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Antonio Gramsci on Culture

Raquel de Almeida Moraes

UnB - University of Brasilia

Antonio Gramsci, Italian philosopher, journalist and socialist politician, lived at the beginning of this century in Mussolini’s Fascist Italy. His work, partly developed in the long imprisonment imposed on him by Mussolini, constitutes a political theory that is considered as one of the great contemporary philosophical contributions to the critic and the social fight for the transformation of the capitalist society.

The starting point for his theory has as genesis Marx's conception concerning the development and operation of the capitalist society, composed by the contradictory duality between dominant class and subordinate class, between possessors and the poor, the capitalists and the proletariat. The private ownership both of the earth and of the means of production of the material life (base or infrastructure of the society) has, in the superstructure, i.e. in the ideological and spiritual sphere of the society, a direct correspondence. Gramsci agrees with Marx in the conception that the class which seizes the material power also seizes the ideological power or the power of the ideas, and that’s exactly the knot he took advantage of to deepen and to develop his political theory. His main thesis is that the superstructure maintains the class relationships, and that this dominance is executed by the mechanisms of hegemony of the State and of the civil society. To overcome this hegemony, it would be necessary to develop a counter-hegemony, what can be gotten if the working class, including the socialist intellectuals, promote the creation and the development of a new culture, in opposition to the bourgeois hegemony. Or better: the emphasis of the economical and social transformation happens in the superstructure, in the field of the values and norms as in man's and world’s vision.

Holding these general ideas in mind, we will develop, in the following section, a brief synthesis of the concepts involved in this thesis: a)civil society b)hegemony; c)State. And, inside this conception, the strategy to overcome the bourgeois hegemony, includes these other concepts: a) hegemony crisis; b)war of position; c) the intellectuals' role.

With this, we intended to contribute with theoretical subsidies to the debate on the problem of the hegemony in the bourgeois societies in this global phase of the Capital.


A) Civil Society: it is located in the superstructure, although its roots is in the material production. Its role is the perpetuation of class relationships and prevention of the development of the class consciousness. It is composed by: private social organisms ¾ responsible for the production and reproduction of the hegemony ¾ and by the State, the public organisms. It has as function the direct dominance, both in the domain of the hegemony and in the use of coercion.

B) Hegemony: from the Marxist thesis that the class is the dominant material force in society and at the same time its dominant intellectual force, Gramsci added to the Marxist philosophy the concept of hegemony. Hegemony expresses the consent of the subordinate classes to the bourgeois dominance, which comes as the other face of the power: the face of the domain of consciousness and of the reproduction of ideology.

Hegemony embraces the following aspects:

  • Inter-bourgeoisie: the dominant fraction inside the civil society exercise the control through its moral and intellectual leadership. This dominant fraction (which can alternate depending on the force relations in the inter-bourgeoisie) detain the power and the capacity to articulate the interests of the other fractions. It doesn't impose its own ideology, but combines common elements, extracted from visions of the world and interests of the allied groups.
  • Bourgeoisie X proletariat: the bourgeoisie uses its political, moral and intellectual leadership to impose its vision of the world as something comprehensible and universal, which in this way molds the interests and needs of the subordinate groups. Thus, although hegemony is politic-ethical, it is also based on the decisive function of the economical activity. And this is made through a group of institutions, practices and agents, that embrace the productive and administrative sectors, as well as the political and the technological ones.

It should be pointed out that for Gramsci, there is no monolithic power among all those hegemony apparatus. The class struggle inserts itself in all of them, and this explains the changes and the resistances to the hegemony of the dominant class.

C) State: it represents hegemony as guaranteed by the armor of coercion. It can be schematized by the formula : political society and civil society.

Similarly to the production forces, the control of consciousness is also an arena for the political fight.

The State is an “educator” in the sense that its tendency is to create a new civilization type or level. It operates according to a plan, it impels, incites, requests, punishes. These actions lead to a “passive” revolution, in other words, to a constant reorganization of the power of the State in the sense of preserving its hegemony through the exclusion of the masses over the economical and political institutions.

