The presence of Benedetto Croce in the contemporary cultural and political debate. Dialogue with Michele Maggi

We publish the second part of the interview of our councillor Davide Bondì with Michele Maggi, on the presence of Benedetto Croce in the contemporary cultural and political debate. Maggi, a passionate and acute interpreter of twentieth-century culture, was full professor of the history of political philosophy in Florence. The first part was published on January 21, 2020.

4. Do you think that Croce’s proposal of a philosophical dimension adequate to confront the fullness of historical reality has been grasped in the post-war years?

After the Second World War, Europe was a desolate field also in terms of philosophical awareness, resigned to receiving the remains of its own intellectual past that returned, loaded with pedantic doctrines, from American universities. Croce is no longer in the international scholarly canon (assuming that even before he had really entered it).

I can give you three examples, at three different times, from the immediate post-war period to the present day. In 1952 Isaiah Berlin, who was already on his way to becoming an influential cultural communicator, reviewed in the magazine “Mind” the reprint of a translation of Croce’s essays published in 1949 in London by Raymond Klibansky. The task entrusted to him is carried out wearily, without real mental participation: Croce is indeed “the oldest and widely celebrated of the continental thinkers”, but he has irreparably remained, like the majority of thinkers from Latin countries, “outside the ranks of the innovative thinkers of our time”, untouched by the “great philosophical revolution of the last half century, initiated by Frege and Russell”. In old age, in a book-interview that appeared in Paris in 1990, Berlin would return to the subject almost annoyed, finding it “astounding” that Croce had dominated so much of intellectual life in Italy: he being a multifaceted writer in various fields, but “incomparable with the greatest thinkers – Spinoza, Leibniz, Kant or even Hegel – or even with 20th century philosophers such as Husserl, Wittgenstein or William James.”

In the book by another scholar who had shared Berlin’s years of university compagnonnage, the analytical philosopher Alfred Jules Ayer, a series of lectures on The Central Questions of Philosophy published in 1973 (translated in Italy at Laterza under the title of Bilancio filosofico), the name of Croce does not even appear. And when he deals with it, in his Philosophy in the Twentieth Century, published in London in 1982 and translated into Italian the following year by Laterza, Ayer “devotes – once noted Garin – an entire chapter to Collingwood, who is dependent in a unique way by Croce, but hardly mentions the name of Croce”.

We find the same nonchalance in the fourth volume of the New History of Western Philosophy by Anthony Kenny, 2007, immediately translated into Italian by Einaudi, which in giving Croce two confused pages in the chapter “Aesthetics” digresses in a juxtaposition of the artistic conception of Croce (accompanied by the usual Collingwood) even to that of Tolstoy: to conclude with a reassuring quote from Wittgenstein.

Certainly, the culture of a nation emerging from such a material and ideal collapse is unable to react to this dispossession. All the more so when the dominant concern of the philosophers en titre seems to be that of catching up with a supposed international modernity. Hence the flowering of university schools, existentialism, phenomenology, neo-positivism, and Pragmatism, which seemed to initiate a new season finally freed from Crocian control. It is an ephemeral flowering, and it is significant that cultural witnesses of wide view such as Garin or Norberto Bobbio keep their distance, each in his own way. When, in the eighties, a season of assessments seemed to open up, doubtful tones appeared. Garin, in the disconsolate essay that introduces the volume of various authors La filosofia italiana dal dopoguerra a oggi (Italian philosophy from the post-war period to the present day), published by Laterza in 1985, speaks of “so much of the post-war production” as characterized by a “naive and furious ‘translation'”, with the “exasperated search for couplings, all fatally sterile, between different doctrines and orientations”. And he did not fail to express perplexity about the reappearance of the theme of the “crisis of reason”.

