Some Questions around Gramsci’s Marxism (1958)

Cover art from Diego Fusaro, Antonio Gramsci (Milano: Feltrinelli, 2015).
Cover of Diego Fusaro, Antonio Gramsci (Milano: Feltrinelli, 2015)

The interpretation that Gramsci gives of Marxism in general is entirely contained, I believe, in a single definition: the philosophy of praxis is integral philosophy and absolute historicism. 1

The theoretical and historical origin of this interpretation should make us go back to the early development of Gramsci’s thought, to his first experiences of culture, to those first personal readings, which always leave a crucial imprint in the impressionable mind of a young scholar. It should open up the door to a more thorough examination of the Turinese environment, so rich in this period of cultural as well as social ferment, of a personality in formation or already formed. All of this does not fall within the scope of this work. With our current knowledge of his early writings it does not appear possible to have a discussion around the cultural influences that acted upon the thought of the young Gramsci; and it appears a useless exercise to measure how much of Sorel and how much of Bergson, how much of revolutionary syndicalism and how much of voluntaristic intuitionism can be found in these few writings that we know.

For the problem that we are dealing with, between these writings of 1917 and 1918 and the successive research of the Prison Notebooks, there is, apart from the different status of culture, a logical coherence and an unambiguous direction that one cannot deny.

Two implicit premises can be glimpsed in these short writings: in the first place the theoretical necessity of struggle against the old positivism, which had ensnared and dried out Marxism in the shallows of a vulgar evolutionism; in the second place the violent impulse of the October Revolution which comes to confirm practically precisely the necessity of that theoretical struggle.

Two complementary premises which are perhaps the historical basis of a certain development that Marxism undertakes from this moment.

The practical influence that the October Revolution has had on theoretical Marxism is yet to be completely studied: nevertheless precisely on this terrain a knot of problems is created, a knot which is difficult to disentangle even today. Certainly reformism has not by chance tended toward a positivistic interpretation of Marxism; it was pushed to this by its very own presuppositions, which saw in capitalism a limitless possibility of development toward socialism, so certain of making superfluous or even inappropriate any attempt at a revolutionary “leap.” But the failure of reformist politics in all countries, the success of revolutionary practice in a specific country, represents in that moment the denial of every type of evolutionism, of gradualism, of the objective conflicts’ spontaneous solutions; it represents the positive confirmation, the concrete possibility, the immediate fecundity of the revolutionary rupture in general.

I know better than to draw immediate theoretical consequences from all of this. But one must study whether this is not a fundamental element which implies, on the theoretical level, the reevaluation of the subjective element, or rather the creative element, against the dead objectivity of stratified and inert social conditions; and the revaluation of the active side within the historical-social relation, and therefore of the sensuous human activity as practical activity which ultimately also commingles with the object, the real, the sensuous, according to the expression used by Marx in the first of the Theses on Feuerbach. It is the moment in which Gramsci exclaims: “No, the mechanical forces never prevail in history: it is men, consciousness, and the spirit which shape the exterior appearance, and which always end up triumphing.” 2 Thus a process of “interiorization” has taken place. The cause of history has been transported from the exterior to the interior. “For natural laws, for the pseudo-scientists’ fatal progress of things has been substituted: the tenacious will of men.” 3

There is certainly no episodic formula or simple slogan as effective and precise as the Gramscian expression of “The Revolution against Capital.” When he says: “The Bolsheviks repudiate Karl Marx,” he poses a fundamental problem. The theoretical solutions of the Second International had produced political opportunism and total betrayal, at the moment of the decisive conflict, in the face of the war. The struggle against those solutions, their negation, had produced the great liberatory fire of the October Revolution. The choice was clear and, perhaps, also simple. Even so, it was a choice so demanding [impegnativa] that it could not be contained within the environment of practical politics, it could not remain empty of thought and of the deepest reflection: as a result it led to the reduction [ridimensionare] of the entire theoretical horizon of Marxism. Today we can say that any great historical crisis of the workers’ movement poses the problem of the “true” Marxism. In an essay from 1919 Lukàcs poses the question: “What is orthodox Marxism?”… “Let us assume for the sake of argument that recent research had disproved once and for all every one of Marx’s individual theses. Even if this were to be proved, every serious ‘orthodox’ Marxist would still be able to accept all such modern findings without reservation and hence dismiss all of Marx’s theses in toto – without having to renounce his orthodoxy for a single moment.” 4

