The critical communism of Antonio Labriola

Antonio Labriola, if he is known today at all, is remembered as a minor Marxist theorist in the Second International, overshadowed by such well known figures as Karl Kautsky, Rosa Luxemburg, or Eduard Bernstein. Sometimes Labriola will be mentioned as a formative influence on the Marxism of Antonio Gramsci and Leon Trotsky. Yet Labriola deserves to be known and studied based on his own merits. He provided a critique of Second International orthodox Marxism, arguing that it divorced theory and practice, engaged in sterile, dogmatic systematization, and held to an economically deterministic form of Marxism. Labriola revived Marxism as an open philosophy of praxis, that is, as a critical and revolutionary method. He did not take for granted the inevitability of historical progress, but argued that it was necessary for socialists to intervene actively in shaping it.

Biography

Antonio Labriola was born on July 2, 1843, the son of a schoolteacher, in Cassino, then part of the Papal states. In 1861, he enrolled at the University of Naples, working part time as a policeman to pay for his education. While a student, he studied philosophy under Bertrando Spaventa, a prominent Hegelian, who saw the new Italian state as the realization of the Hegelian ideal. Labriola followed his teacher by adopting Hegelianism, making him a rarity among Marxists of his generation in being immersed in classical German philosophy. 

Following graduation, Labriola worked as a schoolteacher, and by the early 1870s, he took up journalism, where he espoused liberal and anticlerical views. In 1874, Labriola was appointed a professor at the University of Rome, a position he held for the remainder of his life. During the 1870s and 1880s, Labriola moved gradually to the left—as he increasingly viewed Italian unification to be incomplete and in need of a further democratic revolution. By 1890, he developed an interest in socialism, particularly the writings of Marx and Engels, eventually coming to accept the working class as the key agent to achieve revolutionary social change.

Remaining outside of the Italian Socialist Party (PSI) after its foundation (discussed at length below), Labriola devoted himself principally to theoretical studies. He was one of the earliest socialists within the Second International to offer an internal critique of their systematization of Marxism that undermined its revolutionary essence. Labriola’s main theoretical works were In Memory of the “Communist Manifesto” (1895), On Historical Materialism (1896), and Socialism and Philosophy (1898). Labriola’s last work, From One Century to the Next (1900–01), published posthumously, saw him retreat from his earlier critical Marxism by arguing alongside orthodox theorists that socialist revolution was only possible after capitalism spread across the world, which led him to favor colonial expansion by Italy. Labriola died in Rome in 1904.

Revisionism and orthodoxy

During the era of the Second International, the emerging mass socialist parties adopted Marxism in order to explain the class struggle and serve as a guide to revolution and socialism. Many of the theoreticians of the International, whether Karl Kautsky or George Plekhanov, saw their task as systematizing and consolidating Marxism as a finished and coherent doctrine in order to challenge bourgeois sciences and disciplines, and to popularize it for party militants and the working class.1 However, the success of the International ensured that when Marxism was popularized and adopted, it was often done at a very shallow level and was unable to effectively respond to bourgeois social sciences.

Furthermore, Second International Marxism was sterile in theory as well. Marxism was transformed from the theory and practice of proletarian revolution into a series of mechanical “scientific” laws that explained social development and viewed socialism as coming about “inevitably” due to the internal contradictions that doomed capitalism. Although orthodox Marxists such as Karl Kautsky, Jules Guesde, and Filippo Turati did argue for workers to engage in political struggle as opposed to passively awaiting change, in practice the only method they advocated was the “tried and true” method of parliamentary reforms. 

Revisionists such as Eduard Bernstein challenged the orthodox canonization of Marxism by advocating that the socialist parties update their theories and renounce revolution as a goal, and instead become what they were in practice—parties of social reform. Many within the Second International such as Rosa Luxemburg, V. I. Lenin, Kautsky, and Plekhanov challenged Bernstein’s revisionism. Ultimately, the SPD voted down Bernstein’s revisionism in 1901 and 1903, and at the 1904 Congress of the International. However, these victories were hollow as the party continued with its reformist practices. As the SPD secretary Ignaz Auer, wrote to Bernstein in 1899, “My dear Ede, one does not formally make a decision to do the things you suggest, one doesn’t say such things, one simply does them.”2 For them, Marxism provided an apocalyptic vision and a dogma used to mobilize the party faithful during election season and to raise funds for the organization. While orthodox Marxists such as Kautsky could explain the past and predict the future, their theory was of little use in the present. There was little conception of the role of self-emancipation of the working class or the role of politics. Kautsky wound up saying that the socialist party was “a revolutionary party, but it is not a party that makes revolutions.”3

In contrast to the deterministic and economistic orthodoxy, there were a host of revolutionaries in the Second International such as Lenin, Trotsky, Plekhanov, Luxemburg, and Gramsci who were antideterministic and held to the view that rather than collapsing on its own, capitalism would have to be consciously overthrown. What was needed was a revolutionary break with previous Marxist orthodoxy and revisionism.

Labriola and Italian socialism 

Labriola devoted his time to, in the words of one historian, “bringing a true understanding of socialism to the Italians.”4 Since unification in 1870, industrial capitalism developed quickly in Italy, centered on the northern cities of Turin, Milan, and Genoa.5 Despite this great expansion of capitalism in the north in 1900, “nearly 40% of Italy’s active population were still engaged in agriculture, which provided almost 50% of the Gross National Product; by 1913 agriculture’s share of GNP had only fallen to 45%, in contrast to 27% from industry and 30% from services.”6 Though Italian capitalism expanded rapidly, its development was uneven and, according to Second International orthodoxy, the country was not “ripe” for socialism.

