Remembering Gramsci

Remembering Gramsci

April 27 was the 76th death anniversary of Antonio Gramsci, one of the greatest 20th century intellectuals and the leader of Italian Communist Party....

April 27 was the 76th death anniversary of Antonio Gramsci, one of the greatest 20th century intellectuals and the leader of Italian Communist Party. He was just 46 when he died in 1937 after spending 10 years in prison under the fascist regime of Mussolini in Italy. Much like the other great revolutionary, Che Guevara, whose dashing portraits adorn many an innocent teenager's t-shirt; Gramsci too became an intellectual style statement somewhere along the way.

Gramsci was born in the small backward province of Sardinia into a family that was not very prosperous. His early life was made more difficult by his own poor health and physical disabilities. He completed schooling despite the desperately poor circumstances of his family and won a scholarship to the university in Turin. A While at the university, Gramsci took several courses in social sciences but developed a special liking for linguistics. Though he dropped out of the university, Turin, a major industrial city, gave him the opportunity to engage with the working class movement. He later became the head of the Communist Party.

Unlike most communist leaders of the time, Gramsci combined grassroots organizational abilities with incisive intellect to theorize and provide direction to the movement. But it was during his years in prison, his deep engagement with the ferment in Europe after the Russian revolution, his interactions with the leading economists and intellectuals of his time, that produced his "Prison Notebooks". "Prison Notebooks" was not published till the 1950s and translations became available only in the 1970s. Before their publication and wider availability, there was an attempt on part of some European intellectuals to co-opt Gramsci as a critic of classical Marxism and to reinterpret him in various ways, singling out his thoughts as the more 'acceptable'perspective of Marxism.

Some of the terminology he used in the "Prison Notebooks", such as hegemony, organic intellectual, civil society, though not all coined by him, acquired a radical edge in political philosophy. These words and phrases have also gained wide currency in popular discourse.A Like Marx himself, Gramsci was also a journalist for some time. Between 1914 till his arrest in 1926, Gramsci edited and wrote for several publications. He was considered a formidable theatre critic. He wrote for socialist papers and became the co-editor of Avanti! in 1916. Later in 1919, he was also instrumental in setting up a weekly L'OrdineNuovo (The New Order).

In one of his early writings on December 22, 1916, called "Newspapers and The Workers", he discusses the seemingly innocent act of subscribing to one newspaper or another in the market.A In that article he writes: "Hundreds of thousands of workers regularly and daily give their pennies to the bourgeois newspapers, thus assisting in creating their power. Why? If you were to ask this of the first worker you were to see on the tram or the street with a bourgeois paper spread before him, you would hear: "Because I need to hear about what is happening."

And it would never enter his head that the news and the ingredients with which it is cooked are exposed with an art that guides his ideas and influences his spirit in a given direction. And yet he knows that this newspaper is opportunist, and that one is for the rich, that the third, the fourth, the fifth is tied to political groups with interests diametrically opposed to his.

"And so every day this same worker is able to personally see that the bourgeois newspapers tell even the simplest of facts in a way that favours the bourgeois class and damns the working class and its politics. Has a strike broken out? The workers are always wrong as far as the bourgeois newspapers are concerned. Is there a demonstration? The demonstrators are always wrong; solely because they are workers they are always hotheads, rioters, hoodlums. The government passes a law? It's always good, useful and just, even if it's...not. And if there's an electoral, political or administrative struggle? The best programs and candidates are always those of the bourgeois parties."

In what seems like a very familiar contemporary concern about journalism, he writes in the same piece: "And we aren't even talking about all the facts that the bourgeois newspapers either keep quiet about � or falsify in order to mislead, delude or maintain in ignorance the laboring public. Despite this, the culpable acquiescence of the worker to the bourgeois newspapers is limitless. We have to react against this and recall the worker to the correct evaluation of reality. We have to say and repeat that the pennies tossed there distractedly into the hands of the newsboy are projectiles granted to a bourgeois newspaper, which will hurl it, at the opportune moment, against the working masses."

This reflects the early seeds of Gramsci's use of the idea of hegemony to explain how the ruling class establishes its control over the working class through ideological apparatuses like the media, religion and schools. These institutions establish a cultural hegemony that makes the oppressed believe that what is good for the ruling classes is good for everyone. This provided the later Marxists a framework for critiquing the role of media and other institutions of dominant ideology in keeping the oppressed in a state of subjugation.

Gramsci's conceptions of hegemony and civil society have been used in media studies widely. Gramsci spent his life trying to bridge ideas and action and to make it accessible to all. He considered his former mentor Benedetto Croce a traditional ivory tower intellectual who found it difficult to simplify the refinement of his thought for wider use. For Gramsci it was important to produce organic thought that was capable of intervening in and changing the existing culture.

In this effort, he was one of the earliest intellectuals to recognise the "different social prisms" through which individuals receive information. And despite his criticism of newspapers, Gramsci recognised the importance of these institutions of ideology in bringing about change. He believed that educational institutions have a major role in engaging with the working class, working from within and bringing about critical understanding to question the consensus built by the capitalist class.

Today, there is an extraordinary amount of scholarship on Gramsci's thoughts. Eric Hobsbawm, the renowned Marxist historian, said that the enduring legacy of Antonio Gramsci is to show us that politics is an essential tool in socialist societies. In short, democracy � is not a luxury but essential. In as much as all societies, if they have to function adequately, require ways and means to institutionalise to represent each other.

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