Candles for Gramsci: Commemorating an Italian Revolutionary Thinker

On a quiet street in Rome stands an unassuming stone building, its simple facade belying the significance of the place. Inside rests the body of Antonio Gramsci, the renowned Italian Marxist philosopher and politician. And several times a year, candles flicker to life outside this building as people gather to pay tribute to the legacy of this influential thinker.

The candles are lit by members of leftist political parties and student groups who continue to find meaning and inspiration in Gramsci’s revolutionary ideas. Though he died over 80 years ago in 1937 at the age of 46, Gramsci’s unique theoretical contributions to Marxist thought remain deeply relevant today.

Born in 1891 on the island of Sardinia, Gramsci grew up in poverty and suffered from poor health his entire life. Despite these challenges, he excelled academically and won a scholarship to the University of Turin where he became an active socialist organizer. While a student, Gramsci co-founded the Italian Communist Party and spent years organizing factory workers in Turin.

Gramsci was arrested in 1926 and spent the last 11 years of his life imprisoned by Mussolini’s regime. Isolated in a prison cell, Gramsci filled over 30 notebooks and 3,000 pages with his political and philosophical writings. His Prison Notebooks, as they became known, were smuggled out and later published after his death.

These notebooks contained Gramsci’s seminal theoretical concept of cultural hegemony, which expanded on Marxist ideas about class struggle. Gramsci argued that the ruling capitalist class maintains power not just through political and economic control, but through ideologically dominating the values and beliefs of the masses. Challenging this cultural hegemony of the bourgeoisie requires establishing a “counter-hegemony” in civil society, creating alternative cultural values through organizations and institutions.

Gramsci’s emphasis on waging an ideological war of position rather than just a war of maneuver or direct frontal attack influenced many later social justice struggles. His ideas about cultural hegemony and counter-hegemony have been taken up as an analytical framework by a diverse range of movements over the decades from labor activism to feminism to anti-colonialism.

The enduring relevance of the Prison Notebooks is why Gramsci’s gravesite remains such a key site of remembrance for the Italian left. On the anniversary of his birth each year, candles are arranged on the ground forming the year of his birth—1891. Wreaths of flowers are laid by his tomb as activists and admirers give speeches commemorating his life and ideas.

Similar candlelight vigils by leftist youth are held at the grave in April to mark the date of his arrest and in April to commemorate his death. These commemorations keep alive the memory of Antonio Gramsci’s courage in confronting fascism and his profound intellectual legacy. The flickering candles outside his grave are a symbolic reminder of how even locked away in a prison cell, Gramsci’s revolutionary light continued shining brightly through his words and ideas that still illuminate inspirational pathways for radical thinkers and activists today.

So next time you pass by that nondescript building in Rome, stop for a moment to imagine the candles burning brightly for Antonio Gramsci—an enduring beacon of struggle against injustice that no prison walls could extinguish.