In 1892, the Italian Socialist Party formed under the leadership of Filippo Turati from a fusion of various socialist groups from across Italy. The party was founded on the model of the German Social Democratic Party (SPD), with “its emphasis on the need for organized political action through and under the leadership of the Party.”7 The PSI’s dominate tendency “saw the struggle for socialism in evolutionary rather than revolutionary terms, and they believed that the class struggle should be fought through the institutions of the bourgeois state.”8 In the face of state repression and waves of strikes, the PSI grew rapidly. From 1892 to 1900, it increased its parliamentary representation from six to thirty-two.9 Despite an avowedly revolutionary or “maximalist” program, Turati advocated alliances with bourgeois liberals and radicals. 

The PSI was steeped in a reformist practice and mindset, which the Italian ruling class recognized. Giovanni Giolitti, prime minister of Italy five times between 1892 and 1921, tried to integrate the PSI into the state through various social welfare plans and by introducing legislation that permitted the municipalization of local services, which local socialists took advantage of. However, in order to hold onto their municipal power, the PSI had to form alliances with other less radical groups. Despite its revolutionary rhetoric, reformist practice extended from the local to the parliamentary delegation, which were looking for mainstream acceptance and a place in government. Yet a significant current of revolutionaries, including Labriola, Bordiga, and Gramsci, challenged the reformist practice of the PSI. The jockeying between reformists and revolutionaries for control of the PSI would continue until 1921, when the revolutionaries finally left to form the Communist Party. 

Labriola saw as key to his task of introducing Marxist theory into Italy, the assimilation of the German socialist model. As he said, “Today the signal of a new history comes from Germany!”10 Shortly before the PSI was founded, Labriola expressed doubts; he saw its efforts as premature, due to Italian backwardness and the theoretical eclecticism of its program. When Turati abruptly changed course and accepted Labriola’s call for a disciplined socialist party guided by Marxism, Labriola saw this as an example of his opportunism: “The opportunists of the day before suddenly turned ‘Marxists, Germans, and logical lovers,’ abandoned their own program to that of their adversaries, and overnight they became founders of a socialist party by means of an amendment.”11

Labriola abstained from the foundation of the PSI, bluntly declaring, “I have nothing in common, either theoretically or practically, with those who in Italy declare themselves to be socialists.”12 However, Labriola softened his opinion of the PSI in a letter to Engels, saying, “There is an embryo of something. . . . Maybe the suddenly risen small party and its program haphazardly voted on could nurture love of discipline and the decency of responsibility.”13 Labriola hoped that a principled political party would be able to pose the correct political tasks as Italian capitalism developed. He understood that this was a long-term task: “The concept that the socialist party is a political party cannot be forced into the workers’ minds with a mandate. It is a matter of experience, tactics, education and instruction, and therefore, of time.”14

Less than three years later, in his essay In Memory of the Communist Manifesto, Labriola presented his view of what sort of workers’ party should exist. He rejected the view that social democracy was “an evident attenuation of the communist doctrine” of the Communist Manifesto.15 Communism, for Labriola, was not the fight to eliminate this or that social evil, but an integral struggle to abolish wage labor.” Labriola warned that an authoritarian working class movement was immature and that, for social democracy, its democratic aspects were its mature features. “The Laboring masses,” he argued, “already knows . . . that the dictatorship of the proletariat, which shall have for its task the socialization of the means of production cannot be the work of . . . a few and that it must be, and that it will be, the work of the proletarians themselves when they have become in themselves and through long practice a political organization.”16 If a socialist party was to be ready for the revolutionary tasks, then it needed to be guided by the right theory. Labriola’s Essays on the Materialistic Conception of History provided an outline of Marx and Engels’ methodology and a restatement of the dialectical view of history.

Labriola continued his reconstruction of historical materialism in Socialism and Philosophy, a series of letters he exchanged with the French syndicalist Georges Sorel. Sorel did not adhere to the determinism found within the Second International, which explained history and the behavior of people through their economic motives. Sorel took up the defense of Marxism against those he perceived as vulgarizers because, to him, the moral content was vital. He believed that Marxism needed to be renewed and saw in Labriola a kindred spirit. Sorel praised Labriola’s work on historical materialism as “indispensable for those who wish to understand proletarian ideas.”17

Sorel commended Labriola for breaking with the economic determinism of Marxism and stressing the importance of ethics.18 As part of Sorel’s own revision of Marxism, he came to the conclusion that the labor “theory of value . . . no longer has any scientific usefulness and . . . gives rise to a great many misunderstandings.”19 Labriola never contemplated his own writings being used to declare Marxist economics obsolete, so he broke relations with Sorel. In the preface to the French edition of Socialism and Philosophy, Labriola said, “What was I to do? Begin all over again? Write an anti-Sorel after I had written an avec-Sorel?”20 Labriola was correct that Sorel’s arguments led away from Marxism. Sorel would later become famous for his work Reflections on Violence (1908) that rejected Marxism in favor of the “myth” of the general strike. 

By the time Labriola died in 1904, he had grown increasingly pessimistic about the validity of Marxism. At the end of his life, he left few followers. However, Labriola’s efforts in Italy were unique in seeking to reconstruct the revolutionary essence and method of Marxism that would be continued later by Antonio Gramsci.

