His historicism can be turned against him, in the sense that he too can be subjected to a historically limitative analysis. Indeed, he cannot be understood outside his specific historical context, or divorced from the object of his opposition.

1. Gramsci’s fundamental target was ‘social-democratic’ and ‘Bukharinist’ mechanicism, which he saw as a form of fatalism, as a confusion between the science of nature and the science of history (hence his anti-Engelsian, anti-scientific emphasis).

(What was the principal danger? The principal confusion against which and in relation to which Gramsci’s position was to be defined and Marxism was to be distinguished? Defining the particularity, i.e. the inner essence of a doctrine or theory is something which cannot be done abstractly: it is an active and reactive operation. To define means to distinguish, to separate from a historical environment, from a filiation, from a threatening affinity. Gramsci sets out to establish the nature of Marxism as compared to the mechanistic materialism of the Eighteenth Century. He is therefore engaged in a struggle: the character of his theoretical work is essentially polemical, just as his activity as a militant is founded on that theoretical work. It is wrong to try and ‘excuse’ certain of Gramsci’s theoretical formulations, however surprising they may be, as deriving from his situation as an active militant. This is what Cogniot does in the Morceaux Choisis;footnote1 he is continually seeking to defend Gramsci from himself, to ‘moderate’ him, as if trying to calm down a person who has become over-excited in the heat of a dispute. In reality, all theoretical analysis is of its very essence polemical, a ‘committed’ form of critique; Marx himself constructs Capital on a critique of political economy, starting from—and against—Smith, Ricardo and Say. The interesting thing in Gramsci’s case is that he does not hide it, he does not claim any scholarly, academic or ‘scientific’ ‘objectivity’, he lays his cards on the table: he theoretically assumes the necessity for explicit polemic).

2. In this struggle, Gramsci takes as his starting-point (i.e. turns for assistance to) Croce, Sorel, De Man: authors—especially Croce— whose importance he over-estimates. This over-estimation too (in our eyes) is a historical feature, the mark of an epoch.