Antonio Labriola

Socialism and Philosophy



Rome, June 16, 1897.

I have had a nice experience. Before I got to the end of these letters, I had to discuss the very same subject, which is the topic of my conversation with you, in another place, in a different form, and not quite so pleasantly.

In one of the recent issues of the Critica Sociale, there appeared a sort of a message, sent forth by Mr. Antonino De Bella, a sociologist of Calabria, against those exclusive socialists, who, according to him, take the word of Marx for everything in every question. De Bella forgot to tell us, whether the Marx, to whom those whom he is raking over the coals appeal, is the genuine specimen, or another made to order, as it were, invented on purpose, a blond Marx, or some other. He considered me worthy of a place among those obstinate ones, to whom he addresses his admonition and advice, in order that they may perfect themselves by means of a wider culture in sociology and natural history. But he mentions only my name, without telling us to what particular book, saying, or action of mine he is referring. Then he adds a little of the usual rigmarole of sociology with a smattering of Darwinism and the inevitable long list of names of authors.

I thought it opportune to reply. In the first place, I wanted to tell him curtly that scientific socialism was not in such bad condition as to need his advice. Then I wanted to show that his suggestions referred either to things that were understood, or to things that were contrary to Marxism. And above all, since I was just engaged in a conversation with you on the subject of socialism and philosophy, I thought it opportune to use a living illustration in bringing home some of the critical observations, which I am exchanging with you in this somewhat bizarre manner.

I enclose my reply, just as it appeared in yesterday's Critica Sociale. It is also a letter. And although it is not addressed to you, still you may file it along with the others, as though it were their continuation. It completes and sums up the others, with a few slight and excusable repetitions.

This special letter, which I sent to the editor of the Critica Sociale, is not particularly sweet. I did not write it exactly with the intention of doing Mr. De Bella a favor. It is ill-humored in some places. Perhaps this bitterness in my critique is due to the fact that, being deeply intent on the study of this grave problem of the relations of historical materialism to the other scientific thought of my time, I felt that the advice of Mr. De Bella was rather inopportune, at least so far as I was concerned, if for no other reason than that I had not asked it. Of course, it was not my intention that he should see what I was writing to you.

Rome, June 5, 1897.

Dear Turati!

I am not quite certain whether De Bella really means me, when he mentions my name. I am rather inclined to think that he is addressing his tirade to a strawman of his own making, on whose back he has pasted my name because it was handy. However that may be, as soon as he mixes my name up in his meditations, I cannot refrain from adding a postscript to your reply.

It is well known that I explicitly and publicly allied myself with socialist thought ten years ago. [1] Ten years are not a very long time of my physical existence, since I count four more than half a hundred. But they are certainly a short span of my intellectual life. Before I became a socialist, I had had the inclination, leisure, time, opportunity, and obligation to square my accounts with Darwinism, Positivism, Neokantianism, and so many other scientific questions that developed around me and gave me occasion to develop among my contemporaries. For I hold the chair of philosophy at my university since 1871, and before that I had studied the things which are needed for a philosopher. When I turned to Socialism, I did not look to Marx for an ABC of knowledge. I did not look in Marxism for anything but what it actually contains, namely its determined critique of political economy, its outlines of historical materialism, and its proletarian politics, which it proclaims or implies. Neither did I look in Marxism for a knowledge of that philosophy, which is its premise and which it, in a way, continues after having inverted the dialectics of that philosophy. I mean Hegelianism, which flourished in Italy in my youth and in which I had been brought up, as it were. I don't say it with any intent to be spiteful, but my first composition in philosophy, dated May, 1862, is a Defense of Hegel's dialectics against the return to Kant initiated by Ed. Zeller! Therefore I did not have to familiarise myself first with the dialectic mode of thought, or the evolutionary or genetic method, whatever you wish to call it, before I could understand scientific socialism, for I had lived in this circle of ideas ever since I had begun to think consciously. I add, however, that while Marxism did not offer any difficulties to me so far as the intrinsic and formal outlines of its conception and method were concerned, I acquired its economic content only by dint of hard work. And while I acquired this knowledge in the best way that I could, I was neither compelled nor permitted to confound the line of development germane to historical materialism, in other words, to confound the meaning of evolution in this concrete case with that almost diseased condition of some people's brains, especially in Italy, which leads them to speak of a Madona Evolution and to worship her.

What is it that De Bella wants of me? That I should go back to school like a plucked freshman and start my course over again? Or does he want me to be rebaptised by Darwin, reconfirmed by Spencer, thereupon to recite my general confession before my comrades, and prepare to receive the extreme unction from him? For the sake of peace I should be willing to dismiss all the other things. But I strongly protest against an appeal to the consciences of my comrades. I admit that there is some reason for strictness and often tyranny on the part of my comrades in matters of party politics, to a certain extent and under certain conditions. But that my comrades should have authority to speak with arbitrary decision in matters of science, simply because they are comrades.... Go away, science will never be put to a test vote, even in the so-called society of the future!

Or does he want something less presumptuous than that? Am I to affirm and swear that Marxism is not the universal science, and that the things which it studies are not the universe. All right, I grant that at once. And I defy the idea that I cannot grant that. I have but to remember the plan of study at the university and the numerous courses it includes. I grant even more than that. Here it is: "This doctrine itself is only in its beginning and still has need of many developments." (Historical Materialism, I, page 97.) [2]

In fact, the thing that torments De Bella and others like him is precisely the chase after that universal philosophy, into which socialism might be fitted as the central point of everything Go ahead! The paper is patient, say the German editors to budding writers. But I cannot refrain from making two remarks. The first is, that no wise man will ever succeed in giving us an idea of this universal philosophy in two columns of Critica Sociale. The second is a personal one. For twenty years I have detested systematic philosophy. This attitude of my mind made me not only more apt to accept Marxism, which is one of the ways in which the scientific mind has freed itself from philosophy as such, but has also made of me an inveterate opponent of the philosopher Spencer, who gave us still another diagram of the universe in his First Principles. And now I must quote from my own writings: "I did not come to this university, twenty-three years ago, as the representative of any orthodox philosophy, nor for the purpose of hatching out any new system. By a fortunate accident of my life I gained my education under the direct and straight influence of two great systems, which marked the close of that philosophy, which we now may call classic. I mean the systems of Herbart and Hegel, which brought to its extreme culmination the antithesis between realism and idealism, between pluralism and monism, between scientific psychology and phrenology of the mind, between a specialisation of methods and an anticipation of every method by omniscient dialectics. The philosophy of Hegel had already blossomed out into the historical materialism of Karl Marx, and that of Herbart into empirical psychology, which, under certain conditions and within certain limits, is also experimental, comparative, historical, and social. Those were the years, in which the intensive and extensive application of the principle of energy, of the atomic theory, of Darwinism, and the rediscovery of the precise forms and conditions of general philosophy, revolutionized before our eyes our entire conception of nature. And in those times, the comparative study of institutions, aided by the comparative study of languages and mythology, then of prehistory, and finally of industrial history, overthrew most of the actual positions and hypotheses, upon which and by which people had hitherto philosophized concerning law, morality, and society. The ferments of thought, those ferments which are implied by new or renewed sciences, did not approach as yet, nor do they approach now, a new development of systematic philosophy, which should contain and dominate the entire field of experience. I pass by such philosophies for private use, and of private invention, as those of Nietzsche and von Hartmann, and save myself all criticism of those pretended returns to the philosophers of other times, [3] which produce a philology instead of a philosophy, as happened to the Neokantians."

"I pause here in order to call attention to the almost incredible mistake, by means of which many, especially in Italy, confound without further ceremony Positivism, as a certain philosophy, with the Positive acquisitions made by incessant experience in nature and society. To such people it happens, for instance, that they cannot distinguish the indisputable merit of Spencer, namely that of having contributed to the formulation of a general philosophy, from his incapacity to explain a single historical fact by means of his wholly diagrammatic sociology. They are unable to separate that which belongs to the scientist Spencer from that which belongs to the philosopher Spencer. The latter is also a back number, for he is sparring with such categories as the Homogeneous, the Heterogenous, the Indistinct, the Differentiated, the Known, and the Unknown. In other words, he is alternately a Kantian without knowing it and a caricature of Hegel."

"The lecture plan of the university should distinctly reflect the actual state of philosophy, which demands at present the insistence of thought on really known things. In other words, it demands just the reverse of any preconceived theories concerning cognition by means of theological or metaphysical cogitation." (L'Universita e la Liberta della scienza, Rome 1897, pages 15, 16, and 17.) [4]

Ultimately, then, this so-called philosophy championed by De Bella is at bottom nothing but another edition of that trinity Darwin-Spencer-Marx, which Enrico Ferri set in circulation about three years ago with such suggestive eloquence, but with so little good luck. [5] Well now, dear Turati, I honestly wish to assume the role of devil's advocate and admit that there is a germ of truth, a demand for the satisfaction of a real need, in these vague aspirations to a philosophy of socialism, and in the many silly things said in this respect (and some have almost gotten to the point of believing that it should be a sort of philosophy for the private use of the socialists alone). Many of these who embrace socialism, and not merely as simple agitators, lecturers, and candidates, feel that it is impossible to accept it as a scientific conviction, unless it can be combined in some way with the rest of that genetic conception of things, which lies more or less at the bottom of all other sciences. This accounts for the mania of many to bring within the scope of socialism all the rest of science, which is at their disposal. This leads to many mistakes and ingenuities, all of which are explicable. But it also carries with it a danger. For many of these intellectuals may forget that socialism has its real basis in the present conditions of capitalist society and in the possible aims and actions of the proletariat and other poor people. Marx may become a mythical personage through the work of the intellectuals. And while they discuss the whole scale of evolution up and down, and down and up, the comrades may put the following philosophical thesis to a vote in one of their next conventions: The first fundament of socialism is found in the vibrations of the ether. [6]

In this way I explain to myself the ingenuity of De Bella. If Marx were still alive! Don't you see? He was born on May 5, 1818, and died on March 14, 1883, and therefore he might still be alive, as human life is measured. And if alive, I should continue, he could have completed volume III of Capital, which is so disconnected and so obscure. No sirree! says De Bella, he would have become a materialist! But gracious me! That is what he was since 1845, and he fell out with the radical ideologists of his acquaintance on account of it. And he would not only have become a materialist, according to De Bella, but also a positivist! Positivism! In vulgar chronology, this term signifies the philosophy of Comte and his followers. Now, it had given up its ghost ideally even before Marx died physically. What a fine sight! Materialism – Positivism– Dialectics, a holy trinity! And still another fine sight! The scientific papacy of Comte reconciled with the infinite process of historical materialism, which solves the problem of cognition differently from all other philosophies and declares: There are no fixed limits, whether a priori or a posteriori, to cognition, because human beings learn all that they must know by an infinite process of labor, which is experience, and of experience, which is labor. [7]

Comte, on the contrary, proclaimed that the cycle of physics and astronomy was for ever closed, just at the moment when the mechanical equivalent of heat was found, and a few years before the brilliant discovery of spectral analysis. And in 1845 he declared the research after the origin of species to be absurd!

But, continues De Bella, historical materialism must study prehistoric society. And this is precisely where the devil plays his joke. Ancient Society, by Lewis H. Morgan, which was published in America and reached Europe in a few copies through the firm of Macmillan, London, (1877), was almost killed by the pitiless silence of the English ethnographers, who were either envious or afraid. But the results of Morgan's investigations went around the world precisely because Engels rescued them by his book, The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, (first edition 1884, fourth edition 1891). This book is at the same time a review, an exposition, and a supplement of Morgan's. It is a combination of Morgan and Marx. And what does Engels say of Morgan? That he had, "in a manner, discovered anew the materialistic conception of history, originated by Marx..." and, "in comparing barbarism and civilisation, he had arrived, in the main, at the same results as Marx." And why did Engels write his book? Because he desired to utilize the notes and comments left by Marx.

There! Ordinary chronology is of great importance, even for socialists.