In Gramsci’s perspective, the historical-social changes, the movements that happen in the relationships between structure and superstructure, obey two principles:

  1. “no society assumes responsibilities for whose solution the necessary and sufficient conditions don't still exist, or that at least are not about to appear and to develop”.
  2. “no society is dissolved or can be replaced before developing and completing all the implicit life forms in its relationships ”.

Movement or change types:

  • Organic: are those that generate relatively permanent character changes and are linked to the mode of social organization. Example: change from feudalism to capitalism.
  • Conjuncture: are the movements that come as occasional, immediate. Of course the conjuncture movements and changes depend on the organic movements, but their meaning neither have a wide historical reach nor alter the structure or mode of economical-social organization of society.

Forces that impel the movement/changes:

  • Economic: expressed in the conflicts between capital and work;
  • Politic: since the corporations to the highest expressions in the political parties;
  • Technical-military: considered by Gramsci, the decisive forces.

Starting from these key-concepts, how could the transformation happen if the arena of the consciousness is the immediate space for the principal struggles of the dominant classes against the subordinate ones?

Gramsci thought three strategies to overcome the bourgeoisie hegemony: hegemony crisis, position war and the intellectuals' role.

A) Crisis of Hegemony: has its origin when the classes separate from their political parties and the civil society enlarges its power and autonomy through unpopular acts by the leaders in the State. This loss of the consent makes the society no more a directing power, but only dominant, just exercising its coercive force. That crisis is not a direct function of the economical crises, although these can also generate them. These crisis are not a direct function of economical crises, although these can also generate them. They can be caused by the loss of welfare, poverty, etc. Although the crisis of the State is an important factor for the socialist transformation, this is not enough. It is necessary that the crisis occurs in the whole power complex and not just in the most immediate instance of the hegemony, which is the State.

B) War of Position: it is the siege of the State by the working class, by developing and enlarging a counter-hegemony through the creation of a popular culture that gives foundation to a new world vision: norms and values of a new society that would replace the consent of the bourgeoisie. Like this, the arena of the consciousness would be reconstructed with a new man’s and world’s vision.

This new culture would be developed by the party of the masses, a party that would not implant a vertical understanding, from top to bottom, but something organic, which relates the party as a whole, because it would be created by all those involved in it.

This process of construction and education of a counter-hegemony would have as mission to build great powers of cohesion, centralization and innovation, which would be mining the power of the hegemony.

C) The intellectuals' role: Premise: ” All men are intellectual… but not all men play the intellectuals' role in the society ”.

Degrees of intellectual activity: higher level: creators of the several sciences, philosophy, art, etc. Lower level: administrators and divulgers of the existent intellectual wealth.

Under the capitalism: the schools form intellectuals of several levels whose functions in the civil society (private organisms and State) are those that organize the hegemony, the spontaneous consent of the population. This consent is born from the prestige the bourgeoisie has in society and of the apparatus of state coercion that legally assures the discipline for those that admit the consent.

In the transformation or revolutionary process, the intellectuals’ role would be given by their technical capacity to act as thinkers and organizing elements of the subordinate classes.

Their mission is not professional, but, as partners of the construction of a new culture through the party of the masses, he/she would have the function of driving the ideas and the aspirations of the class to which they organically belong, taking into account that all the men are intellectual and think, although not all fully develop that capacity, due to the bourgeois hegemony.

The party of the masses, must therefore, merge the traditional intellectuals (professional) and the organic intellectuals of the subordinate classes around a conception of the world that transcends their class interests, so that the workers awake their intellectual possibilities (through the educational functions of the party) and contribute to the War of Position, creating the counter-hegemony of their class.

Intellectuals, school and culture

Perspective transformation of the school:

  • Role of the school: to form intellectuals that will organize/form a new culture.
  • Objective: to contribute to the creation process of a counter-hegemony against the dominant hegemony.
  • Justification: it is in the arena of consciousness “that the elites use their organic intellectuals to maintain the dominance”. However, given the inequalities and the injustices, it necessary that the subordinate classes free their consciousness from the bourgeois hegemony and create a new culture. And in this process, school can have a role as transformer.

