Gramsci's anti-Croce

Ivor Abrahms, Sundial I, 1975.


When leaning over Croce's work, Gramsci sought to decant ideas that would format the bases of his own conception of the world

The “crucial problem” of historical materialism – the relationship between the base and the superstructure – is one of the guiding axes of Gramsci's critique of Croce. Unlike Bukharin, whom Gramsci had criticized for being a mechanistic materialist, the Neapolitan philosopher was an intellectual of Hegelian extraction of astounding erudition and author of an extensive work that consecrated him as the most influential thinker in Italy. Gramsci, who in a youthful period considered himself “crocian”, turned to us notebooks to face the former master, whom he considered a “world leader in culture”. Inspired by "Anti-Duhring” by Engels, intended to lay the foundations of a Anti-Croce, a task that “would deserve an entire group of men to dedicate ten years of activity to it” (prison notebooks 1, 305, henceforth CC).

When leaning over Croce's work, Gramsci sought to decant ideas that would format the foundations of his own conception of the world. But how to study an author? Referring to Marx's work, Gramsci made a comment that serves perfectly as a guide for the interpretation of his own writings: "If one wants to study the birth of a conception of the world that was never systematically expounded by its founder (...) it is It is necessary, first of all, to reconstruct the intellectual development process of the given thinker in order to identify the elements that became stable and “permanent”, that is, that were assumed as their own thought, different and superior to the previously studied “material” and that served as a stimulus; these elements alone are essential moments in the development process. (...). Research into the Leitmotiv of the developing rhythm of thought must be more important than particular and casual statements and than isolated aphorisms” (CC, 4, 18 and 19).

Thought, however, does not develop alone, but, on the contrary, responds to the challenges posed by history – and, in Gramsci, such challenges revolve around the Russian revolution, the southern question and the rise of fascism in Italy.

The “process of intellectual development” led Gramsci to confront an erudite author who also inserted himself in the dialectical tradition. Gramsci's path, between Bukharin and Croce, is somewhat reminiscent of the dilemmas experienced by the young Marx in the 40s, when he sought to formulate his theory by combating the legacy of Hegel's idealist-dialectical philosophy and Feuerbach's sensualist materialism.

At various times, Gramsci insisted on reaffirming the holistic character of his thought, as, among many other examples, in a passage where, discussing the relationships between philosophy, politics and economics, he observed that if these activities: “are the constitutive elements of the same conception of the world, there must necessarily exist, in its theoretical principles, convertibility of one into the other, reciprocal translation in the specific language proper to each constitutive element: one is implicit in the other and all, together, form a homogeneous circle” ( CC, 6, 209). The best studies of his work always point out that the various concepts he employs are not loose pieces, as they are recurrent and integrated into a “homogeneous circle”.

Fidelity to materialism, in turn, did not allow granting autonomy to concepts, as these derive from their material base. The dialectic, therefore, operates within the social matter and not only at the conceptual level, as Croce intended.

From the understanding of Marxism as a totalizing, materialist and radically historicist theory, Gramsci directs his criticism to Croce and, through these criticisms, he decanted the elements that would become “stable” and “permanent” in the configuration of his “own thought”. .

The intellectual combat against the old master mixed theory and politics.

Croce's strong presence in cultural and political life in Italy was a reference for liberal currents and for all idealist thought that was hegemonic in Italy at the time. Furthermore, “Crocian texts on theory of history provided the intellectual weapons of the two greatest movements of “revisionism” at the time, those of Eduard Bernstein, in Germany, and that of Sorel, in France. Bernstein himself wrote that he was led to rework his entire philosophical and economic thinking after reading Croce's essays” (prison letters, 2, 188, henceforth C).