And now let us turn to the inevitable Spencer. Is there any one outside of Italy who ever considered him a socialist? Is Spencer, perhaps, a philosopher of the other world? You can read him, and about him, in every language, not excluding that of modernized Japan. He does not sin through lack of clearness. From my point of view, who loves succinct brevity, he rather suffers from prolixity and overdone popularization. The first of his known writings bears the date of 1843. That was the time when Chartism was at its height. This work is entitled, The Proper Sphere of Government. Spencer was in the eyes of the whole world as an admired contributor to the Westminster Review, the Economist, and the Endinburgh Review. And take note once more of the dates of his contributions, especially from 1848 to 1859. Has any one ever deceived himself in England as to the meaning and value of his social and political work. His Social Statics appeared in 1551, his Psychology (first edition ) in 1855, his Education in 1861, the first edition of First Principles in 1862, his Classification of Sciences in 1864, his Biology from 1564 to 1867, not to mention his smaller essays, among the most notable of them his Hypothesis of Development (1852), his Genesis of Science (1854), and his Progress and Its Law (1857). Here I will close this enumeration, stopping at the works which appeared before the first volume of Capital was out (July 25, 1867). Surely it did not recquire the genius of a Marx in order to discover what I realized as a simple student of philosophy, namely, that those writings of Spencer, and the doctrine of evolution enunciated in them, are diagrammatical, not empirical, that Spencer's evolution is one of phenomena, not one of real things, that behind it stands the spectre of Kant's thing in itself, which he worshipped from the beginning in all his essays as God or Divinity (Statics, edition of 1851), and which he later circumscribed with the revered name of the Unknowable.

If Marx had ever reviewed the works of Spencer between 1860 and 1870, I will bet that he would have done it in the following style: "Here we have the last advance of the shadow cast by the English Deism of the 17th century; here we have the latest attempt of English hypocrisy to combat the philosophy of Hobbes and Spinoza; here we have the last projection of Transcendentalism into the field of positive science; here we have the latest mixture of the egoistic cretinism of Bentham with the altruistic cretinism of the Rabbi of Nazareth; here we have the last attempt of the bourgeois intellect to save, by means of free research and free competition in this world, an enigmatical shred of faith in the next world. Only the triumph of the proletariat can secure for the scientific mind the full and perfect conditions of its existence, because the intellect cannot be clear until the conditions in which it works are made transparent." This Marx would have written, or could have written. But he was busy attending to the International, and Spencer had no time to take notice of this association.

On March 17, 1883, Engels spoke in Highgate Cemetery in memory of his friend Marx, who had died three days before, and he began his address with these words: "Just as Darwin discovered the laws of development in organic nature, so Marx discovered the laws of development of human history." [8] Should not De Bella feel mortified on reading this?

Nor is this all. In his Anti-Dühring (first edition 1878, third edition 1894), the same Engels had already acquired all the fundamental ideas of Darwinism, which are required for the general orientation of a scientific socialist. It had taken him about ten years to acquire this new education in natural science, and he declared frankly that he was more at home in it than Marx, while Marx was better versed in mathematics. Nor is even this all. The first edition of Capital contains a characteristic and very original note concerning the new world discovered by Darwin. Understand well that these two modest mortals, who never made any supernatural portions of the universe, were always referring to no other Darwinism but that prosaic one of the Origin of Species (1859), which consists of a series of observations and experiences on the limited field of reality, a reality which extends beyond the origins of life and precedes human history by a considerable length. They could not help perceiving that the Darwinian theories presented an analogous case to their epigenetic conception of history, which they had partly defined, partly just begun studying. [9] They never heard anything of that Darwinism, which De Bella calls the discoverer of the laws of entire humanity, of that Darwinism, which is supposed to be good for everything, which is a gratuitous invention of scientific publicists and philosophical decadents. Did not their friend Heine tell them that the universe is full of holes, and that the German professor of Hegel's school covers these holes with his nightcap?

But let us leave aside the universe and its holes, dear Turati, and let us all do our duty. I always remember that strong invective, which the Hegelian B. Spaventa hurled about 30 years ago: "In our country they study the history of philosophy in the geography of Ariosto, and they quote as equals Plato and the Abbé Fornari, Torquato Tasso and Totonno Tasso." [10]


Rome, June 20, 1897.

I must write a sort of postscript, which shall supplement my letter preceding the last one, so full of difficult questions.

Very naturally, I class among the products of our emotions, by which the scientific mind is obscured, also those complex sensations, which we ordinarily call optimism and pessimism respectively, and which represent certain inclinations, tendencies, evaluations and prejudices.

No one can find in those modes of expression, which oscillate between poetry and passion and always strike that uncertain note which cannot be reduced to precise terms, either a tendency to, or a promise of, a rational interpretation of things. Taken in their entirety, these emotions are combinations and expressions of infinite individual feelings, which may have their seat, as is plainly the case with pessimism, either in the specific temperament of some individual personality (such as Leopardi), or in the common conditions of large multitudes (for instance, the origin of Buddhism). In short, optimism and pessimism are essentially generalisations of emotions resulting from some particular experience or social condition, which are projected so far outside of our immediate environment as to make of them, as it were, the axis, the fulcrum, or the finality of the universe. By this means the categories of good and bad, which have really but a modest relation to our practical needs, finally become standards by which the whole world is judged, reducing it to such small dimensions as to make of it a simple basis and condition of our happiness or unhappiness. From either point of view, the world seems to have no other meaning than that of good or bad, and the final outcome seems to depend on the prevalence or triumph of one over the other.

At the bottom if this mode of looking at things is always the primitive poetry which is never separated from myth. And such modes of conception form always the practical pith and suggestive power of religious systems, from the crude optimism of Mohammedanism to the refined pessimism of Buddhism. And that is very natural. Religion is a need precisely for the reason, and only for the reason, that it represents the transfiguration of so many fears, hopes, pains, bitter experiences of daily life into pre-ordained faiths and judgments. In this way the struggles of this world, so-called, are transformed into transcendental antagonisms of the universe, such as God and Devil, sin and redemption, creation and re-birth, the scale of atonements and Nirvana. This optimism, and this pessimism, which assume the shape of thought and surround themselves with a certain philosophy, are nothing but more or less conscious survivals of religion in another form, or of that anti-religion, which in a transport of passionate unbelief resembles faith. The optimism of Leibniz, for instance, is certainly not a philosophical function of his study of the differential calculus, nor of his critique of action at a distance, nor of his metaphysical theory of monads, nor of his discovery of internal determinism. His optimism is his religion. It is that religion which appears to him as the perpetual and lasting one. It is for him that Christianity which reconciles all Christian creeds, a providence justified by the view that this world is the best which can ever be and continue. This theological poetry has its humoristic, and therefore dialectic, counterpart in Voltaire's Candide. Similarly the pessimism of Schopenhauer is not a necessary result of his critique of the Kantian critique, nor a direct function of his exquisite researches in logic. It is rather the expression of his petty bourgeois soul, unhappy, disgruntled, peevish, seeking satisfaction in the metaphysical contemplation of the blind forces of the unknowable (or the blind effort to exist). In other words, he seeks satisfaction in a form of religion to which little attention is paid, the religion of atheism. [11]

If we rise from the secondary and derived configurations and complications of religion or theological philosophy, to which optimism and pessimism belong, to the origin of these mental creations themselves, we find ourselves in the presence of a fact which is as obvious as it is simple. It is that every human being, on account of his or her physical condition and social environment, is led to make a sort of hedonistic calculation, in other words, to measure his or her needs and the means of satisfying them. The result is a more or less colored appreciation of the conditions of existence, and of life itself in its interrelations. Now, when intelligence has progressed so far as to overcome the incantations of imagination and ignorance, which link the prosaic poverty of ordinary life with fantastic transcendental forces, then the creative suggestions of optimism and pessimism can no longer exert themselves. The mind turns to the prosaic study of the means by which to attain, not to that fabulous entity called happiness, but to the normal development of human faculties. Under favorable, natural and social conditions, these faculties find in life itself the reasons for its existence and an explanation for its causes. This is the beginning of that wisdom, which alone entitles man to the name of homo sapiens.

Historical materialism, being a philosophy of life, instead of its mere intellectual phenomena, overcomes the antithesis between optimism and pessimism, because it passes beyond their limits and understands them.

History is indeed an interminable succession of painful struggles. Labor, which is the distinguishing mark of human life, has been the means of oppressing the vast majority. Labor, which is the prerequisite of all progress, has pressed the sufferings, the privations, the travail, and the ills of the multitude into the service of the comfort of the few. History is like an inferno. It might be presented as a somber drama, entitled The Tragedy of Labor.

But this same somber history has produced out of this very condition of things, almost without the conscious knowledge of men, and certainly not through the providence of any one, the means required for the relative perfection, first of very few, then of a few, and then of more than a few. And now it seems to be at work for all. The great tragedy was unavoidable. It was not due to any one's fault or sin, not to any one's aberration or degeneration, not to any one's capricious and sinful straying from the straight path. It was due to an immanent necessity of the mechanism of social life, and to its rhythmic process. This mechanism operates on the means of subsistence, which are the product of hunan labor and co-operation under more or less favorable natural conditions. Nowadays, when the prospect opens up before our eyes of organizing society in such a way as to give to every one the means of self-perfection, we see clearly the reasonableness of this view, because the growing productivity of labor supplies all the requirements for a higher culture of all. It is this fact on which scientific socialism bases its right to existence, instead of trusting in the triumph of a universal goodness, which the utopian and sentimental socialists have discovered in the hearts of all and proclaimed as eternal justice. Scientific socialism trusts in the development of the material means which shall promote conditions, under which all human beings shall have leisure to develop in freedom. In other words, the causes of injustice (to use this term of ideologists) will be removed, such as class rule, bossism, the oppression of man by man. The injustices resulting from these causes are precisely the indispensable conditions for that miserable material fact, the economic exploitation of the working class.

Only in a communistic society will labor be no longer exploited, but rather rationally measured. Only in a communistic society will a hedonistic calculation become practicable, unimpaired by the private exploitation of social forces. Once that the obstacles to the free development of all are removed, those obstacles which now divide classes and individuals until they are separated past all recognition, every one will find at hand the means by which the faculties and needs of each can be measured by the requirements of society. To adapt ourselves to the practicable, and do it without any external compulsion, this is the standard of liberty, which is the same as wisdom. For there can be no true morality, unless there is a consciousness of determinism. In a communistic society the apparent antagonism between optimism and pessimism falls to the ground. For in that society there is no longer any contradiction between the necessity to work in the service of the collectivity and the self-development of the personality. That necessity and this personal freedom will be understood as one. The ethics of that society will abolish the contradiction between rights and duties, for this contradiction is essentially the theoretical elaboration of the present antagonistic social conditions, in which some have the right to command and others have the duty to obey. In a society, in which goodness does not mean charity, it will not seem utopian to demand that each give according to his faculties and each take according to his needs. In such a society, preventive education will largely eliminate the sources of crime, and the practical education of co-operative life and labor will reduce the necessity of repression to a minimum. In short, punishment will appear as a simple safeguard of a certain order and will lose all character of a supernatural justice, which must be vindicated or established. In such a society, there will no longer be any need to look for any transcendental explanation of the practical fate of man.

This critique of the motive causes of history, of the reasons for the existence of present society, and of a rationally measurable and measured outlook upon the society of the future, shows why optimism, pessimism, and so many other fabrics of imagination had to serve, and must continue to serve, as expressions of emotions that stir minds under the influence of the struggles of social life. If this is what the transcendental thinkers, to whom you allude, mean, and if they intend to be the posthumous collectors of the sighs and tears of humanity in the course of the centuries, so be it. Poetical license is not forbidden, even to socialists. However, they will not succeed in putting the myth of eternal justice on its legs and sending it to fight against the reign of darkness. That grand and beneficent lady will never move a single stone of the capitalist structure. That which the metaphysical thinkers among the socialists call the evil, against which the good is straggling, is not an abstract negation, but a hard and strong system of practical facts. It is poverty organized to produce wealth. Now, the historical materialists have so little tenderness of heart as to claim that this evil is actually the cradle of the future good. Freedom will come through the revolution of the oppressed, not through the goodness of the oppressors.

