political revue


Year LIX, 2017, Single Issue, Page 35



Albertini, Political Scientist: Lessons on Historical Materialism, Kantian Political Philosophy and Raison d’Etat*





The reference source for this presentation, like the two essays on this subject I previously wrote for The Federalist (respectively, issue 1, 2008 and the single issue of 2009), is the transcript of a complete recording of a series of lectures given by Mario Albertini for the political philosophy course he directed during the 1979-80 academic year.

Given the tight schedule of this conference, and the vastness of the subject matter in hand, all I can do is attempt to outline the theoretical scheme that can be drawn from Albertini’s lengthy exposition. My presentation is also to be seen as an acknowledgment of a fundamental part of his reflection that, today, is still hidden from public view. In truth, however, what we really wish to do, on the occasion of this meeting, is resume and re-launch the attempt to make accessible, to scholars as well as political militants, the results of Albertini’s decades-long work of detailed, but always verbal, analysis. The time has come to start organising this material, so that his lessons can be formally published.

This brief presentation will not allow me anything like the space I need to convey the extent of Albertini’s analysis, or to give a real idea of what was experienced by his students, for whom he repeatedly opened up new windows onto various areas of knowledge, allowing them to glimpse different aspects of reality with fresh insight. This is, precisely, the reason for the project — the only way to do justice to the depth and richness of this part of Albertini’s thought (here only touched on), not to mention the contribution it made to the field of political science.

* * *

Through a process of reflection evolving over a period of more than 30 years, and lasting until the late 1980s at least, Albertini developed a critical reworking both of historical materialism and the concept of the course of history and the specific nature of politics. His very first expositions on these topics (largely preserved as they were recorded and subsequently transcribed) date back to the start of the 1960s, the period that saw Albertini analysing the foundations of European federalism, which he recognised as an expression of active political thought, capable of orienting action on the basis of an original interpretation of the historical process and an original political-institutional proposal. This was the period in which Albertini, with an insight that stemmed from Spinelli’s identification, in the Ventotene Manifesto, of a new dividing line between reactionary forces and the forces of progress, foresaw the crisis of the traditional ideologies, thirty years before this became a reality.

In relation to this new political orientation called federalism, Albertini, in seeking to clarify the nature of the battle for European federation (and also the necessary strategy) reflected first of all upon the concept of the course of history, and the relationship between determinism and freedom. His aim was to establish whether it is possible to exercise rational control over historical and political processes. For Albertini, it was absolutely crucial to try to understand whether a scenario in which politics might once more 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.

Albertini was convinced that this was the fundamental question that the philosophical-political culture of our times should be seeking to answer, and he 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. Accordingly, to a large extent, he devoted his reflections to this topic, mainly analysing the process of history in an attempt to identify its fundamental laws and thus provide political science with an objective basis. In his view, this was also the necessary condition for defining the specific nature of politics as a sphere of human action.

Albertini’s critical reworking of Marx’s theory of historical materialism was part of this endeavour.

Previously, speaking at a federalist training course in Pavia in 1964, he had already clearly set out this fundamental problem of the relationship between politics, freedom and the historical process and had indicated that several fundamental categories for addressing it could be derived from a reworking of Marx's theory of historical materialism: “There exists an extremely widespread arbitrary conception of history according to which man is free and the master of his own destiny as an individual. But this free man, who makes his choices, plans his destiny, and represents his own project, is actually nothing at all, because history regards itself, and him, in an entirely different light. Together, these free men find themselves obtaining results that appear to be completely random with respect to their choices. But, the fact is that although each man is free and plans out his existence, his existence is mixed together with those of all others, and this inevitably leads to a result that is beyond the scope of all possible knowledge, will or decision. Therefore, if all we do is recognise historical determinism while at the same time claiming to have freedom of choice, the result is inevitably irrationalism. To overcome this contradiction we need to try to construct a vision, a theory that allows us highlight the relationships that exist between the freedom of individuals (which is a real experience, and must therefore have a foundation), and the course of history, which is also a real experience and cannot be overlooked every time we try to understand the unfolding of human affairs”.[1]

Albertini was driven primarily by the practical need of those who, being personally involved in radically new (revolutionary) political action, must find their own way on terrain where the established categories of thought, already shared and used in previous battles, are no longer of any help, in other words, no longer able to provide an understanding of current processes. The theoretical requirement in Albertini’s case thus stemmed from the need to find a scientific basis on which to direct this action. This is a vital necessity for those who, like Albertini, are conducting a new form of political struggle in pursuit of an objective that has no precedent in history — a struggle that only a vanguard movement can pursue, and that cannot exist and endure without a very solid theoretical foundation. For federalists, this is indispensable as it allows them to understand the profound nature of the ongoing processes and the challenges that arise, develop an awareness of the role they are called upon to play, and concretely ascertain their margin for political intervention.