But it was Norberto Bobbio, a few years earlier, in the conclusions of a conference in Anacapri on “Italian philosophical culture from 1945 to 1980”, who broke any corporative idyll, mercilessly listing the succession of philosophical fashions in the 1960s-1970s, with the rapid obsolescence of the various “isms”: “There are more and more of them around and they last less and less: it becomes more and more difficult to chase them all and very often when you have managed to catch one, you clutch a corpse in your hands. Think of the rivers of ink spilled on functionalism in sociology. And now? Dead and buried. Think of the voracity with which the books of Althusser and his school were read and devoured. And now? Dead and buried. Think of the amount of writing devoted to the Frankfurt School. And now? Dead and buried. In place of functionalism, neo-contractualism is gaining ground (I bet it will be Rawls’ next year, even though it has already become old hat in the US). In the place of Althusserism, remaining in the sphere of Marxism or neo-Marxism, the dam on the theory of needs has suddenly opened (but I have the impression that it was a flash in the pan). In the place of the Frankfurt School, for the last two or three years Niklas Luhmann has been all the rage”. And he concluded: “Very prehensile, our philosophy and our culture in general, but not very original”. As shown by the fact that “in all these years we have imported everything, we have exported nothing, or almost nothing”.

What is really striking in Bobbio’s speech, however, is the angle from which he looks at these events, going beyond the level of a university controversy to invest the dimension, we might say, of the state, where they make full sense. In that impromptu intervention, the record was reported on the level of history: “This willingness to learn new things has been at the expense […] of the national character of Italian philosophy. […] With this I do not mean to say that the conviction that the philosopher has a civil commitment is completely extinguished. But it is certainly not a commitment aimed at national education, if ever it is a commitment that turns towards the process of modernization of our society or even towards the unhinging of the state (we have seen all sorts of things in recent years). No, the problem of national education is no longer a problem that interests Italian philosophy. Also for a deeper reason, of which I speak with a perturbed and moved soul, notwithstanding my Illuminist and cosmopolitan vocation: Italy is no longer a nation, in the sense that at least in the new generations there is no longer a national sentiment, what was once solemnly called love of country”.

In using these obsolete words, Bobbio must have remembered Croce, when, in the darkest moment of Italian history, in June 1943, he recalled the idea of the homeland (“the homeland is a moral idea” insofar as it is in “intimate connection with the idea of freedom”) against the shadow cast over the very image of Italy by the “cynical and foolish nationalism” that had thrown it into a foolish gamble. Certainly Bobbio was the one who, in his discreet way and keeping out of school disputes, had most continuously maintained the feeling of the dimension of Croce’s work. When I sent him another of the future chapters of my book, the essay published in the “Giornale Critico”, I received a note from him with the Senate’s header. I like to reproduce it as another testimony to the caliber of the man: “Dear Professor Maggi, I have received your latest studies on Croce. I am in total agreement with you and with Croce: I have always had in mind the parable of the Neapolitan cobbler, even if I have often found myself in the shoes of those who preach well and practice poorly. Cordially. N. Bobbio”.

In truth, there had been a kind of statehood in all these years, to which many intellectual identifications referred or with which they measured themselves. It was the state instance impersonated by a party founded on a philosophy of history whose victorious course had its factual witness in a world power. Of course, it was a potential statehood, which could not be expressed on a cultural level without the direct verification of power; while the actual statehood was managed by forces that gained consensus mainly on other levels. On both fronts, however, a break with the world to which Croce’s work seemed confined, together with the tradition of liberal Italy, was evident. “Today – Palmiro Togliatti was able to say when reviewing Eugenio Garin’s Chronicles of Italian Philosophy in 1955 – ten years after a civil restoration for which the people fought under the leadership of new men, it is certainly not by the followers of the Critica and of idealistic historicism that Italy is directed, but below, in the people, by the Marxists, and above by the faithful to Catholic Civilization and its immobile doctrines”.