An easy relapse into metaphysics of the offensive kind is often the fate of even those studies which, according to their writers, represent the quintessence of positive and scientific procedure. This is the case, for instance, with many of the expounders of the much discussed and disputable criminal anthropology.

In its aims and tendencies, this science represents a notable factor in that salutary critique of criminal law, which gradually succeeded in overturning the foundations of the philosophical, and especially ethical, ideas concerning so simple a fact as the experience that there must be punishment so long as there is a society. In its method, however, it passes rarely beyond the field of statistical compilation, or beyond that mass of probabilities which constitute the various shades of study embraced by the general term anthropology. Hardly ever does it reach the degree of precision, which has enabled such analogous studies as psychic research, thanks to the marvelous progress in the anatomy of the central nerve system and in all departments of medicine, to contribute in a few years more to the development of psychology than was contributed by twenty centuries of controversy over the text of Aristotle, or the hypothesis of spiritualism, or that of purely rational materialism.

But this is not what I want to emphasize.

This doctrine carries with it a tendency to consider the recurrence of crime as a result of an innate predisposition of individuals who show certain characteristic marks. However, these marks are not in all cases objectively studied or well fixed. Still, there is nothing wrong about this.

The theory which lies at the bottom of the criminal law of those countries to which the effects of the bourgeois revolution have extended shares the merits and defects of that equalitarian principle of all so-called liberalism which can be only formal and abstract, considering the natural and social inequalities of men. Of course, this theory was an advance over the corporeal justice, and over the privileges of the clergy and aristocracy. And for this reason, a historical victory is proclaimed in the words: The law is equal for all. However, this theory reduces the function of punishment to a mere defense of the present system by means of established laws. It is content to punish only violations of this order, without penetrating to the problem of consciousness. It has been shorn of all religious character and no longer deals with the mind or soul. It is no longer the instrument of a church, of a creed, of a superstition. This criminal law is prosaic, just as prosaic as all of capitalist society. And this is another triumph of free thought, leaving out of consideration a few slight inconsistencies. In short, it is the act which is punished, not the man. It is the disturber of this order who is punished by the law that defends it. The punishment is not aimed at a man's conscience, be it irreligious, heretical, atheistic, or what not. In order to accomplish this result, this theory had to construct a typical equality of responsibility for all human beings, on the basis of a free will, excluding only extreme cases of lack of mental control and liberty of action. [12] It is by this very means that vaunted and celebrated justice, through the irony of fate, transforms the principle of equality before the law into the grossest injustice. For human beings are in reality socially and naturally unequal before the law.

This dialectic has of late been discussed by sociologists, socialists, and critics of all sorts. They have built up a longs line of argument against the existing law ranging from the mystical colored paradox that society punishes the crimes which it breeds to the humanitarian demand that equal education should vindicate the principle of equality before the law by creating the actual conditions for its practicability. The salient point of all this criticism is brought out by the consistent socialists, who realize that class struggles are an essential part of present society, and who do not expect to get equal justice for all either by the right to punish or by any other existing law. For to act otherwise would be like looking for an improbable society, in which divisions would be the causes of concord and union. This law of a mediocre justice, which is in constant conflict with itself, is the product of a society, in which the demand for equality is ever at war with itself. The lie becomes very plain in that fine discovery of the apologists of capitalism that after all the wage workers are free citizens, who accept servitude voluntarily by making contracts on equal terms with their equals, the capitalists. Still, we socialists don't wish to abandon this self-contradictory principle merely to throw ourselves into the arms of reactionaries, who are combatting it for other reasons and would abolish it in some other way. We rather look upon it as one of the negative factors inherent in bourgeois society, as one of the historical means by which it is undermining itself.

Criminal anthropology came in good time to support with its special studies the critical claim that the law is not equal for all. To this extent it is a progressive science. To the social differences, which render the demand for an equal responsibility of all absurd, in proportion as the typical form of free will in sane minds varies, this science has added the study of presocial differences, which are the limits drawn around our will by our animal nature and which oppose an invincible resistance to all attempts to adapt ourselves to the demands of education. This is not the place to investigate, whether this science has exaggerated the extent of this animal nature, whether it has imperfectly interpreted the cases it wanted to study, and whether it has fantastically generalized the results of partial and not very accurate observations. The main point is that some of its methods throw it unconsciously back into the metaphysics it detests. In its legitimate efforts to combat the conception of justice and responsibility as entities, it makes the mistake of attributing too much to such natural facts as the disposition to commit crime, and denotes and defines them in such a way as to detract from those categories of social protection, which arise out of conditions of existence to which men have become accustomed after their birth. To be more explicit, excessive and unbridled license should be attributed to animal nature, but certainly not adultery, which is very clearly a social product. Rapacity should be classed as animal nature, but not theft in its economic aspects, including the forging of checks. A bloodthirsty temperament belongs in the animal category, but not the murder of kings, etc. It must not be said that these are merely verbal distinctions. They touch the bottom of things. They concern the clear grasp of methodical limits. They show how important it is to remember that metaphysics is an atavistic evil, from which even those do not escape who are continually shouting: Down with metaphysics! The same has for a long time taken place in other sciences, for instance in general psychology, or in the special study of diseased minds. Many have attempted to localize psychic phenomena in the brain, instead of adhering to the most elementary facts, which, it is true, were but recently ascertained. They tried to locate the faculty of the soul, for instance the renowned physiologist Ludwig. In other words, they tried to determine the local seat of rationalist concepts, of things which did not exist in reality. Criminal anthropology still has to separate its categories and determine them critically. It must overcome the mistake of regarding as innate and natural facts the simple categories, which criminal law fixed and defined for practical reasons in order to apply them to the experience of mere social conditions.


Rome, July 2, 1897.

You refer to those critics of different character and nature, who maintain, for many different reasons, that Christianity recoils from a materialistic interpretation of history, and who think that they have thereby raised an insurmountable objection.

Must I enter into these woods, which, though perhaps not impenetrable and wild, are certainly very dark for me? You know how repugnant all hard and fast systems are to me. I am not of the opinion – and it would be fatuous to think otherwise – that any theory of history will ever be so good and excellent in itself that it will be a key to the understandings of every particular phase of history, without first devoting ourselves to special research in such cases. Now, I have not made a special study of the history of the Christian church so far, and therefore I am not able to handle the subject with ease. The ordinary sort of objectors mouth about this subject on the strength of general impressions. In my young days, I read Strauss and the principal writings of the Tübingen school, just as all those did who studied German classic philosophy. And I might exclaim with many others, by slightly varying Faust's cry: "I, too, have unfortunately studied theology."

But later on I did not occupy myself any more with these matters. Still, I have adhered to the conviction that the Tübingen school was the first to begin definitely and earnestly that study of Christianity which alone has a claim to the term historical, and that latter-day progress in this line, so far as any has been accomplished or is in process of accomplishment, consists mainly in corrections and supplements of the results of that school. The principal correction should be in my opinion the following: The scientists of Tübingen devoted themselves primarily, although not exclusively, to a study of the origin and development of creeds and dogmas, while later it became necessary, and is still necessary, to study the formation and development of Christian associations. To the extent that we approach this method of considering the question, which I shall call the sociological method for brevity's sake, we shall get nearer to an objective research. For an understanding of the how and why of the origin and development of the associations will give us the means to understand, for what reasons, and in what way, the souls, the imaginations, the intellects, the desires, the fears, the hopes, the aspirations of the members of these associations had to seek expression through certain creeds, adopt certain symbols, and arrive at the formulation of certain dogmas; in other words, how it happened that these associates had to piece together a whole world of doctrines and imaginary concepts. Once that this step has been made, we are on the road which leads directly to historical materialism. For we have then arrived at the general statement that ideas should be regarded as products, not as the causes, of certain social structures.

If I am mistaken – for, as I said, I understand comparatively little of these arguments – the recent studies of ancient Christianity have followed mainly this realistic line. And it seems to me that writers like Harnack are in the front ranks of this study. Incidentally I refer to the very remarkable work of the Englishman Hatch, which I have read. He demonstrates with the greatest lucidity and by means of documentary evidence that the Christian association, beginning at a certain point after its first origins, developed and consolidated by means of adaptation to the various forms of corporative law which flourished in the different regions of the Roman empire. In other words, the movement adapted itself to the conditions peculiar to Roman law, or to local and national customs, especially to Grecian and Hellenist institutions. I hope our bishops may not take it amiss. The Holy Ghost will have come in by elevating the bishops above the remaining mass of the faithful, to the extent that the original democratic organization was transformed into a hierarchy by the differentiation into clergy and lay members (or common people). The name certainly indicates that the Christian organization was modeled after those bodies of boatmen, fish dealers, bakers, and others, who had their episcopi et reliqua (overseers and other folk).

At this point we must make another step forward. We must abandon the abstract concept of a uniform history of all Christianity and take up the particular history, in time and place, of Christian associations. These associations were first a part of that greater civilized, semi-civilized, or directly barbarian society, in which they developed during the first three centuries. Then it seems that they absorbed and molded all the complex relations of that semi-civilized or semi-barbarian society, as was the case, for instance, in the Latin West during the so-called Middle Ages. And finally, when the unity of Catholicism was broken by Protestantism, the liberty of conscience was recognized, especially after the Great Revolution. The Christian associations then became a settled part of the political and social life, playing a predominant role here, a minor role there, or remaining insignificant in another place, as the case might be. It is along this line that the problem of the relations between state and church must be handled, for this is a question of historical relations, not of theoretical formulae.

This method is being more and more applied to the study and explanation of those material conditions, by which the Christian associations were created, perpetuated, and carried to partial or local dissolution, just as other forms of common life were. All the causes and reasons of these different changes become easily evident by this means. And then it is understood that creeds, dogmas, symbols, legends, liturgies, and other things of a similar nature, are matters of secondary consideration, the same as every other superstructure of ideas.

To continue writing history on Christianity as an entity means to multiply the errors of those men of letters and sages who commit the methodical mistake of writing histories of literature or philosophy as though these were independent entities. In these handiworks of manufactured wisdom it seems as though the poets, orators, and philosophers of different epochs, isolated from the other life of their respective times, were grasping hands across the centuries to form a chain of celebrities; or as though they had not succeeded in getting the material and opportunity for poems and philosophical essays out of the conditions and the stage of evolution of their period and had therefore tried to go off to some corner by themselves. This is the studied mark of learned compilations. Of course, it is very convenient to have on hand some manual containing all the information on that which we call French literature, say from La Chanson de Roland to the novels of Zola. But the chronology of thousands of years does not run simply from one thing to another, nor does the gift of poetry vary simply from case to case. It is rather a question of transformations in the entire relations of life in all its great outlines. But literary expressions are but relative indices, specific sediments, particular cases, among this mass of social transmutations. It is very convenient, especially for the artificial cramming common in our universities, to reduce all that we mean historically by the term philosophy to a compendium. But who is there that is able to tell, after such instruction, how it happens that the individual philosophers came to hold so many different, and often contradictory, opinions? How is it possible to make one single line of independent progress out of the antique philosophy, which up to Plato constituted about all the science there was, then out of scholasticism made over by theology with an almost complete absence of science, then out of that philosophy of the 17th century which was a sort of mental exploration running parallel with the new contemporaneous science based on experiment and observation, and finally out of that new criticism which tends to make of philosophy a mere summary of the special knowledge of the individual sciences, which have become so widely differentiated?

