Notes on Gramsci’s reflections about dialectics

by Stefano Garroni



 “What Gramsci’s passionate search is mainly concerned with regards the construction of a new State, the workers’ State, that is, the problem of the working class hegemony in modern society and the role of culture and intellectuals in this new State and society.” (Gramsci, Il materialismo storico e la filosofia di Benedetto Croce, Torino 1952: XV; italic added SG)[1]. This is the way in which the editor represents the central theme of Gramsci’s work.

But from this point of view, I think, no doubt a problem arises: given that culture and ideology are, in Gramsci, interchangeable terms (and sometimes that is what the reading seems to suggest), it is not clear whether Gramsci can accurately distinguish culture, as bearer of a  truth/value, from culture, as a means of political power. In other words, it is not clear whether the intellectual is seen as a necessary moment of the organization of political power or as a subject who is responsible for an activity which must be aiming at truth..[2]

An attempt to escape from this impasse, which Gramsci seems to make, doesn’t appear, as far as I can see, to reach the goal. An ideology, he says, may attain success or not, but it is not accidentally that it does so. Its effectiveness in seizing the masses (therefore, its effectiveness in playing, as it seems, a pragmatically useful role ) depends on whether it can be adequate (or, if you like, correspond) to a historical given situation or not.

Despite that, the initial doubt is not cancelled. The phrase ‹being adequate to a historical given situation› is ambivalent. It can mean either that an ideology may be useful within a given historical context ( the term ‹ideology› would have, therefore, a pragmatic meaning), or that an ideology or culture can adequately describe a given historical situation and get the sense of it (ideology or culture would be judged by the truth/value criterion, then, contrary to the former case).[3]

Where things get a little bit better is in a passage in which Gramsci writes: “it is certain that subjectivism is a conception belonging to modern philosophy in its mostly accomplished and advanced form, since it is this conception that, developing into a more elevated stage, has yielded the historical materialism, which renders, with its theory of superstructures,  in a realistic and historicist language what the traditional philosophy expressed in a speculative form. The demonstration of this assumption … would be of the greatest cultural importance: it would put a stop to otiose and useless debates, so allowing an organic development of philosophy of practice, as far as to turn it into the hegemonic exponent of high culture. It is indeed surprising that such a subject concerning what connection there is between the idealistic thesis about world as a creation of human spirit and the thesis of philosophy of practice about the historic and not permanent life of all ideologies, since ideologies are expressed by the structure and change as the structure changes, hasn’t ever been stated and properly investigated.”[4]

It is evident that  Gramsci is here trying to remove any ambiguity concerning the philosophy of practice as a kind of “pragmatism”. He tends to stress that Marx’s thought has its roots in a very different view, i.e. in the German classical philosophy.

Nonetheless, what Gramsci says is once again open to more than one interpretation. There are two reasons for that: (1) because of his re-asserting – and that is, historically speaking, almost unavoidable- the mysterious theme of Marx’s “materialistic reversal “ of the Hegelian dialectics, and (2) because of his definition of ideologies (here meaning cultures) as “expressed by the structure”. If ideologies are “expressed by the structure” they are not bound to any truth/value and pragmatism is again brought in.

Another meaningful aspect of the ambivalence we are considering, is the role that Gramsci attributes to form when he characterizes philosophy and distinguishes it from the ordinary understanding.

Once explained that the ordinary understanding is a deposit of different not coherent and not systematic cultural stages, Gramsci emphasizes that it is for this reason that the ordinary understanding man (the man whose conscience doesn’t go beyond the sphere of the ordinary understanding), though unaware, is different men at the same time.[5] That’s why the passage from ‘spontaneity’ to conscience, from the unaware ordinary understanding to consciously adopting a culture, to Gramsci is a process of unification or, better, of harmonizing personalities. A process by which the subject, who is many different “mass-men”,  becomes one mass-man.[6]

That seems to suggest that we can distinguish the mental contents, which are formally dispersed and incoherent – though pragmatically useful (ideology, religion, ordinary understanding) -, from other mental contents (philosophy, sound judgment), which, because of their being logically ordered and possessing a systematic form, have a determinate object corresponding to them (therefore, they can be judged by the truth/value criterion). In other words, that’s a possible interpretational approach to Gramsci. .

Since it has taken on a dynamic conception of reality, the philosophy of practice continues the modern subjectivism. Reality is not a world already given, whose mental copy should be assured by mind. On the contrary, the philosophy of practice considers the world of experience, i.e. the sphere of a ceaseless interaction among subject, society and nature, as its own object and as something which can’t be true from the beginning. It is because of its taking a determinate systematic form , that it becomes true. A true thought is a thought which can be part of such a historical process – the process by which reality constructs itself -, reproducing it at its own level. A true thought is, therefore, a thought which can be recognized as such, because of its determinate and systematic formal features.[7] But let’s go into the relation standing among ordinary understanding / sound judgment / philosophy : we could get a dialectic theme, which is central in Hegel [8].

