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Personal Autonomy and Historical Materialism




The following is largely a criticism of some of the
mistakes and certain tendencies antithetical to an
historical materialist conception of the world found
in Eoss Poole’s paper ‘Freedom and Alienation’.

(Radical Philosophy, Winter 1975). Basically the
criticism is this: because Poole never entirely
leaves the framework employed in the account of
negative freedom he wishes to criticize, he provides
us with an individualistic understanding of autonomy
as opposed to a class understanding. The result
obscures the materialist conception of freedom, the
role of history and a universalism emerges which is
implicitly :Eeactionary. In the first section of this
paper Poole’ s argument is exposed .and in the second
section criticized. In the final section I try to provide some answers to the problem of recognizing
autonomy in the class struggle using the basic ideas
in Poole’s approach. This paper is put forward as
part of the general programme of re-examining the
relation between Marxism and morality.

and independence rules out this latter type of want
as (me whose satisfaction is free activity. The
dan~ 8r is that Poole is set in search of a category
of wants that is empty of any significance for our
understanding of freedom.


In order to develop his analysis of autonomy in
terms of independently formed wants, Poole provides the following categorization of wants in terms
of the presence or absence of other people necessary
for their satisfaction. There are basically two categories of wants: personal and interpersonal wants.

The latter, by far the large·r and more important of
the two” ‘requires ‘. .. i!1 some way or other,
preceding or ancillary, or corresponding activity
by others for their satisfaction’ (12). Personal
wants are those that do not require such corresponding activity or those that relate solely to my physical
environment. The only example of a personal want
given immediately by Poole is that of painting a
Negative Liberty
mural (12) though later he mentions beer-drinking
(14) which might also be construed as an example
In the paper Poole gives an analysis of freedom and
alienation based on the concept of autonomy. Freeof a personal want.

dom is the lack of constraints on autonomous activity
This typology is unhappy and reflects the same
questionable dichotomy referred to above.

while alienation is its opposite. Freedom and
A precondition of any personal want being
alienation ‘. .. are related as opposite and exhaustsatisfied is the existence of the productive activity
ive areas on the one continuum’ (11). The respect
of others. Painting a mural, drinking beer, bushin which human activity is characterized for the
walking, reading, thinking are all activities that
purpose of his analysis is in terms of want-satisfacsatisfy wants but at the same time require ‘precedtion, some wants being more fundamental to a
ing’ activity by others, even when related solely to
person than othersl, such as the desire for love and
self-knowledge (16). Ultimately it is in terms of the the natural environment. Bush-walking requires
boots, food, clothing of a particular nature and in
formation of wants that autonomous activity is to be
most cases knowledge and transportation all of

which are socially produced. However P·oole does
Poole begins the analysis by criticizing the neganot make any real use of this distinction but concentive definition of freedom: ‘I am free to the extent
trates on interpersonal wants to give his analysis of
that I am not constrained from doing what I want. ‘

autonomy’ independently formulated wants dependent
Poole argues this will not do and that we must have
the additional concept of autonomYi,l, roughly the ngtion upon independent others for their satisfaction.

He goes On to subdivide interpersonal wants into
that our wants must be independently formulated for
those requiring mutual recognition of the autonomy
satisfaction of those wants to be free activity on the
of the participants or what he terms ‘intersubjectpart of the agent. For example, if post-hypnotic
ive’ wants (12) and those that do not. In the former
svggestion, drugs or the undue influence of others
category we are given examples of love and rational
are used to replace a prior set of wants or transdiscussion which if they are to be satisfied require
form those wants in a person then that person’s
the free response of others. There is no love or
freedom has been limited, that person’s autonomy
rational discussion if the other person is forced to
has been diminished. But simply because such
behave in a merely’ overt manner. Examples of the
interference must be absent for autonomy to remain
latter type of wants, those not requiring mutual
intact it does not follow that autonomy must be
recognition’ of autonomy, are, wants that could just
identified with the ‘independent formation of wants’

(11, my emphasis). That is if rindependent’ means
as easily be satisfied by slaves, the desire for
anything like ‘not dependent upon the activity of
riches, for example.

