Published in the late 1940s, a decade after his death, the Italian volumes of Antonio Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks started the process of his secular canonization. A founder of the Italian Communist Party, Gramsci had spent 11 years in Fascist custody. During this period, while his teeth fell out and his health failed, Gramsci filled 3,000 notebook pages with reflections on anything and everything he believed was relevant to Italian history and politics, and the prospects for the left in Europe. To get past the prison censors, he did so in coded, sometimes enigmatic abstractions. In 1937, still in Fascist custody, he died never having seen one of his two sons. At the time, he was mourned by his Communist comrades but by few outside those circles, and certainly fewer outside of Italy.
Today, Gramsci is a household name; one no longer hears it pronounced as if he were Polish. In college courses devoted to intellectuals, or Marxism, or political theory, students routinely learn of his insistence that consequential political action happens in realms, like culture, that had not heretofore seemed politically consequential. In this scheme, intellectuals become particularly important for Gramsci—not because he thinks attention should be paid to noncelebrities as well as to the talking heads in mass media, though he does, but because, as he understands power, the work of intellectuals is essential both to maintaining it (from above) and to taking it (from below). And much of that work, which goes on outside of the limelight, involves listening and adapting to those who don’t share your cultural values or political goals. The exercise of hegemonic leadership—a leadership by consent—can never occur without some element of concession to those who are led. In emphasizing the role that culture and civil society play in politics, Gramsci was telling the left that it had to lead—or rule—in a social landscape that seemed alien to it and that could easily be dismissed, then and now, as apolitical and even toxic to genuine left-wing commitments. To an extent that remains remarkable, given that he lived under Fascism and we live under various styles of liberal democracy, his landscape has become ours.