Year L, 2008, Number 1, Page 13



Mario Albertini’s Reflections on a Critical Reworking of Historical Materialism



 The most dramatic contradiction facing the world today concerns the gap between scientific-technological progress, which is rapidly and relentlessly advancing, and the instruments of political, institutional, and also cultural control that mankind has, to date, managed to develop in order to govern the effects of this evolution and the new processes it is generating. The inadequacy of these instruments can be attributed to the fact that, in spite of the global dimensions of the new processes that are under way, politics continues to be organised, and to act, at the level of the single states. As a result, it is totally incapable of rising to either the global or the domestic social challenges that this situation presents. In short, the vast store of knowledge that man has accumulated, together with the intellectual tools he has at his disposal, opens up virtually boundless horizons before him, but this is not reflected in any real capacity to resolve the contradictions that continue to threaten mankind and are even endangering his very survival.
Faced with this impasse, modern culture tends to adopt an attitude of surrender; refuge is sought in easy answers that negate the possibility of progress for mankind and only highlight the irrationality of the historical processes. It is no coincidence that this tendency, which is without doubt strongly rooted in twentieth-century culture, being an effect of the scientific discoveries that began at the start of the last century — it is, however, a tendency that in many spheres corresponded to clear-sighted and penetrating criticism of the rationalistic optimism of the second half of the eighteenth century and highlighted the limitations of human nature —, has, with the deepening crisis of the great political ideologies, come to dominate entirely both history and politics. As long as these ideologies were still able to provide a key for understanding the processes that were taking place in the world, and to point out ways in which politics might intervene, the possibility of exercising rational control over the historical-political processes was, at least, a widely debated and widespread question that stimulated and oriented much intellectual activity and research in the sphere of the social sciences. But then it started to become apparent that these ideologies were increasingly incapable of grasping and interpreting the new phenomena that were emerging, given that, on the one hand, the struggles for the political and social emancipation of the citizens of the Western world were perceived as basically won, and, on the other, new problems and challenges were coming to light that exceeded the dimensions of the existing states and for which the latter had no answers. As this happened, and as there continued to emerge no new categories capable of overcoming the limitations of the previous ones, the idea that historical processes are casual, and thus indecipherable, took root and became the leitmotiv of Western culture.
This deepening crisis of culture, reflected in its inability, now, to see itself as the sphere in which the answers to mankind’s problems should be sought, is thus linked to the current impasse of politics, and it is difficult to see how the two problems can be dealt with separately.
In view of this situation, it is essential that we try, without delay, to understand, first, whether a process that might allow politics once more to be the ambit within which the present can be interpreted and the future planned for is even thinkable, and, second, whether such a scenario has any correspondence to the processes actually taking place, and thus whether it can supply the instruments of understanding that can make it possible to intervene in reality. It was precisely this concern that lay at the heart of the research of Mario Albertini, who saw this as the fundamental question that the philosophical-political culture of our times should be seeking to answer, and who saw it as crucial, from this perspective, to continue the endeavour, begun by Marx and by Max Weber in particular, to lay the foundations for the building of a solid political science. Albertini’s reflections were, to a large extent, devoted to this purpose as he sought, above all, to understand and define politics as a specific sphere of human action, and to analyse the evolution of the historical process in order to try and identify its fundamental laws and thus to provide political science with an objective basis. His critical reworking of the historical materialism of Marx, along the lines that will be illustrated in this article, was part of this endeavour.
Paradoxically, much of this analysis and reflection was never set out in writing, but instead continually revisited and developed during, mainly, the political philosophy lectures he gave at the University of Pavia during the 1970s and up to the mid-1980s. His failure to formulate his ideas in writing can be attributed both to the many political and organisational commitments and roles into which Albertini poured much of his energies, and also to the fact that he was not yet satisfied with his results. The transcript of a complete recording of a series of lectures given in the academic year 1979-80 is the reference source for this paper.[1]
The “Crisis of Reason” and the Epistemological Statute of the Social Sciences.
Traces of Albertini’s reflections on the possibility of identifying a historical course, with reference in particular to the historical materialism of Marx, can be found in his lectures from as far back as the early 1960s, and they remain a feature of all his work right through to the mid-1990s.
Obviously, these were three decades that brought profound changes in the cultural setting in which Albertini worked: Marxism, having been a main theoretical point of reference for historical-social culture at the start of this period, began to enter a crisis in the mid-1970s, before finally being abandoned at the end of the ’80s, a period with major upheavals on the international political stage, in particular the collapse of the Soviet Union. At the same time, currents of thought were advancing that drew attention to the so-called crisis of reason, casting doubt on the idea that the search for truth were central to the growth of man’s knowledge.
Albertini, on the other hand, was deeply convinced of the value of scientific knowledge and rejected the claim that men are incapable of investigating reality. In fact, he felt that it should be possible in the political and social sphere, too, to arrive at a precise definition of the ambits within which a methodology, with features similar to those used in the physical and natural sciences, might be applied.
The whole idea that there is no such thing as “truth”, that there is no correspondence between knowledge and reality (making truth an empty concept), and that science itself is a process far less rational than it was once believed to be, derives, according to Albertini, from difficulties overcoming the effects that the new scientific discoveries and the consequent crisis of Newtonian physics — and, with it, of Kantian philosophy — have had on Western culture. The attempt, undertaken, in particular, by the current of logical empiricism, to re-found philosophy on the basis of new knowledge and of the evolving methodology of the natural sciences, so as to give rise to an epistemology that might constitute a general criterion, valid in all fields of knowledge, failed completely. As basically shown by Quine,[2] who criticised the reductionism of logical empiricism, there exists no absolute criterion that makes it possible to distinguish a scientific theory from a metaphysical one. Not because there is no difference between the two, but because we are incapable of establishing what this difference is based on. Albertini, in his teaching, explained that any entirely coherent proposition, devoid of ambiguity, is such inasmuch as it refers to a precise and abstract idea, and as long as it remains, effectively, devoid of content. Indeed, this is the characteristic of the language of logic and of mathematics, which are true as long as they remain on the level of formal verbal control and do not have any definite content. Once a proposition of this type is inserted into reality, and required to confront the facts of reality, it loses its absolute character and has to reckon with the impossibility of establishing perfect correspondence between formal logic and factual verification. There are two reasons for this. First, in the sphere of reality, individuality is the point of reference, which implies practically infinite variety; for this reason, a verification would demand investigation of all the cases — past, present, future — that enter into the formal formulation; second, there is a need for instruments of control — verbal, physical, technical — for which no provision is made, and no description given, in the theory being verified.
The unavoidable existence, in our capacity for knowledge, of a certain margin of ambiguity and the disappearance of the concept of absolute certainty have inevitably generated a profound sense of bewilderment in our culture. But according to Albertini, it is a mistake to conclude, from this, that science has lost its validity. Science loses its absolute validity at the level of the single act, where verification is always ambiguous and provisional, but it retains the capacity, as a process, to recognise its internal error and to eliminate it. This is an attribute of science that no one has ever been able to deny. What we cannot do is ascribe all the processes that establish truth to act of the single scientist. This is quite normal: no single individual controls all knowledge; only the scientific community — and, more generally, the community of mankind — can assume responsibility for controlling knowledge. While science does not grant us access, at any single point in time, to the whole of reality, it does allow us to piece knowledge together, and the “building” that is produced in this way is the construction of truth, precisely because it confronts reality and has the capacity to identify and overcome its own internal error. Truth and certainty disappear, then, if we consider them in relation to the single case, but they are recovered if we think in terms of a process involving the scientific community.
After all, the reality of human life provides us with crucial evidence of this, which we cannot ignore. While, in philosophy, we can certainly question the basis of reality and claim that reality does not coincide with the global representation that scientific knowledge gives us, and while we are aware of the complexity of the methods used to acquire scientific knowledge and of our poor understanding of them, this does not change the fact that science has shown that it can come up with concrete answers and formulate predictions that do find confirmation in reality. Scientific models allow expectations to be formulated and observations to be made that do correspond to what really happens: we cannot be absolutely certain of the existence of the atom, yet by taking the model of the atom as our starting point we can predict certain physical events in a given context, and observe their actual manifestation.
This correspondence between scientific representations and real occurrences is one of the two fundamental characteristics of science; the other is its character as a coherent body of criteria of knowledge relating to a single object or field of phenomena. It was by mastering, starting with Galileo, this approach to learning and knowledge, which demands not only rigour and coherence, but also the capacity for self-monitoring and verification, that mankind acquired the capacity for the universal sharing and accumulation of knowledge. Indeed, scientific knowledge is defined, among other things, by the fact that, over time, it affirms its universal validity and can thus be shared by all; it is this that allows its amassing.
