Carteggio [Correspondence], 1861-1904

Antonio Labriola, Carteggio [Correspondence], 1861-1904, edited by Stefano Miccolis. vols. 1-5 (Naples: Edizioni di filosofia e scienze, 2000-06).

This critical edition of the correspondence of Antonio Labriola (1843-1904) gathers all the known letters and postcards sent and received by the Italian philosopher between 1861 and the time of his death. Stefano Miccolis’s work is impressive and will be highly useful for researchers interested in Labriola’s development as a philosopher, particularly as it relates to the dissemination of the works of Marx and Engels in Italy.1 The correspondence is of central importance in shedding light on the international contacts of the Italian labor movement. It is also extremely interesting as an example of a university career characterized by a commitment to socialism, something that frequently created serious conflicts with university employers and colleagues. Similarly the letters illuminate the pioneering efforts which the philosopher made in the field of university teaching methods. And finally we gain an insight into his private ups and downs.

This edition has been a 20-year project. The five carefully annotated volumes contain 2143 letters and postcards written by Labriola and also 378 letters written to him. Despite the discrepancy in number between letters sent and letters received, Miccolis has chosen to publish them in chronological order, something that entails practical advantages. The thorough indexes of people, papers, and periodicals in volume 5 make it easy to locate any letter written by or to a given person or publication. This edition contains many newfound letters and postcards, the result of detective work carried out over many years in Italian and other European archives as well as in antiquarian markets. An interesting batch located by Miccolis consists of letters addressed to Antonio Fratto, the republican politician, in 1888-89 (vol. 2); they shed light on Labriola’s most intensely “democratic” period, where he is chiefly concerned with the question of power in the state from a perspective whose point of departure is local democracy.2

The third volume covers the years 1890-95; during this period Labriola’s political interest and activity acquire a European dimension and socialism becomes his focal point. He corresponds with Engels, Kautsky, Bernstein, and Sorel while exchanging frequent letters with the leader of Italian socialism, Filippo Turati in Milan. In 1890, Labriola’s affinity with international socialism becomes really intense and only abates when he falls ill ten years later.

Labriola’s letters to Engels (e.g., 3 April 1890) shed light on his political development and conversion to socialism and rapprochement to the labor movement. His letters on the preparation for May Day 1891 provide a good description of the state of affairs in the Italian labor movement and political culture. He meets Engels in person at the International Socialist Congress in Zurich in 1893. In that same year he also becomes involved in a court case against the Neapolitan socialists arising from unrest in Italy in response to the massacre by French workers of some 30 Italian immigrant workers in the salt mines at Aigues-Mortes (Provence). The mayor of Aigues-Mortes had endorsed the brutality, and the demonstrations soon became political.

These years see a change in Labriola’s writings. From the early 1880s he had primarily written books, essays, and academic treatises although he never held such works in high esteem, including those by his university colleagues, “who pretend not to know that they all suffer from voluntary slave mentality” -– as he wrote to Croce in 1897. When he was about 50 he began focusing on Marxism, stimulated by systematic studies of Marx and Engels, the landslide victory of the German Social Democrats in the February 1890 elections, and the lessons learned in the widespread struggle by Sicilian agricultural laborers in 1891-93 -– organized by Fasci Siciliani (“the first genuine form of Italian socialism”). At this time he intensified and renewed his correspondence. As Eugenio Garin wrote in his 1983 introduction to Epistolario, “the letter… became Labriola’s preferred instrument for expressing and propagating his thoughts, for intervening in the political struggle, and even for teaching.” It was a genre well suited to swift and efficient communication, especially with the leading personalities in international socialism. He endeavoured to communicate an image of Italian conditions free of “nationalistic slants.” The epistolary form also enabled him to get a reaction to ideas and drafts for the three essays on historical materialism which he wrote in the mid-1890s. Whereas Croce and the philosopher Bertrando Spaventa had previously been his chief correspondents, from 1890 Engels became the “international” political brain to which Labriola could turn “in relation to all scholarly matters of doubt, testing of data, or practical issues,” as he himself put it.

