“Gramsci’s Objectivism: Idealism Historicized” Eli Lichtenstein

gramsciIn the Prison Notebooks Gramsci attacks the vulgar materialism of 20th century orthodox Marxism. His critique largely functions through genealogy: by tracing the development of Marxism within a broader history of philosophy, Gramsci can then locate those elements of continuity essential to its contemporary coherence and meaning. Furiously dismissing this historicity, on the other hand, orthodox theory ultimately freezes into a static sociology. Yet history itself is contested terrain, and any historical invocation implies a narrative. Gramsci’s narrative, contra that of the orthodoxy, insists on the continuous development of German Idealism to Marxism. Only through this trajectory can the objectivity of knowledge be understood. The following notes highlight the specific idealist elements which Gramsci appropriates for his own account of objectivity.[1] They also describe the two primary theoretical innovations that Gramsci applies to idealism: the notion of superstructural knowledge and, inextricably, the socio-economic constitution of human life. As we will see, Gramsci’s notion of objectivity cannot be understood outside his introduction of social relations into the very essence of human beings.

Before describing Gramscian objectivity, we must first understand the theorist’s concept of the human being. This step is required because for Gramsci, questions of knowledge and objectivity cannot be answered through positivist methods of observation and quantification. Nothing can be taken for granted; whatever is known must always be understood through the means by which it is known.[2] Objectivity, ultimately, is a collective and historical achievement. Yet the agents of this achievement are individuals. Thus, knowledge will only come via the historical and even phenomenological interrogation of the most basic foundations of human life. In this interrogation, Gramsci relies heavily on certain idealist notions criticized by the orthodoxy, beginning with the subjective constitution of the world.[3]

A key representative of this orthodoxy is the Soviet thinker, Nikolai Bukharin. The latter notes that the question of whether the world exists objectively is nonsensical, as any person on the street will meet it with ridicule. Bukharin thus dismisses subjectivism as metaphysics. For Gramsci, however, this appeal to common sense is reactionary. That the world exists as perceived is foremost a Christian idea, and to thus support it further reinforces conservative forms of thought. Gramsci offers a different theory:

What are phenomena? Are they something objective, existing in and for themselves, or are they qualities which man has isolated in consequence of his practical interests… [Our] knowledge of things is nothing other than ourselves, our needs and interests.[4]

Desire, or need, emerges here as the all-encompassing level of mediation between ourselves and the world. Outside of it nothing, that we can know, exists. We are fundamentally desire, and interact with the world only in this relation of desiring and needing it. In this sense we subjectively constitute the world. Before moving to the next level of our analysis, to a qualification of this first, Hegelian, conceptualization of the human, we may foreshadow the historical significance of this determination. Thus Engels writes, in a letter to Josef Bloch, “According to the materialist conception of history, the ultimately determining element in history is the production and reproduction of real life.”[5]

The desire to reproduce life, of course, doesn’t immediately translate to historical movement. Desire isn’t an ahistorical and static thing, a pure and general drive for self-preservation or self-certainty in the natural world. Rather, it is social, while our most direct, desiring relationship to the world is always organized by the structures and superstructures that simultaneously constitute us as knowing and doing animals. The human being isn’t posited as a fixed essence that acts on an external object, the world, and transforms it to conform to itself. Instead, Gramsci writes, “I mean that one must conceive of man as a series of active relationships (a process).”[6] He further writes that “one’s own individuality is the ensemble of these [social and productive] relations.”[7] In other words, the social world constitutes the individual.

