The Problem of a 'Scientifically Correct' Method

Submitted by Juan Conatz on February 7, 2011

If many within the Turin circle of Quademi Rossi, including Panzieri himself, were partial to Weber (Alquati 1975: 24; Panzieri 1987: 332-3), it was also the case that Panzieri (1975: 315) saw Marxism, being itself a theory of capitalist society, as the preeminent sociology. This view, which he shared with the journal’s Roman editors, had been in large part derived from the work of the Communist philosopher Galvano Della Volpe. A convert to Marxism after the Second World War, Della Volpe’s most original contribution to Italian left culture was to seek to reconstruct Marx’s method of investigation through a reading of the original sources. It was an unusual undertaking within a party then little concerned with the founder of ‘scientific socialism’, and to it Della Volpe, long hostile to Italian idealism, brought a viewpoint quite different to that of the majority of Communist intellectuals. However much the techniques of enquiry used in social or natural research might vary, he argued, there was but ‘one logic – the materialist logic of modern science’ which underlay them all (Della Volpe 1980: 198).

Della Volpe expressed general admiration for the progress under capital which positive science, through its application of Galileo’s experimental method, had achieved in developing coherent explanations of natural phenomena. All the same, the bourgeoisie had had no such success in the realm of social intercourse, being unable to unlock the secret to that class relation which reproduced its domination over labour. The reasons for this, Della Volpe believed, lay not so much with experimentalism, or its alleged inapplicability to the ‘moral disciplines’, as with the inability of the dominant class to exclude from its enquiry the subjective assumption that capitalist production relations were both natural and eternal. Marx, by contrast, had discovered capital’s profoundly historical – and so transitory – nature only because he had remained true to scientific logic’s refusal of apriorism. To Della Volpe’s mind, the abandoned 1857 ‘Introduction’ to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy possessed a fundamental importance in this regard, for within it Marx could be found scrutinising the basic building blocks of that conceptual apparatus later applied ‘with maximum rigour and success’ in Capital (Della Volpe 1980: 200). Armed with that critique of a priori reasoning which he had first enunciated in 1843, Marx here made use of historical, ‘determinate’ abstractions, hypotheses worked up from observation of the concrete – in this case, as Della Volpe emphasised, ‘a specific historical society’ - and continually re-submitted to it for verification. By these means Marx’s enquiry, the opposite of a speculative philosophy which confused concept and reality, formed a methodological circle of induction and deduction, ‘a circle that is historical, and therefore dynamic, moving from the concrete to the concrete ... therefore afford[ing] genuine development’. This, for Della Volpe, was the greatest triumph of the founder of ‘moral Galileanism’: not the elaboration of a pseudometaphysical attempt to comprehend the inner workings of the universe, but the application of science to modern capitalist society as ‘materialist sociological economics’ (ibid.: 186, 194,209).

Della Volpe had been a marginal figure within the PCI before 1956, and his subsequent prominence within the party owed more to the diaspora of other Communist intellectuals than to a greater receptivity towards his ideas amongst the leadership. True to his self-image as an ‘intellectual of the old style’ (Colletti 1978: 323), the philosopher always steered clear of party policy. Many of his views most critical of orthodoxy thus lie hidden behind formal obeisance to ‘dialectical materialists’ such as Engels or Zhdanov, and his discussions of contemporary political themes, if somewhat unusual in formulation, can hardly be interpreted as attacks upon party doctrine (Guastini and Levrero 1970: 311; Bedeschi 1983: 89). Yet if Della Volpe himself never developed his reflections upon the critique of political economy beyond the initial problem of defining a correct epistemology, a number of his students were bolder. Writing in 1958, Lucio Colletti (1974: 3, 23) insisted that Marx’s mature work was concerned not with ‘’’general’’ laws, nonsensical truisms valid for all epochs’, but ‘with one society only, modern capitalist society’. Whilst directed chiefly against Soviet proponents of dialectical materialism, this reading of Marx also pointed a dagger at the heart of the PCI’s historicism, which Colletti provocatively deemed nonMarxist (Ajello 1979: 349). Even more disturbing, according to the growing number of Della Volpe’s critics within the Communist Party, were the political implications of such a stance for the strategy of an ‘Italian road’. To their mind,

by making Marxism a materialist sociology, that is a science of the modern bourgeois social-economic formation, ‘dellavolpism’ insisted more on the features common to various advanced capitalist societies than on the ‘particular’ and ‘national’ features that distinguished one country from another. (Bedeschi 1983: 90)

