Antonio Gramsci
Original publication:
Translation: FLP

The Study of Philosophy and of Historical Materialism (1932)

52 minutes | English Italiano

The essay below belongs to the 11th of the “prison notebooks” written by Antonio Gramsci while under arrest by Italy’s fascist government, from 1926 until shortly before his death in 1937. This particular translation is based off of an excerpt from a 1957 compendium by Foreign Languages Press titled The Modern Prince and Other Writings. Per the essay’s introduction in that book:

Gramsci was accused of plotting subversion of the State and fomenting class hatred and was finally sentenced to twenty years imprisonment. […] Yet throughout this period he never once doubted the correctness of the decision taken several years earlier to devote all his energies to the cause of socialism:

“My imprisonment is an episode in the political struggle which has been fought and will continue to be fought not only in Italy but in the whole world for who knows how long yet. I have been captured, just as during a war one could be taken prisoner, knowing that this and even worse could happen…” […]

In order to avoid the ever-watchful eye of the prison supervision Gramsci was forced to use his own periphrasis when referring to controversial names or ideas. Thus he never mentioned Marxism but spoke instead of “the philosophy of action,” and Marx and Engels are always referred to as “the founders of the philosophy of action.” In this translation these circumlocutions have been dispensed with and the usual terms used for the sake of greater ease of reading. [1]

Our translation is republished according to the terms of FLP’s license. [2] Various additional modifications have been made by RS with the intent of enhancing correctness and readability.


Preliminary Notes

The widespread prejudice that philosophy is something very difficult because it is the intellectual activity of a specific category of specialist scholars or professional and systematic philosophers must be destroyed. To do this we must first show that all men are “philosophers,” defining the limitations of this “spontaneous philosophy” possessed by “everyone,” that is, of the philosophy contained in: (1) language itself, which is a totality of determined notions and concepts and not simply and solely of words grammatically void of content; (2) common sense and good sense; (3) popular religion and therefore also in the entire system of beliefs, superstitions, opinions, ways of perceiving and acting which make up what is generally called “folklore.”

Having shown that everyone is a philosopher, even if in his own way, unconsciously (because even in the smallest manifestation of any intellectual activity — “language” — is contained a definite conception of the world), we pass to the second stage, the stage of criticism and awareness. We pass to the question: is it preferable to “think” without having critical awareness, in a disjointed and irregular way, in other words to “participate” in a conception of the world “imposed” mechanically by external environment, that is, by one of the many social groups in which everyone is automatically involved from the time he enters the conscious world; [3] or is it preferable to work out one’s own conception of the world consciously and critically, and so out of this work of one’s own brain to choose one’s own sphere of activity, to participate actively in making the history of the world, and not simply to accept passively and without care the imprint of one’s own personality from outside?

Note 1: For his own conception of the world a man always belongs to a certain grouping, and precisely to that grouping of the social elements who all share the same ways of thinking and working. He is a conformist in relation to some conformity, he is always man of a mass or a man of a collective. The question is this: of what historical type is the conformity, the mass of which he is a part? When his conception of the world is not critical and coherent but haphazard and disconnected he belongs simultaneously to a multiplicity of masses, giving his own personality a bizarre composition. It contains elements of the cave-man as well as principles of the most modern and advanced learning; shabby, local prejudices of all past historical phases as well as intuitions of a future philosophy of the human race united all over the world. Criticizing one’s own conception of the world means, therefore, to make it coherent and unified and to raise it to the point reached by the most advanced modern thought. It also means criticizing all hitherto existing philosophy in so far as it has left layers incorporated into the popular philosophy. The beginning of the critical elaboration is the consciousness of what one really is, that is, a “know thyself” as the product of the historical process which has left you an infinity of traces gathered together without the advantage of an inventory. To begin, then, it is necessary to first compile such an inventory.

