Between Dialectical Materialism and Philosophy of Praxis: Gramsci and Labriola (1959)

Antonio Labriola

It is difficult to speak about Gramsci, remaining closed within the scope of his personal problematic. In him one finds all the cultural world of his era interpreted and “translated.” Any research on his thought returns necessarily to research on the thought that surrounds him. In his work, it is always easy to distinguish the roots of the problem from the problem itself; to distinguish between the material that his era offers to him and his singular reflections. This is why, through Gramsci, it is possible today to reach a general rethinking of the history and culture that are immediately behind our shoulders and which constitute our recent past. This is possible on the condition that within this past one includes Gramsci’s own work. I mean that a re-examination of our current cultural consciousness should take Gramsci as an instrument of critique and, at the same time, as an object which is itself implicated in the critique. In doing so it may seem that the problem becomes more broad, but on the contrary it is specified and deepened; it may seem that the meaning of the discourse is uselessly lost, while on the contrary one finds it again, indeed, with a stronger certainty.

Within the scope of the “philosophical” problematic alone, all this becomes extremely obvious. Gramsci understands theoretical Marxism as a “philosophy of praxis.” Well we see that the entire debate within Marxism, in Italy, concludes precisely on this definition. The term must not be conceived, therefore, as another name that is given to Marxism, but as another interpretation that is given of Marxism. Behind the different definition lies a different content of thought. We are pushed then, inevitably, to retrace the phases of these formulations which lead to the Gramscian formulation. Gramsci’s Marxism pushes us to rethink the main lines of Italian Marxism, the nature of his introduction into the national culture, the function he ended up fulfilling for it, the distinguishing marks that he himself absorbed, the form in which he was understood and popularized.

I have the impression, therefore, that we will need a long introduction in order to arrive at a short conclusion.


We should acknowledge to Rodolfo Mondolfo a consistent position of thought. Between his essay on Feuerbach e Marx from 1909 and his Intorno a Gramsci e alla filosofia della prassi from 1955, there is a single orientation [senso unico] in his research: a consideration of Marx’s thought that has the merit of an explicit clarity, within the framework of a well-defined theoretical horizon. One can easily isolate, therefore, the core of this position. It starts with a polemic that has, at its core, one of the dogmas of socialism: consciousness does not determine the being of man, but the being of man determines his consciousness. From this principle he obtains an essentially materialistic and fatalistic conception; in this there is no place for a theory of reflection except as product of the environment in the form of passive adaptation. But in this passive adaptation the will finds no place, and it does not reveal class consciousness. Furthermore, consciousness and the will are an essential moment of history, in so far as they are elements conditioning action and the very historical process. Metaphysical materialism cannot contain within its own framework the principle of class struggle; on the contrary, it results from this principle being overcome implicitly. Another philosophical conception is made necessary. This, after all, was already formulated.

Subject and object do not exist as limits of a necessarily reciprocal relationship, whose reality is in praxis: their dialectical opposition is not the dialectic of their process of development, of their life. Therefore the subject is not a passively receptive tabula rasa; it is (as idealism asserts) an activity that is affirmed by another (and here against idealism) in the human subjective sensibility or activity, which establishes, molds, or transforms the object, and with which it is forming itself. 1

For Marx, thought is praxis and his object is praxis; that is, in praxis one confirms the existence of both limits, and in it, therefore, thought and reality coincide. Praxis is the process of understanding that Marx, along with Hegel, considers the overcoming of the antithesis between “the one-sidedness of subjectivity and the one-sidedness of objectivity.” 2 The concept of praxis for Marx turns out to be very close to the principle of experience for Hegel. “The principle of experience contains the infinitely important determination that, for a content to be accepted and held to be true, man must himself be actively involved with it, more precisely, that he must find any such content to be at one and in unity with the certainty of his own self. He must himself be involved with it…with his essential consciousness of self as well.” And that is to say “what ought to count in our human knowing, we ought to see for ourselves, and to know ourselves as present in it.” 3 But since the concept of praxis is the sensory human activity that establishes or creates the object, and with which one is forming oneself, Marx attaches to this principle “the exclusion of any reality extraneous to praxis, considering the object and the subject not independently, but as the formation of praxis.” 4

Now for praxis the will is needed; for the will consciousness is needed; all of this, according to Hegel, was a means for the cunning of reason and substance of history. Here precisely is the fundamental contrast with materialism. For Marx the atomistic conception, being necessarily mechanistic, could not be applied to human society. The atom is in itself inert, it is not a principle of force and of development, it is not able to be conceived dynamically: and atomism comes precisely from mechanistic materialism. Instead man is essentially activity and vital impulse, whence arises one’s needs and, therefore, action tending toward a goal: “the concept that can be applied to man, as principally dynamic and teleological, turns out to be repulsing from materialism. Therefore the philosophy of praxis, that is the voluntarism derived from Feuerbach, is presented as antithesis to materialism.” 5 The philosophical conception most appropriate appears as that of a “voluntaristic idealism.” The definition “historical materialism” is infelicitous with respect to the object that one wants to define. And the object is a philosophy of praxis, which one might be able to say otherwise as “voluntaristic telism.” “Philosophy of action, which in some respects one can refer to, for reasons of similarity, as today’s pragmatism.” 6 By this fact alone: because of the value criterion of truth that Marx confers on praxis, it is the subjective activity that establishes the object. With this one difference: that “praxis, of which he speaks, is of the individual’s own social nature.” 7

One can therefore conclude here. The definition of Marxism that one must give is: philosophy of praxis. The content: a voluntaristic telism. The meaning: a pragmatism “of social nature”; philosophy of action, seen no longer from the point of view of the individual, but from the point of view of society, which is in the individual himself.


For Gentile, historical materialism can be considered in two ways: as philosophy of history and as metaphysics and intuition of the world. In time the first comes to take precedent over the second; and the second turns out to be an artificial construction, designed by Marx, in order to take a position in philosophy. We limit ourselves to observing this “artificial construction.”

