Andrew Robinson - Theory Blog

Monday, November 15, 2004

GRAMSCI - Lecture on Gramsci


To understand Gramsci's use of the concept of "ideology", it is important to situate it in Gramsci's broader philosophy. Gramsci does not accept the idea that language mechanically reflects an external world. Rather, he thinks that what people believe is shaped by their language and their ways of thinking. If people think differently, they experience things differently. Thinking - including philosophy - is not a receptive or ordering activity, but rather, it is a creative activity. Gramsci adds that it is creative in the sense that it "put[s] the will at the base of philosophy" (SPN 345). Working in prison, Gramsci developed an elaborate language to evade the censors, and the term he used to replace the word "Marxism" is the term "philosophy of praxis". "Praxis" means practice informed by ideas, so Gramsci's choice of this label suggests that his philosophy is about how practice is based in ideas and how ideas can be turned into practices.

No doubt you'll be familiar with the typical approach in political theory, where the main focus is on supposedly classical works by supposedly great authors. Although he attached some importance to particular authors' works, Gramsci is in general an opponent of this typical approach. For Gramsci, there is no clear division between philosophy or theory as a specialised activity, and the ways of thinking and acting which are part of everyone's lives. So he writes: "All men are 'philosophers'" , having at least a 'spontaneous philosophy'. We cannot help but adopt a philosophy since in 'the slightest manifestation of any intellectual activity whatever, in "language", there is contained a specific conception of the world' (SPN 323). Gramsci also stresses that there is a philosophy implicit in every kind of practical action, which guides and motivates the action. So everybody has a philosophy of some sort, although it may or may not be a well-thought-out one. Gramsci refers to these philosophies by a number of names, such as "conceptions of the world" and "modes of thought and action".

It may seem strange to think that you are engaged in "philosophy" if you chat with friends, take notes for an exam, or agree with an opinion in a newspaper. But this is exactly what Gramsci is challenging us to think. This is not the way philosophy is usually seen, but it is important in bringing to light the way in which everyday ideas implicitly carry theoretical assumptions, even when these assumptions do not operate at the level of conscious awareness. Gramsci is particularly challenging the idea that the things which seem "obvious" to most people are natural or "just common sense". For Gramsci, everyday beliefs are part of philosophies and ways of thinking. These beliefs should be thought about and questioned, not simply accepted. They are a result of particular social relations, 'an elementary historical acquisition' (SPN 199). It's also the case that, for Gramsci, politics is not only about leaders and elites, but also about what everyone does when they assess other people's views or try to convince someone else of something.

To take an example from today, if somebody thinks that it is important to protect the "decent people" from "the criminals", this person may well think they are expressing an obvious, natural belief. But in fact, for their claim to make sense, it must rely on a set of assumptions about the way the world is. For instance, it must rely on an assumption that the decent people and the criminals are easily separable groups. The demand to protect the decent people suggests that they are morally superior or worthy, which in turn implies that what they are or what they do is given some kind of ethical value, whereas what the criminals are or do is given no value. If the person in question wants the protection to take the form of "punishing the criminals", there are a whole set of other assumptions added. For instance, an idea that punishment is effective as a form of protection. Any of these implicit views can be questioned, and in Gramsci's view they should all be open to critical scrutiny. Often, everyday views will turn out to be less "obvious" than they may initially seem, when treated in this way. For instance, the effectiveness of punishment can be challenged by empirical evidence. Or the idea that workers can be protected by the existing state might be criticised on the grounds that the existing state is bourgeois, or that this state is itself a source of threat, perhaps a greater threat than those it labels as criminals. The point of Gramsci's philosophy, and often of others who carry out critical discourse analysis, such as the Glasgow Media Studies Group. is to challenge everyday beliefs and open them to scrutiny.

According to Gramsci, all philosophies contain or produce a set of ethics which their adherents act on or wish to see realised. These ethical systems transmit the philosophy into the world. Furthermore, ethics tends to integrate people into movements which share an ethical and political project. 'In acquiring one's conception of the world one always belongs to a particular grouping which is that of all the social elements which share the same mode of thinking and acting' (SPN 324). Gramsci does not separate philosophy from ideology, treating the latter as an immediately political outgrowth of the former. Ideology, as distinct from philosophy, is the immediate and passionate, but partial, manifestation of a group's philosophy or conception of the world. Often, Gramsci uses the term 'ideology' interchangeably with the other terms such as philosophy.


Since everyone has a philosophy, or conception of the world, there is not for Gramsci a massive gap between what philosophers and political theorists do and what ordinary people do. Popular philosophies and those held by philosophers only differ in the degree of homogeneity, coherence and logic with which they are expressed (SPN 347). However, Gramsci draws a different kind of distinction between the two kinds of philosophy or ideology. Gramsci states: 'One must... distinguish between historically organic ideologies... and ideologies that are arbitrary, rationalistic, or "willed" ' (376-7). This distinction between organic and arbitrary ideologies recurs in Gramsci's work, and is very important, because it is only organic ideologies which have a real effect in the world. If a particular theorist or politician wishes to influence the way people think and act, she or he cannot do this simply by writing books or taking power, but must somehow find a way for her or his ideology to become organic, that is, to incorporate itself into everyday life as if it were an expression of it, and to act as an actual and active guiding force, giving direction to how people act and react.

