Many middle-age and older Americans of a conservative bent, Christian or not, must sometimes scratch their head in wonder at what has become of their nation and its culture over the last 50 years. All generations seem to lament the losses of their youth and the past, but there is objective evidence that the present generation has departed radically from the civilizational truths and mores of even the comparatively recent past. Think only of the legal redefinition of marriage to include two persons of the same sex, a scenario never occurring anywhere in the history of the world until recent times. Changes like these did not emerge out of thin air; they were planned.
Students of the history of ideas are especially interested in the genealogy of widely accepted ideas in today’s world. To understand the roots of Western Leftist domination, it’s important to know about the Italian revisionist Marxist Antonio Gramsci. Almost every leading feature of Leftism in the modern world (and Leftism is almost identical to Libertarian Marxism, an expression I use to describe the philosophy undergirding the dominant social vision of our time) we can find in Gramsci.
Gramsci was a hunchback born in Sardinia. He was a dedicated Marxist and a contemporary of both Lenin and Stalin. He lived for a time in Moscow. He was later jailed until his death by Mussolini’s fascist regime, but was given freedom to read and write. His prison writings in particular lay the groundwork for Libertarian Marxism. His views are more important to us than Marx’s. No thinker had a greater impact on Asian and Eastern Europe in the 20th century than Marx. The Communist states are a testimony to this fact. But this isn’t true about Western democracies. In France and Germany and England and the United States, Gramsci’s ideas shaped the Leftist elite.
Gramsci agreed with Marx and the Communists in their atheism, socialism, and statism. But he felt they didn’t go far enough. In any case, the Communist ways wouldn’t work in the West. For Marx, the important goal was equalizing material conditions. All of life is at root economic, and nothing else. Everything else is just an expression of economic need and desire, even if it looks very un-economic. For instance, ideas and the state are simply tools of the ruling class’s economic interests. The goal is to capture the state in order to create the economically equal society. Then even the state would be unnecessary, and all could live together in peace and harmony, sharing all economic resources. This never happened in any Marxist society, of course, but that was what Marx predicted and wanted.
Gramsci was a more profound cultural thinker than Marx, who was a philosopher and economist. For Gramsci, not just economics, but everything in culture should be equalized. Gramsci believed that Marx fell short. Oppression isn’t just economic; it’s cultural. Therefore, what was needed wasn’t just a liberationist economics but a liberationist culture in toto. After spending time in Moscow, Gramsci decided that since “radically different conditions prevailed in western Europe . . . a fundamentally different strategy for revolution [was necessary] in the west” (145). He was an “antieconomic Marxist” (39, 56). This Gramscian revolution is succeeding in the West where Communism failed. Libertarian, not Communist, Marxism is becoming the victor.
Gramsci believed that if you capture the culture, the state would be unnecessary. The state only enforces what the culture should dictate. If almost everybody buys into the culture, you don’t need political coercion. Though he didn’t invent this language, Gramsci was one of the first to grasp that politics is downstream from culture.
The Leninist-Stalinist Communists were committed to overthrowing the alleged unjust order by force. For Gramsci, you overthrow the unjust order by capturing culture and its institutions: art, music, education, science, literature, religion, technology, music. Even the choice of grammar is a political act. When you note that the sword “gender” has replaced “sex” in common discourse as a result of Leftist feminism, you are seeing the victory of Gramsci.
You don’t impose the just order; you create it. The new politics wins not by force but by worldview. His opposition to fascism, however, was not that it was tyrannical but that it did not revolutionize culture. The important thing isn’t power by a few at the top; it’s transforming an entire culture.
The long march through the institutions
For Gramsci, the way to win in the West is by incremental cultural gains. He called it “the war of position” (256–257), analogous to trench warfare. The revolutionaries take one cultural sphere after another, until they control all of society. This is the root of his famous “long march through the institutions” line. Political coups, seizing power by seizing the state through force of arms, is not likely to work in the West. The West is committed to peaceful political transfers of power by democratic elections. You don’t change the culture by capturing politics; you capture politics by changing culture. Gramsci popularized the word “hegemony,” which is cultural dominance. Particularly when we hear about “cultural hegemony,” we’re hearing the echoes of Gramsci. “To create a counter-hegemony was the revolution’s first task” (30). It’s not a counter-politics; it’s truly a counterculture. Better yet, a new culture replaces the old one. Culture goes where politics cannot. Its change is therefore deeper and more permanent.