Thus we always-already find ourselves immersed in the infinitely complex relationships of social and natural life. Yet we also participate in these relationships and do so, to a greater or lesser extent, consciously. In each instance of human activity is contained, however incoherently, a conception of the world; all actions produce “knowledge effects.”[8] Even spontaneous uprisings imply world conceptions among participants, however “embryonic” and as yet unarticulated they are.[9] Alternately, if every act implies knowledge, every piece of knowledge implies an action, a concrete engagement with the world which also transforms it. Thus Gramsci writes, “to be conscious of them [social relations], to whatever degree of profundity (that is, to know, in varying degrees, how to modify them) already modifies them.”[10] This quotation expresses a couple important ideas. Firstly, it suggests that Gramsci’s subjectivism is strongly materialist. That human beings constitute the world is not a mere epistemological claim, but is also ontological. Theory and practice relate on a level of equivalence. There is no need to “translate” one into the other. Practice itself is a form of knowing, while knowing also is just a form of changing social reality.[11] To subjectively constitute the world means to concretely shape social relations. Thus “knowledge is power.”[12] Implicit in this theory-practice relationship is also Gramsci’s notion of materialism. While Gramsci admits that matter, as physical “stuff”, does exist, he adamantly insists that the proper object of materialist study is the productive organization of matter. More generally, it is social relations, “human sensuous activity,” that constitute the materialism of the philosophy of praxis.[13]

With this determination of the self-world relation thus tentatively secured, we may at last address one of Gramsci’s key theoretical contributions, namely, superstructural knowledge. That people are immersed in relations which determine their practical engagement with the world is another way of saying that the knowledge, existing as knowledge effects of human activity, is superstructural. People comprehend social reality only through “the complex, contradictory and discordant ensemble of the superstructures.”[14] Because knowledge exists only within superstructures, and because we simply are social relations, we can never gain a transcendent view on the world. Thus ideology is inescapable.

The inescapability of ideology, however, is not a problem; it doesn’t leave Gramsci mired in a hopeless relativism. Instead, by banishing any notion of absolute truth, philosophy turns inward to establish truth within human beings themselves. The criterion of an achievable objectivity may then be found in the unified subjectivity of humankind: “Objective always means ‘humanly objective’ which can be held to correspond exactly to ‘historically subjective’: in other words, objective would mean ‘universal subjective.’”[15] For Gramsci, knowledge becomes objective to the extent that it is understood universally as objective. Without transcendent truth, human beings alone establish what is real or not. For objectivity, as such, to exist, everyone must then participate in the same cultural unity which produces it. This unity is only achieved historically. Consequently, reality is a becoming.

Thus far, Gramsci’s account of historical objectivity has idealist overtones that might seem to challenge his abovementioned “materialist subjectivism”, according to which knowledge structures the world only because of its practical effects. In that first “materialist subjectivist” account, the human being’s relationship to the world is fundamentally one of doing; epistemology is inseparable from ontology; theory and practice are effectively equivalent. On the other hand, in Gramsci’s account of the historical “becoming” of reality, reality seems subordinate to, and determined by, our knowledge of it. For Gramsci, as for Hegel, history observes that “Rational and real become one.”[16] Contra Althusser, the philosophy of praxis is an “absolute historicism.”[17]

Gramsci’s appropriation of Hegelian “subjectivism”, however, does not leave the latter unchanged. Indeed it shifts it in a materialist direction. This shift, may not remove all tension from Gramsci’s theory. Before further examining this ambiguity, it is worth citing Gramsci’s own account of the continuity and innovation that mark the passage from idealism to the philosophy of praxis:

It is surprising that there has been no proper affirmation and development of the connection between the idealist assertion of the reality of the world as a creation of the human spirit and the affirmation made by the philosophy of praxis of the historicity and transience of ideologies on the grounds that ideologies are expressions of the structure and are modified by modifications of the structure.[18]


The primary innovation, then, is that the knowledge of human beings must be understood as superstructural. Objectivity is grounded in the relations of production, and thus contradictory knowledges must be explained in terms of the myriad social contradictions of capitalist life. This basic idea, of course, was expressed by the young Marx. For Gramsci, who expands this idea, the cultural unification necessary for objectivity will only be achieved with the “disappearance” of these contradictions.[19] Here the idealist notion of spirit becomes “the ensemble of the superstructures moving towards concrete and objectively universal unification.”[20]