The third volume includes all Labriola’s letters to Engels,3 with whom he very much identified, as well as virtually all of his correspondence with Turati with whom, from 1891, he cooperated closely in connection with the periodical Critica sociale; subsequently they fell out over the question of reformism. In his political activities Labriola concentrated on the creation of an Italian Marxist social democratic party. He wanted to see a Marxist, tight, activist labor party, while Turati, more of a pragmatist and reformist, preferred a party capable of embracing different political currents. Turati’s clearly stated objective of maintaining an eclectic width in the labor party evokes the following somewhat dramatic response from Labriola in a letter dated 1 January 1891: “You wish to make socialism appear sympathetic; may God assist you in such a philanthropic endeavour. As far as I am concerned, I find the bourgeois only suitable for hanging. I am not likely to be lucky enough to hang them myself, but I will not contribute towards postponing their hanging.” At the inauguration of the Partito Socialista Italiano in 1892 the anarchists were excluded, but despite Labriola’s attempts to use Marx’s Critique of the Gotha Program (published by Engels in 1891), the PSI program remained eclectic and, according to Labriola, characterized by social positivism. However, Labriola convinced the PSI that it must defend the Sicilian agricultural laborers, and for the first time an alliance between industrial and rural workers fought the ruling bloc of industrial and rural employers. Soon, however, the PSI was beset by antagonistic currents, and Labriola abandoned party politics and devoted himself to theoretical efforts.

On 10 March 1894 he wrote to Luise Kautsky:

Here in Italy the historical preconditions for modern socialism are absent. Now a certain intellectual movement along those lines is beginning, but this is happening among the bourgeoisie. The proletarians are following their instinct, but know nothing about anything. Their entire ballast of knowledge consists of some translated pamphlets -– which remain unintelligible because of the absence of any publishing and dissemination policy. The rest is improvisation or imagination or emotions. Imagine that Lotta di Classe (Milan) recommends a cooperative because it is selling at THE REAL PRICE (sic!) -– and the Critica Sociale has written several times that Professor Loria is the inventor of the materialist interpretation of history – about which Marx has only made some HINTS (sic!). In its most recent issue, the Critica Sociale states that Italy is now in the exact same situation as France in 1789. It is incredible!

This is the state of affairs, and it goes without saying that socialist literature is neither to be found in public nor in private libraries. One has to buy everything oneself. By now I have a collection of a thousand books and pamphlets, and I have the same number on the French revolution and the Commune.

On the anniversary of Marx’s death, 14 March 1894, he writes to Engels returning the copy of Marx and Engels’ The Holy Family which he had borrowed: “Maybe –- no there is no maybe about it -– I have become a communist because of my (strict) Hegelian education -– after having gone through Herbart’s psychology, Steinthal’s Völkerpsychologie -– and other things. So as I read The Holy Family, I could easily put myself in the same psychological situation as you when you wrote it.” When Engels dies in August 1895, Labriola loses an important political support and correspondent. Among the German socialists virtually only Karl Kautsky is left, to whom Labriola writes in Italian mostly through Luise Kautsky who knows the language.

