Why an obscure Italian radical still dominates the Left 80 years after his death in a Roman jail
Antonio Gramsci is probably the most influential communist after Karl Marx, writes Nelson McCausland.
He never led a revolutionary army, he never sent anyone to face an execution squad and he spent the last 11 years of his life in prison in Italy, but Antonio Gramsci has probably had a greater influence on the democratic Western countries, including the United Kingdom, than any other communist.
He died in 1937, but 80 years later his writings and ideas continue to shape many aspects of our society. Yet, in spite of that profound influence, his name is largely unknown outside Marxist and academic circles and if it cropped up in a quiz many people would put him down as an Italian footballer or film star.
So, who was he, what did he believe and how has he influenced our modern Western societies?
Antonio Francesco Gramsci was an Marxist. He founded the Italian Communist Party in 1921 and spent several years in Russia before returning to Italy.
He was arrested in 1926 by the fascist government of Mussolini and spent the next 11 years in prison until his death in Rome on April 27, 1937.
There in jail he wrote about Marxism, about politics and about society and culture, and since his death his writings have been translated and published in other languages.
Gramsci concluded that communism would not overturn society through revolutions or wars. Neither would it win through democratic elections.
Instead, Marxism should seek to transform society by infiltrating the institutions of society so as to radically transform the culture of the society, which in turn determines the environment in which politics and public life are acted out. There is a great deal of truth in the saying that “culture is upstream from politics”.
That would require Marxists to gain influential positions in universities, schools, media, lobby groups, trade unions, voluntary organisations and public interest groups. They could then gradually mould society in accordance with their ideology, and that has been happening across the English-speaking world since the 1960s.
I was struck, therefore, when I heard a committee member of an influential public body in Northern Ireland say that his great hero was Antonio Gramsci.
It was only afterwards that I discovered this person had been a member of the Workers Party and had helped to edit its newspaper. He had then moved on to become editor of a publicly funded magazine and taken up positions on a number of other organisations and public bodies. He had moved on, but he had taken Gramsci with him.
When a veteran of the Connolly Association and the Communist Party of Ireland died in 2015, another senior member of the party delivered a tribute at his funeral and said that he had a profound grasp of Marxist theory and that his favourite Marxist thinker was Antonio Gramsci.
Back in the 1960s a prominent German radical spoke of “the long march through the institutions”, and Professor Herbert Marcuse wrote to him, saying: “I regard your notion of the ‘long march through the institutions’ as the only effective way.”
For many on the radical Left today, the way to change the world is not through revolutions and not through elections, but through influencing the institutions from within.
Research in Britain and America has shown that the academic world of universities and colleges is dominated increasingly by the Left and that those who are socially conservative are often the victims of ideological discrimination.
As a result, we have seen an increase in the number of situations where radical pressure groups have sought to ban conservatives from even speaking on campuses on both social and political grounds.
Those who speak about tolerance are often the most intolerant and those who present themselves as liberal are often the most illiberal. Looking back over the past 80 years since the death of Antonio Gramsci and seeing the changes that have been brought about by his followers, it is clear that the methods of Gramsci have certainly been more effective than the Stalin show trials, the Soviet gulags, the Khmer Rouge Year Zero and all the other communist atrocities of the 20th century.