The “new party” had been shaped by Togliatti on a skilful amalgam of the mythology indispensable to its mass appeal (the international communism of which the so-called socialist camp was a propulsive and supporting force) and of a national intellectual tradition functionally reshaped. The amalgam would hold for a long time (even if the death of the founder in 1964 had already occurred at a time when the reality of the confrontation between the two communist empires was beginning to undermine the rhetorical anchorage of internationalism). Until the 1980s, that amalgam held up, albeit readapted in such a way as to free it as far as possible from the increasingly uncertain founding myth. When the myth disappeared between 1989 and 1991, the entity that had been born out of that history could not but cease to exist, even in its name (but the death of the other charismatic leader, Enrico Berlinguer, was already a sign that a constitutively all-encompassing entity could not resolve itself on a lower level without drama).

I went to Rome to attend Berlinguer’s funeral on June 13, 1984, and in that choral homage I tacitly dissolved the pact that had long since become only a bond of sentiment. The extent to which the party identified itself as a substitute for the state was understood by the intellectuals who moved in that cultural area, and what consonances and reactions that kind of dominance aroused, is a story to be reconsidered. Certainly, that party asserted its exclusivity in terms of worldviews. In this sense, it imposed itself, through all its institutional and consensus articulations, not only as an alternative pole, but also as an authoritative power – reason and order – which, especially with Berlinguer, had tended to represent itself as an ethical guardian of democracy. When the story comes to an end, even the elements of ideology break down. On the Foscolian moment prevails the Pascolian one. Worse: the abandonment of Machiavelli, the fall of force, leaves the field open to whining, in the two versions of anti-state rage and the rhetoric of good intentions.

5. It seems to me that the civil and state value of philosophical discourse has entered a crisis in the later debate. So much so that the expression “crisis of reason” appeared in the title of a book published by Einaudi in 1979 edited by Aldo Gargani, in which collaborated, among others, Carlo Ginzburg, Salvatore Veca, Carlo Augusto Viano, Giulio Lepschy, Vittorio Strada. In 1983, Gianni Vattimo and Pier Aldo Rovatti delivered to Feltrinelli the sylloge on pensiero debole. What kind of impact did these books have on the Italian culture of those years?

Beyond the surface, as we can easily read it in the chronicles of our years, there are underground movements that a history of intellectuals and their philosophical inclinations would help to find. You suggest that I think back to the volume that in 1979 collected essays by thinkers of various orientations on the theme of the “crisis of reason”. The volume, if I take it in hand now, is really symptomatic. Of course, I could not say anything about it in passing. But if I look at the essay that introduced it to give the overall sense of the research in which the different voices meet, I find, along with technically refined and suggestive theoretical paths, the emergence of dissolutive tensions activated in the sixties and seventies, when the overall growth of society seemed to actualize a perspective of global revolution: in a cultural climate in which Marxism returned as an essential element, but in turn emptied into an undifferentiated deconstructive ideology at all levels of reality.

The Italian Communist Party had managed to withstand a cultural offensive that was directed against its very nature as a historical force, and to absorb and incorporate many antagonistic elements (in this way also verifying its hold as a civil power in a dramatic phase of national life). But how can we not sense an implied reference to that weakened curia and prince when we read, in the volume’s introduction, the declaration of liberation from a world in which “a model of rationality and conceptual hierarchy was at work that is associated with the image of a power”? The volume was also discussed in the party press, with conversations with some intellectuals who appeared in L’Unità. On that occasion I also intervened in May 1980 with an article with the editorial title Alcune domande sugli intellettuali (A few questions about intellectuals). I think it was the only time I appeared with a piece of writing in that newspaper. I had forgotten about it, and I found the yellowed paper in a box in the attic. I see that I was trying to widen my historical gaze on this “categorical insecurity”, as I said, linking its return to the present to the growth of social communication that questioned the position of intellectuals as a general class. But that network of certainties, that kind of defense of reason, that ideal shield, were no longer sufficient. At this point Croce, for those who know how to read him, or rather simply for those who decide to read him, can be of real help.

6. More recently, your interpretation of Croce’s thought is combined with a renewed reflection on Gramsci’s thought. In La filosofia della rivoluzione (2008) and Archetipi del Novecento (2011) you focused on the philosophy of praxis and the philosophy of reality as theoretical alternatives capable of investing the ethical and political dimension of life. I would ask you to propose a concise focus on this issue for those who are not familiar with those books.

