Geography Gramsci and Geography
Jordan T. Camp
  • LAST REVIEWED: 21 February 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 21 February 2022
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199874002-0241


On 16 May 1925, Antonio Gramsci delivered his first and only speech in the Italian Parliament. An elected deputy of the Italian Communist Party, he spoke out against Fascist efforts to “liquidate” his party. He denounced arrests of his fellow leaders, arguing, “You are doing what they used to do in the South, when they hired thugs to arrest anyone who voted for the opposition.” The Fascists in Parliament, including his adversary Benito Mussolini, continually interrupted Gramsci, asserting that he “knew nothing of the South.” Gramsci responded emphatically, “I am a southerner.” He proceeded to offer a distinctly spatial set of insights. He noted that the state was expropriating resources from peasants in the South and using them to exploit workers in factories of the North. The defeat of Fascism, he believed, would require a class alliance between northern workers and southern peasants. “Upon this terrain,” he argued, workers and peasants could organize “against their common enemy.” After the speech, Mussolini approached Gramsci as he drank coffee at the bar. Mussolini reached out his hand in congratulation, but, as biographer Giuseppe Fiori recounts, Gramsci “continued sipping his coffee indifferently.” This article demonstrates Gramsci’s relevance for the study of geography. It includes biographical information about Gramsci, a discussion of his main published works, and a brief summary of some important works in the field. It describes Gramsci’s long history as a student of the field, having studied geography and linguistics at the University of Turin under Professor Mario Bartoli in the 1910s. It traces Gramsci’s development as a spatial thinker in his speeches, political writing, and journalism as a leader of the Italian Communist Party. It describes how his attention to issues of space developed alongside Fascism’s rise as a state form. It considers how his unfinished 1926 essay, “Some Aspects of the Southern Question,” offered a historical and geographical method for analyzing the dialectics of class, region, and political economy and culture—including the articulation of race and class. Though this article includes “The Southern Question,” as well as critical engagements with it, it does not limit his contributions to geography to this one piece. It specifically foregrounds Gramsci’s method of conjunctural analysis articulated in the Prison Notebooks. It features an array of geographers who have engaged with his work, and also includes spatial thinkers across the disciplines who approach Gramscian concepts and categories. Amid a global resurgence of white nationalism and neofascism, and what, following Gramsci, we might call an “organic crisis” of US hegemony and global capitalism on a world scale, engagements with Gramsci’s spatial insights are warranted.

Historical-Geographical Context

“Some Aspects of the Southern Question,” as Joseph A. Buttigieg notes, contains the most-essential elements of Gramsci’s theory of geography and politics (Gramsci 1992–2007). Gramsci penned the unfinished essay in October 1926 to intervene in debates within the Italian Communist Party, a party he was a founding member of, and in its relationship to workers and peasants (Gramsci 2000). The essay argues for the necessity of building broad class alliances in the struggle against Fascism. It is difficult to know how Gramsci would have concluded the essay. Its writing was cut short when he was arrested on 8 November 1926. Mussolini’s Fascist government had declared a state of emergency earlier that month (Fiori 1971). Gramsci was prevented from attending a parliamentary session scheduled for the day after his arrest. He was arrested despite his parliamentary immunity and imprisoned on the Island of Ustica alongside almost a thousand other political prisoners (Gramsci 1994a). (1) During the six weeks of his confinement, Gramsci taught history and geography at a political education school that had been self-organized by the incarcerated revolutionaries at Ustica (2) his Letters from Prison depict a range of relevant experiences critical for understanding him as a spatial thinker (Gramsci 1994a);. They reveal the evolution of his political thought from his time as student at the University of Turin, as a journalist, and as a theorist of the factory councils in Turin’s factories after the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. The letters document his long struggle to secure the conditions to pen what would become his magisterial carceral studies project, the Prison Notebooks. He describes being denied the capacity to write and study until February 1929, when he is finally able to begin, over two years after his initial confinement. Throughout the writing of his notebooks during the 1930s he worked to adopt a more “disinterested” point of view than his previous writing (Gramsci 1994a, and Gramsci 1994b). His prison writings and letters clarify how Gramsci was able to transform the prison as a space of Fascist confinement into a space of revolutionary writing (Gramsci 1992–2007). His notebooks would be posthumously published in Italian during the 1940s, and then the most important selected notebooks in English in the 1970s (Gramsci 1971). Though Gramsci’s theoretical contributions to understanding the geographical foundations of political economy and culture have been well studied, important sections of his prison writings have not yet been translated into English. Important new work in Gramscian studies has drawn attention to the significance of the Italian philological scholarship for interpreting the texts as well the politics of the period (Loftus 2019, Gramsci 2021, Brennan 2006, and Thomas 2009, the last two cited under Gramsci’s Heirs). This section concludes with work suggesting the relevance of his prison writing for understanding the articulation of race and class in different historical and geographic conjunctures (Hall 1980).

  • Fiori, Giuseppe. Antonio Gramsci: Life of a Revolutionary. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1971.

    This biography is a vital resource for understanding Gramsci’s relevance for the study of geography. First published in Italian, it includes a discussion of his writing of his unfinished essay, “Some Aspects of the Southern Question,” composed in 1926. As it describes, the essay marked a transition to the themes that he focused on in the Prison Notebooks, including the role of the intellectual, 19th-century Italian history, democracy, and “hegemony.”

