Antonio Gramsci, the philosopher man

Image: Vasco Prado


Afterword to the newly edited book by Gianni Fresu

Antonio Gramsci: Marxism in the face of modernity

In Italy still strongly hegemonized by Catholic conservatism and by the reactionary positions of the Sílabo – and in which the no less reactionary dominion exercised over the State apparatus by the bloc formed by the old aristocratic ruling classes, the northern bourgeoisie and the southern agrarians remained untouched –, the encounter with Hegel’s ideas, reworked by Benedetto Croce and Giovanni Gentile, and also under the influence of the brothers [Bertrando and Silvio] Spaventa, meant, for the young Gramsci, a true entry into modernity.

It can be said that this was a first approximation of the theme of modern freedom and its mundane practice: the awareness of the human capacity to make history, as well as the possibility of overcoming the old regime on the political and social level. The confrontation with two authors with a liberal orientation, but who were also at the forefront of European culture, would prove to be very fruitful, especially in the face of the heavy positivist debris that often undermined the foundations of the Socialist Party's political elaboration, preventing its action among the masses. (let us think, above all, of the naturalist stereotypes with which the southern question was approached).

In those years, precisely the political caution derived from the Hegelian lesson, in addition to a universalist conception of culture linked to the idea of ​​absolute spirit, allowed Croce to avoid the temptations of metaphysical interpretation of the First World War, that “useless massacre” – in this matter, even even the Catholics were more advanced than many other political sectors! –, then seen in terms of the clash of civilizations or religions by most European intellectuals (we think of the commitment to agitation and propaganda exercised by eminent personalities such as Max Weber and Edmund Husserl in Germany or Henri Bergson and Éttienne Boutroux in France) .

This realism, however, did not prevent the great philosopher from associating himself with the cause of Italian imperialism and seeing in the European catastrophe a beneficial opportunity that, having helped to overcome the national divisions derived from socialism and the class struggle and projected the conflict abroad social, would favor the regeneration of the country, taking the Risorgimento to its conclusion.

Nor did it prevent him from reaffirming, even in this circumstance, the perennially subordinate role of the working classes, configured as cannon fodder to be sacrificed in the name of the nation’s new power and its right to obtain a “place in the sun” alongside other countries. most important Europeans. In the same way, the Hegelian inspiration – drastically redimensioned, moreover, from the theory of distinction within the scope of the dynamics of the spirit – would not prevent him, at the time of the crisis of Italian liberalism and the advent of fascism, from distancing himself from liberalism itself. “democratic” – marked, in his view, by the deleterious influences of the abstract ideas of 1789 and its naive universalist principles – and of sympathizing, at least for a period, with the dictatorship, understood as the guarantor of social stability and the right to property ( once more) as a barrier to confronting socialism.

At this point, Gramsci's break with Italian neo-idealism becomes clear. If Gentile's activism has been refuted as a form of fichtism that goes back to a moment before the Hegelian category of objective contradiction, an ultra-subjectivism that is empty and ready to subsume and idealize, under the concept of pure act, every form of praxis (starting with by total mobilization and war), neither had Croce's liberalism completely assimilated the universal concept of man without which it was not possible to think of the common human dignity of subordinate classes and also of colonial peoples.

In this perspective, by the way, liberalism had, in a certain way, betrayed that same culture of which it intended to be heir. So, for Gramsci (and also for Togliatti) only Marxism presented itself as the bearer of what was best in the Western tradition – in the first place, the French Revolution, but, even before that, modernity as such, in its essence of progress. –, at which the liberals were unable to maintain themselves. It is at this moment that, for Gramsci, the idea of ​​communism becomes identified with the idea of ​​universality. And it is from the reckoning with the deepest core of liberalism that, for Gramsci, Marxism begins to intertwine with this idea, with the aim of bringing to an end those multiple processes of emancipation inaugurated by the bourgeoisie, but abandoned by liberalism. .

Which Marxism, however? It is known that the Second International judged the October Revolution from the point of view of a dogmatic and allegedly “orthodox” Marxism and condemned it as a voluntarist precipitation that occurred in a country still largely feudal and backward. In Russia, the mature conditions for the transition to socialism seemed to be completely lacking, a social order that presupposed the complete flourishing of capitalist bourgeois society and an immense development of the productive forces. By defining 1917 as a “revolution against capital” and by recognizing its full political legitimacy, Gramsci distanced himself from all evolutionary and mechanistic readings of the revolutionary process, denouncing the economism and vulgar materialism of the socialist leaders, but partly asserting , Lenin's experience even against Marx himself.

