Antonio Labriola

Socialism and Philosophy


Written: in April, May, June, July and September, 1897;
Translated: by Ernest Untermann, Chicago, 1907.


Rome, April 20, 1897.

Dear Mr. Sorel!

For some time I have intended to carry on a conversation in writing with you.

This will be the best and most appropriate way of expressing my gratitude for your preface to my essays. It is a matter of course that I could not silently accept the courteous words which you had heaped so profusely upon me. I could not but reply to you at once and acknowledge my obligation to you by a private letter. And now there is no more need of our exchanging compliments, especially in letters which either you or I may have occasion to publish at some future time. Besides, what good would it do me now to protest modestly and ward off your praise as it is entirely due to you that my two essays on historical materialism, which are but rough sketches, circulate in France in book-form. You placed them before the public in this shape. It has never been in my mind to write a standard book, in the sense in which you French, who admire and cultivate classic methods in literature, use this term. I am of those who regard this persistent devotion to the cult of classic style as rather inconvenient for those who wish to express the results of strictly scientific thought in an original, adequate, and easy manner. To me it is as inconvenient as a badly fitting coat.

Passing over all compliments, then, I shall express myself on the points which you have made in your preface. I shall discuss them frankly without having in view the writing of a monograph. I choose the form of letters because interruptions, breaks in the continuity of thought, and occasional jumps, such as would occur in conversation, do not seem out of place and incongruous there. I really should not write so many dissertations memorials, or articles, were it not for the fact that I want to reply to the many questions which you ask in the few pages of your preface, as though you were engrossed in doubting thoughts. [1]

But while I shall write the things as they come into my mind, I do not intend to lessen my responsibility for whatever I may say here, and shall continue to say. I merely wish to throw off the burden of stiff and formal prose which is customary for scientific exposition. Nowadays there is no petty postgraduate, however diminutive, who does not imagine that he is erecting a monument of himself for contemporary and future generations whenever he consecrates a ponderous volume, or a learned and intricate disquisition, to some stray thought or chance observation caught in animated conversation or inspired by some one who has a particular talent for teaching. Such impressions always have a greater suggestive power by force of natural expression which is a gift of those who seek the truth by themselves or tell others about it for the first time.

We know well enough that this closing century, which is all business, all money, does not freely circulate thought unless it is likewise expressed in the revered business form and endorsed by it, so that it may have for fit companions the bill of the publisher and the literary advertisements from frothy puffs to sincerest praise. In the society of the future, in which we live with our hopes, and still more with a good many illusions that are not always the fruit of a well balanced imagination, there will grow out of all proportion, until they are legion, the number of men who will be able to discourse with that divine joy in research and that heroic courage of truth which we admire in a Plato, a Bruno, a Galilei. There may also multiply infinitely the individuals who, like Diderot, shall be able to write profound and beguiling things such as Jacques le Fataliste, which we now imagine to be unsurpassed. In the society of the future, in which leisure, rationally increased for all, shall give to all the requirements of liberty, the means of culture, and the right to be lazy, this lucky discovery of our Lafargue, there will be on every street corner some genius wasting his time, like old master Socrates, by working busily at some task not paid for in money. But now, in the present world, in which only the insane have visions of a millennium, many idlers exploit the public appreciation by their worthless literature as though they had earned a right to do so by legitimate work. So it is that even Socialism will have to open its bosom for a discreet multitude of idlers, shirkers, and incapables.

You complain that the theories of historical materialism have become so little appreciated in France. You complain that the spread of these theories is prevented by prejudices due to national vanity, to the literary pretensions of some, to the philosophical blindness of others, to the cursed desire to pose as something which one is not, and finally to insufficient intellectual development, not to mention the many shortcomings found even among socialists. But all these things should not be considered mere accidents! Vanity, false pride, a desire of posing without really being, a mania for self, self-aggrandisement, the frenzied will to shine, all these and other passions and virtues of civilized man are by no means unessential in life, but may rather constitute very often its substance and purpose. We know that the church has not succeeded in the majority of cases in rendering the Christian mind humble, but has on the contrary given to it a new title to another and greater pretension. Well now... this historical materialism demands of those who wish to profess it consciously and frankly a certain queer humility, that is to say, as soon as we realize that we are bound up with the course of human events and study its complicated lines and tortuous windings, it behooves us not to be merely resigned and acquiescent, but to engage in some conscious and rational work. But there is the difficulty. We are to come to the point of confessing to ourselves that our own ndividuality, to which we are so closely attached through an obvious and genetic habit, is a pretty small thing in the complicated network of the social mechanism, however great it may be, or appear, to us, even if it is not such a mere evanescent nonentity as some harebrained theosophists claim. We are to adapt ourselves to the conviction that the subjective intentions and aims of every one of us are always struggling against the resistance of the intricate processes of life, so that our designs leave no trace of themselves, or leave a trace which is quite different from the original intent, because it is altered and transformed by the accompanying conditions. We are to admit, after this statement, that history lives our lives, so to say, and that our own contribution toward it, while indispensable, is nevertheless but a very minute factor in the crossing of forces which combine, complete and alternately eliminate one another. But all these conceptions are veritable bores for all those who feel the need of confining the universe within the scope of their individual vision. Therefore the privilege of heroes must be preserved in history, so that the dwarfs may not be deprived of the faith that they are able to ride on their own shoulders and make themselves conspicuous. And this must be granted to them, even if they are not worthy, in the words of Jean Paul, of reaching to their own knees.

