How, and why, has Gramsci’s thinking remained so relevant in Latin America? History provides several clues—among them the fact that the first non-Italian edition of his Quaderni del Carcere (Prison Notebooks) was published in Spanish in Buenos Aires in 1950.
The Quaderni presented a reinvention of traditional Marxism, taking national history as its central point of reference. Before Gramsci, Latin American communist parties largely ignored the specificity of national and regional histories, deferring to the Communist International’s (Comintern) interpretation of history, which deemphasized the particularities of individual nation-states. Gramsci’s writings encouraged Marxists to engage directly with a set of regional realities that local communist parties had programmatically ignored, such as peasant-based and plebian societies, a feeble bourgeoisie with little vocation for national leadership, and entrenched authoritarian state structures. These factors became the basis for a Latin America-specific line of Marxist analysis.
Gramsci’s ties to Latin America go back nearly a century. As early as 1921, the Italian theorist’s work was introduced on the South American continent, thanks to the writings of José Carlos Mariátegui, a profoundly original Peruvian Marxist who in many respects was Gramsci’s intellectual contemporary. Since then, Gramsci has been enlisted into a larger intellectual project that has sought to adapt Marxist theory to the social reality of a region largely ignored by orthodox Marxism.
Nowhere was this adaptation more apparent than with Gramsci’s concept of the “organic intellectual.” Transposed to the Latin American scene, the organic intellectual was directly involved in political and social struggles against imperialism and capitalism, a figure that would provide intellectual guidance, but just as importantly, a moral example. In other words: a Che Guevara, a Camilo Torres, a Luis de la Puente, a Miguel Enríquez....
The consensus seems to be that a forthcoming analysis should center on the structural weaknesses and policies that have eroded the base of popular support for the region’s progressive governments. Here too the Gramscian concept of “passive revolution” is being re-engaged: debates are growing about whether any substantive transformation of productive sectors have taken place in the last decade and a half. The answer seems to be no; during the so-called pink tide, the prevailing model of accumulation not only emerged unscathed but even intensified in key areas, such as extractive industries.
Even in the midst of a historical downturn, the Latin American left could still show signs of rebound. While progressive governments adapt to shifting landscapes, the region’s social movements continue to fulfill the role of a “collective intellectual,” as proposed by Gramsci, waging local struggles that seek to create a new culture and worldview. Brazil’s Landless Workers’ Movement (MST), a prime example of a movement where Gramsci enjoys near-saint status, will hope to play a prominent role in the resistance to Brazil’s right turn. Social movements, be they indigenous, feminist, syndicalist, student, or peasant-based, will continue to resist on the terms that Gramsci had imagined, incorporating the cultural struggles and subjective conditions that he understood as forming an essential part of the revolutionary process towards socialism.