The Most Dangerous Socialist in History

Forget Lenin: A mild-mannered Italian academic who died 79 years ago may well prove to be the most influential of all Marxists.

By Samuel Gregg Published on July 25, 2016

As a matter of principle, Marxists aren’t troubled by scruples. They will kill, steal, lie, railroad the innocent — whatever it takes to advance the Revolution. Marx himself never shied away from what his program entailed. “When our turn comes,” he wrote in 1849, “we shall not make excuses for the terror.” The actions of his apostles, ranging from Lenin to Stalin, Che Guevara, Mao, and Pol Pot, to the Castro brothers, prove just how “principled” Marxists are willing to be, even if it means gulags, “reeducation” camps, or simple murder.

In the long-term, however, it may well be that the most effective of Marxists was an Italian philosopher, journalist and Communist official who spent the last 11 years of his life in Mussolini’s prisons. Unlike some other Communists of his generation, Antonio Gramsci had no blood on his hands. He signed no execution orders. He was even considered somewhat of a heretic by more mainstream Marxists of his time. Gramsci’s ideas, however, help explain why so many of the West’s cultural institutions today are rotten with leftist ideas and rhetoric.

From Economics to Culture

When it came down to it, Marx thought just two things were important: money and power. That’s the plain meaning of all his talk about “controlling” the economic means of production. The bourgeoisie controlled capitalist societies, Marx said, by controlling of industry and capital. To “liberate” the proletariat, Communists must take control of the means of production. Hence, in the proletariat’s name, Communist regimes invariably collectivized most economic activity and severely restricted private ownership of capital.

This vision assumes that the economy is the ultimate driver of everything else. While figures such as Marx and Lenin acknowledged the power of forces like religion, they regarded such phenomena as essentially side-effects of money and power relationships. According to this logic, Christianity serves to distract the working-class (like an “opiate”) from their misery in capitalist economies. Once, however, the proletariat had acquired dominance over the economy and sent the middle-class packing, Christianity and other forms of religion would be revealed as frauds and eventually disappear.

Antonio Gramsci, however, took a different view. Born in 1891 in Sardinia, Gramsci — like many other early twentieth-century European intellectuals — gravitated towards socialism. He became a member of the central committee of the Italian Communist Party (PCI) in the 1920s, an Italian delegate to the 1922 Communist International, and eventually the PCI’s General Secretary. This ensured that he ranked high on Mussolini’s enemies list. In November 1926, Gramsci was arrested and spent the rest of his life in jail, dying in 1937.

Like many other political prisoners, Gramsci used his time behind bars to develop his ideas. He did so in his correspondence as well as what came to be known as his Prison Notebooks. Published after World War II, these addressed topics ranging from Machiavelli to the Jesuits. Gramsci’s most important argument, however, set him apart from other Marxists, with their focus on organizing factory workers and seizing farms from peasants.

Gramsci focused on culture. Still a Marxist, he viewed art, literature, education, and all its other elements through the jaundiced lens of a class struggle. But he realized that these things didn’t just respond to political and economic power; they also produced it. So if the Left wants to win, it must seize these things first, get control of the “cultural means of production.” Gramsci insisted that Marxists had underestimated the importance of culture-forming institutions such as the media, universities, and churches in deciding whether the Left or the Right would gain control (or to use his favorite word, “hegemony”).

Marching through the Institutions

Gramsci thought that all these cultural institutions weren’t neutral, but in fact were serving as a vast propaganda machine on behalf of capitalism. Until leftists came to dominate them, they would never be able to convince enough people to support their revolution.

This part of his thesis was like manna from heaven for many left-wing Western intellectuals. Instead of joining a factory collective or making bombs in basements, a leftist professor could help free society from capitalist exploitation by penning essays in his office or teaching students. In this scenario, the revolutionary force shifts away from the proletariat toward middle-class intellectuals.

To seize society’s “cultural heights” such leftists must spread what the French Reformed theologian Paul Ricœur called “the hermeneutics of suspicion.” Put simply, this means that nothing is as it seems. Seemingly benign ideas (such as “justice” and “due process”) must be exposed as cynical bourgeois ploys that serve to disguise systematic injustices.

Rule of law, for instance, is no longer understood as embodying a commitment to equality before the law and non-arbitrary behavior. Instead, it is “unmasked” as a tool for denying justice to various minorities. The American Revolution is not a principled defense of ancient liberties against burgeoning tyranny; instead it’s an effort by wealthy white Colonials to maintain their privileges. Civility is dismissed as something which constrains people from expressing their outrage against injustice. Even the English language is revealed to embody ancient “patriarchal” oppression against women.