In fact, have not people been going to school for centuries, only to be told that Julius Caesar founded the empire and Charlemagne reconstructed it? That Socrates as much as invented logic, and Dante created Italian literature by a stroke of his pen? It is but a very short time that the mythological conception of such people as the creators of history has been gradually displaced, and not always in precise terms, by the prosaic notion of a historical process of society. Was not the French revolution willed and made, according to various versions of literary invention, by the different saints of the liberalist legends, the saints of the right, the saints of the left, the Girondist saints, the Jacobine saints? Thus it comes that Paine has devoted quite a considerable portion of his ponderous intellect to the proof, as though he were a proofreader of history, that all those disturbances might eventually not have occurred at all. By the way, I have never been able to understand why a man with so little appreciation for the crude necessity of facts should have called himself a positivist. It was the good fortune of most of your saints in France which enabled them alternately to honor one another and to crown one another in due time with their deserved diadem of thorns. For this reason the rules of classic tragedy remained gloriously in force for them. If it were not so, who knows how many imitators of Saint Juste (a truly great man) would have ended through the hands of the henchmen of the scoundrel Fouché, and how many accomplices of Danton (a great man who missed his place) would have donned the felon's garb at Cambaceres, while others might have been content to pit themselves against the adventurous Drouet, or that pitiful actor Tellien, for the modest stripes of a petty prefect.

In short, to strive for first place is a matter of faith and devotion for all who have learned the history of the ancient style and agree with the orator Cicero in calling her the Mistress of Life. And therefore they feel the need of "making Socialism moral." Has not morality taught us for centuries that we must give to each one his dues? Aren't you going to preserve just a little corner of paradise for us? This is what they seem to ask me. And if we must give up the paradise of the faithful and theologians, can't we preserve a little pagan apotheosis in this world? Don't throw away the entire moral of honest reward. Keep at least a good couch, or a seat in the front ranks of the theatre of vanity!

And this is the reason why revolutions, aside from other necessary and inevitable causes, are useful and desirable from this point of view. With the sweep of a heavy broom they clear the ground of those who occupied it so long, or at least they make the air more fit to be breathed by giving it more ozone after the manner of storms.

Don't you claim, and justly so, that the whole practical question of Socialism (and by practical you mean no doubt a method which is guided by the intellectual facts of an enlightened consciousness based on theoretical knowledge) may be reduced to, and summed up in, the following three points: 1) Has the proletariat arrived at a clear conception of its existence as a class by itself? 2) Has it strength enough to engage in a struggle against the other classes? 3) Is it about to overthrow, together with the organization of capitalism, the entire system of traditional thought!

Very well!

Now let the proletariat come to a clear understanding of what it can accomplish, or let it learn to want what it can accomplish. Let this proletariat make it its business, in the inept language of the professional writers, to solve the so-called social question. Let this proletariat set before itself the task of doing away, among other forms of exploiting your fellow beings with false glory, with presumption, and with that singular competition among themselves which prompts some of them to write their own names into the golden book of merit in the service of humanity. Let it make a bonfire also of this book, together with so many others which bear the title of Public Debt.

For the present it would be a vain undertaking to try to make all these people understand this frank principle of communist ethics, a principle which declares that gratitude and admiration should come as a spontaneous gift from our fellow-beings. Many of them would not care to reach out for progress, were they sure of being told, in the words of Baruch Spinoza, that virtue is its own reward. In the meantime, until only the most worthy things shall remain as objects of admiration in a better society than ours, objects such as the outlines of the Parthenon, the paintings of Raphael, the verses of Dante and Goethe, and so many useful, secure, and definitely acquired gifts of science, until then, I say, it is not for us to stand in the way of those who have any breath to spend, or printed cards to circulate, and who wish to parade themselves in the name of so many fine things, such as humanity, social justice, and so forth, and even of Socialism, as happens frequently to those who compete for the medal pour le merité and a place in the legion of honor of the future proletarian revolution, though it may still be far off. Should not such men have a presentiment that historical materialism is a satire upon all their cherished assumptions and futile ambitions? Should not they detest this new species of pantheism, from which has disappeared, if you will permit me to say so – it is so utterly prosaic – even the revered name of God?

Here we must mention one important circumstance. In all parts of civilized Europe men's minds, whether true or false, have many opportunities to work in the service of the state and in all lines of profit and honor which the capitalist class has to offer. And this class is not near so close to its end as some merry prophets would have us believe. We need not wonder, then, that Engels wrote in his preface to the third volume of Marx's Capital, on October 4, 1894: "In our stirring times, as in the 16th century, mere theorizers on public affairs are found only on the side of the reactionaries." These words, which are as clear as they are grave, should be sufficient to close the mouths of those who boast that all intelligence has passed over on our side, and that the capitalist class will soon lay down arms. Just the reverse is true. There is a scarcity of intellectual forces in our ranks, the more so as the genuine laborers, for obvious reasons, often protest against the speakers and writers of the party. There is, then, no cause for surprise that historical materialism should have made so little headway from its first general enunciation. And even if we pass on to those who have done more than merely repeat or ape the fundamental statements in a way that sometimes approaches the burlesque, we must confess that all the serious, relevant, and correct things which have been written do not yet make a complete theory which has risen above the stage of first formation. None of us would dare to invite comparison with Darwinism, which in less than 40 years has gone through so much of intensive and extensive development, that its theory has already an enormous history, a superabundance of material, a multitude of points of contact with other sciences, a great store of methodical corrections, and a great array of criticisms on the part of friend and foe.

All those who are standing outside of the socialist movement had and have an interest in combatting, misrepresenting, or ignoring this new theory. The socialists, on the other hand, have not had the time to devote themselves to the care and study which are necessary in order that any mental departure might gain in breadth of development and scholarly maturity, such as mark those sciences which are protected, or at least not combatted, by the official world, and which grow and prosper through the co-operation of many devoted collaborators.

Is not the diagnosis of a disease half a consolation? Do not physicians act that way nowadays with sick people, since they have become more inspired in their medical practice by that scientific sentiment which shall solve the problems of life?

