Antonio Gramsci, schooling and education


Antonio Gramsci, schooling and education. Gramsci’s emphasis on critical awareness, the importance of intellectuals being part of everyday life, and on the part played by so-called ‘common sense’ in maintaining the status quo have helped to open up the transformational possibilities of education.

contents: introduction · ideological hegemony · organic intellectuals · gramsci on schooling and education · references · how to cite this article

Antonio Gramsci (1891 – 1937) was a leading Italian Marxist. He was an intellectual, a journalist and a major theorist who spent his last eleven years in Mussolini’s prisons. During this time, he completed 32 notebooks containing almost 3,000 pages. These notebooks were smuggled out from his prison and published in Italian after the war but did not find an English-language publisher until the 1970s. The central and guiding theme of the Notebooks was the development of a new Marxist theory applicable to the conditions of advanced capitalism.

He was born in a little town on the island of Sardinia in 1891, one of seven children. His was one of a very small minority of families on the island that could read and write and because of this he did well at school finally winning a scholarship to the University of Turin. Italy was then, as it is now, a country divided between North and South. The South being overwhelmingly rural with a large illiterate peasantry and the North essentially industrialised with a well organised and politically aware working class. The contrast was immense. Turin has been described as the red capital of Italy at the time Gramsci arrived there. It was home to the most advanced industry in the country and above all to FIAT, the motor manufacturer. By the end of the First World War, 30% of Turin’s population were industrial workers and this despite the fact that another 10% were in the army and not included in the total.

Portrait of Antonio Gramsci around 30 in the early 1920s - sourced from Wikimedia Commons. Marked as being in the public domain because its copyright has expired.The organised workers of Turin had a very combative history. For the first twenty years of this century, Turin was to witness countless demonstrations and a number of general strikes until finally in 1919, there began a movement for the occupation of the factories and the setting up of factory councils to run them. It was this sort of atmosphere that welcomed Gramsci to university life and was to affect his thinking for the rest of his life.

Gramsci had already become a socialist through reading pamphlets sent home to Sardinia from the mainland by an older brother. His political thought was expanded by his experiences at university and in his new home city. What Gramsci was to develop, however, was not just an ability to propagandise or to organise political activity. He became the first Marxist theorist to work with the problems of revolutionary change in 20th-century Western European society and the first to identify the importance of the struggle against bourgeois values ie an ideological-cultural struggle.

Gramsci’s significance for informal education lies in three realms. First, his exposition of the notion of hegemony provides us with a way of coming to understand the context in which informal educators function and the possibility of critique and transformation. Second, his concern with the role of organic intellectuals deepens our understanding of the place of informal educators. Last, his interest in schooling and more traditional forms of education points to the need not to dismiss more traditional forms. We will look at each of these in turn.

Ideological Hegemony

Gramsci accepted the analysis of capitalism put forward by Marx in the previous century and accepted that the struggle between the ruling class and the subordinate working class was the driving force that moved society forward. What he found unacceptable was the traditional Marxist view of how the ruling class ruled. It was here that Gramsci made a major contribution to modern thought in his concept of the role played by ideology.

Often the term “ideology” is seen as referring simply to a system of ideas and beliefs. However, it is closely tied to the concept of power and the definition given by Anthony Giddens is probably the easiest to understand. Giddens defines ideology as “shared ideas or beliefs which serve to justify the interests of dominant groups” [Giddens 1997 p583] Its relationship to power is that it legitimises the differential power that groups hold and as such it distorts the real situation that people find themselves in.

The traditional Marxist theory of power was a very one-sided one based on the role of force and coercion as the basis of ruling class domination. This was reinforced by Lenin whose influence was at its height after the success of the Russian Revolution in 1917. Gramsci felt that what was missing was an understanding of the subtle but pervasive forms of ideological control and manipulation that served to perpetuate all repressive structures. He identified two quite distinct forms of political control: domination, which referred to direct physical coercion by police and armed forces and hegemony which referred to both ideological control and more crucially, consent. He assumed that no regime, regardless of how authoritarian it might be, could sustain itself primarily through organised state power and armed force. In the long run, it had to have popular support and legitimacy in order to maintain stability.