In the ordinary understanding, Gramsci observes, there is a good characteristic: it consists in its tendency to go beyond the immediateness of passions, to understand both how things are and what to do [9]. This positive side – we can call it sound judgment – is worthy of being developed in a systematic way [10]

Therefore, what seemed to be a stiff opposition (philosophy against ordinary understanding), in fact, can find a medium: the sound judgment is that part of ordinary understanding, which is available to assume an ordered and systematic form, so getting compatible with philosophy to be meant as a culture consciously adopted and systematically developed. It is true that when we pass from ordinary understanding to philosophy, we see a break, a radical change of  perspective. But it is also true that such a passage wouldn’t be feasible, if it didn’t find in the existence of a sound judgment one of the conditions which makes it possible. In other words, the “scientific philosophy”, the systematic consciousness should not be set in sharp opposition to the “popular philosophy”, the “spontaneous” and discontinuous consciousness, since there exists a medium, the sound judgment, between the two.

Now, we find out that philosopher, ordinary man, ordinary worker and political cadre, still maintaining their differences from the point of view of their consciousness, lie, we can say, on the same line, as different moments of the same evolution: the sound judgment mediates them and makes them be one the side of the other, one the condition of possibility of the other.

The above stiff opposition (philosophy or ordinary understanding) is, therefore, dialectically transcended,  mediated as it is by the sound judgment. It follows that, on one hand, philosopher and political avant-garde maintain what make them differ from ordinary man and ordinary worker, but, on the other hand, they all are parts of a whole, i.e.  different functional elements of the same whole and, therefore, related to each other at such an extent that each one could not be thought to exist if his own “other”, the one who corresponds to him, didn’t.[11]

We can now better understand Gramsci writing:  “The function and meaning of dialectics can be comprehended in all their fundamental significance, only if the philosophy of practice is seen as an original and integral philosophy, which gives rise to a new phase in the world history and development of thought, since it goes beyond (maintaining the vital elements of them at same time it goes beyond them) both the traditional  materialism and the traditional idealism as expressions of the old society“.[12]

In other words, dialectics is not just a specific distinct part of the philosophy of practice, but the entireness, so to say, of its “intension[13].

When we say philosophy of practice (and that means, as we know, Marx’s thought) we signify a given attitude[14] towards the world, an attitude which consists in dissolving ‹rigid things› into ‹dynamical relations› (remember how it is central in Marx the battle against strangeness / Entfremdung or the contrast between live labour and capital or dead labour  and, finally, his conception of the economic categories as crystallization of social relationships )

Since it is a means to unmask reification – which gives to relations the form of a thing (the Hegelian Verdinglichung)-, dialectics shows it is the way to reveal (but also to create) the pattern of relations, which underlies reality also when this one appears to be fixed in its particularity and therefore closed in its isolation. .

It is just because of its being a dialectic thought that philosophy of practice can be an integral historicism, that is, it can be a theory which conveys to a more elevated form the existent world, removing and transcending what seems to be both necessarily constitutive and  gratuitous in it – both determinant and arbitrary in  it -, yielding a systematic and interconnected view of it; a view which can shed light on the sense (the historical sense) of what there is, no matter how fortuitous and without any cause it may appear to be. [15]. Nonetheless, in this Gramsci’s text, there is something which cannot be justified.

That dialectics has to do with the attitude we said before is true since the most ancient times of its history (for example, think of the Hegelian analysis of Greek Eleatism  or a Platonic Dialogue like Parmenides ). This attitude can’t be, therefore, what specifies Marx’s thought: from ancient skepticism to Leibniz’s modern philosophy (not to speak of Kant or Hegel) every aspect of Marx’s arguing has its own antecedent.

We have to admit that Gramsci seems to take in that kind of rhetoric by which Marx is seen as the author who closes the traditional history of philosophy and opens a quietly new perspective (an important theme of Marxist culture in the Zhdanov’s and Stalin’s epoch). It is probably to justify this claimed radical originality that Gramsci can’t avoid the (not explained, since not interpreted) myth of the so-called materialistic reversal of Hegelian dialectics.

But all that is, to Gramsci, the source of a particular difficulty, which emerges since he is entirely aware that if the dialectic perspective holds, then neither a one-sided idealistic view nor a one-sided materialistic one will hold..

Placing Marx within the ‹modern subjectivism›, the way Gramsci does, is not only a well grounded but also a suitable act. It signifies that the fundamental characteristic of dialectics has been well understood. In dialectics it is not an abstract world to hold the central position, but experience (in the above explained sense) and history as far as to state the historicity ( their transforming in principle and their actual changing)  of the same logical structures.

From this point of view, it is clear, it would be contradictory to sustain an idealistic dialectic perspective as well as a materialistic one. It would mean to re-introduce the unilateral primacy of one of them against the other, where there is the dynamic and continuous interplaying of the different dimensions of experience.