The concept of the "organic" recurs through Gramsci's work, and should NOT be confused with any idea of a biological basis for beliefs. "Organic" - which also crops up in phrases such as "organic intellectuals" and "organic crisis" - has several implications. Firstly, something is "organic" if it is deeply felt, and if it operates on the level of feelings, passions and deeply-held beliefs, rather than simply operating through superficial uses of language, detached rational calculation, or public performance. So, for instance, the kind of views about crime which I discussed earlier would be a type of organic ideology, because people talk, act and feel in line with them. On the other hand, a theory you learn and repeat in an exam is NOT organic, unless you actually come to feel it on a deeper level. Secondly, organic ideologies are those which express a historical function, in relation to the economic structure of society. Gramsci accepts some aspects of Hegelian and Marxian teleology, and he seems to think that an idea which is widely accepted must perform some kind of "world-historic" role of this kind. Ideas which do not express a real, felt need arising from economic relations are according to Gramsci not likely to become organic. Thirdly, organic ideologies are ideologies with mass or popular support, as opposed to those affirmed by small groups of activists or by individual philosophers. Gramsci fuses all three aspects in the following passage: 'To the extent that ideologies are historically necessary they have a validity which is psychological; they "organise" human masses, and create the terrain on which men move, acquire consciousness of their position, struggle etc.' (SPN 367).

The other type of philosophy does not have a specific name in Gramsci's work, but is sometimes referred to as "arbitrary" ideology, sometimes as "philosophers' philosophies" and sometimes by other names. The two types of ideology roughly correlate with the two types of intellectual Gramsci identifies. Gramsci's concept of the "intellectual" is not limited to people employed in universities, but includes anyone who uses ideas to persuade or organise others, such as journalists, trade union officials and political activists. Intellectuals can be divided into two types. Roughly speaking, an organic intellectual is part of a social movement, linked to a particular class or group, and acts to develop and promote an organic ideology. On the other hand, a traditional intellectual lives under the illusion of being able to operate outside of her or his historical context. Organic intellectuals are connected to specific groups, so that, for instance, a radical trade-union activist would be an organic intellectual of the working class and a representative of a neo-liberal think tank funded by businesses would be an organic intellectual of the bourgeoisie. An example of traditional intellectuals is the clergy, who were organically connected to feudal social systems but no longer have an organic movement and who, therefore, increasingly resort to abstract claims.

Social movements can be divided into those which manage to become organic and those which don't. A movement which is organic develops a mass support-base, and also has expressions in terms of its own culture and its effects on everyday life. Examples of movements which Gramsci sees as organic are the Reformation and the French Revolution, both of which managed to achieve a high degree of committed popular support in some areas. Other movements with more influence among intellectuals, such as the Renaissance, Italian nationalism and idealism, have failed for various reasons to become organic. One can tell that an ideology has not become organic if it is unable to generate a mass movement, and if there is no literature or other artistic movement connected to it. An organic, or expansive, movement is 'irresistible'; 'it will find its artists', and if it fails to do so, this shows that 'the world in question was artificial and fictitious' (SCW 109). An organic ideology can generate its own art 'from deep within', through its impact on feelings, conceptions and relationships (SCW 207). For instance, Gramsci makes a lot of the failure of Italian liberals to construct what he calls a "national-popular collective will", that is, a sense of national identity of the kind Gramsci thinks the Jacobins managed to induce in France. The main evidence he uses is that there is no "national-popular literature" in Italy and that politicians are unable to win mass support except through manipulation or by playing to economic interests.

The role of an organic intellectual is to construct a new organic ideology, to 'change, correct or perfect... conceptions of the world... and thus to change... norms of conduct' and therefore practices (SPN 344). Their role is to take particular elements in existing mass beliefs and turn these into a 'precise and decisive will' and a 'coherent... ever-present awareness' (SPN 333). They should feel the 'elementary passions' of the people and develop these feelings into a coherent and rational form (FSPN 450). For Gramsci, 'That masses of men be led to evaluate in a co-ordinated way the present reality is, philosophically speaking, a more important and original fact than an isolated pholosophic genius's discovery of a certain truth'. So organic intellectuals should 'make the people join in a criticism of themselves and their own weaknesses' (SCW 251), expanding a new organic ideology by (in Gramsci's terms) 'raising the intellectual level' of ever-growing strata of the population (SPN 340), to 'construct an intellectual-moral bloc which can make politically possible the intellectual progress of the mass' (SPN 332-3). This process requires a particular kind of educational relation in which organic intellectuals form deeply-rooted links with ordinary people and their beliefs without succumbing to existing common sense. It is NOT about using discipline to hold intellectuals down to the level of common sense (which Gramsci definitely views as in many respects inferior to other philosophies), nor is it about dominating the masses.

Gramsci explains the process as a "Passage from knowing to understanding and to feeling and vice versa from feeling to understanding and to knowing". Basically, for Gramsci one must both know and feel to understand. 'The popular element "feels" but does not always know or understand; the intellectual element "knows" but does not always understand and in particular does not always feel. The two extremes are therefore pedantry and philistinism on the one hand and blind passion and sectarianism on the other'. 'If the relationship between intellectuals and people-nation... is provided by an organic cohesion in which feeling-passion becomes understanding and thence knowledge (not mechanically but in a way that is alive)... then and only then... can the shared life be realised which alone is a social force - with the creation of the "historical bloc" ' (SPN 418).

