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The Study of Philosophy and of Historical Materialism
by Antonio Gramsci
Est. Reading Time: 8 min

Marxism can only present itself at first in a style of polemic and criticism, as overcoming preceding modes of thought and actual existing thought (or the existing cultural world); hence above all as a critique of “common sense” (after having based itself on common sense to demonstrate that “everyone” is a philosopher and that it is not a question of introducing ex novo a science into the individual life of “everyone,” but of renovating and criticizing an already existing philosophy) and hence also as a critique of the philosophies of the intellectuals which make up the history of philosophy, and which, individually (and developing in fact essentially out of the activity of especially gifted individuals) can be considered as the “high points” of the progress of common sense, at least of the common sense of the more cultured strata of society, and through them of popular common sense as well. That is why an introduction to the study of philosophy must expound synthetically the problems nascent in the development of general culture, which is only partially reflected in the history of philosophy, the latter, however, in the absence of a history of common sense (impossible to write because of the lack of documentary material) remaining the largest source of reference—in order to discuss them, showing their living significance (if they still have any) or their significance in the past as links in a historical chain, and determining the new present-day problems or the present-day formulation of old problems.

The relationship between the “higher” philosophy and common sense is secured by “politics,” just as the relationship between the Catholicism of the intellectuals and that of the “simple people” is secured by politics. But the difference in the two cases is fundamental. The fact that the Church has to face the problem of the “simple people” means precisely that a breach has occurred within the community of the “faithful,” a breach which cannot be healed by bringing the “simple people” up to the level of the intellectuals (the Church does not even set itself this task, which is ideally and economically too great for its actual forces), but by an iron discipline over the intellectuals so that they do not pass beyond certain limits of differentiation and do not render it catastrophic and irreparable. In the past these “breaches” in the community of the faithful were healed by strong mass movements which brought about, or were absorbed by, the formation of new religious orders around forceful personalities (Francis, Dominic).

But the counter-Reformation sterilized this germination of popular forces. The Society of Jesus is the last great religious order, of reactionary and authoritarian origin, with a repressive and “diplomatic” character, whose origin signalized a stiffening of the Catholic organism. The new orders which arose afterwards had very small “religious” significance but great “disciplinary” significance over the masses of the faithful. They are ramifications and tentacles of the Society of Jesus or they have become such—weapons of “resistance” for preserving the already acquired political position, not forces of renewed development. Catholicism has become “Jesuitism.” The modern age has not seen the creation of “religious orders” but of a political party, the Christian Democrats.

Marxism is antithetical to this Catholic position: Marxism does not seek to sustain the “simple people” in their primitive philosophy of common sense, but instead to lead them to a higher view of life. If it asserts the need for contact between the intellectuals and the simple people it does so, not in order to limit scientific activity and maintain unity at the low level of the masses, but precisely in order to build an intellectual-moral bloc which makes politically possible the intellectual progress of the masses and not only of a few groups of intellectuals.

The active man of the masses works practically, but he does not have a clear theoretical consciousness of his actions, which is also a knowledge of the world in so far as he changes it. Rather his theoretical consciousness may be historically opposed to his actions. We can almost say that he has two theoretical consciousnesses (or one contradictory consciousness), one implicit in his actions, which unites him with all his colleagues in the practical transformation of reality, and one superficially explicit or verbal which he has inherited from the past and which he accepts without criticism. Nevertheless, this (superficial) “verbal” conception is not without consequence; it binds him to a certain social group, influences his moral behavior and the direction of his will in a more or less powerful way, and it can reach the point where the contradiction of his conscience will not permit any action, any decision, any choice, and produces a state of moral and political passivity. Critical understanding of oneself, therefore, comes through the struggle of political “hegemonies,” of opposing directions, first in the field of ethics, then of politics, culminating in a higher elaboration of one’s own conception of reality. The awareness of being part of a determined hegemonic force (i.e. political consciousness) is the first step towards a further and progressive self-consciousness in which theory and practice finally unite. So the unity of theory and practice is also not a given mechanical fact but an historical process of becoming, which has its elementary and primitive phases in the sense of “distinctiveness,” of “separation,” of barely instinctive independence, and progresses up to the real and complete possession of a coherent and unitary conception of the world. That is why we should emphasize that the political development of the concept of hegemony represents a great step forward in philosophy as well as in practical politics, because it involves and presupposes an intellectual unity and an ethic conforming to a conception of reality which has surpassed common sense and, even though still within restricted limits, has become critical.

However, in the most recent developments of Marxism the deepening of the concept of the unity of theory and practice is still only in its initial stage: remnants of mechanicalism still persist, since theory is spoken of as a “complement,” an accessory of practice, as an ancillary of practice. It seems correct that this question, too, must be posed historically, that is, as an aspect of the political question of the intellectuals. Critical self-consciousness signifies historically and politically the creation of intellectual cadres: a human mass does not “distinguish” itself and does not become independent “by itself,” without organizing itself (in a broad sense) and there is no organization without intellectuals, that is, without organizers and leaders, without the theoretical aspect of the theory-practice nexus distinguishing itself concretely in a stratum of people who “specialize” in its conceptual and philosophical elaboration. But this process of the creation of intellectuals is a long and difficult one, full of contradictions, of advances and retreats, of disbanding and regroupings, in which the “fidelity” of the mass (“fidelity” and discipline are initially the forms assumed by the adherence of the mass and by its collaboration in the development of the whole cultural phenomenon) is sometimes put to a severe test. The process of development is bound by an intellectuals-mass dialectic; the stratum of intellectuals develops quantitatively and qualitatively, but every leap towards a new “fullness” and complexity on the part of the intellectuals is tied to an analogous movement of the mass of simple people, who raise themselves to higher levels of culture and at the same time broaden their circle of influence with thrusts forward by more or less important individuals or groups towards the level of the specialized intellectuals. But in the process, times continually occur when a separation takes place between the mass and the intellectuals (either certain individuals or a group of them), a loss of contact, and hence the impression [of theory] as a complementary, subordinate “accessory.” Insistence on the element of “practice” in the theory-practice nexus, after having split, separated and not merely distinguished the two elements (merely a mechanical and conventional operation), means that we are passing through a relatively primitive historical phase, one that is still economic-corporative, in which the general framework of the “structure” is being transformed quantitatively and the appropriate quality-superstructure is in process of arising but is not yet organically formed. We must emphasize the importance and significance which the political parties have in the modern world in the elaboration and propagation of conceptions of the world, inasmuch as they elaborate an ethic and a policy suited to themselves, that is, they act almost as historical “experimenters” with these conceptions. Parties individually select a working mass and this selection takes place in the practical as well as the theoretical fields, with a stricter relationship between theory and practice according as their conceptions are more vitally and radically innovatory and antagonistic to the old modes of thought. Hence one can say that the parties are the elaborators of new integrated and all-embracing intellectual systems, in other words the annealing agents of the unity of theory and practice in the sense of real historical process. Of course, it is necessary that the parties should be formed through individual enlistment and not in a “Labor Party” way, because, if the aim is to lead organically “the whole economically active mass” it must be led not according to old schemes but by creating new ones, and the innovation cannot involve the mass, in its first stages, except by way of a cadre in whom the conception implicit in the human activity has already become to a certain extent actually coherent and systematic consciousness, precise and decided will.

The Study of Philosophy and of Historical Materialism
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