In the 19th century, the father of Italian Marxism was Labriola, who corresponded with Engels and Plekhanov. After the formation of the Third International, its historical centre became Gramsci. Both were in different ways profoundly influenced by the Hegelian tradition which had become naturalized in Italy after the Risorgimento. It is therefore a paradox that after the Second World War, the most important philosophical school to develop within Italian Marxism has been markedly hostile to the influence of Hegel and relatively untouched by the influence of Gramsci. The founder and inspirer of this current was Galvano Delia Volpe, who was born in Imola in 1897 and died in 1968.

The direction of Della Volpe’s work, like that of Lukács, was much influenced by his early pre-Marxist formation and development. He began his career at Bologna University with a study entitled Hegel Romantico e Mistico (1929), which deliberately went against the mainstream of Italian academic philosophy of the time, by emphasizing Hegel’s relation to Eckhardt, Holderlin, Schiller, Schelling and other irrationalist and romantic sources of German culture. The approach of this early work was to be taken up and developed 40 years later by Della Volpe’s most gifted pupil, Lucio Colletti, in his recent attack on Lukács’s interpretation of the young Hegel (Il Marxismo e Hegel). Where Lukács sought to emphasize the secular and rationalist aspects of Hegel’s thought, indeed claiming that he was virtually a protomaterialist in his youth, Della Volpe and later Colletti were concerned to show Hegel’s place in a specifically Christian tradition of romantic bourgeois thought. The young Hegel becomes for them not an unconscious atheist, but a theological novice concerned with essentially pietistic themes. A very different assessment of Hegel’s relation to Marx necessarily followed.

Thus, when during the Liberation Della Volpe acceded to Marxism, he began his new phase of development by explicitly rejecting the idea that the Marxist dialectic is merely the Hegelian idealist dialectic ‘stood on its feet’. Dismissing Marx’s remark that he had ‘flirted’ with Hegel’s terminology in Capital, he squarely stated that Marx’s dialectic had nothing to do with Hegel, because it was indistinguishable from the establishment of scientific laws of social formations. Della Volpe thus anticipated one of the central themes of Althusser’s work some two decades later. In a second text written in the immediate post-war years,footnote1 he made a novel analysis of Marx’s 1843 Kritik des Hegelschen Staatsrecht, which focussed on Marx’s attack on the Hegelian hypostasization of the State. In doing so, Della Volpe probably overestimated the originality of Marx’s argument (similar political ideas were widely current among the left Hegelians), but he undoubtedly established the central point that Marx denounced Hegel not merely for idealism, but also for empiricism: it was the combination of the two that produced a mythical overt entity whose covert and mundane referent was the sordid existing machine of bourgeois domination. Again, this theme of the unity of idealism/empiricism was later to be developed extensively by Althusser and others in France.

In 1950, Della Volpe published his first full-length book after the war, Logica come Scienza Positiva. In it, he used a set of intellectual oppositions which have been characteristic of all his later work. The three crucial ones were Aristotle/Plato, Galileo/Vico, Marx/Hegel. Della Volpe’s aim was to show that Marx’s break with Hegel’s hypostasizations had its parallels in Aristotle’s criticism of Plato’s diaireses and Galileo’s rejection of the scholastic physics of his day.footnote2 Taking Marx’s Introduction to the Critique of Political Economy of 1857 as his central text, he insisted that Marx’s specific epistemological novelty was his introduction of the notion of ‘determinate abstractions’ as the basic tool of historical materialism, and of all modern science. Empirical phenomena could only be understood and explained by means of conceptual abstractions such as ‘labour-power’ and ‘capital’ that were not generic, but historically determinate: they alone would permit the ‘return’ to the concrete promised by Marx. For Della Volpe, Marx’s critique of Hegel was a reassertation of the claims of the intellect as against those of a universally dissolving ‘Reason’. In thought, everything is defined by what it is and by what it is not, hence by its place in a dialectical system; but in reality things are only what they are, they exclude their opposites. Hegel confuses the concepts of things with the things themselves, and hence presupposes that things themselves develop towards a rational goal combining the finite and the infinite. For Marx, on the contrary, our knowledge of things, of what they are and what they are not, and hence our assessment of their past and their future possibilities, is independent of the things themselves, which in their existence exclude all the things they are not, including their past and future: theory produces determinate abstractions, or, to use a phrase of Colletti’s, ‘hypotheses, not hypostasizations’. Hence our knowledge is historically determined by the present and our concepts of it.