The keystone rests, without doubt, in the concept of praxis. This concept, new to materialism, is, on the other hand, “within idealism, as old as idealism itself, born with it actually, already with Socrates and his subjectivism.8 And it is easy to find in Plato and in Hegel and in Vico, in their key ideas [idee-forza], in the pedagogy of Froebel. Marx first wants to carry this concept – that knowledge goes hand in hand with activity, with praxis – from abstract idealism into concrete materialism. From this a “materialistic monism” is born, which is distinguished from every other comparable system, precisely because the concept of praxis is applied to matter. Pure object and intuition are characters of objectivism, whether idealistic or materialistic. But praxis means the relation between subject and object. “Therefore neither individual-subject, nor individual-object, as such; but man in necessary relation with the other, and vice versa; therefore identity/unity of opposites.” 9 What Marx blames on materialism, with respect to the theory of knowledge, is this: “to believe the object, sensible intuition, external reality is a given, instead of a product.10 Marx, “the born idealist,” who in the formative period of his intellect had such a familiarity first with the philosophy of Fichte, then with Hegel, approaches the materialism of Feuerbach, not forgetting all that he learned and which is by now ingrained in his thought. He cannot forget that one does not give an object without a subject that constructs it; nor is he able to forget that everything is in perpetual movement, everything is history. Though this subject is not spirit, but sensation; not ideal activity, but material activity. And all this, which is always in a state of becoming, is not the spirit or the idea, but matter. “Therefore matter indeed: but matter and praxis (in other words subjective object); matter indeed, but matter in continuous becoming… Materialism indeed, but historical.” Here is the root of the contradiction that crops up, through every line, in the materialism of Marx. The concept of praxis cannot be applied to perceptible reality, or to matter. There is an absolute incompatibility in the two above-mentioned principles, “of that form (=praxis) with that content (=matter).” 11 The general character of this philosophy turns out to be “an eclecticism of contradictory elements.” And this seems to be a conclusion that does not leave space for a resumption of the problem. Instead, on closer inspection, in this rests the implicit suggestion of a different solution, the possibility of an overcoming of contradiction, in the Hegelian sense of the limit. 12

“Thought is real because it establishes, and in so far as it establishes, the object. Or thought is, and thinks; or it does not think, and it is not thought. If thinking, doing. Therefore reality, the objectivity of thought, is a consequence of its very nature. This is one of the first consequences of Marxist realism.” 13

In this framework, the question of whether the circumstances form the man, or the man forms the circumstances, is resolved thus: society, which is an organic totality, is together cause and effect of its conditions; and it needs to investigate in the very breast of society the reason for its every mutation. There are not educators on one side and educated on the other; but educators who are educated and the educated who educate. It is society itself, which has already been educated, returning to educate. All education is therefore a praxis of society.

The subject, Marx’s practical activity, is the thesis; the circumstances and the education are the antithesis; the subject, modified by circumstances and by education, the synthesis. And since the subject is the originary activity that establishes the object, this is also the being, which negates itself, establishing the object, in so far as this position is a singular determination of its activity… The object therefore (the circumstances, the education) is equivalent to the Hegelian non-being, which is the intrinsic contradiction to being, and produces the becoming of being itself, that is to say of the subject that is, as has been said, modified by the object (circumstances, education). 14

Here is the meaning of the return to Hegel. The contradiction is overcome, negating one of the limits of the contradiction. It is overcome but not resolved. It is taken up as content of the dialectical procedure and suffers its fate: a false mobility, alongside a nefarious overturning [rovesciamento vizioso] of its own reality. Reality, the objectivity of thought, is in thought itself, as a consequence of its nature. But in addition there is the pragmatic realism that comes with the very act of thinking. If thinking, doing. “In praxis there is already a certain germ of the pure act.15


The second of the essays that Croce dedicates to Marxism is from 1896, and it concerns “the scientific form of historical materialism.” All of his ideas on the subject are already in this essay. Historical materialism is not, and cannot be, a new philosophy of history or a new method; but it is only this: a summary of new information, of new experiences, which enters into the consciousness of history. With respect to historiography it resolves in rebuke to hold onto its own observations, as a new aid for understanding history. This is all. Apart from that, metaphysical materialism – which Marx and Engels had reached easily, starting out from the extreme Hegelian left – “gave its name and some metaphysical ingredients to their conception of history.” But the one and the other are entirely foreign to the proper character of their conception. “A conception of history can be neither materialistic nor spiritualistic, neither dualistic nor monistic.” In this case speaking of monism and materialism is “to say something deprived of meaning.” Historical materialism is “a simple figure of speech.” 16 Croce’s preferred definition is that of a realistic conception of history.

And this is the important passage, within the scope of this interpretation. Speaking about the transformation that the Hegelian Idea suffers in the conception of Marx, Croce expresses himself thus:

In reality the Idea of Hegel – and Marx knew it very well – is not the ideas of men, and the overturning of the Hegelian philosophy of history; it cannot be the affirmation that ideas are born as a reflection of their material conditions. The inverse would be, logically, this: history is not a process of the Idea, that is of a rational reality, but rather a system of force: to the rational conception one opposes the dynamic conception. 17

The Marxist conception according to which ideas are determined by facts and not facts by ideas, more than an inversion of the view of Hegel, turns out to be rather like the inversion of the views of the ideologues and of the doctrinarians. This is Marx as “the most renowned follower of Niccolò Machiavelli, the Italian.” 18

This sequence of considerations includes the reason which pushes Croce to reject Marxism as an a priori construction of a philosophy of history, and to accept it instead as a simple “canon for the interpretation of history.” A simple canon, mind you, and not a method of thought. Because the historians of the materialistic school “apply the same intellectual instruments and follow the same roads of the historians, thus I will say philologians, and they only bring with their work some new pieces of information, some new experiences.19 The method on the other hand was “that of the idealistic philosophers who deduced historical facts.” A canon, therefore, from an altogether empirical origin, which merely suggests a turning of attention to the so-called economic substratum of society, in order to better understand the configuration and sequences of this society.

