Antonio Gramsci: The Greatest Political Strategist in History
[This lecture was presented on July 18, 2020 at the 2020 Mises University.]
The year 2020 is not passing quietly. We are witnessing events unthinkable even a few months ago: keep your antisocial distance, wear a mask when entering a bank, follow the arrows on the floor of the supermarket, all sporting events cancelled, homeschooling—even for university students—is approved by all corners of government and society. Most relevant to this discussion: pot shops, liquor stores, and abortion clinics are essential; churches during Holy Week are not.
Add to this the protests—more specifically the riots. Police told by government officials to stand down. Those who intend to defend their lives and their property are the ones judged—by the media, and potentially by government prosecutors and courts. Oh, yes: protesting and rioting wards off viruses—no need for masks.
What, of all of this, is directly relevant to you? Why did I feel it appropriate to change the topic of this lecture in the last days? We are living through massive cultural changes. While culture always evolves, in the last several decades the changes have been revolutionary—and I use that term purposefully. These changes are aimed right at you and those who sat in your place over the last decades. The purpose is to create soldiers for the revolution.
What I hear of college, and it also is true in business and government, are stories of various cultural indoctrinations—made ever more intense given the pretext for these recent riots. Politically correct speech to include even compelled speech, cancel culture, self-flagellation, a fight for the gold medal in the oppression olympics. If you disagree with any of this, you are a fascist. To further cement this indoctrination, a requirement to take classes that tear down Western civilization—even saying those two words in anything other than a scornful tone could be costly.
There is a purpose behind this, a strategy. Events that we have been living through recently are not spontaneous or random. This is not accidental. These events are the result of a political strategy designed to strip us of our liberty. It is an insidious strategy. It is also very effective.
Whether knowingly or not, those carrying out this strategy are using the playbook of the most successful Marxist thinker in history. Given the damage this strategy has done to the freedoms of the West, I consider him to be the greatest political strategist in history.
And this is what I would like to discuss. Before beginning, I must give you fair warning on two points: First, much of this Marxist playbook sounds an awful lot like the wishes of simplistic libertarians—libertarianism for children, as a good friend once labeled this. I will come back to this point more than once.
Second, there will be a lot of discussion of Western tradition and culture in this lecture. Inherently this will include Christianity. But if you want to understand the enemy’s playbook, then this cannot be avoided.
Now, I know many libertarians push back hard on this topic: Christianity is unnecessary for liberty; in fact it is an enemy to liberty. I will only ask that you keep in mind: the most successful Marxist thinker in history believed that Christianity is the enemy of communism; it’s what stood in the way of communism’s advance in the West. For now, I ask that you stay open to the possibility that he was right—because, when I look around me today, he sure appears to have been right.
With this laborious introduction out of the way, let’s begin. The political strategist of whom I am speaking is Antonio Gramsci. Malachi Martin summarizes the importance of Gramsci, in his book The Keys of this Blood:
the political formula Gramsci devised has done much more than classical Leninism—and certainly more than Stalinism—to spread Marxism throughout the capitalist West.
What is that formula? Gary North explains: noting that Western society was deeply religious, Gramsci believed that
the only way to achieve a proletarian revolution would be to break the faith of the masses of Western voters in Christianity and the moral system derived from Christianity.
Religion and culture were at the base of the pyramid, the foundation. It was the culture, and not the economic condition of the working class, that was the key to bringing communism to the West. To be fair to Gramsci, he didn’t start this ball rolling; the West was doing a fine job of damaging its cultural tradition.
One can point to elements of medieval Catholicism, the Reformation and Renaissance, the Enlightenment (as I have previously discussed), and postmillennial pietist Protestants (as Murray Rothbard so clearly demonstrated) as all contributing to this destruction long before Gramsci hit the scene. But without these cracks in the armor, Gramsci would never have been successful.