This reflection, developed and deepened by Albertini over several decades, comprises four key aspects: the epistemological statute of the social sciences; the doctrine of historical materialism; Kant’s philosophy of history; and an understanding of the nature of politics and of the limits of its autonomy, squeezed, as it is, between the determinisms highlighted by the theory of the mode of production and the laws of raison d’Etat (the reason of power).

The epistemological statute of the social sciences.

Albertini reflected very deeply on the epistemological problems surrounding scientific knowledge, and he did so at a time when philosophical thought was undermining the idea that this knowledge can lead to certain and shared understanding. On the contrary, he firmly believed that scientific exploration of natural phenomena, thanks to the methods adopted, is a process (always asymptotic, but no less valid because of this) that brings us closer to the truth, as science is able to establish a correspondence between theory and verifiable facts, but also that it is a cumulative process at the level of the scientific (and even human) community that is capable of recognising and eliminating its own internal errors.

For the social sciences, too, despite the obvious differences related to the different object of knowledge, the fundamental issue is still the possibility of mastering a method capable making controlled and shared knowledge possible. Indeed, in the social field, too, the ability to develop models for identifying appropriate “technologies” for managing phenomena (in this case political and social ones) is the necessary condition for human progress.

To an extent, the ideologies of the past fulfilled this function, as they offered institutional solutions that proved more or less capable of governing some of the processes triggered by the birth of the new industrial society. But their impotence when faced with the need for a paradigm shift in order to understand the growing interdependence of the post-industrial society, and act accordingly, is one of the reasons why politics has now run out of steam; indeed, confined within the framework of separate state communities that are trapped by the dogma of exclusive national sovereignty, politics is unable to tackle global problems. All these are ideas and lines of thought that are now largely accepted, but in raising them, almost sixty years ago, Albertini was ahead of his times.

But, as Albertini pointed out, political science cannot be said to equate with politics, which is much more than just objective analysis of everything (past or present) that is observable, and as such lends itself to scientific investigation. Indeed, politics is also about identifying the potential harboured by the historical-social process and planning the future. As such, it is based on political and institutional values and objectives in the broadest sense, which have not yet materialised as facts, but emerge on the basis of ideological thought, which can never be eliminated in politics (even though it needs to evolve and become more controlled and coherent). What he means by this term is thought that is 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.

It is the future perspective that provides the framework for guiding political action, and identifying priority areas for intervention. Politics, for this very reason, has the character of collective thought, which ultimately can be shared by everyone and allow that exercise of control by all over all that is central to Rousseau’s concept of the general will. Were politics confined to investigating the past and the present, and were it to constitute a science, it would be an area reserved for specialists, i.e. for scholars with the capacity to decide for everyone on the basis of the level of knowledge reached.

Obviously, this does not diminish the need for, or value of, a true science of politics; it simply allows the scope and tasks of political science to be strictly defined. This division of spheres reflects the complexity of man’s condition as a being endowed with reason and called upon to build his own world; and it also reflects the consequent relationship that exists, in general, between science and philosophy, where the latter remains a fundamental requirement of reason that is untouched by scientific development, given that the questions of meaning (in the ontological, gnoseological, epistemological and practical fields) that rational knowledge of reality fails to answer are endless (after all, rational knowledge hardly covers knowledge tout court). It is on this very precarious ground that we must tackle the general problem of the epistemological status of the social sciences.

In order develop, in the social field, a methodology that makes it possible to proceed by causes, Albertini refers to Max Weber and his theory of the Idealtypus, and he starts from Weber’s indication on the specific nature of the object of study within social, as opposed to natural, sciences (in the social field, the object is never a purely observable datum but is always an instrument, a means to an end). 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 that guided it) 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 is done 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.