In short, it is absurd to continue writing universal histories of Christianity, except it be done for academic convenience. I am not referring to those who think with the minds of believers. These think that the leading thread of such universal histories consists of the providential mission of the church through the ages. We have nothing to say, or to suggest, to people who think like that, and who look upon this ideal and eternal history as a sort of immanent or continuous revelation. They are standing outside of our field. I am referring to those critics, who write universal histories of Christianity as though it were one homogeneous whole, although they know and admit that this material in their hands is a part of the variable and more or less necessary successive conditions of human life. How is it that they do not see that their continuous and straight line of presentation rests on a very slender thread of tradition and reflects a diagrammatic and vague picture of things which can hardly be reconciled?

The origin, growth, diffusion, organisation, or even disappearance (in some parts of the world, as in Asia Minor and North Africa) of the Christian associations, the various attitudes assumed by them toward the remainder of practical life, the many links that connected them with other political and social bodies and powers: all these things, which make up a true and lifelike history, cannot be understood, unless we take our departure from the complex conditions of each individual country, in which the adherents of Christianity were few, or many, or in which all the inhabitants and citizens were Christians, either members of some modest sect, or of imperious Catholicism, persecuted or tolerated, or themselves intolerant and persecuting others. Only in this way do we set foot on solid ground and are enabled to estimate objectively the historical claims of things. And from this position to that of historical materialism we advance with no more effort than is required in any other branch of our knowledge of the past.

In brief, the history of real life is a history of The Church, or of the various churches, that is to say, a history of a society which has a certain economic basis, which means a definite arrangement of its economy, and a definite mode of acquiring, producing, distributing, and consuming goods (which rests on the control of land – Woe is me!). Others may continue to mean by Christianity exclusively a mere complex of creeds and of opinions concerning the destiny of mankind. But, to quote only one illustration, these creeds differ as much as does the free will of Catholicism after the council of Trent from the absolute predestination of Calvin. And it is time that those writers should become reconciled to the understanding that this complex of outlooks and tendencies arose and developed within the circle of definite associations, which differed continually in various respects, and which were always more or less surrounded by a vast and complicated historical environment, to use a favorite term of modern writers.

There is still another thing to consider. In that quarter of an hour of scientific prose, in which we are living at present, no thinking man will believe any more that the great mass of believers in those associations of Christians had any accurate understanding of the different dogmas, or of the subtle discussions of the learned and professors. We do not know anything very precise about the passions, interests, conditions of daily life, the natural and habitual state of mind, of the people of Antioch, Alexandria, Constantinople, and others, who gathered around the banners of Arius and Athanasius. We cannot describe these things as accurately as we can in the case of present-day Naples or London. But we shall never be credulous enough to believe that those crowds understood one word of the dispute waged over the question whether the substance of the Son was identical with that of the Father, or only similar to it. Nor shall we measure the real difference between the artisans of Geneva and those of Italy in the 16th century by the theoretical differences between Calvin and Bellarmino. In this respect the history of Christianity remains very obscure, because it has been handed down in an envelope of ideological concepts, which were the dogmatic and literary reflex of the underlying development of the movement. Under these circumstances we know relatively little of the practical life of the Christian movement, and this little dwindles to a minimum the more we approach the first centuries.

Furthermore, the mass of the associates always preserved in their hearts, and carried into their inmost beliefs and into their legends, many of the superstitions and most of the myths which had been theirs before they were converted, and they had to use these, and create others, in order to make the metaphysical and abstract doctrines of Christianity in some way plausible for themselves. This came to pass quite visibly in the second half of the second century, when Christian society had lost some of the democratic character of comrades waiting for the coming of a Kingdom of Heaven, comrades who were all filled with the holy spirit, and began to assume the form of organized catholicism, not only in the orthodox meaning of the term, but also in the sense of a semi-political hierarchy of a multitude no longer composed of saints, hut of simple human beings. Then grew that transfer of local, national, and ethnological superstitions, which accompanied the gradual transformation of Christianity into an official and territorial church, to the extent that the capable thinkers were zealously and scrupulously picked out and separated from the great mass of those, who had simply to believe and conform to ready-made rites and formalities. Gradually the Western empire disintegrated, while the barbarians of the German and Slavic tribes were forcibly converted, and in proportion grew the power of those creeds, which became the daily food of the masses, who were compelled to adopt symbols and ideas which were as far beyond their mental horizon as were those compounds of many different semi-philosophies. All these Christian populations lived, and continued to live, according to their manifold faiths. For this reason they effectually transformed the common elements of Christianity into ways and means for new and specious mythologies. In view of this independent barbarian life, the definitions of the learned and the decisions of the councils remained suspended in the air, became intangible conceptions for the multitude, and assumed the garb of utopian doctrines.

What, then, were the reasons and causes, the aims and means, which held the Christians together in those times, in which religion is supposed to have been the sole fulcrum and soul of all life? I will not discuss the insults and violent assaults, which form one of those thorny chapters, to which passionate adversaries of Christianity usually resort. I will leave aside this chapter, which unrolls before our eyes a history of the most odious tyranny, the most ferocious and inhuman persecutions, and the most refined hypocrisy. Tantum religio potuit suadere malorum! So many evils could religion bring forth! The point which I wish to emphasize especially is that the principal force of cohesion is found precisely in those despised material means, the use, management, and control of which promoted the growth of the association into a powerful economic organization, with its own offices, its own hierarchy, its own law, its own servants, slaves, dependents, colonists, ministers, protégés and beneficiaries. Ecclesiastic property represents many stages of variation, from the obolus of semi-communism to the legal corporation, and from this to the concentration of the serfs, to the constitution of the territorial complexes into latifundian estates, followed by feudalism with its tithes and trade in souls, up to the most modern attempts at industrial colonization (the Jesuits), and so forth. The poor were then, as they are largely now, held together by gifts of charity, assistance to the sick, destitute, orphans, widows, etc., by systematic management of the fields, the clearing of newly acquired lands and their cultivation. It is these means which made of the Christian association a vital thing, as they do of any other human collectivity. They permitted a handful of doctrinaires, especially in the Middle Ages, to press a vast economic association into the service of relatively higher, nobler, more altruistic and more progressive ends than fell within the scope of strictly feudal property in the hands of sovereign blackmailers, robbers, and pirates. The bourgeoisie, in its different stages, later made an end to this economy of the Christian people by more or less rapid and revolutionary steps. It incorporated this property in various ways in its private property and made it fluid under the capitalist system. Wherever ecclesiastic property partially resisted, or still resists, the blows of this progressive age, it did, and does, for the reason that it still performed some useful service, which other organizations, and the state that represents them, did not care to take upon themselves, or permitted to stay in the hands of the church by way of competition.

The story of this economy is the essence of that interpretation of changes in Christianity, which further critique must elaborate. None other than Gregorious Magnus, who so early held the conviction that the bishop of Rome was destined to hold sway in the disintegrated empire of the West, and who is known generally to cultured persons by his visions, by his love of music, and by the apostolate of his delegate Augustine in Anglia, dictated the economic laws by which the ecclesiastic latifundia were administered. After the lapse of a few centuries, throughout all the adversities of the imperfect states and semi-political communities, which developed within the boundaries of the always unstable and badly reconstructed Western empire, it was this vast ecclesiastic property which, by its universal diffusion and penetration, gave rise to that diplomacy, which from Gregory VII. to Boniface VIII aimed to make an heir of Augustus out of the successor of Peter. This diplomacy was not what it was because its theory had been thought out by monks in their cells, or because Gregory VII and Innocent III were excellent men – of course, they were – but because the possibilities for a great scheme of organization were offered only by that vast economic system. But this system was combatted, not only by the other more or less powerful rulers of that time, but also by some portions of the plebeian population and of the just developing bourgeoisie, in the more developed industrial and commercial regions (for instance in Flanders, the Provence, North Italy), for various reasons, such as monkish asceticism, or the civil liberty of Christians. In fact, the humiliation heaped upon Boniface VIII in Anagni indicates merely the climax of the policy of Philip the Fair, who, as a very early harbinger of the revolutionary princes of the 16th century, for the first time had the hardihood to lay hands upon the substance of the Christian people.

And here I would fain stop in my digression. For this economic history has not yet been written, and I am not inclined to begin it with these passing hints.

However, it seems to me that the usual objectors will say: But will everything else be clear, after this economic history has been written? Here we have once more the ordinary case of those who build a house of cards in order to have the pleasure of blowing it over. To explain a process means generally to resolve it into its most elementary conditions, so far as we can discern and follow their successive phases (from the lowest to the highest limit), passing from cause to effect.

No one will dream of claiming, for instance, that if we are thoroughly familiar with the economic structure of the city of Athens between the close of the 5th and the beginning of the 4th century before Christ, we can then pass straight on to an understanding of the whole ideological content of every dialogue of Plato, without any further ceremony, that is, without the critical assistance of the intellectual elements gathered by tradition. We must above all be able to explain Plato, the man, his esthetic and mental disposition, his pessimism, his flight away from the world, his idealism, and his utopianism. All these things are products of conditions, which developed in the mind of the individual Plato as they did equally in so many other contemporaries of his, who otherwise could not have understood, admired, and followed him to the extent of creating around him a sect, which lived on for centuries with so many modifications. If any one tries to separate this ideological formation, from the environment in which it arose as a first precursor of Christianity, he would render it unintelligible, or almost absurd.

This applies still more to those dispositions and inclinations to fantastic or reflective thought, which gave rise to the need of so many creeds, symbols, dogmas, legends in so vast an association as the Christian was, with its many offices and its different relations. It is assuredly easier to understand the relations, which lead in a general way from certain determined material conditions of common life to all those ideas, than to explain the particular content of each individual idea. This difficulty of an adequate explanation is due to the fact that we are dealing with times of terrible catastrophes, of indescribable confusion, of decadence of the aptitudes for correct science; times, in brief, in which unprejudiced testimony, critique, and public opinion are almost always missing, and in which the strongest minds, isolated from life, incline toward the abstruse, the subtle, the verbalistic.

It is indeed the difficulty of explaining precisely the way in which ideas arise out of material conditions of life, which lends strength to the argument of those, who deny the possibility of clearly explaining the genesis of Christianity. In general it is true that the phenomenology, or psychology, of religion, whatever you wish to call it, presents great difficulties and carries within itself rather obscure points. It is not always an easy matter to understand fully, how the experienced facts of nature and social life are transformed, at certain determined times and under certain determined ethnological conditions, and after passing through the crucible of some particular fantasy, into persons, gods, angels, demons, and then into attributes, emanations, and ornaments of these same personifications, and finally into such abstract and metaphysical entities as The Logos, infinite Goodness, supreme Justice, etc. On this field of derived and complicated psychic production we are still far removed from the most elementary conditions necessary to enable us by observation and experiment to follow the rise and development of the first sensations from one extreme to the other, that is, from the peripheral apparatus to the cerebral centers, in which the irritations and vibrations are converted into conscious apperception, into consciousness.

But is this psychological difficulty a privilege of the Christian creeds? Is it not characteristic of the genesis of all creeds, all mythical and religious imaginations? Are the very original creations of the most primitive Buddhism, or the more second-hand collections of Mohammedanism, perhaps clearer? Or, going beyond these great systems of religion, are the processes of fantasy in the creation of the most elementary myths of our Aryan forefathers perhaps clearer and more transparent at first sight? Is it, perhaps, easy to account for every detail in all the transitions of fantasy in the course of centuries and generations from the pramantha, that is, the stick used in making fire by rubbing and chafing it against another piece of wood, to the gradual rise of the hero Prometheus? And yet this is the best known myth of the Indo-European mythology. We have more data by which we can follow its successive embryogenetic phases, from the most ancient Vedic hymns in honor of the God Agni (fire) to the creation of the ethical and religious tragedy of Aeschylus, than of any other myth.

Furthermore, such psychic productions of men of past centuries present very peculiar difficulties of their own to our understanding. We cannot easily reproduce in ourselves the necessary conditions, by which we might approach their state of mind concerning those productions. Long training is required, before we acquire that aptitude of interpretation, which is characteristic of the connoisseur of languages, of the philologist, the critic, the student of prehistory, or the mental attitude of a man, who through long training and repeated trials has acquired an artificial consciousness, as it were, which is congruous and consonant with the object of study.

