Gramsci, Antonio

Assigned: Gramsci, Antonio. From Prison Notebooks, “The Formation of the Intellectuals” (929-35). Also read the editors’ introduction (927-29).

“The Formation of the Intellectuals” (1929-1933/1948-1951)

1. On 929-30 (“Are intellectuals an autonomous…”), Antonio Gramsci begins by asking, “Are intellectuals an autonomous and independent social group, or does every social group have its own particular specialized category of intellectuals?” (929). By way of response, he will identify two forms of the “historical process of formation of the different categories of intellectuals” (929) What is the first of these two forms of historical process, and what are its key characteristics? (930)

2. On 930-31 (“However, every ‘essential’ social group…”), Gramsci identifies the second of two forms of the “historical process of formation of the different categories of intellectuals” (929). In doing so, he means to answer his own question as to whether intellectuals constitute their own “autonomous and independent” (931) social group, or whether they belong to separate social groups that generate them (i.e., the intellectuals). What is this second form, and how does it differ from the first form that Gramsci considered? (930-31) In responding, consider what he writes about capitalists, feudal lords, and ecclesiastics. What complexities is he able to draw out regarding the formation and perpetuation of  such groups of “intellectuals”?

3. On 932 (“What are the ‘maximum’ limits of acceptance…”), Gramsci begins the work of differentiating between “traditional” and “organic” intellectuals. What is the most common “error of method,” in his view, when it comes to identifying and sorting out the varieties of intellectual activity? How does Gramsci define the term “intellectual” in its broadest sense—in what sense, according to him, can it be said that “All men are intellectuals” and that there are really no “non-intellectuals,” even among groups of people who mostly carry out menial tasks?

4. On 932-33 (“The problem of creating a new stratum…”), how does Gramsci specify what he means by “traditional” (933) intellectuals? Why do such people see themselves as “the ‘true’ intellectuals” (933)? Over against such notions on their part, what does Gramsci identify as the basis for the formation of “the new type of intellectual” (933)? Why is it significant that this new category develops in an “organic” way in connection to practical existence and social groups that are “developing towards dominance” (933)?

5. On 933-34 (“The enormous development of activity…”), how does Gramsci address the central role that the educational system plays in the articulation, diversification, and specialization of a given society’s intellectuals? In what way does the presence of a strong educational system indicate the “complex” quality of “the cultural world, the civilisation, of a particular state” (933)? Nevertheless, how does what Gramsci describes as a society-wide drive towards further education (a competition to produce sufficiently many highly qualified technicians, “high culture” workers, etc.) create the potential for “vast crises of unemployment for the middle intellectual strata” (934)?

6. On 934-35 (“It is worth noting that the elaboration…”), Gramsci attempts to articulate further how the various kinds of intellectuals serve the cause of the dominant group’s maintenance of “hegemony” (934; essentially, a complex form of control over social and cultural values in which the dominant class “manufactures” a given society’s consent to rule). How does his description of intellectuals as working at “two major superstructural ‘levels’” (“civil society” and “political society,” i.e., the state) help him begin to explain how hegemony comes into being and persists? (934-35)

7. On 935 (“In the modern world the category…”), Gramsci declares that “The democratic-bureaucratic system has given rise to a great mass of functions which are not all justified by the social necessities of production, though they are justified by the political necessities of the dominant fundamental group.” What social and economic problems does this phenomenon (essentially, the “unprecedented expansion” of “the category of intellectuals”) give rise to? In what sense does Gramsci’s interest in such matters regarding how capitalist societies operate, and how dominant groups emerge and achieve “hegemony,” point to a recalibration of older Marxist notions about class and ideology?

8. General question: Ultimately, in “The Formation of the Intellectuals,” Antonio Gramsci is trying to lend his analysis a degree of suppleness that the older Marxist framework and Marxism-Leninism lacked. Does this selection on intellectuals and hegemony seem promising in that light? Does Gramsci’s view help explain why capitalism has survived longer than Marx and the early Soviet theorists thought it would? Marx thought socialist revolutions would spread across Europe, beginning with England since it was industrializing so strongly and rapidly in the nineteenth century. That did not occur: a communist revolution succeeded first in Russia, and then in China. Leaving Gramsci at least partly aside, how do you account for this unexpected turn of events? Why did capitalism prove to be so resilient in Great Britain, Western Europe, and the United States?

Edition: Leitch, Vincent B. et al., eds. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. 3rd ed. New York and London: W. W. Norton & Company, 2018. ISBN-13: 978-0-393-60295-1.

Copyright © 2021 Alfred J. Drake