By hegemony, Gramsci meant the permeation throughout society of an entire system of values, attitudes, beliefs and morality that has the effect of supporting the status quo in power relations. Hegemony in this sense might be defined as an ‘organising principle’ that is diffused by the process of socialisation into every area of daily life. To the extent that this prevailing consciousness is internalised by the population, it becomes part of what is generally called ‘common sense’ so that the philosophy, culture and morality of the ruling elite comes to appear as the natural order of things. [Boggs1976 p39]

Marx’s basic division of society into a base represented by the economic structure and a superstructure represented by the institutions and beliefs prevalent in society was accepted by most Marxists familiar with the concepts. Gramsci took this a step further when he divided the superstructure into those institutions that were overtly coercive and those that were not. The coercive ones, which were basically the public institutions such as the government, police, armed forces and the legal system he regarded as the state or political society and the non-coercive ones were the others such as the churches, the schools, trade unions, political parties, cultural associations, clubs, the family etc. which he regarded as civil society. To some extent, schools could fit into both categories. Parts of school life are quite clearly coercive (compulsory education, the national curriculum, national standards and qualifications) whilst others are not (the hidden curriculum).

So for Gramsci, society was made up of the relations of production (capital v labour); the state or political society (coercive institutions) and civil society (all other non-coercive institutions).

Gramsci’s analysis went much further than any previous Marxist theory to provide an understanding of why the European working class had, on the whole, failed to develop revolutionary consciousness after the First World War and had instead moved towards reformism ie tinkering with the system rather than working towards overthrowing it. It was a far more subtle theory of power than any of his contemporaries and went a long way to explain how the ruling class ruled.

Now, if Gramsci was correct that the ruling class maintained its domination by the consent of the mass of the people and only used its coercive apparatuses, the forces of law and order, as a last resort, what were the consequences for Marxists who wished to see the overthrow of that same ruling class? If the hegemony of the ruling capitalist class resulted from an ideological bond between the rulers and the ruled, what strategy needed to be employed? The answer to those questions was that those who wished to break that ideological bond had to build up a ‘counter-hegemony’ to that of the ruling class. They had to see structural change and ideological change as part of the same struggle. The labour process was at the core of the class struggle but it was the ideological struggle that had to be addressed if the mass of the people were to come to a consciousness that allowed them to question their political and economic masters right to rule. It was a popular consensus in civil society that had to be challenged and in this, we can see a role for informal education.

Overcoming popular consensus, however, is not easy. Ideological hegemony meant that the majority of the population accepted what was happening in society as ‘common sense’ or as ‘the only way of running society’. There may have been complaints about the way things were run and people looked for improvements or reforms but the basic beliefs and value system underpinning society were seen as either neutral or of general applicability in relation to the class structure of society. Marxists would have seen people constantly asking for a bigger slice of the cake when the real issue was ownership of the bakery.

Organic Intellectuals

This brings me to my second theme. Gramsci saw the role of the intellectual as a crucial one in the context of creating a counter-hegemony. He was clear that the transformation from capitalism to socialism required mass participation. There was no question that socialism could be brought about by an elite group of dedicated revolutionaries acting for the working class. It had to be the work of the majority of the population conscious of what they were doing and not an organised party leadership. The revolution led by Lenin and the Bolsheviks in Russia in 1917 was not the model suitable for Western Europe or indeed any advanced industrialised country. The Leninist model took place in a backward country with a huge peasantry and a tiny working class. The result was that the mass of the population was not involved. For Gramsci, mass consciousness was essential and the role of the intellectual was crucial.

It is important at this juncture to note that when Gramsci wrote about intellectuals, he was not referring solely to the boffins and academics that sat in ivory towers or wrote erudite pieces for academic journals only read by others of the same ilk. His definition went much further and he spread his net much wider.

Gramsci’s notebooks are quite clear on the matter. He writes that “all men are intellectuals” [and presumably women] “but not all men have in society the function of intellectuals”. What he meant by that was that everyone has an intellect and uses it but not all are intellectuals by social function. He explains this by stating that “everyone at some time fries a couple of eggs or sews up a tear in a jacket, we do not necessarily say that everyone is a cook or a tailor”. Each social group that comes into existence creates within itself one or more strata of intellectuals that gives it meaning, that helps to bind it together and helps it function. They can take the form of managers, civil servants, the clergy, professors and teachers, technicians and scientists, lawyers, doctors etc. Essentially, they have developed organically alongside the ruling class and function for the benefit of the ruling class. Gramsci maintained that the notion of intellectuals as being a distinct social category independent of class was a myth.