In fact, even in the Marxian legacy there is often a simplified theory of revolution, which exclusively or mainly considers the accumulation of contradictions in the economic sphere of the European industrialized countries. At other times, however, Marx was much more attentive to the complex nature of the revolutionary process, presenting it as a long-term interweaving between the economy and political-type components, such as war or national oppression.

In this sense, there is not always or necessarily absolute synchrony between the objective economic conditions and the subjective and political conditions of the revolution. And the political component can, therefore, enable the triggering of a long-lasting revolutionary process, even in more backward countries like Germany or in colonies like Ireland, starting from national specificities that even include the historical and cultural traditions of a certain people. This is what happens, for example – although it may seem paradoxical – with the persistence of a strong religious feeling that identifies itself with the cause of self-determination.

We arrive at the second decisive encounter in Gramsci's formation. In this respect, it is precisely to this more complex vision of Marxism that Leninism gives relevance by revealing the centrality of the concrete situation and, consequently, the peculiar character of the revolutionary process. A process that always presents itself as a determined negation, that is, linked to the specific historical conditions of a country and the correlations of force prevailing there, and that can only be attributed to the specificity of some national issue (which is why Trotskyism, with his theory of the permanent revolution and the need to export socialism to guarantee the continuity of the October Revolution, ended up slipping into economistic, Menshevik and even Eurocentric positions).

For Gramsci, if a rigorous understanding of the objective conditions was imposed on revolutionary leaders in Russia, it was even more urgent for communists in Western countries, in which the revolution, although it could count on a more pronounced economic maturity and its consequent development of an industrial proletariat, it would necessarily have to face a much more articulated civil society and a much stronger and ideologically attractive dominant bloc.

Thus, in industrially advanced Europe, the revolution was not configured as a war of movement destined to attack the stronghold of power frontally, but as a long and painful war of position that, from trench to trench, from fortification to fortification, should involve the society, little by little, into a great network of counterpowers. Above all, through the work of the organic intellectuals themselves, the revolution could expunge the bourgeois order from within, making use of a subtle hegemonic and cultural operation, progressively raising the consciousness of the working classes, but also conquering, little by little, the consensus of the national bourgeoisie itself. That is why, in the West even more than in Russia, the working-class party, in addition to providing itself with a capillary and effective organization, should present itself as a national ruling class and adapt its praxis to the specific situation of each country. , not counting a revolution model passe-partout.

As happened, in fact, during the war of liberation from Nazi-fascism, that is, he would have to take upon himself the general interest of the nation and its self-determination at the very moment when he assumed the objective of transforming political and social orders: at that point , the social question coincided with the national one to the same extent that the national question coincided with the social one.

Very soon, however, Gramsci's Marxism would distinguish itself from that of his contemporaries in other essential respects as well. Marx and Engels, for example, at certain times developed the idea of ​​an imminent and inevitable crisis of capitalism and a consequent decay of the bourgeoisie, whether on the political or ideological level. According to this thesis, at the end of its revolutionary phase, after 1848, the European bourgeoisie had become completely incapable not only of carrying forward the process of democratization and of keeping itself in charge of historical progress, but also of having a role effective in the political field, because, in order to oppose resistance to the now mature antagonistic proletarian subject, it perched itself in unequivocally conservative positions, losing all creative power.

In this case too, we are clearly in the presence of a mechanistic and economistic conception of history and a rather limited version of the theory of revolution. In the Marxism of the Second International, this vision would be linked to an exasperated reading of the Marxian thesis of the fall in the rate of profit and would almost immediately produce the messianic announcement of the inevitable overcoming of the capitalist system and the imminent socialist revolution, in the face of a bourgeoisie now substantially dead and devoid of innovative policy solutions.

If this vision of the conflict between bourgeoisie and proletariat was still widely present in the revolutionary optimism of the first years of the Third International, on the other hand, none of this can be read in Gramsci. As we have seen, not only was this formed in constant contact with the most refined philosophical thought of the time, but it was also forced, by historical circumstances, to confront the defeats of revolutionary attempts in the West and had to experience in its own skin the revenge of the ruling classes through fascism and the victory of a certain phase in the development of capitalism.

Thus, he had learned very well how alive and active – as well as dangerous – the bourgeoisie could still be and how complicated and distant the prospect of social transition was. It is precisely in this context that the famous theory of passive revolution is situated, through which Gramsci recognized the still intact strength and persistent vitality of the European bourgeoisie. A class that must be fought, but from which – let us think of the theses of Americanism and Fordism – the working classes need to continue to learn, since it is not only still able to reaffirm itself as the dominant class, through a capillary hegemonic influence , but it also succeeds in modernizing capitalist society.