During the last few years of his active life, Labriola participates in the great “revisionism debate” (1896-1900), which follows in the wake of Bernstein’s -– “quel cretino di Bernstein” -– criticism of the revolutionary strategy of the working class and the philosophical status of Marxism. Labriola endorses Kautsky’s orthodox defense of Marx and Engels’ social theories against Bernstein’s neo-Kantian ethical socialism and against the French revolutionary syndicalist Georges Sorel. In Italy, Labriola criticizes the brand of revisionist Marxism propounded by the Hegel-inspired philosophers Giovanni Gentile and Benedetto Croce. His correspondence with these two is of great interest to the study of the Marx reception in the II International. During the period from 1895 to 1901 he publishes his best known theoretical and political texts. They appear in a series of pamphlets of which the earliest is a historical and critical reflection of the Communist Manifesto. In memoria del “Manifesto dei comunisti”4 which appeared in two editions in 1895, was translated into French and was well received by Engels. In it, Labriola states that the Manifesto is a morphological prediction based on an objective, genetic analysis of the general crises of 19th-century capital. Labriola preferred the term “genetic Marxism” rather than “dialectic” as he wanted to avoid the risk of a new brand of metaphysics creeping into Marxism. Nor did he ever speak of “scientific socialism,” but only of “critical communism,” as he feared a potential spill-over effect from positivism.

The years 1896-98 (represented in vol. 4) are the peak period of Labriola’s correspondence, including most notably 259 letters to Benedetto Croce. There are only 4 letters from Croce to Labriola; as in the case of Engels, most of those from Croce have never been recovered. Beginning in 1890, Labriola had extensive correspondence with socialists in Italy, Germany, Austria, and France: Andrea Costa, Pasquale Martignetti, Camillo Prampolini, Alessandro Schiavi, Karl and Luise Kautsky, Eduard Bernstein, Victor Adler, Wilhelm Ellenbogen, Richard Fischer, Friedrich Lessner, Wilhelm Liebknecht, Jules Guesde. In this volume, we find the majority of the letters from Bernstein, the Kautskys, Romeo Soldi, Giovanni Gentile, Igino Petrone and Mariano Luigi Patrizi. Furthermore, mention should be made of the most complete part of Labriola’s correspondence, viz., with the Polish socialist leader, Boleslaw Antoni Jedrzejowski. This volume contains 26 hitherto unpublished letters from Labriola, nine of which are addressed to Alexander Cartellieri, the German historian.

Discorrendo di socialismo e di filosofia (1898)5 is a collection of 12 letters sent by Labriola to Sorel, the editor of the French socialist periodical Devenir social. In them he demonstrates the futility of the “attempts made in positivism to turn the scientific, functional concept of evolution into a hypostatized ahistorical notion of Evolution.” In particular, Labriola’s criticism is aimed at the kind of social-Darwinist interpretations that had evolved in connection with the biologically oriented sociology in the late 19th century. It is precisely in these letters that for the first time Labriola describes historical materialism as a “praxis philosophy” (the term that would later be taken up by Gramsci). Furthermore, Labriola expressly distances himself from any teleological interpretation of historical materialism and rejects any attempt at explaining phenomena in the superstructure by means of mechanically reducing them to their socio-economic basis. He insists on the “relative autonomy” of superstructural phenomena -– and here he can of course refer to Marx’s words from 1859 where he points out that that “The difficulty does not lie in understanding that Greek art and epos are coupled with particular forms of social development. The difficulty is that they still give us artistic pleasure and, in a certain regard, are considered as a norm and unattainable model.”6 Labriola does not see the praxis philosophy as involving a grand predetermined plan. According to Labriola there are three important aspects of Marxism: 1) Marxism is a “philosophical trend,” which expresses itself in an “overall view of life and the world”; 2) it is a “critique of political economy,” insofar as this does not represent an ever valid natural order, but a “given historical phase” which the bourgeoisie has made absolute, but which “critical communism” has made relative by putting it into a historical context; 3) it is an “interpretation of policy, and in particular of the policy needed by and benefiting the course of the labor movement towards socialism.” Unfortunately, Labriola’s correspondence with Sorel, his most important French contact, has been all but lost.