others’ then all that follows from Poole’s counterPoole then argues that if I divide my world up’ into
examples is that the want-formation must not be
those people whom I need for satisfaction of my
interfered with. ,Wants historically and cooperatively intersubjective wants, and those whom I do not I
formulated need not be wants whose formulation is
restrict my intersubjective activity in a self-deceptthe result of interference in the freedom-diminishive and self-stultifying way. He argues that I may
ing sense. Such wants would be dependen t for their
be wrong about the ways in which those wants of
which I am aware may be satisfied, and that there
creation and existence in a determinable and determinate form upon the activity of others yet could
may well be wants of which I am not aware. Thus I
cannot restrict autonomy to a particular group of
still be autonomous in the sense that their satisfacpeople without risk to the aim of satisfying my
tion would nevertheless be free activity. There is

additional evidence in his paper (which I will point
out later) that Poole’s understanding of autonomy
Now at least a couple of premises must be added



before We can arrive at the conclusion which Poole
wants us to draw, only one of which is pertinent to
the general line of criticism I want to make. That
is, it has to be the case that some of those whom I
bar from any intersubjective activity with me are
in fact fit, able or want to engage in intersubjective
activity with me now or at some later stage. But at
the same time some might not be and my present
and future capacity to satisfy my intersubjective
wants may rest upon my successful identification of
those people whose autonomy ought to be denied.

I have in mind the native’s relation to the imperialist as one example. It has been and for many still
is the situation that in order to be free the native
must not treat the imperialist as a member of his
or her intersubjective community. It is of no value
either, to consider the imperialist as a potential
participant of a community of intersubjective wantsatisfiers if that possibility is not a real one. The
imperialist may have to be confined, expelled,
threatened or even killed her.e and now. We cannot
simply draw a priori conclusions about the nature
of freedom for if the historical situations are arenas
for social struggle then universalistic accounts only
serve to obscure this fact and perpetuate any evils
that occasion the struggle. The adoption of a
universalistic account of freedom as requiring
the recognition of the autonomy of all and not an
historically situated account has as one of its consequences a tendency to substitute a universal
(read ‘ideological’) ethic for a class-specific one.

The treachery of such universalism in ethical
ideology is nothing new, especially after Sartre’s
brilliant analysis in Anti-Semite and Jew.

Leaving aside other objections, the argument in
a nutshell takes the following unexceptionable form:

if you want to satisfy the deepest and most human
desires, especially those for love, self-knowledge
and understanding, you must endeavour with others
to establish a community where autonomy is recognized and secured in the relations that govern all
facets of everyday life. Such an endeavour will
involve struggle and self-examin3:tion within the
context of a community whose mutual trust and respect for each other’s autonomy is built upon common
goals and feelings. Now to save such an argument
from being obvious and unhelpful everything depends
on how successful in a theoretically practical sense
Poole’s analysis of autonomy is.

While we can act autonomously with respect to our
personal wants, it is primarily in the realm of
satisfying interpersonal wants that the concept has
its most important application. The following discussion will· use this realm as a background. The

first .and primary mode of autonomous activity
involves the person distancing him or herself Irom
various aspects of his or her existence (actions,
relations, attitudes, desires, “principles, beliefs,
roles, et cetera). To the extent this critical detachment and consequent self-examination results in
activity that satisfies the principles and desires
used in judging one’s existence then that person is
(more) autonomous. Now autonomous action can only
result from self-examination and redirection if the
desires, ideals and standards used in this process
are themselves autonomous creations. A regress
is involved, for as Poole says,
I am autonomous just to the extent that I have
played a part (one must add: been allowed to
play a part) in the development of my present
conative, cognitive, and emotional structure.

Where aspects of this, and as a result, patterns
of my present behaviour, were fixed in some
very early experiences (say, early socialisation) in which I had no power of participation
or intervention, the”n to that extent I am not my
own person, i. e. I am not autonomous. Under
these circumstances I can work towards” autonomy and, through a process of self-examination, perhaps discover the extent to which
what I am now merely expresses what has been
external to me. In order to do this, I must be
able to distance myself from some aspect of
myself, and treat it as if it were external.

Only by” thus identifying myself independently
of that aspect which is under examination will
I be able to assess it as answering or not
answering to my present wants, beliefs, principles, and so on. That the I who undertakes
such an examination is, pro-tern, an unexamined I is inevitable, but it need not remain
unexamined. That we must, to adopt Neurath’s
metaphor, reconstruct our personal boat while
sailing on it, does not mean that there is some
part which must remain for ever unreconstructed.

On this view, autonomy has to do with the primacy
of the person over what is externally given. (13)
Poole .gGe& Oft to emphasize that it is not merely the
rational aspect of the person that is crucial to
establishing autonomy but the emotional aspect may
be sufficient as well. Certain desires may be basic
to me and to that extent autonomous even though
they were in no sense’ … preceded by some rational assessment or even whether they are now susceptible to alteration by rational scrutiny’ (13).