Leveling of hierarchies
For Gramsci the fundamental cultural change that was needed was the destruction of hierarchies. He hated hierarchies. As a hunchback, he suffered ridicule and exclusion. He turned his private grievances into a cultural philosophy. No person is better than another — and no person should be permitted esteem higher than another. Classes in society, the wealthy above the poor, the master above the slave, the freeman above the prisoner, the healthy above the unhealthy, the aristocrats above the commoners, men above women, the intellectuals above the less mentally gifted, the Italians above the Sardinians — any class or group that has been excluded from honor and esteem and leadership must be included. Gramsci was the self-appointed champion of the marginalized and outcast. Gramsci believed that the marginalized, led by intellectuals who tap into their plight, should gradually reshape the culture such that they become the insiders, and rip down the hierarchies that oppress them.
His objective is to abolish all privilege, not just economic privilege, as Marx suggested. The marginalized must “rouse themselves to bring down the entire hierarchical system that has prevailed in various forms from the beginning of civilization” (68). He completely redefined morality to mean exalting the excluded. He himself was sexually immoral in Christian terms, but Christianity doesn’t matter, so his morality was exhibited in his cultural project. It was one of the first examples of the so-called New Morality.
The notion that the world is what it is because God created it that way — that men are men and women are women, for example, because of creational law — is an illusion serving the interests of the privileged classes. There’s no God to whom to appeal. Present differences that privilege some and de-privilege others are simply matters of the human will. Just as these present differences were created by the human will, so they can — and must and should — be abolished by the human will. The de-privileged are to be liberated from their marginalized existence. Now you know where the great liberation movements of the 20th century — women’s liberation, black liberation, gay liberation, children’s liberation — really come from: they owe their ideological roots to Gramsci.
Bringing low the culturally privileged
But it’s more than liberation Gramsci envisions. He advocated turning the tables culturally. Gramsci wasn’t just about “inclusion.” He advocated the “periphery-centered society” (179). Those who were formerly privileged must be de-privileged. The upper crust must feel the pain of the marginalization and misery of the formerly oppressed. The oppressed must rule over their oppressors. When today we observe vocal homosexuals becoming prominent CEO’s while simultaneously Christians are fined for standing for biblical sexual ethics; when we see the normalization of families in which wives provide all the income and husbands stay home to care for the children and children dictate the family choices; when we encounter college professors forced to attend sensitivity training classes for offending the sensibilities of millennial students, we see on graphic display the spirit of Gramsci.
The chief hierarchy that must be leveled, however, is Christianity. Christian culture has pervaded the West. It privileged some and de-privileged others. The Gramscian program necessitated the replacement of Christendom with the new radically secular order, in Gramsci’s words, “a complete secularization of all of life and of customary relationships” (260).
Liberation doesn’t just mean leveling hierarchies; it means the underprivileged rule. It means establishing a new hierarchy under the guise of compassionate equality.
This project means it will be necessary to redefine common sense and even normality. What is considered normal today must be considered abnormal tomorrow. If it’s common sense to believe that men are different form women, that sense must become uncommon. If it’s normal to be heterosexual and abnormal to be homosexual, normality must change. Homosexuality must be normalized and heterosexuality de-normalized. The gays are cool are the straights are weird. This is Gramsci with a vengeance.
To accomplish this momentous feat, nothing less than a new kind of individual is needed. “Gramsci makes it clear that real change can come about only through an intellectual and moral transformation of consciousness.” He knows that his project is so massive that ordinary means won’t accomplish it. He needs something extraordinary to get it done.
The Bible teaches that sin is so deeply imbedded in man that God must supernaturally remove it (incrementally) by regeneration: the Holy Spirit must resurrect our dead spirit. God transforms the individual. Gramsci redefines sin as cultural hierarchies, and that sin is so deep that ordinary means can’t abolish it. Only a massive education campaign by a dogged act of the will, spearheaded by intellectuals, can do this. In Gramsci’s cultural program, man transforms the individual, “to remake the concept of man” (238). The final goal for society is “a shared mental universe” (256). All of us must be embracing the same egalitarian ideals, “above all . . . develop[ing] an alternative vision of the good society” (153).
Angelo Codevilla suggests that for Gramsci, this vision is potentially both sinister and powerful because it tries to win by bypassing cultural conflict. Gramsci “advocated mostly nonviolent cultural hegemony [and] urged Communists to act as if alien ideas did not exist.” Codevilla notes intriguingly that if the Libertarian Marxists had followed Gramsci fully, they would never have launched a culture war by enlisting the state to enforce their dictates. Rather, they would have tried quietly to capture society one sphere at a time. As long as there is a culture war, Gramsci’s full vision cannot be realized. It’s when the Libertarian Marxists get their enemies (us) to buy into their premises that they have truly and finally won. This is why the subversion of the church today (for example) is so sinister: it’s so much easier to convince your enemy than to crush him.
If Christians and conservatives were to be peacefully convinced of Libertarian Marxism, Gramsci would have finally won.