Antonio Labriola – communism as art



Considerations on the work of the Italian Marxist

In the midst of the fascist regime, Rodolfo Mondolfo published in italian encyclopedia the entry “Antonio Labriola, Marxist philosopher”. Labriola's teacher, Bertrando Spaventa, is described in Socratic terms: he wrote little, but "had a passion for oral teaching and dialogue, thus distributing treasures of doctrine and genius." Adhering to Marxism, Labriola abandoned formal historicism. Labriola never wanted to “enclose himself in a system”, but “critically affirmed historical materialism as a philosophy of praxis”.

Having to explain what, for Labriola, communism would be as a future experience for humanity, Mondolfo assumes a pessimistic tone: “there is a dialectic of history or self-criticism of things; but things are themselves praxis human. There is no fatality, neither of progress nor of predictions”. Progress is not necessary and class conflict is not always resolved with dialectical overcoming. Preparing for the worst years of fascism, Mondolfo observes that, in the historical development, “produced by men themselves”, “returns, deviations, disappointments” can occur and not just a continuous movement of liberation. Despite having the support of Giovanni Gentile, Mondolfo will be forced to go into exile in Argentina after the racial laws.

The article concludes by observing the relevance of Labriola in the panorama of socialist ideas. Remember, for this, Georges Sorel, an admirer of the Italian Marxist well regarded by the fascist regime: “the essays of Labriola (wrote Sorel) mark a date in the history of socialism”.


self-criticism of things

Antonio Labriola adhered to Marxism at the end of the XNUMXth century. Years earlier, he published Socrates' doctrine. Among his first works of the Marxist period, the essay “In memory of the Manifesto of the Communists” is included. In this article we find one of the most eccentric descriptions of communism as a social and proletarian movement: “Communism has become an art”.

Few would have the notion of “art” in mind when defining communism. In this case, it is a concept that is both political and pedagogical at the same time. The conversion to Marxism did not prevent Labriola from maintaining, in his reflection, a term similar to his previous interests, being related, in particular, to educational activity. Note well: for Labriola, communism does not “is”, but has become an art. As an art, critical communism is distinguished from other forms of communist theory. The art of communism makes it possible to overcome the fantasy of utopian thinkers, leading to the construction of a classless society.

A year before the text on the Manifesto, Labriola wrote to Engels: “you encourage me to write about communism, but I fear doing something of no value, as far as my strength is concerned, and of little effect, as far as Italy is concerned”. The definition of communism as art is the answer given to Engels' request, preparing the way for the definition of the philosophy of praxis: “the philosophy immanent to the things about which one philosophises”. That expression – “philosophy della prassi” –, formulated by Labriola a few years later, would be retaken, among others, by Antonio Gramsci.

Labriola clarifies, however, what he has in mind when he relates communism and art, restricting this term to political activity: it is about “the meticulous art of understanding in each case what is convenient and what must be done; for the new age is itself in continual formation.” The expression “art of communism” responds to the difficulty of reconciling a theory of action with the autonomous movement of history – which Labriola calls, with another successful formula, “self-criticism of things”. At the same time, this art, transforming itself into a philosophy of praxis, saves philosophy from its abandonment in Marxist thought – the “dissolution” of classical philosophy from Feuerbach onwards, as stated, for example, in the book Anti-Duhring, by Engels.

Both the “art of communism” and the “philosophy of praxis” relate, with different nuances, the construction of practical knowledge and the awareness of the practical nature of this knowledge, a relationship that was present in the Aristotelian notion of practical knowledge. At the same time, the idea of ​​art highlights the dilemmas of moral action. As can be seen, for example, in Labriola's position on colonialism as a path of civilization (with the famous case of the Papua, mentioned by Croce and retaken by Gramsci: would the education of the aboriginal justify colonial domination?).

Labriola, who approached Marxism through the work of Engels, and in particular Engels de Origin of the family, private property and the state, with reference to the work ancient society by the American anthropologist Lewis Morgan, recalling, more than once, his analysis of the stages of human development and the description of societies without a State. Before Morgan, Giambattista Vico already knew that history corresponds to a process “that man carries out by himself as in repeated experimentation”. It is a technical and practical process at the same time: “intention of dell'azione”. It is not clear if primitive communism was also the result of an “art”, or if this is just the modern instrument that allows one to overcome the exuberant and unrestrained fantasy of utopian thinkers. These thinkers, like Fourier, have, however, the merit of anticipating the psychology and pedagogy of the future society, as foreseen in the The Manifest Communist of Marx and Engels. Thanks to the art of communism – or communism as art – this fantasy could become a reality.

If the art of communism is the instrument with which to build society as depicted in utopian fantasies, what will happen as knowledge of action that is both political and pedagogical at the moment when the classless society replaces the State? Labriola imagines the nature of art or technique in the future communist society. The classless society, which “is no longer the State, but its opposite”, requires “the government (regiment) technical and pedagogical aspects of human coexistence, the self of work”. Or, as he says in a successive work: the only order of communist society will be “the technical and pedagogical government of intelligence”.

We thus see that communism as an art has a double nature: it is a philosophy of action at the moment of the proletariat's affirmation, and it is administration and pedagogy, at the moment of its realization. The idea of ​​a philosophical conscience that, in its ideal condition, becomes praxis thanks to a self-regulating, administrative and pedagogical activity, is the most singular adaptation, within the scope of Marxist theories, of the Platonic project of Republic.

* Paulo Butti de Lima is a professor at the University of Bari, Italy. Author, among other books, of Plato: A Poetics for Philosophy (Perspective).


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