The Asian Century 21.

            Even a stopped clock is right twice a day.  The descendant of Albanian immigrants to Italy, the son of a father disgraced and imprisoned for embezzlement, born with a body that betrayed him early in life and killed him in middle-age, and resident one of Italy’s many impoverished areas, Antonio Gramsci (1891-1937) grew up just about as hard as was possible.  On the other hand he showed himself a brilliant student with wide-ranging interests.  In full revolt against a God who had condemned him to personal misery and a society that condemned the poor to social misery, Gramsci became a revolutionary socialist and then, after the First World War, a Communist.  The Italian elites preferred a Fascist policeman to a Communist revolution on the horrifying Russian model.  Once Benito Mussolini took power, the Italian left received a savage hammering.  Gramsci spent the last eleven years of his life in prison. 

At least it gave him time to think and write.  He filled thirty notebooks with his thoughts on a wide range of issues.  Gramsci’s ideas continue to exert influence today.  One of his ideas advanced the role of what is called “cultural hegemony.”  Traditionally, Marxists portrayed the bourgeoisie as retaining power through force.  Gramsci creatively extended this explanation by arguing that the bourgeoisie also retained power by propagandizing their values and culture to the rest of society as normal.  The schools and newspapers, the church(es), the newspapers and book publishers, and today he would add movie studios, television networks, and hip-hop music all propagate the values of the “hegemonic culture” of the established order.  In short, any alternative to the established system could not be legitimate.[1] 

Why do his ideas matter today?  Well, look at the contemporary People’s Republic of China (PRC).[2]  Since taking power in 2012, Xi Jinping has worked in a sustained way to entrench what has been called “Neo-Maoism” as the only thinkable way forward for China.  Partly this involves cultivating an image of Xi as a beneficent ruler who is promoting prosperity, making government more responsive to citizen needs, and rooting out endemic corruption.    

He also has launched a brutal repression of anyone who challenges the government or the “status quo” it represents.  Civil rights activists, defenders of the rule of law, aspiring union organizers, dissident intellectuals and artists, Christians and Muslims have all been persecuted.  Rigged trials, judicial and punitive torture, and administrative imprisonment have been reported.    

Most significantly, however, Xi has worked to limit and shape what Chinese people can know and believe.  He has banned serious study of the era of Mao Zedong as “historical nihilism.”  The schools teach a “George Washington chopped down the cherry tree” version of recent Chinese history.  The government has been creating a “social credit” system to grade (i.e. reward or punish) individuals for how well they conform to government-defined social norms.[3]  The internet is closely watched and increasingly tightly controlled.  “Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era” has become the official, “normal,” and hegemonic thought.  Gramsci’s probably going “See, I told you so.” 


[1] I can’t recall a good biography of Gramsci.  I read some of his stuff in graduate school and rejected it out of hand.  More recently, I have come to take a different view.   Same goes for Noam Chomsky and Herbert Marcuse.  My reading of them, I mean, not their attitude toward Gramsci.  Not that I want Elizabeth Warren writing the tax laws. 

[2] Andrew Nathan, “An Anxious 100th Birthday for China’s Communist Party,” WSJ, 26-27 June 2021. 

[3] See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Social_Credit_System