Gramsci and ideology



The Italian Marxist developed a political conception of ideology, thinking of it as the space in which men become aware of social conflicts and wage their struggles

Terry Eagleton pointed out that in Marx's work there are three distinct conceptions of ideology: one epistemological, another ontological, and a third political. (EAGLETON: 1977). Marx's heirs were divided by these conceptions.

Althusser, for example, relies on the german ideology to defend the epistemological view: ideology as false consciousness. Adorno, in turn, part of The capital to defend the ontological perspective: ideology is society itself given over to commodity fetishism. Gramsci finally relies on the 1857 Preface of the Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy to develop a political conception: ideology as the space in which men become aware of social conflicts and wage their struggles.

Gramsci could not know the german ideology, only published in 1932, a reference work by Althusser; as for The capital made, from memory, localized references – in particular, to the “law of the tendency to fall in the rate of profit” that served as a support to criticize determinism, but did not give greater importance to the chapter on commodity fetishism, the starting point of the reflection by Adorno.

Gramsci's central reference for dealing with the theme of ideology is the Preface of 1857. In this text, Marx states that social revolutions result from the contradiction between the productive forces and the relations of production, and also that men become aware of that contradiction in superstructure or, in his words, in the “juridical, political, religious, artistic or philosophical forms, in short, the ideological forms by which men become aware of this conflict, leading it to the ultimate consequences” (MARX: 1977, p. 25.). Thus, says Gramsci, ideology is not a mechanical reflection of the material base, as Bukharin wants, nor “appearance and illusion”, as Croce claims – authors to whom Gramsci directed detailed criticism.

Opposing these authors, he understands ideology as “an objective and operative reality”, “an instrument of political action”. This positive conception of ideology, as can be seen, is radically different from the Althusserian interpretation, which sees it as a representation of the “imaginary relationship” of individuals with their real conditions of existence; and he also distances himself from Adorno's homogenizing vision.

Some authors, such as Guido Liguori, point out a distance between Gramsci and Marx in understanding the ideological phenomenon: for not knowing the german ideology, Gramsci would have incurred in a contradiction: he built a positive conception of ideology, while in Marx it is understood in a negative key, as a distorted view of reality (LIGUORI: 2010, p. 139). This assertion wrongly presupposes the fully explicit existence in Marx's text of an already completed theory of ideology. But, as the title indicates, the german ideology criticizes a special form of ideology: that present in the texts of the Young Hegelians who, in their speculative idealism, inverted the relations between reality and thought. The reference to ideology, understood as a “dark room”, is a generalization based on a well-defined target (the Young Hegelians). Then, in mature works, ideology came to be thought of in a positive way as a sphere of the mode of production.

The positive conception of ideology led Gramsci to refer to the passages in which Marx speaks of the “solidity of popular beliefs” and of the ideas that, when incorporated by the masses, become a material force: “The analysis of these statements, I believe, leads to the strengthening of the conception of the “historical block”, in which, precisely, the material forces are the content and the ideologies are the form, a purely didactic distinction between form and content, since the material forces would not be historically conceivable without form and the ideologies would be individual fantasies without material forces” (prison notebooks 1, 238, henceforth CC).

Therefore, ideology has a material substratum – it is not a reflection (as the diamond) and neither appearance (as understood by Croce). Thus thinking, Gramsci turns to the study of the material structure that the different classes create to maintain and spread the ideology. Individuals are not loose in society: “no one is disorganized and without a party, as long as organization and party are understood in a broad, non-formal sense”, as they are influenced by “the hegemonic apparatus of a social group over the rest of the population”. (CC, 3, 253). The ideas of an individual, therefore, “do not “are born” spontaneously in the brain of each individual: they had a center of formation, of irradiation, of diffusion of persuasion”. This last observation was made regarding an article written by a fascist author who criticized democracy and popular suffrage, arguing that this regime equates the vote of any “imbecile” with those who are dedicated to the State and the Nation. Gramsci argues contrariwise that the opinion of each voter is not “exactly” the same as that of others. Numbers have only an instrumental value and give us only an indication. But what do the numbers actually measure? Gramsci answers: “exactly the effectiveness and capacity for expansion and persuasion of the opinions of the few, active minorities, elites, vanguards, etc., etc.” (CC, 3, 82).