The same thought was expressed, on a different level, by Gramsci: “If the Bolsheviks repudiate some affirmations of Capital, they do not deny immanent, life-giving thought… They live the Marxist thought which never dies, which is the continuation of Italian and German idealist thought, and which in Marx was contaminated by positivist and naturalistic encrustations.” 5

We have touched on the logical coherence between these youthful writings and Gramsci’s mature thought. And in effect the historical position that he assigns to Marx’s thought, the idealist angle from which he views it, will remain identical in all the notes of the Prison Notebooks.

Up until classical German philosophy, philosophy was conceived as a receptive activity or as the greater orderer, that is to say it was conceived as consciousness of a mechanism functioning objectively apart from man. Classical German philosophy introduced the concept of “creativity” of thought, but in an idealistic and speculative sense. It seems that only the philosophy of praxis has made a step forward in thought, on the basis of classical German philosophy… 6

Hegel dialectized the two moments of the life of thought, materialism and spiritualism: the synthesis is a man who walks on his head. Hegel’s followers demolish this unity: it reverts to the materialistic systems on one side, with those spiritualistic ones on the other. The philosophy of praxis re-lives this entire experience as a whole and ends up rebuilding the synthesis of dialectical unity: the man who walks on his legs. But, look here, the laceration which befell Hegelianism is repeated for the philosophy of praxis: on one hand philosophical materialism, on the other modern idealistic culture which incorporates within itself important elements of the philosophy of praxis. Thus there is a need for a new dialectical synthesis.

The splitting of the unity and its recomposition at a higher level: the method of the Hegelian dialectic applied to the general course of the history of thought. The philosophy of praxis translates Hegelianism into historicist language. Croce re-translates the realistic historicism of the philosophy of praxis into speculative language. One must therefore perform again, against Croce, the same subjection that the philosophy of praxis performed on Hegelian philosophy. 7 And in fact the philosophy of Croce “represents the current world-wide moment of classical German philosophy.” 8

Therefore the idea of an Anti-Croce is not a chance, contingent task, dictated by particular, cultural, national developments; it represents the prevailing world-wide moment of Marxism, it is the historic task of Marxism in our time. If today we consider “the motives for this Anti-Croce to have been for the most part exhausted” (a summary of Luporini’s report), we must conclude that its result is “for the most part” the exhaustion of the Gramscian problematic around Marxism. Crocean philosophy’s “re-translation” is in fact the necessary conclusion that one draws from the entire framework of premises that we explained earlier. But this framework is the fulcrum around which the entire Gramscian interpretation of Marxism rotates. I agree in thinking that Gramsci has already written the Anti-Croce (Togliatti). But I believe that precisely this is the limit of Gramsci’s thought.

We see the results, negative and positive, that derive from such a formulation. Permitted that this task becomes exclusive of other, likewise important problems of theory, it is necessary to see to what extent the very nature of theoretical research proves favorable or invalidated. Marx’s thought is entirely immersed within a particular cultural atmosphere; and already the problem of the unity of the “constitutive elements of Marxism” oscillates between a philological research and an attempt at logical mediation between concepts different by nature, if taken in isolation (value in the economy, the praxis of philosophy, the State in politics).

Alongside Hegel we find at a certain point David Ricardo. And Gramsci asks if the discovery of the formal logical principle of the law of the tendency, which leads him to define scientifically the concept of “homo oeconomicus” and of “determinate market,” does not also have gnoseological value, if it does not involve precisely a new “immanence,” a new conception of “necessity” and of freedom. And he asserts: “This translation, it seems to me, has been achieved by the philosophy of praxis, which has universalized Ricardo’s discoveries, extending them in an adequate fashion to the whole of history and thus drawing from them, in an original form, a new conception of the world.” 9 It seems to me that precisely the opposite path was made by Marx, who first of all tended to determine, that is to say to historicize the so-called natural, universal categories of classical economy; to use them as instruments of understanding and therefore of knowledge of that determinate type of society from which they had been produced; to extract therefore a methodological orientation in which is implied, in perspective, the possibility of a scientific consideration of history in general, in other words a science of history.

