Labriola as forerunner of Gramsci: first set of notes

Excerpts from and comments on Antonio Labriola: “Socialism and Philosophy”.


Gramsci writes: “Labriola… is the only man who has attempted to build up the philosophy of praxis scientifically” (pp.386-7).

Labriola was the main writer in the Second International on philosophy, after Plekhanov, and the only leading figure in the International with an academic background in philosophy: he notes in this book that “I hold the chair of philosophy at my university [Rome] since 1871” (p.94). He came to socialism and Marxism later in life, after first being a liberal Hegelian.

In this book (p.94) he dates his socialist “confession of faith” from 1889 (when he was 46). He was generally reckoned to be on the left of the Italian Socialist Party, but in his last years supported Italian seizure of Libya. “Marxist Antonio Labriola saw in the occupation of Tripoli the possibility of a colony for the Italian proletarians dispersed in the world”. Italy did not actually seize Libya until 1911, after Labriola’s death in 1904, but in 1900 Italy entered into a secret convention with France that France should have a free hand as regards Morocco, and Italy in Tripoli. Though the text of the agreement was not published, its outline was made known in the press at the time.


The book “Socialism and Philosophy” is available online. It is in the main a collection of letters written by Labriola in 1897 to the French writer Georges Sorel, who apparently was friendly with Labriola (through what connections, I do not know) and had written a preface the French translation of Labriola’s “Essays on the Materialist Conception of History”.

Labriola takes issue with Sorel’s ideas, which were an odd mixture. Sorel considered himself a sort of unorthodox Marxist; was close to the revolutionary syndicalist movement in France of his time (though several studies of that syndicalist movement emphasise that Sorel’s writings had almost no influence on it); also praised Action Francaise and the right-wing ideologue Charles Maurras, and Mussolini too. For now, it seems to be utterly accidental that Labriola’s exposition took the form of letters to Sorel.



P.14-15 (chapter I): “It seems to me that the whole theory [of historical materialism] in its most intimate bearings, or the whole theory in its entirety, that it to say, as a philosophy, can never become one of the articles of universal popular culture. And when I say philosophy, I know well that I may be misunderstood. And if I were to write in German, I should say Lebens-und-Welt-Anschauung, a conception of life and the universe…”

Comment: Gramsci, by contrast, does seem to argue that when the working class is hegemonic, the outlines of “the philosophy of praxis” can become an “article of universal popular culture”. On the other hand, Gramsci obviously draws on Labriola’s understanding here of what a “philosophy” is.

This is “philosophy” as “general outlook on life” – such as is possessed, even if in implicit and incoherent form, by every person using language – rather than “philosophy” as a special academic discipline. Despite his professional position, Labriola will later make clear that he regards “philosophy” as a special academic discipline as something obsolete.


P.28-9 (chapter II): “When we realise that irrationalities are born of the historical process itself, we are emancipated from the simplemindedness of abstract reason and understand that the negative power of revolution is relatively necessary in the cycle of the historical development. Whatever may be said about this grave and very intricate question of historical interpretation, which I shall not venture to treat exhaustively as an incident to a letter, the fact remains that no one will succeed in separating the premises, the methodical process, the inferences and conclusions of this work, from the actual world in which they are developed and the living facts to which they refer. No one can ever reduce its teaching to a mere Bible, or to a recipe for the interpretation of the history of any time and place”.

Comment: Here Labriola deprecates “abstract reason”, that is, philosophy as a special academic discipline standing above all others, the “queen of the sciences”. Gramsci takes up the same idea of the “philosophy of praxis” being in the warp and woof of historical studies and action, rather than a meta-doctrine arrived at more abstractly. However, Labriola seems clear that this means that Marxism is a theory of historical processes and action, whereas Gramsci sometimes seems to see it as literally an all-embracing “conception of life and the universe”, one that would, for example, shape our understanding of the universe in that great bulk of its time which was before human history.


P. 40-1 (chapter III): “If so many speak nowadays of the triumph of Marxism, such an emphatic expression, when stated in a crudely prosaic form, simply means that henceforth no one can be a socialist, unless he asks himself every minute: What is the proper thing to think, to say, to do, under the present circumstances, for the best interests of the proletariat. The day has gone by for such dialecticians, or rather sophists, as Proudhon…”

Comment: We can find very much the same thought in Plekhanov’s article on the tasks of the socialists in the famine in Russia in 1891. This identification of the working class as the touchstone would later be obscured by the Stalinists, who substituted “socialism” or “revolution” (as defined by them) as touchstones; it is instructive today, as we try to build a new Marxist culture free of Stalinism. But it also implies a rather more focused, limited conception of what Marxism is than some of Gramsci’s grander claims.


P.42-3 (chapter III): “Historical materialism will be enlarged, diffused, specialized, and will have its own history. It may vary in coloring and outline from country to country. But this will do no great harm, so long as it preserves that kernel which is, so to say, its whole philosophy. One of its fundamental theses is this: The nature of man, his historical making, is a practical process. And when I say practical, it implies the elimination of the vulgar distinction between theory and practice. For, in so many words, the history of man is the history of labor. And labor implies and includes on the one hand the relative, proportional, and proportioned development of both mental and manual activities, and on the other the concept of a history of labor implies ever the social form of labor and its variations. Historical man is always human society, and the presumption of a presocial, or super-social, man is a creature of imagination. And there we are”.