Here, care must be taken not to confuse terms and identify ideology with a hegemonic apparatus. This “creates a new ideological terrain” (CC, 1, 320), but not the ideology itself, as conceived by positivist sociology (Durkheim) and structuralism (Althusser). Ideology is not a prior datum crystallized in institutions or apparatuses, but the dynamic product of social relations. The determinant is the historically understood material base and not the ontologized ideology that supposedly coercively integrates individuals into social institutions or, then, into a mysterious structural sphere that interpellates individuals and, by doing so, transforms them into “subjected” subjects. Gramsci, it should be remembered, speaks of ideological structure and not of ideology as structure.

The apparatuses of hegemony, on the other hand, are added to the coercive apparatuses in the Gramscian conception of the State. Until then, Marxists had unilaterally concentrated on the coercive function of the State, which would be, according to our author, a characteristic of the “East”. For more complex societies, Gramsci developed the theory of the “Integral State” (or “Extended State”, as popularized by Christinne Buci-Glucksmann), in which the unity-distinction between civil society and political society prevails.

The inspiration came from Philosophy of law by Hegel who narrates, as if it were a logical syllogism, the development of a general concept (the will), in its three moments: family, civil society and, finally, the political state. As a universal, the State is the moment of reconciliation of the private interests that were tearing civil society apart. To accomplish this reunification, a two-way movement was necessary. The State, to integrate civil society, formed an apparatus that includes assemblies, chambers, legal and police apparatus, etc. On the other hand, civil society made itself present in the State through the parties and associations that group what was common in the interests until then dispersed, in order to integrate themselves in the universality represented by the State.

It is precisely this second movement that interested Gramsci. Parties and associations are seen by Hegel as the “private plot” of the State. This, therefore, uses these private bodies to maintain and "educate" the consensus. But the conception of association in Hegel, due to the social conditions of his time, was still “vague and primitive”, having as a finished example of organization the corporations inherited from feudalism. In Marx, this conception still remains restricted, including only the “professional organization, Jacobin clubs, secret conspiracies of small groups, journalistic organization” (CC, 3, 119).

In modern Western societies, civil society has become more complex as it coexists with organized political parties, strong trade unions, powerful media (the mainstream press and the nascent radio). The dispute for hegemony now gains new relevance and the expanded State becomes a field of class conflict, of the dispute for hegemony fought in the institutions that disseminate the ideology.

In the opposite direction, the State will make itself present in civil society by interfering in the economy. This two-way movement, in turn, scrambles the relationships between base and superstructures. In Americanism and Fordism Gramsci had already observed the basic characteristic of the “rationalized” society: “the “structure” more immediately dominates the superstructures and these are “rationalized” (simplified and reduced in number)” (CC, 4, 248).

Gramsci dedicated himself intensely to analyzing the two apparatuses of hegemony that seemed to him the most important in his time: newspapers and school. The press, as the “most dynamic part”, was the object of permanent attention. Before being arrested, Gramsci worked as a journalist in the press of the socialist and communist parties, writing on the most diverse topics. In a letter to his sister-in-law, he recalled that “in ten years of journalism I wrote enough lines to fill fifteen or twenty volumes of four hundred pages” (prison letters, II, 83, henceforth Letters). The numerous commentaries gathered in the second volume of the prison notebooks they show our author feverishly accompanying the coverage carried out by newspapers and magazines, as well as proposing to the party press his conception of integral journalism aimed at informing and educating the public.

The same attention was given to the school. From the experience of the Turin workers' councils and the consequences of the reflection undertaken in Americanism and Fordism, Gramsci retained the need for a new school (the unitary school) to create the new intellectual who, similarly to what happens in modern industry, can integrate work and knowledge. But now, the old workerist vision that presupposed the radical rupture (destruction) of the old school apparatus after the revolution by a totally different one, gave way to a conception in tune with the Marxian thesis of cultural heritage and struggle, still within bourgeois society , by transforming the old ideological apparatus. It is, therefore, a matter of progressively reforming the old pedagogical institution as an integral part of the project to build a new hegemony.

It is important to remember here the increasing complexity of education in the world since the disintegration of feudalism. The development of industry and science has continually created new specializations. The secularization of the State, in turn, removed the “monopoly of superstructures” from the Catholic Church. The priests, the “organic intellectuals” of the feudal world, had their activity restricted to confessional schools, clearly inferior to public education. The school, thus, became one of the scenarios of the ideological struggle: it disconnected from the church and progressively conquered its autonomy in relation to the State. Here, again, we find a difference in relation to Althusser, an author who emphatically defends a political strategy of struggles preferably outside institutions, as these would be irremediably at the service of the dissemination of bourgeois ideology.