To abandon this terrain is, in Albertini’s view, extremely hazardous, given that it constitutes, to date, mankind’s only possibility of governing knowledge. Of course, there was knowledge of reality even before the advent of the scientific method, and this kind of knowledge continues to be present in our daily lives. One need only consider how every individual bases his own everyday existence on the certainty of the relationship between cause and effect in the countless instances and situations that make up his practical life and that rest on the truth of common sense. It is this kind of truth that allows people, all the time, to make predictions that do not even require verification, given that they are basic truths or scientific truths that have become facts of life. Accordingly, if you want more light in a room, you look for the light switch; if you want to speak to someone on the telephone, you dial their number, and so on. But the drawback of common sense knowledge, which is immediately confirmed in practice and is thus a first effective form of knowledge, is that it cannot be rigorously controlled, and therefore cannot be, basically, cumulative. Only science, which develops systems to eliminate all ambiguities and, through factual verifications, to ascertain rigorously the correspondence to what really happens, can be considered a verifiable, shared and cumulative process.[3]
Whereas science in the ambit of natural phenomena (leaving aside the philosophical questions it raises) has now acquired extraordinary capacities, in the field of the social sciences, no method has been developed that is capable of producing results that might form the basis of a verified and shared body of knowledge. Albertini, convinced that this shortcoming is the cause of profound imbalances, deems it crucial to make advances in this field.
For some decades now, man’s capacity to influence natural processes has been such that he is even capable of destroying life on earth. It is a fact that the immense power he has acquired, through science, is not counterbalanced by a similar capacity to control the effects of this power. In many ways, man is teetering on the edge of a precipice and the most alarming thing is that his technological progress is not reflected in progress in other areas: in morals, happiness or life itself. One need only think of the failure to control the growth of the cities, or of the failure to use the resources that are available in order to solve the problems of hunger and underdevelopment in the world, to say nothing of the environmental issues; we could go on citing examples endlessly. Mankind’s enormous capacity “to achieve things” is translated, diabolically, into the capacity to destroy, a contradiction that is rooted in his failure to develop institutions capable of regulating human behaviours. Collective behaviours depend, ultimately, on the public powers that exist at different levels. And, today, the public powers are no longer able to represent, truly, the level mankind has reached. These powers are still based on the institutions of the nineteenth century, institutions that proved capable of producing creative solutions and of responding effectively to the problems thrown up by the society of their time. Indeed, the affirmation of individual freedoms, the creation of the democratic state and of the first forms of social security and redistribution of income were all political technologies, to use Albertini’s definition, which allowed mankind to progress. But today’s problems are different from those of the past, and there is a need for adequate instruments to govern them.
What we are witnessing today, therefore, is the failure of the social sciences, primarily of that which calls itself political science. The continued failure to produce a political technology capable of intervening in the course of events and of producing the desired effects, that is, a technology that allows men to exercise political control over the immense store of knowledge acquired and to use it to advance the progress of everyone, means that political science simply does not exist. Today, on the one hand, we lack institutions capable of directing and controlling political behaviours and of curbing egotistical attitudes, in order to prevent the springs of altruism from drying up completely. On the other, we are witnessing the crisis of the great philosophical ideas (starting with idealism and Marxism — and something similar applies to the religious systems), a crisis that, according to Albertini, can be traced back to this incapacity of thought to relate to the present. And the more these great visions (once capable of giving meaning to the world and to life and of providing a moral foundation) are rejected as a possible compass for individual behaviours, the weaker the roots of ethical sentiment become, and the faster the descent, into crisis, of society and the state.
The persistence of these contradictions has plunged the great political ideologies into crisis, too, particularly those that, in the recent past, had indicated the path of progress for mankind (i.e. liberalism, democracy, socialism). As a result there no longer exists a system of thought capable of political and social planning for the future, and consequently the future, as a concept, is in crisis. Albertini, it is important to note, views the function of ideological thought in politics as irremovable (even though it needs to evolve and become more controlled and coherent). What he means by ideological thought is a system capable of identifying institutional objectives appropriate for the objective conditions created by the historical-social process, and of affirming historically the political value that emerges as a priority for remedying the contradictions that exist.[4] A rigorous system, then, that must have a scientific basis, but that must also look beyond this basis, since it cannot limit itself to trying to interpret that which exists; a system that, instead, starting with an analysis of the processes that are under way, must set itself the objective of working out the future — that which does not as yet exist, except as a potential development. It is this system of thought, able to present a broad view of the future, that provides the framework for orienting political action and identifying the spheres in which it is most urgent to intervene. Only in this way can politics fully assume the character of collective thought, which must ultimately be shared by all, and make it possible to achieve that control by all over all that is hypothesised by Rousseau in his concept of general will. If, instead, politics were purely a science, it would be the exclusive province of specialists, who, on the basis of their current knowledge, would reach decisions on behalf of everyone. Obviously, this observation does not detract from the need for a genuine political science, or from the value that this would have; on the contrary, it makes it possible to establish with rigour its ambit and competences.
This divide between scientific and ideological (i.e. philosophical) thought in politics reflects the complexity of man’s condition as a being equipped with reason and called upon to build his own world; it also reflects the consequent relationship that exists on a general level between science and philosophy, wherein the latter continues to be an irrepressible requirement of reason that scientific progress leaves intact, given the infinite questions of meaning that rational knowledge of reality (which is a long way from covering knowledge tout court) leaves open in the ontological, gnosiological, epistemological, and practical fields. This, then, is the delicate and complex divide that must be taken into account in relation to the problem of the epistemological statute of the social sciences.
Scientific thought, as we have already said, is the only category of thought that is self-verifying and capable of identifying and eliminating its own internal error. This is a property that philosophical thought, metaphysical thought and religious thought all lack. Obviously men, mainly in the wake of the French Revolution and the Industrial Revolution, pondered the question of how to apply to human events the capacity that they had developed in relation to their understanding of nature. Albertini cites Kant, Hegel and Marx as the main protagonists, albeit adopting different approaches, of this first attempt to take the social sciences out of the realm of utopia and into that of science proper, i.e., into the realm of verifiable thought. And even though today we find ourselves in an ambiguous situation in which we sometimes deem this objective to have been reached — in fact this is not true — but mainly abandon all efforts to pursue it on the grounds that it is impossible, Albertini feels that this is just a transitory phase and that the need for an objective understanding of social events will once again be perceived as a priority, precisely because it corresponds to an irrepressible need on which, as we have said, mankind’s destiny depends. In fact, progress, in the sphere of values, depends on the capacity of men to create the conditions for the realisation of those values, and therefore becomes a question of knowledge, primarily, and only subsequently one of action. In the absence of clear knowledge, based on scientific criteria and thus universally accepted, different interpretations, instead of giving rise to rational debate (to rid each of them of their arbitrary elements and keep only those that correspond to an effective interpretation of reality), generate only reciprocal rejection and lead to paralysis. In this way, they prevent action.
The scale of the epistemological problems raised by the social sciences is vast, however. In addition to the complex framework, shared with the physical and natural sciences, there are also other, specific difficulties. First of all, there is the difficulty of verification: in the social sciences even just limiting and defining the framework to be investigated can be a highly complex undertaking; basically, it is not feasible to reproduce the verification mechanisms applied in the field of the experimental sciences. After all, no human event can be isolated and reproduced in a laboratory, in specific conditions, in order to test whether the hypotheses formulated in relation to it will prove correct. Furthermore, even though, for the natural sciences, too, the problem of the multiplicity of individual reality is a limitation that creates a divergence between theory and experience, the fact remains that what is being investigated is a setting for which it is possible to hypothesise constant laws. In the field of the social sciences, on the other hand, one has to reckon with the human element, which is not only individual, but also — partially at least — free, and therefore unpredictable and unrepeatable; this excludes the working out, a priori, of a general theory, and it means that real knowledge can be pursued only in the study of individual, real cases. Furthermore, there opens up that ineluctable space for philosophical reflection and for ideological thought referred to earlier.
What all this means is that the historical-social sciences can never hope to arrive at a level of knowledge that would allow us to predict events; they can only lead us towards an understanding of the mechanisms underlying processes, thereby allowing us to intervene in them in a conscious and controlled manner. The resulting “political technology” — wherever there is science a technological element will also ensue, that is, a capacity for intervention in reality — would stop men, collectively, from having to submit passively to events and would open up the way for their conscious and, by definition, free intervention.
What type of knowledge can these sciences really give us? In their ambit, all that can be worked out in a controlled and rigorous manner are the methodological criteria for analysing the facts of reality; in other words, they can specify and increase awareness of explanatory models that allow crucial facts and events to be circumscribed and then studied on the basis of cause and effect. Albertini refers to Weber’s theory of the Idealtypus. Weber,[5] in his view, supplied the first, crucial elements making it possible to distinguish between philosophical and scientific knowledge in the historical-social setting. And the fundamental point is the awareness — we have Weber to thank for this — that, in this field, the object being studied is different, in nature, from natural phenomena: rather than a purely observable fact, it is always an instrument,a means to an end. As such, we can come to know it only if we are able to interpret it correctly, in other words, if we are able to see its original significance. Historical-social knowledge is always related, fundamentally, to certain values and it is this relationship that allows us to grasp the significance of what is being studied.
Any historical-social analysis must therefore start from a value choice: in fact, the first task is to identify and isolate, in the infinite continuum of historical facts, those that seem to have some kind of relevance to the objectives of the proposed investigation. This first step is thus based on what is of particular interest to the scholar (that is, on the value he attributes to certain facts and events), and it is this that makes it possible to construct a meaningful whole — meaningful in relation to the investigation to be conducted.
