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 one of the founders of Quaderni Rossi and later Classe Operaia in the 1960s.

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