The reading of Gramsci, especially the Quaderni in the volumes ordered by themes of the first Einaudi edition and then the rereading, at a higher level of reflection, in the critical edition of 1975, edited by Valentino Gerratana at the same publisher, has been an essential reference for me, as for many of my generation. Now the great enterprise of the National Edition is underway, accompanied by an intense philological commitment. While the literature on the subject has expanded to worldwide dimensions. However, I do not know for how many young people today Gramsci operates as a leading author, and how much his popularity is summed up in a street art icon.

Certainly, the introduction of Gramsci’s work (not to mention the preservation of the documentary legacy itself) into the national cultural circuit is due to the wise management of Palmiro Togliatti. The effect aroused by the publication of the letters from prison and consolidated with the publication of the notebooks was an indispensable lever to give the party its specific physiognomy, not estranged from the national tradition, however reinterpreted. The reference to Gramsci served to overcome internal distrust, but also sectarianism present in the new Marxist enthusiasm. Togliatti, to be clear, was dealing with a leadership group that was anything but willing to deviate from the high road of Soviet doctrine. For example, a man of culture like Emilio Sereni could accept Gramsci only by associating him with Zdanov; and he was keen to point out: “Gramsci was not taught by Croce and the idealist critics, but by the working class; at the school of its experience and its national and international practice, elaborated in the materialist critique of Marxism-Leninism” (the intellectual’s dommatism, once triggered, does not give any chance).

And it must be said that the institutionalization of Gramsci as founder of the party and ideal endorsement of its line was handled by Togliatti with determination but also with discretion: up to the last article, entitled “Gramsci, un uomo” (Gramsci, a man), where one can almost see a scruple of reconsideration for the possibility that the consideration of the party had entailed a reduction of the figure of Gramsci, “or given it an unfair prominence, such that it does not embrace and explain all the aspects and the true substance”.

In any case, for an entire epoch, the diffusion of Gramsci was linked to political functionality; and political choices marked the different readings of his work, whether they were part of the prevailing party line, or whether they rejected it in the name of another Gramsci, such as the workerist one of the councils, or contested its “idealistic” origins and contaminations. This is the vast literature on a “disputed Gramsci”, as it has been defined: disputed, certainly, and variously interpreted, but without freeing him from the vestments of the ideological cult. On the contrary, with the disappearance of its historical bearer, that cult has expanded to an increasingly evanescent Gramsci, projected onto the new world scenarios of antagonistic ideologism, subcultural claims, populism, nativism: he, whose themes of subordinate social groups, and the same interest in folklore, always lead back to the project of unification of which the modern prince must be the bearer, the party that becomes a state. The international “fortune” of Gramsci does not seem to correspond to a better understanding of his thought.

The fact is that that thought is loaded, in the same ways in which it was necessarily expressed, with multiple suggestions, but it remains impenetrable for those who start from the razor’s edge of a de-historicized and, if I may say so, de-Europeanized Marxism. In fact, it has its original impulse, which is projected in the entire work, in a culminating moment of the growth of Europe, which precedes (prepares?) the implosion of the Great War. The war will appear as the historical verification of that philosophical crisis of Europe of which I speak in essays collected in the volume entitled Machiavelli e il bisogno di Stato (Machiavelli and the need for State) that I published a few years ago in Edizioni di Storia e Letteratura. It is a crisis that is not played out at the level of institutional formulas and schools (even if there is no lack of evidence of this here), but emerges in the most diverse expressive experiments. It is like a void of general conceptions that the war itself enlarges on a mass level and to which only an integral philosophical disposition can correspond, uncontainable in the given theoretical bulkheads.