Note 2: Philosophy cannot be separated from the history of philosophy nor culture from the history of culture. In the most immediate and pertinent sense one cannot have a critically coherent conception of the world — that is, one cannot be a philosopher — without being aware of one’s conception’s history, of the phases of development it represents, and of the fact that any conception stands in contradiction to other conceptions, or elements of other conceptions. The correct conception of the world answers certain problems posed by reality which are very much determined and “original” in their actuality. How is it possible to think about the present — and a well-determined present at that — with a philosophy elaborated in response to the problems of a remote and often outdated past? If this happens it means that one is an “anachronism” in one’s own time, a fossil and not a modern living being. Or at least one is “composed” bizarrely. And in fact it so happens that social groups which in certain ways express the most developed modernity, are arrested in other ways by their social position, and so are incapable of complete historical independence. [4]

Note 3: Given that language contains the elements of a conception of the world and of a culture, it will also be true that the greater or lesser complexity of a person’s conception of the world can be judged from that person’s language. A person who only speaks a dialect or who understands the national language in varying degrees necessarily enjoys a more or less restricted and provincial, fossilized and anachronistic perception of the world in comparison with the great currents of thought which dominate world history. His interests will be restricted, more or less guild-like or economistic, and not universal. If it is not always possible to learn foreign languages so as to put oneself in touch with different cultures, one must at least learn the national tongue. One great culture can be translated into the language of another great culture, that is, one great national language which is historically rich and complex, can translate any other great culture, i.e. can be a world expression. But a dialect cannot do the same thing.

Note 4: The creation of a new culture does not only mean individually making some “original” discoveries. It means also and especially the critical propagation of truths already discovered, “socializing them” so to speak, and so making them become a basis for vibrant actions, an element of co-ordination and of intellectual and moral order. The leading of a mass of men to think coherently and in a unitary way about present-day reality is a “philosophical” fact of much greater importance and “originality” than the discovery by a philosophical “genius” of a new truth which remains the inheritance of small groups of intellectuals.

The Relationship Between Common Sense, Religion, Science, and Philosophy

Philosophy is an intellectual order such as neither religion nor common sense can be. See how, in reality, not even religion and common sense coincide, but religion is an element of disjointed common sense. For the rest, “common sense” is a collective noun like religion: there does not exist only one common sense, but this also is an historical product and development. Philosophy is the criticism and overcoming of religion and common sense, so that it coincides with “good sense” — a sense that is good in contrast to common sense.

Religion and common sense cannot constitute an intellectual order because they cannot be reduced to unity and coherence even in the individual consciousness: they cannot be reduced to unity and coherence “freely” — though this could happen “authoritatively,” as in fact has happened in the past within certain limits. The problem of religion is intended not in the confessional sense but in the lay sense of unity of faith between a conception of the world and a conforming norm of conduct: but why call this unity of faith “religion” and not “ideology” or, even more properly, “politics?”

In fact, there is no such thing as philosophy in general: various philosophies and conceptions of the world exist, and one always makes a choice between them. How does this choice come about? Is it merely intellectual or is it more complex? And does it not often happen that there is a contradiction between the intellectual fact and the norm of conduct? What then will the real conception of the world be: the one which is logically affirmed as an intellectual fact or the one which results from the real activity of a certain person, which is implicit in his actions? And since actions are always political actions, can we not say that the real philosophy of anyone is contained in his politics? This conflict between thought and action, that is, the co-existence of two conceptions of the world, one affirmed in words and the other explaining itself in effective actions, is not always due to hypocrisy. Hypocrisy can be a satisfactory explanation for some individuals taken singly, or even for more or less numerous groups, but it is not satisfactory when the contrast shows itself in the life of large masses: then it cannot be other than the expression of more profound contradictions of an historical and social order. It means that a social group, with its own embryonic conception of the world, — a conception which manifests only occasionally, in action, when the group moves as an organic whole — has, as a result of intellectual subordination and submission, borrowed from another group a conception which is not its own, and this one it affirms in words. The group comes to believe in this borrowed conception because it follows it in “normal” times, when its group conduct is not independent and defiant, but precisely subordinate and submissive. [5] That is why we cannot separate philosophy from politics. On the contrary, we can show that the choice and criticism of a conception of the world is itself a political fact.