Today, entire humanities and social science departments (not to mention journalism schools) in Western European, North American and Latin American universities are slaves to the search for hidden oppressors. In practical terms, the Gramscian strategy also means that the left plays hard-ball when it comes to the internal workings of numerous institutions.

It doesn’t matter, for example, how good the journalism of a devout Christian or a religious Jew might be. Nor is it important that a political conservative or free market advocate has conducted cutting-edge research in his academic field or produced a superb film. Such people must be marginalized because of their faith and/or politics, lest they threaten the left’s “hegemony” over the means of “cultural production.” Truth is no longer important, for truth is just a ruling class construct. What matters is the pursuance and maintenance of power, so that millions of media-consumers and thousands of university students can continue being enlightened about the hidden structures of privilege.

The most insidious aspect of this mentality is that its logic, on its terms, can’t be refuted. If you question, for instance, the hermeneutics of suspicion, then you must be part of the ruling class’s apparatus of control, whether you realize it or not. At worst, you are evil. At best, you are a dupe. As Joseph Ratzinger once observed, this was a standard retort deployed by Marxist-inclined liberation theologians whenever anyone questioned their positions.

The worst part of Gramsci’s legacy is that it has effectively transcended its Marxist origins. His outlook is now blankly taken for granted by millions of teachers, writers, even churchmen, who have no idea that they are committed to cultural Marxism. So while the socialist paradises constructed by Lenin, Stalin and likeminded people imploded over 25 years ago, the Gramscian mindset is alive and flourishing at your local university and in more than a few liberal churches and synagogues.

The vast structures of cynicism which Gramsci’s ideas have built, which honeycomb Western society today, will prove much tougher to dismantle than the crude cement blocks of the old Berlin Wall.

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  • Richardson McPhillips

    excellent

  • Richard J. Woerner

    Such an excellent article. I have been doing some research on the Frankfurt School and the effects that cultural Marxism has had on the political ideas of President Obama. Much of it came from the Curt Bowers “Agenda” expose. The Frankfurt School and Antonio Gramsci go hand-in-hand, the two cannot be separated from each other. I find it fascinating that there is such interest these days about cultural Marxism. Can we say Hillary Clinton.

  • Mark D. Isaacs

    You are right! Antonio Gramsci and his “long march through institutions” is the prime playbook of the Postmodern Left. The question is, how do we undo this mess????

    • Wayne Cook

      Exactly the question I had….

    • Doug Moody

      The only way to “undo this mess” is to spread the gospel and teach scripture effectively to those who already know Christ. When one knows the truth, then a counterfeit becomes obvious. Class envy is where we start. Scripture says that if someone will not work, then they shall not eat. Marxism is just the opposite. Start showing how the bible has already answered Gramscian types of thought, and you can defeat it one person at a time. But ignorance is the friend of Marxists, Socialists, and Progressives. They wish the “proletariat” to stay ignorant so that the people become the tools of their rise to power and money.

  • alex

    A very good introduction to Gramsci. It contains one thing however which shows just how successful Gramscian hegemony is: the old saw about his having died in jail. Even scholars think he died in jail. But Gramsci did not die in jail, he was paroled on account of his poor health (he had a long history of poor health throughout his life) in 1934. He died 3 years later at a Clinic called “Quisisana”, and his dying words were to a Catholic nun, “Please help me die”.

  • fderf

    He is quite admired in his home country; towns large and small invariably have a street named after him, and he – and socialism – is regularly staunchly defended.

    • kombi

      And look at the horrific mess Italy is in. Just like many Australians defend Ned Kelly.

      • fderf

        The Italians know better, which is why it’s so aggravating.
        I had to look up Ned Kelly.

  • kombi

    A dysfunctional logic at best. If you agree with us you’re enlightened. If you challenge us you’re evil or a tool of the capitalist overlords. It allows such social vandals to drag society into all sorts of disasters and then evade accountability. Gramsci was no less sociopathic than Stalin.

  • UlaireToldea

    Great article! I’ve heard of Gramsci before, but was still able to learn some more information about him in this article. Unfortunately, the strategy he proposed is giving us a lot of problems today….