He identified two types of intellectuals – traditional and organic. Traditional intellectuals are those who do regard themselves as autonomous and independent of the dominant social group and are regarded as such by the population at large. They seem autonomous and independent. They give themselves an aura of historical continuity despite all the social upheavals that they might go through. The clergy are an example of that as are the men of letters, the philosophers and professors. These are what we tend to think of when we think of intellectuals. Although they like to think of themselves as independent of ruling groups, this is usually a myth and an illusion. They are essentially conservative allied to and assisting the ruling group in society.

The second type is the organic intellectual. This is the group mentioned earlier that grows organically with the dominant social group, the ruling class, and is their thinking and organising element. For Gramsci, it was important to see them for what they were. They were produced by the educational system to perform a function for the dominant social group in society. It is through this group that the ruling class maintains its hegemony over the rest of society.

Having said that what was required for those who wished to overthrow the present system was a counter-hegemony, a method of upsetting the consensus, of countering the ‘common sense’ view of society, how could this be done?

Gramsci, in his Notebooks, maintained that what was required was that not only should a significant number of ‘traditional’ intellectuals come over to the revolutionary cause (Marx, Lenin and Gramsci were examples of this) but also the working-class movement should produce its own organic intellectuals. Remember that Gramsci said that all men were intellectuals but not all men have the function of intellectuals in society. He went on to point out that “there is no human activity from which every form of intellectual participation can be excluded” and that everyone, outside their particular professional activity, “carries on some form of intellectual activity …, participates in a particular conception of the world, has a conscious line of moral conduct, and therefore contributes to sustain a conception of the world or to modify it, that is, to bring into being new modes of thought”. This sounds as if he was exaggerating the possibilities but what he was really trying to convey is that people have the capability and the capacity to think. The problem was how to harness those capabilities and capacities.

Gramsci saw one of his roles as assisting in the creation of organic intellectuals from the working class and the winning over of as many traditional intellectuals to the revolutionary cause as possible. He attempted this through the columns of a journal called L’Ordine Nuovo (New Order), subtitled “a weekly review of Socialist culture”. This journal came out at the same time as the huge spontaneous outbreak of industrial and political militancy that swept Turin in 1919. This outbreak mirrored events throughout the industrial world that shook the very foundations of capitalist society.

Gramsci’s insistence on the fundamental importance of the ideological struggle to social change meant that this struggle was not limited to consciousness-raising but must aim at consciousness transformation – the creation of socialist consciousness. It was not something that could be imposed on people but must arise from their actual working lives. The intellectual realm, therefore, was not to be seen as something confined to an elite but to be seen as something grounded in everyday life. Gramsci wrote that “the mode of being of the new intellectual can no longer consist in eloquence … but in active participation in practical life, as a constructor, organiser, “permanent persuader” and not just a simple orator…” [Gramsci 1971 p10]

The creation of working-class intellectuals actively participating in practical life, helping to create a counter-hegemony that would undermine existing social relations was Gramsci’s contribution to the development of a philosophy that would link theory with practice. His philosophy was a direct counter to those elitist and authoritarian philosophies associated with fascism and Stalinism. His approach was open and non-sectarian. He believed in the innate capacity of human beings to understand their world and to change it. In his Notebooks, he asked the question: “is it better to “think”, without having a critical awareness, … or, on the other hand, is it better to work out consciously and critically one’s own conception of the world?”. He wanted revolutionaries to be critical and made it clear that “the starting point of critical elaboration is the consciousness of what one really is …”. [Gramsci 1971 p323]

The role of informal educators in local communities links up with Gramsci’s ideas on the role of the intellectual. The educator working successfully in the neighbourhood and with the local community has a commitment to that neighbourhood. They are not ‘here today and gone tomorrow’. They may have always lived in the area and have much in common with the local people or they may not. What is important is that they develop relationships with the people they work with that ensures that wherever they go, they are regarded as part of the community (‘one of us’). “They can strive to sustain people’s critical commitment to the social groups with whom they share fundamental interests. Their purpose is not necessarily individual advancement, but human well-being as a whole” (Smith 1994 p127).