After all, only a few of the various results of historical materialism are of a nature to acquire any marked popularity. It is certain that this new method of investigation will enable some of us to` write more conclusive works of history than those generally written by literary men who ply their art only with the help of philology and classic learning. And aside from the knowledge which active socialists may derive from the accurate analysis of the field on which they move, there is no doubt that historical materialism has directly or indirectly exerted a great influence on many thinkers of our day, and will exert a still greater influence to the extent that the study of economic history is developed and practically interpreted by laying bare the fundamental causes and intimate reasons for certain political events. But it seems to me that the whole theory 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. For in order to become familiar with this philosophy, one must have a deep mental power which must be accustomed to the difficulties of mental combination. The attempt to handle it might expose shallow minds, who are prone to make easy conclusions, to the danger of saying silly things of sacred reason. And we don't want to become responsible for the promotion of such literary charlatanry.


Rome, April 24, 1897.

Now permit me to pass on to the consideration of certain prosaically small things, which, however, as small things often do in the great affairs of the world, carry considerable weight in our discussion.

To speak of the writings of Marx and Engels, since they are particularly under discussion, have they never been read in their entirety by any one outside of the circle of the nearest friends and disciples, and outside of the circle of the followers and direct interpreters, of these authors? Have these writings, as a whole, never been the objects of comment and illustration on the part of people outside of the camp formed around the traditions of the German Social-Democracy? I refer especially to those who have done the work of applying and explaining those writings, and particularly to the Neue Zeit, the magazine which has held the front rank among the publications of the party. In short, the question is whether these writings have gathered around themselves what modern thinkers call a literary environment in any other country but Germany, and whether even in this country such a development has not been but partial, and accomplished by means which were not always above criticism.

And how rare are many of these writings, and how hard are some of them to find! Are there many who, like myself, have had the patience to hunt for years for a copy of the Poverty of Philosophy, which was but very recently republished in Paris, or of that queer work, The Holy Family; or who would be willing to endure more hardships to secure a copy of the Neue Rheinische Zeitung than a student of philology or history would under ordinary conditions in reading and studying all the documents of ancient Egypt! I have the reputation of being a practiced hand at seeking and locating books, but I have never experienced more trouble than I did in the quest for that paper. The reading of all the writings of the founders of scientific socialism has so far been largely a privilege of the initiated! [2]

Is it a wonder, then, that outside of Germany, for instance in France, and particularly there, many writers, especially among publicists, should have felt a temptation to draw the elements for the formation of a Marxism of their own makings from criticisms of our adversaries, from incidental quotations, from hasty snatches taken out of special articles, or from vague recollections? This took place all the more easily, since the rise of socialist parties in France and Italy gave voice more or less to representatives of alleged Marxism, although in my opinion it would be inexact to call them so. But this gave to literary men of all sorts the easy excuse of believing, or making others believe, that every speech of an agitator or politician, every declaration of principles, every newspaper article, and every official party action, was an authentic and orthodox revelation of the new doctrine in a new church. Was not the French Chamber of Deputies, about two years ago, on the point of discussing Marx's theory of value? And what are we to say of so many Italian professors who quoted and discussed for years books and works which notoriously had never reached our latitude? Soon after that George Adler wrote those two shallow and inconclusive books of his, [3] in which he offered easy treasures of bibliography and copious quotations to all who were looking for comfortable instruction and a chance to plagiarise. One might truly say that Adler had read much and sinned much.

Historical materialism is in a certain sense all there is to Marxism. Before it surrounded itself with a literature written by competent thinkers, who could develop and continue it, Marxism passed among the peoples of neo-latin speech through innumerable mistakes, misinterpretations, grotesque alterations, queer travesties, and gratuitous inventions. No one has a right to place these things on the ledger of a history of Socialism. But they could not but cause much embarrassment to those who were eager to create a socialist culture, especially if they belonged to the ranks of professional students.

You are familiar with the fantastic story told by Croce in Le Devenir Social of that blond Marx who is supposed to have founded the International at Naples, in 1867. I could tell other similar stories. I could tell you of a student who came to my house, some years ago, to have at least one personal look at the famous Poverty of Philosophy. He was quite disappointed. "It is a serious book on political economy?" he said. "Not only serious," said I, "but also hard to read and in many points obscure." He could not understand it at all. "Did you expect,'' I continued, "a poem on the heroes of the attic, or a romance like that of the poor young man?"

The farfetched title of The Holy Family has given to some an excuse for some queer tales. It is the singular fate of that circle of Young-Hegelians, among whom was at least one man of mark, Bruno Bauer, that they should be known to posterity through the ridicule which two young writers heaped upon them. And to think that this book, which would appear dry, hard to understand, and harsh to most French readers, is really not very notable, except for the fact that it shows the way in which Marx and Engels, after they had thrown off the burden of Hegelian scholasticism, began to extricate themselves from the humanitarianism of Feuerbach! And while they were developing into what later became their own theory, they were still to a certain extent imbued with that true socialism which later on they themselves ridiculed in the Manifesto.

But apart from the ridiculous stories which have been circulated about these two, there is one which has developed in Italy, and there is nothing to laugh about. This is the case of Loria. It is so much the more sad, since just in these last years, in spite of the great difficulties surrounding it, a socialist party has been in process of formation in Italy, which in program and intent represents the tendencies of international socialism, so far as the conditions of our country will permit, and tries to accomplish its work. It is to be regretted that just at this period some people, either students or ex-students, should have taken it into their heads to proclaim Loria, now as the authentic author of the theories of scientific socialism, now as the discoverer of the economic interpretation of history, now as this, then as that, however contradictory it might be. Loria has thus been acclaimed, all in the same breath, but without his knowledge and consent, as a champion of Marx, as an enemy of Marx, as a substitute, a superior, and inferior of Marx. Well, this misunderstanding is now a thing of the past. And peace be to its memory. Since the Social Problems of Loria have been translated into French, many of your countrymen will wonder how it was possible that he could be mistaken, not so much for a socialist of some sort – for this might have been considered a sign or design of ingeniousness – but as a man who continued the work of Marx and improved on it. The very idea makes one's hair stand on end.

