Antonio Gramsci (1891-1937) is widely celebrated as the most original political thinker in Western Marxism and an all-around outstanding intellectual figure. Arrested and imprisoned by the Italian Fascist regime in 1926, Gramsci died before fully regaining his freedom. Nevertheless, in his prison notebooks, he recorded thousands of brilliant reflections on an extraordinary range of subjects, establishing an enduring intellectual legacy.
We can see that in putting the question “what is man?” what we mean is: what can man become? That is, can man dominate his own destiny, can he “make himself,” can he create his own life? We maintain therefore that man is a process and, more exactly, the process of his actions. If you think about it, the question itself “what is man?” is not an abstract or “objective” question. It is born of our reflection about ourselves and about others, and we want to know, in relation to what we have thought and seen, what we are and what we can become; whether we really are, and if so to what extent, “makers of our own selves,” of our life and of our destiny. And we want to know this “today,” in the given conditions of today, the conditions of our daily life, not of any life or any man
- Selections from the Prison Notebooks (1971).
To counter the notion that bourgeois values represented “natural” or “normal” values for society, the working class needed to develop a culture of its own. Lenin held that culture was “ancillary” to political objectives, but for Gramsci it was fundamental to the attainment of power that cultural hegemony be achieved first. In Gramsci’s view, a class cannot dominate in modern conditions by merely advancing its own narrow economic interests; neither can it dominate purely through force and coercion. Rather, it must exert intellectual and moral leadership, and make alliances and compromises with a variety of forces. Gramsci calls this union of social forces a “historic bloc”, taking a term from Georges Sorel. This bloc forms the basis of consent to a certain social order, which produces and re-produces the hegemony of the dominant class through a nexus of institutions, social relations, and ideas. In this way, Gramsci’s theory emphasized the importance of the political and ideological superstructure in both maintaining and fracturing relations of the economic base.
Gramsci stated that bourgeois cultural values were tied to folklore, popular culture and religion, and therefore much of his analysis of hegemonic culture is aimed at these.