Under these circumstances, Christianity (and I mean here the creed, the doctrine, the myth, the symbol, the legend, not merely the association in its oikonomika) becomes more easily intelligible to us to the extent that it approaches our own time. We are surrounded by it, and we have to consider all the time its consequences and its influence on the literature and various philosophies with which we are familiar. We can observe every day, that the multitude crudely combines ancient and modern superstitions with a more or less indistinct general acceptation of the underlying principle, which is common to all confessions, namely the principle of redemption. We can see Christianity at work and watch its accomplishments and its struggles. And we are enabled to draw conclusions from the present as to the past by analogy, which places us in a position to undertake the interpretation of more remote creeds. We also watch the creation of new dogmas, new saints, new miracles, new pilgrimages. And comparing this with the past, we may exclaim in most cases: Tout comme chez nous! Just what we see todav! In other words, we have at our command a store of observation and experience in psychology, which permits us to bring the past once more to life with less effort than is needed for the purely documentary analysis of the conditions of most remote antiquity. How long is it that we understand anything definite about: the origin of language? It dates from the very moment that we realized that we have no better means of experience in this respect than to study the way in which children still learn to speak.

The problem of the origin of Christianity is furthermore obscured for many by still another prejudice. They imagine that it is due to first causes which created it out of nothing, as it were. These people forget that those who became Christians did so by renouncing other religions; and that the problem of the origin of Christianity reduces itself above all to the prosaic task of studying the way in which the elements of former periods took on new shapes within the environment of that association, which formed the actual nucleus of the new organization. This event took place in historical times. And among those religions which preceded it, the most noted is that of advanced Judaism, whose great masses were waiting for the coming of a new Messiah, while its doctrinaires were splitting fine hairs. We are also fairly familiar with the cults, superstitions, and creeds of the various pagan religions in the Roman empire, and with the religious inclinations of many of the thinkers of that time, just as we know the leanings of the multitudes of that period, who were ever ready to accept new faiths, new promises, and good tidings.

It is, therefore, not a question of creation, but of transformation, and we carry on our inquiry on the same field as that of any other history. The question is, for instance, (to give a few general hints), how Jesus became the Messiah of the Jews (a primitive form of development), how the Messiah of the Jews became the Redeemer of all mankind from sin (Paul), and finally, how the Word combined with the NeoPlatonism of Philo (fourth gospel). This is the outline of the ideological development. And on the other hand we must find out, how the primitive communistic association (a communism of consumption) of comrades expecting the impending end of the world and the final catastrophe (the Apocalypse) became a congregation (a church), which deferred the coming of the millennium indefinitely (the second epistle of Peter) and grew into an organization that evolved its own economy and progressively assumed more complicated attributes and functions. In this transition from a sect to a church, from naive expectation to a complicated doctrine, lies the whole problem of the origin of Christianity. With the expansion of the association came in due time an adaptation on its part to the prevailing forms of law, and the requirements of the doctrine fell in with the diffusion of decadent Platonism. Of course, we shall never be able to get close to those things with our vision and observation by an intuitive mode of chronicling. We shall never watch Philip, Matthew, Peter, James, and their next successors, in conversation, and so forth, in the way that we may observe Camille Desmoulins in a café of the Palais Royal, at 3 p.m., on Sunday, July 12., 1789. We shall not be able to follow the genesis and establishment of those dogmas as we may the compilation of the articles of the Encyclopedia. For we are dealing with times of vague impressions and of fermentations such as have never been seen since. Great moral epidemics invade the souls of men. The most elementary relations of life approach a period of acute crisis. Under the surface of that civilization of the Mediterranean countries, which combined the political and administrative power of the empire with all that was most useful and refined in Hellenism, vegetated a thousand forms of local barbarisms and festering and rotten products of decadence. It is enough to remind the reader that Christianity, as a thing in itself, took its start, both in fact and in name, from Antioch, that cesspool of all vices, and that Paul addressed his subtle meditations, which show him to us in the light of one of those Jews, who later compiled the Talmud, to the Galatians, that is, to Jews scattered through a country of real barbarians. Christianity was spread among the lowly, the outcasts, the plebeians, the slaves, the despairing multitudes of those large cities, whose vicious life is to a small degree revealed by the satires of Petronius and Juvenal, the Voltairian tales of Lucian, or the gruesome writings of Apuleius. Is there anything precise that we know about the conditions of those Jews in the city of Rome, among whom this new sad superstition, as Tacitus called it, first developed, that superstition which in the course of centuries grew into the most powerful social organism ever known in history? We cannot reconstruct those first origins by intuitive descriptions, but must have recourse to conjecture and combination. This is the main reason for the interminable literature on this subject. And it applies especially to the learned of Germany, who are in the habit of calling such critical and erudite literature theological, even though they are not believers themselves.

The relative obscurity of the first origins of Christianity gives rise in the minds of many to the queer belief in a true Christianity, which is supposed to have been quite different from that other which later assumed the name of Christian. This so-called true Christianity, or original Christianity, which is in its turn so obscure that every one can interpret it in his own way, serves often as a motive for the polemics of those rationalists, who hurl invectives against that historical church, which we know by experience, and then extoll with a great flow of oratory that ideal church, which is supposed to have been the first communion of saints. This is but a historical myth, the same as the Sparta of the Athenian orators, the antique Rome of the decadent Ghibellines of the 14th century, and all other fantastic creations of a lost paradise, or of a future paradise which is as yet out of our reach. This historical myth has assumed various shapes. The sectarians, who revolted against Catholicism in its inception or in its prime, these sectarians, whose democratic equality under definite historical conditions, from the Montanists to the Anabaptists, rove in rebellion against the profanely worldly and hierarchically orthodox church, felt the need of reconstructing in their imagination the true Christianity, that is, the simple primitive life of the first evangelists. At the same time they wailed about the decadence, aberration, works of Satan, and the other things that happened after that time. It is this truest of true Christianities, which was often invoked by the naive communists, who drew pictures of their own aspirations in the absence of any other adequate ideas concerning the way of living under these disgraceful conditions of inequality in this unjust world. And these pictures could find inspiration and color in the evangelical poetry and in so many other true or fantastic records. This happened also to Weitling, who on his part composed a Gospel of a Poor Sinner. And why should I not mention those followers of Saint Simon, who fabulised about a truer Christianity of the future, into which they projected all the aspirations of their heated imagination.

For all these and other reasons, there is hung in the air, in the fantastic imagination of many, the picture of an ultra-perfect Christianity, which shall be different, or is absolutely different, from the one which vulgar history knows and depicts, a Christianity that stoned Stephen, that instituted the Holy Inquisition, which dispatched so many multitudes of infidels to the other world; from the barefooted fisherman Peter, who played the part of a Sancho Panza by his cowardly denials, to Pope Pius, who consoled himself for the loss of his temporal power by assuming infallibility; from the spontaneous agape of the poor visited by the comforter to the Jesuits who arm squadrons and contract commercial loans, like daring harbingers of the colonial policy of the bourgeois world; from the Rabbi of Nazareth, who says that his kingdom is not of this world, to the bishops and other prelates who occupy in his name from one fifth to one third of the land, according to various countries, and who rule as its sovereigns and proprietors, enjoying even the jus primae noctus. Whoever believes in this so-called true Christianity, for one reason or another, even were it only for literary hypocrisy pure and simple, is naturally confronted by the obligation to explain whence the other less true Christianity came later on, which differed so completely from the one which we know. And it is evident that this true Christianity must become a miracle, if not of revelation, at least of human ideology. We are not obliged to furnish an explanation for this miracle, either in the name of materialism, or in the name of any other theory, for the same reason, that no rational mechanics is obliged to explain either the flight of Icarus or the hippogriff of Ariosto.

Nevertheless, we must not forget that this true Christianity, this ideal antagonist of the positive and realistically human Christianity, which we know and which developed under conditions accessible to our research, performed also a historical function, and serves to-day in our hands as a key, by which we may enter into the state of mind and conditions of life of the primitive Christians. For this true Christianity is but a symbol of the various revolutions of the proletariat, the plebeians, the lowly, the manumitted, the serfs, the exploited, up to the 16th century.

I had occasion, as I said once before in another letter, to occupy myself at length in my academic lectures with Fra Dolcino, who marks the culmination and impending decline of the Apostolic sect. After I had described the general conditions of the economic and political development of Northern and Middle Italy, and those of the particular environment (or of the social classes) in which the Apostolic sect arose and developed, I had to explain, at a certain point, the doctrine by which Dolcino held together the ranks of his followers, who were intrepid and tenacious fighters to the last and worked like heroes, martyrs, and harbingers of a new order of human life. His doctrine was likewise one of those apocalyptic returns to a purely evangelical Christianity. It was a negation of everything which the hierarchy had established since Pope Sylvester (at least the legendary one), and this negation was reinforced by an apostolic ardor, which the spirit of battle transformed into a duty to fight. It is natural that the first explanation for these ideas, as the literary men would say, should be sought in similar, immediately preceding, movements of rebellion against the hierarchy. By a short step we come to the Albigenses, and by another short step to those confused and many-colored popular movements known under the common name of Patarenian movements. And on the other hand we must try to understand the mystic and ascetic agitation, which often came near disrupting the papal empire, from the theoretical communism of Joaquin of Fiore to the active resistance of the Friars. If we penetrate another step into this inquiry, it is not difficult to see that behind this mystic veil of asceticism, and behind the exalted passion for true Christianity, there lurked those material conditions and material incentives, which rallied around certain symbols of revolt the lowly monks, the peasants of those countries, in which feudalism was still alive, the peasants of other countries, who, having been freed from feudalism, were forcibly proletarianised by the rapid formation of free communes, the poor people of these pitilessly corporate communes themselves, and finally, as ever, the idealists who espoused the cause of the oppressed as their own: in other words, all the elements of social revolution. From this close analysis we pass on to a more general, or, I should say, typical one. The movement of Dolcino is a link in that long chain of uprisings on the part of the Christian people, who revolted against the hierarchy with more or less good luck, and under complicated conditions, and who in the most acute crises came to the logical conclusion of espousing communism. The classic example, which was the most vigorous, as concerns circumstances of time, extension, and duration, is certainly the uprising of the Anabaptists. However, the revolt of the Dolcinians was by no means a small matter, especially since the valley of the Po, in the beginning of the 14th century, was precociously modern in its economic conditions.

Now, the instinct of affinity turned the minds of the representatives and leaders of revolting peoples to the image, or to the confused memory, or to an approximative reproduction in imagination, of that primitive Christianity, which consisted only of poor people, of afflicted and suffering humanity hoping for redemption from the miseries of this sinful world. True Christianity, to which these zealous rebels turned with so much ardor of faith and fantasy, out of sympathies arising from similar conditions, was a reality. It was a fact, not in the sense of an ideal or type from which poor weak humanity had strayed on account of mistakes or bad will, but in the sense of a sober historical reality. Primitive Christianity was, with due allowance for historical differences, much closer in type, as a whole, in its aspects and incentives, to that which Montano, Dolcino, or Thomas Münzer wanted to re-establish at inopportune times, than to all the dogmas, lithurgies, hierarchic ranks, dominions and domains, political fights, supremacies, inquisitions, and other vanities, around which the sober and profane history of the church turns. In these attempts of the medieval rebels we see, as it were, a reproduction of an experiment of the past, we recognize what must have been, approximately, the original form of Christianity as a sect of perfect saints, that is, of perfect equals, without any differences of clergy and laymen, all of them equally partaking of the holy spirit, revolutionists and worshippers in one, all on the same level.