Hegel + Ricardo + Robespierre: they are the traditional sources for the philosophy of praxis. And by Robespierre, we obviously mean the entirety of French political thought.

Yet we do not find in the Prison Notebooks a precise awareness of this problem; without a doubt because they lack a direct knowledge of the youthful critique internal to the bourgeois state which led Marx to a decisive settling of accounts with the principles of ‘89, and to the discovery of all the theoretical and practical implications that are produced by the distinction and by the  relationship, historically constituted, between civil society and political society.

This whole nexus of problems permits the young Marx to reach a first, fundamental conclusion: to grasp the fundamental aporiae and the basic flaw, simultaneously, in the logical structure of the Hegelian method, in the political thought of modern jusnaturalism, and in the economic analysis of the entire classical school. An identical logical procedure appears as the specific procedure of modern bourgeois society, the particular character of its historical development. The logical contradictions internal to the superstructures and the historical conflict of structure and superstructure are then possible, because the logical contradiction and the historical conflict inside of the structure itself are discovered.

In Marx therefore Hegel, Ricardo, and Robespierre are not taken as themselves, as moments of a pure history of ideas; they are three complementary aspects of the same reality, that is of a specific type of society, they are already part of this society, they are one part then of the object. This is why the analysis of their thought is already, and must already be, the analysis of bourgeois society. Because bourgeois society is also Hegel, Ricardo and Robespierre, that is  to say it is also the thought of bourgeois society. And thus the thought is examined as an object.

But here we need to be careful, because we pose an extremely delicate problem: of how to succeed at saving the also necessary distinction within an organic unity. Because if it is true that the thought of bourgeois society is already bourgeois society, it is also true that it is not all of bourgeois society. That is if the thought is also examined as an object, this does not mean that the thought is the entire object, that the thought exhausts the object. If this last provision were verified, we would have, as a consequence, a definitive, conclusive thought: an absolute, actualistic thought, in any case of idealistic origin. 10

Here the need for unity takes away the necessity of the distinction. But there is also the opposite error: once thought is distinguished, to use traditional terms, from being, it tends to assign an objective consistency only to being, while thought remains a pure reflection, a mirror of reality that is not reality itself.

Here the ontological distinction impedes a real, logical unity.

These are two extreme solutions within Marxism that presuppose a diverse interpretation of Marxism. Gramsci, I believe, had a profound awareness of this problem; and the attempt at a solution that he sketches is certainly consistent with the organization of his philosophical thought. The fact remains that he ends up falling into the first of these two solutions. Can this be considered the “consequence” of a determinate theoretical horizon into which he lowered Marx’s thought? In order to answer, we must draw close again, for a moment, to the consideration of Hegelian thought. Here we find right away, in the Marxist field, a traditional line of interpretation.

Lukàcs, in that essay of 1919 which we mentioned above, expressed it in this way: “The Marxian critique of Hegel is therefore the continuation and the direct progression of the critique that Hegel himself exercised against Kant and Fichte. And so was born the dialectical method of Marx as a consequent progression of that which Hegel had aspired to do, but which (Hegel) did not concretely achieve…” There is here, in synthesis, the ultimate basis of Lukàcs’ theoretical thought, which I believe will remain coherent in the entire development of his work. Marx is the consequent progression of Hegel; Marxism is the conclusion of Hegelianism, its fulfilment, and the true Hegelianism.

Gramsci will express it in almost the same terms: “Hegel represents, in the history of philosophical thought, a part unto himself, because, in his system, in one way or another, though in the form of a philosophical novel, one achieves an understanding of what reality is. That is to say, one has, in one single system and in one single philosopher, that consciousness of the contradictions which previously resulted from all the systems, from all the philosophers, in argument among themselves, in contradiction among themselves. In a certain sense, therefore, the philosophy of praxis is a reform and a development of Hegelianism…” 11 Here Lukàcs’ same thought is expressed in a language that takes into account a “national” moment of culture. Marxism is the reform of the Hegelian dialectic; it is the last, positive conclusion of the various attempts that Italian idealism made to review and update the logical instrument of the Hegelian method.

