A mild-mannered Italian academic who died 79 years ago may well prove to be the most influential of all Marxists.
As a matter of principle, Marxists aren’t troubled by scruples. They will kill, steal, lie, railroad the innocent — whatever it takes to advance the Revolution. Marx himself never shied away from what his program entailed. “When our turn comes,” he wrote in 1849, “we shall not make excuses for the terror.” The actions of his apostles, ranging from Lenin to Stalin, Che Guevara, Mao, and Pol Pot, to the Castro brothers, prove just how “principled” Marxists are willing to be, even if it means gulags, “reeducation” camps, or simple murder.
In the long-term, however, it may well be that the most effective of Marxists was an Italian philosopher, journalist and Communist official who spent the last 11 years of his life in Mussolini’s prisons. Unlike some other Communists of his generation, Antonio Gramsci had no blood on his hands. He signed no execution orders. He was even considered somewhat of a heretic by more mainstream Marxists of his time. Gramsci’s ideas, however, help explain why so many of the West’s cultural institutions today are rotten with leftist ideas and rhetoric.
From Economics to Culture
When it came down to it, Marx thought just two things were important: money and power. That’s the plain meaning of all his talk about “controlling” the economic means of production. The bourgeoisie controlled capitalist societies, Marx said, by controlling of industry and capital. To “liberate” the proletariat, Communists must take control of the means of production. Hence, in the proletariat’s name, Communist regimes invariably collectivized most economic activity and severely restricted private ownership of capital.
This vision assumes that the economy is the ultimate driver of everything else. While figures such as Marx and Lenin acknowledged the power of forces like religion, they regarded such phenomena as essentially side-effects of money and power relationships. According to this logic, Christianity serves to distract the working-class (like an “opiate”) from their misery in capitalist economies. Once, however, the proletariat had acquired dominance over the economy and sent the middle-class packing, Christianity and other forms of religion would be revealed as frauds and eventually disappear.
Antonio Gramsci, however, took a different view. Born in 1891 in Sardinia, Gramsci — like many other early twentieth-century European intellectuals — gravitated towards socialism. He became a member of the central committee of the Italian Communist Party (PCI) in the 1920s, an Italian delegate to the 1922 Communist International, and eventually the PCI’s General Secretary. This ensured that he ranked high on Mussolini’s enemies list. In November 1926, Gramsci was arrested and spent the rest of his life in jail, dying in 1937.
Like many other political prisoners, Gramsci used his time behind bars to develop his ideas. He did so in his correspondence as well as what came to be known as his Prison Notebooks. Published after World War II, these addressed topics ranging from Machiavelli to the Jesuits. Gramsci’s most important argument, however, set him apart from other Marxists, with their focus on organizing factory workers and seizing farms from peasants.
Gramsci focused on culture. Still a Marxist, he viewed art, literature, education, and all its other elements through the jaundiced lens of a class struggle. But he realized that these things didn’t just respond to political and economic power; they also produced it. So if the Left wants to win, it must seize these things first, get control of the “cultural means of production.” Gramsci insisted that Marxists had underestimated the importance of culture-forming institutions such as the media, universities, and churches in deciding whether the Left or the Right would gain control (or to use his favorite word, “hegemony”).
Marching through the Institutions
Gramsci thought that all these cultural institutions weren’t neutral, but in fact were serving as a vast propaganda machine on behalf of capitalism. Until leftists came to dominate them, they would never be able to convince enough people to support their revolution.
This part of his thesis was like manna from heaven for many left-wing Western intellectuals. Instead of joining a factory collective or making bombs in basements, a leftist professor could help free society from capitalist exploitation by penning essays in his office or teaching students. In this scenario, the revolutionary force shifts away from the proletariat toward middle-class intellectuals.
To seize society’s “cultural heights” such leftists must spread what the French Reformed theologian Paul Ricœur called “the hermeneutics of suspicion.” Put simply, this means that nothing is as it seems. Seemingly benign ideas (such as “justice” and “due process”) must be exposed as cynical bourgeois ploys that serve to disguise systematic injustices.
Rule of law, for instance, is no longer understood as embodying a commitment to equality before the law and non-arbitrary behavior. Instead, it is “unmasked” as a tool for denying justice to various minorities. The American Revolution is not a principled defense of ancient liberties against burgeoning tyranny; instead it’s an effort by wealthy white Colonials to maintain their privileges. Civility is dismissed as something which constrains people from expressing their outrage against injustice. Even the English language is revealed to embody ancient “patriarchal” oppression against women.
Today, entire humanities and social science departments (not to mention journalism schools) in Western European, North American and Latin American universities are slaves to the search for hidden oppressors. In practical terms, the Gramscian strategy also means that the left plays hard-ball when it comes to the internal workings of numerous institutions.
It doesn’t matter, for example, how good the journalism of a devout Christian or a religious Jew might be. Nor is it important that a political conservative or free market advocate has conducted cutting-edge research in his academic field or produced a superb film. Such people must be marginalized because of their faith and/or politics, lest they threaten the left’s “hegemony” over the means of “cultural production.” Truth is no longer important, for truth is just a ruling class construct. What matters is the pursuance and maintenance of power, so that millions of media-consumers and thousands of university students can continue being enlightened about the hidden structures of privilege.
The most insidious aspect of this mentality is that its logic, on its terms, can’t be refuted. If you question, for instance, the hermeneutics of suspicion, then you must be part of the ruling class’s apparatus of control, whether you realize it or not. At worst, you are evil. At best, you are a dupe. As Joseph Ratzinger once observed, this was a standard retort deployed by Marxist-inclined liberation theologians whenever anyone questioned their positions.
The worst part of Gramsci’s legacy is that it has effectively transcended its Marxist origins. His outlook is now blankly taken for granted by millions of teachers, writers, even churchmen, who have no idea that they are committed to cultural Marxism. So while the socialist paradises constructed by Lenin, Stalin and likeminded people imploded over 25 years ago, the Gramscian mindset is alive and flourishing at your local university and in more than a few liberal churches and synagogues.
The vast structures of cynicism which Gramsci’s ideas have built, which honeycomb Western society today, will prove much tougher to dismantle than the crude cement blocks of the old Berlin Wall.
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