Judging such views to be the first step towards extremism, the philosopher’s opponents launched their attack in 1962 through the pages of the PCI’s cultural weekly Rinascita. The tone of the discussion, unlike earlier party debates, was generally civilised, but the eventual ‘victory’ of the historicist side was never seriously in doubt. Defeated, their opponents either retreated temporarily, or – like Colletti – left the party altogether.

The debt owed Della Volpe by the Italian new left, and Quademi Rossi in particular, remains a controversial question. It is not difficult to draw direct connections between the two: Panzieri, for example, had worked with Della Volpe at the University of Messina during his sojourn in Sicily, while Tronti was well-known in the late 1950s as one of the philosopher’s most vocal supporters (Fugazza 1975). At the very least, it could be said that Della Volpe’s efforts· to return directly to Marx cleared the ground for a new appropriation of the latter’s thought able to bypass the dominant traditions of the Communist Party altogether. And if Della Volpe was too timid to engage in such a break publicly, Tronti would have no such qualms, attacking Gramsci’s thought in 1958 as an idealist philosophy whose purpose – the execution of an Anti-Croce – had largely been exhausted:

For us the good sense of the philosophy of a given epoch is not the common sense of that epoch, distorted and mystified. It is necessary to discover the truth of the latter, through the historically determinate expression that it assumes. If philosophy coincides with good sense, we must mistrust philosophy. If through science we are able to express the common sense of things, it suffices to confide in science. (quoted in Bosio 1975: 50-1)

Conscious of the seductive power of Gramsci’s methodology, yet contemptuous of his epigones’ tendency to neglect the critique of material conditions in favour of matters ideological, Tronti’s closest associates simply turned their backs upon the philosophy of praxis. In its place they chose the path indicated by Della Volpe, who had refused to postulate the ‘’’economic’’ and “ideological” as two separate levels of enquiry’, looking for inspiration instead to Marx’s critique of political economy (Schenone 1980: 174). In a period when that critique was largely unknown within the local branches of Italy’s historic left parties (Ajello 1979: 348; Negri 1979a: 36), Della Volpe’s insistence upon the actuality of Capital would leave an indelible mark upon Panzieri and his young friends. This was particularly so for Tronti, who in the mid-1950s had submitted a thesis on the logic of Capital at the University of Rome (Rossini 1980: 65). Echoing Della Volpe, Tronti would argue:

If the logic of ’Capital’ is again substantiated today, it is because for working-class thought, the objective necessity of an analysis of capitalism has returned to the fore. The instruments of analysis are revised when the object of this analysis is rediscovered. If the object is capitalist society in the concrete – the modern world moment of capitalism – then the instrument can only be Marx’s method that has provided the first and only scientific description of this object. One returns to Capital each time one starts from capitalism, and vice versa: one cannot speak of the method of Capital without transferring and translating this method into the analysis of capitalism.(quoted in Asor Rosa 1975: 1640)

Pursuing this line of argument during the early 1960s, Tronti would also make clear the Romans’ dissatisfaction with Della Volpe’s own failure to follow through the radical thrust of his thought. If the recovery of the critique of political economy’s actuality demanded an ‘internal critique’ to expunge Marx’s work of its ambiguities and flaws, no less important was a confrontation with the vulgar Marxist ideologies prevalent within the labour movement. ‘An ideology is always bourgeois’, Tronti insisted; to it the revolutionary must counterpose Marx’s proletarian science and its ‘ruthless criticism of all that exists’ (Tronti 1971: 35, 33). Above all, Della Volpe had failed to understand that such a critique could not remain an academic exercise performed by ‘pure Marxists’. Rather, it must become a moment of class struggle that retraced Lenin’s path from the analysis of Russian capitalism in 1899 to its overthrow in 1917. ‘Workers’ power’, Tronti concluded, ‘the autonomous organisation of the working class - [this] is the real process of demystification, because it is the material basis of revolution’ (ibid.: 37).