Croce and Gentile have completed a “reactionary” reform; therefore they represent a step backwards with respect to Hegel; 12 in this they have been helped by that intermediary link Vico-Spaventa-(Gioberti). Here then is the flaw of a certain Italian cultural tradition: it is too little Hegelian; it has not been able to draw conclusions from all the work of classical German philosophy, it is not successful at concluding, at completing Hegel; Marxism has arrived or must arrive at this conclusion.

I do not believe that I have over-stretched [forzato] Gramsci’s thought with this point. Most of these are his explicit statements. It is a matter of seeing the extent to which they determine the orientation of his thought; certainly analogous statements have been decisive for the orientation of Marxist thought in general.

It is difficult to accept this, which is after all, the traditional interpretation of the relationship between Marx and Hegel, for those of us who became aware of these relations on the basis of that youthful “settling of accounts” that Marx undertakes with Hegelian philosophy, as Della Volpe conveyed already in 1947; precisely from Della Volpe, here in Italy, one has learned to define the Hegelian dialectic as a Platonic-Hegelian dialectic, completely immersed in that aprioristic vice, to which he assigns “an organic incapacity of mediation” and an “organic, axiological, and critical-evaluative impotence.” “Marx has in his positive, scientific research, truly only flirted with the formulas of the dialectic, using them as innocent metaphors in order to vividly summarize, according to the imaginative, cultured intellectual language of his time, the historical processes from which he discovered scientific laws… The dialectic which alone interests Marx and authentic Marxism is the determinate dialectic, that is to say the one coincident with scientific law.” 13

The Hegelian dialectic’s mystification is the overall conclusion of all of idealism, of all of speculative philosophy.

Hegel does not need to be concluded; Hegel is already the conclusion. He is precisely the conclusion which Marx refuses. And so one cannot say that the philosophy of praxis has incorporated within itself some “instrumental” values of the same speculative method (e.g. the dialectic). 14 Because the Hegelian dialectic is already the entire speculative method; and precisely this method, in Hegel, justifies, makes possible, or rather makes “necessary,” the system of speculative philosophy.

These concepts will be of service to us later. We face instead a precise problem; one of those problems that hides a serious content of thought under an apparently philological robe. Gramsci says, generally, “philosophy of praxis,” when he should say Marxism. And I believe that we would agree in considering the choice of this expression to be not random. It is certain that today one who says “philosophy of praxis” either does not mean precisely Marxism, or he offers a certain interpretation of Marxism. Either it is the Crocean Philosophy of practice, or that unspecified “historical-critical realism” which answers to Rodolfo Mondolfo. Both concepts, I believe, of a Gentilian origin, from the Gentile of the essays on Marxism.

In the Marxist literature the concept of praxis takes on a strange, Feuerbachian origin. 15 Marx accuses Feuerbach of considering explicitly human only the mode of proceeding theoretically; and of conceiving and fixing practice only in its disreputable, Judaic figuration. And in effect Feuerbach in The Essence of Christianity distinguishes the attitude of the Greeks, who consider nature with a theoretical mind and therefore find the harmony of man with the world, from the attitude of the Jews who consider the world only from the practical point of view and who find it in disagreement with nature, because “they make of nature the most humble servant of their own self-interest, of their own precisely practical egoism.” 16 Correcting this concept gives Marx the possibility of raising even the practical element to a theoretical level, to claim even a theoretical content in the practical element.

He proposes therefore a conception of the object, of reality, of the sensuous, no longer only under the form of the object and of insight, but as sensuous human activity, as practical activity.

This means that on the one hand the object is conceived subjectively, through which consciousness itself becomes a critical-practical act of nature; but it also means the inverse: that is even the subject is seen objectively, in other words the subject becomes a part of the object, it is already an object; and hence, meanwhile, practice is also a practical activity since it presents itself with a concrete reality, a substantial objectivity. And in fact Marx adds: “Feuerbach wants sensuous objects really distinct from thought objects; but he does not conceive human activity itself as objective activity.” In other words, here we so little witness the materiality or corporality of the object that even the traditional subject gets dragged into an objectivity, unitary and distinct at the same time.

