Giovanni Gentile’s Criticism of Marxism
By Momcilo Nevsky
During the start of Giovanni Gentile’s intellectual career before he became the “philosopher of Fascism”, he wrote two monographs on the Philosophy of Karl Marx one in 1897 and the other in 1899. These essays were written less than two decades after Marx’s death in 1883 and show even in his early 20’s that Gentile had a keen understanding of Philosophy and the movements of his time.
Gentile's early writings on Marx, like most of his work, has remained untranslated into English, until recently when fellow Youtuber and friend of mine named “Zoltanous” managed to translate them and provide an early access to the translation for me to a do a review on the topic, so thanks to him for allowing early access to the soon-to-be-published translation.
What perhaps makes Gentile’s criticism of Marx so interesting is that he and Marx are both coming out of the same tradition of German idealism and both had a deep understanding of Hegel while they likewise both had their criticisms of Hegel and other German idealists. So Gentile understands Marx better intellectually than nearly all modern so-called anti-Marxists do (and as a side note: most Marxists as well) and isn’t just going to try and debunk the Communist manifesto by professing the so-called greatness of capitalism to maximize an individual's pleasure while warning about the dangers of “big government”. What makes Gentile’s insights and criticisms so refreshing from the glut of low IQ takes on Marxism is that he really takes Marx at his own terms and shows the integral flaws of Marx’s philosophical doctrine just by referencing material Marx himself has written.
Infact, even Vladimir Lenin in an encyclopedia entry he wrote covering the Marx and the book The Philosophy of Marx by Gentile. Lenin in 1914 cites Gentile’s work as supplementary reading saying it’s “noteworthy” and that it “deals with some important aspects of Marx's materialist dialectics which usually escape the attention of the Kantians, Positivists, etc.” This occurred despite the encyclopedia entry coming to the polar opposite understanding of Marx’s epistemology and metaphysics than Gentile did. Even more indicative of his understanding of Marx is that at the time of his writings in the late 1800’s, many of Marx’s manuscripts were unpublished and wouldn’t be published until the 1930’s under an initiative by the Soviet Union. And, as we shall see later on in this video, Gentile’s interpretation of Marx as confused neo-Hegelian and not as a vulgar materialist was largely vindicated with the publishing of those Manuscripts and really lends credit to the ironic adage that “Marx was a bad Marxist”!
Getting to the actual content of the essays, Gentile opens up with a discussion on Marx’s philosophy of history which is referred to as Historical Materialism in the essay but is now more commonly referred to as Dialectical Materialism. At the time there was a debate among Italian intellectuals (both Marxist and not) of whether or not Historical Materialism can really be classified as a Philosophy of History in the same way previous philosophers like Hegel or Vico had developed it.
According to the glossary on the pro-Marxist website Marxists.org they sum up Dialectical Materialism with the following quote from Frederick Engels:
"It is an eternal cycle in which matter moves, a cycle that certainly only completes its orbit in periods of time for which our terrestrial year is no adequate measure, a cycle in which the time of highest development, the time of organic life and still more that of the life of being conscious of nature and of themselves, is just as narrowly restricted as the space in which life and self-consciousness come into operation. A cycle in which every finite mode of existence of matter, whether it be sun or nebular vapour, single animal or genus of animals, chemical combination or dissociation, is equally transient, and wherein nothing is eternal but eternally changing, eternally moving matter and the laws according to which it moves and changes.”
A less turgid definition from the dictionary defines it as:
“The Marxist theory ... that political and historical events result from the conflict of social forces and are interpretable as a series of contradictions and their solutions. The conflict is believed to be caused by material needs.”
Actually defining and nailing down exactly what the term means can be a bit of struggle, which isn’t helped at all by the fact that Marx never used the term Historical or Dialectical Materialism and that Engles himself didn’t even use it until after the coin was termed by a fellow Marxist in the last years of Marx’s life. And this struggle to define and properly understand it was part of the debate occuring in Italy, since the term was really deduced from a sort of Hermeneutics of Marx and from Engels’ work who may or may not have understood Marx in the way Marx understood himself. This debate was also plagued by the fact, unbeknownst to the contemporaries of the time, that much of Marx’s work elaborating on this topic, if merely tangentially, would remain unpublished until the 1930’s.