This is how historians, sociologists, and so on always operate. But the point is that the more conscious this mode of operation is, the more scope there will be for controlling it. The choice that has been made (i.e. the value relationship) must, first of all, be made as clear as possible, after which the meaningful whole that has been constructed must be treated as a hypothesis to be verified on the basis of concrete facts. If this operation is carried out with clarity of vision and without self-mystifications, it becomes possible to establish a coherent ideal type (scheme) on the basis of which we can understand the cause-effect connections between events and acquire a verified knowledge of a given process. In fact, when this stage is reached, it is possible to apply the “if” technique and to identify the facts that, if removed (together with other facts connected to them), would break the chain that leads to the point of arrival, and that therefore constitute an indispensable link. Put another way, it becomes possible to identify what Weber terms the “adequate causation” of the historical event.
This methodology, which proceeds by causes, makes it possible to overcome the purely ideological stage in the study of history and to arrive at a conclusion that can be shared; this is true even starting from different hypotheses, given that, by following these steps, these can be evaluated objectively and discarded if found to be inadequate.
Albertini is perfectly aware that Weber’s theory attracts criticisms and gives rise to doubts. But he is convinced that Weber correctly identified the problem, i.e. that in the historical-social field the only possible form of controlled knowledge is that based on the study of causes; he also sees this approach as central to a correct framing of Marx’s historical materialism, which acquires real value only if it is conceived of as a very broad model for interpreting history. However, according to Albertini, the doubts and criticisms provoked by Weber’s theories failed to prompt an in-depth debate on the questions he raised; even though he is recognised as a great sociologist and as a key figure in the history of this discipline, no serious consideration is given to the issue he raised. Instead, progression of the social sciences depends absolutely on genuine consideration of his theory.
The Question of the Course of History and the Intuition of Marx in his Historical Materialism.
Albertini was convinced that in order to tackle the problem of the current crisis, a crisis that ultimately strikes the very foundations of the human condition, it was necessary to start from the question of the meaning of history. History is the basic mechanism of human action. All great events, political, moral, scientific, and so on, take place within this collective process, which somehow dominates the lives of all men and escapes their control, despite being a product of human activity. According to Albertini, this “obscurity” of history is a source of irrationalism that takes away, often totally, any possibility of planning the future.
Croce, highlighting the difference between volition and occurrence, explained this mechanism well. Man is characterised by the fact that he makes plans and has clear aims, and pursues these in a rational way. At the level of the individual, where action depends substantially on the individual’s will and capacities, we can observe a behavioural situation in which an aim arises from a desire or from a need and adequate means are employed, as far as possible, in order to achieve it. But at the level of social phenomena, particularly more marked ones, any result will clearly be the fruit of the action of many individuals, that is, of the sum of many wills. As a result, in these cases, nobody can plan what happens and what in fact occurs, despite being produced by the action of men, is controlled by no one.
History’s great events thus manifest themselves with apparently irresistible force and can never be attributed to particular people. They always arise from a spontaneous ferment generated by society, which only subsequently man can attempt to direct (as the history of the modern revolutions shows), and even then, only providing its profound nature is respected; anyone who tries to oppose it is in fact swept away, because there is no stopping the march of history, or any chance of channelling it in other directions. This applies not only to society as an organised and institutionalised reality (and thus as regards its political, legal institutions, etc.), but also to customs and ideas.
History can best be likened to the flow of a river, which cannot be opposed, but must, rather, be adapted to, always being careful not to swim “against the current”.
The first risk to be avoided, in the face of this observation, is that of falling into the trap of irrationalism, and thus of allowing oneself to be crushed by the apparently irreconcilable conflict between individual freedom and the determinism of historical processes, whichcanseem casual at first. To regard historical processes as casually determined would empty any hypothesised political action of all meaning: indeed, if conceived of and pursued in a setting in which chance is the only evolutionary mechanism, such action could not imply any goal, or make provision for any means. Ultimately, such a perspective would condemn men to impotence, with all the moral implications of this.
The only way to avoid this risk is to attempt to develop theories on the nature of this unstoppable force, and thus to try and understand the “logic of the occurrence”. For mankind, becoming committed to understanding the mechanisms underlying the historical process is an essential step towards being able to exert a controlled political action, capable of identifying the scope for intervening on these mechanisms in order to govern their effects, develop a political technology, and ultimately affirm freedom in history and to take control of his own destiny.
The thought of Marx contains an intuition that seems to make it possible to move in this direction. This intuition is found in his theory of historical materialism, and it concerns the evolution of the mode of production. According to Albertini, this is the starting point from which to trace an initial outline of the course of history theory and to take the first steps towards a scientific approach to the study of social reality.
The difficulty pinpointing, in historical materialism, the beginnings of a scientific approach can be attributed, mainly, to two factors: the first is that Marx’s formulation — this is often true at the start of great discoveries — is not sufficiently unambiguous; the second is that it is usually regarded as an element set within the general theory of Marxism (and this, not a coherent theory, actually conceals some of Marx’s theoretical discoveries and prevents them from being properly evaluated). That which Marx elaborated should be studied in the same way in which we study theories in the scientific field: analysing them and verifying them objectively, trying to develop them when they seem fruitful, and using them as the basis from which to move on to further discoveries. No one would ever dream of talking of “Einsteinism”, claiming that an evaluation of Einstein’s discoveries can take, as its starting point, a general system derived from the entire body of his thought and of that of his “followers” (the latter, itself, is a term that would be out of place in a scientific context). This approach is just as ridiculous when it is applied to Marx, and especially to his theoretical contributions in the historical-sociological field.
It is thus necessary to specify, first of all, what Marxism is: either it is the thought and the life of Marx, and thus a historical-biographical topic, which should be studied as such; or it is the thought that has grown from subsequent contributions and from the different interpretations of Marx’s works (“the Marxism of all”, as Albertini puts it[6]), in which case it should be approached as a historical, political or social problem.
When wanting to analyse historical materialism, one should therefore focus exclusively on Marx’s thought, identify when, how and why he was interested in the question, and, from there, go on to examine the texts in which he dealt with it.
Marx’s active life as a scholar and thinker can be divided into three stages: the first, very short, ending in the latter part of 1844, is the philosophical period, to which his critical essays on the philosophy of Hegel belong; the second, also very short — lasting from the end of 1844 to 1846 — is the one in which he concerned himself with historical materialism; in the third, beginning in 1846, he devoted himself entirely to studying the society of his time, and he did not return to, or seek to re-elaborate, the question of historical materialism. The intermediate phase, then, that in which he investigated the possible existence of a law of historical development, and in fact believed he had discovered it, is the one that allowed him to progress from his philosophical-idealistic stage to his so-called scientific one.
Marx started out as a liberal, passionate about his studies of philosophy and history. But, morally outraged by the profound injustices of the society in which he lived, he became convinced that contemporary philosophy did not furnish him with adequate instruments, given that he sought knowledge as a basis for action. His research, driven by a strong revolutionary spirit, undoubtedly led him to embrace utopian communism.[7] It is highly likely that this hypothesis remained somehow suspended in his mind. At the same time, the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844, which, despite Marx’s attempts to lay philosophical foundations for a theory of communism, are still imbued with a liberal view of political-social problems, according to which economic and social injustices are attributable to a lack of democracy, to the inadequacies of the political system. Marx’s espousing of utopian socialism, in any case, preceded the writing of The German Ideology (1845), which is, indeed, the work in which he deals extensively with the question of historical materialism.[8]
Thus, when Marx began to investigate the laws of history, he did so with a number of aims (later to be recalled in his preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy). These aims range from the desire to work out the reasons for his and Engels’ conflict with German philosophy of the time — this meant, first of all, having to reckon with their own philosophical conscience — to the attempt “to understand themselves”, that is, to work out a scientific concept of history and the tools for understanding its mechanisms. Once Marx had completed this operation, which seems to have led to an understanding of the laws governing the evolution of history, he was able to concentrate entirely on the scientific study of society, adopting a sure perspective, supported by the certainty of prediction: communism has a scientific basis and, as such, will not simply be the result of a political or moral aspiration, but rather the fruit of the objective evolution of history.
All these elements have to be borne very much in mind when studying historical materialism, particularly in The German Ideology (which is the fundamental text in this regard, the one that really does contain Marx’s attempt to develop a theory). If, indeed, one wants to appreciate just what new and influential elements are contained in this Marxian theory — and something useful there must be, given that it is impossible to ignore it completely and that many of its aspects have appealed, and continue to appeal to many scholars, even non-Marxists, and frequently crop up, albeit in a confused and, above all, uncontrolled manner, in the work both of historians and sociologists — one must start with a critical examination of it.
As regards the critical examination that is necessary in order to understand fully the value of historical materialism’s theoretical core — an endeavour that should see us trying, somehow, to “get inside Marx’s head” in order to understand his mindset —, the first observation to be made is that The German Ideology is an extremely difficult text, for two reasons mainly: first, it was never completely developed. The vicissitudes of this manuscript, which Marx“abandoned to the gnawing criticism of the mice”, are known to all and sundry, but, as a rule, tend not to be taken into account when its content is examined. Instead, it is important to be aware that Marx had flashes of intuition, but that he did not have the time or opportunity, or did not feel the need, to return to them, that is, to review them in order to verify their consistency. The notes that litter this work show clearly that its theoretical part still needed to be rewritten and set in order. The second reason is that, in this work, attempts to develop concepts to be applied to the study of history are mixed with attempts to recount pieces of history from this new perspective (and not always managing to remain consistent with it). This continuous switching from reasoning based on concepts — which, however, are never fully elaborated — to reasoning based on facts, without clearly distinguishing between the two, means that one is faced with the difficult task of taking the text apart and reassembling it in such a way as to separate the theoretical part from the narrative part, so that both might be analysed in depth.