The most difficult and thorny problem in all the history of Christianity is precisely this: To understand by what means a sect of perfect equals was turned, in the course of but two centuries, into an association divided into hierarchic ranks, so that we have on one side the mass of believers, and on the other the clergy invested with sacred powers. This hierarchic division is completed by a dogma, that is to say, by regulations which suppress the spontaneousness of belief as a fact of personal practice on the part of the individual believers. A hierarchy means a rule by priests, an administration of things and government of persons by the clergy. This gives rise to political policies. And the inquiry into these policies is the pith of the history of the third century. The meeting. of church and state in the fourth century is but the result of the intermingling of two policies, in which religion and the management of public affairs are finally merged in one. This transition from a free association to an organized semi-state, which is responsible for the fact that the church has ever since dabbled in politics, either in support of the state, or against the state, or itself as a state, verifies but the truth of the statement that any organisation, which has things to administer and offices to fill, becomes of necessity a government. The church has reproduced within its confines the same antagonisms as any other state, that is, the antagonisms between rich and poor, protector and protected, patron and client, owners and exploited, princes and subjects, sovereigns and oppressed. Therefore is has had in its ranks class-struggles peculiar to itself, for instance, struggles between a patrician hierarchy and a plebeian priesthood, between high and low clergy, between catholicism and sects. The sects were largely inspired, up to the 16th century, by the idea of returning to the primitive Christianity, and for this reason they often colored their designs on existing conditions by ideological inspirations smacking of utopianism. The church, on the other hand, such as it grew to be, followed the methods used by the profane state and became a hierarchic congregation of unequals, instead of equals with the holy spirit, and exercised the rights of the privileged by means of oppression and violence, like a perfect empire, some parts of which were ceded to other rulers, with a superadded control of the souls, which must go hand in hand with a government of things, because souls cannot exist without material things. These human characteristics, which, once that a condition of economic inequality exists among men, make any religious association similar to any other government of things in this world, show at a glance that an association of saints can never have had any other but a utopian form, and on the other hand they show to us a constant tendency toward intolerance and toward catholicism in its various forms, to the extent that this association, forgetting the simple martyr of Nazareth, whose form has been left hanging pathetically to the cross on the altars, has made its kingdom of this world.

To stick to an illustration, which is familiar to me through recent studies, the super-imperial papacy fell in the person of Boniface VIII, just as had been prophesied by Dolcino, who survived him for three years. But it did not fall in order to give way to the apocalypse. It is true, the humiliation of the exile at Avignon was inflicted upon tile papacy, but not to give way to a new Caesarian empire, in keeping with Dante's utopia. The indications of the modern era, the forebodings of the bourgeois reign, were already manifest. Philip the Fair, who for a long time had been reaching out for that civil power, under which the bourgeoisie two centuries later went through the first stage of its political rule over society, condemned the Templars to death, as though he wanted to say that the heroic poem of the crusades ended by the hands of the Christians themselves. And in order that we might find the moral of the situation even in the anecdote, which always exposes and unmasks the strident passages on the irony of history, the agent of the Sire of France, who prepared the humiliation of Anagni, was not a captain of the feudal bands, but a civilian, who negotiated the money required to cover a bill of exchange delivered to a banker of Florence.

These legists, and princes usurping historical rights, and bankers accumulating money that later on became capital, were the people who initiated modern history, which is so transparent in the prosaic structure of its aims and means. On the ruins of corporate and feudal society as well as on the ruins of the patrimony of ecclesiasticism settled that cruel bourgeoisie which, suspicious of mysterious forces, inaugurated the era of free thought and free research. And now the bourgeoisie is waiting to be dethroned. But assuredly this will not be done by true Christianity, nor by the truest of the true.

Whether the people of the future, of whom we socialists often entertain such exalted ideas, will still produce any religion or not, I can neither affirm nor deny. And I leave it them to arrange their own lives, which will not be easy, I hope, in order that they may not become imbeciles in paradisian beatitude. But I see this much clearly: Christianity, which in its entirety is up to now the religion of the most advanced nations, will not leave any room for any other religion after it. Whoever will not be a Christian henceforth will be without religion. And in the second place I note that the socialists have been wise enough to write into their platforms: Religion is a private matter. I hope that no one will interpret this statement in the sense of a theoretical point of view which might lead to the elaboration of a philosophy of religion. This wholly practical statement means simply that for the present the socialists are too busy with more useful and serious work than that kind which would liken them to those Hebertists, Blanquists, Bakounists, and others, who decreed the abolition of divinity and decapitated God in effigy. The historical materialists think, however, on their part and aside from all subjective appreciation, that the people of the future will very probably dispense with all transcendental explanations of the practical problems of daily life. Primus in orbe deos focit timor! Fear was the first in this world to make gods. The statement is very old. But it is valuable, and therefore I perpetuate it.


Resina (Naples), September 15, 1597.

Dear Sorel! In re-reading, revising, retouching the letters which I addressed to you from April to July of this year – I intend to publish them – I find that they make up a sort of series and on the whole deal with the same subject. Of course, if I had the intention of writing a book worthy of some high-sounding title as Socialism and Science or Historical Materialism and World Conception, or the like, I should have to sift this matter anew by elaborate meditation. And then the thoughts at which I have here merely hinted, the statements which I have but roughly outlined, the observations which are often made incidentally, and the bizarre criticisms scattered here and there, in short all those things which came to me as I wrote with a flowing pen would assume quite a different form and would be differently arranged. But since, in conversing with you at a distance, I have made use of the liberties peculiar to conversation, I shall now, in making these fleeting letters into a little volume, head it with the modest and appropriate title: a Discourse on Socialism and Philosophy, Letters to G. Sorel.

It is the fault of the insistent advice of my friend Benedetto Croce that I commit this new literary sin. This blessed friend of mine became a torment and a cross to me. After he had read these letters, he did not give me any rest, until I promised him that I would publish them in book form. If I were to follow him, I should become in my old days a continuous and perpetual producer of printed matter. I have always preferred in the past to let the scattered manuscripts, which I accumulated in the course of years in my capacity as a teacher and passionate connoisseur of literature, slumber quietly in my desk. But in the present case, Croce continued to plead that it was my duty, now that Socialism was spreading in Italy, to take part, in such a way and by such means as suited my inclinations, in the life of the party that was growing and gaining strength. And that may be so. Still it remains to be seen whether the socialists feel the need of and a desire for, my help and participation.

To tell the truth, I have never had any great inclination for public writing, and I have never acquired the art of writing in prose. I have always written the things as they came to me. I have always been, and still am, passionately found of the art of oral instruction in every form. And attending to this work with great intensity, I have long lost the gift of repeating in writing the things which I used to express spontaneously, in ready and flexible speech, as fitted the occasion, pregnant with side issues and full of references. And who can really repeat such things from memory? Later, when I was born again in spirit and accepted Socialism, I became more desirous of communicating with the public by means of booklets, occasional letters, articles and lectures, and these grew in time almost without my being aware of it. Are not these the duties and burdens of the professional? Just then, about two years ago, my blessed Mr. Croce came along at an opportune hour with his advice that I should publish essays on scientific socialism, in order to give to my activity as a socialist a more solid footing. And, as one thing follows another, these chance letters may likewise be regarded as a subsidiary and supplementary essay on historical materialism.

It is evident, dear Sorel, that this discourse does not concern you, but only me. For I am seeking an excuse, as it were, to publish a new book, written by an Italian living in Italy. If these letters should be read by others in France besides you, those readers may probably say that I have not won them over to historical materialism, and perhaps they will justly repeat the observation of some critics of my essays to the effect that the intellectual moods of a nation are not changed by translations from a foreign language. [13]

While I am writing this with a view of bringing these letters to a close, I have some misgivings whether I might not want to continue them. Cannot letters be multiplied indefinitely, just like fables and stories? Fortunately I had made up my mind, when I first began, to take up in a general way the problems which you raised in your preface by touching upon such very difficult questions. So one reason for coming to a close is given by the outlines of your own article, to which I have referred from time to time. If I were to abandon myself to the sweep of conversation, who knows where I would stop! The letters might grow into a literature. You would not thank me for that a bit. But it would please Mr. Croce, who would like to fill everybody with his instinct for literary prolixity. In this respect he forms a queer contrast to the leisurely habits of leisurely Naples, where men, like the Lotus Eaters, who disdained any other food, live in sweet enjoyment of the present and deem to mock the philosophy of history in plain view of the statue of G. B. Vico.

But I really wish to come to a close, and so I must put down a few more brief remarks.

It seems to me, first of all, that you ask, not on account of any curiosity of your own, but because you artfully place yourself into the position of your readers: Is there any way to explain to us in an easy and clear manner in what consists that dialectics which is so often invoked for the elucidation of the gist of historical materialism? And I think you might add that the conception of this dialectics remains obscure for purely empirical scientists, for the still surviving metaphysicians, and for those popular evolutionists, who abandon themselves so willingly to a general impression of what is and happens, appears and disappears, is born and dies, and who mean by evolution in the last resort the unknowable, not the process of understanding. As a matter of fact, by the dialectics we mean that rhythmic movement of understanding which tries to reproduce the general outline of reality in the making.

For my part – if these letters were not too long to render such a thing improbable – should I ever feel like taking this matter up once more, I should, before answering such difficult questions, remember that Grecian poet, who, on being asked by the tyrant of Syracuse: "What are the gods?" asked first for one day's respite then for a second, then for a third, and so on to infinity. And yet the poets, who create, invent, praise, and celebrate the gods, ought to be more familiar with them than I could be with dialectics, if a man held me in a tight place and demanded imperiously that I should answer him. I should take my time, a method of procedure not out of harmony with dialectic thought, and I should say in so many words (and this reply is implicit): We cannot give ourselves an adequate account of thought unless it be by an act of thinking. We must become accustomed to the various modes of applying thought by successive efforts. And it is always a dangerous things to jump with both feet from the concrete application of a certain concept to the formulation of its general definition. And if I were hard pressed for a reply, I should, in order to save the questioner the trouble of long, arduous, and complicated study, recommend a perusal of Anti-Dühring, especially of the chapter entitled "The Negation of the Negation."

There, and throughout the whole book, it will be seen that Engels did not only make great efforts to explain what he taught, but also tried to combat the wrong use to which mental processes may be applied, as they are by people who, instead of arriving at concrete thoughts in which the mental faculty shows itself alive and fresh, have an inclination to fall into a priori diagrams, or into scholasticism. And be it said, without prejudice to the ignorant, that scholasticism was by no means exclusively confined to the learned of the Middle Ages, and is not worn merely as a priestly robe. Scholasticism may fasten itself upon any theory. Aristotle himself was the first scholastic. He was, indeed, a good many other things, above all a scientific genius. Scholasticism is even presented in the name of Marx. The fact is that the greatest difficulty in the understanding and further elaboration of historical materialism is not the understanding of the formal aspects of Marxism, but a possession of the facts in which those forms are immanent. Marx possessed some of these facts and elaborated them, and there are many others left which we must find out and elaborate for ourselves.

In the course of many years which I have spent in education I became firmly convinced of the great injury done to young minds by steeping them without warning in formulae, diagrams, and definitions as though these were the forerunners of real things, instead of leading them by gradual and well weighed steps through a chosen department of reality and first observing, comparing, and experimenting with actual objects before formulating theories. In short, a definition placed at the beginning of a study is meaningless. Definitions take on a meaning only when genetically developed. In the course of construction it is often seen how injurious mere definitions are. The common interpretation given by untutored minds to certain passages of the Roman law is quite different from the real meaning. Teaching is not an activity which produces a bare effect by means of bare objects. It is rather an activity which generates another activity. In teaching we !earn to understand that the first germ of all philosophic thought is always planted by the Socratic Method, that is, by the accomplished talent of generating ideas. [14]

In recommending Anti-Dühring, and the cited chapter, I do not mean to make a catechism of these things, but only to refer to them as an illustration of ability in teaching. Arms and instruments serve their purposes only so long as they are in use, not when hung on the walls of museums.

