Antonio Gramsci is one of the most influential Marxist thinkers in the 20th century. He was born in 1891 and joined the Socialist Party in Italy in 1915. In 1927 he was arrested by the Italian police and jailed. He died due to the mistreatment in the prison in 1937. He wrote his famous prison notes in this period. Therefore, we can say that he wrote his book in a time when fascism had defeated Marxists in Italy, Spain and Germany. I think this had been influential on his writings. Another important point is that since he wrote his book in the prison under unsuitable conditions, his book does not have the plan of a normal book. In fact, the book consists of separate writings and letters instead of a systematic book.
As I have said Gramsci wrote his book in the fascist era of Italy but it was also a time when the Russian revolution was successfully consolidated. Thus like most of the other European Marxists, Gramsci was also bothered with the question that why the revolution had been successful in Russia but not in Italy and other European countries? When we consider that Marx had supposed Germany and Britain as the closest countries to revolution and Russia as a vey far country, this question becomes more important. The 1919-1921 period is the period of defeats for European Marxists and it had been proven that capitalist system is much more enduring than Marx supposed and this led to some revisionist debates in the Marxist theory. First one is the revisionism of Bernstein, then came the revisionist debate between Kautsky and Lenin which is I believe to be important in understanding Gramsci. Lenin declared the Bolshevik regime as the dictatorship of the proletariat, however Kautsky argued that the revolution in Russia is a dictatorship over the proletariat. Thus two trends developed in the Marxist world, one considering that revolution in Russia is an unexpected version of Marxism in an Asiatic underdeveloped country, while the other group argued that it is a deviation from Marxism since Marxism isn’t only about planned command economy but it also involves democracy and civil participation. This debate is also similar to the debate in the Italian Communists that is mentioned in the introduction part of the book, debate between Bordiga and Tasca. Gramsci tried to clarify and overcome this dispute by his concepts of hegemony and civil society. During his attempt of answering these questions, Gramsci developed new theories and made extensive contributions to the Marxist theory. However, I need to divide his contributions to two categories. Firstly, Gramsci made theoretical contributions to Marxism. Most important of them is his criticism on economism and related with this, his emphasis on the above mentioned concepts. Secondly, Gramsci’s work can be understood as more strategic. He deals with the strategy of the revolution in Italy. This contains his emphasis on the party and the intellectuals
Firstly, Gramsci criticizes the positivist Marxists, who understands Marxism as a natural science, which economy and economic production relations determine the society. He also criticizes the emphasis on economy by Marx, naming this approach as `economism`. Instead of concentrating solely in economics, he also concentrates on superstructures and claims that they aren’t the sole results of economy but factors like culture and ethnicity also determines the society. This is his major contribution to the Marxist theory and therefore he is named as `cultural Marxist`. Before passing to the concept of hegemony, which is very related with this issue, at this point I should mention that Engels also accepted this criticism and said that young Marxists have reduced the theory to economism and this was to a certain extent his and Marx’s fault. According to him this was because the liberals argued a certain distinction between economy and politics and Marxists who felt that they had to respond this and had concentrated on economy too much. As a result of his criticism on positivist Marxists, Gramsci emphasizes on human will and action. He doesn’t understand the history as a result of certain laws as positivists did and contrary to that he claims that it is the human will, which is collected in forms like parties and trade unions that determines the history and shapes the economy. He opposes the idea that social change and revolution will occur as a result of certain laws claiming that this would mean passivisation of the proletariat throughout the history. On the other hand, he accepts that the revolution is the result of the hegemony of one class on other classes. If the proletariat wants to be successful, it has to be the leading force of the society and should establish hegemony over other segments of the society. Therefore, he named his book as `Modern Prince`, who is the proletarian party, which will be supported by the peasants of the south. To achieve this Gramsci gives emphasis on the importance of intellectuals in order to gain hegemony over the society. He calls these intellectuals as organic intellectuals, which come from the members of proletariat. The intellectuals should maintain the hegemony of proletariat. Here we see a strategy for the revolution in Italy and Gramsci emphasizes the importance of peasantry-proletariat alliance just as the Soviets achieved.
However, Gramsci points a major difference between Russia and Europe. At this point he uses the concept of civil society. Hegel and Marx also use these concepts. According to Gramsci civil society in the East (Russia) had never been developed and it was always suppressed by the political society (state), therefore the political culture of East is based on pressure. However, he says that civil society is much more developed in the advanced West and political culture is based on compromise and consent. Therefore, a ruling class in the West has to depend on popular support. This is the crucial difference between hegemony and dicta. Thus, I can say that by pointing the importance of the popular support for the ruling elite he comes close to the criticism made against the Bolsheviks in Russia. He seems closer to German socialists like Kautsky and Bernstein, however he parts from them by emphasizing the importance of the political party and hegemony of the ruling class. Thus, we can say that he finds a mid way between Lenin and Kautsky. However, I don’t argue that he tries to compromise these two approaches. His aim is totally different. He rejects a common formula of revolution, which will be valid for every country. He sees this as the result of economic determinism and criticizes this. Thus each country (culture) will develop its own forms of revolution and Russian form is a successful one for that society. However it isn’t suitable for Europe. Italy also needs such a leading party, which is `Modern Prince`, however this party should have a popular support of proletariat and the great masses of peasantry.
Gramsci’s emphasis on civil society and popular support made him appealing for a very wide range of political groups varying from revolutionists to liberals. However, although he led the development of a more democratic tradition in European Marxism, Gramsci still should be considered as a revolutionary. The concept he used also proves his emphasis in revolutionary and this might be violent as well. However it has to depend on a large support. His emphasis on the cultural differences between east and west shows that popular support is necessary in West although it might not be so necessary for East.