The second observation concerns, precisely, the reconstruction of history on the basis of the new materialistic models contained in The Ideology. In Albertini’s opinion, there is no doubt that these ideas, sketched out, owed much to the utopian communism that Marx had somehow absorbed and internalised. In other words, when Marx begins to abandon the liberal perspective (in which the vision of history is bound up with stages in the progressive affirmation of freedom, and great importance is attached to the events linked to this, such as, for example, religious factors, Christianity primarily, and the Reformation, or political ones, etc.) in order to try and develop new frameworks of interpretation that overturn completely all the points of view valid up to that point, he cannot reconstruct immediately the whole of history from the materialism perspective. In actual fact, Marx already had these ideas in mind, even though they were not yet clearly formulated and were still mixed up with the scheme for interpreting them.[9]As a result, this first draft, being a partial elaboration of theoretical categories, creates confusion between facts and concepts, does not help us to get to the real theoretical core of historical materialism, and shows only, as we said earlier, that the latter had not been fully thought out and was still imbued with pre-established ideas, acquired via other channels, channels almost certainly belonging to the utopian socialist tradition. A few clear references clarify this link (Marx himself will later consider utopian his idea of work in this text, and, equally, it is impossible not to see as utopian his affirmation that socialist society, which corresponds to the realm of freedom, will regulate general production in such a way that no one need be tied, permanently, to the same activity, and everyone, instead, will have the opportunity to gain experience of all types of activity, as well as the freedom to do one thing one day and another thing another day, in accordance with their wishes); but there are also other references, although they are more difficult to pick up on, which show Marx’s attachment to the utopian idea of communism, such as the one concerning the centrality, in the interpreting of history, of private property, which we will come back to in our analysis of Marx’s text.
It has to be remembered then, that Marx’s thought contains elements that were never fully worked out, elements of a utopian, non “scientific” nature, and that these are confused with the new concepts; to analyse the latter fully, and also to complete the elaboration of them, they therefore need to be separated from the former.
After all, it is not feasible that Marx should, at a single stroke, have discovered a whole new concept — in itself an enormous intellectual endeavour — and, on the basis of this, have rethought the whole of history, reconstructing it afresh on the basis of the new categories. First, because such an enormous undertaking can be carried out successfully only if one starts with categories that have been rendered perfectly coherent and entirely devoid of ambiguity.[10] Second, because in Marx’s time, understanding of scientific methods was only just dawning. Science was advancing rapidly, but at that time reflection on the manner of its advance, and on the methods it used, was still not sufficient to prompt a similar kind of reflection in relation to the new and pioneering field of the social sciences. The fact that there was still not even a clear awareness of the distinction between science and philosophy in this sector, makes it quite unrealistic to imagine that there might have been an awareness of the need to perfect a theory in order to render it fully operational.
Nowadays, we know that the initial insight that is the starting point for developing a new concept must be treated as a hypothesis to be examined. And in order to be examined, this hypothesis must first be formulated in absolutely clear and consistent terms that exclude all ambiguity, because this is the only way in which it can be verified. Once this has been done, it must, indeed, be verified in relation to the facts to which it refers: we check what facts it allows us to see clearly and what facts it instead conceals. The result of this initial verification allows us go back to our original theory to see what parts of it remain valid and what parts instead need to be eliminated in order to refine the formulation; the next stage is to verify the refined formulation in relation to the facts. This process is repeated until such time as we have obtained satisfactory empirical evidence and arrived at a coherent theory. It is only at this point that the hypothesis effectively becomes a theory that can be used to weigh up existing knowledge. And the gradual progression towards universal acceptance of a theory, over time, provides confirmation that the theory itself is satisfactory, even though this means of confirmation may, at first sight, appear rather crude.
In accordance with this last principle, the partial acceptance of Marx’s theory, by the scientific community first of all, is, on the one hand, a demonstration that it harbours something powerful, in conceptual terms; if it did not, it would not have been able to exert, for over a hundred years, the influence in the world that it has. But on the other hand, it shows that Marx’s ideas are still not unambiguous and scientific, given that they have given rise to totally different and opposing interpretations, even being deemed to constitute, at once, both method and knowledge (the two are in fact antithetic); indeed, only recourse to dialectic, by definition incompatible with a scientific concept, precisely because it never pins down the object definitively, has made it possible to hide — in the face of overly superficial examinations — all their incompatibilities.
For many years, Albertini strove to accomplish this kind of verification and control operation, which Marx had been unable to do. In so doing, he was well aware of the fact that he, too, was trying a path that would, in its turn, have to be critically reviewed by the community of social scientists. He was all too aware that when one tries to tread a new path, one rarely reaches the best result straight away; but he was firmly convinced that the greatness of scientific thought lies, precisely, in its ability to grow through such attempts, and through the corrections that can be made by those who follow, who are spared the effort of starting from scratch and are able to exploit the insight of those who started the process. In the end, he felt he had produced a clear formulation, and was convinced that this would make a valuable contribution, because clear formulations always lend themselves to useful examination and criticism, and, for this very reason, further the pursuit of knowledge.
Finally, it is worth recalling, even though this may seem obvious from what has already been said, that this work of Albertini’s cannot be set within the tradition of Marxism, understood as a “historical-social fact” as he defined it; in other words, it does not belong to the stream of thought inspired by the works of Marx and of those who later interpreted him. Obviously, Albertini gave thought to his position vis-à-vis these authors and embraced any elements that he found illuminating. But none of them ever approached the question of historical materialism in the same terms as he did, considering the need for a critical reworking of it, and setting it in relation to the facts. Indeed, what has always prevailed has, instead, been a certain dogmatism, which has led to efforts to bend the facts to the theory, without examining the contradictions inherent in the latter; as a result of this, the valid parts of the theory have been emptied of much of their meaning, leaving it an increasingly sterile conceptual instrument. If, as Albertini believed, Marx’s insight can provide, crucially, the basis for an understanding of historical-social processes, then the time has come to abandon the tradition of Marxism and to examine objectively Marx’s thought.
A Critical Reworking of Historical Materialism.
The German Ideology was, as we have already said, the starting point of Albertini’s analysis. This text is the most advanced elaboration of Marx’s thought on historical materialism, even though it must always be remembered that it is not a complete work. The writings prior to 1844, Manuscripts in particular, prefigure many of its ideas, but the formulae presented are still immature, and as such, not useful for the purposes of a re-elaboration. Finally, it is possible to find instances of Marx returning to the topic of historical materialism (returning in the sense that they are reflections on a question that Marx by this time considered closed) and these can be found in his preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy and in some letters.[11]
In order to guarantee a rigorous approach to an analysis of Marx’s hypotheses, the main thing, as mentioned, is to appreciate that, from the perspective of scientific methodology, his elaboration was necessarily limited (as we have said, this was inevitable given the instruments, in this regard, that were at his disposal in 1845). What we need to do, therefore, on his behalf, is carry out the task of correlating, continuously, theory with facts, a task that is necessary in order to be able to clarify the latter and lend coherence to the former. Facts, of course, always “appear” within a conceptual framework, without which we would not even be able to see them, and it is therefore obvious that reciprocal referencing is an ongoing process. We therefore need to proceed with extreme caution and not claim to be able to anticipate any stage.
It seems clear that Marx, when he had the insight to overturn the idealistic perspective and to take material production as the starting point of his attempt to explain man’s fundamental character, had isolated, among all those at his disposal, a series of facts (socialism, the class struggle, private property, alienation, etc.) that, in this new conceptual framework, had immediately taken on a new significance, had seemed to be linked together, and had given him the impression that he had found the common thread that would make it possible to see the direction in which history was moving. This is the point in his investigation at which, feeling satisfied, Marx came to a halt, failing to investigate whether these facts were all compatible with one another, whether they could all, in reality, be explained on the basis of his initial theoretical assumptions, and without fully verifying the coherence of his initial hypotheses. Yet this is exactly the kind of investigation that was called for.
The starting point is thus, necessarily, this insight that Marx had regarding the centrality of production in a re-reading of the lives and history of the whole of mankind. Having decided to adopt this criterion, the next thing is to establish what facts become visible in the light of it. Here, Albertini felt, however, that Marx should not be followed to the letter, precisely because he seems to have accomplished this stage too quickly, which suggests that his field of vision continued to be impeded by pre-established elements, predating his theoretical discovery. The field of investigation thus needs to be limited to the facts that immediately emerge from this new perspective, which was present, somehow, in Marx’s writings of the period ‘44-‘45, before he wrote The Ideology. And the thing that this production perspective immediately shows us (when, through Marx, it takes on its new value and becomes both the basis and the content of human life), is that the whole of society can be described in terms of the complex structure that he defines the mode of production.
First of all, the mode of production determines the division of labour. Even at the very elementary level of hunting, fishing and the gathering of food, we see the imposition of specialisations and rules that must be obeyed by all, as they are indispensable for production: all these functions, on which production depends, are the productive forces.[12]
In the same way, there emerge the relations of production, which are also the product of the division of labour: different specialisations correspond to different roles in society, and these have to be coordinated and codified in order to guarantee that everyone’s functions are carried out in an orderly manner.