Volume 5 contains 403 letters, covering the years 1899 to 1904; these letters pursue the discussion of the crisis in Marxism, but in a somewhat annoyed and despairing tone of voice, particularly in Labriola’s critical assessment of the “opportunism” developing among the leaders of the Italian socialist party and its parliamentary representatives. The most important partners are Croce (77 letters) and Karl and Luise Kautsky (21). His letters to Croce concerning the latter’s theoretical attempts to liquidate Marxism are rather harsh and towards the end fairly depressed. Concurrently we learn of Labriola’s steadily worsening throat disease. His gradual disablement leads to marginalization followed by isolation, initially from the university and later from the café milieus where he loved to go to discuss with others. Lectures and conversations were his passion, something which is highly perceptible from the passages in his letters so full of typically spoken and sharp language which, even to the end, he aims like arrows at his enemies and at his own bitter fate. In the meantime he battles with intrigues aimed against him on the part of the university and the authorities – Carlo Fiorelli (52 letters) and Luigi Morandi (30 letters) -– while at the same time investing a great deal of energy in helping his son Alberto Franz with his career (27 letters). The letters reveal a father figure who praises his son in public, but in his private letters to Franz he at times appears rather acerbic. From 1902 he is virtually out of circulation and can barely manage to read a score of pages per week. He is fully aware of they way things are going despite the fact that his doctors are unable to diagnose the disease in the trachea –- which turned out to be cancer. The last part of Labriola’s life was full of hardship, and despite keeping a clear intellect till the very end, he has given up. He can neither eat nor speak. A week and a half before the operation that was to be his last he writes on 5 January 1904 in reply to a series of questions from Benedetto Croce: “Since I have got no say, there is no reason to discuss things… Only just as many words as the dotted space will hold.” The day before the operation he writes to Luise Kautsky: “For a full month I have eaten nothing.[…] I wanted to write Karl about politics and science… but I am a poor wretch –- Greetings Labriola.”

Thanks to this edition of Labriola’s letters, there is renewed interest in embarking upon a critical general edition of his work. A previous attempt was made by the publisher Feltrinelli in 1958-62; three volumes were published before the project was suddenly discontinued. In 2004, at a conference in Labriola’s native town Cassino to observe the centenary of his death, Luigi Punzo proposed that this work should be resumed.

Reviewed by Ole Jorn


1. On this subject, see, Emilio Gianni: Diffusione, popolarizzazione e volgarizzazione del marxismo in Italia. Scritti di Marx ed Engels pubblicati in italiano dal 1848 al 1926 (Milan, 2004).

2. Miccolis observes that this edition is not the ultimate inventory, as the correspondence is marred by considerable gaps. In particular from the years 1866, 1868-69, and 1870 only very few letters have survived. The fact that most of the newfound letters are not mentioned in other letters, seems to indicate that a high number of letters are still waiting to be dug out. One especially unfortunate gap is in the at times very intense exchanges with Labriola’s friend, the philosopher Benedetto Croce: only 12 of Croce’s letters have been located.

3. Most of Engels’s letters to Labriola, however, have been lost. In a letter to Karl Kautsky (7 September 1895), Labriola mentions with understandable pride the “many, really many” letters he had received from Engels, and which he “had never shown to anyone.” It must be assumed that the letters were still in the possession of Labriola’s heirs in 1925, but what happened to them subsequently is uncertain. The fact that the heirs did not wish to publish their father’s harsh criticism of “people who were still alive and powerful” perhaps reflects the anxiety that characterized the years around the fascists’ accession to power. Most likely, a large part of the epistolary archive was destroyed in the ensuing period. This is partly confirmed by Gustav Mayer, the German historian, who was completing his Engels biography when, in January 1932, he wrote to Labriola’s close friend, Benedetto Croce, that his attempts to find out what had happened to the Engels letters had ended when he was told that they had been “destroyed.” In his reply Croce was bitter and astounded by the way in which the young Labriolas had treated their father’s archive. In the mid-1970s, a researcher of the Croce Institute attempted to follow all leads, but without success.

4. An English translation of this text can be found at http.//

5. See footnote 4.

6. Introduction to the Critique of Political Economy (New York: International Publishers, 1981), p. 21.

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