relative weight that
the elements of the old ideologies used to possess.
What was previously secondary and subordinate, or even
incidental, is now taken to be primary - becomes the
nucleus of a new ideological and theoretical complex.
The old collective will dissolves into its
contradictory elements, since the subordinate ones
develop socially, etc." (195)
"Critical self-consciousness means, historically and
politically, the creation of an élite of
intellectuals. A human mass does not 'distinguish'
itself, does not become independent in its own right
without, in the widest sense, organising itself: and
there is no organisation without intellectuals, that is
without organisers and leaders... But the process of
creating intellectuals is long and difficult, full of
contradictions, advances and retreats, dispersal and
regrouping, in which the loyalty of the masses is often
sorely tried." (334)
"So one could say that each one of us changes
himself, modifies himself to the extent that he changes
the complex relations of which he is the hub. In this
sense the real philosopher is, and cannot be other
than, the politician, the active man who modifies the
environment, understanding by environment the ensemble
of relations which each of us enters to take part in.
If one's own individuality means to acquire
consciousness of them and to modify one's own
personality means to modify the ensemble of these
Gitlin, Todd (1979), 'Prime time ideology: the
hegemonic process in television entertainment', in
Newcomb, Horace, ed. (1994), Television: the critical
view - Fifth Edition, Oxford University Press, New
Gramsci, Antonio (1971), Selections form the Prison
Notebook, edited and translated by Quintin Hoare &
Goffrey Nowell Smith, Lawrence and Wishart, London.
Ransome, Paul (1992), Antonio Gramsci: A new
introduction, Harvester Wheatsheaf, Hemel Hempstead,
Simon, Roger (1991), Gramsci's Political Thought: An
introduction, Lawrence and Wishart, London.
Strinati, Dominic (1995), An Introduction to
Theories of Popular Culture, Routledge, London.
Williams, Raymond (1977), Marxism and Literature,
Oxford University Press, Oxford.