However, so far as France is concerned, you may rest easy about these anecdotes of model intuition. For it is not only true that sins are committed outside and inside of the walls of Troy, but it is also an axiom which every one will accept who does not belong to the insane category of misunderstood geniuses, that no one comes too late into the world to do his duty. And in the present case it is so much less too late, as we may truthfully say in the words of Engels, written to me a short time before his death: "We are as yet at the very beginning of things."

And because we are still in the first beginnings, it seems to me that the German socialist party should consider it its duty to get out a complete critical edition of the works of Marx and Engels, in order that students may be able to occupy themselves with these theories with a full understanding of their causes and get their knowledge of them with as little inconvenience as possible from the first sources. This edition should be supplied from case to case with prefaces containing statements of fact, with foot notes, references, and explanations. It would alone be a meritorious work to deprive secondhand book dealers of the privilege to make objects of indecent speculation of the rarest copies of old writings. I can tell a story or two about that. Works which have already appeared in the form of books or pamphlets should be supplemented by newspaper articles, manifestoes, circulars, programs, and all those letters which, although written to private people, have a political and scientific value because dealing with matters of public and general interest.

Such an enterprise can be undertaken only by the German speaking socialists. Not that Marx and Engels belong only to Germany, in the patriotic and chauvinist sense of the term, such as many mistake for nationality. The form of their brains, the course of their productions, the logical order of their mode of seeing things, their scientific spirit, and their philosophy, were the fruit and outcome of German culture. But the substance of their thought and teaching deals with social conditions, which up to the time of their mature years developed for the greater part outside of Germany. It is rooted especially in the conditions created by that great economic and political revolution which from the second half of the eighteenth century had its basis and development overwhelmingly in England and France. Both of them were in every respect international spirits. But nevertheless only the German socialists, from the Communist Club to the Erfurt program, and to the last articles of the prudent and experienced Kautsky, have that continuity and persistency of tradition, and that assistance of constant experience, which are necessary in order that a critical edition of these works may find in the things themselves and in the memories of men the data required for making it complete and true to life. And it is not a question of selection. The entire scientific and political activity, all the literary productions, of the two founders of critical socialism, even if they were written for the occasion of the hour, should be made accessible to the reader. It is not a matter of compiling a Corpus juris or a Testamentum juxta canonem receptum (a code of laws or a testament according to received canons). It is a matter of collecting an elaborate series of writings, in order that they may speak directly to all who may wish to read them. Only in this way can the students of other countries have all the sources at their disposal. Those who got their learning in some other way, through unreliable reproductions or vague recollections, gave rise to the strange phenomenon that until very recent times there was not a single work on Marxism outside of the German language written on the strength of documentary criticism. And often such works came from the pens of writers of other revolutionary parties, or other schools of socialism. A typical case of this kind is that of the anarchist writers, for whom, especially in France and Italy, the founder of Marxism seems generally not to have existed at all, unless it be as the man who whipped Proudhon and who opposed Bakunin, or as the head of that which is the greatest crime in their eyes, namely the typical representative of political socialism and therefore – what infamy! – of parliamentarian socialism.

All these writings have one common foundation. And this is historical materialism, taken as a threefold theory, namely as a philosophical method for the general understanding of life and the universe, as a critique of political economy reducible to certain laws only because it represents a certain historical phase, and as an interpretation of politics, above all of those political movements which are necessary and serviceable for the march of the working class toward socialism. These three aspects, which I enumerate abstractly, as is always the custom for purposes of analysis, form one single unity in the minds of the two authors. For this reason, their writings, with the exception of Engels' Anti-Dühring and the first volume of Capital, never appear to literary men of classic traditions to have been written according to the canons of the art of book writing. These writings are in reality monographs, and in most cases they are the outgrowth of special occasions. They are fragments of a science and politics in a process of continuous growth. Others, of course not mere chance comers, must and can continue this work. In order to understand them fully, these writings should be arranged biographically. And in such a biography we shall find, so to say, the traces and imprints, the marks and reflections, of the genesis of modern socialism. Those who are not able to follow up this genesis, will look in those fragments for something which is not in them, and ought not to be in them, for instance, answers to all the questions which historical and social science may ever present in their vast and variegated experience, or a summary solution of the practical problems of all time and place. To illustrate, in the discussion of the Eastern question, in which some socialists present the singular spectacle of a struggle between idiocy and heedlessness, we hear on all sides references to Marxism! [4] The doctrinaires and theorisers of all sorts, who need intellectual idols, the makers of classic systems good for all eternity, the compilers of manuals and encyclopediae, will in vain look in Marxism for that which it has never offered to anybody. These people conceive of thought and knowledge as things which have a material existence, but they do not understand that thought and knowledge are activities in process of formation. They are metaphysicians in the sense in which Engels used this term, which, of course, is not the only possible meaning. In the present case I mean to say that these men are metaphysicians in the sense in which Engels applied this term to them by enlarging upon that characteristic which Hegel bestowed upon ontologists like Wolf and others like him.

But did Marx, although he is unexcelled as a publicist, ever pretend to pose as an accomplished writer of history, while he penned from 1848 to 1860 his essays on contemporaneous history and his memorable newspaper articles? And did he, perhaps, fail in this, because it was not his vocation, and because he had no aptitude for it? Or did Engels, when he wrote his Anti-Dühring, which is to this day, the most accomplished work of critical socialism and contains in a nutshell the whole philosophy required for the thinkers of socialism, dream of exhausting the possibilities of the knowable universe in his short and exquisite work, or of laying down forever the outlines of metaphysics, psychology, ethics, logic, and whatever may be the names of the other sections of the encyclopedia, which were chosen either for intrinsic reasons of objective division, or for reasons of expediency, comfort, vanity, by those who profess to be teachers? Or is Marx's Capital perhaps another one of those encyclopedias of all economic learning, with which especially the professors, above all in Germany, overstock the market?