  • nsaranga

    Hi, just a small question. Isn’t Samuel Gregg’s conclusion in the second last paragraph that millions of people are duped into a commitment to cultural marxism, or if they argue in its defence then they are part of class of intellectuals who control the West’s cultural institutions, the same as the “insidious” logic of the “mentality” spread in the West by Gramsci’s ideas: “At worst, you are evil. At best, you are a dupe.”

    • etomaria

      I think one can have a rational, noncircular discussion about the merits of other value systems, whereas this one only offers one response: you only think differently because you’ve been tricked. That is, no actual basis, no foundation, no response to the questions or objections, just calling into doubt the speaker’s motivations.

      • nsaranga

        Sorry, I’m a bit confused which argument you referring to by “this only offers”. Are you referring to Gregg’s argument or my question? Also in your last sentence are you saying that my question only questions the speaker’s motivations?

        • etomaria

          Oh. I meant that opposing-to-the-views-espoused-by-Gramsci value systems, it seems, are defensible based on their own merits. Or at least open to discussion using those merits or pitfalls as pluses or minuses. His are not, or at least haven’t been in practice, because supporters just brush off criticism by insisting the critic has improper motivations and so shouldn’t be listened to. In reality, this is just a logical fallacy that allows its user to dodge out of a real defense of their views. It’s totally possible there are rare supporters of these ideas who take the time and trouble to try and defend them legitimately, but I’ve never encountered them. My point was simply that, whereas perhaps you could use the tact criticized by Gregg in defense of Gregg’s own claims, I don’t believe it to be the norm in discussions with those who hold these views, whereas I do believe it to be almost exclusively used by those who support Gramsci’s ideas.

          • nsaranga

            Cheers, thanks for clarifying. But I guess my questions still makes sense in reference to your first sentence: “I meant that opposing-to-the-views-espoused-by-Gramsci value systems, it seems, are defensible based on their own merits.” I don’t know why we should assume this. This is what I am sure so-called cultural marxists, according to Gregg, would say in defence of their own view. I’m not really interested here int he merits of Gramsci or Gregg’s own view. My only interest is when a person decries an argument used by a political view, and then uses the same argument against the political view. This is just hypocrisy. But I don’t think hypocrisy is a crime or anything. But what I do think is unfortunate is that this type of argumentation shows a lack of charity towards the view we are against.

            I do not think “cultural marxists” are evil people and nor do I think they are duped. They are probably, if I were to argue on Gregg’s side, mistaken in some of their notions about human nature, conceptions of distributive justice, rational disagreement in a pluralistic free society. Since Simon Gregg is trained as a philosopher, I just perhaps expect more argumentative rigour and charity.

            What is perhaps ultimately more unfortunate is that the political views that so called out and out Gramscian cultural marxists are arguing against have in the past been all about “holding on to power” and generally ignoring truths about injustices in their own societies. This is not to say that the broad liberal, soft-left consensus that exists in the West is a good thing. I certainly do not think it is, but to decry it as having an evil and insidious logic and hence invalid is uncharitable and conveniently ignores the hard consequences of socially conservative political views have been in the past and will be int he future. If accept these consequences then fine, but we need to be honest about them.

          • Heather James

            “Duped” is not really the correct term. Any child who attends public school (or most private schools) is steeped in cultural Marxism from kindergarten on. They aren’t duped so much as thoroughly indoctrinated. At this point, the amazing thing is that any of us manage to see through the indoctrination.

          • nsaranga

            Etomaria, I see what you are saying with respect o same-sex marriage and your won experiences. I have no disagreements or quarrels about any of that. Although you do say, “yes, anyone who agrees with Gregg could say that cultural Marxists have been guilty of being duped or have evil intentions but, no, I don’t see that in this article.” – well to my mind regardless of whether some one “could” say this or not I think Gregg does say it when he refers to the logic of Gramscian cultural marxism as “insidious” and that most people go around espousing these views without being aware of where they come from. Again this might just be my reading of the article that others do not share. To me the logic as Gregg puts it is not insidious or in any way good or bad. It is just logically mistaken. It is a logic that doesn’t treat others as discursively equal.

