It would be useless to try and find in Marx’s writings a complete and systematic theory of the proletarian party, its nature and characteristics, just as it would be useless to seek a fully worked-out notion of the concept of class. These are two important points of Marx’s thinking that were never fully developed. This should not, however, be taken to mean that there is not implicit in Marx’s work a definition of these concepts, which are essential to the logic and scientific fertility of his thought. Interpreters of Marx have often rightly said that the cornerstone of his thought is to be found in his critique not of a single philosophy but of all philosophy, not of a single utopia but of all utopian thought, admirably demonstrated in the Theses on Feuerbach. The object of this critique is the division between truth and history, being and thought, which after having dominated the whole history of man still remained undestroyed in the Hegelian system. Simultaneously, Marx’s critique bridged in principle and in fact all dichotomies between the facticity of history, left to its own immobility or contingency, and absolute ideals pursued independently of it (religious alienation) or abstractly superimposed upon it (enlightened utopianism).

But it is obvious from the form, the tone and the context of this critique (Eleventh Thesis: ‘the philosophers have only interpreted the world; the problem, however is to change it’) that Marx refuses and indeed combats any interpretation of it that leads to historical irrationalism or to the false rationalism of determinism. On the contrary, his conscious intention is to found in theory and to promote in practice the action of man in history, as a subject of will and freedom following rationally arranged decisions and ends.

Marx in fact attempted, in a way consistent with the hypothesis from which he started, to resolve questions that had previously been posed on the purely speculative level by relating them to history and social reality. He sought in the latter and in their broad lines of development both the theoretical foundation for a non-metaphysical, non-objectivist science of man, and the concrete tendency and objective possibility for the realization of such a science.

Clearly, if this reality could be considered from a totally external and objective standpoint, as seems possible to the natural scientist, the problem would become much simpler. But it was Marx himself, in his critique of Feuerbach, who attacked as a ‘principal defect of every materialism’ that it conceived ‘the real object as it appears to the senses, only in the form of the object or contemplation; but not as a sensuous human activity, as practical activity, not subjectively.’ The essential aspect of dialectical method as developed by Marx is an analysis of reality which does not isolate it either from its process of formation, its relationship to the subject who knows it, or from the general context, the ‘totality’ within which it is inserted.

An investigation of social and historical reality that grasps its significance, tendency and value, while avoiding all forms of platonism and idealism, presupposes an identifiable basis in reality for it—a subject capable of this knowledge, whose nature and position in reality give birth to it. There must be, in other words, a subject for whom and within whom science and consciousness tend to coincide, and in their mutual dialectic give rise to the real process of knowledge as the unity of theory and practice. But is such a foundation of a science of society and man to be found in historical reality? The solution obviously cannot be sought in an abstract and half-historical definition of the nature and being of man. That would be a return to the shallows of dogmatic metaphysics and preclude the very basis of the dialectic to be established. If the concept of ‘man’ is replaced by that of real man, historically defined, then a solution appears even more distant. The capitalist society which Marx encountered in his analysis, and all the scientific and cultural thought which represented its consciousness, offered him the image of an individual who was, on the one hand, cut off from the social body, and thus by definition imprisoned in the narrow limits of a particular interest, a limited awareness, a practical impotence. On the other hand, the same individual was not yet master of science and technique, but remained subordinated to them, to the objective structures of production and the market, to society as his ‘second nature’. This individual, in other words, confronted society and history as autonomous forces, governed by their own necessity, which in their totality remained beyond the scope of knowledge.

However, no sooner had Marx’s analysis penetrated deeper in this direction, enabling him to identify the basic structure or underlying mechanism that determined the society (in other words capitalist relations of production as a generalized form of exchange and value) than the historical subject emerged in reality. This subject was a ‘being’ which intrinsically contained a critical consciousness of the given social totality, and the possibility of reconstructing this totality on a basis which allows man to achieve knowledge and control of the world which surrounds him. This subject-object, which ‘in the consciousness of itself reconstructs the science of society’ and which can consequently represent the objective basis of knowledge (and hence of the very analysis that had led to its identification) was the proletariat. The proletariat not in terms of—‘what this or that proletarian or the proletariat as a whole conceives as its aim at any particular moment, but of what the proletariat is, and what it must historically accomplish in accordance with its nature’.footnote1

The proletariat, in fact, expresses and resumes the entire mechanism that regulates capitalist society. It represents in itself the nature of human labour as a commodity, the separation between man and work, and universal alienation (‘the possessing class and the proletarian class represents the same self-enstrangement’). But whereas the bourgeoisie—’feels itself nonetheless at home in this alienation, acknowledges its estrangement as its special power and enjoys in it the semblance of human existence, the proletariat on the other hand feels annihilated in its alienation, sees in it its own impotence and the reality of an inhuman existence.’footnote2