But when it came to the Debate on Historical Materialism, Gentile lands squarely on the side that Marx’s Historical Materialism is indeed a Philosophy of History in the same vein as Hegel, concurring with Antonio Labriola, the leading Italian Marxist of the day while disagreeing with a leading non-marxist intellectual and Friend of Gentile’s -- Bendetto Croce -- who saw Historical Materialism as just economic determinism which may be useful for a historian to better understand the past, but that ultimately “cannot support either socialism or any other practical direction of life,” and fails to be a philosophy of history because it’s only concerned with explaining the past and is not concerned with what is necessary in the future.
Gentile considers Historical Materialism a philosophy of History for two reasons I will elaborate on. The first is that Marx is viewed as inseparable from his Hegelian heritage, and although Marx attempts to “correct” and “surpass” Hegel, Marx is nonetheless very much using the Hegelian view of history as a base for his own theory. Second, and more specifically now, it attempts to describe the process in which history unfolds as a series of class (or sometimes caste) antagonisms and societal contradictions being resolved. Historical materialism does not, from Gentile’s point of view, try to predict the future in the same way an astronomer may predict the time and date of an eclipse based on astronomical data, rather it’s describing the process in which history unfolds. So, Historical materialism deals with and can commentate on the past, present, and future, and it doesn’t reduce itself to just being a historical tool that can post-hoc explain the past. It is much more than just that.
And it is also for this reason that Gentile also takes aim at Croce’s other contention that not only is historical materialism not a philosophy of history it “cannot support either socialism or any other practical direction of life” and thus cannot serve as a revolutionary philosophy. To the contrary Gentile contended that Historical Materialism, properly understood, is a revolutionary doctrine that could act as a rallying cry for communists. Marx didn’t develop a specific system of ethics for communists to rally around on par for example with say Kantian, Christian, or Aristotelian ethics, and in actuality Historical Materialism subjects ethics and morality to be a product of its time, but that doesn’t make them any less important for each of these “pivots of History” where another contradiction is solved through social change “also has a morality congruent with its real substratum” and communism itself is subject to dialectical materialism where ethics are a byproduct of that society, in the communist case the ethics of the class struggle since it itself is in a period of history and trying to enforce its own pivot of History using its currently understood ethics.
As Gentile himself writes:
“Now what does it mean, towards historical materialism, as towards every philosophy of history, that morality is a fact? Fact means history; and history is what historical materialism must study and elucidate, not what it must produce; it is its content, its presupposition, not its product; and what is presupposed cannot be denied. [...]
Thus conceived, historical materialism must account for itself and for the whole of life; and as in life there is the beautiful and the good and the ugly and the bad, it must explain the beautiful and the ugly, and the good and the bad, that is, it must assign them a legitimate place.”
So thus far it may sound like Gentile is praising Marx and his theories, and to an extent he actually is. Reading the essay itself, the tone comes off as if he is trying to salvage everything that he can from Marx’s theories and he defends him several times from what he views as more off-base critiques. In fact, it’s only the last few pages of the first essay, as I will elaborate on shortly, where Gentile really start to take swings at Marx. Up until that point he had mainly focussed on either defending Marx through the way he views him (which isn’t necessarily the quote on quote orthodox Marxist view) or he is simply explaining and trying to understand what Marx is getting at and attempting to understand the man at his own level.
But here comes his actual criticism of Historical Materialism and what makes Gentile’s critique so unique. So although Gentile agrees with Labriola that Historical materialism is a philosophy of history, the biggest failing of Historical Materialism is that the actual way it describes the historical unfolding is full of problems and contradictions on its own terms.
Marx’s Philosophy of History is derived from Hegel’s philosophy of history but with some major caveats. The main difference Gentile sees is that the Relative is made to play the role of the absolute, and instead of the absolute being immanent in all of reality and real, the absolute is claimed to be imaginary and effectively nonexistent while the relative becomes immanent and real.
To phrase it without the Jargon: matter, ie. the material and empirical world takes the role of the immaterial mind which the idealist school which both Hegel and Gentile belong to believes creates the world and is the basis of reality.
And instead of the mind (or the Absolute) developing dialectically which propels Hegel’s philosophy of history, matter and the empirical itself is to develop dialectically and to fuel the engine of Historical materialism and the Marxist philosophy of History. But the problem arises in that the material world, in Marx’s case the economic facts of a society, is not the proper subject of philosophical prediction.
