Antonio Gramsci in 1916

Antonio Gramsci in 1916

Between 1931 and 1932, Antonio Gramsci wrote, in his Prison Notebooks, an extensive commentary on Benedetto Croce’s studies on Machiavelli’s Prince.  Gramsci extensively praises Machiavelli for being the first thinker to have raised the issue of politics as an autonomous science, a problem whose urgency he repeatedly underlines throughout his Notebooks. In this sense, he applauds Croce for having rejected every moralistic interpretation of the Prince, such as that proposed by Pasquale Villari, “for whom Machiavelli’s great defect is that he fails to see the moral problem . . . Machiavelli starts by establishing a fact: the conditions of struggle in which society finds itself. He then gives rules in accordance with this objective condition. Why . . . should he concern himself with the ethics of the struggle?”

Gramsci believes that the motive behind Croce’s anti-moralistic interpretation of Machiavelli’s book is his reliance upon “his distinction of the moments of the spirit, and on his affirmation of a moment of practice, of a practical spirit, autonomous and independent though linked in a circle to all reality by the dialectic of distincts”. In other words, Croce’s great merit is to have upheld the autonomy of politics on the basis of the dialectical scheme, of which politics is a distinct term.

The challenge, for Gramsci, therefore, is to translate Croce’s intuition into a Marxist vocabulary, since, within his philosophy of Praxis, dialectical dynamics are not observable among different moments of the absolute Spirit, but between different levels of superstructure. From Machiavelli, therefore, Gramsci moves on to investigate the exact position of politics within the dialectics of superstructure, or, in other words, the relation and distinction between politics (superstructure) and material forces of production (structure).

For Gramsci, Croce addressed this problem by identifying politics with passion. He commends him for having approached the study of politics from the perspective of the lower classes, forced “on the defensive”, by the presence of a real of alleged wrong or evil. “Not only, however, according to Croce, does political science have to account for a part, and its actions, but also the other part, as well as the action on this side. What needs to be accounted for is political initiative, may it be “defensive”, namely “passionate”, or “offensive”, namely not only aiming at avoiding a present evil (this may also be merely alleged, because even an alleged evil triggers suffering and, as such, it is present and real). If we carefully examine Croce’s concept of “passion”, elaborated in order to theoretically justify politics, it seems evident that it cannot be fully justified by the concept of permanent struggle, according to which “initiative” is always passionate, since the struggle is uncertain and not only does it compel to always attack in order not to be defeated, but also to threaten the enemy, who “may win”, if it were not continuously pointed at as the weaker and more beatable one. Therefore, there cannot be any passion without antagonism and especially antagonism among groups of people, because within the struggle between man and nature, passion is labelled science and not politics. It is, thus, possible to say that, according to Croce, the term passion is synonymous with social struggle”.

Benedetto Croce

Benedetto Croce

While Gramsci evidently agrees with Croce in postulating a link between passion and politics, he profoundly disagrees on the nature of this link. Croce’s definition, he argues, triggers a re-definition of social struggle, which is not seen anymore as a condition immanent to society, but only caused by the presence of a real or perceived evil. By consequence, it excludes organised politics, traditionally taking the form of permanent political parties or standing armies:

“Croce’s conception of politics/passion excludes parties, since it is not possible to think of an organised and permanent passion. Permanent passion is a condition of orgasm and of spasm, which means operational incapacity. It excludes parties, and excludes every plan of action worked out in advance. However, parties exist and plans of action are worked out, put into practice, and are often successful to a remarkable extent. So there is a flaw in Croce’s conception. Nor is it enough to say that, even if parties exist, that has little theoretical importance, because at the moment of action the party in operation is not the same thing as the “party” which existed previously. There may be a partial truth in this, but the points of coincidence between the two “parties” are such that one may really be said to be dealing with the same organism. But for Croce’s conception to be valid, it would have to be possible to apply it also to war, and hence to explain the fact of standing armies, military academies, officer corps. War in progress too is “passion”, the most intense and febrile of all passions; it is a moment of political life; it is the continuation in other forms of a given policy. It is necessary therefore to explain how passion can become moral “duty”—duty in terms not of political morality but of ethics”.

He, then adds: “If the Crocean concept of passion as a moment of politics comes up against the difficulty of explaining and justifying the permanent political formations, such as the parties and still more the national armies and General Staffs, since it is impossible to conceive of a passion being organised permanently without its becoming rationality and deliberate reflection and hence no longer passion, the solution can only be found in the identification of politics and economics. Politics becomes permanent action and gives birth to permanent organisations precisely in so far as it identifies itself with economics. But it is also distinct from it, which is why one may speak separately of economics and politics, and speak of “political passion” as of an immediate impulse to action which is born on the ‘‘permanent and organic’’ terrain of economic life but which transcends it, bringing into play emotions and aspirations in whose incandescent atmosphere even calculations involving the individual human life itself obey different laws from those of individual profit, etc.”

The most interesting aspect of this quotation is Gramsci’s skillful use of the concept of identity, involving both a relation and a distinction between two terms. In short, unlike Croce, whose use of passion is seen as one-sided, because of the complete identification between passion and politics, Gramsci sees it as a moment in the dialectical interplay of structure and superstructure, arising, on the one hand, from the set of real, productive forces inherent to society, and transcending it, on the other, by fuelling political practice with emotions.

Gramsci, A. (1929-35) Quaderni Dal Carcere, Q888-89, 1307-10

© Alessandro De Arcangelis

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