If objectivity is thus established by overthrowing capitalist socio-economic structures, then epistemology becomes a political task. Common sense, as a fragmentary and self-contradictory collection of ideas, may only be brought to coherence through the political practice that aims to abolish those contradictory structures.[21] The mere experience of taking to the streets will have, as we have seen, important knowledge effects. Yet to achieve objectivity we must ultimately eradicate private property, wage labor, religion, representative democracy—all those institutions which violently divide and alienate humanity from itself. Objectivity, here, is a long and arduous collective practice.[22] It will only be secured with the hegemony of a single, universal class. Yet Gramsci does not articulate a relativism according to which only the dominant social group establishes truth. Instead, knowledge becomes more objective only because it is capable of unifying an ever-growing number of people. Thus bourgeois philosophy will never unify the human race, as it presupposes structural contradictions that split society into irreconcilably antagonistic camps. A proletarian philosophy, however, may ultimately become objective, because it necessitates the utter abolition of all capitalist contradictions. Thus Gramsci describes the Russian Revolution as a “great ‘metaphysical’ event” because it (allegedly) established the cultural unification, and hence objectivism, of the Russian people.[23] Ultimately, only politics will ever secure objectivity.

Summarizing the conceptual emergence and full historical significance of his objectivism, Gramsci writes, “The Hegelian “idea” has been resolved both in the structure and in the superstructures and the whole way of conceiving philosophy has been ‘historicised.’”[24] In other words, the philosophy of praxis historicizes idealism by locating objectivity within superstructures built on ever-shifting foundations. Gramsci’s general claim is thus that Marxism successfully synthesizes idealism and materialism, to produce its own coherent body of thought. Before concluding, let us briefly interrogate this claim. To do so I will entertain a possible objection, before demonstrating why this objection ultimately collapses.[25]

One might argue, accordingly, that Gramsci’s synthesis fails: attempting to attack metaphysical materialism, Gramsci ultimately returns to Hegel and an arsenal of idealist concepts which cannot fit into a materialist epistemology.[26] Thus we are seemingly left with a dualist ontology. At one level of existence, corresponding to the subjectivist view, is human life: collectively, human beings establish the objectivity of the real. Nothing exists outside this real: “when one affirms that a reality would exist even if man did not, one is either speaking metaphorically or one is falling into a form of mysticism.”[27] As desiring animals we always experience life through need and the mediation of superstructures; ideology is inescapable. But ideology is not an innate psychological fact, for Gramsci; indeed, it has a history. Ultimately, it is the effect of a socio-historical cause, namely, structure and contradiction. This leads to a question: if there are forces that unfailingly obscure our knowledge of the world, what is the ontological status of these forces themselves? At risk of absurdity, the objection might claim, these forces have to exist. But according to Gramsci’s subjectivism, which seemingly holds that the real is only that which is rationalized as such, their existence must be understood as somehow separate from that of subjectively-constituted reality. In this sense, we have two levels of existence: first, we have structures; second, we have reality as it is known by people whose knowledge is ultimately determined by structures. There is the real of structures, and the real of human reality. According to Gramsci, a correspondence of the two only occurs with the correct revolutionary “premises” of hegemonic cultural unity. But on this account, objectivity seemingly means the correspondence of knowledge to the more fundamental reality of structures. This account would imply that objectivity is a becoming, but only in the sense that people, historically, arrive at a true knowledge of the world which actually pre-exists their epistemological arrival. Here we see the two levels of existence collapse into one: only structures really exist, and knowledge, to be objective, must correspond to their existence. This latter account, of course, explicitly contradicts Gramsci’s subjectivism. It requires that the great Hegelian synthesis of idealism and materialism be forgotten, in favor of a vulgar materialism and a static, representational theory of knowledge.

This objection ultimately errs in its interpretation of structure. It assumes exactly the positivist epistemology which Gramsci critiques. That is, the above return to vulgar materialism is only possible given the circular adoption of a representational theory of knowledge which Gramsci attempts to overthrow. For the latter, the object of knowledge is never static; it is never a “thing.” As we have seen, it is rather human sensuous activity and practice that constitute not only what we know, but the entirety of social existence. Accordingly, structures themselves must count as human practice. Applying Gramsci’s philosophy of knowledge, structures then become historical and linguistic constructions, imbued with collective meanings inaccessible outside of the complex social processes from which they arise. Relations of production are not some causa sui, but are instead ontologically inseparable from our knowledge of them. Hence ideology, a product of such structures, must be wholly immanent to our collective practices of meaning-making. There is no external vantage point from which ideology can be dissolved. In other words, the Gramscian synthesis holds.