Necessary Conditions:

  • Public and free school: only this way the school may involve all generations, without divisions of groups or castes. The efficiency of the school is better and much more intense when the relationship between teacher and student is small.
  • Buildings: the school should be a college-school, with bedrooms, refectories, specialized libraries, laboratories, classrooms for the work of seminars, etc.
  • Duration: the unitary school should correspond to the period of elementary schools in average, reorganized not only in relation to the content and teaching method, but also with regard to the disposal for the student’s attending the several degrees in the school career.

The teacher's role:

  • To quit the reactionary position and to became a ” friendly ” guide.
  • To accelerate and discipline the child's formation according to the superior type in struggle against the inferior type.

Curriculum: (10 years)

  • First phase: three to four years. Besides teaching the first instrumental “notions” (reading, writing, duties, geography and history), the fundamental notions of the State and society should be learnt, as primordial elements of a new conception of the world.
  • Second phase: the rest of the course should not surpass more than six years, so that, when the student was fifteen or sixteen years old he/she would have concluded all the degrees of the unitary school.

Presupposed curriculum effects:

  • Unified manual and intellectual work;
  • Values: intellectual self-discipline and moral autonomy.


  • The study and learning of creative methods in science and life should permeate the whole course. Therefore, the school should be a creative school.

For Gramsci, creative school doesn't mean inventors' and discoverers’ school; it indicates a phase and an investigation method of knowledge, and not a “pre-determined program” that forces the innovation and originality at any cost.

For him, to discover a truth by himself, without suggestions and external helps, is creation (same as the truth is old) and demonstrates the adequacy of the method. Therefore, the fundamental school activity will grow in seminars, in libraries, in experimental laboratories. The aim of education is, at most, to develop the intellect, that is, a habit of order and system, a habit for relating the whole new knowledge with the ones that are already possessed and to integrate them together, and what is more important, the acceptance and use of certain principles, as center of the thought. In this critical university, history exists and it is not just a new book of novels; the speakers and publications of the day loose the infallibility; eloquence doesn't replace thought, nor the courageous statements or the colored descriptions occupy the place of arguments, says Gramsci.

Final consideration

In the gramscian theory, it is relevant to think in what degree a plan that involves the participation of the collectivity cannot be conducted as one moment - among others - of discussion and development of a new culture, of a counter-hegemony.

In this sense, it is of fundamental importance to discuss what type of vision of man and of the world is giving a foundation to the everyday life of the people involved in this process, which values are present (whether from hegemony or not) and how one could take advantage of such moment to carry ahead the construction of the new culture.

On the other hand, in these moments when the left all over the world lives what Therborn (THERBORN, Göran. In SADER, Emir (org.), 1995) analyzes as the crisis of the socialist culture (in identity level, values and world vision), the accomplishment of a task as this we suggested is of highest importance for the future of the left itself, because there won't be a democratic equality if a socialist culture does not exist. And the socialist culture needs to be reconstructed on the basis of popular participation (consciousness), as stated by Gramsci and Paulo Freire, and not in the vertical direction of an “illuminated” vanguard, as the world history has been registering until now.


CARNOY, Martin. Estado e Teoria Política. [State and Political Theory] Campinas: Papirus, 1988.

GRAMSCI, Antônio. Os Intelectuais e a Organização da Cultura.[ The Intellectuals and the Organization of the Culture ]Rio de Janeiro: Civilização Brasileira, 1984.

GRAMSCI. Antônio, Maquiavel, a Política e o Estado Moderno.[ Machiavelli, the Politics and the Modern State]São Paulo: Editora Civilização Brasileira, 1982.

THERBORN, Göran. A vida e os tempos da esquerda.[ The life and the times of the left ]In SADER, Emir (org.): O mundo depois da queda. [The World after the Fall] Rio de Janeiro: Paz e Terra, 1995.

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