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Livio Maitan

Benedetto Croce: 1866-1952

Bourgeois Philosopher – Educator of Marxists

(January 1953)

From Fourth International, Vol.14 No.1, January-February 1953, pp.17-18.
Transcribed &marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

We are happy to bring our readers the following article penned by a well-known Italian Marxist in tribute to the great bourgeois philosopher, Benedetto Croce, who died last November. Croce was born in 1866, and his influence on Italian thought, and to a certain extent on its politics, spread over many decades, two world wars and the era of Mussolini’s fascism. He became a Senator in 1910, and was Minister of Education in 1920 and 1921. Croce’s chief work, which embodies his philosophic system, The Philosophy of the Spirit appeared in four parts from 1902 to 1917. Livio Maitan’s brief article gives a Marxist critique of Croce’s work and highlights the significance of his long career. – Ed.

The philosophy of Benedetto Croce made its appearance at the beginning of our century, and came to full flower in the first decade of the century. It arose at a time when the Italian bourgeoisie, having achieved the unification of the country, had reached the stage of maturity. It was the philosophy of this bourgeois class, the expression of the post-Risorgimento [1] Italian world. Due to Croce’s genius, there was repeated for our bourgeoisie what had already occurred for the German bourgeoisie in the preceding century: it developed a superiority in the ideological sphere in contrast with its political and economic inferiority. In truth, with the exception of Hegel’s philosophy, no bourgeoisie in the 19th and 20th centuries has enjoyed a more systematic and lucid philosophical expression than the one achieved by the Italian bourgeoisie, thanks to Benedetto Croce.

Croce’s philosophy, to use an image already employed for Hegel’s philosophy, is characterized by its conservative solemnity. It adequately expresses the conception of a world where the bourgeoisie has conquered power without a really revolutionary struggle, by means of a series of compromises at a time when the bourgeoisie on a world scale had already lost its revolutionary elan. Anyone who comes in contact with this philosophy cannot avoid the sensation of a critique that conserves, not of a critique that destroys. It consists not of the genius which penetrates to the bottom of things and dissects them, but of a comprehensive intelligence which embraces and rearranges things without negating them, contenting itself with curbing usurpations and exaggerations in the distribution of the parts.

As the natural interpreter of the laity of a class which had to fight the Vatican and the clericals to fulfill its historic function, Croce was particularly Italy’s ideologue of the Giolitti epoch. [2] As Gramsci [3] wrote in his authoritative essay Croce fulfilled an indispensable conservative role by joining the intellectuals of southern Italy to the Agrarian Bloc and thus, on a different plane, accomplishing the same function fulfilled by reformist transformism. After the inevitable foibles of youth, Croce adopted a “tolerant” attitude to the workers’ movement in its reformist form, because, despite his hostility to socialism, he could assign a function to it within the framework of his general conceptions. But he hardened, became bitter and blind to the workers’ movement after 1917 when it no longer appeared to him as an element of ferment but as an element of destruction of the system.

More able than any in interpreting the general interests of his class, and of interpreting them from the standpoint of a certain perspective, Croce was the “clerical” type who does not betray. The genuine intellectual has the function, not of placing himself above the battle or of being a righteous, acolyte, but of keeping intact the vision of universal interests – from the point of view of a given society – and of never yielding to opportunist or expedient temptations which can come into conflict with or endanger permanent values. In this sense, in the best sense of the word, Croce fully deserves the designation of having been a genuine intellectual.

Croce and Fascism

Official eulogies to the contrary notwithstanding, the victory of fascism marked the definitive crisis in Croce’s ideology which had already been impaired by the shattering blows of the First World War and of the immediate postwar period.

Despite his waverings, Croce’s attitude in practice toward fascism was not incoherent. So long as fascism appeared to him as an anti-Bolshevik force, as the most effective one against the revolutionary spirit of the workers, he granted it his support. Afterward, his opposition to fascism was determined by the fascist critique of the liberal state. For long years, however, this did not involve militant opposition, but merely the re-evocation of a world suppressed by fascism. It was only when fascism approached disaster, and When the more responsible groupings of the bourgeoisie decided to change horses that Croce assumed a more important position in the anti-fascist resistance movement.

If he could witness the fall of fascism with the honors of a victor, the fascist phenomenon marked the inevitable disintegration of that political and social equilibrium on which he had built his philosophic system. Fascism represents the epoch of the. most regressive attitude of the bourgeoisie which has come to the twilight of its system, condemned to negate the very values of which it had once been the passionate prophet. As the expression of a mature society, Croce could not become the ideologue of new degenerated forms. He was incapable of this as much because of the universality through which he understood and expressed the interests of his class, because of his genuine intellectual integrity, as well as because of his antipathy to the plebeian character of fascism which he hated with the hatred a big bourgeois has for petty-bourgeois demagogy.

The Philosopher in His Twilight

By an irony of history, which Hegel calls the “cunning of reason” (List der Vernunft), Croce, precisely in the twilight of his philosophy, involuntarily performed a function whose import he did not understand. In the crisis opened by the First World War the major talent of the Italian workers’ movement was being shaped in philosophic thought through Croce’s works, and should rightfully have accorded him the greatest recognition, when Croce turned upon this movement as its most implacable critic. Twenty years later, at the close of Gramsci’s life, it was once again Croce’s philosophy which penetrated like a ray of light through the wall of fascism, exercising an irresistible attraction on a new generation of intellectuals who, with Croce’s ideology as a starting point, were to follow the same philosophical and political road Gramsci had traveled before them. Just as the founders of dialectical materialism had been molded in Hegel’s philosophy, so Marxist thought in Italy – with hardly an exception – was refined in Croce’s ideology. And that was all the more plausible, as Gramsci remarked, since Croce was an idealist who had learned something from Marxism.

Groce, who played no political role at the high point of his life, became a politician proper in a period when his philosophy was already exhausted. In truth, Croce’s role was more than ever finished. Croce had no longer any role to play in a society where an equilibrium could not be reestablished, in which Giolittism had no longer any room for development, in which the laity itself had been stifled by the return of clerical reaction, in which all the regressive forces have been revived for a last effort on behalf of the bourgeois order. It was impossible to reknit the Agrarian Bloc. His serene ideological function was at an end. He could not even make a valuable contribution for his class in an occasional polemic against communism, so painfully myopic was the character of his last writings.

Priests, liberals and Marxists met at Croce’s funeral: a symbol of the multiplicity of viewpoints from which Croce can be judged! The priests, without abandoning their livid sectarianism, intended by their gesture to give recognition to the clearly conservative function of this “spiritualist” whom they hope to have liquidated in order to become his cultural successor. The liberals wept the most sincerely and sadly. Sons of the same world and nourished on the same ideology, they wept over the parsing of the last vestige of glory of their class, because the void created by his departure enhances the sinking feeling of a society which is crumbling to ruin.

As for the Marxists, they wanted to render homage to their unwitting teacher. They wanted to recognize an objective historic value which devolves equally on the representatives of antagonistic historic interests. Arid it will be the anti-Crocean disciples of Croce who will build the new house which will produce a new, more universal culture than that of Croce because it is the expression of more universal interests.



1. Risorgimento: resurrection, a term that designates the movement for Italian unification in the 19th Century.

2. Outstanding Italian bourgeois politician between 1900 and 1920; a liberal who united the anti-clerical petty bourgeoisie of southern Italy with the bourgeoisie of the north.

3. Together with Bordiga, Gramsci was the most outstanding personality of the Italian Socialist Left, later one of the founders of the Italian CP. He died after years of imprisonment in fascist jails.

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