But this is a problem of such great importance and of such profound difficulty as to require a very different, detailed study which does not consist in these easy sentences. 17

In the context of this problem we must admit to Gramsci a great merit: that of having grasped a fundamental point that is not easy to find today in the work [produzione] of Marxist thinkers: that concept of a sociality of knowledge, of a historical-social character implicit in the human consciousness, which is in turn implicit in all of Marx’s thought. “History itself is a real part of natural history – of nature developing into man. Natural science will in time incorporate into itself the science of man, just as the science of man will incorporate into itself natural science: there will be one science… The social reality of nature, and human natural science, or the natural science of man, are identical terms.” 18

Gramsci starts from the presupposition that men acquire consciousness of objective conflicts on the terrain of ideologies; and he assigns to this statement a gnoseological value, before even a psychological and moral one. 19

If this is valid for any aware consciousness, we must develop a new concept of “monism” that means “identity of opposites in the concrete historical act, that is to say concrete human activity (history-spirit), indissolubly connected to a certain organized (historicized) matter, to nature transformed by man.” 20 And man becomes “a historical bloc of purely individual and subjective elements and of mass and objective or material elements with which the individual is in an active relationship.21 Hence all the fecundity of that Gramscian concept of “historical bloc,” understood as an organic unity in which “the material forces are the content and the ideologies the form,” and therefore the material forces are not perceptible without ideologies, in the same way as the ideologies are not perceptible without the material forces. 22

Sociality of knowledge therefore, in the thought of Gramsci; but with a limit that we must remove. The knowledge par excellence is also “philosophy.” There remains a detached suspicion of “science.” Conclusion: Gramsci arrives, following Croce’s indication, at the identification of philosophy and history, while one must arrive, following Marx’s indication, at the identification of science and history.

In order to see the reasons for and the consequences of this formulation, we must pick up the discourse on the “philosophy of praxis.”

Mondolfo published his essays on these topics between 1909 and 1912. “The conscience and the will” -- he says -- “appear as an essential moment of history, since they affect action and, therefore, the very historical process. Therefore metaphysical materialism cannot contain historical realism and the principle of class struggle within its framework, but it is overcome: another philosophical conception is made necessary. And certainly the most agreed-upon [consentanea] philosophical conception appears to be that of voluntaristic idealism. Not for nothing did Marx and Engels start out from Feuerbachian voluntarism and from the philosophy of praxis.” 23

We must see whether in Gramsci at least a part of this concept seeped through. 24

The Gramscian formulations regarding the problem of a material objectivity, around the “so-called reality of the external world,” are well known. Almost any time that he uses the term “materialism,” he feels the need to attach the adjective “metaphysical” to it. He thus accepts the entirely idealistic definition of metaphysics, assigned to any alleged reality that goes beyond the reality of consciousness. In that very common expression of “historical materialism,” he says one must lay “the accent on the first term ‘historical’ and not on the second, which is of metaphysical origin.” 25 “‘Objective’ means precisely and only this: that one affirms as being objective, objective reality, that reality which is ascertained by all, which is independent of any merely particular or group point view.” 26

Therefore “objective always means ‘humanly objective,’ which can correspond exactly to ‘historically subjective,’ in other words objective would mean ‘universal subjective.’” 27 “We know reality only in relation to man, and since man is historical becoming, knowledge and reality are also a becoming and so is objectivity, etc.” 28 Thus the first element is the becoming, is the critical-practical activity of man in the world; the unitary center in which is synthesized the dialectical contradiction between man and the world, between man and nature, is praxis, “in other words the relationship between the human will (superstructure) and the economic structure.” 29

Objectivity tends to disappear into an intersubjectivity, made cohesive internally precisely by the element of social praxis: 30 and praxis tends to become the primary reality, fulfilling the function that the element of sensation performs in the empirio-criticism of Mach and Avenarius.

So we must see this imprecision in the explicitly materialist problematic of Marxism as a direct consequence of the overvaluation that we find in Gramsci’s work of the idealistic, immanentist, historicist origin of Marx’s thought. This is the inevitable consequence if one does not go through that destructive Marxian critique of the Hegelian dialectic’s mystifying procedure, and therefore of the method of Hegelian thought which was, for Marx, inextricable [tutt’uno] from the definitive system of Hegelian philosophy; if the unique metaphysics that Marx dreaded, which was the metaphysics of idealism, culminated, crowned, and concluded in the thought of Hegel, is not analyzed and removed from within.