Hegel’s historical philosophy works because the absolute or Spirit is not about material reality like vulgar materialists like Lenin believe in, but rather about the immaterial mind. Hegel talks about the historical development of Spirit, not matter. The absolute is a philosophical concept that embeds itself in all of reality and thus can be the proper subject of philosophy and it can be explained how the absolute develops dialectically, but when a philosophy is describing the projection of the relative, of matter, it has sunk to the level of the astronomer predicting eclipses and falls short of being a proper philosophy.
Fundamentally, A philosophy of history is based on making a priori claims about what is going to happen, but if your a priori claims are about matter, or the relative, then you are reduced to historiography and predicting events, and you aren’t not at the level of metaphysics or philosophy generally speaking. Instead, if you wish to be at the level of metaphysics when it comes to history you have to rely on something that is above matter but also which moves it but is not moved by the matter. Such as Hegel’s absolute which moves dialectically and drags matter along with it but the absolute is never changed by the relative. Gentile concludes by calling Marx’s history “one of the most wretched deviations of Hegelian thought”
And this is what makes Gentile’s criticism of historical materialism so damning and also unique. He shows that Marx is indeed trying to create a philosophy of history and would actually have created one if the mechanics of it were logical and consistent, but instead Marx’s materialism plagues him just enough to have him attempt to create a metaphysics that must be based off something nonmaterial, like Hegel’s absolute based off the mind, but to have his materialism stop it from actually being plausible. And this problem of Marx rejecting materialism just enough to accept idealist precepts but not enough to reject materialism creates these weird philosophical golems riddled with internal contradictions and logical problems which strive for so much but fail so hard.
And it’s this confused idealism that is muddied with materialism that Gentile is really critiquing Marx about. We’ll see in the 2nd half how Marx again comes close to coming up with a coherent philosophy, just for it to be ruined again by a subtext of materialist metaphysics.
So in the second essay about Marx that Gentile wrote he begins with what are known as the Theses on Feuerbach which were 11 bullet points that Marx had written down for a future project he wanted to do regarding Feuerbach, which he never got around to. In total it’s about 700 words and they end with one of Marx’s more famous quotes about how it’s the role of philosophers not to merely describe the world but to change the world.
To give some context, Feuerbach was born about a generation after Hegel and became one of the leading Left Hegelians and developed a very materialistic and human-centered philosophy. He was, generally speaking, influential and likewise influential on Marx and Engles and it is where they get the concept of alienation from. However Marx still had his criticisms of Feuerbach which we can see in a primitive form in the theses.
And it is from Marx’s criticisms of Feuerbach vulgar materialism (which in itself has certain traces of idealism) which Giovanni Gentile sees Marx espousing a philosophy of Praxis, a concept Gentile himself would later develop in a properly idealist manner later in his career. Praxis is not a new concept to idealism, and Gentile traces it all the way back to Socrates and Plato, but says it “is new with respect to materialism.” So what is exactly Marx’s philosophy of Praxis?
Praxis generally speaking is defined as “practice, as distinguished from theory.” or more specifically might be better defined here as “human activity”. Gentile writes that:
“In Marx, praxis is synonymous with human sensory activity” Marx’s Praxis is also noteworthy in that it denies other theories that posit the subject and object as two abstract concepts and instead has them “inseparably linked to each other, so that their actual reality results from their relationship to the organism in which and through which they find their necessary fulfillment, and outside of which they are nothing but abstractions.” Gentile elaborates on his interpretation of Marx saying that for him “Reality … is a subjective production of man; a production, however, of sensory activity; not of thought, as Hegel and other idealists believed”
But in other words, Marx believed that the praxis or the action of human sensory activity, the active process of taking in stimulus through our senses, is the basis of our reality. Reality is the subjective production of man and his sensory activity. Elucidating his point, he called Feuerbach out for deducing humans to be products of the environment and education since this is only half the story. Marx believed that humans are a product of their environment and education, but adds on the important corollary that humans can change their environment and education and there’s a mutual relation between the subject (humanity) and object (environment).
And with this Gentile has exposed another Hegelian or idealist streak in Karl Marx and a certain dialectic is formed with subject and object interacting with each other which changes both the subject and object and so on and so on on repeat. Except it’s not Fichte’s thesis, antithesis and synthesis, rather for Marx the thesis becomes circumstances, the environment. Antithesis is education and the subject modified by the two becomes the synthesis.
