An Introduction to Gramsci's Life and Thought
Transcribed to www.marxists.org with the kind permission of Frank Rosengarten.
Antonio Gramsci was born on January 22, 1891 in Ales in the province of Cagliari
in Sardinia. He was the fourth of seven children born to Francesco Gramsci and
Giuseppina Marcias. His relationship with his father was never very close, but
he had a strong affection and love for his mother, whose resilience, gift for
story-telling and pungent humor made a lasting impression on him. Of his six
siblings, Antonio enjoyed a mutual interest in literature with his younger sister
Teresina, and seems to have always felt a spiritual kinship with his two brothers,
Gennaro, the oldest of the Gramsci children, and Carlo, the youngest. Gennaro's
early embrace of socialism contributed significantly to Antonio's political
In 1897, Antonio's father was suspended and subsequently arrested and imprisoned
for five years for alleged administrative abuses. Shortly thereafter, Giuseppina
and her children moved to Ghilarza, where Antonio attended elementary school.
Sometime during these years of trial and near poverty, he fell from the arms
of a servant, to which his family attributed his hunched back and stunted growth:
he was an inch or two short of five feet in height.
At the age of eleven, after completing elementary school, Antonio worked for
two years in the tax office in Ghilarza, in order to help his financially strapped
family. Because of the five-year absence of Francesco, these were years of bitter
struggle. Nevertheless, he continued to study privately and eventually returned
to school, where he was judged to be of superior intelligence, as indicated
by excellent grades in all subjects.
Antonio continued his education, first in Santu Lussurgiu, about ten miles
from Ghilarza, then, after graduating from secondary school, at the Dettori
Lyceum in Cagliari, where he shared a room with his brother Gennaro, and where
he came into contact for the first time with organized sectors of the working
class and with radical and socialist politics. But these were also years of
privation, during which Antonio was partially dependent on his father for financial
support, which came only rarely. In his letters to his family, he accused his
father repeatedly of unpardonable procrastination and neglect. His health deteriorated,
and some of the nervous symptoms that were to plague him at a later time were
already in evidence.
1911 was an important year in young Gramsci's life. After graduating from the
Cagliari lyceum, he applied for and won a scholarship to the University of Turin,
an award reserved for needy students from the provinces of the former Kingdom
of Sardinia. Among the other young people to compete for this scholarship was
Palmiro Togliatti, future general secretary of the Italian Communist Party (PCI)
and, with Gramsci and several others, among the most capable leaders of that
embattled Party. Antonio enrolled in the Faculty of Letters. At the University
he met Angelo Tasca and several of the other men with whom he was to share struggles
first in the Italian Socialist Party (PSI) and then, after the split that took
place in January 1921, in the PCI.
At the University, despite years of terrible suffering due to inadequate diet,
unheated flats, and constant nervous exhaustion, Antonio took a variety of courses,
mainly in the humanities but also in the social sciences and in linguistics,
to which he was sufficiently attracted to contemplate academic specialization
in that subject. Several of his professors, notably Matteo Bartoli, a linguist,
and Umberto Cosmo, a Dante scholar, became personal friends.
In 1915, despite great promise as an academic scholar, Gramsci became an active
member of the PSI, and began a journalistic career that made him among the most
feared critical voices in Italy at that time. His column in the Turin edition
of Avanti!, and his theatre reviews were widely read and influential.
He regularly spoke at workers' study-circles on various topics, such as the
novels of Romain Rolland, for whom he felt a certain affinity, the Paris Commune,
the French and Italian revolutions and the writings of Karl Marx. It was at
this time, as the war dragged on and as Italian intervention became a bloody
reality, Gramsci assumed a somewhat ambivalent stance, although his basic position
was that the Italian socialists should use intervention as an occasion to turn
Italian national sentiment in a revolutionary rather than a chauvinist direction.
It was also at this time, in 1917 and 1918, that he began to see the need for
integration of political and economic action with cultural work, which took
form as a proletarian cultural association in Turin.
The outbreak of the Bolshevik revolution in October 1917 further stirred his
revolutionary ardor, and for the remainder of the war and in the years thereafter
Gramsci identified himself closely, although not entirely uncritically, with
the methods and aims of the Russian revolutionary leadership and with the cause
of socialist transformation throughout the advanced capitalist world.
In the spring of 1919, Gramsci, together with Angelo Tasca, Umberto Terracini
and Togliatti, founded L'Ordine Nuovo: Rassegna Settimanale di Cultura Socialista
(The New Order: A Weekly Review of Socialist Culture), which became an influential
periodical (on a weekly and later on a bi-monthly publishing schedule) for the
following five years among the radical and revolutionary Left in Italy. The
review gave much attention to political and literary currents in Europe, the
USSR, and the United States.