Then there are the means of production, which include both physical and intellectual tools: for example the sharp-edged stone or the most sophisticated electronic equipment in the first case, or all the knowledge needed to guarantee the different phases of production in the second. Thus, the sciences, without which certain kinds of production are impossible, are means of production, but so, too, is man’s own conception of himself, which must be compatible with the relations of production; in this way, philosophical, political, and religious ideas are also to be regarded as means of production. It is at this point that the concept of ideology starts to enter the picture, but, for the moment, it is better that we finish looking at the system of production. We will come back to the question of ideology later on.
The last category, which is the one Marx formulated with the least precision, is that of the needs of production. Man’s needs are, primarily, biological and his survival depends on their being met; but what sets men apart from animals is the fact that man’s primary, biological needs are accompanied by the historical-social needs that he himself has created by this introduction of the dimension of production: therefore, man’s survival is not only a physical or biological question; he also has to survive on a historical-social level established by the existence and evolution of the means of production. The needs of production spring, in fact, from the modifications of human behaviours introduced by the means of production; and the relationship between the introduction of a means and the emergence of a new need can be said to be a constant feature of mankind’s civilisation.
Albertini sees these early formulations as discoveries — primarily empirical — that make it possible to grasp the historical-social aspect of human nature, which had previously remained hidden. And they also make it possible to see the necessary link that exists between a certain type of production and the size and composition of the population: the number of inhabitants of an area may range from tens of thousands, in the case of the hunting and fishing mode of production, to hundreds of millions, in the presence of the advanced industrial mode of production. The composition of society itself continues to be rigidly determined by a limited range of possibilities that have to be compatible with the functioning of production. Domination within the community does not emerge, then, simply as a result of a desire for power on the part of single individuals, but as a necessary guarantee of the relations of production; for example, it was not until the advent of agricultural production that there emerged — as a necessity — the great divide between intellectual work and manual labour. The more the mode of production evolves, the more complex the relations of production, as a whole, become; these relations have to be guaranteed to ensure that the system can function, and this increases the need for rules, which in turn imply appropriate levels of knowledge, a certain development of politics (in a broad sense), and a compatible conception of the world (elements all necessary conditions for the development of a certain mode of production). All this gives rise to a crucial reflection: the scope for the emancipation of society (meaning the realisation of a free and fair community, founded on equality) depends, first and foremost, on the evolution of the mode of production, and as long as production (industrial production, for instance) continues to be based on a necessary division of labour in which there are workers who are subordinate and destined to fulfil tasks that require little skill, the seed of inequality, which, objectively speaking, the relations of production continue to harbour, cannot be eliminated.[13]
As mentioned earlier, the analysis of the means of production also brings in the concept of ideology,[14] which Marx was the first to formulate, introducing a new criterion of analysis that highlighted a formerly unknown dimension of thought. As we have seen, the means of production include political, religious and philosophical ideas, which reflect the relations of production and thus make it possible, basically, to preserve consensus for them. This means that they are ideas formed not on the basis of a direct relationship with the object of our investigation, but rather on the power relations on which society’s survival depends. The ambit of knowledge can thus be seen to have three dimensions: in addition to the dimension of the subject, who knows, and that of the object, which is there to be known, there is that of the relations and forces of production that precondition our capacity to hear, to see and to understand. Man’s mind is not, therefore, a mirror capable of reflecting reality objectively (albeit perhaps making some mistakes, which are nevertheless part of this direct relationship between the subject who knows and the object that is known); instead, in most cases, social conditioning actually turns reality on its head and shows it to us upside down. One of the clearest and most well known examples of this is Aristotle’s view that slaves were slaves because slavery was their natural state, and that it was their good fortune to have a master to take care of them. Obviously, Aristotle was well aware of the circumstances that led men to become slaves, and it is perfectly clear, too, that he had the ability to reason in non-ideological terms in very many fields. Yet, thinking of slavery as a natural state while at the same time knowing that slaves were, above all, prisoners of war does not seem to have been a problem for him at all.
Marx does not dwell for long on the foundations of the concept of ideology, but he does explain clearly how, in every age, the prevalence of the thought of the dominant class is accompanied by an acceptance of that thought by the dominated classes. On this basis, reflecting with hindsight on this Marxian discovery, we can see it as a requirement imposed by the need to guarantee the survival of the community: this survival depends on the functioning of production, which in turn is guaranteed only by a certain type of organisation whose implicit inequalities and privileges everyone must regard as natural. If this mechanism of thought did not exist and were not internalised, both by the dominators and the dominated, reality would soon find itself having to deal with the emergence of an awareness — which exists, in fact, in philosophical or religious free thought — that all men are equal, and rebellion would be inevitable. Instead, what occurs is a phenomenon of consciousness splitting and of self-mystification, unconscious obviously, which allows our minds to accommodate contradictory ideas. For example, it allows the Christian idea of the equality of all men to coexist with an acceptance that the differences created by society are inevitable. It is important to note that this ideological veil which conceals the reality of the relations of oppression can fall away only when these relations no longer coincide with the needs of production, that is to say when they no longer constitute true relations of production. The rejection of an ideology, its unmasking, never has a purely theoretical basis somehow, but is always a result of a change in the power situation that previously it justified.
This discovery, by Marx, allows us to see that man has the capacity not only for knowledge, but also for self-mystification, and that our brain sometimes works to probe reality, sometimes to justify or hide social reality. The problem now is to understand the extent of this mental mechanism. Marx, in fact, does not seem to have resolved this question. Although, through his insight, he opened up a new field of investigation, effectively unknown up until that point, at the same time, he made the mistake of taking it for granted that all thought is ideological, perhaps deceived by his own observation — correct, moreover — that thought as an autonomous activity can emerge only in conjunction with the birth of the separation of intellectual work from manual labour in the agricultural society; and he never returned to this theoretical point. But the question, here, is that it is not true that all thought is ideological and the passive reflection of the relations of production; it is not true empirically, even before any attempts to theorise it. If all thought were passive, there would be no explaining man’s discovery of the sharp-edged stone, or the emergence of the physical tools of production generally. Every technical innovation, whatever its level, is, by definition, an act of innovation and, as such, free. In the same way, mathematics is free (two and two makes four regardless of the context in which we are operating), as are logic, the sciences and probably, to a large extent at least, all the higher manifestations of thought, from philosophy to religion and art, even though, particularly in the case of these three, there is always the possibility that ideological use may be made of them. In general, wherever true knowledge exists, and the history of mankind is full of examples of true knowledge, there is no ideological thought, but rather active, free thought, albeit usually on the part of isolated individuals. Much of the thought of men is, undoubtedly, repetitive; even in the case of complex activities, once we have learned to carry them out, the tendency is to resort to mechanical application. But this must not be allowed to cancel out the real experience, however rare, of thought as innovation: when this happened to Marx and above all, to the subsequent Marxist culture, it gave rise to serious contradictions that undermine Marxian theory, which, as a result, could no longer explain innovation and account for reality. Many of Marxism’s (here understood as the thought that came after Marx) difficulties and slips into dogmatism can be attributed in part to this mistake, which was not identified or corrected, and, together with the other contradictions inevitably present in the Marxian formulation — which, for the reasons several times recalled, lacks clarity —, has prevented the truths of Marx’s thought from emerging in all their greatness.
Nevertheless, the fact remains that, in any case, none of what we have said thus far about production and the way it is structured can explain active thought. If experience in general prevents us from denying the existence of this type of thought, it is equally true that, within this model, active thought remains a fact to be clarified. What this model really sheds light on are the determinisms that underlie man’s historical-social reality, not his free acts. The point, to be precise, is thus to recognise that this theory cannot explain freedom and innovation, but neither can it deny them; it accounts for one dimension of human existence, the historical-social dimension, but cannot claim to account for the whole of human existence. We will see below what relationship can be established between these different elements.
This point of view, founded by Marx, also allows us — albeit remaining at the level of the empirical description thus far furnished — to identify the basic workings of historical dynamism. Previously, the reasons why history advanced, why it “moved” seemed obscure. Indeed, ideological or idealistic explanations were advanced that failed to clarify the fundamental mechanisms. Through Marx, on the other hand, it becomes possible to understand them, starting from the observation that changes in the mode of production create new needs: the introduction of a new means of production brings about a transformation at the level of behaviours and of the way of thinking, and this has the effect of creating new needs within the social-historical sphere; these new needs, in turn, act on the system, modifying it, and it is certainly plausible that the accumulation of the new needs that are progressively created, and of the responses that they produce, can reach the point at which they change the mode of production. One might think, for example, of how the agricultural mode of production has gradually created new needs, to respond to which the system has become more complex, has extended and grown stronger, in all sectors: in that of knowledge (to reach, ultimately, the birth of modern science), in that of technology, in that of craftsmanship, in that of the economy, and so on. Society goes through a process of overall growth and a progressive transition that can — as has in fact occurred — at a certain point result in a sudden leap forward, a profound change that leads to a new mode of production. A dynamism, then, that is characterised by profound breaks with the past, and radical changes, even though these are infrequent transitions.