The exact process involved is not specified, except that it must be a two-way process involving dialogue, that it must avoid succumbing to the temptation to glorify existing beliefs, and that it requires a sympathetic understanding of people's needs. The goal of the process - which presumably involves both emotional and cognitive aspects - is what Gramsci terms "intellectual and moral reformation" (sometimes translated misleadingly as "reform"), that is, a reconstruction of the way people think, feel and act. A major part of this is intellectual development. Gramsci stresses the importance of developing critical abilities, and of criticising existing widespread beliefs. He thinks it is important that ordinary people learn how to use logic, to "order" concepts and facts, to relate abstractions to concrete instances, to construct analytical categories, and so on. It is for Gramsci a matter of learning a general outlook rather than specific beliefs: 'thinking well, whatever one thinks, and therefore acting well, whatever one does'; the 'exercise of thought, acquisition of general ideas, habit of connecting causes and effects' and so on (SCW 25). Educating people out of subalternity is not about stockpiling notions, but about the spread of a new conception of the world (FSPN 465). Gramsci states that social transformation can only happen when progressive forces 'work incessantly to raise the intellectual level of ever-growing strata of the populace'; this is what really alters the 'ideological panorama' of an age (SPN 340). 'The first step in emancipating oneself from political and social slavery is... freeing the mind' (cited Ransome). Also, a new philosophy can only succeed in surpassing existing beliefs when it is recognized by the masses as meeting their needs (FSPN 409).

Gramsci conceives of social change occurring as a "molecular" process whereby people free themselves from intellectual control, although he also sees it as culminating in a moment of "catharsis" when each individual completes her or his break with existing beliefs and endorses a revolutionary outlook. 'every revolution has been preceded by an intense labour of criticism' including 'the spread of ideas among masses of men who are at first resistant' (SPW1 11-12). Gramsci believes that the fact that everyone is a philosopher - that thought cannot be left to specialists in the way that other activities can, and that everyday beliefs have an important effect in history - shows the importance of people becoming conscious and critical about what they believe and why. By showing people that they already perform philosophical activities, but that they do so inadequately and unknowingly, Gramsci suggests that people can be persuaded of the need to engage with theoretical issues coherently (SPN 28). Marxists are not, after all, teaching philosophy from scratch, but 'renovating and making "critical" an already existing activity' (SPN 331). This can be used as a basis for constructing a new conception of the world. For Gramsci, before it comes into existence a new society must already by 'ideally active' in the minds of those struggling for change (SCW 39).

Although he also stresses the importance of debunking the ideas of the 'most eminent' advocates of the existing system (SPN 432-3), the main target of Gramsci's critique, the dominant organic ideology today, is what Gramsci calls "common sense". Common sense is the specific philosophy or conception of the world existing among subaltern strata. It contains answers to philosophical questions, but these are usually seen as natural and self-evident. Furthermore, common sense is an incoherent philosophy, which 'cannot be reduced to coherence even within an individual consciousness, let alone collective consciousness' (SPN 326). As a result, it does not give definite answers but can be manipulated to find 'anything one likes' (SPN 422), especially by authoritarians who create an illusion of unity in common sense by using force. Gramsci also thinks that common sense is 'conservative and neophobe': it resists new ideas, retains elements from the past which are not amenable to present problems, and is often auto-affirming, resisting criticism.

Although he usually refers to it in the singular, Gramsci also recognises that what is seen as "common sense" can vary between different groups and classes, that each class has its own common sense and that 'there is not just one common sense' (SPN 325). The use of a single term suggests that he thinks there are generic similarities between the different types. Particular beliefs Gramsci associates with common sense include the naturalisation of social relations, a fatalistic attitude to historical developments and a naive and uncritical realism or vulgar materialism. Common sense tends to selectively absorb and neuter the critical effects of theories which try to enter it. For instance, Gramsci discusses how common sense has affected liberal terminology. For Gramsci, liberalism as an integral conception has never become organic; it has only ever had the support of traditional intellectuals. In popular philosophy, liberal themes have merged with elements which contradict liberalism, such as religion and nationalism. As a result, "liberty" is reconceived as liberty to keep one's anti-liberal superstitions, which in fact prioritise order over liberty. So authoritarians can adopt liberal language and claim to represent "real" liberty against licentious liberals (FSPN 352). A contemporary example would be when David Blunkett portrays attacks on civil liberties as a "defence" of freedom, and gets support from many people.

Gramsci does not simply denounce common sense, but tries to explain why such naive beliefs have become widespread. He is unsympathetic with the classical Marxist idea of "false consciousness", because he thinks that ideas always perform a real function of some kind. Common sense ideas perform specific tasks such as rationalising the world and providing a force of moral resistance to defeated groups. Gramsci also suggests that dominant groups hold down the intellectual development of the subaltern strata, partly by co-opting organic intellectuals through a process known as "transformism". And some groups manipulate everyday beliefs for political or journalistic advantage. However, Gramsci's main argument is that the subaltern strata grudgingly accept the status quo because 'they lack the conceptual tools' (Femia) to formulate an alternative. People accept ideas which they find easy to incorporate into their existing worldview, and avoid complex concepts. Also, since ordinary people are aware that they could be manipulated if they believed arguments they couldn't assess, they tend to distrust everything. Because, furthermore, it is 'eager for fixed certainties', common sense is vulnerable to authoritaruan politics, and Gramsci links it to a series of reactionary phenomena such as fascism.

Because of this critical attitude to common sense, Gramsci repeatedly attacks other authors who use it as the basis for their theories. Appeals to common sense in order to discredit rival philosophies have 'a rather "reactionary" significance' (SPN 441-2), and in order to develop a new organic ideology, it is important to explain rather than endorse common sense. Reinforcing common sense is a way of impeding intellectual development, and at one point Gramsci calls for an 'effort through which the spirit frees itself from common sense' (FSPN 421-2). For Gramsci, 'At those times in history when a homogeneous social group is brought into being, there comes into being also, in opposition to common sense, a homogeneous - in other words, coherent and systematic - philosophy' (SPN 419). Gramsci's goal is 'a new ethical and intellectual unity which has surpassed common sense and become critical' (cited Merrington).