Gramsci on Schooling and Education

Schooling played an important part in Gramsci’s analysis of modern society. The school system was just one part of the system of ideological hegemony in which individuals were socialised into maintaining the status quo. He did not write much in his Notebooks on the school system but what he did write was essentially a critique of the increased specialisation occurring within the Italian school system and a plea for a more ‘comprehensive’ form of education. The vocational school was being created in order to help ‘modernise’ Italy. This new system was “advocated as being democratic, while in fact it is destined not merely to perpetuate social differences but to crystallise them in Chinese complexities”. Gramsci describes the social character of the traditional schools as determined by the fact that each social group throughout society had its own type of school “intended to perpetuate a specific traditional function, ruling or subordinate” but the answer to the question of modernising education was not to create a whole system of different types of vocational school but “to create a single type of formative school (primary-secondary) which would take the child up to the threshold of his choice of job, forming him during this time as a person capable of thinking, studying and ruling – or controlling those who rule” (Gramsci 1971 p40).

Gramsci maintained that this type of school could only achieve success with the active participation of pupils and, in order for this to happen, the school must relate to everyday life. This did not mean that education should not include abstract ideas but that philosophical concepts, formal logic, rules of grammar etc needed to be acquired in school “through work and reflection” (Gramsci 1977 p42). He was clear that learning was not something that came easily for the majority of young people. “The individual consciousness of the overwhelming majority of children reflects social and cultural relations which are different from and antagonistic to those which are represented in the school curricula” (Gramsci 1971 p35). A learner had to be active not “a passive and mechanical recipient”. The relationship between the pupil’s psychology and the educational forms must always be “active and creative, just as the relation of the worker to his tools is active and creative” (Gramsci 1977 p42).

There was no doubt in his mind that education in modern Italy was one way in which the mass of the population was kept in its place. In order to transform this situation, the education system had to be confronted and changed dramatically. He did not underestimate the huge mountain that had to be climbed. “If our aim is to produce a new stratum of intellectuals … from a social group which has not traditionally developed the appropriate attitudes, then we have unprecedented difficulties to overcome” (Gramsci 1971 p43).

Gramsci’s writings on education are not always easy to understand. In fact, they are quite confusing at times. They are certainly open to misinterpretation (Allman 1988, Entwistle 1979). The editors of his Prison Notebooks make the point that his apparent “conservative” eulogy of the old system of education in Italy was really only a device to get around the prison censors (Gramsci 1971 p24). However, this device has had the effect of perplexing more than his captors.

For informal educators, Gramsci stands out as a major thinker. The importance he placed on critical self-awareness, on critical social awareness, on the importance of the intellectual being part of everyday life, on the part played by so-called ‘common sense’ in maintaining the status quo and the transformational possibilities of education. All of these are now commonplace in the formation of informal educators.

Is there any wonder that Mussolini’s government made it clear at his trial that they wanted to stop his brain from working?

Further reading and references

Allman, P. (1988) “Gramsci, Freire and Illich: Their Contributions to Education for Socialism” in Tom Lovett, (ed) Radical Approaches to Adult Education: A Reader.London: Routledge.

Boggs, C. (1976) Gramsci’s Marxism. London: Pluto Press.

Entwistle, H. (1979). Antonio Gramsci: Conservative schooling for radical politics. London: Routledge.

Giddens, A. (1997). Sociology. 3rd ed. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Gramsci, A. (1971). Selections from the Prison Notebooks. London: Lawrence and Wishart.

Smith, M.K. (1994). Local education: Community, conversation, praxis. Buckingham: Open University Press.


Resources on Antonio Gramsci: Excellent site – resources include an online searchable version of the complete Bibliografia gramsciana, a complete list of Gramsci’s writings, related appendices and introductory materials, and the first eight issues of the Newsletter of the International Gramsci Society.

The Gramsci Institute Foundation: The Gramsci Institute Foundation was founded in 1982, on the basis of the pre-existent Gramsci Institute, born in 1949 with the aim to collect bibliographic and archival materials concerning Antonio Gramsci’s profile and thought, the history of Italian labour and socialist movements, the history of the Italian communist party.

The ‘Turn to Gramsci’ in Adult Education: A Review: from the Newsletter of the International Gramsci Society.

Acknowledgement: Top image is Proletariat by Riccardo Cuppini | flickr ccbyncnd2 licence.

Portrait of Antonio Gramsci around 30 in the early 1920s – sourced from Wikimedia Commons. Marked as being in the public domain because its copyright has expired.

How to cite this article: Burke, B. (1999, 2005) ‘Antonio Gramsci, schooling and education’, The encyclopedia of pedagogy and informal education,

© Barry Burke 1999, 2005.