Gramsci knows all that very well, as it is shown by his severe, but very accurate, criticism of Bucharin’s  Handbook[16] and by his work program he so outlines: “ I intend to show that the ‹ subjectivist ›.conception, after serving the purpose of criticizing the philosophy of transcendence, on one hand, and the naïve metaphysics of ordinary understanding and philosophic materialism, can only find its more elevated expression and its historicist interpretation in the theory of superstructures , being in its speculative form but a philosophic fiction“ [17]






A. Gramsci, Il materialismo storico e la filosofia di Benedetto Croce, Torino 1952.

V.I. Lenin, Opere XXXI, Roma 1967.

F. Valentini, Il pensiero politico contemporaneo, Laterza 1979.

F. Valentini. Soluzioni hegeliane, Napoli 2001.

E. Weil, Logique de la philosophie, Paris 1985.

| Dialegesthai |

[1] - For now on I’ll refer to Gramsci’s text with the author’s name and the page number only.


[2] - It has to be noted that a similar uncertainty can be found, I think, about the term religion. To times, Gramsci seems to use it in order to mean a knowledge implying commitment/engagement; other times, instead, as analogous of the term ordinary understanding. Remember that, given the necessary connection between religion and commitment, for many (in particular in Anglo-Saxon culture) Marxism is exactly a kind of religion. “The problem of religion –we read in Gramsci: 5- meant not in a confessional sense, but in the lay sense of a unity of faith between a conception of the world and a norm of consistent conduct: but why should we call religion this unity of faith and not ideology or even politics ?”

[3] - Gramsci: 18.

[4] - Gramsci: 139.

[5] - It may be suggestive to recall the title of the known Prirandello’s novel Uno, nessuno, centomila, printed the first time in 1926, therefore, a few years before Gramsci wrote these notes.

[6] - It is in this context of theoretical problems that we read Gramsci writing; “Philosophy is a critique of religion and ordinary understanding and a dialectical development of them both. In this sense it is in accordance with the ‹sound judgment›, which is in opposition to the ordinary understanding.” (Gramsci: 5).

[7] - Again, about the relation philosophy/religion/ordinary understanding so Gramsci writes: “Philosophy is an intellectual order, what religion and ordinary understanding cannot be … in the existent world… they (do not) coincide, but religion is an element of the scattered ordinary understanding … Religion and ordinary understanding are not an intellectual order because they can’t be reduced to unity and coherence even in the individual consciousness not to speak of collective consciousness: they can’t be freely reduced to unity and coherence, though they could be reduced to them in an authoritarian way as it has happened in the past to some extent.”  (Gramsci: 5).

[8] - Arguing against Bucharin’s materialism, Gramsci observes: 142 – “ In  the Engels’ statement saying that ‹the unity of the world consists in its material existence proved … by the long and hard-working development of philosophy and natural sciences › there is … the germ of the right conception, since it is to history and man that we have to resort to, in order to provide evidence for the objective reality. Objective has always to be meant ‹objective as it is humanly possible›, which can be seen as corresponding to ‹historically subjective›, that is, objective would mean ‹universally subjective›. Man knows in an objective way because knowledge is real for all the humankind historically unified in an unitary cultural system; ; but this process of unification will occur when contradictions which distress human society disappear … “


[9] -  To Gramsci, this is the sense of the common Italian expression <prender le cose con filosofia>.

[10] -  Note, once again, how the theme of  form holds the central place.

[11] - It is interesting to observe that this theme plays a central role in Lenin’s L’estremismo, malattia infantile del comunismo, in Opere, vol. XXXI (it. ed.).

[12] - Gramsci: 132.

[13] - We can’t go into this subject now, but what Gramsci is saying about dialectics and philosophy of practice is to be extended to Hegelian philosophy and dialectics. The conclusion is also the same: to Marx as well as to Hegel, dialectics is not a part which can be detached from the system.  What the tradition calls materialist reversal of Hegelian dialectics is senseless, then.

[14] - For the concept of attitude related to dialectics, I refer to: E. Weil, Logique de la philosophie, Paris 1985 and F. Valentini, Soluzioni hegeliane, Napoli 2001.

[15] - “… Gramsci’s  mentality, impregnated as it was with the sense of history, that is, impregnated such as to consider the course of history a kind  of living rationality and, therefore, having in itself its own measure (in itself and not, for example, in a schema of evolutionistic type) , a strong political mentality, convinced that politics is the tragedy of our modern times and that it is vain any attempt to ‹clothe the world›, also when they are Marxist clothes, as we have just seen. Gramsci considered Marxism to be more an interpretation of modern history showing how the dictatorship of proletariat is grounded in the existent world, than a historical materialism or a theory of value.” (F. Valentini, Il pensiero politico contemporaneo, Laterza 1979: 397).

[16] - Cf. “Note critiche su un tentativo di Saggio popolare di sociologia”, Gramsci: 117ss. As it is known, Gramsci considered the “historical materialism” (Bucharin’s, but also that one of the preceding II International) as mostly due to the influence on Marxists of The history of materialism, by F. Lange, published in 1873.

[17] - Gramsci: 141.