Gramsci’s Concept of the Organic Intellectual

By Bhaso Ndzendze

Columbia University Press version translated by Joseph Buttigieg

The Nature of Organic Intellectuals

In ‘The Formation of the Intellectuals’ of his Prison Notebooks (the 2032-paged volume written during his tenure in prison under the Fascist regime of Benito Mussolini in Italy from 1926), Marxist thinker Antonio Gramsci starts by asserting that “every social group, coming into existence on the original terrain of an essential function in the world of economic production, creates together with itself, organically, one or more strata1 of intellectuals” whose role is to “give it homogeneity and an awareness of its own function not only in the economic but also in the social and political fields.” Thus, every class has a sub-populace of organic intellectuals. For example, among the entrepreneur class, there is a class of industrial technicians whose additional function is organising masses of men, and organising “‘confidence’ of investors” in his business.

Gramsci’s History of Organic Intellectuals

Gramsci elaborates the historical significance of organic intellectuals and the historic role of their collapse:

“Even feudal lords were possessors of a particular technical capacity, military capacity, and it is precisely from the moment at which the aristocracy loses its monopoly of technico-military capacity that the crisis of feudalism begins.”

Gramsci, Prison Notebooks

However, Gramsci argues that the history of the existence of intellectuals in pre-feudal times is not clear. This leads him to determine that the mass of peasantry does not have its own “organic intellectuals,” and does not assimilate to the stratum of “traditional intellectuals.” These are the thinking class of the intelligentsia in the professional sense, of whom Gramsci nonetheless observes, “it is from the peasantry that other social groups draw many of their intellectuals and a high proportion of traditional intellectuals are of peasant origins.” “Especially in Southern Italy, as he elaborates in his next essay ‘The Different Position of Urban and Rural-type Intellectuals.’

Gramsci also considers as organic intellectuals the ecclesiastics, as they have held “a monopoly of a number of important services: religious ideology, that is philosophy and science of the age, together with schools, education, morality, justice, charity, good works, etc.” Notably, the ecclesiastics as a category are bound to the landed aristocracy, though the former’s jurisdiction extended to the realm of the supernatural which was only checked by the monarchy.

There are No Non-Intellectuals

Gramsci asserts that there are no non-intellectuals. “In any physical work, even the most degraded and mechanical, there exists a minimum of creative intellectual activity,” he says. How does this coincide with the Marxist concept of alienation? Indeed, a reading of Gramsci could lead to the determination that he dismisses the notion of alienation. This is heightened by his subsequent statements, according to which all men are intellectuals. “So that there are varying degrees of specific intellectual activity” such that everyone is on the intellectual spectrum as it were. “When one distinguishes between intellectuals and non-intellectuals, one is referring in reality only to the immediate social function of the professional category of the intellectuals, that is, one has in mind the direction in which their specific professional activity is weighted, whether towards intellectual elaboration or towards muscular-nervous effort.”

Ultimately, then each man, “outside his professional activity, carries on some form of intellectual activity, that is, he is a “philosopher”, an artist, a man of taste, he participates in a particular conception of the world, has a conscious line of moral conduct, and therefore contributes to sustain a conception of the world or to modify it, that is, to bring into being new modes of thought.”

Conclusion

In sum, Antonio Gramsci is adamant that each class produces thinkers of its own for its own purposes. Thus ‘organicness’ refers here to the (semi-permanent) location of these thinking groups within specific classes, and not the occurrence of intellectualism to individuals without formal education as is sometimes misunderstood and ascribed to Gramsci.

Indeed Gramsci makes clear two points worth paraphrasing. Firstly, he separates “traditional” intellectuals, and demarcates them as people tasked with intellectual thought as part of their work, that is academics. Secondly, he shows that a sizeable portion of these traditional intellectuals have themselves come from peasant stock (as we shall see). Thus, insofar as their “intellectualness” is based on their grasp of economic, philosophical and social-scientific concepts, they then may be considered part of the traditional intellectual grouping. Again, the organic intellectual is deemed such by virtue of his linkage, association, direction and championing of the issues that pertain to her class. A university-employed researcher seeking to understand the struggles of miners and farm workers is not an organic intellectual. A poor and working-class individual who has a grasp on the concepts being grappled with in a certain study being conducted by our university-affiliated friend is herself not an organic intellectual because of this. Rather it is when either understands and seeks to uphold or transform the trajectory of their respective classes that each is to be regarded as an organic intellectual. Organic intellectualism is not, in other words, about class transcendence, but precisely about class self-consciousness.

This work adds an interesting concept to the notion of class struggle and brings an intellectual dimension later elaborated on in his concept of historic bloc, through which material capability is linked to cultural production (hegemony). Indeed as Gramsci puts it, the aim of every class seeking dominance is “the struggle to assimilate and to conquer “ideologically” the traditional intellectuals,” but this is not enough: “assimilation and conquest [of the traditional intellectuals] is made quicker and more efficacious the more the group in question succeeds in simultaneously elaborating its own organic intellectuals.” Thus, the labour unionists and activists may represent the organic intellectuals, while bourgeois media, politicians and their spokespeople may represent intellectuals organic to these classes.  (One may add military strategists, as Clausewitz notes in On War how early military theory was generated by veterans in their memoirs.) But is worth still bearing in mind here that all members of classes are intellectuals in their own right (even the most rote of manual labour involves some level of thinking insofar as it is being carried out by a thinking being), though some pass a greater threshold of intellectual work compared to physical work. Gramsci’s concept seems to close off the probability of cross-class intellectual collaboration as perhaps represented by liberation theology which later took hold in post-WWII Latin America and Africa to say nothing of the self-help author with rags-to-riches story whose books are no doubt marketed as class-struggle alleviation toolkits for the poor and working-class not happy with their station.