Common sense is crucial to making people subaltern because it is both incoherent and 'mechanically imposed'. It prevents individuals from playing an active role in creating and moulding the world and ourselves (SPN 323-4). Conscious philosophies, in contrast, enable us to recreate ourselves and the world by transforming social relations (SPN 360). Someone who has an unconscious and uncritical philosophy is open to manipulation by individuals in her or his own environment, so there is a choice between having a philosophy imposed by one's environment or working out a philosophy oneself, consciously and critically (SPN 323-4). Therefore, overcoming common sense is a prerequisite for ordinary people to establish an autonomous voice, to break with the existing structures of power and to construct a new society.

The role of Marxism is therefore to establish itself as an organic ideology, over and against common sense. To perform this role, Marxism has to be a self-sufficient worldview (Nemeth p. 50) providing a conception of the world which does not depend on bourgeois theories such as positivism. By forming such a position, Marxism can access 'a peak inaccessible to the enemy camp' (SPN 462). Gramsci was convinced of the inherent superiority of Marxist theory over both common sense and so-called bourgeois theories such as liberalism, so that, once ordinary people were convinced of it, they would not be unconvinced again. He also thought that the existing system was on its last legs, which is why it relies so much on domination.


Matters are not quite this simple, however. Alongside, or as a part of, common sense, Gramsci also says that people have what he calls "good sense". This is an apparently self-developed philosophy arising within subaltern strata, which Gramsci sometimes portrays simply as truths which happen to have found their way into common sense, and sometimes links directly to people's involvement in practical activities and resultant development of awareness of these activities. Subaltern people superfifically affirm ruling-class ideas and think they are acting on them, as indeed they often are in periods of passivity. But this conception coexists with "good sense", so that 'One might almost say that he [i.e. the worker] has two theoretical consciousnesses' (SPN 333). Gramsci sees good sense as emerging mainly when people are involved in activity, especially in social struggles. So a group such as workers 'may indeed have its own conception of the world, even if only embryonic; a conception which manifests itself in action, but occasionally and in flashes - when, that is, the group is acting as an organic totality' (SPN 327). Good sense is a critique of common sense from within, and coincides with Marxism in criticising and transcending common sense. It consists mostly of negative beliefs, and is often 'kept hidden for fear of common sense'. Its main role in Gramsci's theory is as a bridge which organic intellectuals can use to draw people away from common sense and towards Marxism. Good sense is a starting point, not an end-point. It is to be 'educated' and developed into a critical and coherent worldview (SPN 198-9). Thus, although the aim of Marxism is to overcome common sense, this process is to occur via immanent critique, not through simple rejection. Gramsci also praises good sense for its progressive role: 'the beginnings of the new world, rough and jagged though they always are, are better than the passing away of the world in its death-throes and the swan-song that it produces' (SPN 343).

Another unusual aspect of Gramsci's theory is the relationship between activity and thought. For Gramsci, passivity and sluggishness arise because of, but also reinforce, fatalism and the fetishisation of the social system. Common sense, because it is internally contradictory, tends to produce passivity by making it difficult to decide how to act. The passivity of the masses is a central element in history according to Gramsci, and 'what comes to pass... is due not so much to the initiative of the active few, as to the indifference, the absenteeism of the many' (SPW1 17). So basically, elite groups which have lost popular support have an interest in the passivity of the masses or in very regulated types of activity, whereas progressive groups have good reasons to encourage people to be more active.


The idea of activity versus passivity is crucial to understanding how Gramsci views events in society, and social change. Gramsci distinguishes between two different kinds of power or leadership: direction, or hegemony, on the one hand, and domination on the other. Hegemony operates by constructing a "collective will", an active unity of purpose which mobilises people within a particular movement. Domination, on the other hand, involves the maintenance of control over a passive population, usually by keeping it passive. There are two main kinds of domination. The use of coercion is a form of domination, because coercion operates to silence or repress opposition. In his analysis of fascism, Gramsci argues that the main role of totalitarian political structures is to conceal social divisions so as to avoid asking political questions. As a result, political questions are displaced into the spheres of culture and administration. A dominant class may try to hold back the development of a rising social force by separating its followers from its leaders, either by using coercion or by means of another strategy of domination, known as "transformism". Where a class uses coercion or transformism in this way, it shows itself to be reactionary. Also, a rising class which is unable to win widespread support may nevertheless carry out what Gramsci calls a "passive revolution". The new class displaces the old class in power, but is unable to influence the structure of everyday life; as a result, it cannot win widespread support for its philosophy and ends up relying on coercion and transformism. Gramsci's writings on Italian history repeatedly emphasise that the risorgimento, the unification of Italy in the nineteenth century, was a passive revolution, and therefore very different to the French Revolution which was active and hegemonic. Therefore, a collective will led by the bourgeoisie had never emerged in Italy, and the bourgeoisie was unable to carry out its historical tasks.

Transformism is according to Gramsci the main means whereby capitalists and other elites render subaltern strata passive. Transformism is a form of domination in which active social groups are metaphorically "decapitated" and thereby eliminated from politics (SPN 59). Their leaders are co-opted into the existing power apparatus and then used as a kind of 'auxiliary private police' over their followers. Through transformism, a group which could construct a new hegemony is instead turned into a part of an existing structure of domination. It is important to realise that transformism and the construction of passivity are instances of domination, not hegemony, in Gramsci's model. Hegemony ONLY occurs when a class or group is able to gain ACTIVE and FELT support, NOT when it is able to frighten or isolate people into reluctantly accepting its rule.

