Antonio Gramsci was an Italian theorist and politician. He was a central figure in 20th-century Italian cultural and political life. Gramsci was born on January 22, 1891 at Ales in Sardinia into a working class family. He had a difficult childhood, compounded by poor health. At 20, he enrolled at university in Turin. Soon, however, he set aside the academic world in favor of politics, befriending Palmiro Togliatti, who would later lead the Italian Communist Party. At 22, he joined the Socialist Party. Two years later he was writing for the party paper, l’Avanti!. In 1917, the Russian revolution altered the political scene. The tsar was toppled by a popular revolt and the Bolsheviks, a group of revolutionary socialists, seized power. Gramsci believed it was time for a similar popular revolt in Italy, and tried to rally Socialists behind the idea. But the Italian Socialist party maintained a more moderate position.In 1921, together with a number of other individuals who had abandoned the Socialist party, he founded the Italian Communist Party. He traveled to the newly-founded Soviet Union to take part in the “International,” a conference of global Communist parties. In 1924, he returned to Italy and founded l’Unità, the Communist Party newspaper. He was also elected to parliament. But his political career was interrupted by the ascent of Benito Mussolini. Gramsci vocally opposed dictatorship, and was arrested in 1928 and summarily sentenced to 20 years in prison.
Gramsci’s political thinking underwent major changes while he was in jail.He distanced himself from Soviet-style socialism, opting for a less dogmatic version. Modern Western society, he said, had characteristics completely different from Russia. Gramsci insisted that the creation of a truly egalitarian society would be a gradual process requiring help from the middle classes. But his health began to fail, eroded by the solitude of imprisonment. Some believed he had been betrayed by old friends, including longtime supporter Togliatti. In letters to his wife Julia Schucht and to his mother, to whom he was almost morbidly attached, Gramsci said he suspected Italian Communists weren’t working to secure his release because he’d strayed from pro-Soviet positions. The Fascists finally released him, but only after further bouts of bad health. He died in Rome of a cerebral hemhorrage on April 27, 1937. He was 46. Gramsci’s works were published posthumously under the title Prison Notebooks. Although it has never been concretely applied, Gramsci’s brand of socialism remains a topic of debate even today.