Albertini was aware of the criticisms and doubts surrounding the Idealtypus theory, but he was convinced of the correctness of Weber’s framing of the problem, namely his view that, even in the historical-social field, the only verified knowledge can be that which is based on the study of causes; he also saw this as absolutely the right approach for framing Marx’s theory of historical materialism, which has effective value only if it is thought of as a very general scheme, or ideal type, for framing understanding of history.

The doctrine of historical materialism.

Albertini based his study and reworking of historical materialism on a very thorough philological analysis that focused in particular on The German Ideology (once he had critically rejected other writings in which Marx returned to this theme). This endeavour allowed him to get to the core of Marx’s theory, discarding the “incrustations” of subsequent Marxism and identifying the innovative, protoscientific insights that retain their validity, separating them from the contradictions and all the elements that are not Marx’s own insights. In this way, he did the careful work of verification (evaluation of real facts in the light of the theory of historical materialism) that Marx himself, for historical and personal reasons, had not been able to do.

There remains an aspect that, according to Albertini, allows us to identify the most fundamental mechanism determining the historical process and its evolution, namely the idea that men indirectly produce their material lives and therefore build their history starting from the production of their own means of survival. From this perspective the whole of society can be described in terms of the complex structure that he defines the mode of production.

We know that, in Marx’s thought, the mode of production determines, first of all, the division of labour and that the functions (specialisations and rules) on which production depends are the productive forces.

In the same way, there emerge the relations of production, which are also a 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 the level of the means of production that there emerges, among other aspects, the dual nature of thought. Thought can be seen as ideological and self-mystified (in the sense that it serves to give meaning to the existing social relations — and relative power relations —, which need to remain in place as they underpin the system that guarantees the survival of the community); but in certain cases, it may also be seen as free (i.e. neither ideological nor self-mystified). In truth, thought as a free and innovative activity is a factual experience — undeniable in history — and a key mechanism of historical evolution. The fact that Marx tends to reduce all thought to ideology, i.e. thought reflecting the current power situation, leads him to deny the existence of this crucial mechanism. This was a mistake that had profound implications for the development of his theory, and heavily influenced Marxist tradition.

Conversely, Albertini’s operation, which takes this dual nature of thought as its starting point, allows him to clearly define the field of investigation of the theory of historical materialism. Although, by definition, this theory cannot include freedom and innovation in its field of investigation, it is able to clarify (exclusively) the determinisms that underlie the historical and social reality of man. Accordingly, it is a model that explains one dimension of human existence (the historical-social one), but that cannot claim to explain the totality of human existence.

* * *

In the last category formulated by Marx in relation to the mode of production, that of the needs of production, there also emerges clearly the basic deterministic mechanism responsible for the evolution of the historical-social reality of man. 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 his introduction of the dimension of production. These needs 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 the historical-social process. This dialectic is one of the fundamental factors of change in history, and it helps to clarify 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 a 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.

It is important to note 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.

Similarly, 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 limited and predetermined range of possibilities.

The mode of production thus establishes both the type of interdependence that is created among men, meaning the type of social roles, and the sizes of the groups that can be formed and exist independently. The distribution of roles in society is unchangeable: no one wanted it, and no one can oppose it. In fact, the group itself is a means of production.

This point of view thus makes it possible to understand both the ultimate roots of the dynamic aspects of history, and the reasons why, within a stable production system, the changes that may manifest themselves in society — obviously within the framework determined by the mode of production — are to be attributed to processes that take shape and come about through politics, law, the economy, science, religion, and so on. Only when there is a transition to a different mode of production can the transformations that take place be attributed, in the first instance, to that transition.

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. The historical materialism theory, thus clarified, allows us to distinguish between “epochal” changes, meaning changes arising from the emergence of a new mode of production that, for this reason, establish new conditions for the demographic development of the population, the distribution of social roles, and the degree of interdependence, as well as new scope for autonomous human communities; and changes that arise within the existing means of production, and that therefore: a) must be compatible with the above variables, which they cannot influence, except to a very limited (substantially irrelevant) degree; b) occur within the framework of the existing spheres of human action (politics, knowledge, economics, society, etc.) and can therefore be investigated with reference to these specific areas.