He does not deny that historical materialism has manifested in two currents, intimately if not practically distinct: as a historiographic movement and as science and philosophy of society. But rather he says that in this second point a metaphysical, eternal danger is suggested.

Also in the writings of Prof. Labriola one finds some propositions, which on recent occasion have been brought to a rigorous and exact critique (by Gentile), which concludes that Labriola understands historical materialism in its genuine and original meaning as a metaphysics, and one of the worst kinds: a metaphysics of contingency. 20

No philosophy therefore in historical materialism, no metaphysics. Marx’s Hegelian orthodoxy 21 does not appear here. The reduction of Marxism to a canon for historical research has overcome the problem implicitly. And the speculative reasons advanced by Gentile seem very far away. Yet Croce does not speak of the “philosophy” of Marx, because he declares himself in agreement with Gentile’s interpretation. “Limiting the assertion to the doctrine of knowledge,” one could speak of “a historical materialism as a philosophy of praxis, that is as of a particular mode of conception and of resolution, in fact of overcoming, the problem of thought and of being.” 22 The practical canon to suggest to the work of thought agrees, in this case, with the reduction of all reality to praxis of thought. In addition, in his adherence to the economic construction of the hedonistic principle, to the concept of marginal utility, to final utility, and finally to the economic explanation of the profit on capital as arising from different degrees of utility of the present and future goods, there is already, in nuce, the “practical” category of profit, on which the entirely spiritual essence of Economics hinges and is shaken.


Both Croce and Gentile, when they should summarize the thought of Marx, summarize the thought of Labriola. His Essays on the materialist conception of history are held as a finally systematic [organica] exposition of Marx’s disorganized thought. These essays truly introduce Marxism into Italy. From this moment, the object of everyone’s discussion will be Marx, and thus he has been studied, by everyone, from Labriola’s perspective alone.

And we must say that, as the presenter of Marx, in the Italian language, Labriola had the same fate as Marx: rarely was he read, for that which he said. He begins from the Hegelian environment of Naples, he lives for years with a spirit divided between Hegel and Spinoza, “with youthful enthusiasm” he defends the dialectic against Zeller’s neo-Kantianism, passes through Herbart and through the Völkerpsychologie of Steinthal, and arrives at Marxism. And perhaps all these tendencies within his Marxism are still being felt, battling and canceling each other out. What emerges is a balanced and somewhat eclectic thought, modern for its time and charged with vivid suggestions.

“The secret of history is simplified. We are within the prosaic… And even communism becomes something prosaic: or rather it is science.23 In this there is none other than the first central thread of a science and a practice, which experience and time alone can and should develop. Everything that he considers is the unique method and rhythm of the proletarian movement; rational not because it is founded on arguments drawn from reasoning reason, but because it is deduced from the objective consideration of things. 24 The relativity of economic laws is discovered and at the same time their relative necessity is confirmed. In this is the entire method and justification for the new materialistic conception of history. “Mistaken are those who, calling it economic interpretation, believe that they understand and make understood everything… We, however, are in the organic conception of history. Here we have before our minds the totality and the unity of social life.” 25 The revolutionary hypothesis coincides with the scientific goal of the new doctrine. Since this “objectifies, and I would say almost naturalizes the explanation of the historic processes.” 26 To naturalize history, without falling into “a new type of political and social Darwinism,” nor into any “mythical, mystical, or metaphorical form of fatalism.” It is a matter of understanding in a single expression “the critique of all ideological viewpoints, which in the interpretation of history originate from the presumption that work and human activity are the same thing as liberty, choice, and planning.” 27

Labriola is not on the terrain of positivism, but neither is he on the terrain directly opposite to positivism, as it will be, from the beginning, for Croce and for Gentile. For him there is no arch nemesis to strike, no single polemic to carry out. There is no old way of thinking to renounce; there is a new way of thinking to put into circulation. In his essays one glimpses, at times, the enthusiasm of a neophyte. It is not a matter of interpreting Marx, but of explaining him; not to make him current once again, but to introduce him for the first time; not to select among diverse positions within Marxism, but to present him wholesale. In its “philosophical” perspective, Marxism is still a unique whole. It was not hitherto criticized; it was only ignored. Marx represents a force of practical action, not a philosophical position; he is a political agitator, not a classic of thought [un classico del pensiero]. He has no rights of citizenship within high culture. No one would have thought to open the doors of the university classrooms to him. No one, except Professor Labriola.

These ages, which mark a slow, gradual, and serene development of things, become increasingly, on the level of thought, the ages of the “returns.” And at that moment, there were those who turned to Kant and those who turned to Hegel, those to Jacobi and those to Darwin. Labriola proposes to return to Marx. And while the other socialists pose the question of “whether Mr. Marx can go hand in hand with this or that philosopher,” Labriola tries to grasp and to isolate that philosophy which is “necessarily and objectively implicit” in this doctrine. 28 In fact, if one wants to go looking for the premises of Marx’s and Engels’ doctrinal creation, it will not suffice to limit oneself to those who are called the precursors of socialism up to Saint-Simon, nor to the philosophers up to Hegel, nor to the economists who declare the anatomy of civil society: “one needs to go back directly to the entire formation of modern society, and then at last triumphantly to declare that the theory is a plagiarism of the things which it explains.” 29 The new doctrine’s effective precursors are the facts of modern history. Scientific socialism is no longer subjective critique applied to things, “but it is the discovery of the self-critique that is in the things themselves.” The true critique of society is society itself. In this consists the dialectic of history: “a rhythm of thought that reproduces the more general rhythm of reality in its becoming.” 30 In this case it would be better to say a genetic method rather than a dialectical one, since “the word dialectics is degraded in common usage to the rhetorical and lawyerly art, to Scheinbeweiskunst.31 But it is a simple question of nomenclature. One finds Labriola in complete agreement with Engels’ chapter on the “negation of the negation.” And in general all of Engels’ work excites him. Clearly he needed to find a spirit very near to himself. Not only because of Engels’ work to systematize and popularize Marxism, which was for Labriola the fundamental objective to be achieved; but above all because of a motive of greater substance: because of a certain affinity with the form of his thought, because of a certain similarity in their cultural formation, because of the common thread of their philosophical interests, more wide than deep, more popular than rigorous, more suggestive than convincing.