So we must explain how it comes about that in every period there coexist many philosophical systems and trends, how they originate and how they are propagated, because in their propagation they divide and follow certain directions, etc. This shows how necessary it is to systematize one’s own intuitions of the world and life critically and coherently, fixing exactly what must be meant by “system,” because it should not be understood in the pedantic and academic sense of the word. [6] But this elaboration must be and can only be made within the framework of a history of philosophy which shows what elaboration thought has undergone in the course of the centuries, what collective effort it has cost to arrive at our present mode of thinking which recapitulates and summarizes all this past history, including its errors and delusions — which, however, does not mean that, because they have been trusted in the past and have been corrected, they should be reproduced in the present and are still correct.

What idea do the people have of philosophy? We can build this up from popular phrases. One of the most widespread is that of “overthinking things,” which if we analyze it, is not to be entirely rejected. [7] It is true that it contains an implicit invitation to resignation and patience, but it seems really that the more important point is the invitation to reflection, to explain to oneself that what is happening is at bottom rational and that it should be faced up to as such, concentrating one’s own rational powers and not letting oneself be dragged along by instinctive and violent impulses. These popular sayings could be collected together with the similar expressions of popular writers — taking them from the great dictionaries — where we find the terms “philosophy” and “philosophically,” and we would see that these words have a very precise significance — overcoming animal and elemental passions with a conception of necessity which gives to one’s own actions a conscious direction. This is the sound nucleus of common sense. It can certainly be called good sense and deserves to be developed and rendered unitary and coherent. So it appears that for this reason also it is not possible to distinguish what is called “learned” philosophy from “vulgar” popular philosophy which is only a disjointed complex of ideas and opinions.

But at this point we pose the fundamental problem of every conception of the world, of every philosophy which has become a cultural movement, a “religion,” a “faith,” in other words, which has led to practical activity and volition, in which it appears as an implied theoretical “premise.” (It could be called an “ideology” if this is given the higher meaning of a worldview showing itself implicitly in art, law, economic activity and in all the manifestations of individual and collective life.) It is the problem of conserving the ideological unity of a whole social bloc which is held together and unified precisely by that ideology. The power of religions and especially of the Catholic Church has consisted and does consist in the fact that they feel strongly the need for the doctrinal unity of the whole “religious” mass, and struggle to prevent the superior intellectual elements detaching themselves from the inferior ones. The Roman church has always been the most tenacious in the struggle to avoid the “official” formation of two religions, one for the “intellectual” and one for the “simple people.” This struggle has not always been fought without serious inconvenience for the church itself, but this inconvenience is connected with the historical process which transforms the whole of civil society and which en bloc contains a criticism destructive of religions; so much the greater has been the organizing capacity of the clergy in the sphere of culture and the abstractly rational and correct relationship which in its own circle it has been able to establish between the intellectuals and the simple folk. The greatest architects of this equilibrium have undoubtedly been the Jesuits, and to conserve it they have imprinted on the Church a progressive movement which aims to give a certain satisfaction to the requirements of science and philosophy, but with such a slow and methodical rhythm that the changes are not seen by the mass of the simple people, even though they appear “revolutionary” and demagogical to the “integralists.”