* * *

One last point that needs mentioning in this reconstruction concerns the other oscillations of Marx (and, consequently, of Marxism) that Albertini identified and denounced, his aim being to bring out the protoscientific intuition inherent in historical materialism and to eliminate the methodological errors that resulted in some serious theoretical flaws.

One of these is Marx’s reduction of the mode of production to an economic concept. 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. It can be seen, particularly clearly, in the preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, 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”. This is actually an assertion that conflicts strikingly with the starting hypotheses of Marxian analysis itself. Indeed, Marx’s first formulations of the mode of production in The German Ideology had ranged from the most simplistic one, which spoke only of indirect production of 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 (including both the biological sphere, even though its determinisms clearly have nothing to do with mechanisms of production; and the sphere of innovation and free thought). So, if this ambiguity of exposition, already mentioned, 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. continuing to refer to the whole of human action. 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 to which the production of the historical-social dimension of the lives of men should correspond. 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 obscurities of previous affirmations and by the mixing in of utopian elements.

Still in the preface to the Critique, there emerges a second error by Marx which has been handed down, and it concerns the theory of the causes of historical dynamism. Here, 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 relations of production cannot take its place. Only when the old system reaches a state of complete paralysis can the revolutionary change occur.

This formulation was extraordinarily successful, both because of its strong emotional impact and because it contains a determinism that makes it possible to point out the objectivity of progress, which is shown to be the ineluctable fruit of the historical process, until the advent of the final stage in history: communism. 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. On the theoretical level, by introducing an absolute determinism it denies, once again, all scope for innovation and free acts that are, instead, the implicit precondition of the whole theoretical construction. In fact, this theory of the contradiction that arises between the relations of production and the productive forces as the latter progressively expand is useful insofar as it is used in a circumscribed model to identify concrete antagonisms within society; but it does not work, indeed it is misleading, when it claims to be an absolute criterion.

* * *

Drawing on Marx, Albertini outlined 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 this idea of Weber’s 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’Etat 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 single, concrete cases; in short, until one arrives at what really occurred, which is the object of knowledge and must be recounted in all its specific detail.

Kant’s philosophy of history.

In this profoundly revised conception of historical materialism, understood as a model for investigating exclusively, and with hindsight, the determinisms that underlie the historical and social reality of man, there remain theoretical gaps that need to be filled in, three in particular: i) first of all, it provides no explanation of the idea of a deterministic movement of history, leading mankind towards complete freedom and equality; ii) second, it fails to clarify the mechanisms underlying the constant changes within the mode of production (historical materialism explains only the transition from one mode of production to another), in other words there is no identification of causes of the constant emergence of new needs and the changes that these cause in the system; iii) finally, it does not shed light on the roots of the concept of ideology.

i) The idea of a deterministic movement of history destined to culminate in a final stage in which all men will be free and equal is, for Marx, a sort of assumption, a necessary condition central to his entire analysis that, precisely because it is postulated, he does not explain further. The historical-social basis of this determinism is the evolution of the mode of production, which, however, fails to explain the manner in which the idea of freedom is born and manifests itself, and therefore how it might constitute the culmination of the historical process. In Marx, therefore, the final step in the course of history remains unexplained, and indeed impossible to explain, given that, for it to be plausible, it would have to be made clear how (by means of what mechanism) it will be achieved, and also to have some idea of what the “realm of freedom” will be like. This is the reason why Marx refrains even from outlining the conditions necessary for the realisation of the final stage of history, preferring instead to leave it in a sort of utopian limbo.

ii) While this reworking of historical materialism clearly shows the determinisms underlying the transition from one mode of production to another, making it possible to see why there emerge profound global changes in demographic dynamics and the social composition of the population, and also the resulting transformations at institutional level, in the law and in philosophical and religious ideas, etc. (even though the latter are never rigidly determining factors, but rather changes that render the means of production compatible, within a given range of possibilities, with the new mode of production), it fails to explain the nature of the concrete changes leading to a global transformation.

Therefore, the whole theoretical structure of historical materialism is weakened by the fact that it can identify the element of necessity driving epochal transitions, but is unable to grasp the essential conditions determining all the other changes in the historical process, precisely because the idea of determinism on which it is built remains, for most of the time, undefined. This fact indeed led to much uncertainty, both in Marx and in his successors, and, among other things, it paved the way for the success of the version of historical materialism in which the mode of production is confused with the economy, and the economy becomes the foundation “structure” for the “superstructure.”