            Heather James, I’m a little bit more sceptical of Gregg’s thesis. I am not entirely convinced by the power of “cultural marxism”, and I have read other conservatives provide this explanation for the soft-left liberal consensus in the west. To my mind, most people go around without really thinking about any view deeply, political or cultural, that they hold. Most people I encounter are more “indoctrinated” by free market consumerism and blindly reject the cultural consequences that this has had on societies. Mind you the concern I have for these consequences is shared by a leftist like me and many social conservatives. In my experience children from a young age are indoctrinated into “buying” happiness and the satisfaction of their desires with an entirely callous view of who makes things, who loses jobs, and that rather than working hard for something, the quick accumulation of capital will solve all their problems. They are indoctrinated with a disregard for deep political engagement, or critical analysis of literature, politicians, media or anything at all. a

          • RuthER

            The negative impact of capitalism/free market gave you the electricity to run whatever electronic device you were able to obtain, perhaps the light to work by, and the freedom to express yourself in public and, if you choose, the freedom to think for yourself.

          • etomaria

            Ah, I see what you mean. I’d disagree. I do not see Gregg making that argument, other than maybe the duped part, but I do agree with what Heather James wrote in response.. I think his point is that this “legacy” is so far-reaching that most people don’t suspect it and even the people who have been given it don’t stop to critically examine why they approach matters the way they do. I was taught many, many of the things offered as examples in this article while I was in high school, but simply as fact, and without the benefit of discussion or even the skills to critically consider them and decide to accept or reject them. Then, as i understand Gregg, those people who have been passed these views, assume anyone arguing against them is doing so out of their having been tricked or out of evil. Take, say, the same-sex marriage debate and Catholic teaching. Catholic teaching says that because we love those with same-sex attractions, we must insist on making it clear that same-sex relationships will be harmful to them. The response to this? That Catholicism hates gays. Do you see the lack of response to the point and immediate relegating of their opposition to hate? That’s the problem. Just because the Catholics could, if they wanted to, respond “and you say so out because you’ve been duped by cultural Marxists”, doesn’t mean that’s the only or most often used response. In fact, I generally only see it at the end of a long back-and-forth wherein all have gotten sick of attempting real debate and being shot down with “hate!” as the only response.

            So I guess what I’m trying to say is, yes, anyone who agrees with Gregg could say that cultural Marxists have been guilty of being duped or have evil intentions but, no, I don’t see that in this article.

          • etomaria

            I’ll add.. Generally speaking, I mean to say, those who have been passed those views reject others simply. I gave myself as an example, yet I only held those views for less than a decade. I don’t know why I was able to jettison them, probably a good basic education, being surrounded mostly by people who held opposing views and were able to articulate them clearly and, in the end, choices to take on more rational (it seems to me now) views on trust initially. (I personally am Catholic, and so in choosing to accept Church teaching even if I didn’t really fully yet agree with it, I was able to get over that obstacle. Not without criticism from those with whom I’d formerly agreed ;] And not without a good bit of subsequent research and reading to educate myself on those disagreements I had with the teachings)

            This part is most certainly not your point, but I thought I would add it in case the question came up “well, you say that the almost invariable response is ‘youve been duped/are evil’, yet you also say you were taught these things but yet now don’t think that way, how can those both be true?”

        • etomaria

          And no, I’m not talking about your comments! I was saying that “you only think differently because you’ve been tricked” (at best) is simply calling into question the tricked person’s ability to speak on the issue, as opposed to discussing the objections brought up. Make sense? Hopefully? I actually don’t know your views in order to comment on them! I’m just discussing those who have held Gramsci-type views with whom I’ve tried to discuss said views. Or my views. Whichever views.

        • nsaranga

          Etomaria, I see what you are saying with respect o same-sex marriage and your won experiences. I have no disagreements or quarrels about any of that. Although you do say, “yes, anyone who agrees with Gregg could say that cultural Marxists have been guilty of being duped or have evil intentions but, no, I don’t see that in this article.” – well to my mind regardless of whether some one “could” say this or not I think Gregg does say it when he refers to the logic of Gramscian cultural marxism as “insidious” and that most people go around espousing these views without being aware of where they come from. Again this might just be my reading of the article that others do not share. To me the logic as Gregg puts it is not insidious or in any way good or bad. It is just logically mistaken. It is a logic that doesn’t treat others as discursively equal.

          Heather James, I’m a little bit more sceptical of Gregg’s thesis. I am not entirely convinced by the power of “cultural marxism”, and I have read other conservatives provide this explanation for the soft-left liberal consensus in the west. To my mind, most people go around without really thinking about any view deeply, political or cultural, that they hold. Most people I encounter are more “indoctrinated” by free market consumerism and blindly reject the cultural consequences that this has had on societies. Mind you the concern I have for these consequences is shared by a leftist like me and many social conservatives. In my experience children from a young age are indoctrinated into “buying” happiness and the satisfaction of their desires with an entirely callous view of who makes things, who loses jobs, and that rather than working hard for something, the quick accumulation of capital will solve all their problems. They are indoctrinated with a disregard for deep political engagement, or critical analysis of literature, politicians, media or anything at all.