It is important to note, before going on, that the deterministic nature of the dynamic movement of history can be identified only after the event. The historical materialism model, in fact, makes it possible to identify the causal links at the root of historical-social transformations, and thus to understand them and explain them; but it does not claim to be able to predict them. In fact, it is not possible to anticipate innovation (the introduction of the new, physical means of production that triggers the creation of new needs and that can, in turn, itself be the response to profound needs, or, on the other hand, a brilliant solution to secondary problems), precisely on account of its free character, already referred to; it is not possible to predict automatically the type of needs that will ensue, because these depend on the concrete conditions of society, and neither can the response to these needs, should they arise, be anticipated; neither, finally, are the changes produced in the wake of the activation of this mechanism automatic. It is only with hindsight that this model, which starts from the perspective of production, makes it possible to see why certain fundamental changes in the life of society have come about, or indeed not come about. After all, history is not only continuous change, it is also comprised of periods of stagnation, ends of civilisations, collapses of empires.
History advances by great stages, because, as long as a mode of production endures, retaining its essential characteristics, then all the other aspects of historical-social life conserve their basic characteristics, too. As our analytical breakdown of the concept of production seems clearly to show, the size of the population, within its possible range, is determined by the mode of production; this is also true of the social composition of the population and of the culture, experience and prevalent mindsets that characterise it. This is not in a rigid and absolutely unequivocal manner, obviously, but within a range of predetermined options. A transition to a new mode of production is accompanied by a rapidly accelerating process: behaviours change profoundly, the size of the population starts to increase and continues to grow until it is compatible with the new type of production, the social composition of the population changes completely, the level of schooling and the number of people sharing in oral and written knowledge both increase and, depending on the increase in controlled thought, i.e. scientific thought and philosophical thought, there is also an increase in society’s capacity for freedom and in the processes of democratisation and socialisation.
This point of view thus makes it possible to understand both the dynamic aspects of history, and the reasons why, within a stable production system, the changes that manifest themselves in society (naturally within that fixed framework, outlined earlier, that relates to the fundamental characteristics of the population) are to be attributed to politics, law, the economy, science, religion, etc., whereas when the mode of production changes, the transformations that take place must be related, in the first instance, to that change. When seeking an explanation for changes that came about in society in a given era, this very general criterion emerges as the decisive key to a correct understanding of the processes that unfolded.
If this reconstruction is plausible — as an empirical reconnaissance suggests it to be, even though it is relatively remote from Marx’s formulations —, then the next stage is to move on from this initial identification of the type of facts that historical materialism (hypothetically) clarifies, to a new verification of the theory, to see whether it really is capable of isolating, describing and explaining these same facts without ambiguity or confusion.
First, however, we must make a premise. In performing this series of operations in his bid to advance along the road first set out on by Marx (the development of a scientific theory of the evolution of history from the perspective of man’s historical-social dimension), Albertini was moving in what was still practically uncharted territory. For this reason, he very often took time to dwell on the methodological question, trying to clarify fully the terms of his investigation. He was quite clear about what he was aiming to do: he needed to arrive at a scientific theory, which as such would be based on language that could be interpreted unambiguously (thus, by definition, a theory that could no longer lend itself to a philosophical interpretation, given that science and philosophy are mutually exclusive), and which would ultimately find, in practice, its definitive (and necessarily public) confirmation, in other words, a theory whose validity would be demonstrated, over time, by everyone’s acceptance of it as valid. All this in the awareness that science is a process that is never contained in a book or in a single discovery, but is, rather, in a state of constant re-elaboration.
The route to this goal — the scientific elaboration of the theory — is, in part, still to be discovered in the historical-social field. Albertini, for example, having got this far in his analysis, realised that he needed to have recourse, in this initial phase, to the instrument of description in order to be able to represent historical-social reality in the light of the set of concepts derived from the idea of production. And the use of description, in this case, needs to be carefully explained, because it is a form of description that presents structural limitations: it is, first of all, conjectural, hypothetical, given that is does not refer to a specific historical situation that has concretely manifested itself; and what is being described are the constantly recurring features of human experience, features that will continue to recur until such time as men change their nature. It is not, therefore, a description of things already seen, a sort of photograph of a historical situation, but rather a hypothesis, a conjecture, the identification, somehow, of a law able to show that production is a factor whose social significance is such that it is crucial for the survival of the human race and determines all social activities.
The same caution needs to be applied when re-examining Marxian theory in the light of what is thrown up by the earlier empirical reconnaissance. This is because it is very easy to be deceived and to fail to spot its incongruities. First of all, when Marx, at the start of his investigation, declares that he rejects en bloc the idealism of Hegel (because this is his true opponent) on account of the fact that it establishes the object of study even before starting to study it, he raises the problem of his need to start from scratch. Marx’s theoretical elaboration cannot be based on pre-established knowledge; all that he can and must do is formulate a premise and hypothesis. Any other idea he might in some way hold on to, in order to get his analysis started, leads him to fall into a process of self-mystification. This, then, is the first point to consider in a re-examination of his theory.
This starting from scratch is an extremely complex and arduous task, of which Marx is not even fully aware, precisely because he is treading new ground and opening up a completely new avenue. Yet, it is a task he nevertheless manages to accomplish, effectively entering an ambit that coincides with the ambit of science. His starting point is, in fact, a premise, “living human individuals”,[15] which he does not postulate as an entity, rather as something that still needs to be defined empirically. And from the empirical point of view, what emerges is that the difference between men and animals can be traced back precisely to the point at which men started to produce their own means of subsistence.
This first observation has a series of consequences. The first, and here we quote Marx, is that if this is true, then men in this way “are indirectly producing their actual material lives”.[16] This first indication, which seems entirely logical, makes it possible to mark out with precision the dimension determined by the mode of production. If, in fact, I am talking about indirect production, I am excluding, without attempting to explain it, the biological factor, which regards both reproduction in a physical sense (that which might be defined the direct reproduction of life) and thought (here meaning free and active thought, which, too, can be linked to the biological sphere). Both of these aspects, in fact, lie outside the ambit considered here.
The difficulty arises when Marx is unable to maintain this framework. Indeed, from the very next lines, and after a series of passages, he in fact states that what individuals are “therefore coincides with their production, both with what they produce and with how they produce. The nature of individuals thus depends on the material conditions determining their production.”[17] This second affirmation is a complete reversal of the first: whereas what was highlighted before was the fact that men indirectly produce their lives (through the means of production) — and thus that these means are explained by the fact that men produce them —, this latter passage says that men are what they are because of production, and thus that it is men who are explained on the basis of the means of production. This is a vicious cycle in which the precise boundaries of the field of investigation also get caught up. In the first case, as has already been pointed out, thought is not included, in the sense that no attempt is made to explain it as an effect of production: and yet the fact that men produce, that they create means of production, presupposes the act of creation, which is the fruit of free thought. Conversely, the second hypothesis not only implicitly includes biology (when we talk of life, without specifying it further, it is difficult to imagine that the biological sphere is not included), but also claims to explain thought, thereby reducing it to pure ideology.[18]
This is the unacceptable point, which introduces, right from the start, a dangerous ambiguity that, in addition to creating the conditions that will allow the most arbitrary interpretations to find justification, prevents the theory from being clarified to the point at which it becomes a true instrument of knowledge. On careful analysis of these passages, it can, unfortunately, be seen that Marx repeatedly falls into this ambiguity and it is the flaw at the root of many misleading formulations. In Albertini’s view, the real cause of this error is, in addition to the objective difficulty of opening up a completely new avenue, the fact that two different spheres of analysis, the philosophical and the scientific, continued to be mixed up in Marx’s thought processes, as he strove to provide communism with a theoretical basis. If one is reflecting on a philosophical level, one must try to get to the roots of being, ultimately, and thus try to explain man in his totality. It is inconceivable, on the philosophical plane, to stop at a dimension that does not exhaust the reality of the object we are studying. On the scientific plane, on the other hand, success is made possible precisely by the definition of the context of the research (and thus by the renunciation a priori of any attempt to investigate the whole).
A seemingly banal example helps to clarify this point. When talking of the division of labour, Marx maintains that its first manifestation is seen in the man-woman relationship in procreation,[19] in which, he says, relations of oppression and domination are established. But given that his purpose was to establish what distinguishes man from beast, the basis of his argument is clearly incorrect. Here, in reality, we are talking at the level of biology, where men have a great deal in common with mammals. If we want to consider the division of labour in relation to the relationship between the sexes, we should, instead, be looking at how their social roles differ, and thus transfer our attention away from the question of procreation, which concerns only the biological sphere, to the historical-social sphere. It is easy to understand why Marx commits errors of this kind if we consider the co-existence, within him, of these contradictory trends, and the fact that, when his mental control weakens, the philosophical inclination to seek to explain everything gets the upper hand.
