Antonio Gramsci on Political Education

Introductory Note

As with those of Karl Marx, the writings of Antonio Gramsci are more analytic than prescriptive. Since conditions are unique to specific times, terrains and populations, rather than provide specific strategies, Gramsci provides an analytical framework to inform effective strategizing and recommends skills for developing sharpest, most capable and disciplined cadre. For best advantage, revolutionaries need to combine analysis, discipline, and flexible maneuvering, whether fighting a battle hand to hand or idea to idea.

While Gramsci was a force in Italy in his lifetime, it wasn’t until the translation of the Prison Notebooks in the 1970s that his work was broadly known internationally. Since then his teachings have informed academic cultural studies, critical theory and political science, and countless political and social movements across the globe.  

Gramsci on Political Education

A fundamental premise in Gramsci’s work is that the ruling class maintains its authority and forms a coherent hegemonic rule via both coercion and consent and with the support of civic and cultural institutions. To counter this hegemon, the revolutionary needs to wage, among other fights, a “battle of ideas” or “war of position,” a key weapon of which is political education. 

According to Gramsci, among the challenges the working class faces is intellectual autonomy to lead their own movement without having to rely on class traitors and “career intellectuals” from other classes. Toward developing these “organic intellectuals” (as opposed to traditional intellectuals), Gramsci maintains that everyone is already an intellectual. That people have a “conception of the world” and “common sense,” however, this basic consciousness needs development to become critical awareness and “good sense.”

Primary to this development is “knowing thyself.”  Self-knowledge is both personal and social, micro and macro. At the macro level, self-knowledge calls for a conjunctural analysis of social, historical, political, cultural and economic forces, such as one finds with Marxist critique, and involves assessing the conditions, advantages and obstacles in any given terrain.

At the personal level, Gramsci in his early writings describes self-knowledge as liberatory: “To know oneself means to be oneself, to be master of oneself, to distinguish oneself, to free oneself from a state of chaos, to exist as an element of order but of one’s own order and one’s own discipline in striving for an ideal.” 

Discipline further contributes to the liberatory process and is essential to revolutionary work. 

“Whoever is a socialist or wants to become one does not obey: he commands himself, he imposes a rule of life on his impulses, on his disorderly aspirations. … The discipline imposed on citizens by the bourgeois state makes them into subjects, people who delude themselves that they exert an influence on the course of events. The discipline of the Socialist Party makes the subject into a citizen: a citizen who is now rebellious, precisely because he has become conscious of his personality and feels it is shackled and cannot freely express itself in the world.”

Discipline is a key component to critical thinking. In the same way a worker may sweat at performing manual labor, Gramsci calls for the worker to sweat at intellectual activity such as grammar and logic in order to learn to think critically. 

For Gramsci, these skills serve not only the battle of ideas but also are representative of envisioned socialist educational reforms. 

Opposed to rote encyclopedic learning, Gramsci insists instead on working toward critical thinking and true culture, toward “the attainment of a higher awareness, with the aid of which one succeeds in understanding one’s own historical value, one’s own function in life, one’s own rights and obligations.” This higher awareness allows humanity to acquire “consciousness of its own value” and win for itself “the right to throw off the patterns of organization imposed on it by minorities at a previous period in history.” 

Consciousness of human value doesn’t just happen but takes place “as a result of intelligent reflection, at first by just a few people and later by a whole class, on why certain conditions exist and how best to convert the facts of vassalage into the signals of rebellion and social reconstruction.”

Gramsci reflects that “every revolution has been preceded by an intense labor of criticism, by the diffusion of culture and the spread of ideas amongst masses of men who are at first resistant, and think only of solving their own immediate economic and political problems for themselves, who have no ties of solidarity with others in the same condition.” Solidarity develops with organizing and education.

Gramsci credits the Enlightenment with achieving the preparatory work for the French Revolution with “an invisible army of books and pamphlets,” describing it as a “magnificent revolution in itself,” which “gave all Europe a bourgeois spiritual International in the form of a unified consciousness, one which was sensitive to all the woes and misfortunes of the common people and which was the best possible preparation” for the French Revolution. Socialists can look to the Enlightenment as one example of a glorious counterhegemonic revolution. 

External Education

As self-knowledge applies at both micro and macro levels, so with applications of Gramsci’s thoughts on political education. The inner cadre receives training in discipline and analysis. Thus trained workers can go forth and disseminate socialist ideas externally to their peers. In Gramsci’s time this meant the party and the factory councils, which both also served as a micro model of what a socialist society could look like. Further, much of Gramsci’s education writings discuss primary education, which is beyond the scope of this piece, but which further builds out the socialist vision, allowing for the realization of individual talents as opposed to cranking out an obedient populace helpless before its exploitation. This of course in addition to socialist educational institutions helping establish and maintain the socialist hegemony. 

—Carrington Morris


Antonio Gramsci Reader (Hobsbawm, Forgacs (NYU Press 2000))

Alt link: Internet Archive

Relevant articles from “The Gramsci Reader” below. Note: Many of these writings can also be found in “Selections from the Prison Notebooks” and elsewhere but were pulled from one volume for expediency’s sake.

  • Discipline (pp31-32) [as part of liberatory process]
  • Working Class Education and Culture (pp53-75)
  • Intro to Working Class Education and Culture (pp53-55)
  • Socialism and Culture (pp56-59)
  • The Problem of the School (pp68-70)
  • Intellectuals and Education (pp300-310)
  • Intro to Intellectuals and Education
  • Formation of Intellectuals
  • Observations on the School – In Search of an Educational Principle (pp311-320)
  • Philosophy, Common Sense, Language and Folklore (pp323-362)

Wikipedia offers a useful backgrounder on Gramsci.