It is obvious that this historicist but anti-idealist epistemology is radically opposed to Hegel and to the neo-Hegelian trend initiated by Lukács and current among the interpreters of Gramsci in Italy; but it is also directed against the criticism by Engels, Plekhanov and their Soviet interpreters of the ‘metaphysical materialism’ of the natural sciences. For Della Volpe regards this as much an attack on the intellect as anything in Hegel. The assertion that everything is dialectical dissolves the distinction between being and thought, between things and their concepts, which is central to a critique of the hypostasization of concepts and hence to Marxist materialism: the assertion of the primacy of matter over thought.

Having laid the bases of his logic, Della Volpe went on to work at problems of Marxist ethics during the ’fifties. In particular, he became preoccupied with the lessons of Rousseau for Marxist thought. His book Rousseau e Marx (1957) is a series of studies which explores the relations between what he calls the ‘two freedoms’ of Enlightenment thought: the civic liberties of Locke and Kant, which later became the classical properties of bourgeois democracy, and the egalitarian freedoms of Rousseau’s Social Contract and the Discourse on Inequality. What particularly interested Della Volpe was the contrast of the formal equality of Kantian legal freedoms, indifferent to substantive social inequality between persons, with the ‘proportional inequality’ of Rousseau’s social contract as an egalitarian mediation between persons. In the latter’s anti-levelling focus, despite Rousseau’s Christian-populist conception of persons, he saw the precursor of Marx’s famous attack on bourgeois law in the Critique of the Gotha Programme, and his prescriptions for distribution in the first phase of a communist society (socialism). The text printed below is a summing-up of Della Volpe’s work on this subject for the occasion of the two hundredth anniversary of the Social Contract in 1962.

Della Volpe’s last major opus was an aesthetic, entitled Critica del Gusto (1960). This work is perhaps the most original and important of his writings. He starts by demolishing the received notion that poetry is essentially a medium of images. A detailed textual analysis of Sophocles, Pindar, Dante, Goethe and Eliot is adduced to prove that all poems embody ideas, and that only a rationalist and materialist aesthetic can account for these. Against Croce and romantic-intuitive criticism generally, Della Volpe insists on the intellectual significations of all art, while at the same time against Plekhanov and sociologistic criticism generally, he stresses the specifically aesthetic (not ‘social’) nature of the ideas which govern art-objects. Thus he condemns Lukács for yielding to both of these temptations (citing the intuitionism of his early Diltheyan background, and the sociologism of his late incomprehension of Flaubert). Having thus argued for a morphological parallelism of ‘statements’ in art and science, Della Volpe then devotes the rest of his book to establishing their differences. To do this, he resorts to the linguistics of De Saussure and Hjelmslev. He was thus one of the first thinkers in Western Europe to see the importance of linguistics for aesthetics, and the possibilities of a semiology of different art-forms. Aesthetic signs in general he thought were always ‘polysemic’ (multivocal) and ‘organically contextual’ (i.e. non-transferrable to other emplacements), whereas their scientific analogies were ‘univocal’ and ‘omni-contextual’ (transferrable to different emplacements). Each artform, however, had it own code, which would have to be studied and established separately. Critica del Gusto ends with a chapter entitled Laokoon 1960 (after Lessing), which sketches the problems this involves for music, painting or the cinema.