As an important inheritor of Hegel's philosophy, Croce appropriated in his own way the dialectic and fundamental themes of historical materialism. In a symmetrical movement, Gramsci also appropriated Crotian concepts, translating them into Marxism, such as hegemony, the revaluation of the philosophical front, the role of intellectuals, etc. We are thus faced with a tangle of cross-references. Defending the Hegelian legacy, Gramsci countered its absorption by the Neapolitan philosopher. Hegelian philosophy, according to Gramsci, is the expression of a revolutionary period of history, marked by the French Revolution and the Napoleonic wars, a period of contradictions and struggles that were directly reflected within the dialectic. In Croce, on the other hand, social struggles are absent. In your History of Europe in the Decimono Sector, Croce does not deal with the French Revolution and the Napoleonic wars and, in History of Italy from 1871-1915, ignore the fights of the Risorgimento. In this way, he “dismisses the moment of struggle” and “placidly assumes as history the moment of cultural expansion or ethical-political moment”. This cultural history, stripped of its material basis, is pure idealism, a metaphysics of the Spirit that develops in spite of men. Gramsci concludes by saying that this historiography is “a revival of Restoration historiography adapted to the needs and interests of the current period”; Croce's historiography, therefore, "is a degenerated and mutilated Hegelianism, since its fundamental concern is a panic fear of the Jacobin movements, of any active intervention of the great popular masses as a factor of historical progress" (CC 1, 281 and 291) . By Jacobin movements, Bolshevism is understood, remembering that Lenin defined communists as Jacobins closely linked to the working class.

In order to affirm his theory and keep it away from the “materialist friends of the Hegelian dialectic” (as Lenin would say), Croce had to turn against the Hegelian conception of dialectic that expressed the social contradictions of his time, putting in its place “a pure conceptual dialectic” (C, 1, 246). At science of logic, the uninterrupted movement transformed identity into difference, opposition and contradiction. Croce introduced an attenuating element, the distinct, a concept traditionally suited to understanding, to analytical reason. In the dialectic of the distinct, the continuous movement of negation/overcoming is not developed, but, on the contrary, the coexistence of differences remains.

Hegel's dialectic thus undergoes a sudden change. In Croce's new version: "the thesis must be preserved by the antithesis so as not to destroy the process itself". Gramsci protests against the appeasement of opposites, stating that in real history “the antithesis tends to destroy the thesis, the synthesis will be an overcoming, but without being able to establish a priori what will be “conserved” from the thesis in the antithesis” (CC, 1, 292). In another passage, he adds: “if it is possible to affirm, generically, that the synthesis preserves what is still vital in the thesis, surpassed by the antithesis, it is not possible to affirm, without discretion, what will be conserved, what a priori is considered as vital, without falling into ideologism, in the conception of a story with a predetermined goal” (CC, 1, 395). But what is so important to Croce that it needs to be conserved? According to Gramsci, it would be “the liberal form of the State”.

The reformulation of the dialectic, its “weakening” as Gramsci stated, would therefore be at the service of a conservative vision of history understood as “revolution-restoration” or “passive revolution” – a reformism that incorporates and preserves some demands of the popular sectors preventing the escalation of conflicts. Croce would play the same role as Gioberti in the Risorgimento by endorsing the vision of history as a dialectic of “conservation and innovation” (Q 958), a vision that expresses fear of Jacobinism, of the “irrational” popular presence, of the irruption of negativity. Gramsci compares this deformation of the dialectic to that practiced by Proudhon and criticized by Marx in misery of philosophy (C, 1, 292), in which Marx opposes the Hegelian dialectic to Proudhon's interpretation. The principle of contradiction in Hegel was reduced by Proudhon “to the simple procedure of opposing good to evil.” (MARX: 1982, p. 110). Therefore, there are no ruptures (revolutions), but adjustments, since the contradiction came to be understood as an antidote. For Marx, on the contrary, “it is the bad side that produces the movement that makes history, constituting the struggle”. The same idea is endorsed by Engels: “In Hegel, evil is the driving force of historical development (...) , p.1963).

In Proudhon and Croce negativity is neutralized: revolution-restoration.

In addition to being conservative, Croce's conception of history is abstract – a history of the Spirit that develops disconnected from material conditions.

Nicolas Tertulian recalls a passage from the Note autobiographical in which Croce sought to defend himself against the objections made by those who “continue to think of history as a blind struggle of economic interests and as an abuse (soprafazione) perpetrated by one party or another, one class or another. I came across the objection several times that my concept of freedom was out of date (antiquated) and formal, and that it was necessary to modernize it and give it a content by introducing the satisfaction of the demands and needs of this or that class or that or that social group. But the concept of freedom has freedom as its only content, just as the concept of poetry has only poetry, and if it is to be awakened in souls with its purity, which is its ideal vigor, it is necessary to avoid confusing it with the needs and requirements of another order. (TERTULIAN: 2016, p. 264).