Poole’s example is of a preference for a certain
type of beer. The autonomy of such a. want would
depend on whether or not it ‘. .. was a development
from or an impOSition on some pre-existing
preference structure’ (14).

How To Buzld Your Own Goat

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Th~re are then two types of autonomous wants:

those’ formulated through self-examination and those
that are developments from prior preferences presumably having their basis in some genetic predisposition. There is then a stress on, though not
necessarily an identification with, originality and
uniqueness in the analysis of autonomy. An individual is free when his or her activity reflects that
which is unique, viz. ‘ … his independent power
to form wants, judgements, and emotions and to
act upon these’ (17). Such a power expresses itself
in a plasticity of response to new and changing
situations. The individual is also free if the activity
has its source in the primitive genetic roots of his
or her structure which in a related sense also
expresses uniqueness and originality.

Autonomous action in the first, self-creative
mode is carried on within a theoretical framework.

The act of self-distancing employs a frame of reference which interprets reality so as to govern
present and future activity.” The question then
arises: does this framework provide a correct
interpretation of one’s existence or does it serve
to obscure it? Does the frnmework through which
one assesses one’s own existence serve to identify
oneself within a practical context? Mere originality
will not do to establish real autonomy if the selfexamination is done from within an ideological
perspective. For if autonomy has anything to do
with freedom (the point of the entire exercise),
then it is dependent upon a correct viewpoint as
opposed to an ideological one for its success in
securing the individual’s liberty. Unless we can
make our own existence transparent to our consciousness then such self-reflection and analysis
only serves to limit our freedom and prevent us
from establishing a real community whose members
do in fact respect each other’s autonomy. This
problem is disguised in a somewhat circular fashion
in Poole’s concluding paragraph.

That we sometimes become aware of the extent
to which social structure comes to be felt as
internal want renders it certain that much of
what we now want is an expression of a larger
social context, something which might or might
not correspond to what we would want if able to
choose. But what would such autonomous wants
be? To this question there can be no definitive
answer. To be sure, historical, sociological
and anthropological evidence – when properly
interpreted – will provide some of the information necessary for us to go beyond that account
of human wants provided for us by the society
in which we live. But the only way in which we
can discover what our human and personal wants
are is through our movement towards autonomy:




through the personal experience of self-examination, through the experience of action directed
towards changing those social relationships
which militate against the autonomy of the
participants, and through the interaction of
these two processes. (17)
If our autonomous wants are our ‘personal and
human wants’ then the last sentence appears to be
saying that the only way we can discover our autonomous wants is in the attempt to satisfy our autonm: ous wants. But you must first recognize the
wants before you can go about satisfying them.

The only clues given in his paper which might
enable us to escape this dilemma is the various
allusions to the autonomous wants being the more
fundamentally personal ones. The desire for love,
rational discussion and knowledge are the only examples given of what Poole strongly suggests to be
the personal and autonomous wants. These are the
wants which we ‘ … would want if able to choose’.

To this phrase we must add the all-important rider:

given a correct non-ideological framework. That is
we must structure our wants to correspond or fit
in with a framework that reveais ourselves to ourselves as in fact we are. The circle may be avoided
in practice if the theoretical coordinates allow us
to. But do they in Poole’ s case?

Poole starts with the question of how the existence
of a community is related to our present understanding of freedom (11). Using our contemporaneous understanding of terms like freedom autonomy
and independence the framework adopted is one
culled from liberalism in which the individual is
pictured as confronting society. There are those
wants that are mine, the ‘internal’, and those of
others, the ‘external’. .MY autonomy then has to do
with what is unique and constitutive of me. The nonautonomous is external, it emanates from society
which is the source of my wants being frustrated
and interfered with in spite of the fact that some of
my wants, my most important wants, require that
very same society. My autonomy is maintained by
my ability to keep the external at bay or to intervene and transform it into the internal. To be me
nothing must bear the mark of the externaL (In
this regard note the mild paranoia that seems to
run through Poole’s discussion especially in the
long section quoted above.)
How then am I to satisfy those wants such as love
and self-knowledge which require the autonomous
responses of others, the very ones who in turn
threaten me? The ideological resolution of the
tension between the internal (me) and the external
(those whom I need but at the same time threaten

my very existence) takes place using the concept
of the universal essence of humanity, the ‘independent power to form wants, judgements, and emotions
and to act upon these’ (17). Because this universal
essence is not external the personal is thus elevated
to the universal and established in a real community
where the personal is secured in practice with the
inter-subjective satisfaction of wants. As Poole
says’ … each member of the community will recognize himself as an autonomous agent. He will also
recognize others as other autonomous agents. In a
quite literal sense, he will be aware of these others
as other selves. .. Hence in confrontation with the
other the person is not confronted with some alien
existence, but with some one whom he recognizes
as being essentially what he is himself. ‘ (17) (my
emphasis) Thus we derive the universalism or
recognizing the autonomy of all noted above which
for its ‘validity’ depends upon abstracting from the