Dialectics 

According to Labriola, the dialectic was key to the Marxist methodology and its revolutionary praxis, yet Labriola was unique among Italian socialists for upholding the Hegelian dialectic model. For Turati, philosophy and method could be bent to the political needs of the moment. Central to the revisionist objection to Marxism was a blistering assault on the dialectic, which led to revolutionary putsches. Eduard Bernstein declared, for example, “In Germany, Marx and Engels, working on the basis of the radical Hegelian dialectic, arrived at a doctrine very similar to Blanquism.”21 For Bernstein, Blanquism was defined not just as coup d’états initiated by small conspiracies, but was the “the theory of the immeasurable creative power of revolutionary political force and its manifestation, revolutionary expropriation,” and could be found in the Communist Manifesto.22 With such a broad definition of “Blanquism,” Bernstein could (and did) condemn any and all revolutionary actions as “Blanquist.”23 Although Labriola was writing a few years before Bernstein, he saw a defence of the dialectic as upholding the revolutionary heart of Marxism.

However, what was the “dialectic”? Needless to say there is an on-going debate among Marxists (of many tendencies) as to what exactly the dialectic is and how essential it is to understanding the categories of historical materialism, political economy, classes, ideology, the state, hegemony, praxis, etc. At its best, dialectics has offered Marxists a creative method to accommodate complexity, motion, and change in their categories. All too often, though, dialectics has been reduced to a dogma or an empty platitude that can be used to justify anything.

It is outside the limits of this essay to declare a final verdict on the role of dialectics in Marxism. Rather, the purpose here is to demonstrate how Labriola understood dialectics as a critical revolutionary method. According to Labriola, dialectics is the “rhythmic movement of understanding which tries to reproduce the general outline of reality in the making.”24 Defined by Engels, “dialectics . . . comprehends things and their representations, ideas in their essential connection, concatenation, motion, origin and ending.”25 Labriola argued that one of the accomplishments of Marxism was that it was a realistic process as opposed to Hegelian idealism, “which regard actually existing things as mere reflexes, reproductions, imitations, illustrations, results, of so-called a priori thought, thought before the fact.”26 

Marxism cast aside “the rhythmic movement of the idea itself (the spontaneous generation of thought!)” for “the rhythmic movements of real things adopted, a movement which ultimately produces thought.”27 In other words, Marxism was concerned with material reality and “man as a social and historical being.”28 As Labriola wrote: 

History is the work of man in so far as man can create and improve his instruments of labor, and with these instruments can create an artificial environment whose complicated effects react later upon himself, and which by its present state and its successive modifications is the occasion and the condition of his development. There are, then, no reasons for carrying back that work of man, which is history to the simple struggle for existence. If this struggle modifies and improves the organs of animals, and if in given circumstances and methods it produces and develops new organs, it still does not produce that continuous, perfected and traditional movement which is the human processus.29 

Thus the premise from which historical materialism begins is that of living people engaged socially in production to satisfy their needs. Humans are distinguished from animals in producing their own means of subsistence and therefore take an active role in producing their material existence. According to Marx and Engels, 

This mode of production must not be considered simply as being the production of the physical existence of the individuals. Rather it is a definite form of activity of these individuals, a definite form of expressing their life, a definite mode of life on their part. As individuals express their life, so they are. What they are, therefore, coincides with their production, both with what they produce and with how they produce. The nature of individuals thus depends on the material conditions determining their production.30

Throughout history, different modes of production have followed one another, such as slavery, feudalism, and capitalism. Labriola, however, did not believe that historical materialism was deterministic, or that the succession of different modes of production could be reduced to a Darwinian evolutionary law with “mythical, mystical or metaphorical form of fatalism.”31 In fact, Labriola rejected the twin shoals that plagued orthodox Marxists of the Second International: conflating Marxism with Darwinism (Kautsky) and positivism (Turati). 

Labriola recognized that there was a parallel between Darwin and Marx since neither offered a “vision of a great plan or of a design, but it is merely a method of research and of conception.”32 Yet he rejected attempts to conflate the two doctrines; rather, Labriola argued that “history is the work of man” and therefore, radically open.33 Positivism, as upheld by August Comte, extended natural scientific methods to those of society and history. This conception of the scientific method was evolutionary and empirical, believing that once phenomena are known, they could be controlled through various measures of reform. It is no accident that revisionists who believed in measures of piecemeal reform embraced positivism.  

Labriola rejected positivism and deliberately wrote in a fragmentary manner as opposed to laying out an overarching worldview: “For twenty years I have detested systematic philosophy. This attitude of my mind made me not only more apt to accept Marxism.”34 Labriola’s choice of terms—rejecting “science” in favor of “critical communism”—showed his distance from positivism. He rejected efforts to combine Marxism and positivism: “What a fine sight! Materialism – Positivism– Dialectics, a holy trinity!”35 Instead, Labriola defended the Hegelian roots of Marxism and that humanity could produce itself through its own praxis. 

While it is true that historical change does rest on the development of new techniques of production that give rise to new forms of distribution and inequalities, with their totality forming a new mode of production. Yet the “discovery of these instruments is at once the cause and the effect of these conditions and of those forms of the inner life to which, isolating them by psychological abstraction, we give the name of imagination, intellect, reason, thought, etc.”36 In other words, humans have the unique ability to change themselves while altering their circumstances—something that distinguishes their behavior from that of animals, because we labor with consciousness and purpose: “Man has made his history not by a metaphorical evolution nor with a view of walking on a line of preconceived progress. He has made it by creating his own conditions, that is to say, by creating through his labor an artificial environment, by developing successively his technical aptitudes and by accumulating and transforming the products of his activity in this new environment.”37 

Labriola’s recognition of the active role of human labor in history was missing in the orthodox Marxist accounts of his contemporaries.