We can measure here all the originality and genius of Gramsci. In Europe in those years, the tragic experience of the world war had highlighted all the horror inevitably linked to bourgeois society in its imperialist phase – and the advent of fascism and Nazism and, subsequently, the even more serious disaster of the Second World War reinforce this conviction. .

Then twentieth-century Marxism suddenly breaks the Marxian balance between critique and recognition of modernity. And the history of the modern world, described by Marx and Engels in the Manifesto with notes of admiration for the progressive proclivities of the bourgeoisie, comes to be seen more and more as the direct preparation for this succession of tragedies. And those ambiguous and anti-modern positions already criticized by Marx in [Mikhail] Bakunin and in the anarchist tradition will find more and more space in the socialist movement.

According to this approach, the entire past of civilization is a dead negativity, a unique accumulation of horrors and oppressions from which nothing is saved or inherited. The cultural history of Europe itself is seen “as delirium and nonsense”, something “irrational” and “monstrous”, becoming – these are famous words – a “historical treatise on teratology”. As we can see, it is an abstract and indeterminate negation of modernity, of which a total and palingenetic overcoming is now intended. Hence the spread of positions that increasingly distorted Marxism into a messianic perspective, interpreting the socialist revolution as a true annulment of history, destined to rid humanity of this catastrophe.

Instead of being critically understood, the modern world must first of all be condemned in its entirety, and then redeemed, through revolutionary purifying violence and the building of a radically new and different world, which magically installs on Earth the communist kingdom of happiness and abundance. Linked to this populist reading of history and this religious and utopian conception of Marxism is the pretension, hegemonic above all in so-called Western Marxism, of understanding communism itself as a New Beginning, as the full temporum that completely transfigures the face of reality: it is the pretense of a complete subversion of bourgeois society that proposes to eliminate, in a classless society, the State and the market, national borders and traditions, religions and all legal forms.

Conversely, Gramsci contests this caricatured view of history and the role of the bourgeoisie, while preserving, in his approach, the recognition, albeit critical, of modernity as an epoch of emancipation and individual freedom. To pose the problem of the heredity of the high points of this history means, therefore, to renounce a priori all childish utopianism and rescue the concreteness of the Hegelian philosophical and historical-political perspective, conceiving communism not as an annihilation, but as a real consummation of modernity.

It means, then, in the first place, to recognize the role of the State as a form of universality: a form that is not yet a substance, but which is not non-existent either and which, therefore, already introduces, in bourgeois society, the elements of regulation that the the proletariat itself needed and knew how to use it in the course of its struggle (from laws that reduce the working day to those that guarantee the progressive expansion of suffrage). Certainly, now it is necessary to mercilessly reveal the role of the repressive state apparatus, which, in crisis situations, is capable of enlisting civil society in an omnipresent way, dragging it into the total mobilization destined to lead to dictatorship and war.

We must not forget, however, that, together with the control function of the subaltern classes in the name of bourgeois rule, the State – contrary to those who in the Marxist movement oppose Libertas Major and Libertas Minor, economic and social rights and formal rights – is not only a machine of social domination, but it also performs an essential function of reciprocal guarantee for those admitted as citizens. This happens precisely from that principle of limitation of state power, which is the best fruit of liberal thought and must be absorbed by socialism.

Thus, socialism, far from presenting itself as the harmonious utopia of a world devoid of conflicts and contradictions, reveals itself to Gramsci as a complex process of transition that takes place over a long period of time and that – as Domenico Losurdo often recalled – directs to the “regulated society”: to a society built on rational foundations, in which the ties of solidarity between human beings are guaranteed by a series of regulations and procedures that do not deny, but universalize the conquests of modernity, its culture and your philosophy.

A society that does not intend to overcome money, exchange value and all forms of division of labor all at once, but which, through pragmatic experimentation with socio-economic forms that are inevitably hybrid and “impure” (such as the NEP of Lenin), comes to the construction of an equitable and efficient socialist market. Finally, of a society that does not intend to annul borders, national identities, even the religious traditions of peoples in the name of a world republic of Soviets and state atheism, but knows how to take into account the particularities and value them from the point of view from a cooperative point of view, preventing, at the same time, all hegemonism and all forms of social chauvinism through the concrete universal that is internationalism correctly understood.

*Stefano G. Azzarà he is professor of political philosophy at the Università di Urbino and edits the magazine Materialismo Storico. Author, among other books, of Comunisti, fascisti and questione nazionale – Fronte rossobruno or Guerra d'egemonia? (Mimesis).


Gianni Fresu. Antonio Gramsci, the philosopher man. An intellectual biography. São Paulo, Boitempo, 2020, 424 pages.


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