One of the major weaknesses of the immanentist philosophies in general consists precisely in their not having been able to create an ideological unity between the lower and the upper, between the “simple people” and the intellectuals. In the history of Western civilization this was proved on a European scale by the failure of the Renaissance and partly also of the Reformation in the face of the Roman church. This weakness appears in the schools inasmuch as the immanentist philosophies have not even tried to build up a conception which could be substituted for religion in child education. Hence the pseudo-historical sophism by which non-religious (non-confessional) teachers who are really atheists allow the teaching of religion, because religion is the philosophy of mankind’s infancy which is renewed in every unmetaphorical infancy. Idealism has also shown itself opposed to cultural movements of “going to the people,” such as the so-called People’s Universities and similar bodies, and not only because they were deteriorating, for in such a case it should have only sought to improve them. However, these movements were worth attention and deserved to be studied. They could have prospered, inasmuch as they showed a sincere enthusiasm and a strong will on the part of the “simple people” to raise themselves to a higher form of culture and worldview. But they lacked any organism whether of philosophic thought or of organized strength and cultural centralization. One had the impression that they resembled the first contacts between English merchants and the Negroes of Africa; they gave second-rate goods in return for gold nuggets. On the other hand, organic quality of thought and cultural solidarity could only have been brought about if there had existed between the intellectuals and the simple people that unity which there should have been between theory and practice; if, that is, the intellectuals had been organically the intellectuals of those masses, if they had elaborated and made coherent the principles and problems which those masses posed by their practical activity, in this way constituting a cultural and social bloc. It comes back to the question we have already emphasized: is it sufficient for a philosophical movement to devote itself to the development of a specialized culture for restricted groups of intellectuals, or must it, in elaborating a thought which is superior to common sense and scientifically coherent, never forget to remain in contact with the “simple people” and, moreover, find in this contact the source of its problems to be studied and solved? Only through this contact does a philosophy become “historic,” does it cleanse itself of intellectualist elements of an individual nature and make itself into “life.” [8]

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). [9]

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 signaled 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. [10]

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 collaborators 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. [11] 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-guild-like, in which the general framework of the “structure” is being transformed quantitatively, and the appropriate quality-superstructure is in the process of arising but is not yet organically formed.

We must emphasize the importance and significance that 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 to how vitally and radically innovative and antagonistic their conceptions are vis-à-vis 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.

One of these phases can be studied in the discussion through which the most recent developments of Marxism have been asserted, a discussion summarized in an article by D. S. Mirsky, an associate of the review Cultura[12] We can see how the transition took place from a mechanistic and purely external conception to an activist conception, which, as has been observed, approached more nearly a correct understanding of the unity of theory and practice, although it has not yet reached its full synthetic significance. We can observe how the determinist, fatalist mechanist element has been an immediate ideological “aroma” of Marxism, a form of religion and of stimulation (but like a drug necessitated and historically justified by the “subordinate” character of certain social strata). [13]

When one does not have the initiative in the struggle and the struggle itself is ultimately identified with a series of defeats, mechanical determinism becomes a formidable power of moral resistance, of patient and obstinate perseverance. “I am defeated for the moment but the nature of things is on my side over a long period,” etc. Real will is disguised as an act of faith, a sure rationality of history, a primitive and empirical form of impassioned finalism which appears as a substitute for the predestination, providence, etc., of the confessional religions. We must insist on the fact that even in such a case there exists in reality a strong active will, a direct influence on the “nature of things,” but it is certainly in an implicit and veiled form, ashamed of itself, and so the consciousness of it is contradictory, lacks critical unity, etc. But when the “subordinate” becomes the leader and is responsible for the economic activity of the mass, mechanicalism appears at a certain moment as an imminent danger, there occurs a revision of the whole mode of thinking because there has taken place a change in the social mode of being.

Why do the limits of the power of the “nature of things” come to be restricted? Because, at bottom, if the subordinate was yesterday a thing, today he is no longer a thing but an historical person, a protagonist; if yesterday he was irresponsible because he was “resisting” an outside will, today he feels responsible because he is no longer resisting but is an agent and so necessarily active and enterprising. But even yesterday had he ever been mere “thing,” mere “irresponsibility?” Surely not. Rather we should stress how fatalism has only been a cover by the weak for an active and real will. This is why it is always necessary to show the futility of mechanical determinism, which, explicable as a naïve philosophy of the masses, and only as such as an intrinsic element of power, becomes a cause of passivity, of imbecilic self-sufficiency, when it is made into a reflexive and coherent philosophy on the part of the intellectuals, and this without expecting that the subordinate may become leading and responsible. One part even of the subordinate mass is always leading and responsible and the philosophy of the part precedes the philosophy of the whole, not only as theoretical anticipation but as actual necessity.

