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Antonio Gramsci: the Godfather of Cultural Marxism

Gramsci viewed churches, charities, the media, and schools as organizations that needed to be invaded by socialist thinkers.

Flickr: thierry ehrmann (

There’s little debate that modern-day American universities, public education, mainstream media, Hollywood, and political advocacy groups are dominated by leftists. This is no accident, but part of a deliberate strategy to pave the way for communist revolution developed more than eight decades ago by an Italian political theorist named Antonio Gramsci.

Described as one of the world’s most important and influential Marxist theorists since Marx himself, if you are not familiar with Gramsci, you should be.

Gramsci wrote in the 1930s of a “war of position” for socialists and communists to subvert Western culture from the inside.

The Italian communist (1891 – 1937) is credited with the blueprint that has served as the foundation for the Cultural Marxist movement in modern America.

Later dubbed by 1960s German student activist Rudi Dutschke as “the long march through the institutions,” Gramsci wrote in the 1930s of a “war of position” for socialists and communists to subvert Western culture from the inside in an attempt to compel it to redefine itself.

Gramsci used war metaphors to distinguish between a political “war of position”—which he compared to trench warfare—and the “war of movement (or maneuver),” which would be a sudden full-frontal assault resulting in complete social upheaval.

A Shift in Strategy

In the 1998 book The Antonio Gramsci Reader, edited by David Forgacs, Gramsci’s development of a new form of strategy for ushering in the socialist revolution is made clear.

Gramsci argued that the Bolshevik Russian revolution of 1917 worked because the conditions were ripe for such a sudden upheaval. He described the Russian revolution as an example of a “war of movement” due to its sudden and complete overthrow of the existing governing structure of society. Gramsci reasoned that in Russia in 1917, “the state was everything, civil society was primordial and gelatinous.”

As such, a direct attack on the current rulers could be effective because there existed no other significant structure or institutions of political influence that needed to be overcome.

In Western societies, by contrast, Gramsci observed that the state is “only an outer ditch” behind which lies a robust and sturdy civil society.

Gramsci believed that the conditions in Russia in 1917 that made revolution possible would not materialize in more advanced capitalist countries in the West. The strategy must be different and must include a mass democratic movement, an ideological struggle.

His advocacy of a war of position instead of a war of movement was not a rebuke of revolution itself, just a differing tactic—a tactic that required the infiltration of influential organizations that make up civil society. Gramsci likened these organizations to the “trenches” in which the war of position would need to be fought.

The massive structures of the modern democracies, both as state organizations, and as complexes of associations in civil society, constitute for the art of politics as it were the “trenches” and the permanent fortifications of the front in the war of position: they render merely “partial” the element of maneuver which before used the “the whole” of war, etc.

Gramsci argued that a “frontal attack” on established institutions like governments in Western societies may face significant resistance and thus need greater preparation—with the main groundwork being the development of a collective will among the people and a takeover of leadership among civil society and key political positions.

War of Position vs. War of Movement

It is important to bear in mind that Gramsci’s ultimate goal is still socialism and overthrow of the capitalist order. His contribution was to outline a different strategy for this to occur.

As described by Forgacs, “War of movement is a frontal assault on the state whereas war of position is conducted mainly on the terrain of civil society.”

Gramsci likened political “warfare” to military warfare, with his war of movement akin to the frontal assault of a rapid military attack upon the opening of a breach in the enemy’s defenses to attain a rapid and definitive victory.

In contrast, Gramsci likened war of position to trench warfare, settling in for a long-term struggle with strategic smaller victories to gain more territory bit by bit. The war of position is also characterized by an abundance of supplies to replenish the troops and “a great mass of men under arms.”

Gramsci believed that the support for a capitalistic economic structure would shield the current ruling class from any organized opposition.

Gramsci argued that a war of position is necessary for advanced capitalist societies where civil society has become a “very complex structure” that is resistant to “incursions,” such as economic depressions, that would otherwise weaken the current power structure in terms of ideological support. In other words, civil society provided a support system for the current political structure and those in power who could help it withstand otherwise negative shocks like economic recessions.

Gramsci believed that in advanced capitalistic Western societies, the prevailing ideological support system for a capitalistic economic structure and bourgeois values would shield the current ruling class from any organized opposition.

As a result, he believed it essential to study in depth “which elements of civil society correspond to the defensive systems in a war of position.”