Gross misunderstandings can arise around this aspect of the Gramscian problematic. We take the theory of the superstructure. “Historical materialism… – says Gramsci – in its theory of the superstructures, poses in realistic and historicist language what traditional philosophy expressed in a speculative form;” 31 “the ‘subjectivist’ conception… can find its truth and its historicist interpretation only in the concept of superstructures.” 32 It seems to me that one can understand it in this way: in order to save the subjectivist conception one must give it an historicist interpretation; and this one has with the theory of the superstructures. In this sense the Hegelian idea becomes ideology; in other words the Hegelian idea changes places, is transferred into the superstructure, is immersed in a historical becoming, is historicized; or better, it is established in both structures and superstructures, as both present themselves as appearances of a concrete historical becoming. Therefore the idea, in its nature, in the structure of its movement, remains identical: it is the Hegelian idea, which is merely historicized. Marxism thus proves to be the historicist interpretation of the subjectivist conception; as the historicizing of idealism.

We cannot say that Gramsci arrives at this explicit conclusion. In him there is the awareness of other problems, in him there is a well determined hierarchy of problems, in which pride of place always goes to the concrete, to the particular, to the “historically determinate,” which rightly prevents him from reaching such a conclusion. In him there is above all a correct solution to the problem of the relationship between “theory and practice.”

If the problem of identifying theory and practice is posed, it is posed in this sense: that one can construct on a determinate practice a theory that, coinciding and identifying itself with the decisive elements of the practice itself, accelerates the historical process underway, rendering practice more homogeneous, coherent, efficient in all its elements, in other words developing its potential to the maximum; or alternatively, given a certain theoretical position, one organizes the practical element, indispensable for its implementation. 33

A comparison between Marx and Lenin that would create a hierarchy would therefore be absurd. They “express two phases: science-action which are homogeneous and heterogeneous at the same time.” In this way it would be absurd to make a parallel between Christ and Saint Paul: Christ-Weltanschauung and Saint Paul-organizer; they are both necessary to the same extent and thus they are of the same historic stature. One could therefore speak of Christianity-Paulinism, just as one speaks of Marxism-Leninism. 34

Science-action are therefore two homogeneous and heterogeneous phases at the same time. Precisely so: because in Marx and in Marxism science is presented already as an active science, and action is presented already as scientific action. The theory is presented as a practical theory because the practice is discovered as a theoretical practice. But this does not mean that there is an immediate identity of science-action, of theory-practice. The two phases persist, in the first of which practice is seen in its theoretical function, while in the second theory is used in its practical function. This is why – Gramsci says in a note which I believe deeply concerns us – “This is why the problem of the identity of theory and practice is posed especially in the certain so-called transitional moments of history, that is, those moments in which the movement of transformation is at its most rapid. For it is then that the practical forces unleashed really demand justification in order to become more efficient and expansive; and that theoretical programs multiply in number, and demand in their turn to be realistically justified, to the extent that they prove themselves assimilable by practical movements, thereby making the latter yet more practical and real.” 35

Known is the battle that Gramsci leads in order to vindicate Marxism’s originality, autonomy, and self-sufficiency as a true and proper Welt-und-Lebenschauung, a general conception of the world and of life.

“The philosophy of praxis – he says – was born in the form of aphorisms and of practical criteria by pure chance, because its founder dedicated his intellectual powers to other problems, especially economic ones…” 36 A systematic treatment of the philosophy of praxis “must treat the entire, general philosophical part, must develop therefore coherently all the general concepts of a methodology of history and of politics, and also of art, of economics, of ethics, and find in its general nexus a place for a theory of natural science.” 37 And in fact “any sociology presupposes a philosophy, a conception of the world, of which it is a subordinate fragment.” 38 The dialectic itself, in other words, the method, can be exactly conceived, only if the philosophy of praxis is conceived as an integral and original philosophy that overcomes idealism and traditional materialism, expressing this overcoming precisely through the new dialectic. 39

Does this mean that we must prepare ourselves for a systematic exposition of Marxism? No: for Gramsci this is possible only when a determinate doctrine has achieved the “classical” phase of its development. Until then any attempt to “manualize it” must necessarily fail and its logical systematization proves superficial and illusory.  Until then a formally dogmatic, stylistically poised, scientifically calm exposition is not possible. 40 Here is the underlying motive that successfully clarifies for us the specific “form” which the Gramscian research assumes. He conceives Marxism as a theory that is “still at the stage of discussion, of polemic, of elaboration” 41: here is why he does not prepare to systematize, to manualize this theory, but he girds himself only to discuss, to polemicize, and so to elaborate. Marxism can become a general conception of the world, but it has not yet become it; it can produce a mass culture which would have those well-known personalities, but it has not yet produced it; it can lay claim to hegemonic leadership in the area of high culture, but it has not yet conquered it.