Progress

For the revisionists of the Second International, the “march of history” was a slow development of the productive forces that would inevitably lead to socialism without breaks, leaps, or ruptures. Revisionist social democrats believed that their victory must result from the numerical growth of the working class and the steady increase of their political representatives in parliament. This belief in the ideology of progress led some revisionists, such as Eduard Bernstein, to defend colonial conquest. As he wrote, “To put it briefly, strongly as we criticise present civilization, we acknowledge its relative acquisitions, and make them a criterion of our sympathy. We will condemn and oppose certain methods of the subjugation of savage races, but not that savage races are at all subjugated and compelled to conform with the rules of higher civilization.”38

Even the standard bearer of Second International orthodox Marxism, Kautsky, grew increasingly fatalistic as time passed. He saw socialism as coming about inevitably due to the processes at work under capitalism. He wrote in The Road to Power, for example:

We know that our objectives can be attained only through a revolution, but at the same time we know that it is just as little in our power to make this revolution as it is in the power of our opponents to prevent it. . . . The proletariat is constantly growing in numbers and in moral and economic strength . . . so its victory and the defeat of capitalism are inevitable.39

Kautsky’s Marxism explicitly drew on evolution, Darwinism, and comparing Marx’s laws to those of nature. “They [Marx and Engels] started out from Hegel; I started out from Darwin. The latter occupied my thoughts earlier than Marx, the development of organisms earlier than that of the economy, the struggle for the existence of species and races earlier than the class struggle.”40 

Despite his opposition to revisionism, Kautsky was operating on the same terrain as Bernstein. He did not understand the Hegelian dialectic that overcoming the contradictions of human society was by necessity dynamic, violent, and revolutionary. And while he did defend the necessity of human agency, in practice Kautsky’s Marxism represented a “religion of consolation.” Indeed, in the Road to Power he explicitly advocated the “democratic-proletarian” method of struggle, which he defined as the “so-called peaceful method of class struggle, which confines itself to the non-military means of parliamentarism, strikes, demonstrations, the press, and similar means of exerting pressure.”41 In short, he explicitly ruled out violent social revolution. 

Labriola recognized that there was a parallel between Darwin and Marx, since neither offered a “vision of a great plan or of a design, but . . . merely a method of research and of conception.”42 Yet he rejected attempts to conflate the two doctrines, since Marxism does not need to “invoke anew the conception of a mythical, mystical or metaphorical form of fatalism.”43 Marxism’s approach rejected evolutionary gradualism and the ideology of progress in favor of revolutionary leaps. Labriola viewed progress not as a straight line where humanity is on a steady upward march of civilization and enlightenment. Rather, progress was traversed with contradictions:

Progress has been and is, up to the present time, partial and one-sided. The minorities, which share in it, call this human progress; and the proud evolutionists call this human nature, which is developing. All this partial progress, which has thus far developed upon the oppression of man by man, has its foundation in the conditions of opposition, by which economic distinctions have engendered all the social distinctions; from the relative liberty of the few is born the servitude of the greater number, and law has been the protector of injustice. Progress, thus seen and clearly appreciated, appears to us as the moral and intellectual epitome of all human miseries and of all material inequalities.44 

Labriola’s critique of orthodox Marxist ideologies of progress echoed those of the revolutionaries Louis-Auguste Blanqui and Walter Benjamin, who both saw the alleged progress of bourgeois civilization as founded upon the backs of the toiling and exploited masses. According to Benjamin, capitalist progress was not an unmitigated good, but a storm that not only brought with it great advances in technology, production, and medicine, but also the horrors of colonialism, fascism, and environmental devastation which threatened the human species. “There has never been a document of culture, which is not simultaneously one of barbarism.”45 Instead of waiting for the “march of progress” to take its course, which could bring humanity to ruin, a revolution would break with progress by settling accounts with the past and completing “the work of emancipation in the name of generations of downtrodden to its conclusion” to finally abolish class society.46

For Blanqui, progress was not something to be celebrated, but to behold in all its horror. “All the atrocities of the victor,” he wrote, “its long series of crimes are coldly transformed into a regular, inescapable evolution, like that of nature . . . [Capital] sacrifices with neither pity nor scruple all the martyrs of thought or justice . . . It does not dare condemn them, it confines itself to concealing their names . . . and to simply erasing them from history.”47

Like Benjamin, Labriola saw history, as a series of brutal struggles between the oppressed and oppressors, and that labor, far from liberating humanity, “has been the means of oppressing the vast majority.” The great advancements of industry and productive technique have come through crushing the worker, turning work into mindless and debilitating toil, where workers are reduced to the status of animals in order to produce profit to enrich a very few. Labriola likened history to an inferno that might be presented as a sombre drama, entitled “The Tragedy of Labor.”48 Rather than accept socialism as the final result flowing from the unfolding of historical laws, Labriola saw history as open, with different outcomes where “progress and retrogression are inherent in the conditions and the rhythm of social development.”49 

For Labriola socialism was not the culmination of bourgeois civilization: a great chasm separated these two epochs. He stated, “There is such a decisive break that no ingenious device will be able to derive the one from the other as if by means of the magic of legislative provisions.”50 In other words, socialism was a break with both bourgeois politics and its false concepts of progress.