This dialectical progreSSion is carried on using
the ideological coordinates of the ‘internal’ and
‘external’, that is, from within an ontogenetic
perspective. This ‘independent’ power of selfdistancing and practical reflection can only be
. independent if it realizes itself in producing its own
reality which in historical materialist terms is
dependent upon the emergence of class-consciousness. The internal/ external framework then does
not picture classes confronting classes but individuals confronting society. The notion of autonomy
being dependent upon the primacy of the person over
what is externally given relates (if anywhere) to a
post-revolutionary situation and does not address
itself to the contemporary historical struggle. The
. whole notion of ‘externally given’ is, as noted above,
not very helpful for in’ an important sense everything
is externally given – being the phylogenetic creatures
we are. In other words, the external must be given
a class-analysis in order to do the work required of
it. What is strongly suggested by the internal/ external dynamic is that independent behaviour is
dependent upon the identification of some ontogenetic
essence, a sum and ordering of genetically primitive
wants (‘ something that would correspond to what we
would want if able to choose’), a concept which ignores the fact that the creation, development and
sati~action of such wants is shot through with real
history. Consider the basic desire for love. Such
a determinable has a life of its own – in history not some given nature apart from it. In light of
identifying autonomy as an history-specific notion
it would be best to abandon the individualistic viewpoint captured in the internal/external framework
adopted by Poole.

We do not stand in contrast to history, from

within the ectoplasm, so to speak. Our understanding
of ourselves begins with History, Our production of
Ourselves. Wrenching ourselves out of the ontogenetic perspective does not diminish or threaten
our freedom, real or potential; we are not reduced
to the flotsam and jetsam of a force greater than
ourselves. Only if we lose sight of our nature as
producers and reproducers of our very existenc~,
past, present and future, is our status as agents
threatened which is precisely what bourgeois
ideology would have us do. (In this regard it is
important to remember that the first task of the
oppressor is to remove any traces of an independent
history of the oppressed from the minds of the
oppressed. Witness the· present struggle for establishing a feminist history, for example.) Based on
this fundamental premise, Marx’s understanding
of freedom takes on a natural progression,
Marx sees the achievement of freedom, liberation,
in terms of the move from the making of history to
the mastering of it. Only when human productive
and reproductive activity objectifies and confirms
the nature of human beings as producers and reproducers of their own existence (‘wants’ included)
are human beings free. Freedom can only exist
under communism when the means of production
and reproduction of our material existence is under
the direct ownership and control of all. Unless this
relation to the productive and reproductive forces
exists in reality, productive and reproductive
activity serves to objectify and confirm the nature
of human beings as producers for and hence slaves
of others, be they gods, kings, bureaucrats,
patriarchs or simply dead capital. When people
produce and reproduce their material being for
themselves and not for a class or classes, they
confirm themselves in their own eyes as the masters
of their own history and destiny. Then and only then
are they free and not alienated from their very
nature and others. The starting point then lies
with a class analysiS of the historical setting.

This contrasts with Poole’ s analysis of freedom as
autonomous want-satisfaction. It is not in terms of a
particular type of want being satisfied but primarily
in terms of action determined by class-consciousness. Such a consciousness is ‘externally’ given,
produced in the relations of a class society, but at
the same time it is a theoretical framework that
identifies the various individuals having such a
consciousness in a practical context. Such a context
would direct human activity towards realizing human
beings as producers and reproducers of their own
and not a particular class reality. Class-consciousness puts the individual’s activity into gear with the
movement of history and leads to .the emanCipation
of all from class rule. It is here that the explana-

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tory-glp emerges which Pool refers to (13) as
indicative of autonomy. It is when the historically
significant actions of members of the proletariat
can only be understood by reference to this consciousness that we can describe the individual
members of the proletariat as being free or autonomous beings. Their actions are then no longer
reactions or responses to history but instead direct
history. The terminology required by this perspective is that of ‘needs’ not ‘wants’. By satisfying the
class-defined needs of the proletariat its members
achieve their freedom.