  • Robert Widdowson

    When I was at Trent University (way back in the 80s), Gramsci was a key thinker in Cultural Studies, my major. His ideas were acknowledged as foundational to the program — and to the larger, social project that many of my professors were advocating at the time: cultural revolution.

    The faculty understood and promoted what Gramsci taught — that the massive social change the left desires to establish will come most speedily (and bloodlessly) through a revolution in culture itself. So, they taught students how to advance the cultural revolution through the creation of cultural artifacts (articles, books, films, music, dance, architecture, law, political movements, etc) that pushed the socialist agenda.

    The Canadian Broadcast Corporation (CBC) is a perfect example of Gramsci’s ideas in practice; the CBC has been committed to pushing a socialist worldview since the late-70s (if not before, but in a limited and unofficial way). By the way, the mantra that former PM of Canada, Pierre Trudeau, and the CBC promoted ad nauseum, ‘Canada has no culture,’ was straight out of Gramsci’s playbook.

    If you convince a nation and its people that they have no history, no culture, no social institutions then you basically have them eating out of your hand. You can wipe the slate clean and start from scratch, building whatever society you wish — in the case of the Liberals, it was a multicultural, socialist state complete with a stifling, PC worldview.

    That’s how the socialists in Canada have been able to change our nation (from a British nation to a multicultural polyglot) within two or three decades — by repeatedly stressing that we were a nation without a culture. It was a lie (we were a nation of the British commonwealth), but the Trudeau/CBC drones swallowed it hook line and sinker. It’s no surprise that Trudeau was a philosophy professor; he knew about cultural revolution through his academic career.

    Great article — thanks for posting it!

  • Unhiddenness

    call me 😉

  • Fickbowt

    If “Cultural Marxism” means not being racist and sexist; then sign me up!

    • enigma721

      Jesus said the “greatest commandment” was to first LOVE GOD with all your heart and then to Love YOUR NEIGHBOR AS YOURSELF. How is that being racist or sexist?? See Matthew 22:36-40. Most Christians, being human, fall short of this, but the Christians I have known are still the most loving, decent people I know.

      • Fickbowt

        I don’t recall saying “Matthew 22:36-40 is racist and sexist”.

        • kevmo

          It’s irrelevant which biblical teachings you approve or disapprove of. I say this because the “Cultural Marxism” to which you aspire, is fundamentally a statist materialist worldview. This is a critically important distinction because a statist-materialist philosophy will eventually demand that you disavow and ultimately repudiate any religious teachings, and teachers like Christ. Why?

          Because no matter how benign and or benevolent, such teachings are absolute moral truths based upon, and grounded in, transcendent objective moral laws, with God being the absolute transcendent moral lawgiver.

          • Fickbowt

            I think you’re delusional to the point you’re just making up other people’s positions. You’re stuck in “strawmanning” mode… er good luck not finding enemies everywhere to fight.

          • Stammon

            Don’t you see that cultural Marxism not only gives you the power to define racism and sexism anywhere you want, for your own power, it also owns you and demands your intellectual soul for that power. Better to fight your own intellectual bigotry than an intellectual murderer.of others.

    • Richardson McPhillips

      but that’s not what it means. It means your group has to struggle against everyone else to take power. Then you get to define things however you want. Meaningless words like “transphobia” become weapons of oppression of anyone who disagrees. Trotsky said “you can only be right with the Party” – that’s cultural Marxism.

  • Actually, Saint-Simon, the founder of modern socialism in the early 19th century, taught artists that their job was to sell socialism to the people. But they never could have done it without the people first abandoning Christianity. Socialism appeals to the envy in people. Only Christianity can suppress envy enough for individualism to flower and generate economic growth.

    Non-Christians are miserable in free markets because it makes their neighbors slightly richer than them and the envy drives them crazy.

  • enigma721

    This is a terrific article. It explains a great deal about the “crazy Left” and how their “logic” seems upside down. Logic is out the window since “there is no Truth.” Political Correctness is all that matters and if one questions it, the person is said to be telling a lie or evil. It’s no wonder Universities have created “Safe Spaces” to hide from having any real debate. Instead of “searching for Truth” Universities are defending illogical propaganda to bolster their Socialist Agenda. This is very sad.

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