Antonio Gramsci was a pioneer of the Italian communist movement during the early 20th century. He co-founded the Communist Party of Italy, becoming one of the new party's leaders in 1924. Gramsci was also a philosopher - his published writings include philosophical works on culture and politics. He promoted a number of ideas that became part of the framework of Marxist philosophy. One of these was the theory of cultural hegemony.
Gramsci was born on January 22, 1891, in the town of Ales, Sardinia. He belonged to one of the island's few literate families. Gramsci was an excellent student, and his academic success won him a scholarship to attend the University of Turin. The city's social atmosphere greatly influenced the young intellectual. Turin was the most advanced industrial city in Italy at that time, and it was home to a significant number of industrial workers, who often staged demonstrations and strikes.
Gramsci's brother had introduced him to socialist philosophy when he was still in Sardinia. As a university student in Turin, Gramsci met many people who shared his socialist beliefs, including Palmiro Togliatti and Angelo Tasca—both of whom would also become prominent members of the future Communist Party of Italy. In 1915, Gramsci joined the Italian Socialist Party and wrote articles for the Turin Avanti! (Forward!). He soon gained recognition as one of most influential journalists in Italy, and his articles were widely read. In 1919, he and his associates started a journal called The New Order, which put the political situations of Europe, Russia, and the United States in the public eye.
Two years later, the pro-Bolshevik members of the Italian Socialist Party decided to form the Communist Party of Italy. Gramsci co-founded this party because he felt that his country needed a political party with Leninist ideals. At first he served only as a committee member of the new organization, though he was involved in all its major decisions. In 1922, he attended the Communist International in Moscow as a representative of the Italian communist movement. During this trip he made the acquaintance of Julka Schucht, who would become his wife and the mother of his two children.
At this point Gramsci already foresaw that Benito Mussolini's fascist party would cause great hardship for the working class and for Italian democrats. After he returned from Moscow in 1923, he suggested that the party should form an alliance with Russian leftist forces to topple the fascist government, but the other party members rejected his proposal. Events proved his fears justified: In 1924 Amadeo Bordiga, the Communist Party of Italy's leader, was arrested. Gramsci took his place.
On November 8, 1926, Gramsci himself was arrested by the fascists, beginning the final period of his life. At first he was incarcerated in the well-known Roman prison Regina Coeli. Next he spent five years in confinement on the island of Ustica, before moving to Turi to serve a 20-year sentence. Gramsci suffered from serious health problems while he was in prison, and in 1937, still in detention, he died of a cerebral hemorrhage.
Gramsci wrote extensively throughout his life, but his output increased dramatically during his prison years—in this decade alone he filled over 30 notebooks, producing 3,000 pages of analysis and history. He expressed his political philosophy in its fullest form through these writings. His work fleshed out the concept of cultural hegemony—the idea that a diverse culture can be governed by one class of people. He argued that the discontentment of the working class stemmed from the ideologies of the bourgeoisie. In the interests of avoiding revolt, he said, Italy should adopt a governmental system that narrowed the gap between these two societal factions. Gramsci opposed economism, an ideology which declares that the history of the world has been determined by economic laws. He believed that cultural and political forces can supersede economic forces.
After his death Gramsci became known as one of the inventors of western communism. His writings have been studied extensively, and he is a widely discussed figure in certain branches of sociology and political philosophy. Gramsci's legacy as a socialist is questionable, however. While the Communist Party of Italy agreed with his socialist theories, many party members were critical of his connection with Moscow. Since communism is diametrically opposed to capitalism, communist societies don't support equipment leasing, or any other aspects of a capitalistic economy.
Gramsci wrote numerous political pieces prior to his incarceration—some of the more popular ones include "Newspapers and the Workers," "Character," "One Year of History," "Men of Flesh and Blood," "Parties and Masses," and "Maximalism and Extremism." Gramsci's most enlightening works were written during his imprisonment, however, and they are collectively known as the Prison Notebooks.