[1] The writer of this essay possesses only the most inadequate knowledge of German Idealism and its Marxian appropriation. Yet a worthwhile study of this topic requires exactly this knowledge. Thus, the following notes may be read as only a tentative introduction to the problem.

[2] Quintin Hoare and Geoffrey Nowell Smith, introduction to “Problems of Marxism,” in Selections from the Prison Notebooks, by Antonio Gramsci, transl. and ed. Quintin Hoare and Geoffrey Nowell Smith (New York: International Publishers, 1971), 379.

[3] Gramsci’s writings are never mere speculation. Instead, they always have political reference points, and their critical targets are mostly chosen for practical reasons. Thus when Gramsci articulates his theory of human life, it should be seen as a response to a positivist orthodoxy that reduces the social totality to a set of mechanical laws.

[4] Gramsci, Prison Notebooks, 368.

[5] Friedrich Engels, “To Joseph Bloch,” in The Marx-Engels Reader, ed. Robert C. Tucker (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1978), 760.

[6] Gramsci, Prison Notebooks, 352.

[7] Gramsci, Prison Notebooks, 352. This definition paraphrases Marx’s sixth thesis on Feuerbach: “the human essence is no abstraction inherent in each single individual. In its reality it is the ensemble of social relations.” Karl Marx, “Theses on Feuerbach,” in The Marx-Engels Reader, 145.

[8] Christine Buci-Glucksmann, Gramsci and the State, trans. David Fernbach (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1980), 349.

[9] Gramsci, Prison Notebooks, 327.

[10] Gramsci, Prison Notebooks, 353.

[11] Cinzia Arruzza, seminar discussion, Eugene Lang College, 11/7/13.

[12] Gramsci, Prison Notebooks, 353. Here, Gramsci may be seen as strengthening Marx’s second thesis on Feuerbach: “Man must prove the truth, that is, the reality and power, the this-sidedness of this thinking in practice.” Karl Marx, “Theses on Feuerbach,” in The Marx-Engels Reader, 144.

[13] The young Marx strongly influenced Gramsci’s thought, and references to his work abound in the Prison Notebooks. Here it is worth recalling Marx’s first thesis on Feuerbach: “The chief defect of all hitherto existing materialism—that of Feuerbach included—is that the thing, reality, sensuousness, is conceived only in the form of the object or of contemplation, but not as human sensuous activity, practice, not subjectively. Hence it happened that the active side, in contradistinction to materialism, was developed by idealism… Feuerbach wants sensuous objects, really distinct from the thought objects, but he does not conceive human activity itself as objective activity.” Karl Marx, “Theses on Feuerbach,” in The Marx-Engels Reader, 143.

[14] Gramsci, Prison Notebooks, 366.

[15] Gramsci, Prison Notebooks, 445.

[16] Gramsci, Prison Notebooks, 448.

[17] Gramsci, Prison Notebooks, 465.

[18] Gramsci, Prison Notebooks, 442.

[19] Gramsci, Prison Notebooks, 445.

[20] Gramsci, Prison Notebooks, 446.

[21] “Common sense” is here employed according to its technical Gramscian usage.

[22] Gramsci quotes Engel’s Anti-Duhring, as it provides a basic articulation of this process: “the unity of the world consists in its materiality demonstrated by the long and laborious development of philosophy and natural science.” Gramsci, Prison Notebooks, 445.

[23] Gramsci, Prison Notebooks, 357.

[24] Gramsci, Prison Notebooks, 448.

[25] I must here give credit to Cinzia Arruzza. This hypothetical objection actually began as my thesis, against which Cinzia thankfully intervened in her feedback. I leave the objection in the essay because it helps to elucidate the central functional importance of structure in the synthesis of idealism and materialism.

[26] This objection, if conceptually flawed, nonetheless finds some historical support. Writing in response to the failures of the Second International and its mechanistic philosophy, all three founders of Western Marxism—Gramsci, Lukács, Korsch—returned to Hegel as a philosophical resource. No lack of criticism has been directed against this generation of Hegelianized Marxists. The charge of idealism has been leveled at each. Regarding Gramsci, it is worth exploring to what extent this “idealism” represents problems left unexplored in this essay.

[27] Gramsci, Prison Notebooks, 446.