Marxist thought has paid bitterly, with the atrophy of its entire theoretical development, for the wicked idea of making of Marxism itself the new Encyclopedia of philosophical science in a compendium. We must acknowledge to Gramsci the great merit of having denied, concretely, this conception. And in order to grasp the most fecund results that spring from the Gramscian research, we must, on this point, go beyond Gramsci’s thought. Today one must maintain that there does not exist a Marxist “doctrine.” One must show that the spirit of system is in principle foreign to Marx’s thought; 42 that not “by pure chance was Marxism born in the form of aphorisms and of practical criteria,” but by an intrinsic, immanent, logical necessity, intimately tied to its internal nature; that a systematic consideration of the doctrine cannot produce a doctrinaire system of fixed formulae and of final proportions.

For Gramsci any philosophy is a conception of the world, which is posed as critical and overcoming of religion, which is in turn a conception of the world become a rule to live by [norma di vita], in other words entered into common sense, accepted as faith. Philosophy therefore coincides with the “good sense” that is contrasted to “common sense.” And the philosophy of praxis is then the absolute historicist systematization of good sense, which as such is emancipated from the common sense of all past philosophies, and is posed therefore against them as a new philosophy that tends to identify itself with history, which he identifies in turn with politics. An integral philosophy of history, understood as politics, which one can finally establish as the “good sense” of history: this is, at bottom, absolute historicism.

And this also is the limit of Gramsci’s thought, the speculative origins of which we saw above. For us the good sense of the philosophy of a given era is not the common sense of this era, twisted and mystified. One must rediscover the truth of the latter, what’s more, through the historically determinate expression that it assumes. If philosophy coincides with good sense, we must distrust philosophy. If through science we succeed at expressing the common sense of things, it is sufficient to trust in science.

Certainly we must assert the novelty, the originality, the autonomy of Marxism. But the novelty of Marxism against any other philosophy consists in not asking more of it as a philosophy; its originality consists in its offer of science to philosophy, or rather in its conceiving the proper philosophy only as science, as a “specific conception of a specific object;” its autonomy consists in its understanding the proper method of investigation, on the whole autonomous from all the old speculative philosophy, and in particular from Hegelian speculative philosophy which concluded and inverted all the old philosophy, and doing so by virtue of that “logical” process which repeated the “objective” process, in other words the concrete historical, economic, political, juridical method of the capitalist economic-social formation, of modern bourgeois society.

These are only some of the questions that have seemed to me important to treat, and which one needed to handle, I realize, with far more serious, detailed study. In any case it is good to present all the considerations made here as a tendentious interpretation of Gramsci’s theoretical thought. An interpretation that I do not want to be an academic exercise on the dead body of a doctrine already consigned to the closed world of the “classics”; I want to keep in mind the current moment of theoretical debate around Marxism, its problematic today, its needs for development today. This interpretation tends, deliberately, to underline in Gramsci’s work some typical aspects of all contemporary Marxism which one must correct, if one wants to impress a quicker development upon all theoretical research.

-Translated by Andrew Anastasi

The translator thanks Fulvia Serra and Dave Mesing for their helpful comments on earlier drafts. 

This essay was originally published as “Alcune questioni intorno al marxismo di Gramsci,” in Studi Gramsciani: Atti del convegno tenuto a Roma nei giorni 11-12 gennaio 1958 (Roma: Editori Riuniti - Istituto Gramsci, 1958), 305–21. Thanks to Michele Filippini for providing the text.

This article is part of a dossier entitled The Young Mario Tronti.