Economism

One of the defects of orthodox Second International Marxism (but by no means limited to it) was its tendency towards economism and class reductionism. For social democracy, which utilized a crude form of the base-superstructure metaphor, politics and ideology were a simple reflection of the economic base. This meant that social democrats saw the growth of their political power and socialist consciousness naturally resulting from the numerical expansion of the proletariat and the intensification of capitalism’s economic contradictions. Thus, ideas and politics were directly determined by changes in the economic base. There was no understanding of the relative autonomy of the base and superstructure or their mutual and dialectical interaction. According to the tenets of orthodoxy, socialists knew the end result of capitalist crises—breakdown and collapse. The “laws of history” would bring them to power; therefore they saw no need to develop a specifically socialist theory of politics, conjunctural analysis, or to encourage revolutionary action. Labriola’s approach was unique among the Marxists of his generation in challenging both economic determinism and reductionism. Both Plekhanov and Trotsky praised his contribution to this debate.51

According to Labriola, Marxism was not to be understood primarily as an economic interpretation of history. Nor was it to be understood as simply the interaction of multiple factors, “on the one side the economic forms and categories, and on the other, for example, law, legislation, politics, customs” which are taken separately and reciprocally influence each other.52 Labriola saw Marxism as “the organic conception of history.”53 The organic conception of history (re) introduced totality—where seemingly separate parts of the whole relate to one another and form a whole, which is greater than the sum of its parts—back into Marxism.54  “Separating in theory the factors of an organism,” Labriola argued, “destroys them in so far as they are elements contributing to the unity of the whole.”55 These factors cannot be separated from the whole, of which they form a part. Instead of a theory of multiple factors, historical materialism seeks to discover what “distinguishes and separates the elements to find again in them the objective necessity of their cooperation toward the total result.”56 Thus Marxism, when looking at one factor, continually looks at its interrelations with other factors as part of a wider whole. 

The result is that Marxism is not merely interested in changes in the mode of production or the contradictions of capitalism; “the totality of the unity of social life is the subject matter present to our minds.”57 Labriola strongly criticized a strict focus on economics, which he claimed

dissolves in the course of one process, to reappear in as many morphological stages, in each of which it serves as a substructure for all the rest. Finally, it is not our method to extend the so-called economic factor isolated in an abstract fashion over all the rest, as our adversaries imagine, but it is, before everything else, to form an historic conception of economics and to explain the other changes by means of its changes. There lies our answer to all the criticisms, which come to us from all the domains of learned ignorance, not excepting the socialists who are insufficiently grounded and who are sentimental or hysterical.58 

For Labriola, an economistic approach was foreign to Marxism (contrary to the reigning orthodoxy) and was actually more characteristic of the one-sided approach of a bourgeois viewpoint. The concept of totality, Labriola stressed, had to be understood in a flexible manner.

The underlying economic structure, which determines all the rest, is not a simple mechanism whence emerge, as immediate, automatic and mechanical effects, institutions, laws, customs, thoughts, sentiments, ideologies. From this substructure to all the rest, the process of derivation and of mediation is very complicated, often subtle, tortuous and not always legible.59 

This meant that within the totality of social relations, a process of mediation is involved with connections between, for example, the base and superstructure, that are established by way of an intermediary, where something acts on something else. An example of mediation between humanity and nature would be labor or productive activity. A study of the mediated whole in all its relations is the “stage on which the events unfold, but if the narration is to have solidity, vividness and perspective there must be points of departure and ways of interpretation.”60 For Labriola, a mediated totality in its movement is the method of Marxism, in contrast to reductionist efforts to dissolve complex relationships into isolated and fragmented factors. 

However, in analyzing a social totality, it is important not to allow this process to become an inflexible and immobile system of categories. Warned Labriola: “In this consists the first origin of those abstractions, which little by little take away from the different parts of a given social complexus their quality of simple sides or aspects of a whole, and it is their ensuing generalization which little by little leads to the doctrine of factors.”61 

Ossification, something that occurred commonly in bourgeois thought, saw things as fixed and natural, not as possessing movement and contradiction. And Labriola saw a similar process occurring in orthodox Marxism, which reduced historical materialism to a popularized economic determinism. 

Labriola argued that factors of abstraction or reduction “arise in the mind as a sequence . . . of the immediate aspects of the apparent movement, and they have an equal value with that of all other empirical concepts.”62 This one-sided mode of thought or bourgeois ideology will persist until something new comes along and is “eliminated by a new experience, or until [it is] absorbed by a conception more general, genetic, evolutionary or dialectic.”63 What Labriola urged was the necessity of developing a revolutionary ideology to overcome bourgeois forms of thought and to perceive capitalism as a totality in motion.

