Antonio Gramsci Essay

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Antonio Gramsci was leader of the Italian Communist Party and Italy’s leading Marxist theorist. While jailed by fascism (1927-37) he filled 29 notebooks with fragmentary comments on many subjects.

Gramsci was provoked by Bukharin’s Historical Materialism: A Popular Textbook of Marxist Sociology (1921), which stated that historical materialism was a sociology, thus departing from the Marxist-Leninist orthodoxy that sociology was simply a bourgeois science and relying heavily on the sociological masters, particularly Pareto’s equilibrium theory. Gramsci critiqued this theory and the converse views of Henri de Man. He developed an understanding of sociology and its limits, denied that historical materialism is a sociology and yet intimated that it might contain one.

Asking ”What is sociology?” Gramsci stated that it had been an attempt to create a scientific method for explaining history and politics based on evolutionary positivism. It could not grasp any social transformation that was qualitative. He regarded technological determinism as nonsense. To the calculable material presence there must be added that complex of passions and imperious sentiment that lead to action. He had great reservations about the ”laws of large numbers” and statistical series, while admitting that when social groups and structures are relatively unchanging and ”passive,” statistical inquiry might have some validity. Scientific historical theory has no force until taken up by great masses and made ”practical,” meaning that foresight is made true only because great masses of humans act as if it were.

Gramsci wished to study ”popular belief,” which brought him closest to the traditional concerns of some Italian and European sociology. What concerned him was how the common sense of the ”passive” group could become ”good sense.” On this, he regarded de Man as inferior to both Proudhon and Sorel because he took the position of a determinist scientist – a zoologist studying a world of insects – who studied popular feelings and did not feel with them to guide and lead them to catharsis. Yet de Man’s Il superamento di Marx stimulated us to inform ourselves about the real feelings of groups and individuals and not the feelings that sociological laws suggest exist. To accept as eternal what was thought by the mass would be the worst form of fatalism. De Man’s work resulted in a commonplace based on the error that theory and practice can be separate and not act on each other constantly.


  1. Buttigieg,    (ed.)  (1992) Antonio   Gramsci: Prison Notebooks. Columbia University Press, New York.
  2. Gramsci, A. (1971) Lettere dal carcere. Einaudi, Turin.
  3. Gramsci, A. (2001) Quaderni del carcere, 4 vols. Einaudi, Turin.
  4. Hoare, Q & Nowell-Smith, G. (eds.) (1973) Selections from the Prison Notebooks of Antonio Gramsci. International Publishers, New York.

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