What is our current condition relative to Gramsci’s objectives? I could speak to the destruction of the family, the loss of all meaningful intermediating governance institutions, the absurdity of a good portion of what passes for university studies today, especially in liberal arts and humanities—all of which are symptoms of the crumbling of the ultimate target at which Gramsci aimed. We have, this year, been given indisputable evidence as to the success of his political strategy in the response by Christian leaders to the coronavirus. Just as one example, from Kentucky:
When I asked [Bishop John Stowe of the Catholic Diocese of Lexington] what he would say to a pastor planning Easter worship, he was blunt: “I would say it’s irresponsible,” he said. “It’s jeopardizing people’s lives.”
I know we live in a fact-free world, but was it ever wise to believe that we were facing the Black Death? In premodern plagues, did Christian leaders act this way? The simple answer to both questions is no, yet we have churches closed during Holy Week. I cannot think of a better symbolic representation of the destruction of Christianity in the West. Such is the success of Antonio Gramsci.
Who is Antonio Gramsci? He was an Italian Marxist (more accurately, an Italian communist), writing on political theory, sociology, and linguistics. His work focused on the role that culture and tradition play in preventing communism from spreading through the West.
Gramsci was born in 1891 and died in 1937, the middle of seven children. Hunchbacked, either due to a malformed spine from birth or a childhood accident; it is not clear. One of the stories has him falling from the arms of a servant down a steep flight of stairs. Though his family gave him up for dead, his aunt anointed his feet with oil from a lamp dedicated to the Madonna. Ironic.
Continuously sickly, until the age of fourteen a coffin for him was kept at the ready in his bedroom. His father was thrown in prison for political cause and his mother, somehow, kept the family alive.
Prior to leaving Sardinia for Turin and university, he was a nationalist—Sardinia for the Sardinians. Upon arriving in Turin, he came upon the automotive factories of Fiat. It was here that he found the class struggle: workers and bosses.
World War I made this clear: half a million Italian peasants died, while the profits of industrialists rose. He left university and began writing. He founded a newspaper: L’Ordine nuovo, The New Order, with its first issue delivered on May Day 1919. He was a founder and leader of the Communist Party of Italy, and a member of Parliament.
With parliamentary immunity suspended by Mussolini, he was sent to prison. Several years later, a prisoner exchange was proposed by the Vatican: send Gramsci to Moscow in exchange for a group of priests imprisoned in the Soviet Union. (Mussolini put a stop to these negotiations in early 1933.)
It was during his time in prison that he wrote his famous Prison Notebooks, describing the contents as “Everything that Concerns People.” It comprised over twenty-eight hundred handwritten pages. Twenty-one of the notebooks bear the stamp of prison authorities. Given the risk of censorship, he used bland terms in place of traditional Marxist terminology.
Though completed by 1935, these were only published in the years 1948–51, and not in English until the 1970s. By 1957, nearly four hundred thousand copies had been sold.
Suffering from various heart, respiratory, and digestive diseases, he was eventually transferred to a prison hospital facility. On April 25, 1937—the same day that he received news that he would be released—he suffered a cerebral hemorrhage and died two days later.
Through his notebooks, he introduced several ideas in Marxist theory, critical theory, and educational theory. Most important was the idea of cultural hegemony, which was the unifying idea of Gramsci’s work from 1917 until he died.
Cultural hegemony: Why hadn’t the Marxist revolution swept the West by the early twentieth century? Gramsci suggested that capitalists did not maintain control simply coercively—as Marx would describe it—but also ideologically. The values of the bourgeoisie were the common values of all. These values helped to maintain the status quo and limited any possibility of revolution.
While Lenin felt culture was ancillary to political objectives (as do many libertarians), Gramsci saw culture as the key. The working class would need to develop a culture of its own, separate and distinct from the common values of the larger society. Control their beliefs and you control the people. This was only possible if the hegemony of the ruling class was in crisis.
John Cammett expands on this point. Hegemony is described as an order diffused throughout society in all institutional and private manifestations. All tastes, morality, customs, including religious and political principles, are infused with its spirit. This tone is set from the top—one class or group over other classes. From Cammett:
The fundamental assumption behind Gramsci’s view of hegemony is that the working class, before it seizes State power, must establish its claim to be a ruling class in the political, cultural, and “ethical” fields.
