Gramsci’s Humanist Marxism

Gramsci (1891-1937) was the first leader of the Italian Communist Party during the 20s. He introduced the concept of hegemony or ideological and moral leadership of society, to explain how the ruling class maintains its position and argued that the proletariat must develop its own ‘counter-hegemony’ (or alternative set of ideas) to win leadership of society from the bourgeoisie.

Gramsci rejected economic determinism as an explanation of social change: the transition from capitalism to communism will never come about simply as a result of economic forces. Even though factors such as mass unemployment and falling wages may create the preconditions for revolution, ideas play a central role in determining whether or not change will actually occur.

This can be seen in Gramsci’s concept of hegemony. Gramsci saw the ruling class maintaining its power over society in two ways –

Coercion – it uses the army, police, prison and courts to force other classes to accept its rule

Consent (hegemony) – it uses ideas and values to persuade the subordinate classes that its rule is legitimate

Hegemony and Revolution

In advanced Capitalist societies, the ruling class rely heavily on consent to maintain their rule. Gramsci agrees with Marx that they are able to maintain consent because they control institutions such as religion, the media and the education system. However, according to Gramsci, the hegemony of the ruling class is never complete, for two reasons:

  • The ruling class are a minority – and as such they need to make ideological compromises with the middle classes in order to maintain power
  • The proletariat have dual consciousness. Their ideas are influenced not only by bourgeois ideology but also by the material conditions of their life – in short, they are aware of their exploitation and are capable or seeing through the dominant ideology.

Therefore, there is always the possibility of the ruling-class being undermined, especially in times of economic crises when the poverty of the working classes increases.

However, this will only lead to revolution if the proletariat are able to construct a counter-hegemonic bloc, in other words they must be able to offer moral and ideological leadership to society.

According to Gramsci, the working classes can only win this battle for ideas by producing their own ‘organic intellectuals’ – by forming a body of workers who are class conscious and are able to project a credible, alternative vision of what society would look like under communism.

Evaluation of Gramsci

It is true that many members of the working classes see through bourgeois ideology, for example the lads in Paul Willis’ study realised that education was not fair.

Gramsci has been criticised for under-emphasising the role of coercive political and economic forces in holding back the formation of a counter-hegemonic bloc – for example workers may be unable to form revolutionary vanguards because of the threat of state-violence.

Sources: Adapted from Robb Webb et Al’s Second Year A Level Sociology Text Book

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