Particularly on this point, Labriola also has the merit of making more explicit the misunderstanding of the dialectic in Engels. And not to be confused with “pure empiricists,” with the “antiquated metaphysicians,” with “popular evolutionists,” Labriola returns to Engels’ treatise, expressing, in private, some doubts on the terminology of the problem. But he barely attacks that eclectic pasticcio, that strange hodgepodge between Hegel and Spencer, which has so little in common with Marx’s scientific method: formally the law of evolution is required to assume a dialectical rhythm, after the reciprocal obligation on the part of the dialectic to assume the real content of things which are in a state of becoming; and in this way the empirical nature of each particular formation remains “not pre-judged,” but at the same time “little known.”

Here is precisely the point at which diverse suggestions co-exist once again. But this is not the fundamental point. It is not the fundamental moment in which Labriola speaks of the “philosophy of praxis” as the “marrow of historical materialism.” Because he is quick to define it as the philosophy immanent to the things about which it philosophizes. “From life to thought, and not from thought to life; this is the realistic process. From labor, which is an operative knowledge, to knowledge as abstract theory: and not from this to that.” 32 This is just another way of saying basically the same thing: that the overturning of the Hegelian dialectic consists in this: “for the rhythmic self-propulsion of thought in its own right, gets substituted the self-propulsion of things, of which the thought is ultimately a product.” Marxism as “philosophy of praxis” does not go back to Labriola; it turns out to be profoundly alien to his thinking. The fundamental point to be researched in the “philosophy” of Marx is what Labriola calls a “tendency toward monism.” A critical-formal tendency that must escape both vague transcendental insights, which have the pretension of representing the totality of the universe, as well as the simple empiricism of non-philosophy.

A tendency toward monism, but at the same time precise conscience of the special nature of research. A tendency to blend science and philosophy, but, simultaneously, continued reflection on the range and on the value of those forms of thought which we use concretely, and which at the same time we can detach from the concrete… To think concretely, and to even be able to reflect in the abstract on information and on the conditions of thinkability. Philosophy is and is not. For those who have not already arrived there, it is something beyond science. And for those who have arrived there, it is science conducted to perfection. 33

This is truly the formula that we find concretely applied in the course of his essays. This is the philosophy of Labriola. The language is that of the time; the individual concepts are all already in the thought of his era. Yet the result is an original “tendency,” loaded with unpredictable developments. And in fact this point will be ignored and bypassed by Labriola’s idealist interpreters: their consideration of Marxism will not pass through here. There were other weaker, more contradictory aspects, which were, at the same time, more obvious and noisy. There was, for example, the philosophy of history. More than once Labriola claims that the doctrine of Marx “cannot be made to represent the entire history of the human race in a panorama, however perspectival or unitary, the kind which repeats in design the historic philosophy, from St. Augustine to Hegel, or better, from the prophet Daniel to M. De Rougemont”; and he recognizes in it “not the intellectual vision of a grand plan or design, but only a method of research and of conception, a simple guiding thread.” 34 So if Labriola theoretically negates the concept of an ultimate and definitive philosophy of history, he then ends up practically applying it himself. He fails to pivot upon a particular point in history, upon a specific and determinate type of economic-social formation. He recognizes that Marx started from this point, but he fails to follow suit. He stretches, with intelligence and knowledge, across many centuries of great human events, but he fails to fix his expert gaze on the depths of his own time, even on that limited environment that surrounds him. This is sometimes an end-point but never a point of departure. Hence that isolated detachment of his person, the accusation that in his abstract nature he was confined to his own thought, the weak practical grasp that characterized all his attempts at political action.

And all of this is no accident. Mere historical-psychological reasons are not enough to explain it. A thinker’s fundamental defects must always be found in their thought. Which means that we must know how to find the historical motives of a thought by means of an analysis internal to the thought itself.

So, within Labriola’s thought there is a fundamental point of weakness, which after all he has in common with an entire traditional line of interpretation of Marxism. A point which on the one hand makes his contribution to the development of a renewed Marxist problematic somewhat modern, somewhat current today, and which on the other hand made possible then the attempt to close down once and for all the discourse on Marxism. We are speaking of that radical caesura, that split, made between “two sides” of Marxism, which is like an open breach, through which pass all those who want to “liquidate” Marxism. It is the distinction between an interpretation of history and a general conception of the world and of life, as if they were two separate and overlapping things, the one a function of the other, the one subordinated to the other. That which will become, in the Marxist orthodoxy and Vulgate, the distinction between historical materialism and dialectical materialism.

And mind you: this is not to deny, in Marx, the possibility of a scientific methodology next to an interpretation of history; the possibility of a theory of consciousness next to a science of society. It is not to deny Marx his “philosophical” horizon. It is simply to state this: that the Marxian conception of history is conducted precisely with a scientific method; that his philosophy becomes one with that scientific consideration of history; that his logic is already all in his sociology, and his sociology is already his logic. There is a profound unity (which is unity and not identity) of logic and sociology, of philosophy and science, of science and history.

But in Labriola there is, additionally, the “tendency to monism,” which leads him concretely to resolve the science of nature into the science of man; to dissolve the dialectic into the idea of progress; to submerge all the world in history; and to consider all history as the development of human praxis. Precisely for this reason, we find him at the origin of both Italian Marxism and Italian idealism.


Here proceeds the “crisis of Marxism.” Sorel in France, Bernstein in Germany, Croce in Italy, Masaryk in Prague, Struve and Bulgakov in Russia, the Fabians in England, and the little sharp debate within the “Zusammenbruchstheorie”: everyone agrees, everything corresponds. 35 And Labriola gets angry and yells: it is a sketch [pochade], a demimonde crisis from the Latin Quarter; it is one of so many pretexts which serve an international conspiracy, “the scientific investigator” [mouchard]. And then he falls silent, all of a sudden, disappointed and perhaps disgusted.

