Lessons From Gramsci for Social Movements Today

DISSENT, September 1, 2023 Mark Engler and Paul Engler  

From Gramsci’s political thinking and practical strategizing come a set of ideas that arguably have only grown more salient with time.

He has been called one of the most original political thinkers of the twentieth century. “If academic citations and internet references are any guide,” one historian pointed out, “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 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; his access to political texts was restricted for periods of his incarceration; and he died at the age of just forty-six. 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 Gramsci’s thinking remains worthwhile for activists more than eight decades after his death. Has interest in him 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.

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 around the world have developed their strategies. Landless workers in Brazil have combined land occupations with the creation of a vibrant network of rural schools. Left populists in Spain have pursued 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.

What concepts have movements taken from Gramsci’s body of theory? And how have they affected their approaches to organizing?

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