Comment: In contradistinction to the previous package, Labriola here identifies Marxism with, or perhaps embeds it in, a “philosophy” in a grand sense. It is limited, it is true, to “the history of man [humanity]”, and presumably also to that (rather small so far, it seems) section of the history of the human species which involves systematic labour rather than hunting and gathering of a sort not very different from other animals’. But it is certainly a “view of life” which ranges much wider than the life of the modern working class.


P.51 (chapter IV): “What else is Capital but the critique of that political economy which, as a practical revolution and its theoretical expression, had reached full maturity only in England, about the sixties, and which had barely begun in Germany? What else is the Communist Manifesto but the conclusion and explanation of that socialism which was either latent or manifest in the labor movements of France and England?”

Comment: Gramsci has a discussion (Prison Notebooks p.399ff) of Kautsky’s idea (which Gramsci draws from a famous pamphlet by Lenin, in fact a paraphrase of Kautsky) of the “three sources and three component parts of Marxism”. Gramsci asserts that Marxism is a synthesis of the various strands it draws on, so that, for example, both “political” and “philosophical” strands are integrated into the Marxist critique of economics, rather than standing alongside it.
Gramsci then proceeds to the startling declaration that “the philosophy of praxis equals Hegel plus David Ricardo”.
A bit earlier (p.398-9) Gramsci identifies Marxism as a synthesis of a different sort, between the historicism characteristic of conservative thought in the Restoration period of 1815-1848 and the rationalism of the Jacobin tradition that continued through that period.
Labriola gives a quite different presentation, and one that chimes better with an idea of Marxism as integrally connected with the emergence and action of the modern working class.


P.56-7 (chapter IV): Labriola quotes from a letter of his own to Engels – “For years my mind was divided between Hegel and Spinoza… But now all these things seem as far away in my recollection as primeval history”.

Comment: here is the idea of systematic philosophy (including Hegel’s) being rendered obsolete by the growth of solid, practically-based knowledge. It puts a question mark over the conventional description of Labriola as a “Hegelian Marxist”.


P.59 (chapter IV): “Every time that we set about producing a new thought, we need not only the external materials and impulses of actual experience, but also an adequate effort in order to pass from the most primitive stages of mental life to that superior, derived and complex stage called thought, in which we cannot maintain ourselves, unless we exert our will-power”.

Comment: Gramsci will draw on this idea too, of knowledge being not contemplative but tied up with an effort to change what is being known. “In reality one can ‘foresee’ to the extent that one acts, to the extent that one applies a voluntary effort that thereby contributes concretely to creating the result ‘foreseen’. Prediction reveals itself thus not as a scientific act of knowledge, but as the abstract expression of the effort made, the practical way of creating a collective will…”


P.60-1 (chapter IV): “Historical materialism, then, or 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. It marks also the end of naturalistic materialism, using this term in the sense which it had up to a few years ago. The intellectual revolution, which has come to regard the processes of human history as absolutely objective ones, is simultaneously accompanied by that intellectual revolution which regards the philosophical mind itself as a product of history. This mind is no longer for any thinking man a fact which was never in the making, an event which had no causes, an eternal entity which does not change, and still less the creature of one sole act. It is rather a process of creation in perpetuity”.

Comment: This foreshadows Gramsci’s claims about Marxism superseding both idealism and materialism. Like Gramsci, Labriola limits his rejection of materialism by attaching an adjective to the materialism he rejects, leaving open the idea that another form of materialism, not suiting that adjective, may be valid. Gramsci’s qualifying adjective is generally “traditional”, which is vague enough. Labriola’s is puzzling: “naturalistic”.
According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, “naturalistic” philosophy is that which “urges that reality is exhausted by nature, containing nothing ‘supernatural’.” If so, then surely there is nothing wrong with “naturalistic materialism”. Perhaps Labriola means something more like what we would call “mechanical materialism” or “reductionism”. His scathing comments elsewhere in the book on Social Darwinism and the like suggest that interpretation.


P.64-5 (chapter V): “The whole question is to know how these necessary data are handled by us. The… characteristic mark of modern philosophy… is a methodical doubt, a critical attitude which accompanies the use of these concepts like a suspicious and cautious guard and searches them internally as well as externally, in their wider bearings. The deciding factor in the transition from ingenuousness to critical analysis is methodical observation… and even more than observation it is the careful and technically accurate experiment… By experiment we become co-workers of nature. We produce artificially things which nature produces out of itself. Through the art of experiment things cease to be mere rigid objects of vision, because they are generated under our guidance. And thought ceases to be a hypothesis, or a puzzling forerunner of things, and becomes a concrete thing, because it grows with the things, and keeps on growing with them to the extent that we learn to understand them”.

Comment: Both Labriola and Gramsci give themselves out as being anti-“scientistic”. But here (and also in Gramsci) is strong praise for the experimental and empirical methods of modern natural science.


P.73 (chapter V): “There is no one, I hope, who would place the definite victory over metaphysics entirely to the credit of historical materialism… This victory is rather a particular case in the development of anti-metaphysical thought. It would not have happened, had not critical thought developed long ago.”

Comment: Labriola here identifies Marxism as a sub-species of modern critical, scientific thought, rather than (as Gramsci sometimes has it, and as Gramsci sometimes attributes to Labriola) a completely “self-sufficient” theory.


p.73 (chapter V): “We have a long history of positive conquests of thought, by which the essence of independent philosophy, which distinguished it from science, namely the theory of cognition, was either absorbed, or eliminated, or otherwise reduced and assimilated.”

Comment: Here again, Labriola suggests that “high” philosophy, philosophy as the “queen of the sciences”, must be a thing of the past, and not just because of Marxism.

(To be continued)

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