Perhaps the sole characteristic common to all contemporary varieties of Western Marxism is, with very few exceptions, their concern to defend themselves against the accusation of materialism. Gramscian or Togliattian Marxists, Hegelian-Existentialist Marxists, Neo-Positivizing Marxists, Freudian or Structuralist Marxists, despite the profound dissensions which otherwise divide them, are at one in rejecting all suspicion of collusion with ‘vulgar’ or ‘mechanical’ materialism; and they do so with such zeal as to cast out, together with mechanism or vulgarity, materialism tout court. Much of the polemical debate between various Marxist groups turns precisely on the selection of the most effective safeguard against the danger of falling into vulgar materialism: whether this safeguard is to be the dialectic or historicism, an appeal to Marxist humanism or an association of Marxism with an empirio-critical or pragmatist or Platonist epistemology.

The present division within the workers’ movement of the West between a majority tendency that conceives socialism as the integration of the working class into the capitalist system, and a minority tendency, or rather several minorities, which pose in various ways the task of world socialist revolution, is much clearer today than it was ten years ago. But if contemporary reformists are anti-materialist, because of the understandable influence of bourgeois culture on them, it cannot be said that the new levy of revolutionary Marxists which has emerged since 1960 has restored any emphasis on materialism. These new revolutionary groups are indubitably hostile to certain forms of idealist Marxism—in Italy, especially to the Gramscian form; but their sympathies seem to oscillate between a Hegelian Marxism with strong existentialist overtones, and a pragmatist scientism. This is visible even in their language, which is frequently inaccessible to comrades at the base for two reasons: on the one hand an excess of Hegelian philosophical notions, on the other, an excess of neo-positivist technicism. Often the same issue of Quaderni Rossi or Classe Operaia footnote, or the journals descended from them, would contain manifest elements of both. It is probable that the revolutionaries of the sixties feared that any accentuation of materialism might lead to a relaxation of voluntarist tension, a return to attentiste expectation of the ‘spontaneous collapse’ of capitalism, and also a loss of contact with modern scientific thought, which is in such large measure hostile to the old materialism of the 19th century.

This anti-materialism is not, in fact, a new phenomenon in revolutionary thought, in the West. In the period after the First World War, Leninists in Germany and Italy professed, in philosophy, ideas very different from those of Lenin: for them, the main enemy in the sphere of philosophy was not idealism, but materialism, which they considered as a positivist and social-democratic deformation of the thought of Marx. Whereas Lenin was already fighting in 1908 against the triumphant new bourgeois ideology of reborn idealism, the Leninists of the twenties and thirties were seeking to bring Marxism up to date with the development of idealism, by accepting a formulation of gnoseological problems and of relations between structure and superstructure that was in step with the contemporary bourgeois ideologies: Karl Korsch’s Marxism and Philosophy is one of the clearest expressions of this orientation. Their philosophy was thereby defined as a radicalism of the intelligensia rather than a doctrine of the revolutionary proletariat.

Thus today not even the antithesis between reform and revolution coincides on the philosophical plane with the antinomy between idealism and materialism. On the contrary, in Western Europe, both political camps are situated within the ambit of anti-materialism. It is significant that in the long debate between Marxist philosophers in Italy that occurred in 1962, in the pages of Rinascita, the only point on which all contending parties were in agreement from the outset was the need to emancipate Marxism from the ‘incrustations of vulgar materialism’. footnote It should be added that the initiator of this discussion, Cesare Luporini, had in the previous years formulated a limpid and rigorous materialist position in his work Verit` e Libert`, conspicuous for its originality and courage in the philosophical panorama of the last few decades. footnote1 Subsequently, however, the pressure to bring Marxism up to date and enrich it intellectually (in other words to make contact with dominant currents in Western culture, such as psychoanalysis and structuralism) prevailed over him, so that he no longer persisted in that direction.

It is true that in themselves polemics against vulgar materialism in no way constitute an idealist deviation from Marxism, but rather, as is well known, form part of the original nucleus of its doctrine. But the strange thing is that the insistence on this polemic has for many decades now no longer corresponded to any important influence or even effective presence of vulgar materialism in the West, which has never recovered from the crisis it underwent at the end of the last century. Today the struggle within bourgeois culture is—to put it very schematically—between two idealisms: a historicist and humanist idealism and an empirio-criticist and pragmatic idealism. The ‘two cultures’ so much bruited, are—broadly speaking—identifiable with these two idealisms. The victory of the second is the victory of modern technocracy over the antiquated humanism characteristic of backward bourgeois classes. Humanism has, however, in the countries of advanced capitalism been subordinated but not destroyed, since its services are to a certain extent still necessary. For every exploiting class always needs a discourse on ‘spiritual values’: even the old positivism of the 19th century left room for agnostic and religious escape, and the same phenomenon is repeated today in contemporary American philosophy, with the spiritualist overtures of many pragmatists, methodologists and more or less ‘critical’ naturalists. footnote2

Thus the diagnosis which underlay Lenin’s determination to write Materialism and Empiriocriticism still seems to retain its validity today: a situation of disequilibrium dominated by idealism, dictating a need to direct polemic attack more against idealism than against vulgar materialism. Instead, contemporary Marxism in the West seems intent above all on demonstrating to itself and to its adversaries that it is not ‘crude’. Under the ensign of anti-materialism (together with a repudiation of some of the most backward metaphysical positions) a philosophical ecumene is now emerging, in which Marxists, Neopositivists, modernized Existentialists, and Catholics disposed to dialogue, converge and can often be confused.

This ostensible self-purification of Marxism is typically concretized and symbolized by a devaluation of Engels, who for many holds prime responsibility for the decline of Marxism from its true philosophical heights to the depths of a ‘popular philosophy’. Because of its dramatically contradictory character (which deserves a more profound study), Engels’s work is particularly liable to attack from both main contemporary Marxist currents, hegelian and empirio-pragmatist. On the one hand, Engels was much more sensible than Marx of the necessity to come to terms with the natural sciences, to link ‘historical’ materialism (in the human sciences) to physical and biological materialism—all the more so, at a time when Darwin had finally opened the way to an historical understanding of nature itself. On the other hand, in his effort to reject any reduction of Marxism to a banal evolutionism or eclectic positivism, Engels undertook to apply the Hegelian dialectic to the sciences with a certain punctilio, and to translate phenomena of physics or biology into the language of the ‘negation of the negation’ and the ‘conversion of quantity into quality’. It is for this reason that he can on occasion be accused of archaic Hegelianism or contamination by positivism, of abandonment of the great German philosophical tradition or neglect of the pragmatist hints in the Theses on Feuerbach, of scientism or a retrogressive and superficial scientific culture.