This work, of three large volumes in four not very small books, may be likened to a colossal monograph as distinguished from so many encyclopedic compilations. Its main object is to demonstrate the origin and production of surplus-value (under the capitalist system) and then to show the manner in which the surplus-value is divided by the combination of production with the circulation of capital. The basis of the analyses is the theory of value, which is a perfection of an elaboration made by economic science for a century and a half. This theory does not represent an empirical fact drawn from vulgar induction, nor a simple category of logic, as some have chronicled it. It is rather the typical premise without which all the rest of the work is unthinkable. The matter of fact premises, namely pre-capitalist society and the social genesis of wage-labor, are the starting points of the historical explanation of the origin of present capitalism. The mechanism of circulation, with its secondary and minor side-laws, and finally the phenomena of distribution, viewed in their antithetical and relatively independent aspects, form the means by which we arrive at the concrete facts as they are given by the obvious movements of everyday life. The facts and processes are generally presented in their typical forms, the supposition being that all the regular conditions of capitalist production are in full force. Other modes of production are discussed only so far as they have already been outgrown and to show the way in which they were outgrown, or if they still survive, the extent to which they become obstacles of capitalist production is taken into consideration. Marx therefore quotes frequently illustrations from descriptive history, and then, after stating his actual premises, he gives a genetic explanation of the way in which these premises go through their typical development, once that the conditions of their interrelation are given. Thus the morphological structure of capitalist society is laid bare. Marx's work is therefore not dogmatic, but critical. And it is critical, not in the subjective meaning of the term, but because it draws its criticism from the antithetical and contradictory nature of the things themselves. Even when Marx comes to the descriptive portions of historical references, he never loses himself in vulgar conceptions, whose secret consists in avoiding an inquiry into the laws of development and in simply pasting upon a mere enumeration and description of events such labels as "historical process, development, or evolution". The guiding thread of the inquiry is the dialectic method. And this is the ticklish point which throws into the saddest of confusions all those readers of Capital who carry into its perusal the intellectual habits of the empiricists, metaphysicians, and authors of definitions of entities conceived for all eternity. The fastidious questions raised by many concerning the alleged contradictions between the first and the third volume [5] of this work reveal themselves on closer scrutiny as results of a misapprehension of the dialectic method on the part of these critics. I refer here merely to the spirit in which the dispute has been waged, not to the particular points which have been raised. For it is a fact that the third volume is by no means a finished work and may be open to criticism even on the part of those who agree with its general principles. The contradictions noted by the critics are not contradictions between one book and another, are not due to a failure of the author to stick to his premises and promises, but are actual contradictions found in capitalist production itself. When expressed in the shape of formulae, these phenomena appear to the thinking mind as contradictions. An average rate of profit based on the total capital invested, regardless of its organic composition, that is to say, regardless of the proportion between its constant and variable part; prices formed on the market by means of averages which fluctuate widely around the value of commodities; simple interest on money owned as such and loaned to others for investment in business; ground-rent, that is to say, rent on something which was not produced by anybody's labor: these and other refutations of the so-called law of value are actual contradictions inherent in capitalist production. By the way, that term law confuses a good many. These antitheses, however irrational they may appear, actually exist, beginning with the fundamental irrationality that the labor of the wage worker should create a product greater than its cost (wages) for him who hires it. This vast system of economic contradictions (thanks be to Proudhon for this term) appears in its entirety as a sum of social injustices to all sentimental socialists, rational socialists, and all shades of declaiming radicals. The honest people among the reformers desire to eliminate these injustices by means of honest legal efforts. When we now compare, after a lapse of fifty years, the presentation of these antinomies, in their concrete details as shown in the third volume of Capital, with the general outlines given in The Poverty of Philosophy, we readily recognise the nature of the dialectic thread which holds these analyses together. The antinomies, which Proudhon wanted to solve abstractedly on the ground that the reasoning mind condemned them in the name of justice (and this mistake assigns him a certain place in history), are now seen to be contradictions in the social structure itself, so that the very nature of the process engenders contradictions. 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. There is no more insipid and ridiculous phrase than that which calls Marx's Capital the Bible of Socialism. The Bible, which is a collection of religious works and theological essays, was made in the course of centuries. And even if Capital were our Bible, the knowledge of Socialism alone would not make the socialists omniscient.

Marxism is not, and will not be, confined to the writings of Marx and Engels. The name stands even now as a symbol and compendium of a many-sided tendency and a complex theory. A great deal is still lacking before Marxism can become a full and complete theory of all phases of history which have so far been traced to their respective forms of economic production, a theory which shall regulate the pace of political development. In order to accomplish that, those who wish to devote themselves to a study of the past from the point of view of this new method of historical research must submit the original sources to a new and accurate test, and those who wish to apply it to the practical questions of present-day politics must find special modes of orientation. Since this theory is in its very essence critical, it cannot be continued, applied, and improved, unless it criticises itself. Seeing that it is a question of clarifying and deepening definite processes, no catechism will hold good, no diagrammatic generalisation will serve. I received a proof of this in the course of this year I proposed to lecture at the university on the economic conditions of Upper and Middle Italy at the end of the 13th, and the beginning of the 14th century, with the principal object of explaining the origin of the agricultural and city proletariat and thereby finding a practicable way of tracing the rise of certain communistic movements and revealing as a final conclusion the somewhat obscure vicissitudes of the heroic life of Fra Dolcino. It certainly was my intention to be and remain a Marxian. But I cannot avoid assuming the responsibility for the things which I said at my own risk, because the sources on which I based my studies were those which are handled by all other historians, of all the other schools and tendencies, and I could not ask Marx for advice, because he had nothing to offer concerning these particular facts.

It seems to me that I have given a satisfactory reply to the principal question which recurs not only in your preface, to which I have particular reference, but also in various articles written by you for Le Devenir Social. Of course, I shall have to take up still other questions. But your principal question turned on this point: What reasons are to blame for the fact that historical materialism has so far been spread so little and developed so poorly? Without prejudice to the things which I shall say in my following letters – you see that I hold out a nice threat of still more wearying talk – you should experience no great trouble in making your own reply to another question which you asked especially in certain book reviews, and which runs about as follows (at least this is the way in which I interpret it): How is it that so many have tried to complete this imperfect understanding and elaboration of Marxism, now by the help of Spencer, now with positivism in general, now with Darwin, now with any other gift of the gods, showing an evident inclination – what shall I say – to Italianize, Frenchify, Russianize this historical materialism? Why did they forget two things, namely that this theory carries with it the conditions and expressions of its own philosophy, and that it is essentially international in origin and substance?