The concept of "hegemony" is perhaps the most widely used Gramscian concept, and its use varies in the secondary literature. Gramsci himself uses it in a number of ways. Firstly, it is contrasted with "domination" and used interchangeably with "direction" to refer to social relations in which intellectuals or a particular class are able to win active and deeply-felt support from other people. Secondly, it is contrasted with economic-corporate forms of ideology. An integral, expansive and organic conception of the world should be able to construct a complete way of thinking, feeling and acting. However, subaltern classes often have only limited autonomy in how they think, and so restrict themselves to demands based on immediately visible economic concerns. There are for Gramsci three levels of class consciousness: firstly, a level at which a member of a class feels solidarity only in immediate settings, with others who share very immediate interests - the level Gramsci refers to as economic-corporate; secondly, a level at which members of class come to feel themselves to exist as a class, but still only on economic issues; and thirdly, a hegemonic level, at which 'one becomes aware that one's own corporate interests, in their present and future development, transcend the limits of the purely economic class, and must become the interests of other subordinate groups too' (SPN 181). Once classes are in conflict on the third level, the conflict is about the "superstructures" as well as economics, and questions are posed on a universal plane, not as issues of economic interest. Basically, groups operating at the first and second levels will only contest politics as a way of promoting the particular group's interests within an existing social system, which is usually the system of another social group. For instance, an economic-corporate workers' organisation would pursue better pay and conditions and legal equality for workers, within the capitalist system. On the other hand, two groups who pose questions on a hegemonic level disagree about the very form of the state and society, and a subaltern class which reaches this level would want the entire structure reordering. Of course, it would need an autonomous, integral, expansive and organic conception of the world in order to reach this level. According to Gramsci, the social position of an ideology is a result of whether it has the status of a self-contained philosophy or whether it is part of a larger one (SPN 157). A hegemonic class has its own vision, whereas an economic-corporate class pursues ends within a framework conceived as external. Also, while an economic-corporate class pursues internal impulses within the philosophical framework of a rival class, a hegemonic class elaborates these impulses into a philosophy of its own. Only a philosophy which has undergone sufficient qualitative development, of the kind discussed earlier, can attain hegemony, and it is only via philosophy that impulses can be transferred from the economic sphere into political relations. Philosophical beliefs lead directly to strong passionate attachments such as class solidarity. Crucially, an economic-corporate class is unable to win direct support from other classes, whcih it relates to purely instrumentally. This was important for Gramsci partly because he was concerned that an effective political movement in Italy should include peasants as well as workers, and should include the relatively deprived South and Sicily. Therefore, the proletariat itself should win hegemony over other classes and groups, and not just assert its own interests.

The concept of hegemony is also used in a binary with subaltern. A group is subaltern if it has no developed philosophy of its own and is therefore intellectually subordinate to another group. A subaltern group is likely to have only a weak ideology of its own, to fatalistically accept (but not actively endorse) the existing system, to be passive, and to pose questions in an economic-corporate way. Fatalistic beliefs are evidence of subalternity; 'fatalism is nothing other than the clothing worn by a real and active will when it is in a weak position'; through fatalism, will disguises itself in a 'shamefaced manner', expressing dual consciousness and an unwillingness fully to express a conception of the world. It is 'a cause of passivity, of idiotic self-sufficiency', and organic intellectuals should aim to demonstrate its futility (SPN 336-7). In contrast, a group is hegemonic if it has formed its own philosophy and acquired broad support for this philosophy among excluded and oppressed groups. The word "hegemony" means roughly the same as the word "dirigere", which has been translated in the English versions of Gramsci's works as "direct" or "lead" but which has a slightly different meaning to these; basically, a hegemonic or directive or leading group in Gramsci's work is maintaining its position by persuasion or by a force of emotional attraction, and is to be considered as separate from a group which "dominates".

If only one group has access to the hegemonic level and has its own philosophy, this group remains dominant in society, though it may or may not have active hegemony. If no group has any significant degree of hegemony, the result is an "organic crisis", in which the social system is thrown open to alternatives. As Gramsci puts it: 'If the ruling class has lost its consensus, i.e. is no longer "leading", but only "dominant", exercising coercive force alone, this means precisely that the great masses have been detached from their traditional ideologies, and no longer believe what they used to believe previously, etc. The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born' (SPN 276). If two or more groups pose questions on the hegemonic level, they end up in direct conflict. A class which manages to win other classes to its own hegemony forms what Gramsci calls a "historic bloc". A hegemonic class is able to establish the conditions for its own existence as universal principles and as a worldview (FSPN 353). If one group becomes entirely hegemonic, other conceptions of the world become virtually unthinkable. For instance, in the Middle Ages Catholicism was so widespread that the words "man" and "Christian" were used synonymously (FSPN 29). What Gramsci calls the "organic" version of Christianity was able to achieve hegemony because it offered hope, but Gramsci emphasises that later versions of Christianity could not do this so well (SPN 337-8).

Passive revolution occurs when a group achieves domination without aspiring to hegemony. Gramsci says of the leaders of the risorgimento: they 'did not wish to "lead" anybody, i.e. they did not wish to concord their interests and aspirations with the interests and aspirations of other groups. They wished to "dominate" and not to "lead" ' (SPN 104-5). A group which dominates rather than leading is likely to be unable to achieve any kind of lasting effect, such as economic development or national unity.

