On Marxism and Sociology (1959)

Cover of Galvano Della Volpe, Rousseu e Marx (Roma: Editori Riuniti, 1997)
Cover of Galvano Della Volpe, Rousseau e Marx (Roma: Editori Riuniti, 1997)

I will make a very short and very schematic intervention; I make it not so much to bring a contribution to the discussion but because I consider it appropriate to take a position on these questions, especially when these questions elicit different answers, in fact I would say conflicting answers, inside of our movement.

In this sense I believe that the worst thing would be to want to settle these divergences in every way, not because I believe the possibility of this agreement to be unjustified if we were at the end of the discussion, but because I believe it invalid that the possibility of this agreement be assumed in advance, which is why the framework of this convention, at certain moments, has risked playing out in this way, that is, like a traditional procedure: Seppili presents the theses, Colletti lays out the antitheses, and Spinella wants to make the synthesis immediately. In this way Spinella has repeated something of a general method while also preserving a general law, which is that of the dialectical Hegelian trinity. At the same time he has delivered an element of interruption to the proceedings of the convention.

I believe that the problem of the convention must be specified precisely in its own original terms, that is, the relationship between Marxism and sociology; in other words it seems to me not a convention on sociology, but a report on the way that Marxists understand sociology. This is the specific theme that must be underlined.

In this sense, I believe that at the beginning of the discussion there were not two different interpretations of sociology so much as there were, I would say, two different interpretations of Marxism. I believe that the two interpretations of sociology are something of the natural consequence of these two different interpretations of Marxism.

I would say that if the convention were to succeed in articulating this theme, it would succeed precisely in generating a contribution to the original problem of the convention, that is, the relationship between Marxism and sociology.

In Spinella’s report there was only a moment, a short passage in which he said – as if it were perhaps an element of secondary importance or even something directly assumed – that he uses the term historical materialism because he understands Marxism as something broader than historical materialism itself. In fact he understands Marxism as dialectical materialism, of which historical materialism is an example or a particular application; and so, indeed, some general laws exist, and they exist prior to the practical application, i.e. the practical research, which is to say there already exists a general systematization that is not implicit in historical materialism but which already exists before historical materialism. This means that one presumes that this framework of general laws exists the moment one employs materialism.

I would say that this point, which was only a paragraph in his report, is instead the fundamental point; in other words it is the premise from which then all of his argument, and precisely his examination of the problems under review, particularly sociology, flows. I believe that his particular conception of sociology is implicitly tied to this conception of Marxism.

I would say that precisely this interpretation of Marxism, this split, this rift that operates in the very core of Marxism, is the base of two possible approaches: either an approach of absolute powerlessness in the field of consciousness and therefore of practical research, precisely because at a certain point this general framework becomes an empty method and therefore does not produce a practical grasp on reality; or the other approach that one can obtain from this starting point [impostazione], which amounts to a concession to positions foreign to Marxism, because this general framework, precisely in its generality and abstractness, does not succeed in concretely seizing on a particular type of reality, and it immediately needs something in its place that achieves this practical grasp on reality. Therefore it needs precisely this element which is taken from outside of Marxism and not from within Marxism; and it does so fatally, because any time that one presumes a general framework of theory and therefore of general laws, these cannot exist by themselves independently from their practical application. In the moment in which these laws are applied, they fill themselves up immediately with a given content, and this content is clearly a content that is not controlled by these general laws, but one that is taken immediately from a determinate type of reality in that subsisting moment. It seems to me that it is completely natural that, once the question has been set up like this – that is to say, the question of a general dialectical materialism that additionally contains in itself the possibility of a sociological research – it seems to me that it’s inevitable that this sociological research proceeds not as a Marxist sociological research, but as something external to Marxism itself, in other words as a sociology that coincides sometimes with a type of bourgeois sociology.

Not only this, but I would say that the scientific originality of Marxism gets lost precisely in this way; in other words precisely through this implicit need to appeal to something that is outside of Marxism, one recedes from that fundamental presumption of Marx and of Gramsci, that of the necessity, possibility, and reality of Marxism’s autonomy, self-sufficiency, and originality, which therefore has no need in the course of research to appeal to elements external to Marxism itself.

Precisely here is the fundamental point of the question: the impossibility of departing from this premise and of precisely realizing a scientific grasp on reality, and the likelihood of finding in one’s hand a determinate detail of the type that was not tied rationally to other details, and which was not interpreted and seen in a general context, and which was therefore isolated and transformed and truly mystified in its own specific reality.

This gives us some indications that also can be exemplified: the detail that is grasped so immediately is very often a detail that lives counterposed to Marxism itself. In other words, in so far as the dominant ideas are always the ideas of the dominant class, we see that for a certain period, for a long period, we were all historicists and in our point of view we were inclined to become sociologists. I mean this in the sense that, earlier in history, exactly because we failed to consider Marxism as something autonomous and self-sufficient and therefore thought that it needed an external support, we were compelled to take this support at the moment in which a determinate tendency was dominating; that is to say, in the moment in which idealist historicism dominates the culture, it inevitably inserts itself into the very core of Marxism. Every time the purview of a theory changes, this purview also changes within Marxism, that is to say it is exactly this that succeeds in safeguarding the autonomy, the very originality of Marxism.

Then, as historicism in general should not be dismissed, since this is not a matter of taking that type of historicism and injecting it with Marxist content, the same thing can be said about sociology. In other words, it is not a matter of taking the dominant bourgeois sociology to exploit it for Marxist ends, but a matter of considering that just as Marxism presents itself as a unique type of real historicism, in the same way from this other point of view Marxism presents itself as a unique, true, and precise sociology, that is to say as a unique science of society.