The father of Russian Marxism, George Plekhanov, praised Labriola in his 1897 essay The Materialist Conception of History for his “refutation of the theory of factors . . . by a synthetic view of social life.”64 Plekhanov welcomed Labriola’s critique of the theory of factors, noting that while factors are useful as abstractions, they have an inclination to become frozen categories: 

Thanks to the process of abstraction, various sides of the social complex assume the form of separate categories, and the various manifestations and expressions of the activity of social man—morals, law, economic forms, etc.—are converted in our minds into separate forces which appear to give rise to and determine this activity and to be its ultimate causes.65 

Leon Trotsky shared with Plekhanov an appreciation of Labriola’s view of history, which he considered to be a critical and dialectical approach to Marxism. Trotsky’s starting point as a Marxist built on Labriola’s method of a critical dialectic that restored totality to Marxism. “Marxism is above all a method of analysis—not analysis of texts, but analysis of social relations.”66 Trotsky’s critical Marxism and rejection of economic determinism can be seen in his 1906 work, Results and Prospects where he first formulated the theory of permanent revolution and broke with those who argued that underdeveloped Russia was only ripe for a bourgeois revolution. “To imagine that the dictatorship of the proletariat is in some way automatically dependent on the technical development and resources of a country is a prejudice of ‘economic’ materialism simplified to absurdity. This point of view has nothing in common with Marxism.”67 It is no accident that Trotsky’s conception of Marxism with the theory of permanent revolution, critical dialectical method, and anti-economism owed a great deal to his engagement with Antonio Labriola.

In stressing the importance of Marxist theory, Labriola recognized the role of the superstructure in effecting change at the base—when members of a class know in a practical way the conditions of their lives in a historical situation, they are able to intervene to change the situation. Yet how can experiences, ideas, and politics overcome the tendency of capitalism to reinforce our conception of things as eternal and fixed? It is to that question we now turn. 

The class struggle 

Overcoming the immediacy and narrow horizon of a bourgeois worldview required experience and a critical theory that emerged from within the totality itself. “The social organization,” Labriola wrote, “is as we already know, constantly unstable, although that does not seem evident to every one, except at the time when the instability enters upon that acute period which is called a revolution.”68 The totality is not just mediated but is traversed with contradictions—such as those between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie, between the forces and relations of production, and so on.

Labriola, in line with the mainstream of the Second International, understood that capitalism was not a harmonious system, but suffered from crises and instability. However, his view of capitalism differed remarkably from both orthodox and revisionist currents within the International. On the one hand, orthodox Marxists, as we have seen, saw capitalism collapsing under the weight of its contradictions, which occurred inevitably due to the force of iron “historical laws.” For the revisionists, capitalism was already overcoming its contradictions. The ruling class was capable of adopting various “means of adaptation” such as cartels, syndicates, trusts, systems of credit, improved communication, and transportation—all of which mitigated the possibility of severe crises by regulating and rationalizing production. Revisionists also viewed the state as open to democratization and social reform, thereby providing an alternative to revolution. 

Labriola rejected both of these views. It was not capitalism, but the class struggle that was the force of progress: “It is the antagonisms which are the principal cause of progress.”69 Capitalism was not to be opposed with the “higher” moral ideal of socialism (as Bernstein claimed), but rather stood itself condemned based on its very existence, which ensured misery for the many and profit for the few. As he said, “The real criticism of society is society, itself.”70  Labriola did not see capitalism collapsing under the weight of its internal contradictions, but due to the class action of the proletariat. “The solution of the existing antitheses is the proletariat, which the proletarians themselves know or do not know.”71 

Labriola saw the importance of Marxism, or “critical communism, to this struggle because of its understanding of history and class struggle.”72 Indeed, Marxism was not just an objective science to study society, but was a tool that provided the proletariat with “strength enough to understand that these conditions can be changed and to discern what means can modify them and in what direction.”73 In other words, Marxism was the theory and the practice of working-class revolution, which made it into “a weapon of war.”74 

Labriola’s defense of Marxism as a revolutionary method anticipated the later efforts of Karl Korsch. Korsch’s 1923 work, Marxism and Philosophy, argued similarly to Labriola that for orthodox Marxists of the Second International, theory had ceased to be a guide for practice, but was viewed as “more and more as a set of purely scientific observations, without any immediate connection to the political or other practices of class struggle.”75 Korsch said that orthodox Marxism was disconnected into “separate branches of knowledge that are isolated and autonomous, and with purely theoretical investigations that are scientifically objective in dissociation from revolutionary practice,” instead of being “a theory of social revolution, comprehended and practised as a living totality.”76 

The philosophy of praxis

Marxism would overcome one-sided, bourgeois forms of thought, Labriola contended, with a new conception of history—by providing an understanding of the social totality of capitalism, its contradictions, laws of motion, and forms of mediation. By recognizing the proletarian class struggle as the driving force for surmounting these contradictions, communism ceased “to be a hope, an aspiration, a remembrance, a conjecture, and expedient, [and] found for the first time its adequate expression in the realization of its very necessity, that is to say, in the realization that it is the outcome and the solution of the struggles of existing classes.”77 Communism, as Marxism declares, is not simply a moral idea but a material necessity.

If Marxism was a guide for the proletariat, then it cannot be a theory that is cut off from the class struggle or above the workers, but must be “the immanent philosophy of things about which people philosophize. The realistic process leads first from life to thought, not from thought to life.”78 Historical materialism dissolves the division between subject and object, thought and being, theory and practice via the dialectic of praxis. Labriola’s conception of historical materialism, or what he calls the philosophy of practice, “takes account of man as a social and historical being. It gives the last blow to all forms of idealism which regard actually existing things as mere reflexes, reproductions, imitations, illustrations, results, of so-called a priori thought, thought before the fact.”79

For Labriola, then, historical materialism must be taken as a “three-fold theory,” namely:

As a philosophical method for the general understanding of life and the universe, as a critique of political economy reducible to certain laws only because it represents a certain historical phase, and as an interpretation of politics, above all of those political movements which are necessary and serviceable for the march of the working class toward socialism.80 

Marxist theory is useless or, at best, a mere social science, unless it is joined with the practice of working-class struggle and revolution. 

