The Revolution as a pedagogical issue

Chila Kumari Singh Burman, Red Riots on Indian Paper, 1981


Antonio Labriola and the problem of the formation of the human being

There is in Marxism, and in the politics to which this conception of the world refers, an irresistible pedagogical element, which is declined in at least two interconnected levels. The first concerns the problem of the formation of the human being, both in relation to its irreducible historicity to any essentialist notion of human nature, and in relation to the brutality of the human condition under capitalism and, therefore, to the question of the formation of the “new man”. ”. All historical experiences of transition to socialism, from the Soviet Union to China, passing through Cuba, faced this problem, even if in different ways.

The second level concerns the construction of the concrete historical subject whose task is to carry forward the revolutionary process and, therefore, carry out this immense process of mass education. If it is excluded that the socialist revolution can take place by itself, without the intervention of any conscious subjectivity, the problem of the formation of such subjectivity immediately arises: this can be conceived as a pedagogical process, insofar as it is linked to the acquisition of conceptual tools for understanding reality, the conscious direction of the action of the great masses, the overcoming of a political and cultural subalternity that leads exploited and marginalized social subjects to recover the capacity to manage the process of oppressive social reproduction and, therefore, their own education.

Antonio Labriola's thought offers important clues to address this wide range of questions, for several reasons: first, the generally recognized high quality of his philosophical reflection; secondly, due to the centrality of the educational theme throughout his journey, starting from the long phase that precedes the late adherence of the thinker to Marxism; finally, taking into account the particularly delicate and, we could say, “transitory” historical phase of the growth and maturation of the labor and socialist movement, during which his Marxist reflection was placed, interrupted only by death.

We prison notebooks, Gramsci considers Antonio Labriola as the only Italian Marxist who, “affirming that the philosophy of praxis is independent of any other philosophical current, and that it is self-sufficient”, sought to build it scientifically, thus contributing to lay the foundations for the elaboration of theoretical autonomy of the working class, parallel and inseparable from politics, both decisive for the formation and action of the revolutionary historical subject; hence the need to put it back into circulation “and make its approach to the philosophical problem prevail”.

On another page, the Sardinian thinker pronounces a severe judgment on the anecdote told by Benedetto Croce, who would have heard Antonio Labriola insist on the difficulty of exerting a direct pedagogical action on the natives of Papua, stating that, before educating them, it would be opportune to “make them slaves”. This approach to the problem, similar to “Gentile's way of thinking in relation to religious teaching in primary schools”, seemed to reveal to Antonio Gramsci “a false historicism, a very empirical mechanism very close to the most vulgar evolutionism”; an error that, in his opinion, could also be found, even more “evidently”, in the interview on the colonial question given in 1902, where Antonio Labriola counted on a rapid colonization of Tripolitania by Italy.

The same question has often been posed to interpreters after the Second World War: how to reconcile in Antonio Labriola the claim of the theoretical and political autonomy of the proletariat, achievable through a complex process of revolutionary self-education, with the judgment on the political-pedagogical adequacy of the colonial subjugation of non-European peoples? With this work, we intend to return to these questions using as a “visual angle” (to borrow an expression often used by the philosopher) the node of the relationship between politics and education in his Marxist thought.

The centrality of pedagogical problems in the reflection and biography of Antonio Labriola, who has always been involved in the world of school, education and training, is well known. Some scholars highlighted the pedagogical dimension of all his reflection – “always projected towards the future, towards a transformation for the better of the situation, through man’s education, his enlightenment, his becoming more lucid, more rational, placed in a better society ” (E. Garin) –, giving rise to a series of investigations about Antonio Labriola as “educator” and “perpetual master”.

Some interpreters then indicated what is the appropriate coefficient of this pedagogical commitment: the “ethical-political purpose” that remains unchanged throughout its trajectory. “It is a desperate task” – wrote Garin – “to try to understand his thought without referring to his political-pedagogical activity, both in the moderate period and in the socialist moment”. This is a relationship of reciprocity: on the one hand, the approach to educational problems always starts from a general framework of a political nature; on the other hand, politics is always a work of education, of developing collective conscience and conscientization, an attempt to promote general intellectual and moral progress. However, the concrete forms in which this profound motif of Antonio Labriola's thought is expressed change radically at different moments in the development of his political and intellectual trajectory, in equally different historical contexts.

The relationship between education and politics undoubtedly represents a privileged point of observation to appreciate the development of Antonio Labriola's thought. It is impressive, however, to see the substantial absence, in the last phase of his itinerary, of writings and interventions explicitly dedicated to the themes of school and pedagogy, even though he continues to teach this subject regularly at the University. For what reasons? How, in the years of Marxism, was the link between education and politics redefined? How does the Marxist Labriola conceive the problem of the formation of the human being?

What directions does he indicate in order to face the question of the cultural backwardness of the masses? In what terms is the theme of formation of the revolutionary historical subject conceived by him, being treated as a pedagogical problem? How do these interrogatives relate to the political commitment and philosophical reflections expressed in the Essays around the materialist conception of history? Why, finally, does he come to consider colonial conquests necessary passages for the advancement of non-European peoples? If it becomes evident that, in the economy of his discourse, the general political-ethical-pedagogical function passes, as a Marxist, “from the State to the workers' movement” (S. Cingari), one has the impression that many questions remain open.

*Massimo Gabella he holds a doctorate in philosophy from the Scuola Superiore di Studi Storici at the University of San Marino.

Excerpt from the book's introduction La rivoluzione come pedagogical problem. Politics and education in Marxism by Antonio Labriola (1890-1904). Bologna, the Mulino, 2022.

Translation: Paulo Butti from Lima.

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