Nonetheless though, although Marx is against the vulgar materialism of Feuerbach, Gentile still considers his metaphysics to be “materialistic monism, which is distinguished from any other similar system by the concept of praxis applied to matter” In Marx’s metaphysical scheme what we have is Hegel viewed through the lens of materialism where instead of spirit or mind we have the body, and instead of idea we have sense which produce not true reality, as Hegel posited, but instead economic facts “which are the products of human sensory activity, in the search for the satisfaction of all those material needs” For Marx, all information external to the subject is interpreted through sense which is received as sensation of some sort: visual, audio, tactile, etc. So Marx is like the materialist of old in that he sees the world as composed of merely matter as a good materialist does, but his Hegelian background doesn’t allow him to see matter as static but rather it’s seen as dialectically dynamic, and thus changing. Since matter is changing and not merely static, Marx can elaborate on a philosophy of history, although it has the logical problems that we talked about earlier in this video.
However problems begin to arise with this philosophy of Materialism with Hegelian characteristics. For example, the philosophy states that sense is the principle of reality, and that all the information we perceive from the external world outside our subjectivity is filtered through our senses which comes to us in sensory data of some sort: visual, audible, tactile, etc. But Gentile asks the question of “who provides this datum”, this outside or external information? Gentile asserts that “the sense creates the sensation” since outside of the mind beyond the external information there is nothing except purely physical fact. And whatever makes or creates these facts, or as Gentile puts it the “vibration(s) of the ether” is outside the purview of “human sensory activity” which Marx makes as the building blocks of his metaphysics. In other words matter is outside of sense. This shows that Marx’s theory of sensory Praxis is not even able to justify the existence of matter and it tears down the entire metaphysical foundation of Marx.
Another issue brought up by Gentile is that by even arguing for the existence of a philosophy of praxis you are already transcending sensible reality since you are arguing for the existence of something immaterial and metaphysical which is not percitple by human senses.
This is, however possible through pure idealism, such as Gentile would develop later through his Actual Idealism where a Praxis of the act of thinking is the basis for his metaphysics and everything becomes mind, specifically everything is thought. For if thought alone is real then Gentile doesn’t have to worry about what’s outside of the purview of our mind for the mind alone is reality.
What Gentile’s criticism of Marx ultimately comes down to in the final analysis is that materialism mixed with idealism is an untenable reality. Marx failed to surpass Hegel and instead created an incoherent philosophical system that takes elements of idealism and materialism and makes the system internally contradicting by its own standards. Gentile doesn’t have to cite history, or economics to deal with the problems of Marx, he simply reveals its own internal mechanisms are philosophically bankrupt.
If you noticed throughout this article, I refrained from using the word Marxist or Marxism: that is for a reason. Marxism as an ideology that developed after the death of Marx with thinkers like Engels and Lenin claiming to be the true heirs to Marx is not the ideology that Gentile sees in Marx. Gentile sees Marx as a weird fusion of materialism and idealism, while Engels and Lenin wrote about Marx’s materialism, while leaving out his idealist tendencies.
For instance in Lenin 1909 book Materialism and Empirio-criticism, a book that would later be mandatory reading in higher education in the soviet Union he writes that:
“Sensation depends on the brain, nerves, retina, etc., i.e., on matter organised in a definite way. The existence of matter does not depend on sensation. Matter is primary. Sensation, thought, consciousness are the supreme product of matter organised in a particular way. Such are the views of materialism in general, and of Marx and Engels in particular.”
And in the 1914 encyclopedia article where Gentile is referenced, Lenin writes that:
“Marx decidedly rejected, idealism”
Lenin’s view of Marx is unmistakably at odds with Gentile’s view of Marx. Gentile saw Marx as constituting his entire metaphysics on the activity of sensation which interacts with matter through receiving it through the senses. The subject and object world weren’t two abstract ideas, rather they were dialectically intertwined where one cannot exist without the other. A stark contrast to Lenin’s view which he attributes to Marx that “consciousness is the supreme product of matter organised in a particular way”
However, as I mentioned at the start, at the time of Both the writings of Gentile and Lenin, much of Marx’s works were yet to be published and wouldn’t be so until the 1930’s by the Soviet Union. Some of the more notable works to be published included, Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 and The German Ideology. The Manuscripts of 1844 specifically goes to show the idealist tendencies of Marx that Gentile was able to pick out from the notes of Feurebach Marx had written down in a notebook, and there is no defense of a vulgar or crass Materialism like the likes of Lenin would write about and even go so far as to attribute to Marx himself.