  • Gramsci, Antonio. Selections from the Prison Notebooks. Edited and translated by Quintin Hoare and Geoffrey Nowell Smith. New York: International Publishers, 1971.

    This classic volume introduced Gramsci’s political theory to the English-speaking world. It contains an extended reflection on the relationship between the defeat of the Italian working-class movement after World War I, the rise of Fascism in Italy, and the role of intellectuals in struggles for hegemony. It introduces his method of conjunctural analysis and his approach to understanding the various moments in the “relations of forces” in specific historical and geographical contexts.

  • Gramsci, Antonio. Prison Notebooks. Vols. 1–3. Edited with introduction by Joseph A. Buttigieg. New York: Columbia University Press, 1992–2007.

    This is the most complete English edition of Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks. It is based on the model of the Quaderni del carcere edited by Valentino Gerratana at the Institutto Gramsci. As Buttigieg’s authoritative introduction notes, the Notebooks show Gramsci moving beyond the propaganda and polemics required by the Communist Party, when he had been a journalist, and toward the development of the “philosophy of praxis.”

  • Gramsci, Antonio. Letters from Prison. Vol. 1. Edited by Frank Rosengarten. Translated by Raymond Rosenthal. New York: Columbia University Press, 1994a.

    This volume gathers Gramsci’s prison letters from 1926 to 1930. It features correspondence with his family and comrades, particularly his sister-in-law Tatiana Schucht and friend economist Piero Sraffa, who provided Gramsci’s access to books and reading and writing materials. They also depict the surveillance imposed the Fascist prison regime, as well as the impacts on his health. Taken together, they testify to the depth of his commitment as a spatial thinker and politician.

  • Gramsci, Antonio. Letters from Prison. Vol. 2. Edited by Frank Rosengarten. Translated by Raymond Rosenthal. New York: Columbia University Press, 1994b.

    This second volume gathers prison letters penned by Gramsci between 1931 and 1937. It provides a distinct primary source for understanding the punitive and authoritarian character of carceral spaces in Fascist Italy. It captures his ostracism from former comrades over disagreements with the party line. This was also the period when he engaged in the most-intense writing of his Prison Notebooks even as his health deteriorated.

  • Gramsci, Antonio. The Antonio Gramsci Reader: Selected Writings, 1916–1935. Edited by David Forgacs. Introduction by Eric Hobsbawm. New York: New York University Press, 2000.

    This skillfully edited volume includes key works penned by Gramsci for understanding his geographical imagination, including essential preprison writings such as “Workers and Peasants” and “Some Aspects of the Southern Question.” It also features his prison writings, a chronological outline, a glossary, and suggestions of secondary works in English. It illustrates critical aspects of Gramsci’s geographical thought, particularly how conjunctural analysis enables concrete analysis of political, economic, and ideological forces in specific geographies.

  • Gramsci, Antonio. Subaltern Social Groups: A Critical Edition of Prison Notebook 25. Edited and translated by Joseph A. Buttigieg and Marcus Green. Introduction by Marcus E. Green. New York: Columbia University Press, 2021.

    DOI: 10.7312/gram19038

    This important volume features the entirety of Gramsci’s notes on subaltern social groups penned during his imprisonment. It makes available the English translation of his “special” Notebook 25 and related materials, which had been unavailable. It demonstrates the centrality of the concept of subalternity to his analysis of race and class, religion, the “southern question,” and “common sense.” In doing so, it shows how Gramsci conceived subaltern groups as a “category of analysis” to understand material conditions and politics.

  • Hall, Stuart. “Race, Articulation, and Societies Structured in Dominance.” In Sociological Theories: Race and Colonialism. Edited by United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization, 305–345. Paris: UNESCO, 1980.

    This essay intervenes in the race and class debates that rocked Britain, South Africa, the United States, and beyond in the late 1970s and early 1980s. It mobilizes Gramsci to better understand how “race” can be theorized as “the modality in which class is lived.” It offers a historically and geographically specific way of understanding and theorizing the political purpose of racism as a “cementing ideology,” one that “secures” the entire social formation in particular conjunctures.

  • Loftus, Alex. “Gramsci as Historical Geographical Materialist.” In Revisiting Gramsci’s Notebooks. Edited by Francesca Antonini, Aaron Bernstein, Lorenzo Fusaro, and Robert Jackson, 9–22. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2019.

    DOI: 10.1163/9789004417694_003

    This essay rigorously explores how Gramsci’s analyses of geography, place, and common sense can reinvigorate historical geographical materialism. It suggests the multiple geographical contributions made by the “Sardinian,” as well as the need to “spatialize historical materialism.” It calls for more-focused analyses of the Prison Notebooks and the contributions the “philosophy of praxis” makes to a “spatialized Marxism.”

  • Santucci, Antonio A. Antonio Gramsci. Preface by Eric Hobsbawm. Foreword by Joseph Buttigieg. New York: Monthly Review, 2010.

    This indispensable study powerfully depicts Gramsci’s “theoretical contributions to the solution of the Southern question.” It also demonstrates his contributions to debates about the roots of geographical divisions between the North and the South in the uneven development of capitalism. It suggests that Gramsci was the first to illustrate how the “national question” was internal to “workers’ movements and parties,” which, it argues, represents his most original contribution to Marxist political theory.

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