He was wrong: not in his defense of Marx to the bitter end, but in the response that he reserved for his own critics. Because there was “the crisis of Marxism”: there was and there is, every time that the “crisis of capitalism” weakens, diminishes, fades, and seems to be resolved; there is an inversely proportional relationship. He needed to endure the polemic, climb onto the terrain of his adversaries, reclaim Marx and rediscover, with Marx, the reality of the present; he needed to inaugurate a new comparison of thought with things. But Labriola was not Lenin, and he was not able to do it.

And yet if for forty years in Italy it was believed that theoretical Marxism, born in 1895, had died in 1900, this is not to be attributed to Labriola’s particular type of Marxism. It is to be attributed to the particular type of Marxism seen and understood by Italian idealism, in the person of its own two most authoritative representatives. “You compete with yourself to know what use you should make of Marxism, but not to know the thing itself”: we could extend these, Labriola’s words for Croce, to all Italian thought. Marx was always used as a means for reaching ends, which were not so much those of Marx as of those who studied and interpreted him: for the vital suggestions that he offered to the historian; for the vast field of investigation that he opened in front of the economist; for the secret stashes that he revealed to the legal scholar; for the scientific guise that he gave to the discourse of the politician; and for so many other things. He was not reduced to a canon but to many different canons, to many little techniques, as many as there are various disciplines. The historian and the economist, the jurist and the sociologist, the politician and the art critic all speak in a Marxist language, demonstrating however, on every occasion, a supreme contempt for Marx. And the “philosopher,” aware of his mission, uniting in himself the substance of all these disciplines, and making of so many techniques one alone, carries out the same service, in its classic and definitive form.

And so, for Italian philosophy, Marx was the toehold for arriving at Hegel; he functioned as a hyphen, a link, historically determined and concrete. Marx introduced Hegel into Italy: he fulfilled the function that the good Neapolitan philosophers, who had ended up taking their books of Hegel to antique auctions, had failed to achieve.

This concept is expressed clearly by Croce in 1917:

If now I look for the objective causes of the interest I had in Marxism and in historical materialism, I see that this happened because, through that system, I experienced once again the charm of the great historical philosophy of the romantic period, and it was like discovering a Hegelianism far more concrete and alive that that which I was accustomed to finding among scholars and commentators, who reduced Hegel to a sort of theologian or metaphysical Platonic. 36

Confirming this is the fact that “now, after more than twenty years, Marx has largely lost the teacher’s office that he had held then; because in this midst, philosophy and the dialectic climb back up to their own sources and there they are renewed in order to draw vigor and stamina for a more daring journey.” 37

And we find the same autobiographical accent in a note that Gentile writes in 1937, when he picks up the old pages of his studies on Marx.

I reread these with the touched curiosity with which we sometimes rummage through our old, forgotten papers in order to rekindle ancient experiences and faded images of long-ago youth. And I heard, once again, here and there, voices which have never been extinguished in me, and something fundamental in which I recognize myself once again, and in which others, perhaps better than I, can recognize the first seeds of thoughts which matured later. And therefore I saw in my book, even if so aged, a documentary and also a present value, which made me rediscover life where I feared death had passed forever… a document of bright ideas from before the end of the last century, when in Italy by myself and with others I began to feel the need for a philosophy that was a philosophy. 38

And likewise, the same Croce who had felt “his whole mind ignite again” from Labriola’s letters, no longer able to turn away from those thoughts and problems which were taking root and enlarging in his mind, thus concludes: “From the tumult of those years, the expanded knowledge of human problems and the reinvigorated philosophical spirit were like good fruit. Philosophy since then was an increasingly large part of my studies…” 39

And finally again Gentile, after he excavated the origins of contemporary philosophy, in a forest of Kantians and Hegelians, of Platonic spiritualists and of positivist amateurs, arrives at an epilogue in which the presence of Marx is at least implied, and which, at the end of the century in Italy, closes the old discourse in order to open a completely new one:

The conclusion is that, after positivism, we will never go back; – that the Platonic metaphysics of the old spiritualists is by now a dead philosophy, even in Italy;… – that rather there is established the immanent concept of the truth which is generated through experience and which is not therefore presupposed, but the product, or rather the very act of knowing; but it is also clear that this concept would be absurd, if experience was conceived in that way in which positivism conceived it, that is naturalistically, as a passivity of the spirit destined as a result to close itself in an agnostic sphere of subjective appearance, without logic and without freedom:… – in short, that spiritualism is only a half-truth and a half-truth is also naturalism; and all truth cannot be found if not in idealism, which is the unity and the resolution of those two contrary needs. 40

“The idealist,” he will say in another work, “who believes that he has the universe in his hand, and that he builds the universe with categories, can believe experience to be almost if not completely useless”; and from here follows his dogmatism. But the true idealism is that other one which, in this field, has known how to “fairly deal with positivism.” To this rightfully belongs, for example, Bertrando Spaventa, who, “maturing a concept outlined in the Phenomenology, discovers in consciousness a knowledge that is not easy to know, but inasmuch as we know, it is to act, to work.” So:

this concept, lucidly explained by Spaventa, is, in our opinion, the golden key of the new gnoseology after Kant; and it is the great merit of our philosopher to have detected it in Hegel’s Phenomenology and to highlight it. It was also one of the most profound ideas of one of Germany’s most celebrated followers of the philosopher of Stuttgart, unknown certainly in this respect to Spaventa, Karl Marx. 41

All truth – therefore – is in idealism. And also the truth of Marx – for Gentile – is in idealism. Marx alongside Bertrando Spaventa. And from this we can extract these considerations: that Marx, in Italy, was not confused with positivism; indeed, he served to combat positivism, after subsuming into himself the higher need. He was a means and an instrument, temporary and contingent, for that definitive synthesis which was to mark the overcoming of the antithesis between spiritualism and naturalism, in the new and modern idealism.