That the mechanist conception has been the religion of subordinates appears from an analysis of the development of the Christian religion. In certain periods and under given historical conditions this has been and continues to be a “necessity,” a necessary form assumed by the will of the masses, a determined form of rationality of the world and of life, and has supplied the cadres for real practical activity. In this little extract from an article in La Civilta Cattolica (March 5th, 1932), this role of Christianity seems to me to be well expressed: “Faith in a secure future, in the immortality of the soul destined to bliss, in the security of being able to reach eternal joy, was the main-spring for a work of intense internal perfection and of spiritual elevation. True Christian individualism has found in this the incentive for its victories. All the powers of the Christian were concentrated around this noble end. Freed from speculative fluctuations which wore down the soul with doubt, and enlightened by immortal principles, man felt his hopes reborn; sure that a higher power sustained him in the struggle against evil, he did violence to himself and conquered the world.” But even in this case what is meant is naive Christianity; not Jesuitized Christianity, which has become simply opium for the people.

The position of Calvinism, with its iron conception of predestination and grace, which caused a vast expansion of the spirit of enterprise (or became the form of this movement), is still more expressive and significant.

In the course of becoming popular, why and how are new conceptions of the world propagated? In this process of propagation (which is at the same time a substitution for the old, and very often a combination between old and new) is there any influence exerted (how and to what extent) by the rational form in which the new conception is expounded and presented, the authority of the expounder (in so far as he is recognized and valued at least generally) and by the thinkers and scholars whom the expounder calls to his aid, and by membership of the same organization as those who support the new conception (but only after having entered the organization for other motives than that of sharing in the new conception)? These elements in fact vary according to the social group and the level of culture of that group. But research is especially interesting with regard to the masses who change their ideas with greater difficulty, and who never change them, in any case, by accepting the new ideas in their “pure” form, so to speak, but always only in more or less strange and weird combinations. The rational, logically coherent form, the completeness of the reasoning which neglects no positive or negative argument of any weight, has its importance, but it is a very long way from being decisive; it can be decisive in a minor way, when a given person is already in a state of intellectual crisis, drifts between the old and the new, has lost faith in the old but is not yet decided in favor of the new, etc.

So much can be said for the influence of the thinkers and scholars. It is very great among the people, but in fact every conception has its own thinkers and scholars, and so their authority is divided; and further, any thinker may analyze and cast doubt on what he himself has said, etc. We can conclude that the process of propagation of new conceptions takes place for political, that is, in the last instance, social reasons, but that the formal elements of logical coherence, authority and of organization have a very great role in this process immediately after the general orientation has taken place, among individuals as well as large groups. From this we conclude that among the masses as such, philosophy can only exist as a faith. Besides, one may well imagine the intellectual position of a man of the people; he is made up of opinions, convictions, criteria of discrimination and norms of conduct. Anyone who supports a point of view contrary to his is able, in so far as he is intellectually superior, to argue better than him and put him logically to flight, etc.; should the man of the people therefore change his convictions? Because in the immediate discussion he is unable to assert himself? But then he would reach the position of having to change his ideas once a day, or every time he meets an ideological opponent who is intellectually superior to him. On what elements then is his philosophy based, and especially his philosophy in the form in which it has greater importance for him as a norm of conduct? The most important element is undoubtedly of a non-rational character, of faith. But in whom and in what? Especially in the social group to which he belongs, in so far as it thinks broadly as he does; the man of the people thinks that on such a basic thing so many cannot be so completely mistaken as his opponent in argument would like to make him believe; that he himself, it is true, is unable to support and develop his arguments as well as his opponent does his, but that in his own group there are people who are able to do so, in fact even better than this particular opponent. He remembers having heard the reasons for his faith expounded fully, coherently and in such a way that he remained convinced by them. He does not remember the actual arguments and could not repeat them. The fact that he was once convinced, as if by a clap of thunder, is the permanent reason for the persistence of the conviction, even if he is no longer able to argue for it.

But these considerations lead to the conclusion that the masses are extremely unreliable about new convictions, especially if these convictions are opposed to the (also new) orthodox convictions, which conform socially with the general interests of the ruling classes. One can see this reflected in the fortunes of religions and churches. A religion or a certain church maintains its own community of faithful people (within certain limits of the necessity of general historical development) to the extent to which it keeps alive its faith in a permanent and organized way, tirelessly repeating the apologetics, battling at all times and always with similar arguments and maintaining a hierarchy of intellectuals who give the faith at least the appearance of dignity of thought.