But at this level Gramsci could not from the beginning not meet Croce. Not an encounter to be included in the debts of filiation (the variations on the theme – more Croce or more Gentile, and perhaps Sorel, and the liberalists – are sickening), but a visual height with which the entire work is tuned. Here I can do no more than refer back to my book on Gramsci and the “philosophy of revolution,” as I have called it. In this philosophy there is all the difference from Croce: philosophy of praxis versus philosophy of reality, according to the formulations that seemed appropriate to designate not two theories or two doctrines, but something deep inside, operating behind theorizations and consciousnesses: “archetypes of the twentieth century”, precisely, according to the title of the book I published by Bibliopolis in 2011.

But there is also the level above the corporative knowledge to which Croce had brought philosophical consideration, the wholeness of the philosophy-life relationship (in Croce a fact to be brought to continuous awareness, in Gramsci the finalism of a totalizing praxis). Without taking all of this into account, it would sound like heresy, or at least an oddity, that – allow me to turn to a page of my 2008 volume – “Gramsci looks at Croce’s philosophy not as one philosophical contribution among others, and even less as a cultural event of limited national scope, but as the last form of universal philosophy, what he calls “speculative philosophy”, which precedes and at the same time is the premise of the philosophical revolution of Marx-Lenin”. And the image of Lenin as a philosopher (the famous passage in the Notebooks according to which “the theorization and realization of hegemony made by Ilici was also a great ‘metaphysical’ event”) appears in parallel with the discourse on Croce, and in comparison only with Croce’s philosophy.

7. You are now working on a new research, would you like to tell us about the need from which it was born?

I don’t know if it is a new work, but certainly the concern from which my research is born, I expressed in the title of my last collection of essays. It is the question of the State, and therefore of the ruling class in which it is represented and resolved. If you want, we can say hegemony, removing its ideological overload from the term, and using it not to look at the ” anni ancora non nati” of which ” Daniel si ricordò”, as in Manzoni’s hymn, not at the prophetic future of the philosophies of praxis, but at the running of the present. A present that remains obscure and illegible without the awareness of continuity and of the very fractures on which it arises: of tradition, in short, which is the whole of an accumulation of civilization, not the remembrance of how we were, nor the spectre of a past to be forgotten.

I must say that looking at our present (but it is a present of a few decades) a poem by Eugenio Montale comes to mind, again asking for support from great literature: ” Forse un mattino andando in un’aria di vetro…”. The sensation, in the face of the received cultural standards – including a school impoverished of effective knowledge, all pedagogizing and socializing – is of a weakened historical consciousness, substituted from time to time by fashionable reconstructions. In other words, to the most evident ruptures of the twentieth century, first of all that which called into question the very existence of the national state, and which was compensated for thanks to the industriousness of individuals and the civil didacticism of the political parties – less relying on the accounts of intellectuals – other critical passages have been added: breaks in consciousness as if passed into oblivion.

Someone will have to decide once to make a history without ideologies, but for this very reason able to give an account, without recriminations and concealments, of the long ideological season that marked the Italian intellectuals of the second half of the twentieth century: setting ethical stylistic features, which have become obligatory mental dispositions, but whose origin is now not even recognized. What has become of the various Marxisms, up to a certain point politically controllable, then flowing into the muddy current of protest in the seventies and finally exhausted, for those who survived unscathed the tragic outcomes of that season of abstract fury, in the progressive pacification?

These were intellectual events, torsions of conscience, that need more than ever true pacification, a historiographic catharsis. In the absence of this, the feeling is really to have “nothing behind, the void behind”. And that the attempts to reconstruct fictitious continuities around more or less modernized schools and intellectual tribes (Marxism also returns, as if nothing had happened) are resolved in a game of appearances, in the “usual deception”.

The more so, precisely because of the universal dimension in which we move, the more we need to draw on the deep forces of our history and use them to substantiate a culture that is both dominant and expansive.

Dear Davide, I haven’t answered your question except with other questions, with worried but not desperate questions. The important thing, as we know from our own tradition, is to work on things, each one where he can and how he can. Rather, I am grateful to you for this interview of yours, which has been for me an occasion of meditation and whose friendly solicitation I have also taken advantage of.

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