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 ortho­doxy21 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.

  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.