This 20th Century Italian Marxist Offers Lessons for Today’s Social Movements

He has been called one of the most original political thinkers of the 20th century. Historians point out that ​“If academic citations and internet references are any guide, he is more influential than Machiavelli.” And his impact on the way we think about the processes of social change has been described as ​“little short of electrifying.”

The accomplishments of Antonio Gramsci, born in Italy in 1891, are all the more remarkable considering that his life was both short and notably difficult: His family was destitute in his childhood; he was sick for much of his life; he spent the prime of his adulthood confined to prison by Benito Mussolini’s fascists after his own party’s attempts to foment revolution had failed; he was often denied access to books during his incarceration; and he died at the age of just 46.

Yet, in spite of this, he produced a body of theory that has been widely admired and cited as an inspiration by organizers across several generations and multiple continents.

Amid all this acclaim, it is still fair to ask whether engaging with the Italian’s thinking remains worthwhile for activists more than eight decades after his death.

Has interest in Gramsci become merely academic, or are there practical lessons that social movements can fruitfully draw today?

There’s a good argument that the latter is the case. For organizers working in the socialist lineage, Gramsci is important because he offers a version of Marxist analysis that sheds much of the dogmatism and backward-looking orthodoxy that has unfortunately clung to the tradition.

At the same time, he retains core insights into why capitalism is inherently exploitative and why changing it will require movements from below to engage in a contest of power, rather than buying into the idea that the system can be successfully tinkered with by technocratic reformers with clever policy ideas.

But even for those who do not personally identify with the socialist tradition, understanding the thinking of Gramsci and his intellectual heirs allows for an appreciation of how movements internationally have developed their strategies: from landless workers in Brazil who have combined land occupations with the creation of a vibrant network of rural schools to left populists in Spain pursuing electoral strategies aimed at creating a new ​“common sense” in favor of redistribution and social solidarity.

In the United States, awareness of Gramsci would be necessary to understand why left educators in New York might run a workshop on ​“conjunctural analysis,” or why a book like Jonathan Matthew Smucker’s organizing guide takes the title ​“Hegemony How-To.”

So what concepts, then, have movements taken from Gramsci’s body of theory? And how has it affected their approaches to organizing?

This is a segment of a blog that originally appeared in full at In These Times on August 14, 2023. Republished with permission.

About the Authors: Mark Engler is a writer based in Philadelphia and an editorial board member at Dissent. Paul Engler is founding director of the Center for the Working Poor, in Los Angeles, and a co-founder of the Momentum Training. They are co-authors of This Is an Uprising: How Nonviolent Revolt Is Shaping the Twenty-First Century (Nation Books), and they can be reached via the website www​.democ​ra​cyupris​ing​.com.

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