I am in agreement with Pescatino when he said that the unique sociology for us is Marxism, that is to say the unique scientific analysis of society that we have, the unique science of society is Marxism. I would say once again: that this Marxist sociology is not something definitively fixed in canons already acquired; but it is precisely a continual elaboration and development. Clearly one needs to take account of various problems which should not veer this research too much towards the particular. For example, the problem is not finding a nationally interpreted thread of Marxism, in other words we do not mean finding a national Marxism but precisely a concrete application. After all, Colletti explained it very well: a model of a determinate, concrete situation and therefore also a national one.

It’s clear that no one rejects the necessity or rather the indispensability of the study and scientific analysis of the exact structure of Italian capitalism, but this analysis is impossible if we do not already have clear the fundamental structure of a capitalist economic-social formation in general. On the other hand, our understanding of this economic-capitalist formation in general is, in turn, the result of a concrete research that is indeed within capital; therefore it is not something that lives before the research, but it is something that is born as a function of the research itself.

On page five of Colletti’s report, mentioned several times, he speaks of nothing but the concept of determinate abstraction, which is a typically Marxian concept that Marx not only repeats explicitly but applies concretely, exemplified in the concept of economic-social formation. This is precisely the specific example of a determinate abstraction, a concept in which the singularity of the particular object is not lost, indeed its specificity is preserved; in fact it is precisely the determinate abstraction that allows one to preserve this specificity and this determination.

I believe, returning to the initial problem, that it is precisely the distinction between dialectical materialism and historical materialism which then causes and is at the origin of the distinction between economics and sociology, and not only here, but it is also at the origin of the distinction between theory and practice and in addition the distinction between culture and politics.

Comrade Barro yesterday took this thesis to its ultimate consequences, when he said that the economist studies society in general, and the sociologist studies things in particular, as if this tidy and physical dissociation were possible between two persons, one of whom uses pure theory, while the other uses only empirical research; as if this distinction were legitimate precisely within Marxism. Now I have located this distinction precisely at the origin of the rift, the open breach in Marxism that at its base is the breach between dialectical materialism and historical materialism. Among other things I believe that a historical study would show exactly this: that this is the breach through which all the revisionist interpretations of Marxism have always passed.

To deny the legitimacy of this distinction would mean to accept the correctness of the opposite thesis, that is of unity, which here is not an identity. Here Colletti should have been more precise and spoken at greater length: it seemed at a certain point that these two things were made to identify with one another immediately, and that therefore the specificity and the determinacy of each moment was lost. But on the contrary it is precisely upon that unity of heterogeneous things that this issue must be set. Indeed it is difficult to permit a conception of this kind just thinking of the figure of Marx; how is it possible in the figure of Marx to distinguish the philosopher from the political man, the historian from the economist? It is absolutely impossible; one cannot say: first he was the philosopher and then he was the historian, then the economist, in parentheses he was the political man – no. He did the one and the other of these things; his first work, “The Critique of the Philosophy of Right,” is the critique of the bourgeois state; the manuscripts of 1844 are the economic-philosophic manuscripts: already we have the entire orientation for all his work. How can one say that Capital is not at the same time a work of theory and a work of practical action, and how can one maintain that “The Critique of the Gotha Program” is not at the same time a political program and a formidable theoretical work about the state and rights?

Therefore there is this continuous unity of diverse moments that one finds in Marx, and perhaps in a more obvious manner in Lenin; if Capital is at the same time a scientific work and a moment of political action that shifts the objective reality of things, one could argue inversely that the October Revolution or the Paris Commune is at the same time a great practical movement and a powerful theoretical discovery.

I would say that the worst thing that one can do within Marxism is precisely to operate on the grounds of this split and to smuggle it into one’s work, to not talk about it explicitly but to take for granted this split among theorists and researchers.

At bottom, here, the question is proposed again: on the one hand the theorists, on the other the researchers; it is the first and last problem that one needs to eliminate immediately. One absolutely cannot accept that there exists a researcher who offers material to the theorist, and then there is a theorist who re-elaborates it and produces theory. There cannot be a Seppilli who makes the social inquiries and then carries them to Colletti, and a Colletti who organizes them into a general theory, in the same way as there cannot be the purely theoretical type of intellectual who only has the task of offering materials to the politician, who then applies them concretely. Rather there is a continuous unity precisely in so far as this unity is realized already within Marxism, and therefore it already lives precisely in the person of the Marxist.

Therefore I would conclude precisely with the figure of this Marxist scientist, who poses this necessity of unifying heterogeneous moments in theory, who is precisely the living unity of these heterogeneous moments. In other words, the person who achieves an equilibrium, which is precisely a scientific equilibrium, practical, not conquered once and for all, but daily, in research and in practical contact. An equilibrium of the concrete bond between theory, on one side, and practice, that is with the class, with the Party, on the other. A twofold path, which then is unified precisely in the work of the intellectual, through which one finds both theoretical Marxism and the practical, political struggle of the workers’ movement in general.

-Translated by Andrew Anastasi

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

Originally published as “Communicazione al seminario: ‘Marxismo e Sociologia’ (Roma, Istituto Gramsci, 13/19 Aprile 1959),” the first of four pieces under the heading “Quattro inediti di Mario Tronti,” in Metropolis 2 (June 1978), 10–13. Republished as “A proposito di marxismo e sociologia” in L’operaismo degli anni Sessanta: da ‘Quaderni rossi’ a ‘classe operaia,’ eds. Giuseppe Trotta and Fabio Milana (Roma: Derive Approdi, 2008), 77–79.


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

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.