By the way, if I did not have to come to a close, I should like to dwell for a moment on that passage where you say that Italy deserves the homage of all, because it is the common cradle of all civilization. These words might seem rather high-sounding, seeing that you are speaking of socialism, which is really not greatly indebted to Italy. However, if it is true that socialism is the outcome of advanced civilization, then the mature and advanced of other countries may do well to turn their eyes occasionally upon this cradle. By thinking now and then of Italy, which for centuries made the greater part of universal history, all will always be able to learn something from us. And then they will perceive that they already had this Italy at home as the forerunner of that which they now are. Some Frenchmen have been of the opinion that Italy had been transformed from a cradle into a tomb of civilization. And like a tomb it must appear to all strangers who visit it as though it were a museum, but are ignorant of our present history. And in this they are wrong, and, however learned these visitors may be, to that extent they remain ignorant of the actual life of our country, a life which seems that of one risen from the dead. And this, at least, is worthy of note.

In what does this rebirth of Italy really consist and what prospects does it hold out to those who watch the general progress of humanity without prejudice and preconceived notions? [15] I will not speak of the great difficulties, which must be overcome in the treatment of the actual history of each country from an objective point of view, that will not permit personal opinions to influence scientific research. In the particular case of Italy, we should have to go back to the 16th century, when the first beginnings of the capitalist era were inaugurated by the Mediterranean countries, in which Capitalism then had its principal seat. We should have to reach the positive and negative, internal and external, premises of the present conditions of Italy by way of the history of successive decadence. It is not necessary for me to say that my powers would not be equal to the task. I do not feel the slightest temptation to undertake it as an incident to an occasional and familiar discourse like the present. The man who can compress such a study into a book might claim to have made a contribution to the mental expression of the actual situation and of the actual thought life of the Italians. [16] Here we have often blind optimists or blind pessimists among us, in the sense in which unphilosophical people use these terms. For in Italy there exists not only a great deal of ignorance concerning the actual condition of other countries, but also a valuation of conditions at home by a standard, which is entirely ideal, hypothetical, and often utopian, instead of comparative and practical. It is indeed a singular case that here in our country, where the sciences devoted to the observation of nature, sciences really cultivated for particularistic and anti-philosophical reasons, have had such a rise, we should meet with so little positive understanding of present social conditions, while at the same time we have such an extra large number of sociologists, who supply the seekers for truth with definitions. But it is well known that the sociologists of all countries have a queer antipathy against the study of history. And yet this same history is in the opinion of the profane the very thing by which society has developed.

Finally, few clearly see the fact that the Italian bourgeoisie, which is already the object of scorn and hatred on the part of the lowly, freed slaves, and exploited, the same as in all other countries, and on the other hand is pushed and crowded by the small tradesmen, is unstable, restless, and diffident in its own ranks, because it cannot compete with the capitalists of other countries on equal terms. For this reason, and for the other that they have the Pope, [17] with his still marketable commodities which only the theoretical thinkers of liberalist utopianism proclaim to be forever outgrown, this bourgeoisie, which must still rise, is intrinsically revolutionary, as the Manifesto would put it. And since they have not had a chance to be Jacobins, as they would have liked very much to be, they have become used to the formula of a king by the grace of God and the nation, all in the same breath. Since this bourgeoisie could not count on a rapid development of industry on a large scale, which is in fact slow in coming, nor, consequently, on a rapid conquest of foreign markets, on account of the slow and uncertain progress of national economy which is largely agricultural, they practice the mediocre politics of expediency and spend all their talents in adroitness. This is the part played recently for a number of months by our navy in the Orient. It is playing the role of the fox in the fable, who declared that the grapes were sour, because he could not reach them. But this fox finds itself among other foxes, who guard the grapes or are about to seize them. And then the fox becomes an idealist for want of anything positive. This Italian bourgeoisie feels itself in the role of the whole nation, partly on account of the reactionary or demagogical abstention of the clericals from political activity, partly on account of the very slow development of a proletarian opposition. In the absence of party divisions in society, the bourgeoisie gave the name of parties to the factions that gathered around captains or proconsuls, enterprising or adventurous leaders. The first appearance of Socialism struck them like lightning.

On the other hand, those deceive themselves who believe that every commotion of the multitude in this country, such as we have witnessed several times in various places of Italy, is an indication of a proletarian movement, which has for its concrete basis the economic struggle and turns its aspirations more or less explicitly in the direction of the socialism of other countries. More often these commotions are like revolts of elementary forces against a state of things, in which these forces do not find that controlling discipline which is typical of a bourgeois rule tending to train the proletariat in squads. Look, for instance, at the aggravated phenomenon of emigration, which, with a few exceptions, carries away men, who are able to offer to capitalist exploitation in foreign countries strong arms, incomparable diligence, and stomachs capable of any amount of privation. They are, in short, laborers from the fields who are superfluous, or artisans from decaying trades, whom the rule of capitalist education would join in squads for factory labor, if industry on a large scale were ready to develop that sort of thing, or whom our home capital would invite to our home colonies, if we had any, and if we had not been seized by the craze of founding colonies in places where it is almost impossible to do so. [18]

Italy has become during recent years, for very natural reasons, the promised land of decadents, self-glorifiers, shallow critics, fastidious and posing sceptics. The sane and veracious part of the socialist movement( which has no other duties to perform for the present under the prevailing circumstances but to prepare the small middle class for democratic education) therefore contains admixtures of elements, who would have to admit to themselves, if they wanted to be honest with themselves, that they are decadents, that they are not moved to bestir themselves by the strong will to live, but by a vague satiety with the present. They are merely satiated and bored bohemians.

But I must really come to a close. It seems to me, however, that I hear a small voice of protest coming from those comrades, who are always so ready to raise objections. And this voice says: "All this is sophistry and doctrinairism. What we need is practice." Certainly, I agree with you, you are right. Socialism has so long been utopian, scheming, offhand, and visionary, that it is well to repeat now all the time that what we need is practice. For the minds of those who adopt socialism should never be out of touch with the things of the actual world, should continually study their field, in which they are compelled to work hard for a clear road. But my supposed critic should take care not to become a doctrinaire himself. For this term designates for those who understand it a certain mental disposition to lose one's self in abstractions and to claim that ideas which are pronounced excellent in themselves, and fruits which have been collected by experience at different times and places, can be applied straight to concrete cases and are good for all times and places. The practice of the socialist parties in their relations with other politics has so far been exercised rather in keeping with rational requirements than with science. It is the outcome of constant observation, of an incessant adaptation to new conditions. It is the tested fruit of the struggle for an alignment of often different and antagonistic tendencies of the proletariat in the same direction. It is the endeavor to bring practical plans to a realization by the help of a clear understanding of all the complicated and intricate interrelations which hold together the world in which we are living. If it were not so, with what right and by what claim could we speak of a vaunted Marxism? If historical materialism does not hold good, it means that the prospects for the coming of socialism are doubtful, and that our thought of a future society is a utopian dream.

Too often it is true, that all our contemporaneous socialism still contains within itself some latent germs of a new utopianism. [19]

This is the case with those who continuously harp on the dogma of the necessity of evolution, which they confound with a certain right to a better condition. And they say that the future society of collectivist economic production, with all its technical and pedagogic consequences, will come because it SHOULD come. They seem to forget that this future society must be produced by human beings themselves in response to the demands of the conditions in which they now live and by the development of their own aptitudes. Blessed are those who measure the future of history and the right to progress with the yardstick of a life insurance policy!

Those dogmatists of cheap ideas forget several things. In the first place, they forget that the future, just because it is a future which will be a present when we are of the past, cannot be used as a practical criterion for our present actions. It will be the thing at which we wish to arrive, but not the way by which to reach it. In the second place, the experience of these last fifty years should convince those, who can think critically, of the following truth: To the extent that the capacity for organization in a class party will grow among proletarians and small trades people, the process of this complicated movement will itself furnish the proof that the development of the new era will have to be measured by a standard of time considerably slower than that first assumed by the early socialists who were still tainted with Jacobine memories. It is evident that we cannot look forward across such long stretches of time with very great certitude. We must take into account the enormous complexity of modern life and the vast expansion of capitalism, or of bourgeois society. [20] Who cannot see that the Pacific is now taking the place of the Atlantic Ocean, just as the Atlantic once upon a time took the place of the Mediterranean Sea? Finally, in the third place, the practical science of socialism consists in the clear observation of all the complicated processes of the economic world, and in a simultaneous study of the conditions in which the proletariat lives, becomes capable of concentration in a class party, and carries into this successive concentration the spirit which it needs in the economic struggle that shapes its own peculiar politics. Upon these present data we can base sufficiently clear calculations of our forecast and make connection with that point where the proletariat becomes dominant and shapes the political policies of the state. This point must coincide with the one where capitalism becomes unfit to rule. And from this point, which no one can very well imagine to be a noisy affray, we shall have the beginning of that thing which many, with tiresome persistency, call the social revolution par excellence, I don't know why, since the entire history is a series of social revolutions. To go beyond that point with our reasoning would be to mistake it for a fabric of our imagination.

The time of the prophets is past. Happy thou, Fra Dolcino, who in thy three letters [21] wast able to transfigure the fleeting incidents of politics (such as Pope Celestine and Pope Boniface VIII, the champions of Anjou and Aragon, the Guelfs and the Ghibellines, the poor plebs and the patricians of the communes, and so forth) into types which had already been symbolized by the prophets and the Apocalypse, measuring the periods of providence by successive corrections according to years, months, and days. But thou wast a hero. And this proves that these fantasies were not the cause of thy struggles, but rather their ideological envelope, by means of which thou gavest an account to thyself, in the way that many others did, for a whole century in advance of thyself and Francis of Assisi, of the desperate movement of the plebeians against the papal hierarchy, against the growing bourgeoisie in the communes, and the rising monarchy. But all these envelopes have been torn, including the religion of ideas, as some would say who employ a hypocritical jargon out of superstitious reverence for the religion of others. Nowadays only the imbeciles are permitted to remain utopians. The utopia of imbeciles is either a ridiculous thing, or a pet idea of literary men, who pay a visit to that children's phalanstery which Bellamy built. Our humble Marx, on the other hand, wholly a prosaic man of science, went about modestly collecting in present society the indications for its transition into the coming society, for instance, the rise of co-operatives (real ones!) in England and similar things, and to him fell the task (especially by the work spent on the International) to be the midwife of the future, which is not quite the same as being its fanciful builder. He and Engels spoke of the society of the future, assuming the dictatorship of the proletariat as a fact, not from the intuitive point of view of one who thinks he can see it before him, but from the point of view of a principle of formation of the economic structure which should develop in opposition to the present society. [22]

For the rest, if any one feels the need of living in the future as though he could feel it and try it on his own skin, and if he stammers in the name of such ideas and wants to invest members of the future society with their rights and duties, let him go ahead. I hope he will permit me, who has also a sort of right to send his visiting card to posterity, to express the sentiment that the people of the future will not lay aside their human nature to such an extent as to be no longer comparable to us of the present, and that they will have enough of the dialectic joy of laughter left to crack jokes over the prophets of today.

Now I close for good. And it is for you to recommence, if you should ever desire to do so.


1. "Since 1873 I wrote against the fundamental principles of the system of liberalism, and in 1879 I began to walk on the road of my new intellectual faith, which I still hold and which has been confirmed by further study and observation during the last three years." Thus I wrote on page 23 of my lecture "On Socialism," Rome, 1889. This lecture, which was in a way a confession of faith in a popular style, was supplemented by me with the pamphlet "Proletarians and Radicals," Rome, 1890.[RETURN TO TEXT]

2. "I make no vow to shut myself up in any system as though in a prison." Thus I wrote 24 years ago in my work On Moral Liberty (Naples, 1873), preface. And I can repeat that now. That book contains a detailed exposition of determinism, and was then supplemented by another work of mine, entitled "Morality and Religion" (Napes, 1873).[RETURN TO TEXT]

3. A return to other philosophies is nowadays also suggested by some socialists. The one wants to return to Spinoza, that is, to a philosophy, in which the historical development cuts no figure. Another would be content with the mechanical materialism of the 18th century, that is with a repudiation of any and all history. Still others think of reviving Kant. Does that imply also the revival of his insoluble antinomy between practical reason and theoretical reason? Does it mean a return to his fixed categories and fixed faculties of the soul, of which Herbart seemed to have made short work? Does it include his categorical imperative, in which Schopenhauer had discovered the Christian commandments in the disguise of a metaphysical principle? Does it mean the theory of natural rights, which even the Pope does not care to uphold any more? Why don't they let the dead bury the dead?