However, I shall have to continue my letters also for this reason.


Rome, May 10, 1897.

To speak once more of the two founders of scientific socialism, I must confess that I use this term not without apprehension, lest the false use made of it in certain quarters might have rendered it almost ridiculous, particularly when it is supposed to stand for a sort of universal science. If these two men had only been, if not saints of the legendary kind, at least makers of schemes and systems, whose classic form and sharp outlines would have lent themselves easily to admiration! But no, sir! They were critical and aggressive thinkers, not only in their writings, but also in their method of doing things. And they never exhibited either their own personalities or their own ideas as examples and models. They proclaimed indeed the revolutionary nature of the things in the social processes of history, but not in the spirit of men who measure great historical events by the yardstick of their fantastic and impulsive personality. Hence the scorn of the many! Had they been at least like those loving professors, who descend occasionally from their pedestals in order to honor poor and sinful humanity with their advice and strut around among them in the garb of a protector and guardian of the social question! But they did just the reverse. They identified themselves with the cause of the proletariat, and they became inseparable from the conscience and science of the proletarian revolution. While they were in every respect thorough revolutionaries (although not impassioned or emotional), they never suggested any conspiratory plans, or political schemes, but explained the theory of their new politics and aided in its practical application, in the way which the modern working class movement indicates and requires as an actual necessity of history. In other words, incredible as it may seem, they were something more than simple socialists. And as a matter of fact, many who were not more than just simple socialists, or even still simpler makers of revolutions, often looked upon them, if not with suspicion, and least with contempt and aversion.

I should never get done if I tried to enumerate all the reasons which for many long years retarded an objective discussion of Marxism. You are well aware that certain writers of the left wing of the revolutionary parties in France treat historical materialism, not in the way that is customary in dealing with gifts of the scientific spirit, which are certainly subject to criticism like all of science, but as a personal thesis of these two authors, who, however notable and great they may be, remain for those people always but two among the other leaders of socialism, that is to say, two among so many other X's in the universe! [6] To be plain, I will say that only such good or bad arguments have been advanced against this theory as are always obstacles and stumbling blocks in the way of new ideas, especially among professional wise men. Frequently objections arose also from a very special motive. The theories of Marx and Engels, namely, were regarded as opinions of comrades and measured according to standards of sympathy or antipathy aroused by these comrades. Such are the bizarre results of premature democracy that we are not permitted to exempt anything from the control of incompetents, not even logic!

But there are other reasons. When the first volume of Marx's Capital appeared in 1867, it came to the professors and academic writers, especially of Germany, like a blow on their heads. It was then a period of great inactivity in economic science. The historical school had not yet produced those ponderous, and often useful, volumes which later appeared in Germany. In France, Italy, and even Germany, the very commonplace productions of that vulgar economy, which had obliterated the critical spirit of the great classic economists between 1840 and 1860, were leading a precarious existence. England had taken to John Stuart Mill, who, although a professional logician, was always suspended between the yes and the no in matters of importance, like one of the well-known characters on our comic stage. No one had then given a thought to that new economics which the Hedonists have lately produced. In Germany, where Marx should have been read first, for evident reasons, and where Rodbertus remained almost unknown, the mediocre spirits ruled the situation, prominent among them that famous writer of erudite and minute notes, Roscher, who loved to encumber quite clear passages with nominal and often senseless definitions. The first volume of Capital appeared just in time to disillusion the minds of the professors and academicians. They, the learned bearers of titles, especially privileged in the so-called land of thinkers, were expected to go to school! They had either been lost in the minute particulars of erudition, or had tried to make a school of apologetics of political economy, or had bothered their heads to find a plausible way of applying to their own country the conclusions of a science grown in the entirely different conditions of another country. And thus all those professors of the land of the learned par excellence had forgotten the art of analysis and critique. Capital compelled them to begin their studies from the bottom. They had to get an entirely new foundation. For this work, while coming from the pen of an extreme and determined communist, did not show a trace of subjective protest or scheming, but was a strictly and rigorously objective analysis of the process of capitalist production. There was evidently something more terrible in this revolutionary journalist of 1848 and exile of 1849 than a mere continuation or complement of that socialism which the bourgeois literature of all countries dreamed of having definitely overcome as a political expression since the fall of Chartism and the triumph of the sinister head of the coup d'état in France. It became necessary to study economics anew. In other words, this science opened once more a critical period. To give the devil his due, it must be admitted that the German professors after that date, that is to say, beginning with 1870, and still more since 1880, undertook the critical revision of economics with that diligence, persistence, good will, and laboriousness, which the learned of that country have always exhibited in all lines of research. Although anything written by them can hardly ever be fully accepted by us, it is nevertheless true that the field of economics was newly plowed by their labors in the manner customary among professors and academicians, and that now this science can no longer be committed to mind as easily as any lazy man's lesson. Of late the name of Marx has become so fashionable that it is heard in the lecture rooms of universities as one of the preferred subjects of critique, polemics, and reference, and no longer merely in terms of regret and vulgar invective. The social literature of Germany is now fully impregnated with memories of Marx.