This approach to social analysis sets Gramsci aside somewhat from classical Marxism. Gramsci no longer sees classes as acting directly on economic motives. His discussions of politics and history include extensive accounts of different classes, groups and individuals vying for hegemony or trying to preserve their positions, and he also engages in detailed discussions of issues such as the readership of different newspapers, the success of particular types of novel, the social role of the Catholic Church, and so on. According to Gramsci, economic forces do not show themselves in politics directly, and there is an intermediate level between the economy and specific political events. For instance, economic crisis cannot directly cause revolutions; it can only strengthen and weaken existing philosophies (SPN 184). Gramsci's account of the relationship between ideology and philosophy on the one hand, and material and social forces on the other, is a substantial modification of orthodox Marxist beliefs. Gramsci expressly downplays the aspects in Marx's thought which portray social change as resulting directly from economic development or economic crisis, and those aspects which suggest that control of the economic yields control of ideas also. The emphasis on "freeing the mind" before social revolution is an original theme, parallelling but distinct from Luk cs's idea of distancing oneself from reification. Other original aspects include the concepts of "common sense", "good sense" and "subalternity", which had no place in a classical Marxist vocabulary. It should also be repeated that Gramsci rejected the idea of ideology as "false consciousness", preferring to discuss it in terms of the articulation of feelings and beliefs. Though Gramsci's approach distances him from other Marxist tendencies, his stress on "organicity" and resultant distaste for "Great Men" theories of history and of philosophy, also place him at a distance from idealism (though closer perhaps to Nietzsche, Sorel and Bergson). Indeed, Gramsci is far less idealist in many respects than Luk cs, because his emphasis is firmly on everyday life and actual social movements.

Gramsci divides social phenomena into three levels: the economic, the ethico-political - where struggles for hegemony are fought out - and the politico-military, which consists of specific conflicts between existing political forces, such as battles, elections and demonstrations.

Collective action arises from the ethico-political level. People act together if they form what Gramsci calls a "collective will". A collective will - which can either be integral or partial - arises if people have the same conception of the world. 'In acquiring one's conception of the world, one always belongs to a particular grouping which is that of all the social elements which share the same mode of thinking and acting' (SPN 324). A collective will expresses itself emotionally, and 'great importance is assumed by the overall question of language, i.e. the collective attainment of a single cultural "climate" ' (FSPN 156). So the conflicts to be analysed in the ethico-political and politico-military spheres are not necessarily between economic classes. Gramsci says that Marxism 'gives a place to the struggle of systems, to the struggle between ways of viewing reality' (cited Nemeth 167), suggesting that he sees movements grouped around different ideologies, rather than classes in any objective sense, as the agents in politics. The main role for class in this theory is that it is assumed to provide the impulses and desires which are given expression by the various ideologies. For this reason, Gramsci is still prepared to label particular ideologies as having a class character, and to insist that hegemony always be exercised by a particular class. It is also for this reason that a teleology of progress remains operative in Gramsci's theory, although he apparently prefers the Hegelian concept of "becoming".

The concepts of "war of position" and "war of movement" crop up in Gramsci's theory apparently as a way of differentiating his strategy for Italy from the example of the Russian Revolution. Gramsci says that, whereas in Russia, bourgeois influence over civil society was very weak and its power was expressed mainly through the coercive apparatuses of the state, in Italy the ruling class is also able to produce passivity through what he terms the 'trenches and fieldworks' of civil society. Drawing analogies with recent changes in warfare, Gramsci therefore suggests that the 'war of movement' in Russia, where a party Gramsci accepted as working-class was able to take power directly and spectacularly in a single insurrection, is an inappropriate model in contexts where the bourgeoisie has achieved hegemony or has found ways to control people through passivity and transformism. Therefore, Gramsci advocates a "war of position" as a necessary prerequisite for an eventual revolution. Revolutionaries have to win hegemony and in the process weaken the bourgeoisie's influence over civil society, before trying to seize state power. The role of the Party was therefore not to organise imminent revolution but to act as "the modern prince", like the Prince in Macchiavelli, constructing social unity around a new conception of the world. Basically, a war of movement occurs on the politico-military level, whereas a war of position operates on the ethico-political level to modify the forces who come into politico-military conflict.

Gramsci also divides society into three parts, namely the economy, the state and civil society. The economy retains its nominal primacy, though in practice Gramsci's economic analyses, such as in the essay "Americanism and Fordism", seem to emphasise the influence of ethico-political issues on economic relations and activities. The so-called "superstructures" are subdivided into "political society" and "civil society". "Political society" is the set of coercive apparatuses which ensure domination by a particular group, whereas "civil society" consists of the associations, activities and everyday social relations through which hegemony and ideological conflict operate. The word "state" is sometimes used to refer to "political society", and sometimes to the "superstructures" as a whole, which can lead to some confusion. The term "ethical state" is Gramsci's term for socialism or communism, and refers to a situation where subjectivities have come together into an integrated and self-sustaining system. The "ethical state" does not involve coercion, although Gramsci endorses the use of state power prior to its achievement, to suppress reactionary classes and movements. Gramsci sometimes hints at a goal of achieving universal subjectivity, in other words, producing an "end of history" by reconciling different ways of viewing the world through dialogue. However, Gramsci says very little about the kind of society he wants to achieve. He says rather more about how to get there, although at different stages he identifies the vehicle of transformation as workers' councils, the Communist Party, or cultural associations. There is something of a tension in his work between themes of dialogue and persuasion on the one hand, and themes of ruthless decision-making and decisive imposition on the other. For instance, Gramsci's attitude to political education is, as I have already said, very much dialogical, but his proposals regarding schooling are quite authoritarian and suggest an attachment to social engineering by the state and to disciplinary forms of power.

