Labriola, Antonio (1843–1904)

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Antonio Labriola, professor of philosophy in Rome from 1874 to 1904, was the first Italian Marxist philosopher. He wrote little, but that little was widely publicized by two disciples, Georges Sorel and Benedetto Croce; he exercised his extensive influence through lectures and discussions. Trained as a Hegelian in Naples, he became a Herbartian, more interested in Johan Friedrich Herbart's ethics and pedagogy than in his metaphysics. He discovered Marxism around 1890 and began a correspondence with Friedrich Engels that lasted until the latter's death and was published in Lettere a Engels (Rome, 1949). This discovery of Marxism was a decisive event in Italian intellectual life, for from it dates the introduction of Marxist theory into Italy's academic culture, where it still occupies a prominent place.

Labriola's articles on Marxism, published in Italy by Croce and in France by Sorel, were first collected in French, as Essais sur la conception matérialiste de l'histoire (Paris, 1897). Their publication established Labriola's international reputation as an expositor of Marxism. He wrote Sorel ten letters on the subject, published as Discorrendo di socialismo e di filosofia (Rome, 1897). These books were the first exposition of Marxism as an independent philosophy to be made by an academic philosopher. They have been widely used in later efforts to combat all varieties of philosophical revisionism, whether from neo-Kantian or positivist sources. The "return to Labriola," as recommended by Antonio Gramsci and as undertaken in Italy since 1950, has meant going back to the original innocence of a supposedly pure and independent Marxist philosophy, for Labriola claimed not to be an original thinker, and even less to be interested in developing or criticizing Marxism. He wanted to be simply an expositor and systematizer of a philosophy implicit in Karl Marx's work.

The philosophy he found in Marx's work closely resembled the Hegelian views that Labriola had defended in controversies with neo-Kantians before he had heard of Marx. For example, he held that scientific socialism is not subjective criticism applied to things, but the statement of the self-criticism that is in things themselves. The only criticism of society is society itself, for there is an objective dialectic immanent in history, which progresses by contradictions. Socialism was no longer an aspiration or project (a view soon to be revived by neo-Kantian revisionists); it was the inevitable result of current contradictions in capitalist society. Labriola stressed the "scientific, objective" status of these assertions, in contrast to mere philosophies of history, which he dismissed as ideology. Historical materialism was no philosophy, but simply a method of research, a guiding thread like the Darwinian hypothesis.

Labriola, Croce, and Sorel were nicknamed the Holy Trinity of Latin Marxism, but the Roman professor came to feel that his spiritual sons were "going too far" in their development and criticism of the doctrine. They lacked that inflexible orthodoxy of which Labriola is the first eminent example in the Marxist tradition, and they touched off the revisionist controversy. That dispute broke out simultaneously in several countries, although Croce gave priority to his own and Sorel's writings. At all events, Eduard Bernstein in Germany, Sorel in France, Croce and Saverio Merlino in Italy, T. G. Masaryk in Prague, and the Fabians in England drew freely on each other's work, and Labriola found himself being quoted by and confounded with the "heretics." In a celebrated dispute, he broke publicly with Croce and Sorel, saying that revisionism was an international conspiracy organized by "scientific police-spies"perhaps the first appearance of a philosophical terminology that was to become familiar later. Labriola never wrote on Marxism again. His earlier minor works, which include a Socrate, have been published by Croce (Bari, 1909) but are of small importance.

See also Continental Philosophy; Croce, Benedetto; Engels, Friedrich; Gramsci, Antonio; Herbart, Johann Friedrich; Historical Materialism; Marx, Karl; Marxist Philosophy; Masaryk, Tomáš Garrigue; Neo-Kantianism; Sorel, Georges.


works by labriola

Essays on the Materialistic Conception of History. Translated by C. H. Kerr. Chicago: Kerr, 1904.

Socialism and Philosophy. Translated by E. Untermann. Chicago: Kerr, 1907.

Opere, 3 vols. Edited by L. Dal Pane. Milan: Feltrinelli, 1959.

works on labriola

Bellamy, Richard. "Antonio Labriola." In Modern Italian Social Theory: Ideology and Politics from Pareto to the Present. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1987.

Bruzzo, S. Il pensiero di Antonio Labriola. Bari, 1942.

Dal Pane, L. Antonio Labriola: la vita e il pensiero. Rome, 1935.

Diambrini Palazzi, S. Il pensiero filosofico di Antonio Labriola. Bologna: Zanichelli, 1923.

Kolakowski, Leszek. "Antonio Labriola: An Attempt at an Open Orthodoxy." In Main Currents of Marxism, Vol. 2. Translated by P. S. Falla. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982.

Plekhanov, G. "The Materialist Conception of History." Novoye Slovo (September 1897). Also published separately. New York: International, 1940. Originally written as a review of Labriola's Essays.

Neil McInnes (1967)

Bibliography updated by Philip Reed (2005)

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Labriola, Antonio (1843–1904)

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