There are three phases to the revolution in this regard: first, take claim to be the ruling class in culture; second, seize State power; third, transform completely the economic base. You can decide how far along we are in this path.
A second important idea was Gramsci’s focus on intellectuals. Gramsci believed that the working class would have to develop their own intellectuals, with values that were critical of the status quo. This would require the takeover of the educational establishment and institutions. These intellectuals, through the educational establishment and the state, had almost free reign to push forward the revolutionary idea.
Gramsci’s idea of intellectuals is much broader than academicians and the like. From the book Gramsci's Politics, by Anne Sassoon, Gramsci identifies two groups of these intellectuals: organic intellectuals, coming from the working class, and traditional intellectuals—the clergy, philosophers, academicians. This latter group presents a false air of continuity from their predecessors. Today I would include thought leaders from entertainment, sports, business, and politics in one or the other of these two groups.
Gramsci is, perhaps, the foundational theorist for what we now call cultural Marxism. When it comes to the importance of the culture and the value of mass media in influencing the political and economic system of a country and economy, Gramsci’s work spurred the growth of an entire movement in the field of cultural studies.
Gary North describes Gramsci as “the most important anti-Marxist theorist ever to come out of the Marxist movement.” He was anti-Marxist, because, unlike Marx, he did not place the mode of production at the center of social development. Paul Piccone furthers this point: Gramsci’s vision contradicted official Marxist-Leninist ideology, providing an ethical and subjective dimension superior to the former’s materialism.
According to Angelo Codevilla, Gramsci even had scorn for Marxism’s focus on economic factors: “stuff like that is for common folks.” It was a little formula for half-baked intellectuals. Economic relations were just one part of social reality; the chief parts were intellectual and moral.
Many libertarians, like Marx, are equally focused on the mode of production as the key to liberty, but on the other side of the coin. They are focused on economic freedom as the means to deliver liberty for all, and, like Marx, they virtually ignore or even despise any cultural aspects. Gramsci knew better, and—as should be obvious by the comparison I am drawing—he offers a lesson for libertarians who believe that broader cultural questions beyond the nonaggression principle are irrelevant for liberty.
Continuing with North:
Gramsci argued, and the Frankfurt School followed his lead, that the way for Marxists to transform the West was through cultural revolution: the idea of cultural relativism. The argument was correct, but the argument was not Marxist. The argument was Hegelian.
The Frankfurt school further developed the concept of critical theory. Critical theory teaches one to be critical of every prevailing norm, attitude, and cultural attribute in society; the purpose is to challenge power structures and hierarchies. Spelling out precisely the discourse of tolerance that we are faced with today, Herbert Marcuse of the Frankfurt school would write:
the realization of the objective of tolerance would call for intolerance toward prevailing policies, attitudes, [and] opinions, and the extension of tolerance to policies, attitudes, and opinions which are outlawed or suppressed.
Violent revolution was not the answer. From Malachi Martin:
While firmly committed to global Communism, [Gramsci] knew that violence would fail to win the West. American workers would never declare war on their middle-class neighbors as long as they shared common Christian values.
The main weapons would be deception, manipulation and infiltration. Hiding their Marxist ideology, the new Communist warriors would seek positions of influence in seminaries, government, communities, and the media.
Gramsci agreed with Lenin that there was an inner force in man, driving him to the “Worker’s Paradise,” but he felt that the assumptions underlying this Marxian view were too basic and gratuitous. Yes, the great mass of the world’s population was made up of workers, but this was insufficient, as Martin would note:
What became clear to [Gramsci], however, was that nowhere—and especially not in Christian Europe—did the workers of the world see themselves as separated from the ruling classes by an ideological chasm.