The materiality of ideology, which is present in the press and at school, was one of the sources of the Althusserian theory of the “ideological apparatuses of the State”. In Gramsci, it is the way to think about the central theme of his work: hegemony. Hegemony is the “orderer of ideology, which lends the most intimate cement to civil society and, therefore, to the State” (CC, 1, 375). A factor of cohesion (cement), ideology is the source of a collective will, of a conception of the world, of a cultural movement: “But, at this point, the fundamental problem of every conception of the world, of every philosophy that turned into a cultural movement, a “religion”, a “faith”, that is, one that produced a practical activity and a will in which it is contained as an implicit theoretical “premise” (an “ideology”, one might say , provided that the term “ideology” is given the highest meaning of a conception of the world, which is implicitly manifested in art, law, economic activity, in all manifestations of individual and collective life) – that is, the problem of conserving ideological unity throughout the social bloc that is cemented and unified precisely by that particular ideology” (CC, 1, 98-9).

But this is not the only meaning of ideology that appears in the prison notebooks. Gramsci also speaks of the existence, alongside a “necessary” and “organic ideology”, of an ideology that is “pure arbitrary lucubration of certain individuals” and, also, of a diffuse ideology: the “historically organic, that is, which are necessary to a given structure, and arbitrary, rationalistic, “voluntarist” ideologies. As long as they are historically necessary, ideologies have a validity that is “psychological” validity: they “organize” human masses, form the terrain on which men move, become aware of their position, fight, etc. As long as they are “arbitrary”, they do not create more than individual “movements”, polemics, etc.” (CC, 1, 237).

Note that this division was criticized by Lukács, who does not accept the individual character of ideology and who defends, in a manner similar to that of Gramsci, the positive view of the concept. Nevertheless, ideology for both is not false consciousness. Therefore, the criterion for understanding it is not epistemological, but political: within the social being, it fulfills the function of, as Lukács says, “resolving social conflicts”.

This differentiation between necessary and arbitrary ideologies allowed Gramsci to focus on several themes: residual or not yet self-conscious classes, certain forms of philosophical thought, the arts, literary production, literary criticism, linguistic issues, Fordism and the Americanism, etc. The concern with paying attention to the unity-differentiation of concepts presupposes their historicity and their interrelationship within the social totality. An individual, for example, may develop a hybrid worldview, which collects ideological fragments of the worldview of other social classes. This is due to the fact that classes do not live in watertight compartments, that they interrelate and are in permanent movement. Examples of this mixture reappear in comments on folklore (“indigestible fragments” is the expression used to indicate ideological ambiguity) and popular culture (which “borrows” and reproduces content from other classes).

Issues relating to language and grammar are also closely related to worldviews. Gramsci in his youth intended to be a linguist and never stopped worrying about the subject, which was always present in his country. In Italy, the various regional dialects coexisted with the imposed official language and, therefore, since the linguistic reunification it was the subject of discussion. At the same time, Gramsci followed the discussions held in Russia. Stalin's rise brought a shift in the state towards regional dialects. Only in 1950, the new orientation appears clearly expressed in the text On Marxism in Linguistics. Interested in affirming “the existence of a single national language” in the USSR and subordinating dialects to it (and eventual separatist movements…), Stalin defended the thesis according to which language is a stable structure, alien to social clashes, a bearer of of a “harmonious and rational character”.

Gramsci, in his prison writings, also defended the idea of ​​a single national language, without, however, affirming its harmonious character, and he considered the existence of dialects to be important and enriching. The national language and its normative grammar, according to Gramsci, is always a choice, “a cultural orientation, that is, it is always an act of national cultural policy”, an act that made imposing an official language that in the year of reunification (1860) was spoken by only 2,5% of Italians (Hobsbawn: 2004, p. 77). Antonino Infranca, by the way, pointed out the Hungarian language (and to a certain extent Catalan) as a unifying element, forming a national identity in open conflict with the cosmopolitanism of the European Union. As for Italy, he noted: “Italian has been the language used by Italians for only 65 years, that is, since 1954, when television broadcasts began; despite the public school, Italians did not use Italian in everyday life (…) Italian nationalists never insisted on the language as a unifying element of the Italian nation” (INFRANCA: 2020).

