Rejecting the very idea of the disinterested scholar, Antonio Gramsci (1891–1937) in The Prison Notebooks (pp. 3–23) argues that all intellectual activity arises from specific socioeconomic circumstances. In fact, each sector of society yields its own variety of organizers, creators, mediators, and contemplators, whom Gramsci labels “organic intellectuals.” In so arguing, Gramsci recasts some of the key notions of modern political thought: hegemony, civil society, class difference, and the national-popular. More recently, Gramsci’s organic intellectual has served as a key concept within, or in opposition to, structuralist and poststructuralist theory, including postcolonial studies (Edward Said), subaltern studies (Renajit Guha), cultural studies (Stuart Hall, David Lloyd, Paul Thomas, Grant Farred), ethnic studies (George Lipsitz), post-Marxist thought (Jacques Rancière), and critical pedagogy (Henry Giroux, Michael Apple).
Gramsci introduces his notion, first, by insisting that education does not emerge from but actually creates the political foundations of the state; and second, by contesting existing views on traditional intellectuals. Typically seen as bearers of universal reason and general truths, such intellectuals in fact originate from the ecclesiastics qua the organic intellectuals of the aristocracy, and later take their place as subjects and agents of a particular historical block: the bourgeoisie. That the elite scholar is actually organic to a class, historical development, and social circumstance (points that Giroux and Apple emphasize) indicates as well that the division between the educated and uneducated, the cultured and uncultured, is not natural or necessary but contingent: a result of specific intellectual activity, whose true, if unspoken purpose, is to produce and reproduce these oppositions.
As to the working-class intellectual, Gramsci focuses upon the way in which the hegemonic state induces the consent of this group through the channels of an increasingly uniform civil society: the schools, the media, the Church, and so on. Gramsci’s well-known Prison Notebook assertion that “all men are intellectuals” lies here (p. 3). Because assent on the part of the oppressed or working class turns on a nonviolent, rational acceptance of official discourses and edicts, intellect and reason are conditions even of that subjugation. The point, though, proves double-edged: If intelligence is the requisite of the worker’s or peasant’s suppression, the capitalist state cannot not risk generating the alternative interventions that upset its order, even though its goal (homogeneity, consensus) depends, precisely, on the eradication of those alternatives. And when the state confronts another reason and the reason of the other it is forced to swallow them repeatedly: Devour an exterior, unfamiliar, deleterious intellectual legitimacy—as opposed to an irrational or wild outside, which the state can always cast as hazardous, and thus annihilate in the name of right—into its common sense, transforming itself into a dynamic process of assimilation, transmutation, and becoming.
None of this means that organic intellectuals sprout, like plants, from the material ground into which they are born. They are contingently, not essentially, bound to a class base. The organic is not the natural. In fact, in order to realize themselves, organic intellectuals must venture into alien arenas, including if not especially the realm (the metropolis) of universal reason, represented by the state. Intellectual activity is a perpetual outing. For example, manual laborers such as metalworkers must familiarize themselves with state edicts, disconnected from their daily labor, if they are to initiate an effective legal appeal for improved lathes, that is, for better safety conditions. Likewise, the attorneys who handle the appeal must, through communication with workers, attain detailed practical and technological knowledge of the lathe, possibly altering their daily contacts, the texts that they study, the library where they conduct the research, and the vocabulary of their briefs to do so. Unplanned constellations, leading to unintended though not accidental (for they are products of work) interventions, surface as the various classes and/or types convene: Out of a congregation of lawyers and manual laborers concerned with worker well-being emerges a non-class-based women’s collective seeking state-sponsored child care. Such cross-professional encounters, moreover, generate novel jargons and idiolects. These both permit the diverse sectors to communicate and represent potential foundations for future expertises and experts, for new tasks grounded organically in the invented vernaculars and emergent gatherings.
Traditional education, Gramsci argues, involves the repetition, delivery, accumulation, coordination, and control of existing as well as new ideas. It both manufactures and casts as inevitable, as a matter of common sense, a current “state of affairs” whose base is class difference. Indeed, as the officialdom is naturalized, it need not even be taught: The commonsensical, by definition, goes without saying, thereby without teaching. The aim of public state education, it would seem, is its own obsolescence, as well as the obsolescence of the alterity that education oftentimes generates. Conversely, organic intellectuals, charged by Gramsci with the boosting of education via its revolutionary overhaul, forge the idioms that link, coming between and disrupting this accretion of familiar signifiers, and of the status quo that they represent. Class difference resurfaces through these connections and articulations as class relations : relative, contingent, and precarious, like class itself. Because they are neither inside nor outside (but between) the established fields of meaning, these relational formulations materialize beyond sense and nonsense, effecting a demand for interpretation and intelligibility, that is, for thought. Who will meet the challenge, broach and articulate the uncommon sense—the organic intellectual who could deploy it for novel activity, for the renovation of the social field itself, or the traditional intellectual who will either appropriate or eradicate it in the name of greater hegemonic expansion? Because, by logic, either could, the class struggle is traversed through and through by these questions of education, knowledge, and creativity.
The responsibility of the organic intellectual, then, is less to insert newly legitimized knowledges into the aggregate of thought, hence to displace the extant field, than to disclose the fact that current conditions do not go without saying. The class injustices that sustain the state are not present by nature; therefore, they can be altered. Leftist politics remains conceivable. Organic intellectuals are not working-class heroes but, as Gramsci put it in the Prison Notebooks, forgers of the bond between the homo faber and homo sapiens (p. 4), making and saying, practice and theory. Effecting the suspension of the common sense, they cut through, gnaw away from within, relay and relate the provisional nature of the capitalist state, which cannot stand without clear class oppositions, the very oppositions that the organic intellectual’s labor calls into question.
Interestingly, recent scholarship that recurs to Gramsci’s notion often departs fruitfully from the Italian philosopher’s conceptualization—in part due to Gramsci’s class- and state-based foundation, and in part due to the new interest in cultural difference and identity. Often focusing on transnational, largely cultural uprisings (examples include the civil rights movements in North America and the Caribbean, and Pan-African unrest) these studies tend to employ as their models activists, poets, and scholars such as Frantz Fanon and C. R. L. James—figures who demonstrate the way in which the organic intellectual, when recast, can play and indeed have played major roles in actual, contemporary insurgencies.
SEE ALSO Communism; Gramsci, Antonio
Apple, Michael. 2004. Ideology and Curriculum. 3rd ed. London: Taylor and Francis.
Farred, Grant. 2003. What’s My Name? Black Vernacular Intellectuals. Minneapolis: University Press of Minnesota.
Giroux, Henry A. 2004. Border Crossings: Cultural Workers and the Politics of Education. London: Taylor and Francis.
Gramsci, Antonio. 1971. The Intellectuals. In Selections from the Prison Notebooks, trans. and ed. Quintin Hoare and Geoffrey Nowell Smith, 3–23. New York: International Publishers.
Guha, Renajit. 1999. Elementary Aspects of Peasant Insurgency in Colonial India. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Hall, Stuart. 1992. Cultural Studies and Its Theoretical Legacies. In Cultural Studies, ed. Lawrence Grossberg, Cary Nelson, and Paula Treichler, 277–294. London: Routledge.
Lipsitz, George. 1995. In the Struggle: Ivory Perry and the Culture of Opposition. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.
Lloyd, David, and Thomas, Paul. 1998. Culture and the State. New York: Routledge.
Rancière, Jacques. 1989. The Nights of Labor. Trans. John Drury. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.
Said, Edward. 2002. Reflections on Exile and Other Essays. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.