Every time that the continuity of contact between the Church and the faithful has been violently broken for political reasons, as happened during the French Revolution, the loss suffered by the Church has been incalculable, and, if the conditions in which it was difficult to exercise the habitual practices had been prolonged beyond certain limits, it is conceivable that these losses would have proved decisive and a new religion would have arisen, in the same way as in fact in France it arose in combination with the former Catholicism. Certain essentials are deducible from this for every cultural movement which aims to replace common sense and the former conceptions of the world in general: (1) never tire of repeating its arguments (changing the literal form): repetition is the most effective didactic means of influencing the popular mind; (2) work incessantly to raise the intellectual level of ever-widening strata of the people, that is, by giving personality to the amorphous element of the masses, which means working to produce cadres of intellectuals of a new type who arise directly from the masses though remaining in contact with them and becoming “the stay of the corset.” This second necessity, if satisfied, is the one which really changes the “ideological panorama” of an age. On the other hand, these cadres cannot be constituted and develop without there appearing among them a hierarchy of authority and of intellectual competence, which may culminate in one great individual philosopher, if he is capable of re-living concretely the needs of the ideological community of the masses, of understanding that the mass cannot have the quickness and agility of an individual brain, and so succeeds in formally elaborating the collective doctrine in a way which is most akin and appropriate to the modes of thought of a collective thinker.

It is evident that a mass build-up of this kind cannot happen “arbitrarily” around any ideology, through the formally constructive will of one personality or of a group which proposes it out of fanaticism for its own philosophical or religious convictions. The consent or dissent of the masses for an ideology is the means by which real criticism of the rationality or historicity of modes of thought makes itself apparent. Arbitrary developments are more or less rapidly eliminated by historical competition, even if sometimes, through a favorable combination of immediate circumstances, they succeed in enjoying a certain popularity, while developments which correspond to the needs of a complex and organic historical age always end by gaining the upper hand and prevailing, even if they pass through many intermediary phases in which they asserted themselves in more or less strange and weird combinations.

These developments pose many problems, the most important of which come under the heading of the kind and quality of the relationship between the variously qualified intellectual strata, that is, of the importance of the role which the creative contributions of the upper groups ought and are able to play in relation to the organic capacity for discussion and development of new critical concepts on the part of the intellectually subordinate strata. The point, therefore, is to fix the limits for the freedom of discussion and propaganda, freedom which must not be understood in the administrative or police sense but in the sense of self-imposed limits which the leaders place on their own activity or, properly speaking, of determining the direction of cultural policy. In other words: who will decide the “laws of scholarship” and the limits of scientific research, and can these laws and limits be properly fixed? It seems necessary that the hard work of research for new truths and for better, more coherent and clear formulation of the truths themselves should be left to the free initiative of individual scholars, even if they continually replace in discussion the very principles which appear most essential. Besides, it will not be difficult to make clear when such discussions have interested motives and are not of a scientific character. It is not impossible to suggest that individual ideas might be disciplined and ordered by passing them through the sieve of academies and cultural institutions of various kinds, and that only after they had been selected should they become public, etc.

It would be interesting to study concretely, for each country, the cultural organization which keeps the ideological world in movement, and to examine its practical functioning. A study of the numerical relations between the personnel which is professionally devoted to active cultural work and the population of the various countries would also be useful, together with an approximate calculation of the free forces. The school, in all its levels, and the church are the two major cultural organizations in every country, if one takes into account the number of people they employ. In addition there are newspapers, reviews and books, private scholastic institutions, whether linked with the State school or as cultural institutions like the Popular Universities. Other professions incorporate into their specialized activities a not unimportant cultural section, such as that of the doctors, the army officers, the lawyers. But it should be noted that in all countries, even though to different extents, there exists a great breach between the masses of the people and the groups of intellectuals, even the more numerous and nearest to the periphery of the nation, such as the schoolmasters and the priests. And this happens because, even where the rulers assert it in words, the State as such has no unitary, coherent and homogeneous conception. Because of this the intellectuals are separated into different strata, and again separated within each stratum. The university, except in some countries, does not exercise any unifying influence: often a free thinker has more influence than all the university institutions, etc.