The reconstruction of Marxism

Antonio Gramsci, writing decades later on Marxist theory in a fascist prison, hailed Labriola’s effort for reinvigorating the entire Marxist project as “an independent and original philosophy, which contains in itself the elements of a further development, so as to become, from an interpretation of history, a general philosophy.”81 Labriola’s undertaking resonated with Gramsci, who was also challenging orthodox canonizations and deformations of Marxism in his own era. Gramsci and Labriola (not to mention Georg Lukacs and V. I. Lenin) shared the common purpose of affirming the relationship of Marxist philosophy and politics.82 

Gramsci’s effort at reforming Marxism would be tragically cut short, not only by his death in Mussolini’s prisons, but also because Soviet orthodoxy and the Italian Communist Party (that turned him into a harmless saint) saw a critical and revolutionary Marxism as a challenge to their own dogmatism and reformism. Labriola faced similar dilemmas to those of Gramsci. Orthodox Marxism was popularized and reduced to a series of rigid mechanical laws, which acted almost as a magical talisman permitting its users to understand history and predict the future:

Only the love of paradox inseparable from the zeal of the passionate popularizers of a new doctrine can have brought some to believe that to write history it was sufficient to put on record merely the economic moment (often still unknown and often unknowable), and thereupon to cast to the earth all the rest as a useless burden with which men had capriciously loaded themselves, as a superfluity, a mere trifle, or even, as it were, something not existent.83

At best, this deterministic Marxism might serve as a simplistic form of “common sense” for true believers and party cadre living in hope of the socialist millennium, but at worst it allows for “revolutionary” justification for increasingly revisionist practices and a disavowal of activism since history is supposedly “on our side.” For Labriola, this form of Marxism is completely unsuited as a revolutionary method. 

Labriola saw the dangers within the socialist movement that resulted from “a scarcity of intellectual forces in our ranks, the more so as the genuine laborers, for obvious reasons, often protest against the speakers and writers of the party.”84 This was something understandable during his era, since historical materialism was a new conception for looking at the world. Early efforts at comprehending Marxism, he noted, “merely repeat or ape the fundamental statements in a way that sometimes approaches the burlesque.”85 Labriola himself complained that the writings of Marx and Engels were nearly impossible to find leading to the sad fate that Marxism was known only a by a select few: “The reading of all the writings of the founders of scientific socialism has so far been largely a privilege of the initiated!”86 This naturally created a divide within the socialist parties between an intellectual leadership informed by deterministic Marxist theory and a mass of workers who understood that same theory through simplistic and banal popularizations.

It would take time for a new theory to be understood by militants in all its complexity. Indeed, initially it would only be learned by rote. Labriola saw this as a stage that socialists needed to overcome if Marxism was to become a philosophy of praxis. Marxism was not simply quotations from Marx and Engels, nor was it confined to them. Rather, Marxism was a “many-sided tendency and a complex theory” and revolutionaries seeking to critically “apply it to the practical questions of present-day politics must find special modes of orientation. Since this theory is in its very essence critical, it cannot be continued, applied, and improved, unless it criticises itself.”87 Marxism, if it is to be revolutionary, that is to say Marxist, needed to be approached not in the spirit of Biblical verses, but as a critical method of both practice and analysis of that practice, in order to guide the working class to communism.

Many of the tendencies in socialism, which Labriola warned of—dogmatism, economic determinism, the divorce of theory from practice, and a belief in the inevitability of progress—have recurred throughout subsequent Marxist movements, always with detrimental effects. Labriola’s attempt at a reconstruction of Marxism to overcome these errors was largely ignored. Yet Labriola’s goal should be ours as well—to use Marxism as a critical and revolutionary method in order to guide the struggle of the working class.

For my friend and comrade, ISH.