For the next few years, Gramsci devoted most of his time to the development
of the factory council movement, and to militant journalism, which led in January
1921 to his siding with the Communist minority within the PSI at the Party's
Livorno Congress. He became a member of the PCI's central committee, but did
not play a leading role until several years later. He was among the most prescient
representatives of the Italian Left at the inception of the fascist movement,
and on several occasions predicted that unless unified action were taken against
the rise of Mussolini's movement, Italian democracy and Italian socialism would
both suffer a disastrous defeat.
The years 1921 to 1926, years "of iron and fire" as he called them,
were eventful and productive. They were marked in particular by the year and
a half he lived in Moscow as an Italian delegate to the Communist International
(May 1922- November 1923), his election to the Chamber of Deputies in April
1924, and his assumption of the position of general secretary of the PCI. His
personal life was also filled with significant experiences, the chief one being
his meeting with and subsequent marriage to Julka Schucht (1896-1980), a violinist
and member of the Russian Communist Party whom he met during his stay in Russia.
Antonio and Julka had two sons, Delio (1924-1981), and Giuliano, born in 1926,
who lives today in Moscow with his wife.
On the evening of November 8, 1926, Gramsci was arrested in Rome and, in accordance
with a series of "Exceptional Laws" enacted by the fascist-dominated
Italian legislature, committed to solitary confinement at the Regina Coeli prison.
This began a ten-year odyssey, marked by almost constant physical and psychic
pain as a result of a prison experience that culminated, on April 27, 1937,
in his death from a cerebral hemorrhage. No doubt the stroke that killed him
was but the final outcome of years and years of illnesses that were never properly
treated in prison.
Yet as everyone familiar with the trajectory of Gramsci's life knows, these
prison years were also rich with intellectual achievement, as recorded in the
Notebooks he kept in his various cells that eventually saw the light after World
War II, and as recorded also in the extraordinary letters he wrote from prison
to friends and especially to family members, the most important of whom was
not his wife Julka but rather a sister-in-law, Tania Schucht. She was the person
most intimately and unceasingly involved in his prison life, since she had resided
in Rome for many years and was in a position to provide him not only with a
regular exchange of thoughts and feelings in letter form but with articles of
clothing and with numerous foods and medicines he sorely needed to survive the
grinding daily routine of prison life.
After being sentenced on June 4, 1928, with other Italian Communist leaders,
to 20 years, 4 months and 5 days in prison, Gramsci was consigned to a prison
in Turi, in the province of Bari, which turned out to be his longest place of
detention (June 1928 -- November 1933). Thereafter he was under police guard
at a clinic in Formia, from which he was transferred in August 1935, always
under guard, to the Quisisana Hospital in Rome. It was there that he spent the
last two years of his life. Among the people, in addition to Tania, who helped
him either by writing to him or by visiting him when possible, were his mother
Giuseppina, who died in 1933, his brother Carlo, his sisters Teresina and Grazietta,
and his good friend, the economist Piero Sraffa, who throughout Gramsci's prison
ordeal provided a crucial and indispenable service to Gramsci. Sraffa used his
personal funds and numerous professional contacts that were necessary in order
to obtain the books and periodicals Gramsci needed in prison. Gramsci had a
prodigious memory, but it is safe to say that without Sraffa's assistance, and
without the intermediary role often played by Tania, the Prison
Notebooks as we have them would not have come to fruition.
Gramsci's intellectual work in prison did not emerge in the light of day until
several years after World War II, when the PC began publishing scattered sections
of the Notebooks and some
of the approximately 500 letters he wrote from prison. By the 1950s, and then
with increasing frequency and intensity, his prison writings attracted interest
and critical commentary in a host of countries, not only in the West but in
the so-called third world as well. Some of his terminology became household
words on the left, the most important of which, and the most complex, is the
term "hegemony" as he used it in his writings and applied to the twin
task of understanding the reasons underlying both the successes and the failures
of socialism on a global scale, and of elaborating a feasible program for the
realization of a socialist vision within the really existing conditions that
prevailed in the world. Among these conditions were the rise and triumph of
fascism and the disarray on the left that had ensued as a result of that triumph.
Also extremely pertinent, both theoretically and practically, were such terms
and phrases as "organic intellectual," "national'popular,"
and "historical bloc" which, even if not coined by Gramsci, acquired
such radically new and original implications in his writing as to constitute
effectively new formulations in the realm of political philosophy.