1 Translator’s note: Here and in general throughout the essay, I have translated the word prassi as “praxis.” However in two instances, noted below, Tronti’s uses the word praxis.
2 Antonio Gramsci, “Un anno di storia,” Il Grido del Popolo, March 16, 1918. Translator’s note: An English translation of this text is available online. However, in order to maintain consistency in terminology, I have found it necessary to render my own English translations of this and subsequent quotations from Italian sources. Existing English translations, from which I have benefited, are cited for the reader’s reference.
3 Antonio Gramsci, Rinascita, no. 4 (1957), 158. “Today maximalism reaffirms, against the objective forecast, the voluntary end of action. But constrained within the limits of the abstract antithesis that has separated opposites (objective condition and subjective will) as if the affirmation of one requires the negation of the other, in other words following again the mindset that Hegel and Engels would have called metaphysical, they believe that to assert the historical efficacy of the will must mean to deny the objective conditions.” Cf. Rodolfo Mondolfo, Sulle orme di Marx, 2nd ed. (Bologna: Cappelli, 1920), in the notes from 1919.
4 György Lukács, History and Class Consciousness: Studies in Marxist Dialectics (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1971), 1.
5 Antonio Gramsci, Selections from Political Writings, 1910–1920, ed. Quintin Hoare, trans. John Mathews (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1990), 34.
6 Antonio Gramsci, Selections from the Prison Notebooks, ed. and trans. Quintin Hoare and Geoffrey Nowell Smith (New York: International Publishers, 1971), 346.
7 Antonio Gramsci, Il materialismo storico e la filosofia di Benedetto Croce (Torino: Einaudi, 1966 [1948]), 199.
8 Antonio Gramsci, Further Selections from the Prison Notebooks, trans. and ed. Derek Boothman (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1995), 356.
9 Gramsci, Selections from the Prison Notebooks, 401.
10 Translator’s note: “Actualism” was the philosophy of the Italian fascist and education minister Giovanni Gentile.
11 Gramsci, Selections from the Prison Notebooks, 404.
12 Gramsci, Further Selections from the Prison Notebooks, 400.
13 Galvano Della Volpe, Marx e lo stato moderno rappresentativo (Bologna: UPEB, 1947), 12.
14 Gramsci, Further Selections from the Prison Notebooks, 357.
15 Translator’s note: Here Tronti writes praxis rather than prassi.
16 Ludwig Feuerbach, The Essence of Christianity, trans. Marian Evans (London: Trübner & Co., 1881), 113.
17 For the detailed study of this and other problems, one can now see Lucio Colletti’s Introduction to the Italian translation of Lenin’s Quaderni filosofici (Milano: Feltrinelli, 1958).
18 Karl Marx, Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, in Marx Engels Collected Works, vol. 3 (Lawrence & Wishart: London, 1957), 303–04.
19 Gramsci, Selections from the Prison Notebooks, 365.
20 Ibid., 372.
21 Ibid., 360.
22 Ibid., 377.
23 Mondolfo, Sulle orme di Marx, 24.
24 “The coincidence (with Gramsci) in this case consists precisely in a fundamental element: the assertion of the philosophy of praxis, from which, over forty years ago, I affirmed the necessity for socialism…” Rodolfo Mondolfo, Intorno a Gramsci e alla filosofia della prassi, in Critica sociale, no. 47 (1955): notes 6, 7, 8.
25 Gramsci, Selections from the Prison Notebooks, 465.
26 Gramsci, Further Selections from the Prison Notebooks, 291.
27 Gramsci, Selections from the Prison Notebooks, 445.
28 Gramsci, Selections from the Prison Notebooks, 445.
29 Ibid., 402–03.
30 Translator’s note: Again, here, praxis.
31 Ibid., 442.
32 Ibid., 444.
33 Ibid., 365.
34 Ibid., 382.
35 Ibid., 365.
36 Ibid., 426.
37 Ibid., 431.
38 Ibid., 426–27.
39 Ibid., 435.
40 Ibid., 433–34.
41 Ibid., 433.
42 Translator’s note: With “spirit of system” [lo spirito di sistema] Tronti refers to aprioristic, deductive logic.

Author of the article

is an Italian philosopher and politician and the author of Workers and Capital (1966). In the 1960s he was a founder of operaismo, an editor of Quaderni Rossi, and the director of Classe Operaia.