Chris Harman


Italian Theory

(Spring 1967)

From International Socialism (1st series), No.28, Spring 1967, p.28.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Essays on the Materialistic Conception of History
Antonio Labriola
Monthly Review

Historical Materialism and the Economics of Karl Marx
Benedetto Croce
Cass, 42s

Pareto and Mosca
Ed. J.H. Meisel
Prentice-Hall, 20s

One of the more important by-products of the destruction of the Russian revolution and the Comintern by Stalinism has been the complete distortion of Marxist theory. Current debate was prevented by all sorts of means ranging from murder to emotional blackmail. But the traditions of Marxist discussion were also distorted by a more or less conscious sifting of the classics. Works at best limited in their relevance (What is to be Done?, Empirio-Criticism, much of Anti-Dühring) were proclaimed as universal truths. Other writings, not benefiting from the cheap printing and massive propaganda available from Moscow, faded into oblivion. One of the writers most to suffer (outside Italy at least) was Labriola. For decades his Essays on the Materialistic Conception of History have been virtually unobtainable. Yet they are one of the best expositions of historical materialism. That is not to say that they are perfect. Their style may not be immediately appealing and some of their factual content is dated. But had they been more readily available much that still passes as Marxism and much that still passes as academically respectable criticism of Marxism could not have seemed like the real thing.

Croce’s book consists of essays which attempt to criticise or elucidate various concepts of Marxism. These first appeared in the 1890s as Croce himself was moving away from his earlier Marxism to his later peculiar form of idealism. Their approach is essentially eclectic. Nurtured on Labriola, Croce could not accept the facile criticisms of Marxism made, for instance, by subjectivist economists. But neither does he reject them. Instead he tries to combine them; alongside the ‘sociological’ economics of Marx there is supposed to be room for the ‘general’ economics of the Austrian school. The only merit of this position is that it is more honest than so many other ‘refutations’ of Marx.

Pareto and Mosca were Italian contemporaries of Labriola and Croce. Despite substantial differences both believed in the inevitability of a small class ruling society. This enabled them to combine a view of society emphasising class struggle with a conservative elitism. The selection of essays Meisel has edited are in the main critical, pointing the empty, almost tautological character of the theories and their reactionary consequences (Pareto sympathised with the Fascists). But the very emptiness of the theory means that criticism of it can hardly be interesting, even if ideologically satisfying.

Last updated on 15 November 2009