Philosophy Politics

Antonio Gramsci: The Role of Intellectuals in Society

Antonio Gramsci was an early 20th century Italian Marxist philosopher and writer.  Imprisoned, he wrote much of his work from the jail cell (Prison Notebooks).  His theory of the intellectual and of cultural hegemony are among his two most notable ideas.  Cutting through all the Gramscian verboseness, we’ll examine Gramsci’s understanding of the intellectual and why his theory of the intellectual is very much part of 21st century thought shouting.

According to Gramsci, since all persons are endowed with a mind, all are intellectuals in the most basic and banal sense.  In Gramsci’s own words, “All men are intellectuals.”  This is simply because all humans have rational capacity and capability – but not all will become intellectuals (in fact, few do).  The role of the intellectual, for Gramsci, is to create a new consciousness for a social strata that can bring meaning and understanding to one’s position in society and their role in life (thus, intellectuals are like a glue that keeps society together and in harmony).

Gramsci’s intellectuals are fit in a traditional dialectical reading.  There are the intellectuals of the superstructural and ideological class of the prevailing culture.  From Gramsci’s perspective, the first class of intellectuals are the inheritors and sustainers of the established superstructure.  It is difficult to produce new intellectuals to have a concern for the proletariat because intellectuals are part of the superstructure that creates the ideology, narrative, and high culture in support of an ecclesiastic body that supports hierarchy and the promotion of advanced capitalism.

The second class of intellectuals are those who advanced that new consciousness of the oppressed social strata.  This group of intellectuals, the radical or Marxist intellectuals, are the organic head of the underclass so to speak.  For Gramsci, the intellectual puts to intellectual capacity what the less educated and oppressed underclass is incapable of doing.  Rather than seeing themselves as apart from the class of people they act on the behalf of, these intellectuals are the organic head of the underclass body they represent.

It is interesting to know that Gramsci’s intellectual isn’t concerned with Truth in the traditional metaphysical sense.  Rather, the intellectual is tasked with providing the consciousness of a particular class or group in society. 

Now Gramsci’s true intellectual are the Marxist intellectualists, those middle or upper class intellectual radicals who agitate on behalf of the oppressed [working] class.  The importance of these intellectuals in important positions of the media, or university, is precisely to help achieve that conscious awareness of their position within society and, in particular, their place within the superstructure of overarching political and societal structures and ideology.  Gramsci, then, agrees with Lenin that the intellectuals serve as a sort of political vanguard that work and labor to bring about the awareness of the underclass(es) to their real disposition within society.  (In fact, Gramsci argued that the revolutionary intellectuals must enter the mediums of media and academia because these are the mediums to raise consciousness: the media for the underclass; the university to shepherd the next generation of intellectuals.)

In a word, we can describe the role of Gramsci’s intellectual as a propagandist or thought leader.  The role of the intellectual is to repeat, endlessly, the narrative(s) that brings about class consciousness.  In Gramsci’s actual thought – if you agree with Gramsci’s neo-dialectical Marxism – the propagandists are the “elite” intellectuals who defend such narratives as middle-class mobility and “a rising tide lifts all boats.”  The “real intellectuals” (like Gramsci) are those who are not defending the established superstructure or ideology, but help bring down the established superstructure and ideology by raising the class consciousness of a specific underclass.  The difference between false intellectuals and true intellectuals is that false intellectuals defend the established superstructure and ideology while true intellectuals prepare the underclass for revolution.

Since the oppressed underclass is incapable of consciousness on its own, it becomes necessary for the authentic intellectual – in Gramsci’s outlook – to act on behalf of this incapable underclass.  Once the intellectuals take the lead – like the vanguard – the underclass will follow.  This is, in Gramsci’s perspective, the most effective means to overthrow the superstructure and established [capitalist] ideology.

What is the role of the intellectual?  To advance social and class consciousness.  Specifically, to make aware to the underclass their oppression and position within the structural society they exist in.  Gramsci’s revolution first takes place in the world of consciousness, from there it spills over to the material world.


Hesiod, Paul Krause in real life, is the editor-in-chief of VoegelinView. He is writer, classicist, and historian. He has written on the arts, culture, classics, literature, philosophy, religion, and history for numerous journals, magazines, and newspapers. He is the author of The Odyssey of Love and the Politics of Plato, and a contributor to the College Lecture Today and the forthcoming book Making Sense of Diseases and Disasters. He holds master’s degrees in philosophy and religious studies (biblical studies & theology) from the University of Buckingham and Yale, and a bachelor’s degree in economics, history, and philosophy from Baldwin Wallace University.


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