Despite coming from a strong Bolshevik tradition and emerging as one of the key leaders of the revolutionary movement which swept Italy after the First World War, and in the wake of the Russian Revolution, he came to question the validity of the Bolshevik model as a strategy for achieving socialism in the relatively advanced capitalist countries of Western Europe.
The Bolsheviks came to power in Russia following the collapse of the Russian state and ruthlessly defended that power during the civil war; something which Gramsci completely endorsed. However the likelihood of such a collapse happening in Western Europe was, for Gramsci, highly improbable and undesirable. A different strategy would be necessary for the advance to socialism.
At the heart of this was a question. In a capitalist country which has a democratic political system; how does the ruling class rule? The standard Marxist reply would be through its control of the institutions of the state. For Gramsci this was true as far as it went but did not tell the full story.
In a capitalist democracy the ruling class rules through consent because the majority of workers overtly or tacitly support the system. For them the ideas of capitalism have become the common sense ideas of the age. At the same time the ruling class doesn’t rule alone but forms alliances with other classes and social/cultural movements in society broadening its support base.
For socialism to succeed the ideas of socialism have to move from a set of utopian ideas to a blueprint for the practical reorganisation of existing society along socialist lines with those ideas replacing capitalist ideas as the common sense of the age. The working class would also require to form strategic alliances with other social and cultural movements.
Implicit in this strategy is the idea that socialism will not be achieved through a single dramatic revolutionary moment as in Russia but rather involve a process of transformation over a period of time.
The timescale and nature of this transformation will be set by the relative balance of forces between the working class and the capitalist class and their respective allies. The aim would be the election of a left government committed to a transformational programme supported by a mass, radical movement in the country.
This programme is likely to stop short of socialism but when implemented will have shifted the balance of power from the capitalist class to the working class in favour of the latter ready for the next stage of struggle and the road to socialism.
Gramsci died more than 70 years ago and his ideas only became widespread in Europe after the war so why are they relevant today? For socialists here the key question is how to build an organised movement for socialism in a post-industrial society?
When Britain had an industrial economy this was a fairly straight forward question. Britain had a large working class centred on industry and organised through the trade union movement. This created the labour movement including a mass party of the working class; the Labour Party or in Italy; the Italian Communist Party.
For socialists the labour movement was the vehicle for socialism and their role was to work within that movement moving it to the left and resulting in the election of a left government. The only tactical discussion was whether socialists should work within the mass party of the working class or build a distinctive socialist party within the movement.
That was then. Today Britain is an archetypal post-industrial society. In Scotland the overwhelming majority of workers either work in the public sector or the retail and financial sectors. Manufacturing industry represents only a small proportion of the economy. The result is that the organised working class is much smaller and less influential than before and has largely lost its industrial base.
It alone can no longer be the same vehicle for socialist change it was in the past. It has to forge alliances with wider social forces seeking to build a broad based alliance against capitalism.
This alliance would include community based organisations, social movements and single issue pressure groups as well as the trade union organised working class united by the struggle against the effects of capitalism on the people they represent.
This broad movement will be the vehicle for radical change with socialists working within it to link the particular struggles with the overall aim of socialism.
Gramsci rejected a doctrinaire approach to the struggle for socialism or the form that a socialist movement might take at any one time. The struggle for socialism and the form the movement takes will be shaped by the specific events and conditions at the time.
In Scotland the post-industrial nature of the economy and the welding of the struggle for socialism to the struggle for independence is creating its own distinct movement with socialists playing a leading role. Building that broad based movement is the key to achieving socialism.