THIS month marks the 80th anniversary of the death of Italian Communist leader Antonio Gramsci and his legacy is the focus of the Edinburgh People’s Festival on April 29.
The festival was founded in 1951 by communists Hamish Henderson, Ewan McColl, Joan Littlewood, Norman and Janey Buchan, all heavily influenced by Gramsci’s ideas, on the importance of popular workers education.
Regarded as the most influential European Marxist after Marx, Gramsci left an indelible mark on socialist politics. Every self-respecting socialist will have his Prison Notebooks on their bookshelf, for it provides a wealth of material on culture, linguistics, socialism and on intellectualism itself.
As Gramsci insisted: “All men [and women] are intellectuals in that all have intellectual faculties but not all men have the social function of intellectuals.” Written during 11 years in jail, the notebooks were smuggled out and only published after his death.
Born in Ales, Sardinia, in 1891, the fourth son of a local administrator, “Tino” Gramsci suffered a spinal injury as a child which left him with a pronounced hump.
He won a scholarship to the University of Turin in 1911 where he immersed himself in the workingclass politics of this burgeoning industrial city. Joining the Italian Socialist Party he wrote for its newspaper Avanti alongside one Benito Mussolini. Both men would cross paths again later.
Gramsci developed workers’ councils as a means of organising in the huge Fiat and Lancia car factories. In 1921 he left the PSI to establish the Italian Communist Party (PCI) and rose to prominence alongside Palmiro Togliatti and Amadeo Bordiga.
The rise of Mussolini’s fascists polarised Italian society. As leader of the PCI, Gramsci was elected to parliament. Despite purported immunity from prosecution he was jailed by Mussolini in 1926 with the judge ordering: “We must stop this brain from working for 20 years.”
He failed. In jail Gramsci worked prodigiously, despite poor health and severe privations. His prison notebooks include highly original work on the rise of fascism, the Russian Revolution, economic determinism, the agency of the working class and the unique national characteristics of socialist revolutions.
But it is his writing on “cultural hegemony” which most endures. Capitalist states, Gramsci concluded, maintain their power over the masses as much through the conditioning of civil society as through repression or economic conscription.
That legacy will be discussed at the April 29 conference, with speakers including representatives from the Gramsci Museum in Italy, author Ray Burnett from South Uist, Red Pepper editor Hilary Wainwright and sociologist Eurig Scandrett.