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.