Historical materialism is a theory that is not able to explain most of the social and political transformations that take place before us, doing no more than provide a general framework in which to set explanations for all that occurs in the long intervals of time that separate the moments of transition from one mode of production to another.

iii) The concept of ideology, on the other hand, is a fundamental discovery in the field of human sciences because it brings to light the passive dimension of thought. Ideology is the self-mystification through which men justify, and render acceptable to themselves, the relations of domination and subordination on which society is based and that somehow reflect the extent to which the common interest can realistically be pursued in the framework of a given production system. Indeed, as long as social inequalities correspond to key roles for the maintenance of the production system on which the survival of the whole community depends, acceptance of them coincides, in fact, with the common interest of that particular society. Thus, men tend not to know the purpose they are really serving: often, in pursuing their own selfish interests or accepting, as natural, the existing power relations, they are actually functioning as cogs in a machine they are not even aware of and that produces results that do not correspond to their individual will. Starting from this crucial consideration, however, there remains the problem of clarifying the origin of this phenomenon, i.e. that fact that men feel the need to mask the inequalities among them, justifying them or denying them through recourse to false theories; and second, the relationship that exists between passive and active thought (i.e., how it is possible for regressive and positive use of reason to coexist).

Albertini, in his quest to resolve these shortcomings in Marx’s theory, turned to Kant’s philosophy of history and, by carefully comparing and integrating the thought of the two authors, managed to develop several fascinating theoretical elements that undoubtedly make a major contribution to efforts to develop a scientific theory of politics, of which reflection upon the course of history must be an integral part.

* * *

The works of Kant that Albertini focused on in particular are: Conjectures on the Beginning of Human History, Idea for a Universal History with a Cosmopolitan Purpose and Perpetual Peace: A Philosophical Sketch.

Like Marx, Kant believes that history is moving in the direction of freedom, but that men are somehow carried towards this condition without their knowledge; accordingly, history is somehow determined, and thus a sort of prehistory: everything that happens is attributable mainly to determinisms that individuals, albeit endowed with the faculty to exercise a degree of free will, do not control; this is not to say, however, that things happen purely mechanically, their occurrence predetermined and established a priori. Rather, the movement of “prehistory” is determined by the dialectic between these determinisms, still to be identified, and that small measure of freedom that is already active in men, and for this reason it already constitutes history (albeit distinct from true history, which being driven by freedom, is yet to come).

Starting from this basic assumption, Kant constructs — on the philosophical level of “oughtness”, i.e. of reflection upon the form of processes, not their content — several hypotheses and models that can furnish criteria for reflecting on events, but that cannot yet explain them directly; hypotheses and models that, providing clarification of the terms and concepts, make it possible to shed light on and develop the presuppositions underlying historical materialism.

Very schematically, Kant explains history as a process through which the faculty of reason develops over time, taking shape slowly and laboriously and creating, by itself, the conditions necessary for its full manifestation. Therefore, from a logical perspective, the start of history coincides with the first act of reason, that in which man refuses to act purely on the basis of his animal instincts and manifests his first act of freedom (recalled by Kant in the allegorical terms of the episode in Genesis which recounts man’s original sin). Thus, from its very first act, reason reveals the whole of its plan, which Kant analyses and outlines as follows. Men immediately come up against the realisation that they are not equal, but because they share a common identity that derives from their “being distinct” from the purely natural world, they also understand that they must be equal. This is the meaning of the unfolding of history, of man’s journey from prehistory to history: reason is freedom and equality, and the meaning of history lies in this slow affirmation of the conditions in which these values can increasingly be affirmed; their full affirmation is the condition for the full manifestation of reason. These then, are the reasons why society and the human condition are still (and will continue to be, until we reach the final stage of history) characterised by a mix of reason and violence (and why the impossibility of eliminating violence does not mean that reality is devoid of reason); and why reason, as a natural faculty that manifests itself in life, is part of man’s nature and not just the sum of what it, itself, produces (which is what a large body of theory has tried to show, confusing reason with logic, or with science, etc.).