  1. Perry Anderson, Considerations on Western Marxism (New York: Verso, 1976), 6. 
  2. J. P. Nettl, Rosa Luxemburg (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1969), 101. 
  3. Karl Kautsky, The Road to Power (Alameda: Center for Socialist History, 2007), 41. 
  4. Richard Drake, Apostles and Agitators: Italy’s Marxist Revolutionary Tradition (Boston: Harvard University Press, 2003), 87.
  5. Dick Geary, ed., Labour and Socialist Movements in Europe Before 1914 (Providence: Berg Publishers, 1989), 210–11. 
  6. Ibid., 207–08. 
  7. Ibid., 188–09. 
  8. Ibid., 188. 
  9. Ibid., 190. 
  10. Antonio Labriola, Socialism and Philosophy (St. Louis: Telos Press Ltd, 1980), 29.
  11. Quoted in Paul Piccone, Italian Marxism (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983), 75.
  12. Ibid., 72.
  13. Labriola, Socialism and Philosophy, 34–35.
  14. Ibid., 35.
  15. Antonio Labriola, Essays on the Materialistic Conception of History (New York: Cosimo Books, 2005), 61.
  16. Ibid., 59.
  17. Labriola, Socialism and Philosophy, 182.
  18. Georges Sorel, “The Ethics of Socialism” in From Georges Sorel: Essays in Socialism and Philosophy, ed. John L. Stanley (New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers, 2002), 106; Zeev Sternhell, The Birth of Fascist Ideology (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994), 43–46. 
  19. Quoted in Sternhell, The Birth of Fascist Ideology, 42. 
  20. Labriola, Socialism and Philosophy, 173.
  21. Eduard Bernstein, The Preconditions of Socialism (New York: University of Cambridge, 1993), 37.
  22. Ibid., 38–39.
  23. Michael Lowy, The Politics of Combined and Uneven Development: The Theory of Permanent Revolution (London: Verso, 1981), 16–17.
  24. Labriola, Socialism and Philosophy, 153.
  25. Frederick Engels, “Socialism: Utopian and Scientific,” Marxists Internet Archive. https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/wo....
  26. Labriola, Socialism and Philosophy, 95.
  27. Ibid., 94–95.
  28. Ibid., 95.
  29. Labriola, Essays on the Materialist Conception of History, 120. 
  30. Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, “The German Ideology,” The Marxists Internet Archive. https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/wo....
  31. Labriola, Essays, 120–21.
  32. Ibid., 135.
  33. Ibid., 122.
  34. Labriola Socialism and Philosophy, 117–18.
  35. Ibid., 120; Russell Jacoby, Dialectic of Defeat: Contours of Western Marxism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 45–46.
  36. Labriola, Essays on the Materialist Concept of History, 121.
  37. Ibid., 77.
  38. Quoted in Richard B. Day and Daniel Gaido, ed., Discovering Imperialism: Social Democracy to World War I (Brill: Boston, 1912), 11.
  39. Karl Kautsky, The Road to Power, 41.
  40. Quoted in John Rees, The Algebra of Revolution: The Dialectic and the Classical Marxist Tradition (New York: Routledge Books, 1998), 131. It should be noted, though, that there is disagreement among scholars as to the degree to which Kautsky’s Darwinism influenced his Marxism. See, for example, Richard Weikert, “Karl Kautsky: Apostle of Socialist Darwinism,” in Socialist Darwinism (University of Iowa, 1996 dissertation) ; available at https://www.csustan.edu/history/socialis....
  41. Road to Power, 42.
  42. Labriola, Essays, 135.
  43. Ibid., 120–21.
  44. Ibid., 139.
  45. Walter Benjamin, “On the Concept of History,” Marxists Internet Archive. https://www.marxists.org/reference/archi....
  46. Ibid. Also Michael Lowy, Fire Alarm: Reading Walter Benjamin’s “On the Concept of History” (New York: Verso, 2005), 59–60.
  47. Quoted in Daniel Bensaïd and Michael Lowy, “Auguste Blanqui, heretical communist,” Radical Philosophy 185 (May/Jun 2014): 28.
  48. Labriola, Socialism and Philosophy, 127.
  49. Labriola, Essays, 236.
  50. Labriola Socialism and Philosophy, 24.
  51. Trotsky wrote: “It was in my cell that I read with delight two well-known essays by an old Italian Hegelian-Marxist, Antonio Labriola, which reached the prison in a French translation. Unlike most Latin writers, Labriola had mastered the materialist dialectics, if not in politics—in which he was helpless—at least in the philosophy of history. The brilliant dilettantism of his exposition actually concealed a very profound insight. He made short work, and in marvelous style, of the theory of multiple factors which were supposed to dwell on the Olympus of history and rule our fates from there.” My Life: An Attempt at an Autobiography (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1931), 119. Plekhanov, in an 1891 essay “The Materialist Conception of History,” a piece devoted to examining Labriola’s thought, wrote, “Labriola firmly, and fairly consistently, adheres to the materialist conception of history.” https://www.marxists.org/archive/plekhan....
  52. Labriola, Socialism and Philosophy. 
  53. Ibid.
  54. Ibid.
  55. Ibid., 26.
  56. Ibid.
  57. Ibid., 85–86.
  58. Ibid., 86.
  59. Ibid., 152.
  60. Ibid., 145.
  61. Ibid., 145 and Rees , Algebra of Revolution, 260.
  62. Labriola, Essays, 145.
  63. Ibid.
  64. George Plekhanov, “The Materialist Conception of History,” Marxists Internet Archive. https://www.marxists.org/archive/plekhanov/1897/history/part1.htm; An extended discussion on Labriola and Plekhanov can be found in Paul Blackledge, Reflections on the Marxist Theory of History (New York: Manchester University Press, 2006), 59–65.
  65. Ibid. 
  66. Leon Trotsky, The Permanent Revolution & Results and Prospects (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1978), 64.
  67. For more on Trotsky’s engagement with Labriola see Leon Trotsky, My Life: An Attempt at Autobiography (New York: Pathfinder Press, 2001), 167–198; Lowy, The Politics of Combined and Uneven Development, 46–47.
  68. Labriola, Essays, 152.
  69. Ibid. 
  70. Ibid., 169.
  71. Ibid., 170.
  72. Ibid., 26.
  73. Ibid., 27.
  74. Ibid., 26.
  75. Karl Korsch, Marxism and Philosophy (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1970), 60. 
  76. Ibid., 57, 60. 
  77. Labriola, Essays, 16.
  78. Labriola, Socialism and Philosophy, 94.
  79. Ibid., 95.
  80. Ibid., 71.
  81. Antonio Gramsci, Selections from the Prison Notebooks (New York: International Publishers, 1971), 390.
  82. Peter D. Thomas, The Gramscian Moment: Philosophy, Hegemony and Marxism (Boston: Brill, 2009), 22–23.
  83. Labriola, Essays, 109.
  84. Labriola, Socialism and Philosophy, 65.
  85. Ibid.
  86. Ibid., 67.
  87. Ibid., 75.

 

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March 2012

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NATO and the G8 come to Chicago
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