Would the subject of history in Croce, therefore, be the universal, a universal that hovers above individuals? In fact, says Croce, “if one asks what is the subject of the history of poetry, one will not answer for sure Dante or Shakespeare, or Italian or English poetry, or the series of poems that we know, but Poetry, that is, a universal; and to the question of what is the subject of social and political history, one will not answer Greece, Rome, France, nor Germany, nor the complex of these and other similar things, but Culture, Civilization, Progress, Liberty, that is, a universal” (CROCE: 1953, p. 48).

Luciano Gruppi rightly comments that Croce replaces effective history with “the concept derived from these realities, that is, freedom, culture, etc.; in short, an abstraction” (GRUPPI: 1978, p. 48). But then, to criticize Croce, he approvingly quotes a passage from the young Marx who, still under the empiricist and nominalist influence of Feuerbach, denied the existence of universals. Although long, it is worth reproducing: “When, playing with realities, apples, pears, strawberries, almonds, I form the general idea “fruit”; when, going further, I imagine that my abstract idea "the fruit", deduced from the real fruits, is a being that exists outside of me and, even more, constitutes the true essence of the pear, the apple, etc., I declare – in speculative language – that “the fruit” is the “substance” of the pear, apple, almond, etc. I say, therefore, that what is essential in a pear or an apple is not being a pear or an apple. What is essential in these things is not their real being, perceptible to the senses, but the abstract essence I have of them and which I attributed to them, the essence of my representation: “the fruit”. My limited understanding, supported by my senses, distinguishes, it is true, an apple from a pear or an almond; but my speculative reason declares this sensible difference to be non-essential and uninteresting. She sees the same thing in the apple as in the pear, and in the pear the same thing as in the almond, that is, “the fruit”. The real particular fruits are only apparent fruits, whose true essence is “the substance”, “the fruit” (MARX-ENGELS: 1087, pp. 59-60).

In this critique of the autonomization of the universal, Marx followed the guidance of some Young Hegelians who countered it with the sensible presence of singular beings (the “Unique”, Stirner would say) and, by doing so, ended up denying the dialectic itself. After this Feuerbachian period, Marx reconciled with dialectics by stating in a letter to Engels dated 9-12-1861 that Hegel “never qualified as dialectic the reduction of “cases” to a general principle” (MARX: 1976, p. 291 ).

Gramsci, in his fight for the “cultural unification of the human race”, invoked the universal character of genericity, thus keeping himself far from nominalism (and, we would say, moving away from future interpreters who placed him as a precursor of “identity politics” ). Regarding humankind, Gramsci made the following statement demarcating his position both from nominalism and from the autonomization of the universal: ““human nature” cannot be found in any particular man, but in the entire history of humankind (…) in each individual there are characteristics highlighted by the contradiction with those of other men” (C, 1, 245).

As for Croce, his intention was not to make the history of the universal, but to know the universal in history. The method of the philosophy of the spirit, as he stated anticipating criticism, “was never that of abstraction and generalization, but of the thought of the universal that is immanent in the individual” (CROCE: 1959, p. 13). Therefore, he sought to distance himself from the dualist positions that separate the individual from the general, stating that “true history is the history of the individual as universal and of the universal as individual. It is not a matter of abolishing Pericles or Plato for the benefit of Politics, or Sophocles for the benefit of Tragedy”, since whoever eliminates individuals from history eliminates “history itself” along with them (CROCE: 1953, p. 85). It perceives here the exclusion of the particular and, with it, the social mediations.

Furthermore, by understanding all of history as a thesis of the present, Croce distanced himself from the Marxian thesis of the ontological centrality of the present, which understands it as the result of a process and not as a subjective experience, an idea. Lukács cites a passage in which Croce clearly expresses his idealism when talking about some examples of the subject of historiography: “None of these examples moves me: and, therefore, at this moment, these stories are not history at all; at best they are history book titles. They are history, or will be, only for those who thought or will think about them; and, for me, they were when I thought about them and worked with them according to my intellectual need, and they will be again when I think about them again” (LUKÁCS: 2011, pp. 223-4).

The history conceived is, therefore, the history of superstructures (“ethical-political” that develops in spite of the material base, representing boneless “figures”, without skeleton, with flaccid and weak flesh, even if under the dyes of the literary beauties of the writer ”). (CC, 1, 309)

Gramsci, with the concept of historical block, sought to keep the base and the superstructure united, avoiding the determinism of the first (Bukharin) or the autonomy of the second (Croce).