With regard to the theoretical shortcomings of historical materialism identified by Albertini, Kant’s philosophy explains what, ontologically, man is: Marx characterises man empirically, identifying the action that distinguishes him from animals (his production of his own means of subsistence, by which he breaks the mechanical laws of nature and starts to build his own life), but he bases his ideas on an ideal type of man which, precisely because it remains implicit and unclarified, cannot be evaluated and is largely unstable, being attributed different meanings in different contexts. In fact, Marx’s fundamental errors derive precisely from his fluctuating ideas on the nature of man: sometimes, erasing completely the factors of freedom and innovation (and with them, all scope for explaining that first act which constitutes man’s break with the logic of nature), he presents man as entirely determined by the production mechanism and its unavoidable logic, while elsewhere he implies that production does not account for the whole of human life. Kant’s theory of man and of reason gets rid of these ambiguities, and makes it possible to avoid the trap that Marx’s materialistic theory fell into. The concept of ideology provides the best example of this: Kant explains, in some passages even implicitly anticipating Marx, the root of man’s need to hide from himself the persistent state of inequality among men, masking it with false theories.

As Albertini shows, Kant’s thought and Marx’s thought complement each other in a most fruitful way. Kant provides a clear theoretical framework and allows us to appreciate the ambit and the role of reason in history, and thus avoid the contradictions that invalidate the analysis. Marx, on the other hand, highlights the empirical mechanisms that constrain the development of reason: the survival of society depends, primarily, on the maintenance of the mode of production of which it is, itself, the expression, and relations of production (the main source of inequality) can evolve only to the extent to which they remain compatible with the possibility of retaining the production mechanism; the transition to a subsequent system, compatible with a greater degree of freedom, is not voluntary, but depends on a development that, in turn, is governed by deterministic laws; the quest for complete freedom and equality cannot properly begin until a mode of production has been established that is free of need to conserve relations of subordination and oppression.

In human actions, then, there is a concurrence of freedom and necessity that can be explained only if it is made clear, as it is by Kant, that man’s freedom is the freedom to become what he is: an animal endowed with reason whose biological makeup determines his scope for development. This is a development underpinned by the dialectic between instinct, determined ultimately by the impulse for self-preservation, and reason, which instead leads him to develop solidarity with other human beings but also to consider them as ends, and to carve out some space for autonomous action, albeit within the context of a process largely shaped by determinisms to which he is subject. And reason, in man, rests on two pillars: one individual, because individuals are its real vehicles — the ones who actually think and act — and the other social, meaning all the institutions (language first of all) in which we conserve all that man’s reason has produced, in such a way that the entire patrimony becomes transmittable and the past reasoning of the whole of mankind can live on in each and every one of us.

It is fundamental to highlight this social dimension of reason, not only because it is the only one that explains the reality of this human faculty, but also because it is only by avoiding the naive mistake of regarding reason as the exclusive prerogative of the individual that one becomes able to conceive of the coexistence of necessity and freedom in history. This coexistence, in fact, manifests itself in the social sphere, without which the idea that the historical process unfolds according to natural laws becomes incompatible with the existence of individual freedom, making it inevitable to conclude that the only force driving history is chance (in which case any attempt to understand reality must be abandoned). When forced to choose, Marx, who was indeed trapped by this naive view, opted for the existence of a law of necessity, and in so doing completely excluded any role of freedom in history.

Finally, despite succeeding in identifying concrete antagonisms within society (the contrast between the productive forces and the relations of production), which are indeed vehicles of changes, Marx is unable to fit these changes into a general theory that goes beyond evocative references to explain how the affirmation of a single class, which acts in accordance with its own specific interests, can coincide with the realisation of universal values. In this regard, Kant, on the other hand, provides illuminating insight: in his view, the fact that values emerge in the course of history despite the selfish actions of men (and indeed become crystallised in institutions that render their affirmation universal) can be explained on the basis on what happens in those moments when men, brought to their knees by the harm they do to each other, decide to to put an end to the situation of misery that they themselves have procured; in such moments the only tools they have at their disposal are those of reason, or rather values, which are the concrete expression of reason.

Kant also goes a step further than Marx, identifying the objective towards which history, in spite of itself, is advancing. His treatment of this question, unlike Marx’s, does not simply amount to a call for the crucial leap forwards that will project mankind into the “realm of freedom”; rather, it is an outlining of the conditions that will allow this to become a real possibility: the building of a civil society that upholds the law universally.