You have only the choice of two logical alternatives. Either you accept those other philosophies in their entirety, just as they were in their own time, and in that case you must say goodbye to historical materialism. Or you pick out from them what suits you, and cut your arguments to fit your choice, and in that case you burden yourselves with useless labor, because the history of thought is so constituted that nothing is lost of the things which were in the past the conditions and preparations for our present conceptions.

There is, eventually a third possibility, namely that of falling into syncretism and confusion. A good illustration of this type is L. Woltmann ("System des moralischen Bewusstseins," Düsseldorf, 1898), who reconciles the eternal laws of morality with Darwinism, and Marx with Christianity.[RETURN TO TEXT]

4. I would recommend to the reader my lecture on "La Laurea in Filosofia,"(The Doctorate in Philosophy), which is appended to the above work. My friend Lombroso called it jokingly "the beheading of metaphysics."[RETURN TO TEXT]

>5. The lack of good luck was demonstrated by many articles which were written against this conception, beginning with Kautsky's strongly peppered and salted one in "Die Neue Zeit," XIII, Vol. I, pages 709-716, to that of David in "Le Devenir Social," December, 1896, pages 1059-65, not to mention the others. Incidentally, Ferri says in a footnote of his appendix to the French edition of his work "Darwin, Spencer, Marx," Paris, 1897: "Professor Labriola quite recently repeated, without proof, the assertion that socialism is not reconcilable with Darwinism (in his article on 'Le Manifeste de Marx et Engels,' in 'Le Devenir Social,' June 1895." Now it is true, that I take issue, in my essay "In Memory of the Communist Manifesto," with those who "seek in this doctrine a derivative of Darwinism, which is an analogous theory only in a certain point of view and in a very broad sense." (page 10) – But it seems to me that to deny its derivation and to admit its analogy does not mean to deny that it can be reconciled with Darwinism. Kindly see my essay on "Historical Materialism," chapter iv.[RETURN TO TEXT]

6. This philosophical thesis is, in a way, foreshadowed in the following words of Ferri, which conclude the aforementioned note: "Biological transformism is evidently founded on universal transformism, and at the same time it is the basis of economic and social transformism." Under these circumstances, Spencer is simultaneously a genius and an idiot, for he is the prince of evolution and yet he never could understand socialism![RETURN TO TEXT]

7. Next I expect a twin-star Socrates-Marx. For Socrates was the first to discover that understanding is a process of labor, and that man knows only those things well which he can do. A book of mine on "La Dottrina di Socrate" bears the date of 1871, Naples.[RETURN TO TEXT]

8. See "Zuricher Socialdemokrat," March 22, 1883, page 1. I remark by the way that Darwin, who had died the year before, was born in 1809. Engels was born in 1820, like Spencer. They were all real contemporaries, of about the same age, and living in the same environment.[RETURN TO TEXT]

9. I have explained what I mean by "epigenetic conception" in a work entitled "The Problems of the Philosophy of History," Rome, 1887. This work is partly based on an older work of mine entitled "The Teaching of History," Rome, 1876.[RETURN TO TEXT]

10. The last named was a, music hall singer, and was, in his own cracked estimation, a precursor of Oscar Wilde.[RETURN TO TEXT]

11. I except the Philosopher Teichmüller, who studied and described only that form of active atheism, which is a religion and faith. On the other hand, the absence of all religion, which is characteristic of purely experimental sciences, corresponds to the indifference of the mind to all faiths or creeds. Atheism as an active creed was the source of that Parisian circle of writers, whose principal founders were the ingenuous Chaumette and the ambiguous Hebert.[RETURN TO TEXT]

12. "....The jurists generally do not pay any attention to this. Responsibility in the psychological meaning of the term signifies that an action is attributed to some person (to a person's will), to the extent that that person is conscious of his or her action and wills it. But since a responsibility in a psychological sense implies a responsibility in a moral sense, we must compare the will, which is the principle of action, with that sum of ideas which form the moral conscience of the person who acts. And such a comparison must clearly reveal the fact that the moral responsibility of each is reduced to an infinitesimal differentiation from individual to individual." See page 124 of my work on "Moral Liberty," Naples, 1873. This may be verified as we go along.[RETURN TO TEXT]

13. In this little volume I intended to solve exclusively such problems as were raised in my mind in various waysd by the questions and objections of Sorel. The reader cannot, therefore, find any reply, either direct or indirect, in this book to the various criticisms aimed against my essays. Passing over mere carping reviews and leaving aside incidental polemics and the gratuitous impertinence of some unmannered writers, I sincerely thank Messieurs Andler, Durkheim, Gide, Seignobos, Xenopol, Bourdeau, Bernheim, Pareto, Petrone, Croce, Gentile, and the editors of "Année Sociologique" and "Novoie Slovo," for the lengthy reviews with which they honored me. I cannot refrain from remarking that I have been the object of such opposite observations as the following: "You are too Marxian," and "You are no longer a Marxian." Both assertions are equally unfounded. The truth is simply I have first accepted the theory of historical materialism, and then I have treated it from the point of view of modern science and – according to my own intellectual temperament.[RETURN TO TEXT]

14. I would refer the reader to my work on The Doctrine of Socrates, Naples, 1871, especially to pages 56 to 72, where I discuss his method. I quote a few passages from this work, just to show the "Socratic element" in any form of thought.[RETURN TO TEXT]

"The primitive state of human consciousness, while typical of the primitive epoch of social development, still continues and perpetuates itself in subsequent historical periods, because it aquires a certain degree of lasting power through habit and fixes its expression in myths and primitive poetry. The successive rise and slow development of reflection ... do not wholly succeed in overcoming the diverse manifestations of the primitive and unreasoning mind. The transformation of ancient elements into consciously understood and expressed concepts does not take place until after a long process, an assiduous and incessant struggle through centuries. This process of transformation does not take place by the mere instrumentality of those internal motives of criticism and research which may be called theoretical. It is rather the necessary outcome of the "practical collisions between the will of the individual and the traditional opinions as expressed by customs." Still later it assumes the character of "a social struggle between class and class, individual and individual." In the history of this struggle, one of the elements of primitive life which offers the greatest material for contrasts ... is the language ..which assumes in later periods the appearance of a rule to which all individuals must necessarily and inevitably conform. But when men no longer agree instinctively in calling the same things just, virtuous, honest, etc., ... when they have lost faith in those abstract types of legend and myth, in which the primitive mind had deposited and expressed points of common agreement... then there rises ... in the individual the need of recovering that certainty, which came from the agreement on a natural and common criterion and he asks: What is it? This question manifests the logical interest of Socrates." (Page 59.) – "The external sameness of a word, which preserves a certain appearance of uniformity in its constant phonetical value, helps but to increase the confusion and uncertainty. For we are first overcome by the illusion that the same words express the same meaning, but in the long run we acquire the conviction of the wide difference between our concepts and those of others. The first illusion thereby becomes so much more evident and finally it is entirely dispelled." (Page 62.) - "The question: What is it? comprises the entire inquiry into the worth of a concept, from its evident and determinable limits to the idea which we have of it. The content of a concept, which seems at first sight expressed by its simple denomination, must be in reality ascertained, in its essence and identity. And this cannot be accomplished by going from the top to the bottom. or, as we say, deductively, because we still lack the conviction of the existence of an unconditional and absolute logical value." (Page 65.) - "The point of departure, that is, the name which in its simple phonetic unity was at first the center of research, becomes ultimately the extreme limit of thought, which is placed at the end of research by making of it consciously the expression of a content due to deliberate thought. Then the concrete images, which at first arranged themselves doubtfully around a vague denomination, no longer dominate the new synthesis and are compelled to disband and seek a new location. And only the new element which is the outcome of research. or the constant content of the object of inquiry found by way of induction, can determine the co-ordination and subordination, in which the images shall exist side by side." (Page 66-67.)[RETURN TO TEXT]

15. When I first wrote these hasty outlines of the present conditions in Italy, I made them rather lengthy. Later, when I prepared these letters for the printer, I decided to make this outline shorter. For in the not very distant future I intend to publish another essay, in which I shall have occasion to speak at sufficient length of the remote causes and immediate reasons for the present conditions of our country.[RETURN TO TEXT]

16. I made this analysis, at least in a summary fashion, in the beginning or my academy course of 1897-98, which was devoted to the fall of the "Ancient Regime." In order to explain the catastrophic development of capitalist society in France, it occurred to me to preface it with a general description of what we call modern society. But the hampered or backward development of Italian life deprives many Italians of a clear vision of the capitalist world, and therefore it suited me to give a precise statement of the causes, reasons, and manner of development of present conditions in Italy. Many Italian socialists did not see until recently that the obstacles to capitalist development are so many obstacles to the formation of a proletarian society capable of political action. To that extent they were and remained utopians, whether they liked it or not. At that time, in December, 1897, I could not foresee the hurricane, which broke loose in Italy in May, 1898. But this hurricane found me at least prepared – to understand it. And what else can me do under certain circumstances but to understand?[RETURN TO TEXT]

17. Several times I had occasion, from 1887 until now, to combat in speech and writing the attempts to reconcile Italy and the Vatican. But I never appealed in my polemics either to materialism or to atheism, and the like, as the ideologists generally do. I appealed always to the practical interests of our bourgeoisie, who, to say it in two words, cannot get along without two things at the same time, namely the Hymn of Garibaldi and the Royal March. The practical impossibility of a real conservative party is one of the characteristic marks of our country. For in order to conserve, we should have to destroy here. Moreover our priests, who are as prosaic as the other Italians, are always working for a Kingdom of Heaven on earth, manage affairs like belated humanitarians and import theology, sacred instruction, Christian democracy and confessional treasuries as articles of luxury from Germany and Austria.[RETURN TO TEXT]

18. "Italy has need of material, moral, and intellectual progress. I hope that you will see an Italy, in which the backward management of agriculture will be supplanted by machinery and chemistry on a large scale; and that you will see the generative power of electricity, which alone can make up for our lack of coal, hitched to the superior courses of rivers, or perhaps, to the waves of the sea and the winds. I look forward to a time when you will no longer see any illiterates in Italy, and therefore no longer any men who are not citizens and mobs who are not people. You will, perhaps, witness and take part in politics that will be directed in conformity with an understanding of growing culture and increasing economic power, instead of base alliances and fantastically adventurous enterprises ending in acts of prudence which seem vile." –Thus I spoke last year, in my inaugural address at the University of Rome, on November 14, addressing myself to the students. It was precisely these words which made such a stir. See "The University and the Freedom of Science," Rome, 1897, page 50.)[RETURN TO TEXT]

19. Bernstein wrote recently with great ability some ingenious articles in the NEUE ZEIT on the utopianism latent in some Marxists. And many, whom the shoe fitted, may have asked themselves: "Does that concern me?" (When I wrote this in 1897, I never dreamed that this Bernstein, whose critique I praised simply in so far as it was a critique, would be carried around the world as the greatest example of a reformist, by the salesmen of the "crisis of Marxism." – Note to the new edition.)[RETURN TO TEXT]

20. The multiplication of the centers of production and the resulting complexity of interrelations have also led to a change in commercial crises. In the place of the periodical spasms, which in Marx's time came every ten years in the typical example of England, we have now a diffuse and chronic state of depression. This has been turned into a weighty argument by those who combat the idea of catastrophes. In short, they attempt to make Marxism as a theory responsible for the errors of prevision and calculation, which Marx was liable to make, because he lived in a certain environment limited by space and time and circumstances.[RETURN TO TEXT]

21. Of one of these letters we have only fragments by indirection.[RETURN TO TEXT]

22. For information on this point see the quotations at the end of my essay on "Historical Materialism."[RETURN TO TEXT]


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