But this could not take place in 1867. Capital made its appearance just when the International began to be talked about and make itself feared for a short while, not only on account of the thing that it stood for intrinsically, and what it might have become had not the Franco-German war and the tragic incident of the Commune dealt it heavy blows, but also on account of the blood-curdling mouthings of some of its members and the stupid revolutionary maneuvers of some intruders. Was it not notorious that the Inaugural Address of the International Workingmen's Association (from which address every socialist may still learn much) came from the pen of Marx? And was there not good reason to attribute the more determined actions and resolutions of the International to him? Well then, if a revolutionist of such undoubted loyalty and acumen as Mazzini could not distinguish between the International to which Marx devoted his work and the Bakunist Alliance, is it a wonder that the German professors were disinclined to enter into a critical discussion with the author of Capital? How was it possible to get on terms of friendly discussion with a man who was, so to say, hung in effigy in all laws of exception made for the use of Favre and consorts, and was held morally responsible for all the deeds of the revolutionaries, even their errors and extravagances even though he had at the same written a masterly work, like a new Ricardo, who studied impassibly the economic processes after the manner of geometricians? This fact is to blame for that queer method of polemics which made the intentions of the author responsible for his conclusions. It was alleged that Marx had thought out his scientific analysis for the purpose of giving strength to certain tendencies. This led for many years to the writing of sensational articles in place of objective analyses. [7]

But the worst of it was that the effects of this grossly false critique made themselves felt even in the minds of socialists, particularly in those of the young intellectuals who took up the cause of the proletariat between 1870 and 1880. Many of the fiery remodelers of the world undertook to proclaim themselves champions of Marxian theories, choosing as legal tender precisely the more or less spurious Marxism of our adversaries. The case is dearest in Germany where it left its traces in the party discussions and in its small literature. The most paradoxical point of the whole mistake is this: Those who incline toward easy inferences, as most newcomers do, thought that the theories of value and surplus-value, as ordinarily presented in popular expositions, contained here and now the canons of practical activity, the motive power, the ethics and legal basis, for all proletarian efforts. Isn't it a great injustice that millions and millions of human beings should be robbed of the fruits of their labor! This statement is so simple and so poignant that all the modern Bastilles ought to fall at the first scientific blast of the new trumpets of Jericho! This easy simplicity was strengthened by many of the theoretical errors of Lassalle, such as those which were due to his relative lack of knowledge, for instance the iron law of wages, a half-truth which becomes a total error when not fully explained, or those which in his case may be regarded as expedients of agitation, for instance his famous co-operatives with state help. Whoever is inclined to confine his whole socialist confession of faith to the simplest inference from the recognized exploitation to the demand for the emancipation of the exploited, which is inevitable only because it is just, has but to make another step on the slippery path of logic in order to reduce the whole story of the human race to a case of moral conscience and consider its successive development in social life as so many variations of a continued error of calculation.

Between 1870 and 1880, and a little after, a sort of new utopianism formed around this vague conception of a certain something entitled scientific socialism which, like fruits out of season, was very insipid. And what else is utopianism without the genius of a Fourier and the eloquence of a Considerant but a matter for ridicule? This new utopianism, which still flourishes here and there, has played quite a role in France. It has left its imprint in the struggles with other sects and schools fought by our brave friends in the Revolutionary Labor Party, who from the first endeavored to develop socialism along the lines of class-consciousness and the progressive conquest of political power by the proletariat. Only through the experience of this practical test, only by the daily study of the class struggle, only through testing and re-testing the forces of the proletariat so far as they are already organized and concentrated, are we enable to estimate the chances of socialism. Those who proceed differently are and remain utopians, even in the revered name of Marx.

Against these new utopians, against the outgrown representatives of the old schools, and against the various sidelines of contemporaneous socialism, our two authors continually applied the rays of their critique. In their long career they took their science as a guide for their practical work, and out of their practical experience they culled the material and received directions for deepening their science. They never treated history as though she were a mare which they could straddle and trot around, nor did they look for formulae by which to keep alive momentary illusions. They were thus compelled, by the necessity of circumstances, to measure swords in bitter, sharp, and relentless controversies with all those whom they considered as dangers to the proletarian movement. Who does not remember, for instance, the Proudhonists, who pretended to destroy the state by reducing it by stealth, as though it were closing its eyes and pretending not to see? Or the one-time Blanquists, who wanted to seize the powers of state by force and then start a revolution? Or Bakunin who sneaked surreptitiously into the International and compelled the others to throw him out? Or here and there the pretenses of so many different schools of socialism, and the competition of so many leaders?

From the time that Marx routed the ingenuous Weitling in a personal debate [8] to his trenchant critique of the Gotha program (1875), which was not published until 1890, his life was one continual battle, not only with the bourgeoisie and the politics represented by it, but also with the various revolutionary and reactionary currents which wrongfully or spitefully assumed the name of socialism. All those struggles were fought out in the International, and I speak of the International of glorious records, which left its imprint to this day on all the present-day activity of the proletariat, not of its subsequent caricature. The greater bulk of the controversies with Marxism, a Marxism which the imagination of certain critics has reduced to a mere variety of political schooling, is due to the traditions of those revolutionaries who, especially in the Latin countries, recognised in Bakunin their leader and master. What is it that the anarchists of our day are repeating but the lamentations and mistakes of those past days?

Twenty years ago, the majority of the Italian public, with the exception of those scientists who masticated over and over, in their homes, the things which they had read in books, knew nothing of the two founders of scientific socialism but what had been preserved through recollections of the invectives of Mazzini and the malice of Bakunin.

And so critical communism, which has been admitted so tardily to the honor of discussion in the circles of official science, met in its own camp with the very worst of adversities, the enmity of its own friends.

All those difficulties have now either been overcome, or are at least for the greater part about to disappear.