In this way, Kant sheds light on many points that Marx leaves obscure. Inasmuch as it fails to describe the final stage in the historical process, and to identify the element, present from the start, that indicates the direction in which history is moving, Marxian theory is forced to assume that the final leap forwards will coincide not with a change in the behaviour of men, but with an out-and-out transformation of the nature of men, who will stop being wicked and selfish, and will no longer seek to exploit others; in this way, it will become possible to achieve the equality and freedom of all. Although this situation is not theorised by Marx, many of his followers have taken it to be an obvious consequence of what he indicates. This utopian idea that men can be transformed has played an important role in communist thought, and it represents the basis and justification of many campaigns mounted by the communist regimes. Once again Kant’s analysis emerges as complementary to Marx’s: historical materialism allows us to see that the precondition for fully realising the requisites outlined by Kant is mankind’s reaching of a stage in the mode of production in which the foundations for global interdependence have been laid and, moreover, in which there is no longer any need for relations of production that are necessarily — by their very nature — founded on inequality, and thus no further need for a mystifying ideology that theorises the power relations existing within society; equally, the stage reached in the mode of production must be one compatible with the equality of all men and one in which culture can have the transparency of reason and encourage respect by all towards all.

However, the merit of Kant’s model, compared with Marx’s theory, is that it identifies the ground on which the way is paved for the final leap forwards, which, forced by the contradictions of international politics, takes place within the sphere of the institutions and of international politics.

* * *

Marx, therefore, uncovers the mechanism underlying the incessant evolution of the mode of production, and shows that incompatibility between productive forces and relations of production lies at the root of all revolutionary transitions; but responsibility for the final solution falls to politics, which in this regard enjoys relative autonomy and adheres to its own logic, a logic which can be understood only in the light of the raison d’Etat theory.


Albertini published several key essays on politics, the earliest in the 1960s. This was therefore an area that he analysed in depth from the earliest stages of his theoretical work, and his production in this field is well known. In his lectures, it is dealt with and framed in relation to the determinisms and scope for autonomy outlined by Kant’s philosophy and the theory of historical materialism. In fact, this final part of his research — which Albertini actually afforded considerable space and which is here unfortunately touched upon only fleetingly due to time constraints — is the one that justifies his entire construction, which, as previously explained, was built precisely in order to clarify the relationship between volition and occurrence, in other words, to establish the necessary foundations for political action that is effective and not impracticable.

The basis of power, or rather the margins for political manoeuvre, are determined by relations of production. And for these to be guaranteed, there have to be rules and hierarchies; politics takes care of this. It does so by first securing the power to do, i.e. consent (a mandate) to govern. In this quest and activity, autonomy and heteronomy coexist. The relations of production and the rules inherent in the mode of production draw (determine) the boundaries delimiting the autonomy of politics. Within these boundaries politics is carried out according to its own very specific law of reference: that of the reason of power, whose fundamental principle derives from the fact that you can only do (engage in politics) if you have first secured the power to do.

Reason of state, which can be expressed as the reason of political power, or the power to do, is therefore the basis of political science.

By managing all human behaviours, values, situations, and problems with power implications (which thus become the stuff of politics), politics therefore promotes the evolution of the historical process, wherein that sphere of values outlined by Kant performs an increasingly important guiding role, and more and more space is freed up for moral action — moral in the sense of Weber’s ethic of responsibility. Indispensable in this regard is the second type of political behaviour, which is distinct from that of the politician who deals with the power to do; this is the behaviour of that section of society that deals with what power should do in order to make society work better, to improve it and make it more just: this is the area that will also see ideologies developing in a positive way, as drivers of social change.

* This is the text of a presentation delivered at the conference entitled Il federalismo europeo e la politica del XXI secolo: l’attualità del pensiero di Mario Albertini (European federalism and 21st century politics: the relevance of the thought of Mario Albertini), held at the University of Pavia on 16 November, 2017.

[1] From Il corso della storia, in Mario Albertini, Tutti gli scritti, edited by Nicoletta Mosconi, Bologna, Il Mulino, vol. IV, pp. 715-741 (1964). Italics added.




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