Antonio Gramsci 1891-1937

Antonio Gramsci Reader: VI Hegemony, Relations of Force, Historical Bloc

4 [The Concept of ‘Historical Bloc’]

* (Q10,IIž41.i), 1932-35


Croce’s assertion that the philosophy of praxis ‘detaches’ the structure from the superstructures, thereby reviving theological dualism and positing a ‘structure as hidden god’, is not correct and it is not even a particularly profound invention. The accusation of theological dualism and of a breaking up of the process of reality is vacuous and superficial. It is strange that such an accusation should have come from Croce, who introduced the concept of the dialectic of distincts and for this is always being accused by the followers of Gentile of having himself broken up the process of reality. [4] But, leaving this aside, it is not true that the philosophy of praxis ‘detaches’ the structure from the superstructures when, rather, it conceives their development as intimately connected and necessarily interrelated and reciprocal. Nor can the structure be likened to a ‘hidden god’, even metaphorically. It is conceived in an ultra-realistic way, such that it can be studied with the methods of the natural and exact sciences. Indeed, it is precisely because of this objectively verifiable ‘consistency’ of the structure that the conception of history has been considered ‘scientific’. Is it perhaps that the structure is thought of as something immobile and absolute and not rather as reality itself in movement? And does not the statement in the Theses on Feuerbach about the ‘educator who must be educated’ posit a necessary relation of active reaction by man upon the structure, affirming the unity of the process of reality? The concept of ‘historical bloc’ constructed by Sorel grasped precisely in full this unity upheld by the philosophy of praxis. [5] [...]

7 [Political Ideologies]


One of the points which is most interesting to examine and analyse in detail is Croce’s doctrine of political ideologies. [...] For Croce too, now, superstructures are merely apparent and illusory; but has he thought through this change in his position and, in particular, does it correspond to his activity as a philosopher? Croce’s doctrine on political ideologies is evidently derived from the philosophy of praxis: they are practical constructions, instruments of political leadership. In other words, one could say that ideologies for the governed are mere illusions, a deception to which they are subject, while for the governing they constitute a willed and a knowing deception. For the philosophy of praxis, ideologies are anything but arbitrary; they are real historical facts which must be combatted and their nature as instruments of domination revealed, not for reasons of morality etc., but for reasons of political struggle: in order to make the governed intellectually independent of the governing, in order to destroy one hegemony and create another, as a necessary moment in the revolutionizing of praxis. Croce would seem to be nearer than the philosophy of praxis to the vulgar materialist interpretation. For the philosophy of praxis the superstructures are an objective and operative reality (or they become so, when they are not pure products of the individual mind). It explicitly asserts that men become conscious of their social position, and therefore of their tasks, on the terrain of ideologies, which is no small affirmation of reality. The philosophy of praxis itself is a superstructure, it is the terrain on which determinate social groups become conscious of their own social being, their own strength, their own tasks, their own becoming. In this sense Croce himself is right when he asserts that the philosophy of praxis ‘is history already made or in the process of becoming’. [7]

There is however a basic difference between the philosophy of praxis and other philosophies: other ideologies are non-organic creations because they are contradictory, because they aim at reconciling opposed and contradictory interests; their ‘historicity’ will be brief because contradiction emerges after each event of which they have been the instrument. The philosophy of praxis, on the other hand, does not tend towards the peaceful resolution of the contradictions existing within history. It is itself the theory of those contradictions. It is not an instrument of government of dominant groups in order to gain the consent of and exercise hegemony over subaltern classes; it is the expression of these subaltern classes who want to educate themselves in the art of government and who have an interest in knowing all truths, even unpleasant ones, and in avoiding deceptions (impossible) by the ruling class and even more by themselves. The criticism of ideologies, in the philosophy of praxis, attacks the complex of superstructures and affirms their rapid transience in that they tend to hide reality – namely struggle and contradiction – even when they are ‘formally’ dialectical (like Crocism), that is to say they present a speculative and conceptual dialectic and do not see the dialectic in historical becoming itself. [...]

The concept of the concrete (historical) value of the superstructures in the philosophy of praxis must be enriched by juxtaposing it with Sorel’s concept of the ‘historical bloc’. If men become conscious of their social position and their tasks on the terrain of the superstructures, this means that between structure and superstructure a necessary and vital connection exists. One should find out what currents of historiography the philosophy of praxis was reacting against at the time of its foundation and what were the most widespread opinions at the time with respect to the other sciences too. The very images and metaphors on which the founders of the philosophy of praxis frequently draw give some clues in this direction: the argument that the economy is to society what anatomy is to biological sciences – one must remember the struggle that went on in the natural sciences to expel from the scientific terrain principles of classification that were based on external and transient elements. If animals were classified according to the colour of their skin, their hair or their plumage, everyone nowadays would protest. In the human body it certainly cannot be said that the skin (and also the historically prevalent type of physical beauty) are mere illusions and that the skeleton and anatomy are the only reality. However for a long time something similar to this was said. By highlighting the anatomy and the function of the skeleton nobody was trying to claim that man (still less woman) can live without the skin. Going on with the same metaphor one can say that it is not the skeleton (strictly speaking) which makes one fall in love with a woman, but that one nevertheless realizes how much the skeleton contributes to the grace of her movements etc.

Another element in the preface to A Contribution to the Critique is without doubt to be connected to the reform of legislation on trials and punishments. The preface says that just as one does not judge an individual by what he thinks of himself, so one cannot judge a society by its ideologies. [8] This affirmation is perhaps connected to the reform in penal judgments whereby material proofs and the oral evidence of witnesses have replaced the statements of the accused and the corresponding use of torture, etc.

Referring to so-called natural laws and the concept of nature (natural right, state of nature, etc.) ‘which emerged in the philosophy of the seventeenth century and was dominant in the eighteenth’, Croce mentions that ‘This conception is in fact only obliquely attacked by Marx’s critique which, analysing the concept of nature, showed how it was the ideological complement of the historical development of the bourgeoisie, an enormously powerful weapon which the bourgeoisie used against the privileges and oppressions it sought to destroy.’ Croce uses this observation to make the following methodological statement: ‘That concept may have arisen as an instrument for practical and occasional ends and yet it may still be intrinsically true. “Natural laws” are equivalent, in that case, to “rational laws”; and it is necessary to deny the rationality and excellence of those laws. Now, precisely because it is of metaphysical origin, that concept can be radically rejected, but one cannot refute it in its particularity. It wanes with the metaphysics to which it belonged; and it seems now to have waned for good. Peace be unto the “great goodness” of natural laws’. [9]

The passage as a whole is not very clear or lucid. One should reflect on the fact that in general (i.e. sometimes) a concept may arise as an instrument for a practical and occasional end and nonetheless be intrinsically true. But I do not believe there are many who would maintain that once a structure has altered, all the elements of the corresponding superstructure must necessarily collapse. What happens, rather, is that out of an ideology that arose to lead the popular masses and which therefore necessarily takes account of certain of their interests, several elements survive: the law of nature itself, which may have waned for the educated classes, is preserved by the Catholic religion and is more alive among the people than one thinks. Besides, in his critique of the concept the founder of the philosophy of praxis affirmed its historicity, its transience; he limited its intrinsic value to this historicity but did not deny it.

Note 1. The phenomena of the modern breakdown of parliamentarism can offer many examples of the function and concrete value of ideologies. The way in which this breakdown is presented so as to hide the reactionary tendencies of certain social groups is of the greatest interest.