Marx served to clear the field of all amateurishness, all improvisations, the superficiality of a cultural world, then dominant; and to revive the seriousness, commitment, and profundity of all research in the field of thought. He served to discover under the scientific guise of “new” thought the heavy body of “old” metaphysics; and he served to pick up the discourse at the point at which the great tradition of classical German philosophy had left it.

Marx is therefore at the origins of Italian idealism. And if on the one hand he leaves a visible stamp on the development of this thought, on the other hand he is radically marked by it. In Italy Marx was not only to flirt with Hegel; but also Hegel was to flirt with Marx. Conclusion: we have had a tendentially Marxian Hegel and a decisively Hegelian Marx.

Even today, here, those who approach Marx rediscover him through the filter of the idealist culture; a filter clearly tendentious and deforming. In it the decisive factor was not the “liquidation” of Marxism: this basically no one has ever believed; even when we gave it up for dead, we spoke as if it were alive and well. The decisive factor was instead a certain “interpretation” of Marxism: because if Marx serves only to resume the discourse on Hegel, once returned to Hegel, Marx is already liquidated. Or rather: if Marxism was only a partially successful attempt to review and revise, to complete and to realize Hegel’s philosophy, then, once a new and different attempt has been tested and fully completed, Marxism has fulfilled its historic function and it may well be considered a thing of the past. First one has all of Marx revolve around Hegel, then one removes Hegel from the center and says: see, Marx fails to rotate on his own.

This is precisely the case in which the interpretation of a theory coincides with its liquidation. In fact precisely this misunderstanding has driven the thought of Marx to the margins of contemporary philosophical thought.

After Marx’s thought has passed through the stitches of idealistic culture, what is left of it? Croce has denied that there might exist a “philosopher” Marx; Gentile has conceded this to him, but he has deemed him contradictory and therefore unworkable; Mondolfo has defined him as a “philosopher of praxis.” So, this final point is to be considered the logical conclusion that springs from those premises. Marxism as “philosophy of praxis” is what is left of Marxism after it has been liquidated by the idealistic interpretation.

What is left then is a theory of action, a philosophy of will, a guide for social comportment, a technique for the revolutionary process, the identity of knowing and doing, of thought and praxis; a Vichianism corrected by modern pragmatism.


Gramsci has behind him all of this past. And without understanding all of this past, we cannot understand Gramsci; much less the “Marxism” of Gramsci. There is an original line of development that Marxism assumes in Italy: for the way in which it is introduced; for the way in which it is interpreted. It passes through, now in the background, now in the foreground, the whole movement of contemporary thought; it arrives at the work of the Prison Notebooks, and it goes even further still.

In this sense, Gramsci is a typically and, I would say, fundamentally Italian thinker. Italy is his natural environment; he sinks his roots into the deepest national fabric. We would end up restricting and not expanding, diluting and not deepening, the theoretical figure of Gramsci if we wanted to give him a European range [respiro]. His problems and the way that he negotiates them, his culture and the form of his cultural research, his interests, his language, his education, his very human sensitivity – all of it resides in Italy. That is why, in my opinion, the fundamental though not exclusive point of research around the thought of Gramsci must pivot around the environment of Italian thought.

One can easily isolate, even materially, a “philosophical” part of Gramsci’s thought; that is an attempt at a general theoretical elaboration of the fundamental problems of Marxism. The primary need is the research of that “philosophy” which would have Marx standing on his own legs, without need for other “philosophies”; the recovery of Labriola’s cause. But what for the latter was already accomplished and fully expressed in the work of Marx and of Engels, becomes in Gramsci a result that is still to be reached, a position that is still to be conquered, an objective toward which one must stretch.

We have a theory that is “still at the stage of discussion, of debate, of elaboration”; which still has not reached “the classical phase of its development.” Any attempt to “manualize it” must necessarily fail, as “its logical systematization is only apparent and illusory.” But “one believes vulgarly that science absolutely means system and therefore building any systems whatsoever, systems that do not have the intimate and necessary coherence but only the mechanical outward appearance.” 42

Instead one should lend a hand to the discussion, to the debate, to the elaboration, in order to succeed at clarifying the core of the new philosophy; in order to put it into circulation with a function no longer subaltern, but hegemonic in contests with other “philosophies.”

The point of departure is a great opening, which puts before itself an exceptionally demanding commitment. Between one and the other there is an attempt at a solution. A solution that, precisely for this reason, appears open to different interpretations: because it renounces, concretely, the systematic presentation, the precise formulation, the definitive definition. It lies, and lives, and moves, always, on the plane of the problem. For this reason Gramsci’s Notebooks are a great school against dogmatism, against catechism, against the dead quiet of thought in the arms of an absolute “doctrine,” against the simple vulgarization of a simple “knowledge,” conquered once and for all.

That is why we say: the attempt at a solution. And we could say: the suggestion, the hint, the proposal, the uncertainty – that is the road to follow in order to arrive at a solution. These are all typically Gramscian words and expressions.

Marxism wants to be a coherently historicist conception of all reality: this is absolute historicism. It wants to be a critico-practical methodology of knowledge and of human action: this is philosophy of praxis. As a whole it is the “neue Weltanschauung” of the modern proletariat.

Its origin is in idealism, actually in historicism, which is the “truth” of idealism. Truth which was foreseen by it, but not included within it; implied but not fulfilled; discovered and then immediately distorted. It means taking up once again the same concept, rendering it totally inclusive, coherently complete, correct in form, real in content. The task of the new philosophy is to render actually “true” the unaware truth of idealism. In this sense, one finds it at the end of a long labor of thought. “The philosophy of praxis is the result and crowning achievement of all preceding history. From the critique of Hegelianism were born modern idealism and the philosophy of praxis. Hegelian immanentism becomes historicism, but it is absolute historicism or absolute humanism.” 43

It even needs to be verified whether the movement that leads from Hegel to Croce-Gentile was not a step backwards, a “reactionary” reform.