Similar sentiments were to be expressed by Asor Rosa in the second issue of Quademi Rossi. Referring to unnamed ‘scholars’ who in recent years had ‘dedicated their whole activity to reaching a more exact reading of Marx’s thought’, Asor Rosa (1962: 122-3, 125) praised their efforts to achieve the ‘general demystification’ of Marx’s work as a great service which furnished the labour movement with ‘precious theoretical instruments’. Despite this, however, there existed profound limits within their work, the most damning being an inability to advance to a ‘real notion’, a ‘scientific analysis’ of modern society. To accomplish this task, as Quademi Rossi now sought to do, theory must step down from its ivory tower and present itself within the class struggle, since ‘the only way to understand the system is through conceiving of its destruction’.

Having taken Della Volpe’s commitment to the reinvigoration of the critique of political economy as their own, Panzieri and the Roman members of his circle would firmly reject both the philosopher’s traditional approach to the act of theoretical ‘production’, and his acceptance of the intellectual’s subservience to party politicians. As Emilio Agazzi recalled in the 1970s,

in conversations during the early 1960s, Panzieri often pronounced a very severe judgement of Della Volpe and his ‘theoreticism’, of the inadequacies of his analysis, of his singular incapacity actually to apply that method of ‘determinate abstraction’ which, nevertheless, was his undisputed merit to have indicated – against the Stalinist and historicist deformations of Marxism – as the authentically Marxian method. (Agazzi 1977: 14)

At the same time, Quademi Rossi’s critique of Della Volpe can be seen as incomplete, with the absence of a practical engagement with Italian class politics far from being the only obstacle hindering the philosopher’s own efforts to constitute determinate abstractions adequate to the age of the assembly line. Indeed, despite its apparent empirical good sense, Della Volpe’s understanding of how such tools are constructed had been deeply flawed. Apart from its blatantly scientistic starting point (Della Volpe 1980: 200), the chief difficulty of his reconstruction of Marx’s method of investigation lay with its dependence upon the 1857 text as the key to Capital. As a careful reading of the ‘Introduction’ makes plain, however, Marx’s generation of categories there differed from Smith and Ricardo only in the greater conSistency with which it utilised that ‘Galilean’ logic of which Della Volpe speaks. Nor should this be surprising. Marx’s later, first volume of Capital was guided by a new method of investigation which insisted that mere observation was not enough to penetrate beneath ‘the direct form of manifestation of relations’ to ‘their inner connection’ (Marx and Engels 1965: 191). Against this, Marx’s understanding of the process of abstraction in the ‘Introduction’ still possessed what Rafael Echeverria (1978: 337) has called ‘a markedly empiricist content, to the extent that it involves a simple generalisation from observable characteristics in reality’. Oblivious to this shift, Della Volpe continued to portray the 1857 text as if it really was informed by the unambiguous anti-empiricism of Capital. This confusion which would have its revenge most spectacularly in his discussions of politics, prone to generate ‘the most typical weapon of the speculative method, the generic abstraction’ (Montano 1971: 35).

Their uncritical use of the ‘Introduction’ would cause Panzieri and many workerists continual difficulties in disentangling the logical and historical moments of the critique of political economy. None the less, they were able to retrieve the most productive aspects of Della Volpe’s reading of Marx: above all, the insistence that categories be historically determinate. ‘Aspiring to a more operative theory,’ Alquati (1975: 15) would later write, ‘one founded on the new determinations offered in the immediate by the movements of a renovated working class, we theorised many “determinate abstractions”.’ As to which of these were most effective in grasping the class relations of contemporary Italy, however, Panzieri’s group was soon to find itself sharply and irrevocably divided.