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.

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