The Gramscian March Trips Up
Antonio Gramsci, the Italian Marxist activist, is sometimes credited with the phrase “a long march through the institutions” — a strategy for class-cultural hegemony achieved by progressively expanding socialist ideology from the top down. This “war of position,” which aimed at transforming society by infiltrating and influencing key institutions, has had a profound impact on the contemporary state of affairs in the United States and the broader West.
Paradoxically, however, this impact is not as was intended. The strategy that sought to establish a new revolutionary class consciousness through institutional capture has instead led to a widespread erosion of faith in those institutions themselves. While the infiltration phase of the plan seems to have been executed quite successfully, the second phase — influencing the wider culture — seems to have run aground. The foot soldiers of the long march have tripped over their beards in the face of the stubborn good sense of a non-elite American bourgeoisie. From higher education to the mainstream media, to Hollywood, to “Woke Inc.,” to the federal state itself, Main Street America has more or less thrown up its hands in disgust. It knows when it’s being played.
Sixteen major cultural institutions are tracked by confidence polls, and the number of folks who have a “great deal of confidence” has fallen (from about half) by another half since 1979. Only about a quarter of Americans today express any kind of general confidence in the major social institutions, and of these, small business, the military, and the police top the list. Meanwhile, Congress, big business, media, and organized labor occupy the lowest rungs of our collective respect and continue to lose much of their shine year over year (Congress leads the race to the bottom, polling at around 7 percent approval). The university system is not among the sixteen institutions traditionally polled, but separate polls show (unsurprisingly) that confidence in higher education has fallen precipitously in the last few years.
Gramsci’s theory advocated a subtle, long-term approach to achieving Marxist societal change by seizing the cultural and intellectual commanding heights. Instead of relying solely on revolutionary violence, Gramsci stressed that “in the new order, Socialism will triumph by first capturing the culture via infiltration of schools, universities, churches, and the media by transforming the consciousness of society.”
Was the strategy successful? Educational institutions (most especially in the humanities) have certainly embraced progressive Marxist agendas. Likewise, many media outlets have become platforms for the kind of socialist advocacy Gramsci would have supported. Yet much of this institutional infiltration seems to have reflected, rather than caused, the cultural shifts of the latter half of the 20th century. From 1969 to 1998, for instance, the percentage of left-leaning professors remained relatively steady at about 45 percent, and it wasn’t until the late 1990s that things began to skew heavily left in academia.
The Gramscian strategy was designed to shape the collective consciousness of a society, securing a lasting (revolutionary) transformation. Yet, when institutions lean more heavily toward a socialist bias, the population at large loses ever more faith in the institutions themselves. It is as if the “proletariat” sees right through the scheme.
It hardly seems coincidental, after all, that the institutions most insulated from Gramscian infection (small business, military, police), are the ones now commanding the highest levels of diminishing respect. Gramsci, it seems, got it wrong. He glibly assumed the teeming masses looked up to intellectuals and elites (like himself), and would gladly follow, sheeplike, the lead of their betters. Clearly, this ain’t so. The strategy aimed at shaping collective consciousness seems to have backfired, as the population, witnessing the institutional embrace of socialist ideologies, lost faith in the very institutions ostensibly meant to guide them.
Where is this phenomenon likely to lead? It seems quite improbable that the trends in institutional faith will see any kind of dramatic shift (except, perhaps, further downwards). Such a race to the bottom signals something perhaps more revolutionary: a major reconfiguration or wholesale elimination of the scorned institutions themselves. It’s anyone’s guess which will be tossed on its ear first — universities, say, or Congress. But whether these institutional shifts occur through evolution or revolution will have major implications for the stability of society itself.
Ironically, perhaps Gramsci gets the last laugh. If the “long march” ends with a complete overhaul or elimination of major institutions themselves, then perhaps his goal of societal revolution will have been accomplished. Not quite in the way he imagined, but a revolution all the same.