The autonomization of the superstructure, in Croce, led him to accuse Marx of defending a monocausal explanation of history. Marx's “neodialectic”, according to him, would have replaced the Hegelian Idea with Matter, thus conceiving the structure as a hidden God leading history (CROCE: 2007, p. 77). Gramsci considers the comparison unfounded: “It is not true that in the philosophy of praxis the Hegelian “idea” has been replaced by the “concept of structure”, as Croce claims. The Hegelian “idea” is resolved both in the structure and in the superstructures, and every way of conceiving philosophy was “historicized”, that is, the birth of a new way of philosophizing began, more concrete and more historical than the previous ones” (CC, 1, 138).

Croce also affirmed the character of appearance that Marxism, according to him, would attribute to the superstructure, having as a support base the use of the word anatomy to refer to the infrastructure. But such a metaphorical derivation (anatomy = biological sciences; economy = society) needs to be contextualized. According to Gramsci, it originated “in the struggle that took place in the natural sciences to remove from the scientific terrain the principles of classification based on external and fragile elements. If animals were classified by the color of their skin, fur or feathers, everyone would protest today. In the human body, of course, it cannot be said that the skin (as well as the historically dominant type of physical beauty) is a mere illusion, and that the skeleton and anatomy are the only reality; however, for a long time, something similar was said”. (CC, 1, 389)

Historical materialism, according to Croce's interpretation, “separates the structure from the superstructure, thus strongly referring to theological dualism (…). This means that the structure is conceived as immobile, and not reality itself in motion: what does Marx mean, in the Theses on Feuerbach, when he speaks of the “educator's education” if not that the superstructure reacts dialectically on the structure and modifies it. , that is, does it not affirm in “realistic” terms a negation of negation? Does it not assert the unity of the actual process?” (Q, II, 854).

Note here that Gramscian historicism, by considering structure as the reality of movement, shares Marx's opinion expressed in the floorplans, text published four years after Gramsci’s death: “capitalism is not so much a structure as a process”. Both thus anticipate the later structuralist pretensions of privileging synchrony.

As for the active role of superstructures, Gramsci, in another passage, takes up Croce's statement according to which, in Marx, superstructures would be "appearance and illusion" to conclude: ideologies are, on the contrary, "an objective and operative reality, but not they are the spring of the story, that's all. (...). How could Marx think that superstructures are appearance and illusion? Also his doctrines are a superstructure. Marx explicitly states that men become aware of their tasks in the ideological terrain, in the superstructures. (…) If men become aware of their tasks in the field of ideologies, this means that there is a necessary and vital connection between structure and superstructure, as well as in the human body between the skin and the skeleton: it would be absurd to state that man stands erect on the skin and not on the skeleton, and yet that does not mean that the skin is an apparent and illusory thing…” (Q, I, 436-7).

On the other hand, the “necessary and vital nexus” claimed to hold together the two instances of the real led Gramsci to critically appropriate the Sorelian concept of historical block, understood as “unity between nature and spirit (structure and superstructure), unity of opposites and distinct” (CC, 2, 26). The totalization carried out by the historic block makes the distinction between base and superstructure a methodical and non-organic statement.

The junction of the two social spheres that idealism and vulgar materialism kept apart will be resumed, some time later, by several authors, such as Raymond Williams and Guy Debord who, aware of the technological advance of capitalism and the commodification of culture, found that the superstructure became become a productive force.

*Celso Frederico is a retired senior professor at ECA-USP. Author, among other books, of Essays on Marxism and Culture (Morula).


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CROCE, Benedetto. The character of modern philosophy (Buenos Aires: Imán, 1959).

CROCE, Benedetto. Historical materialism and Marxist economics (São Paulo: Centauro, 2007)

ENGELS, F. “Ludwig Feuerbach and the end of classical German philosophy”, in MARX & ENGELS. Selected Works, vol 3 (Rio de Janeiro: Vitória, 1963).

GRAMSCI, Antonio. prison notebooks (Rio de Janeiro: Brazilian Civilization, 1999-2002, 6 volumes).

GRAMSCI, Antonio. prison notebook (Torino: Einaudi), 1975).

GRAMSCI, Antonio. prison letters (Brazilian Civilization).

GRUPPI, Luciano. The concept of hegemony in Gramsci (Rio de Janeiro: Grail, 1978).

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