Perhaps the biggest weakness in Gramsci's work is the absence of a theory of psychology. Given the emphasis he places on the need to win emotional support in order to achieve hegemony, his work clearly contains a strong tendency to enter psychological territory. But Gramsci lacked a well-worked-out psychological theory. He was almost completely ignorant of psychoanalysis, and obviously today's discourse-analysis approaches were not available, so Gramsci tends to endorse a combination of a rational-choice account of economic interests and a voluntarist ideal of a will unconstrained by circumstances. In general, this means that the loading of Gramsci's discussions of psychology has distinct authoritarian overtones, favouring the repression of so-called "base" or "animal" instincts and an almost workaholic attitude to productive activity. This also has effects in relation to other parts of Gramsci's theory - for instance, his remarks on children and schooling, colonialism, sexuality and the body, law and violence.


Gramsci's influence in Italy has been extensive, though he has also been influential elsewhere. The International Gramsci Society lists at least 100,000 books, articles and theses on Gramsci in 32 different languages. In Italy, Gramsci - as a high-profile victim of the Mussolini regime - has been appropriated by a number of political tendencies. Perhaps most significant is the use of his work by his former comrade Palmiro Togliatti, the leader of the post-war Italian Communist Party. This appropriation is highly selective and political, and Gramsci's resultant association with the more-or-less reformist and liquidationist tendencies within European Communist Parties has somewhat impeded his reception among other groups. In Britain, the greatest volume of work on Gramsci was written from about 1968 to about 1984, and a lot of this is associated with the Marxism Today faction which had similar politics. Many of the individuals involved in this tendency, such as Stuart Hall, Anne Showstack Sassoon and Roger Simon, drew basically reformist conclusions from Gramsci's work. They wrote on subjects such as how Thatcherism was able to achieve hegemony (a term which they used in a rather looser sense than Gramsci), and why Britain entered an "organic crisis" in the 1970s. At around the same time, Gramsci became a significant figure in cultural studies, probably because some of the same individuals were involved in this field as in Marxism Today. Students of the media in particular often pursue analyses which look somewhat Gramscian.

The work of Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe, particularly Hegemony and Socialist Strategy, also draws on some Gramscian concepts, but their framework is actually quite different from Gramsci's. Their analysis draws heavily on Althusserian concepts, and therefore has a very different conception of the position of social agents to Gramsci. There has also been some use of Gramsci's work among social historians examining issues such as the origins of the working class and the conditions for peasant rebellions. Similarly, the "subaltern studies" group - a group of Indian Marxists who carry out detailed analyses of systems of power and of resistance movements, make extensive use of some Gramscian concepts. More recently, the "neo-Gramscian" school of international relations has emerged. Neo-Gramscians use a lot of Gramscian language, but sometimes in quite different ways to Gramsci, and they use a classically Marxist ontology. Renate Holub has tried to relate Gramsci's theory to poststructuralism and Thomas Nemeth has linked Gramsci to phenomenology, but Gramsci does not seem very influential in critical theory.

In general, two conclusions can be reached about the reception of Gramsci's work. Firstly, that the concept of "hegemony" is the most widely used, but also the most widely misunderstood. In particular, there is a tendency to downplay the distinction between hegemony, coerion and transformism, so that "hegemony" is used as a synonym for "social control". Secondly, the aspects of Gramsci's work dealing with common sense, intellectual and moral reformation, and the role of philosophy in everyday life are the least used aspects, but in my view also the most useful. They point towards alternatives to existing approaches in political theory and political science, as well as having radical implications for political practice.


Antonio Gramsci (1971), Selections from the Prison Notebooks. London:Lawrence and Wishart
_____________ (1977), Selections from Political Writings 1910-1920, London:Lawrence and Wishart (SPW1)
_____________ (1985), Selections from Cultural Writings, London:Lawrence and Wishart (SCW)
_____________ (1995), Further Selections from the Prison Notebooks, Minneapolis:University of Minnesota Press (FSPN)

Joseph Femia, "Hegemony and Consciousness in the Thought of Antonio Gramsci", Political Studies 23 (1975)
John Merrington, "Theory and Practice in Gramsci's Marxism", in The Socialist Register (1968)
Thomas Nemeth (1980), Gramsci's Philosophy, Brighton:Harvester
Paul Ransome (1992), Antonio Gramsci. A New Introduction, Hemel Hempstead:Harvester Whitesheaf