Continuing our analysis of the text we find at intervals, as already indicated on several occasions, further conceptualisations and the first sketchy accounts of history, in which there appears the question of property;[20] some pages afterwards we find references to the structure of production, from its relations through to its needs,[21] and to the elements that make it possible to advance hypotheses regarding the mechanisms of historical dynamism. Once again the confused framing of the exposition tends to mislead and can seem to give substance to the hypothesis of an outline of history that takes the different forms of private property as its starting point. The problem is that whereas the terminology relating to production makes it possible to establish in a precise and unequivocal way the constant characteristics of all the stages in the historical process — and in a satisfactory way compared with the level of theorisation thus far reached (in other words, it does not introduce elements as yet unexplained) —, property, instead, enters the discussion as an element that has still not been theorised and whose only link with the theory is the fact that it is a product of the division of labour, yet it immediately becomes the crux of a general idea that includes the transition from capitalism to communism. In Albertini’s view, none of this holds together. When one sets out with the aim of working out a general vision of history and thus endeavours to establish the first general aspects of man’s social-historical situation and to draw out its constant features, it is clear that a phenomenon that intervenes only in already advanced stages of history should not emerge as central. Therefore, the idea of property as the main thread running through the historical process, in this context and in these conditions, does not work and to place it on a par with the concept of production, at this level of the investigation, is profoundly contradictory: whereas production emerges from an empirical verification which takes as its premise the lives of men, the same cannot be said of property. Once again, Marx’s confusion can be deemed plausible, and justifiable, only on the basis of the suggestion that the communist ideology which had somehow become impressed in his mind was tending to superimpose itself on his investigation, leading him towards pre-established elements that, in this context, lacked all theoretical legitimacy (indeed, it is no coincidence that property is one of the key elements in Manuscripts).
Many of the formulations of historical materialism, which moreover are the ones that in some ways have been most successful (here I also refer to those contained in the preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy), share these same origins and theoretical flaw. A theory that sheds light on the constant features of history, as observations of fact, is mixed with an idea of history developed according to the canons of utopian communism. Even the idea of the class struggle is born of this ambiguity; in fact, it claims to be a general theory when clearly it refers to historical-social situations that are not constants in or of the process, but rather facts that appear from a certain stage on, and that actually manifest themselves strongly only in an industrial society. They are thus, at most, frameworks for interpreting contemporary reality — the question of whether or not they are right for this purpose is not even raised — but they are misleading because they are attributed with a general character.
However, the most serious error, from the theoretical point of view, in Marx’s formulation of historical materialism is that he reduces the mode of production to an economic concept.[22] When we analysed Marx’s first formulations of the mode of production, these could be seen to range from the most simplistic one, which spoke only of indirect production of actual material life — this seemed the most satisfactory — to the one that attributed the whole of the life of men to production, even going so far as to deny the existence of any reality outside of production. So, if this ambiguity of exposition tends to give rise to a situation of theoretical uncertainty that helps to explain the difficulty in maintaining the stability both of the words used and of the concepts, it is also true that both the formulations are moving in a very clear direction, i.e. defining production as complex whole. There is thus no basis for identifying, at a certain point in the investigation, the concept of production with that of economics, i.e. with just one of the many parts of the complex whole that is the production of the historical-social dimension of the lives of men. It is clear that once again there has been a superimposing of levels that has resulted in a shift of the theory, a shift made apparently acceptable by the previous affirmations and by the mixing in of utopian elements. According to this reduction, the economy takes on the status of a foundation “structure” that determines the other levels of human activity (politics, law, religion, philosophy, art, and so on), which are thus nothing more than its “superstructure”. It is thanks to this formulation that the very widespread cliché that economics is superior to other human activities — almost a dogma, even today when Marxism is harshly criticised —, has found acceptance; but above all, it invalidated all the hypotheses from which the Marxian analysis started out, hypotheses that have instead shown themselves to be capable of harbouring very valuable innovative potential. The erroneous division of human activity into different spheres, economic, religious, etc., and the subsequent establishing of a hierarchy between them, is not reflected in reality, in which, to cite a basic example, it is actually politics that much more often predominates over economics; similarly, one need only think of all those situations in which the production process depends on technology, the existence of which, in turn, depends on the evolution of science. But it is, above all, on the theoretical level that the contradictions introduced by this narrow interpretation become really serious. In fact, either production coincides with the whole historical-social dimension of the lives of men, as Marx indicated several times in his initial hypotheses, and is thus a perspective that explains all the determinisms in this ambit (as well as their interdependence), and effectively clarifies the basic mechanisms of these pro-cesses, or it is a merely confused concept according to which one part of human activity — this part is actually limited and dependent on other types of activity — determines everything including, obviously, free thought and the biological sphere.
Yet this dogma has enjoyed huge success and allowed a simplification (and vulgarisation) of Marxism and its enunciations on the class struggle and on property, this simplification being useful for propaganda purposes (because of its capacity to identify effectively some of the characteristics of the industrial phase and to bring about mass mobilisations), but devastating from the point of view of the quest for a real understanding of the general processes and thus of the enduring validity of the theory. One need only recall that, from this perspective, the institutions have become a superstructure devoid of autonomy vis-à-vis the economic processes, and the state has even been interpreted as an expression of the existing relations of power, thus as an organisation to be abolished together with them.
A final remark can be made with regard to the theory of the causes of historical dynamism that emerges from the preface to the Critique, in which the concept of historical materialism is set out (albeit using the terminology of production) starting from the priority consideration that “the totality of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation on which arises a legal and political superstructure and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness”.[23] We thus find ourselves on terrain where the framework of reference is history conceived of as a class struggle based on property. From this perspective, the mechanism moving history is no longer found in the creation of new needs deriving from the introduction of means of production, but rather in the contradiction that arises between the relations of production and the productive forces as the latter progressively expand. As long as there remains scope for the development of the productive forces within a given mode of production, “no social order is ever destroyed” and new superior relations of production cannot take its place.[24] Only when the old system reaches a state of complete paralysis can the revolutionary change occur. Marx concludes by pointing out that the bourgeois relations of production are the last antagonistic form of the social process of production, because the productive forces that develop in the bosom of bourgeois society create, at the same time, the material conditions for the solution of this antagonism; this social formation therefore brings the prehistory of human society to a close.[25]
This formulation, too, was extraordinarily successful, both because of its strong emotional impact and because it contains a determinism that makes it possible to point out both the inevitability and the objectivity of progress, showing it to be the ineluctable fruit of the historical process, the advent of the final stage in history: communism.[26] The problem is that this determinism is untenable. To claim that a paralysis of the system is followed automatically by a transition to the next stage is not only untrue in fact, it is also contradictory in theory. On the factual level, this determinism cannot explain the stagnations and irreversible crises that are history’s most frequent scenarios; the only example of an ongoing process, a progressive development that has never been definitively interrupted, is, in fact, the European experience. This model is thus useful if it is applied to this specific case, if it is treated as the description of a fact; but if it is applied to history generally, then it simply does not work. On the theoretical level, by introducing an absolute determinism it denies, once again, all scope for innovation and for the free act which are, instead, the implicit precondition of the whole theoretical construction. Instead, the theory of needs manages to take this aspect into account satisfactorily, and does not create determinisms, as we have seen. It shows that if a new element is introduced into the system, the element modifies the system — this is what is often seen when new needs emerge —, but it does not say that a new need will automatically be met by an evolutionary response, and thus it does not claim to predict that which cannot be predicted.
In short, the ambiguities that we have highlighted here are the elements that need to be eliminated from the theory of historical materialism, in order for this to become an effective instrument of knowledge, hypothetically the first step towards the founding of the historical-social sciences. They concern, first of all, the claim that every aspect of human life is determined, which implies that the repetitiveness, and thus ultimately the passiveness, of human behaviours can be seen not only in large numbers, statistically, but also at the level of the individual. In this way, freedom as a factor is totally excluded. Against this, we have tried to demonstrate, instead, that this theory works only if it is conceived of as a sort of open system that works on the basis, precisely, of variants introduced from the outside: in this case, from the biological sphere and above all from the sphere of free thought. The fact that the theory cannot explain free behaviours, but limits itself to explaining the determinisms of historical and social mechanisms, and therefore does not deal with the freedom that, in this framework, can in fact be set aside (collective behaviours, never individual ones, are the object of its investigation), does not in fact mean that it can, or indeed should, exclude their existence.
This is the reason why the development of the historical process can never be anticipated in a deterministic sense. In fact, this conceptual model cannot predict what will happen; rather, it makes it possible to interpret certain general aspects of past processes and current trends, identifying a few general rules that restrict social development; it is knowing these rules that allows mankind to act in a conscious manner. Conversely, the idea of the historical process as a certain and spontaneous evolution ferrying mankind, inevitably, towards the realm of freedom, is a myth that cannot be trusted in.
There is one final point that is crucial for a correct framing of historical materialism, and it is that historical materialism must never be mistaken for a description of concrete historical processes, even though it often has been. This only gives rise to confusion that, once again, conceals reality rather than helping to clarify it. After all, even Marx himself, even though he sometimes wavered, seems to have realised that he had developed models for understanding history that did not, in themselves, correspond to effective knowledge of the facts, but rather theoretical instruments for probing the facts and understanding them. The text contains many remarks to this effect and Albertini cites, in particular, notes, later deleted and then included only in the critical editions, in which Marx was particularly clear on the fact that knowledge is derived directly from history.