These workers would not rise up against their coreligionists, those with whom they shared culture, custom, and tradition. They would certainly not offer a violent overthrow as long as these traditions were held in common. Again, citing Martin:
Because no matter how oppressed they might be, the “structure” of the working classes was defined not by their misery or their oppression but by their Christian faith and their Christian culture.
Gramsci found the logic of Marx as it found its home in Lenin to be futile and contradictory. Was it any wonder that the only state in which Marxism took hold was the state which held it together by force and terror? Without changing that formula, Marxism would have no future.
A common culture, grounded in Christianity, would always stand in the way, requiring ever increasing terror…or requiring a different path. Gramsci’s path. Murray Rothbard noted the Gramscian “long march through our institutions” in 1992, writing so colorfully: “Yes, yes, you rotten hypocritical liberals, it's a culture war!”
Angelo Codevilla writes that there would be no need for brute force—at least not on the front end, again, contrary to the general Marxist view. Transform the enemy into the soldier you need; he will then do the rest. Gramsci’s method would be more Machiavellian than Marxist; in the place of the Prince, it would be the party.
This method would eliminate the very possibility of a cultural resistance to the communist’s progressivism. There would be no cultural force standing in its way. As Gramsci believed human nature is not fixed and immutable, it would be the modern Machiavellian prince’s job to change human nature.
Destroy the old laws, the accustomed ways of living; inculcate new ways of thinking and speaking—in essence, introduce an entirely new language. Language is the key to the mastery of consciousness. Language can achieve what force never could. Reform the morals; reform the intellect. In this way, people who would otherwise never spend a minute on such things would become the most rabid soldiers.
A blunt-force hammer would not work. Ranting about a revolution or a dictatorship of the proletariat would only make enemies of the working class. The educational system was the key. Gramsci’s path to revolution would take much longer than that proposed by Marx or Lenin, but it would be much more thorough and successful.
In the meantime, use their rules against them: the democratic process, lobbying and voting, full parliamentary participation. Behave just like the Western democrats—accept all political parties, forge alliances where convenient. Unlike the majority of Marxists, Gramsci would make common cause with all leftists—communist and noncommunist alike; every group with a bone to pick with tradition and Christian culture was an ally. Knowingly or unknowingly, they would assist in the communist cause. Martin writes:
Marxists must join with women, with the poor, with those who find certain civil laws oppressive. They must adopt different tactics for different cultures and subcultures. They must never show an inappropriate face. And, in this manner, they must enter into every civil, cultural and political activity in every nation, patiently leavening them all as thoroughly as yeast leavens bread.
Regarding these alliances, Fr. James Thornton adds:
In Gramsci's time these included, among others, various "anti-fascist" organizations, trade unions, and socialist political groups. In our time, alliances with the Left would include radical feminists, extremist environmentalists, "civil rights" movements, anti-police associations, internationalists, ultra-liberal church groups, and so forth. These organizations, along with open Communists, together create a united front working for the transformation of the old Christian culture.
The method would be described as seduction, as opposed to the rape advised by Marx and committed by Lenin and Stalin. This would subvert Western culture; it would redefine itself without the need for picking fights with it.
Gramsci was writing in the interwar years. Christianity was an already weakened foe: the Enlightenment divorced God from both the individual and reason. Nietzsche announced the death of God in the latter part of the nineteenth century. World War I was the crushing blow, leaving Christian Europe reeling. Gramsci spotted a wounded enemy, and he knew that this is where the fatal blow to the West must be struck.
Whatever was left of the Christian mind must be changed. Every individual, every group in every class, must think about life’s problems without reference to God and God’s laws. No Christian transcendence; at minimum, antipathy, and even positive opposition to any introduction of Christian ideals. These could not possibly be allowed in the conversation regarding the treatment and solution to the problems of modern life.
I could say the same things about many libertarians. Yet, who do you believe has a better understanding of human nature, of the direction where such a path leads: Antonio Gramsci or any libertarian who views the broader culture as ancillary or even irrelevant to liberty? The Christian culture is being destroyed; this we know. Who has been more successful given this path of removing Christianity? Is liberty—defined as rights in life and property—blossoming in the wreckage of its wake, or is it the other thing? To ask the question is to answer it. Martin continues:
All the meaning of human life and the answer to every human hope were contained within the boundaries of the visible, tangible, material world of the here and now.