Have they not made Hegel more abstract? Have they not cut off the most realistic, the most historicist part? And is it not, instead, exactly of this part that only the philosophy of praxis, within certain limits, is a reform and an overcoming? And is it not precisely the entirety of the philosophy of praxis that has misdirected Croce and Gentile in this way…? 44

Gramsci realizes that, in Italy, the problem of Marxism is strictly tied to the problem of idealism. He realizes that, between them, there were deep, intertwined links, and important issues were confused: there were mutual concessions made. He finds himself in the situation of having to rediscover Marxism through the lens of idealism. The road which from Croce-Gentile should connect to Labriola, is – for him – the same road that led from Hegel to Marx. As Marx is the reform and the overcoming [superamento] of Hegel, in this way the modern philosophy of praxis is the reform and the overcoming of modern idealism. The Anti-Croce can be defined therefore as the Anti-Hegel of our time. “For we Italians to be heirs of classical German philosophy means that we are the heirs to Crocean philosophy, which today represents the world-wide moment of classical German philosophy.” 45 The Anti-Croce represents therefore today’s global moment of Marxist philosophy.

And it is easy to note here two things: that on the one hand, this antithetical position preserves in the depths of its nature a hidden Hegelian sense – an antithesis that stands as a formal negation, for the purpose of provoking the full development of the positive-affirmative side and therefore of the originary thesis; on the other hand the same recovery of the Labriola-Marx nexus through the Croce-Gentile nexus, takes for granted, in its premise, precisely the interpretation that Croce and Gentile have given of both Labriola and Marx. I mean that, in either case, there is a vision of Marxism that contains in itself, uncritically, the manner in which idealism has wanted to see Marxism.

Yet – for Gramsci – precisely here appears the theoretical nexus by which the philosophy of praxis, while continuing Hegelianism, turns it on its head; or rather – and this is not the same thing – while turning it on its head, it continues it. Which is not to say – as Croce thought and stated – it wants to supersede every kind of philosophy. It means identifying, concretely, philosophy with the history of philosophy, and philosophy with the whole of history.

One can see with greater exactitude and precision the significance that the philosophy of praxis has given to the Hegelian thesis that philosophy transforms itself into the history of philosophy, that is to say of the historicity of philosophy. This leads to the consequence that one must negate abstract and speculative or absolute philosophy, that is to say philosophy that was born from the preceding philosophy and inherits from it so-called supreme problems, or even only the philosophical problem, that becomes therefore a problem of history, of how the determinate problems of philosophy are born and are developed. The priority goes to practice, to the real history of the changes of social relations, from which therefore (and therefore, in the last analysis, from the economy) there arise (or are presented) the problems that the philosopher proposes and develops. 46

The Crocean thesis of the identity of philosophy and history is the the Crocean way of presenting the the same problem posed by the Thesis on Feuerbach. With this difference: that for Croce, history is still a speculative concept, whereas for the philosophy of praxis – according to Engels’ expression – history is practice, that is to say, experiments and industry. The sense therefore of that overturning which is a continuation of the Hegel-Croce-Gentile line by the philosophy of praxis is precisely this: that to the idealistic and therefore speculative identification, one substitutes a historicist and therefore completely real identification between history and philosophy, between doing and thinking, until reaching “the German proletariat as the sole heir of classical German philosophy.”

And this, in my opinion, is the central point of Gramscian thought. It is the point that introduces and justifies, in substance, his own determinate philosophical problem, the choice of his principal polemical target, the particular use of a particular terminology. We can find, in his work on this problem, less certain and apparently contradictory expressions. But it is certainly not this that matters. With the works of Gramsci we can organize “battles of citations,” in which each can find written confirmation of one’s own current position; precisely through the character of those works, made up of notes, of recollections, through research left open and always problematic. It is then a matter, in any case and for any question, of finding the core of his position, discerning it not only from his abstract formulation, but also from the way in which it spills out and is found again in concrete practical research.

Now, regarding our problem, the position of Gramsci is this: the philosophy of praxis has endured a double revision, that is it has been subsumed in a double philosophical combination. On one hand, some of its elements, in an explicit or implicit manner, have been absorbed and incorporated by certain idealistic currents (Croce, Gentile, Sorel, Bergson, pragmatism); on the other hand the so-called orthodox, worried about finding a philosophy that was more comprehensive than a simple interpretation of history, believed to be orthodox, identifying it fundamentally with traditional materialism. The philosophy of praxis thus is needed to form eclectic combinations, both with idealism and with philosophical materialism. We must find again the original core at an intermediate point between these two positions of traditional philosophy.

And so Marxism as “philosophy of praxis” becomes, in Gramsci, the discovery and the return to this original core; it becomes the resolving sense that one must give to the first theoretical contradictions of Marxism; the concept that makes possible the originality and the autonomy of Marxism; the decisive point that distinguishes it both from idealism and from positivism. It becomes, finally, the philosophy of Marxism.

In such a case, what will be the meaning of the term monism? It will certainly not be materialist nor idealist, but the identity of opposites in the concrete historical act, that is to say concrete human activity (history-spirit), indissolubly connected to a certain organized (historicized) matter, to nature transformed by man. Philosophy of the act (praxis, implementation) but not of the pure act, but rather precisely of the impure, real act, in the most profane and earthly sense of the word. 47

Here is the Gramscian sense of a “philosophy of praxis.”

But we have seen what has been, right here in Italy, the theoretical and historical origin of this interpretation. We have seen it born within idealism, or rather we have seen it preside over the earlier birth of the same idealism. In this we have been able to find not only – as Gramsci maintains – the concepts that Marxism has ceded to traditional philosophies; but we can and we must also find the reverse: and that is to say the concepts that traditional philosophies have ceded to Marxism. In these latter concepts the height of confusion resides; not when they they are critically reflected on and re-elaborated, but when they are immediately and unwittingly accepted.