Not the intrinsic virtue of ideas, which have never had any feet for walking, nor hands for grasping, but the sole fact that the programs of socialist parties, wherever such parties arose, assumed the same tendencies, induced the socialists of all countries, through the imperious suggestion of conditions, to place themselves at the visual angle of the Communist Manifesto. Don't you think that I wrote my essay in memory of this manifesto at an opportune time? The exploiting classes create for the exploited classes almost everywhere the same conditions. For this reason, the active representatives of these exploited travel everywhere the same road of agitation and follow the same points of view in their propaganda and organization. Many call this practical Marxism. Be it so! What good is there in quarreling about words? Even though Marxism reduces itself for many to mere words, or to the worship of Marx's picture, his plaster of Paris bust, or his features on a button (the Italian police frequently exhibit their deep feeling for such innocent symbols), the fact remains that this symbolical unanimity is a proof of the incipient unification in reality, and of the growing unity of thought and action in all proletarian movements of the world. In other words, the international solidarity is shaping itself at long range through material conditions. Those who use the language of the decadent writers of the bourgeoisie, mistaking the symbol for the thing, are now saying that this is a personal triumph of Marx. It is as though one had said that Christianity was a personal triumph of Jesus of Nazareth (or why not say outright his success?), of Jesus who divested himself of his quality of the son of a god that assumed human shape, and who, in the soft and weak language of your Renan, became a man of such childlike divinity as to seem a god.

In view of this intuitive shaping of socialist politics, which is tantamount to proletarian politics, the divergences of the old schools have fallen to the ground. Some of these were in fact nothing but distinctions of the letter and vain hairsplitting, which had to give way to such useful distinctions as arise spontaneously through the different ways of handling practical problems. In the concrete reality, in the positive and prosaic development of socialism, it matters little whether all its heads, leaders, orators, and representatives conform to one theory, or do not conform to it, whether or not they profess it publicly. Socialism is not a church, not a sect, that must have its fixed dogma or formula. 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, for the inventors of personal social systems, the makers of private revolutions.[9] The practical indication of that which is practicable is given by the condition of the proletariat, and this is appreciable and measurable precisely because Marxism (I mean the thing, not the symbol) supplies us with a progressive standard by its theory. The two things, the measurable and the measure, are one from the point of view of the historical process, especially when they are seen at a convenient distance.

And you can actually see that to the extent that the outlines of the practical policy of socialism become distinct, all the old poetical and fantastic ideas are dispersed and leave but traces in phraseology behind them. At the same time the critical study of the science of economies has been growing in every respect in the field of academic research. The exile Marx has made himself at home, after his death, in the circles of official science, at least as an adversary who will stand no fooling. And just as the socialists have come by so many different roads to the understanding that a revolution cannot be made, but makes itself through a process of growth, so that public has been gradually developing for whom historical materialism is a true and distinct intellectual necessity. You have seen that many have stuck their noses into this theory during recent years, even though it was done badly or with evil intent. Now, if you take a good look, you will note that we have not gone backward. Since my young days I have often heard it related how Hegel had said that only one of his pupils understood him. This anecdote cannot be verified, because this one disciple has never been identified. But the same thing may repeat itself infinitely, from system to system, from school to school, for, as a matter of fact, intellectual activity is not due purely to personal suggestion, and thought is not communicated mechanically from brain to brain as such. Nor are great systems diffused unless similar social conditions dispose and incline many minds towards them at the same time. 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.

Here I pause, mainly to avoid repeating myself, and to save you from a repetition of the things which I have written in my two essays. You certainly do not feel the need of such a repetition, and most assuredly I do not.


1. For the better understanding of my letters I append the preface (III) that Sorel has written for the French edition of my two essays (Paris 1897, Giard et Briere).[RETURN TO TEXT]

2. Quite recently Franz Mehring has undertaken to publish a collection of all the less known writings of Marx and Engels from 1840 to 1850, and among them appeared also "The Holy Family." "The Poverty of Philosophy" is now published in English by the Twentieth Century Press of London.[RETURN TO TEXT]

3. I refer to the "Geschichte der ersten sozialpolitischen Arbeiterbewegung in Deutschland," and "Die GrundlaKen der Karl Marxischen Kritik," which were pillaged also in Italy by cheap critics.[RETURN TO TEXT]

4. While I am arranging these letters for publication, at the end of September 1901 there comes to my desk "The Eastern Question, by Karl Marx, London, Sonnenschein edition, pages XVI and 656, in great octavo, with copious index and two geographical maps. It is a carefully edited reproduction, by Ealeanor Marx and Edward Aveling, of the articles which Karl Marx wrote from 1853 to 1856 on the Eastern question, mainly in the New York Tribune. It is a miracle of literary workmanship. I note in passing that when Marx wrote political articles he did not lose himself in a cloud of doctrinairism and exposition of principles, but aimed to make himself clear and understood.[RETURN TO TEXT]

5. I have in mind especially the polemic writings of Böhm-Bawerk and Kormorzynski. To my surprise, the work of the first-named, entitled "Karl Max and the Close of his System," has been treated very indulgently by Conrad Schmidt in the supplement of "Vorwärts," April 16, 1897, No. 85.[RETURN TO TEXT]

6. I invite those X's to a joint concourse.[RETURN TO TEXT]

7. "Marx starts out from the principle.... that the value of commodities is exclusively determined by the quantity of labor contained in them. Now, if there is nothing to the value of commodities but labor, if a commodity is nothing else but crystalized labor, then it is evident that it should wholly belong to the laborer and that no part of it should be appropriated by the capitalist. Hence, if the laborer gets only a part of the value of his product, this can be only the result of usurpation." Thus wrote Loria on page 462 of the "Nuova Antologia," February, 1895, in the noted article, "The Posthumous Work of Karl Marx." I quote these words, which are not the only ones of this sort written by Loria, merely as an illustration of the way in which free versions of Marx may be given in the style of Proudhon. And on such free versions were based those mental vagaries from 1870 to 1880 which I mention later on.[RETURN TO TEXT]

8. The Russion Annencoff was a personal witness of this debate and referred to it later, among many other reminiscences of Marx, in the "Vyestnik Yevropy," 1880. (Reproduced in the "Neue Zeit," May, 1883.)[RETURN TO TEXT]

9. What I wrote in May 1897 was certainly not disproved by the events in Italy in May 1898. Those events were not the work of any one party, but a veritable case of spontaneous anarchy.[RETURN TO TEXT]


Transcribed for the Marx / Engels Internet Archive in 1997 by Rob Ryan.