With this material view offering the limits of our meaning, is it merely coincidence that the West is at the same time going through a crisis of meaning? We have no idea who we are, where we come from, or where we are going. Given that we are told to believe that we are nothing but the result of random atoms smashing together randomly, why would we?
Another utopia, requiring yet another new man. The perfectibility of man was now man’s responsibility, not God’s. We have a war on cancer, a war on drugs, a war on poverty, a war on terror, a war on a virus. We must eliminate bigotry, racism, prejudice. We must embrace diversity: we are all different. In the same head and at the same time we must embrace equality: we are all the same.
Academic institutions were already well on their way. Proud of their position as vanguards of forward-looking thinking, these new Marxist interpretations of history, law, and religion were like red meat to a hungry lion. Throw in easy-to-get student loans, extend the college experience to all, and add a couple million newly indoctrinated crusaders every year to the cause.
Secularization in Catholic and Protestant churches would aid and accelerate this reform. Everything is material; nothing is transcendent. In case this wasn’t obvious to us before, what could be more secular than Christian churches closing during Holy Week—the week that gives meaning to the entirety of Christianity? How pathetic we must appear to Christians from centuries past, who comforted the sick during real pandemics.
Speak of man’s dignity and man’s rights. Speak of these without reference to the Christian transcendence that underpins these; in fact, speak of the Christian transcendence as standing in the way of these.
Tim Cook of Apple gave a speech that was precisely along these lines: man’s dignity and rights. While finding a way to mention Muslims and Jews, he made no mention of Christianity. As Jonathan Pageau offers, what Cook is describing is a totalizing system, a system that includes everything—except Christianity.
From Cook’s speech, there are only two values that matter: total inclusivity, and don’t oppose the system. Total inclusivity means no borders: not physical—whether state or private property—not mental, not emotional. Not even of your body. If you don’t embrace total inclusivity, by definition you are opposing the system; therefore you are to be excluded. This was Gramsci’s message—and it is Cook’s.
Consider all of the systems of belief and thought that find common cause with Gramsci’s grand strategy: secular humanism, materialism, progressivism, the new atheists, various new age religions, critical theory, postmodernism, even those libertarian strands that find an enemy in Christianity and in traditional norms.
Jeff Deist describes such libertarians, who believe that
liberty will work when humans finally shed their stubborn old ideas about family and tribe, become purely rational freethinkers, reject the mythology of religion and faith, and give up their outdated ethnic or nationalist or cultural alliances for the new hyper-individualist creed. We need people to drop their old-fashioned sexual hang-ups and bourgeois values, except for materialism.
I will ask you to read this quote again, but just replace the first word, “liberty,” with the word “communism.” The sentence works perfectly for Gramsci. This “hyper-individualist” that many libertarians have in view was precisely the type of individual Gramsci desired for his project. From Piccone:
Gramsci considered the constitution of individuality resulting from the revolutionary process to be an irreversible development preventing any subsequent disintegration. For Gramsci, the fully individualized ego is not the starting point of sociopolitical revolution, but the result.
Hans Hoppe also offers that libertarianism is logically consistent with almost any attitude toward culture and religion. He writes:
logically one can be—and indeed most libertarians in fact are: hedonists, libertines, immoralists, militant enemies of religion in general and Christianity in particular—and still be consistent adherents of libertarian politics.
Hoppe says libertarians can be this way in theory, but liberty will not be the result:
You cannot be a consistent left-libertarian, because the left-libertarian doctrine, even if unintended, promotes Statist, i.e., un-libertarian, ends.
Gramsci understood exactly that which Deist and Hoppe describe. Gramsci believed that the destruction of these traditional values would lead to communism; many libertarians believe that destruction of these same values will lead to liberty. Who do you think knows better?