Essentially I mean this: that it is not enough to overthrow the praxis of the idealists in order to make history proceed correctly; just as it is not enough to overthrow the dialectic of Hegel in order to find the correct path in the movement of reality. It is not enough to complete praxis in order to make history real; just as it is not enough to make the dialectic concrete in order to make reality historic. It is a matter of understanding that the pure act does not exist; that the act is always impure. At stake is our ability to envision, within the content of our thoughts, a specific and always determinate impurity, a concrete entity; in other words, a fullness of the other thinking process, within the framework of a particular and determinate objective reality.

Gramsci’s objective, to find an original “philosophy” of Marxism which was equally far from idealism and from traditional positivism, was legitimate. But this has not been achieved. The solution proceeds from within the context of its prior orientation. And today we find ourselves formulating the same problem: the need for a Marxism that is as far from the philosophy of praxis as from dialectical materialism; that is not reduced to a purely technical methodology of knowledge and of human action, and which does not claim to close within itself a total and definitive metaphysic; a Marxism that poses itself, with simplicity, as a science.

-Translated by Andrew Anastasi

The translator thanks Fulvia Serra and Dave Mesing for their helpful comments on earlier drafts.

Originally published as “Tra materialismo dialettico e filosofia della prassi: Gramsci e Labriola,” in La città futura: Saggi sulla figura e il pensiero di Antonio Gramsci, eds. Alberto Caracciolo and Gianni Scalia, (Milano: Feltrinelli, 1959), 139–62.

This article is part of a dossier entitled The Young Mario Tronti.

References   [ + ]

1. Rodolfo Mondolfo, Sulle orme di Marx (Bologna: Cappelli, 1919), 64.
2. Rodolfo Mondolfo, Il materialismo storico di Frederico Engels (Genoa: Formiggini, 1912), 11.
3. G.W.F. Hegel, The Encyclopedia Logic, trans. T.F. Geraets et al. (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 1991), 31, 77.
4. Mondolfo, Il materialismo storico, 12.
5. Ibid., 125.
6. Ibid., 197.
7. Mondolfo, Sulle orme di Marx, 110.
8. Giovanni Gentile, La filosofia di Marx (Pisa: Enrico Spoerri, 1899), 62.
9. Ibid., 151.
10. Ibid., 66.
11. Ibid., 155–56.
12. “The conclusions, even when they pull closer to Marx, indicate consensus with a Marx that is already in Hegel. Basically Gentile acknowledges that Marx effectively surpasses Hegelian idealism. In the best of hypotheses, some needs attributed to Marx are more truly Hegel’s, of a Hegel namely leading back to his decisively anti-intellectualistic, concrete, and realistic being. But no more than this.” Ugo Spirito, “Gentile e Marx,” in Giovanni Gentile, La vita e il pensiero, vol. 1 (Firenze: Sansoni, 1948), 311–34.
13. Gentile, La filosofia di Marx, 72.
14. Ibid., 75.
15. Spirito, “Gentile e Marx,” 329.
16. Benedetto Croce, Materialismo storico ed economia marxistica (Milano-Palermo: Remo Sandron, 1900) 17.
17. Ibid., 16.
18. Ibid., 157.
19. Ibid., 21.
20. Ibid., 124.
21. “Marx, with the substitution of matter for the idea, had not accomplished this agile re-straightening, of which he boasts, of an object turned upside down, but he had only substituted a metaphysical entity for another… etc.” Benedetto Croce, “L’ortodossia hegeliana di Marx,” Quaderno della Critica, no. 8 (July 1947): 1–8.
22. Croce, Materialismo storico, 153.
23. Antonio Labriola, “In Memory of the Communist Manifesto,” in Essays on the Materialist Conception of History, trans. Charles H. Kerr (Chicago: Charles H. Kerr & Company 1908), 74–75. Translator’s note: In order to maintain consistency in terminology, I have found it necessary to render my own English translations of this all other quotations from Italian sources, but existing English translations, from which I have benefited, are cited for the reader’s reference.
24. Ibid., 18.
25. Ibid., 85–86.
26. Antonio Labriola, “Historical Materialism,” in Essays on the Materialist Conception of History, trans. Charles H. Kerr (Chicago: Charles H. Kerr & Company, 1908), 102–03.
27. Ibid., 121.
28. Antonio Labriola, Socialism and Philosophy (Chicago: Charles H. Kerr & Company, 1934), 74.
29. Labriola, “Historical Materialism,” 157.
30. Labriola, Socialism and Philosophy, 148.
31. Antonio Labriola, Lettere a Engels (Roma: Rinascita, 1949), 146.
32. Labriola, Socialism and Philosophy, 60.
33. Ibid., 87.
34. Labriola, “Historical Materialism,” 135.
35. Translator’s note: “Zusammenbruchstheorie” refers to theories of capitalism’s collapse.
36. Benedetto Croce, “Prefazione alla terza edizione” (1917), in Materialismo storico ed economia marxistica (Bari: Laterza, 1921), xiv-xvi.
37. Ibid.
38. Giovanni Gentile, “Avvertenza alla ristampa dei saggi su Marx” (1937), in I fondamenti della filosofia del diritto (Firenze: Sansoni, 1955).
39. Benedetto Croce, Contributo alla critica di me stesso (Bari: Laterza, 1926 [1915]).
40. Giovanni Gentile, Le origini della filosofia contemporanea, vol. 3.2 (Messina: Principato, 1923), 229.
41. Giovanni Gentile, Bertrando Spaventa (Firenze: Vallecchi, 1920), 129.
42. Antonio Gramsci, Selections from the Prison Notebooks, ed. and trans. Quintin Hoare and Geoffrey Nowell Smith (New York: International Publishers, 1971), 434.
43. Ibid., 417.
44. Antonio Gramsci, Further Selections from the Prison Notebooks, ed. and trans. Derek Boothman (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1995), 400–01.
45. Ibid., 355–56.
46. Ibid., 386.
47. Gramsci, Selections from the Prison Notebooks, 372.

Author of the article

is an Italian philosopher and politician, and one of the founders of Quaderni Rossi and later Classe Operaia in the 1960s.