Like any political act, the imposition of Italian as the official language provoked the most diverse reactions: “oppositions of “principle”, a collaboration in fact, opposition in details, etc.” (CC, 6, 144). For some disciples of Gentile, grammar was seen as something useless and, as such, should be excluded from school teaching. According to Gramsci, this thought is a form of “liberalism” that would leave the formation of individuals to chance and to the restricted influence of the environment (family, neighborhood, etc.). With that, the popular mass would be excluded from learning the cultured language. The teaching of normative grammar, says Gramsci, “aims at making the entire organism of a given language learn, as well as creating a spiritual attitude that makes people capable of always orienting themselves in the linguistic environment” (CC, 6, 149). Without this, subordinates find it even more difficult to fight for their rights and for the eradication of illiteracy. As in the example of the school, Gramsci accepts to participate in a cultural battle, within the framework of bourgeois legality, whose victories will always be shy and provisional.

Furthermore, Gramsci considered it a cultural gain to speak two languages ​​– the dialect and Italian – but affirmed the limited character of the first: “If it is true that every language contains the elements of a conception of the world and of a culture, it will also be true that , from the language of each one, it is possible to judge the greater or lesser complexity of their conception of the world. Anyone who speaks only the dialect or understands the national language to varying degrees necessarily participates in an intuition of the world that is more or less restricted and provincial, fossilized, anachronistic in relation to the great currents of thought that dominate world history. Their interests will be restricted, more or less corporatist or economistic, not universal. If it is not always possible to learn other foreign languages ​​in order to get in touch with different cultural lives, one should at least know the national language well. A great culture can translate into the language of another culture, that is, a great historically rich and complex national language can translate any other great culture, that is, be a world expression. But with the dialect, it is not possible to do the same thing” (CC, 1, 95).

By accepting the rules of the game, of the “political act”, Gramsci included questions related to language in the dispute for hegemony. He criticized the “liberal” posture, but he also opposed those who refused, “on principle”, to participate in the struggle, especially the anarchists, who had always been opposed in his political and pedagogical writings. As a “social product”, a “conception of the world”, language is a battlefield, a terrain permeated by contradictions to be disputed. Criticizing the “grammatical” character of a linguist, he observed: “Language must be treated as a conception of the world, as the expression of a conception of the world; the technical improvement of expression, whether quantitative (acquisition of new means of expression) or qualitative (acquisition of shades of meaning of a more complex syntactic and stylistic order), means broadening and deepening the conception of the world and its history” (CC, 2, 229-230).

The “instrumental value” of language, its intimate relationship with the “conception of the world”, led Gramsci to understand it as a cultural heritage to be appropriated, thus becoming a moment of hegemonic struggle.

Here, too, Gramsci distances himself from authors such as Adorno and Althusser. Adorno, in his essays, noted the exhaustion of the realistic novel motivated by the advance of reification – the re-presentation of reality, its literary reflection, would thus have become an impossibility. The non-correspondence between reality and its figurative representation would demand a “second language” from the writer. Althusser, for his part, insisted on the need to separate reality and thought. The epistemological cut would make it possible to establish the scientific discourse opposed to the language of alienation.

The Gramscian project does not share the negative conception of ideology, as it sees the really existing language as yet another space of struggle. In this way, he also distances himself from linguistic structuralism, heir to the negative conception of ideology, which became hegemonic in the 1960s. following statement by Roland Barthes in his famous inaugural lecture at the College de France: “But language, as the performance of all language, is neither reactionary nor progressive; she is simply: fascist; because fascism is not about preventing people from saying things, it is about forcing them to say things”. (BARTHES: s/d, p. 14).

Gramsci, as far as we know, was not aware of the studies carried out by M. Bakhtin in the 20s, but he would certainly endorse the understanding of the linguistic sign as “the arena of class struggle”.

The polysemic nature of Gramsci's conception of ideology, as we have seen, maintains close ties of identification-differentiation with a wide range of concepts: language, conception of the world, belief, consensus, hegemonic apparatus, common sense, faith, folklore, etc. – concepts that participate in the great inclusive theme: hegemony, the struggle for the moral reform of society – a divided society, which also expresses its division in the phenomena of superstructures.

*Celso Frederico is a retired senior professor at ECA-USP. Author, among other books, of Essays on Marxism and Culture (Morula).



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HOBSBAWN, Eric. Nation and nationalism since 1870 (São Paulo: Paz e Terra, 2004).

INFRANCA, Antonino. “Hungary: From Epidemic to Dictatorship”. In: the earth is round, 2020.

LIGUORI, Guido. "Ideology". In: FROSINI, Fabio and LIGUORI, Guido (eds.). Gramsci's parole (Rome: Carocci, 2010).

LUKACS, G. Ontology of the social being (São Paulo: Boitempo, 2012).

MANACORDA, Mario Alighiero. The educational principle in Gramsci (Campinas: Alínea, 2013).

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