Historical materialism is a conceptual scheme, or model, which, as such, provides the means for analysing fundamental processes, but does not describe reality. It is possible, from this perspective, to see historical materialism as an Idealtypus. Albertini, as mentioned earlier, regarded Weber’s idea as illuminating from the point of view of the methodology of the social sciences. He felt that it might be possible to establish a sort of hierarchy of ideal types, starting, precisely, with historical materialism, which could be seen as the most general because it explains the fundamental mechanism of the historical process and contains the most universal and least specific criteria. Starting from this, it would then be possible to insert the other ideal types that would frame with increasing precision the evolution of historical events and human behaviours (one of the first of these ideal types would be that of the raison d’état or rather the reason of power, which, Albertini hypothesises, is the basis of political science because it makes it possible to explain political behaviour) until one arrives at the most specific ones, and finally at the level of the individual; in short, until one arrives at what really occurred, which is the object of knowledge and must be recounted in all its specific detail.[27]
The historical materialism idea, once it has been reworked — we might also say, once it has been brought back into line with Marx’s original design, which he was unable to carry through to completion (given that, in the conditions in which he was operating, no one would have been able to avoid confusing two overlapping perspectives, that of the nature of communism and that of the nature of history) —, emerges as a very powerful instrument that allows us to verify any detail of our historical knowledge. The causal links that it has allowed us to bring out (in particular in relation to the size and social make up of the population) are constants of the process that no specific investigation can fail to take into consideration.
In this complex analysis, Albertini (who basically reconstructed historical materialism, almost from its foundations), used Marx’s outline with the rigour of a philologist, with the rigorous and minute patience of a scientist feeling his way forward on uncharted terrain, and with the passion of a man of action who senses the urgent need to know in order to understand the times in which he lives and to evaluate the scope for introducing a political project that might give men the chance to plan their own future. Without this extremely strong moral tension, something he has in common with Marx and which allowed him to attempt (successfully, I believe) to “get inside his head” — as he himself put it —, he would not have been able to achieve the extensive and innovative results he did. Indeed, his findings deserve to be taken up again in historical and social debate, to be discussed and even criticised, but without ever skirting the great issues they raise.
If there is a basis for Albertini’s re-interpretation, historical materialism, as he understands it, is a powerful instrument for studying history’s transitional phases, those in which a new mode of production is emerging. It thus becomes critically important, given that the world today is going through a transition from the industrial to the post-industrial (or scientific, as it tended to be called in debate in the 1960s and ’70s) mode of production. This change is presenting mankind with enormous opportunities, but also terrible risks and momentous challenges. Let us not forget that if all that we have hypothesised thus far is true, if what we face is not just a simple extension of the industrial mode of production, but rather a transition towards its possible overcoming, then this will demand and bring enormous changes in culture and in politics, changes that will be neither simple nor painless, given that they will clash with the inertia of the established powers and will need to be thought out with appropriate intellectual instruments.
Albertini began to think about these processes when they were only just dawning, but the speed of the transformations that are taking place show that his remarkable insight allowed him to envisage scenarios that are now, to a great extent, manifesting themselves.

[1] The first ten lectures are currently accessible in audio (mp3) format at the website of the Mario and Valeria Albertini Foundation,, and, before long, the entire set should be available.
[2] Willard V.O. Quine, “Two Dogmas of Empiricism”, in From a Logical Point of View, Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1953.
[3] Albertini often pointed out that scientific knowledge demands absolute objectivity on the part of those operating in this field, which implies absolute freedom from any will of power and any personalistic ambition. From this point of view, science is also a great ethical lesson and can be defined as a collective moral enterprise. This mindset of science, which implies openness to rational criticism and acceptance of the need constantly to verify the results achieved, should serve as an example in every sphere of human action, above all where the aim is to improve the knowledge and lives of men, because it corresponds to the way in which reason itself operates.
[4] A precise definition, by Albertini, of the concept of political ideology can be found in Mario Albertini, Il federalismo, Bologna, Il Mulino, 1993, p. 91 (note 3).
[5] Max Weber, Wirtschaft und Gesellschaft, Tübingen, Verlag für Sozialwissenschaften, 1922.
[6] This definition also took into account the fact that there existed, in the Marxist current, positions that often contradicted one another. Towards the end of the 1970s, the existence of these different approaches even led to the term Marxism being used in the plural, and thus to talk of “Marxisms”. In Albertini’s view, this clearly showed the impossibility of identifying a precise theory underlying this definition; after all, if, in the attempt to bring together different interpretations and theories under asingle label (to square the circle in some way), one ends up talking of Marxisms (in the plural), one is effectively negating the very existence of Marxism as thought. If we attribute a given meaning to version A of Marxism, and another, different meaning to version B, and so on, ultimately all we are left with is a name that has no clear meaning, because it refers to different things.
[7] This step can be justified precisely by the moral reaction that, in Marx, derived from his appreciation (dating back to his reports for the Rheinische Zeitung) of the dramatic difficulties in which most of the poor classes lived.
[8] According to Albertini, Marx’s attempt, in Manuscripts, to found, on a philosophical level, a precise theory of communism, can in fact still be seen in the context of his utopian thought, at least in the very general sense that utopian thought does not have a clear link with the historical process. The coexistence, in Marx’s mind, between this tendency to look for a way of theorising communism on a philosophical level — in the utopian sense as we have said — and the desire to lay the foundations of scientific thought lasted for some considerable time, and it is this, above all, that explains the many variations in his formulations that prevent him from developing a coherent theory. This aspect, mentioned briefly here, is covered in more depth in the next paragraph which analyses the text of The Ideology.
[9] Marx himself, on other occasions, and especially in several letters (see, in particular, Letters to Dr Kugelmann, New York, International Publishers, 1934), stresses that he has not discovered anything new, that all he has really done is identify the elements making up his new idea within already affirmed thought — from the class struggle, to the problem of social diseases linked to private property, to the idea of the abolition of private property, to the very idea of socialism. His achievement, an achievement that he himself claimed, was that of piecing together these fragmentary elements into a unitary vision that linked them to the historical process, transforming them from moral denouncements, of a utopian nature, and from partial truths, incapable of affecting reality, into parts of a scientific theory, which revealed the fact that the historical process was moving, precisely, in the direction of the advent of socialism.
[10] It must be appreciated that an undertaking of this kind really does demand a titanic effort, because it becomes necessary to redefine, from scratch, everything that has happened and everything that is crystallised in our consciousness; it is not, therefore, a mechanical operation, but one that involves consideration of each single case; it is, at the same time, acrucial undertaking because if it is not carried out, elements of the old ideas will survive and make it impossible to attain the clarity needed to reach true knowledge.
[11] In particular, Letters to Dr Kugelmann, op. cit.
[12] In some points, Marx uses the term productive force in the singular, too; in this case, however, it has a different meaning, referring to the overall production capacity of a society. For the moment, however, we will leave this formulation out of consideration, since it is of little use in the context of the present analysis.
[13] This observation was at the root of Albertini’s criticism of the many Marxist illusions regarding the possibility of realising the communist design in a society still characterised by the industrial mode of production. The Soviet experiment itself, which had clearly produced a society in which there persisted power differences, and also relations of subordination of the workers to a managerial class that, while not formally owners of the means of production, nevertheless controlled production — here we touch on another controversial issue, which we will return to later in this essay, concerning the possibility of abolishing private property in accordance with the terms of Marxism, — was undermined not only by the country’s specific historical conditions, but also, and mainly, by the fact that in an industrial society there necessarily remain, as already noted, differences in roles and in power. Albertini’s idea was that only one mode of production (like the scientific mode that began to be taken into consideration in the 1960s and 1970s) which replaced repetitive human labour with machines and transformed all workers into skilled technicians might effectively make it possible to institutionalise the control of all over all, in other words, freedom and equality.
[14] Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, “The German Ideology”, Vol. I, Part I, Ch. I, in Marx and Engels Collected Works, London, Lawrence and Wishard Ltd.
[15] Ibidem.
[16] Ibidem.
[17] Ibidem.
[18] Another example of the contradictions, also internal, introduced by this formulation which claims to reduce the whole of men to the production dimension emerges in relation to the problem of freedom. It is known that Marx spoke of the advent of communism as the transition from the realm of necessity to that of freedom. The concept of freedom is compatible with the affirmation that man produces his own life indirectly, in the sense that the only aspect of life which is determined by relations of productions is historical-social life. Since it does not coincide with the whole of human life and does not include biology, and thus thought, it therefore becomes possible, on the basis of thought, to explain the scope — however frequently this is grasped — for freedom; and also to explain its realisation in concomitance with the advent of a mode of production that allows the creation of a society founded on equality. But if man is limited to the sphere of production, and is thus totally determined, how is it that he can suddenly become free? From where does this possibility arise?
[19] Ibidem.
[20] Ibidem.
[21] Ibidem.
[22] A very clear formulation of this identification of the mode of production with the economy can be found in Karl Marx’s preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, Moscow, Progress Publishers, 1977.
[23] Ibidem. This passage, if analysed extremely closely, clearly shows the contradiction contained in this formulation. The relations of production are the economic “structure” of society, but also its spiritual and technological structure, and so on. So what is the basis for this separation and pre-eminence of the economic “structure” vis-à-vis the rest, whichhas exactly the same function in relation to the process of production, identified by Marx himself, in this context too, as the point of reference?
[24] Ibidem.
[25] Ibidem.
[26] Were this determinism true, it would be impossible to see the sense in, among other things, a revolutionary force fighting for the realisation of an objective that history has already preordained. Even if this force were acknowledged to be capable of speeding up the process, the fact remains that its role, viewed from this kind of perspective, is entirely marginal. It would also mean that history can be known before events have even taken place, and this is absurd.
[27] History, Albertini explained, as regards its basic events, is a story of choices, of free acts; this is why history can only be recounted. But the story can become knowledge and correspond to reality only if the investigation of reality takes as its starting point a typological framework that allows the actions of single individuals to be set within the general framework of history.


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