Gramsci’s Analysis of “Civil Society” and Hegemony

Gramsci defined civil society as the “ensemble of organisms commonly called ‘private.’”

More directly, he described civil society as that sphere of social activities and institutions not directly part of the government. Primary examples included political parties, trade unions, church organizations, and other popular voluntary associations.

Gramsci noted that dominant social groups in civil society organized consent and hegemony—they assumed a leadership position by the consent of members. Their leadership role includes fostering an ideological consensus among their members. Gramsci envisioned that these groups would organize their opposition to the existing social order.

Gramsci viewed churches, charities, the media, and schools as organizations that needed to be invaded by socialist thinkers.

Gramsci, however, viewed civil society in Western societies to be a strong defensive system for the current State, which in turn existed to protect the interest of the capitalist class.

“In the West, there was a proper relation between state and civil society, and when the state trembled a sturdy structure of civil society was at once revealed. The state was only an outer ditch, behind which there stood a powerful system of fortresses and earthworks,” he wrote. In short, in times when the state itself may have shown weakness to overthrow from opposing ideological forces, the institutions of civil society provided political reinforcement for the existing order.

In his view, a new collective will is required to advance this war of position for the revolution. To him, it is vital to evaluate what can stand in the way of this will, i.e. certain influential social groups with the prevailing capitalist ideologies that could impede this progress.

Gramsci spoke of organizations including churches, charities, the media, schools, universities and “economic corporate” power as organizations that needed to be invaded by socialist thinkers.

The new dictatorship of the proletariat in the West, according to Gramsci, could only arise out of an active consensus of the working masses—led by those critical civil society organizations generating an ideological hegemony.

As Gramsci described it, hegemony means “cultural, moral and ideological” leadership over allied and subordinate groups.

As Gramsci described it, hegemony means “cultural, moral and ideological” leadership over allied and subordinate groups. The intellectuals, once ensconced, should attain leadership roles over these groups’ members by consent. They would achieve direction over the movement by persuasion rather than domination or coercion.

The goal of the war of position is to shape a new collective will of the masses in order to weaken the defenses that civil society provides to the current capitalist state.

Gramsci further emphasized the role of a political party to assume leadership and philosophical direction of all these civil society alliances. Additionally, and critically, one of the main goals of the party would be to place foot soldiers in the revolutionary war of position in actual state institutions, as well, such as legal institutions, police, councils, and influential bureaucracies. There needs to be established a foundation of socialists upon which to run the apparatus of the state once its overthrow was complete, Gramsci argued.

Priming Conditions for the Frontal Attack

As Gramsci described it, a war of position involves a “passive revolution” of sorts; transitioning from the dominant bourgeois order to one of socialism without any violent social upheaval.

For social transition to occur, the “necessary conditions” in society must have “already been incubated,” according to Gramsci. Here he is referring to a new collective will among the masses that coincides with having the right people in strategic positions among civil society and state bureaucracies.

Gramsci pointed to the example of the Italian fascism of his time as an example of passive revolution. As he noted, economic fascism “consists in the fact that the economic structure is transformed in a ‘reformist’ way from an individualistic to a planned economy (command economy).” This “intermediate economy” could serve as the starting point for the next transition to total state control of the means of production, a transition that could occur “without radical and destructive cataclysms of an exterminating kind.”

This full-frontal war of movement to overthrow the existing state and social order will be assured to not only be successful but also permanent.

Economic fascism takes a step toward collectivization of the means of production without seizing them from the capitalists, Gramsci argued. Fascism serves to “accentuate the ‘plan of production’ element” of the economic structure, making it easier to transition to complete collectivization. This shift helped to facilitate widespread acceptance of the notion of greater centralized control over production without actually wresting control over the means of production from the capitalists or eliminating profit. Yet.

Once all these conditions are in place—i.e. a new collective will, ideological control over institutions of civil society, revolutionaries in strategic positions in the state—the time would be right for the final and conclusive “war of movement.”

This full-frontal war of movement to overthrow the existing state and social order will be assured to not only be successful but also permanent. For according to Gramsci, “in politics, the ‘war of position’, once won, is decisive definitively.”

The Left’s “long march through the institutions” is a deliberate attempt to create conditions right for the final overthrow of our private property society. Their success would spell disaster.

  • Bradley Thomas is creator of the website and is a libertarian activist and writer with nearly 15 years experience researching and writing on political philosophy and economics.

    Follow him on Twitter: ErasetheState @erasestate