Note: With regard to the historical role played by the fatalist interpretation of Marxism, one could pronounce a funeral eulogy of it, vindicating its usefulness for a certain historical period but precisely because of this urging the necessity of burying it with all honors. Its role could be likened to that of the theory of grace and predestination for the beginnings of the modern world, which, however, culminated in the classical German philosophy with its conception of freedom as the awareness of necessity. [14] It has been a popular substitute of the cry “God wills it,” although even on this primitive and elementary plane it was the beginning of a more modern and fertile conception than that contained in the cry “God wills it” or in the theory of grace. Is it possible that “formally” a new conception should present itself in other garb than the rough unadorned dress of the plebeian? Nevertheless the historian, with all the necessary perspective, succeeds in establishing and understanding that the beginnings of a new world, always hard and stony, are superior to the agonies of a declining world and to the swan-song which it brings forth.

[1] Introduction to Part Two of The Modern Prince and Other Writings (FLP, Paris, 2021). [web] 

[2] Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0) [web] 

[3] This might be one’s own village or province, might have its origin in the parish and the “intellectual activity” of the curate, or of the patriarchal old man whose “wisdom” is law, of the crone who has inherited the knowledge of the witches, or of the puny intellectual soured by his own stupidities and impotence. 

[4] See Gramsci’s “An Address to Anarchists” (1920). [web] — R. D. 

[5] “Laziness is actually where we can find a lot of insight — as it’s when we’re lazy, or at least where we think it is not essential to focus our attention for the sake of work, that we tend to defer to the implicit shared attitudes or beliefs about the world to do the lifting for us.” — D. B. 

[6] What is the academic sense of the word? — R. D. 

[7] The literal translation is “looking at things philosophically,” but I think translating it as “overthinking things” carries the intended meaning better in relation to colloquial English. — R. D. 

[8] Perhaps it is useful “in practice” to distinguish between philosophy and common sense in order better to show the transition from one stage to the other; in philosophy the characteristics of the individual elaboration of a thought are especially prominent; in common sense, however, it is the confused and dispersed characteristics of a generic thought of a certain epoch and a certain popular environment. But every philosophy tends to become common sense also within a restricted environment of all the intellectuals. The point is one of elaborating a philosophy which has already been or is capable of being propagated, because it is linked with practical life and continually felt for cultural contact with the “simple people.” 

[9] The heretical movements of the middle ages, as simultaneous reactions to the political interference of the Church and to the scholastic philosophy of which it was an expression, on the basis of social conflicts determined by the rise of the communes, were a breach between the masses and the intellectuals inside the Church, which was healed by the rise of the popular religious movements absorbed by the Church in the formation of the mendicant orders and in a new religious unity. 

[10] Remember the anecdote told by Steed in his Memoirs of the Cardinal, who explains to the philo-Catholic English Protestant that the miracles of St. Gennaro are articles of faith for the Neapolitan populace but not for the intellectuals, and that there are some “exaggerations” even in the Gospels. To the question: “Are we not Christians?” he replies: “We are ‘prelates’, that is, ‘politicians’ of the Church of Rome.” 

[11] Perhaps if Gramsci wasn’t writing under duress collaborator-consciousness could be counterposed with manager-consciousness, instead of with past-consciousness? — R. D. 

[12] For some of Mirsky’s work, see his brilliant study of art history “Romanticism” (1937). [web] — R. D. 

[13] Gramsci’s use of “fatalism” is a reference to the general notion that even if we’re losing, we don’t really have to react, because history moves forward regardless, and therefore eventually we’ll win, even if we don’t rethink our goals or actively pursue them. See G. V. Plekhanov’s discussion in “On the Role of the Individual in History” (1898). [web] — C. V. 

[14] Hegel, Engels. — R. D.