Gramsci was born in Ales, Italy, on the island of Sardinia, a relatively remote region of Italy that was mostly ignored by the Italian government in favor of the industrialized north (the problem of Sardinia had previously become part of the political activity of Giuseppe Mazzini in Turin's senate).
He was the fourth of seven sons of Francesco Gramsci, who had financial difficulties and troubles with police, and also sufferred imprisonment. He had to move about through several villages in Sardinia until his family finally settled in Ghilarza, his most famous domicile.
A brilliant student, Gramsci won a prize that allowed him to study at Turin's university, where he read literature. He found Turin at the time going through its main industrial revolution, with the Fiat and Lancia factories recruiting workers from poorer regions. Trade unions became established, and the first industrial social conflicts started to emerge. Gramsci had a close involvement with these developments, frequenting socialist circles as well as associating with Sardinian emigrants, which gave continuity with his native culture.
His early difficult experiences in Sardinia had already shaped his view of the world. This, together with his experience on the mainland, had a part in his decision to join the Italian Socialist Party and later to move into leadership roles in the Italian Communist Party (Partito Comunista Italiano or PCI) and in the Comintern (the Communist International).
He became a notable journalist, even if his writings were mainly for political papers such as L'Avanti (the Socialist Party official organ); nevertheless his brilliant prose and his intelligent observations soon resulted in greater fame.
An articulate and prolific writer of political theory, Gramsci produced a great deal of writing as editor of a number of socialist newspapers in Italy. Among the many, with Palmiro Togliatti he set up (in 1919) L'Ordine Nuovo (whose title would become the name of a fascist group in the 1960s, suspected of supporting terrorists), and contributed to La Cittą Futura.
The group around L'Ordine Nouvo became allied with Amadeo Bordigas far larger Communist Abstentionist faction within the Socialist Party. This led to their organising the Communist Party of Italy (Partito Comunista d'Italia - Pcd'I) on January 21, 1921. Gramsci would be a leader fo the party from its inception although subordiante to Bordiga until the latter lost the leadership at in 1924. Gramscis theses were adopted by the PCd'I at its 1926 Lyons Congress.
The Russian mission coincided with the advent of Fascism in Italy, and Gramsci returned with instructions to foster the unity of the leftist parties against the Italian revolution, in order to collect their forces under a common front. Such a front would obviously ideally have had the PCI at its centre, through which Moscow would have controlled all the leftist forces, but others disputed this potential supremacy: socialists did have a certain tradition in Italy too, while the communist party seemed relatively young and too radical. Many believed that an eventual coalition led by communists would have functioned too remotely from political debate, and thus would have run the risk of isolation.
In 1924 Gramsci gained election as a deputy for the Veneto. He started organising the launch of the official newspaper of the party, called L'Unitą (Unity), living in Rome while his family stayed in Moscow.
In 1926 Stalin's manoeuvres inside the Bolshevik party moved Gramsci to write a letter to the Comintern, in which he deplored the opposition, but also underlined some presumed faults of the leader. Togliatti, in Moscow as a representative of the party, received the letter, opened it, read it, and decided not to deliver it. This caused a difficult conflict between Gramsci and Togliatti which they never completely resolved.
On 8 November 1926 the fascist police arrested Gramsci, despite his parliamentary immunity, and brought him to Regina Coeli, the famous Roman prison. He received an immediate sentence of 5 years in confinement (on the remote island of Ustica); the following year he received a sentence of 20 years of prison (in Turi, near Bari). His condition caused him to suffer from constantly declining health, and he received an individual cell and a little assistance. In 1932, a project for exchanging political prisoners (including Gramsci) between Italy and the Soviet Union failed. In 1934 his health deteriorated severely and he gained conditional freedom, after having already visited some hospitals in Civitavecchia, Formia and Rome.
Gramsci wrote more than 30 notebooks of history and analysis during his imprisonment. These writings, known as the Prison Notebooks, contain Gramsci's tracing of Italian history and nationalism, as well as some ideas in critical theory and educational theory associated with his name, such as:
This need to create a working-class culture relates to Gramsci's call for a kind of education that could develop working-class intellectuals. His ideas about an education system for this purpose correspond with the notion of popular education as theorized and practised in later decades by Paulo Freire in Brazil. For this reason partisans of adult and popular education as well as of Marxist and political theory consider Gramsci an important voice to this day. His death in Rome at the age of 46, shortly after being released from prison, impoverished these fields of thought.
Gramsci's critics blame him for laying the foundation for the use of universities for Marxist indoctrination without regard to truth, balance, intellectual credibility, or the teaching of the liberal tradition.