Murray Rothbard would add:
Contemporary libertarians often assume, mistakenly, that individuals are bound to each other only by the nexus of market exchange. They forget that everyone is necessarily born into a family, a language, and a culture….usually including an ethnic group, with specific values, cultures, religious beliefs, and traditions.
Rothbard offers that Gramsci’s hyperindividual is not a human being; yet hyperindividualism is the view of many “contemporary libertarians.” Hoppe summarizes, regarding what are known as left-libertarian positions, from his book Democracy: The God That Failed:
The views held by left-libertarians in this regard are not entirely uniform, but they typically differ little from those promoted by cultural Marxists.
In other words, the cultural views of libertarians such as these cannot be differentiated from Gramsci’s. This is not to say that these libertarians have communism in their sights. Yet look around us today: Is freedom advancing or retreating? We are sitting at a time when the evidence could not be more clear.
We live in a narrative. The West had a narrative. There will always be a narrative. Destroying the traditional narrative will not leave a void; a new narrative will take hold. We see it on the street: kneeling, the washing of feet, sitting with arms raised to heaven, the sainting of a Minneapolis martyr.
Once we lose our story, our narrative, our tradition, we are lost. We are easily manipulated, not having any foundation of meaning. With no foundation, we blow freely in the direction of the new, loudest narrative.
Narratives are always exclusionary—and if you don’t embrace the total inclusivity of this new narrative, you will be excluded. Christianity teaches one way of handling those who are excluded, those on the margins: love. This new narrative teaches another, and it does not bode well for liberty…or life. Returning to Gramsci, from Martin:
Total materialism was freely, peacefully and agreeably adopted everywhere in the name of man's dignity and rights…autonomy and freedom from outside constraints. Above all, as Gramsci had planned, this was done in the name of freedom from the laws and constraints of Christianity.
Create the autonomous, completely sovereign individual, freed from all hierarchies and freed from all responsibilities. Martin continues:
By just that process, authored by Antonio Gramsci…has Western culture deprived itself of its lifeblood.
There is only one way to fight this battle—an embrace of objective values in ethics. Murray Rothbard knew it. He would write:
What I have been trying to say is that Mises's utilitarian, relativist approach to ethics is not nearly enough to establish a full case for liberty. It must be supplemented by an absolutist ethic—an ethic of liberty, as well as of other values needed for the health and development of the individual—grounded on natural law, i.e., discovery of the laws of man's nature.
Natural law. Ethics beyond the nonaggression principle. I seem to recall hearing something about this earlier this week. An idea flowing from Plato, Aristotle, Thomas Aquinas, C.S. Lewis, and Murray Rothbard—among many others. Available for all to discover—Christian and non-Christian alike—through right reason.
It strikes me that the true political divide in society today is not based on the stereotypical left and right or liberal and conservative labels, or even libertarian and statist, but based on where one sits regarding natural law and objective ethics.
Rothbard takes this idea of natural law and objective ethics quite seriously:
I at no time believed that value-free analysis or economics or utilitarianism (the standard social philosophy of economists) can ever suffice to establish the case for liberty.
Rothbard makes a more blunt point in his book For a New Liberty: The Libertarian Manifesto:
the natural law provides the only sure ground for a continuing critique of governmental laws and decrees.
Friedrich Nietzsche would write, in Twilight of the Idols: “If you give up Christian faith, you pull the right to Christian morality out from under your feet.”
What is Christian morality, if not, at minimum, the nonaggression principle? Antonio Gramsci understood this more than eighty years ago. It is his political strategy that is at the root of what we see happening today in universities, government, and society more broadly speaking.
I hope it is helpful to you to understand this background, and also, perhaps, gain some insight into why libertarians such as Hoppe and Rothbard concern themselves with matters of culture, tradition, and objective values when it comes to law and liberty.
In any case, it would be helpful if more libertarians took Gramsci seriously. Liberty’s enemies certainly are doing so, and by doing so, they are advancing. And this is what makes Antonio Gramsci the greatest political strategist in history.