arbitrary ideology - see "philosopher's philosophy"
arditismo- use of "commando tactics", literally or metaphorically. In the latter sense, this means
engaging in adventurous activities in advance of any possible mass action. Gramsci is
critical of arditismo unless it is part of a mass movement.
autonomy - of a conception of the world, an ability to generate beliefs, feelings and actions without relying on another conception of the world to fill in the gaps
Byzantinism - treating scholarly or pedantic practices as if they had value independently of political practice
catharsis - a moment of psychological transformation or transition, when someone breaks with existing passionate commitments to the present social system and transfers support to a revolutionary movement.
centralism, bureaucratic or organic - a system in which the organic ideology of an organisation gives primacy to its leadership or "centre"; basically, political authoritarianism
civil society - spheres of activity in which hegemonic and directive (as opposed to dominatory and coercive) practices operate; eg. churches, schools, trade unions, newspapers
collective will - a social force which arises when numerous people hold a single conception of the world; collective wills are the main political agents in some of Gramsci's notes
common sense - the predominant organic ideology/ies among subaltern (and possibly also other) strata in Gramsci's day and today, common sense is an unthought-out, imprecise, confused and contradictory amalgam of beliefs and attitudes
conception of the world - a general way of thinking and relating to everything which exists. According to Gramsci, beliefs and attitudes express such conceptions, which may be either explicit or implicit
conform - Gramsci uses this term in an unusual way, to refer to any process of bringing together or bringing into similarity, regardless of whether it is coercive; also uses it as a transitive verb (if A conforms B, this means that A brings B into a particular collective will)
conjuncture - a specific moment in politics, as opposed to a long-term development of forces
dialectic - in Gramsci's work, this concept seems to refer mainly to the role of contradiction in social relations and to the need to analyse both concrete and abstract issues.
direction/dirigere - leadership through persuasion, emotional appeal, or force of argument, as opposed to domination
domination - distinct from direction; control of others by keeping them in a state of passivity, whether by coercion, threats, intellectual underdevelopment or transformism
economic-corporate - a conception of the world which articulates partial interests within an existing system and which poses these questions economically; contrast "hegemonic".
economism - a philosophy which sees economic interests as directly determining politics
ethical state - the eventual goal of socialism, a type of post-revolutionary society in which people are permanently part of an ethico-political unity
ethico-political - a level of social analysis which deals with issues such as the formation of historic blocs and the achievement of hegemony, i.e. issues where ethics and politics are constructed through the formation of conceptions of the world
expansive - of a conception of the world, tending to win voluntary support from growing numbers of people, especially if they are outside its class of origin; also implies that an ideology is progressive and opens up life to new possibilities
folklore - a conception of the world formed oppositionally by some subaltern strata, which Gramsci tends to see as a more regressive variant of common sense
Fordism - a system of economic production which offers high wages in return for highly regulated and repetitive work, requiring intense bodily discipline
hegemony - a social relation in which a class or group achieves social influence by persuading other groups to endorse its conception of the world. Only an integral, organic and expansive conception of the world can become hegemonic. Distinct from "domination", "subalternity", "economic-corporate"
historic bloc - a collective will encompassing several social classes or groups, united through the hegemony (not domination) of one group and capable of changing a historical epoch
historicism - emphasis on the analysis of concrete events and historical development
homogenise - used more broadly than in common usage; includes making a conception of the world coherent and convincing a number of people of the same idea
humanism - seems to mean an emphasis on people, as opposed to external forces, as the origin of social phenomena
ideology - either a synonym for "conceptions of the world", or a reference to the explicitly political and polemical sections of these
immanence - presence within something else. An "immanent critique" is a critique from inside the suppositions of another theory
integral - a conception of the world is integral if it does not rely on elements drawn from other conceptions of the world to make it complete
integral State - the whole of the "superstructures", i.e. political and civil society
intellectual - anyone engaged primarily in activity using the brain, such as academics, teachers, priests, doctors, generals, journalists and trade union organisers
intellectual and moral reform/reformation - a wide-ranging transformation of ways of thinking and acting in everyday life, which constructs a new conception of the world
Jacobinism - when Gramsci uses this term he does not use its common meaning of vanguardism or dictatorship. A movement is "Jacobin" if it mobilises subaltern strata (especially peasants) as part of a historic bloc.
leading/leadership - see "direction"
mechanicism - belief in relations of determination in society which operate similarly to those in machines, i.e. direct and predictable determinant relations with no aspect of will
mode of thought and action - another term for "conception of the world"
national-popular - a type of collective will in which subaltern strata are united around an identity as the "nation" or "people", as (supposedly) happened in France under the Jacobins
norm of conduct - seems to mean an actual way of acting, rather than a purely intellectual position
organic crisis - a crisis in which an existing elite can no longer maintain hegemony or sustain passivity; seems usually to mean a disruptive economic crisis
organic ideology - a conception of the world which is supported by large numbers of people and which is deeply felt, so that it actually guides people's actions
organic intellectual - an intellectual who is part of a social movement, connected to and in a dialogic relation with members of a stratum, and involved in carrying out intellectual and moral reform
organic level - the social relations involved directly in economic production, as distinct from the politico-military and ethico-political levels
passive revolution - a change in class power, or a strategy of social transformation, carried out without an active process of constructing hegemony, and which therefore relies on domination
philosopher's philosophy - a conception of the world held only by a small number of intellectuals (in Gramsci's sense) and with no relation to popular feelings or organic ideologies
philosophy - synonym for "conception of the world"
philosophy of praxis - Marxism, or Gramsci's variant of it
political society - the state in the narrow sense, i.e. apparatuses of coercion and domination
politico-military - the level of social relations at which already-constituted social forces meet in conflict (such as elections, demonstrations or wars)
praxis - practice informed by a conception of the world
regulated society - another term for "ethical state"; i.e. "self-regulated" ("well-ordered"?) society
restoration - the return to power of regressive or counter-revolitionary forces
revolution-restoration - another term for "passive revolution"
risorgimento - the unification of Italy in the nineteenth century
science - Gramsci uses this term to refer to coherent and organised thought in general (not mainly natural or experimental science)
state - either a synonym for "political society" or for "integral State"
subaltern - under the hegemony of, or rendered passive by, another social group
superstructures - forms of social activity other than economic production
totalitarian - sometimes translated instead as "global", the term this translates is roughly-speaking a synonym of "integral"; it means "all-encompassing", and lacks the negative implications the term "totalitarian" has today
traditional intellectuals - intellectuals who are not connected to an existing social class or movement and who are not therefore "organic"
transformism/trasformismo - domination of social groups through the cooptation of intellectuals or leaders into an existing system of domination
translatability - the possibility for a concept in one theoretical vocabulary to be rendered equivalent to a term in another theoretical vocabulary
war of movement/manoeuvre - as metaphor, a social struggle characterised by sudden changes in social relations such as a sudden seizure of state power
war of position - as metaphor, a gradual, "molecular" struggle to alter the balance of social forces by gradually occupying advantageous positions in civil society and winning hegemony
world-historical - this adjective suggests that an event or force is capable of causing major conflicts or changes of the kind which would be recognised in Hegelian philosophy


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