Intellectual Historian Gareth Stedman Jones shows how Marx’s more idealistic side has been suppressed writing in his Biography on Marx that indeed these revealed writings of the Young Marx show that Gentile had a better understanding of Marx from Marx’s short Theses on Feuerbach than Lenin did:
“According to Engels, [Marx] developed his new ‘materialist conception of history’ between his completion of The Holy Family in the autumn of 1844 and his reunion with Engels in Brussels in the spring of 1845. During these months, Karl did not publish anything. The only piece of relevant documentation, which Engels discovered when going through papers dating from that period, was a two-page entry in one of Karl’s notebooks, entitled Ad Feuerbach”
He then goes on to describe how the notes on Feuerbach actually attack the traditionalist materialist school rather than support it, and takes much the same view on them as Gentile had over 120 years ago.
Jones also describes that this lack of support for the materialism touted by Engels and Lenin was a problem for the Soviet Union and that to solve this problem in publishing the The German Ideology, archivist and Marxist David Riazanov wrote a chapter called “I. Feuerbach” And now I quote from Jones:
“But it has recently been demonstrated that it was ‘factitiously’ put together by Riazanov and his associates in the 1920s. The purpose of its publication during the early years of the Soviet Union was to complete the exposition of ‘Marxism’ as a system by connecting what Karl in 1859 had called a process of ‘self clarification’ with Engels’ claim about Karl’s development of ‘the materialist conception of history’ in 1885.”
In short: The Soviet Union forged chapters and claimed they were written by Marx inorder to make it sound like Marx supported the crass materialism of Lenin and Engels, and the Soviet interpretation of Marxism.
We see further support in Gentile’s interpretation of Marxism in an introduction to the Manuscripts of 1844 written by Italian Marxist’s Lucio Colletti who writes:
“The immediate reasons for the resistances and perplexities they aroused in Marxist circles were certainly of a theoretical nature. It would be needless exaggeration of the case to ascribe the reaction directly to political factors. Nevertheless, the sheer rigidity of official doctrine, the rigor mortis which already gripped Marxism under Stalin, contributed in no small way to the cool reception which the writings met with when they appeared, to the absence of any debate about them, and to the manner in which they were immediately classified and pigeon-holed
What made the [Manuscripts of 1844] appear so 'out of line' with Marxism was their profound dissimilarity to 'dialectical materialism'. They said nothing at all about the dialectics of nature; nothing which prepared the way for Engels's theory of the three basic dialectical laws of the universe.”
Colletti also brings up how in East Germany the Manuscripts of 1844 were subtly repressed by them not being included in the larger volumes of Marx that were published, and instead publishing them as stand-alones.
Lastly I will bring up a point the Historian A James Gregor does which supports the idea that Marx and Engel’s philosophies were not totally insync with each other. Gregor writes that:
“We do know that Marx did not confide all his opinions to Engels and what the judgment on the epistemology of his compatriot might have been we shall probably never know, since Marx's daughter took it upon herself to destroy her father's correspondence with his wife; a vandalism undertaken in order to avoid "embarrassment" to Engels
So with this I believe there is enough evidence to say that Lenin and Engels interpreted Marx wrong, and the Gentile has the correct view, and that his interpretation didn’t fall on deaf ears when critiquing the “real Marx” and not Marxism which is Marx understood through Engels and Lenin who I have believe have gotten Marx wrong in many key aspects.
To wrap this up I will let Gentile have a say:
“We will say, therefore, in conclusion, that an eclecticism of contradictory elements is the general character of this philosophy of Marx; of which some of his disciples today are perhaps not greatly wrong in not knowing what to do. There are many fruitful ideas at its foundation, which taken separately are worthy of meditation: but isolated they do not belong, as has been proved, to Marx, nor can they therefore justify that word "Marxism," which is sought to be synonymous with a purely realistic philosophy.”
This is also a good supplementary video by the Italian philosopher Diego Fusaro. Diego Fusaro views himself as an independent pupil of both Hegel and Marx and maintains that Giovanni Gentile is the greatest Italian philosophers of the twentieth century. In this lecture he is actually claiming continuity between Marx and the philosophical school of idealism, as has Gentile. Adding more validity to what this article has argued.