The position of history is left in danger using the
internal/ external dichotomy. The historical materialist conception of the individual is that of a
phylogenetic structure, a nature understood as an
aggregate of relations centered around the relations
the individual has to the productive and reproductive forces that create and maintain his or her social
existence. (tt ••• the human essence is no abstrac. tion inherent in each single individual. In its reality,
it is the ensemble of the social relations … tt Marx’s sixth thesis on Feuerbach). Since all the
relations are historically created so also is the
individual. But because the historically created
relations derive from and in turn structure productive activity individuals are not only the objects of
history but the subjects of history as well. Marx is
therefore not running the simple thesis that we
cannot adequately understand individuals without
looking at their history and development but rather
the individual is the sum of his or her historically
produced relations. There is no individual to which
we add the realm of the historical in order to get a
clearer picture just as there is no ‘ball’ to which
we add the shape of a sphere in order to get a ball.

The Marxist view of the individual holds it to be
analytic that the individual is historical. It is only
in bourgeois ideology that the category of the
historical is seen as a synthetic addition to the
ontogenetic individual. The dialectical relations
involved in the production of history are entities
by which and through which we come to know the
entities involved. They are the primitives from
within which the entities involved emerge as the
objects of our understanding.

Of course, our own understanding within the
present ideology begins with the ‘individual and
society’; we then move to understanding the two
in terms of the productive and reproductive relations holding between the various individuals making
up society. From there we move to seeing these
synchronic relations in terms of their relation to
previous historical modes of production, the diachronic. But after this progression has taken place,
that iS,when we have adopted the historical

materialist frame of reference, the primitive
emerges as the historically defined dialectical
relation holding b~tween the productive / reproductive forces and those relations holding between such
forces. A ‘meaning-change’ takes place with our
arrival at this stage and looking back we no longer
see individuals as ontogenetic structures confronting history and society and having contingent
connections with the world as portrayed in bourgeois
mythology but rather as functions of the primitive
dhdectic of re/productive forces and re/productive
rehtions. Similarly, our concepts of freedom,
alienation and autonomy must undergo a change
given this perspective. There are no internally
defined wants of an autonomous nature that are to
be understood apart from the movement of history.

In a word there is no external/internal in history.

I have so far criticized the internal/ externa!

mould of Poole’s as being individualistic and obscuring the role of the historical. In this respect
I may have put an interpretation on his paper that
is not completely warranted and if I have it has
only been to correct a tendency that is detrimental
to our understanding of people from an historical
materialist stand-point. There still remains the
problem of autonomy in the struggle – how to develop
it within the class struggle and how to deal with
others that do not accept the materialist analysiS of
history and in varying degrees retard the growth of
socialism. I cannot pretend to answer these questions in specific detail but I will try to sketch a very
general approach by which we can capture the truth
contained in Poole’s analysis avoiding the individualistic tendencies involved and at the same time avoid
the ham-fisted and self-destructive treatment of
individuals that has to a large extent characterized
the socialist regimes of other countries, in particular, the Soviet Union. Again what I will have to say
will be brief and abstract but not I hope without
some value.

The problem revolves around the question: how
are we to treat the experience and behaviour of
others in a situation characterized by struggle?

What sort of Significance are we to grant to the
interpretation and response of agents which could
be characterized as reactionary? To this there is
one very old and common answer and that is to deny
the importance of their subjectivity and treat them
strictly as historical road-blocks – neither to be
argued with nor tolerated. To treat them any other
way is to view them in terms that ignores an’objective analysis of the situation and reveals a lack of
class-consciousness and seriousness that is required
for building socialism. No matter how well-meaning,

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naive or genuinely misconceived they are, their

attitudes~ and posture are to be judged as either

progressive or reactionary using the historical
calculus of effects and consequences. They are
either with us or against us and this we judge by
the tendencies and effects of their actions and not
by the colour of their souls.

This type of answer comes to the fore especially
with the acuteness of the struggle. Guerrilla bands,
for example, cannot be put to risk by accidents or
behaviour coming from within or without that is
anyway suspicious or counter-productive. The stakes
are too high. To calculate on any other basis that the
objective dangers entailed by the individual’s actions
is a privilege that cannot be afforded in a situation
where all are threatened.

While granting this applies in severe situations of
this nature it is far from clear that it applies tout
court in other historical locales, especially the preand post-revolutionary eras. When the question of
the life and death of the entire revolution is not as
critical, especially in the pre-revolutionary pe~iod
when a broad base is being developed, then the
calculation of possibilities must be based on a finer
set of criteria than the overt tendencies of their
actions. For the degree to which such tendencies
can be calculated depends on how well the ideological cement of such people has hardened. Whether
they can be provided with opportunities by which to
reexamine their position and thus realign themselves with progressive elements will depend upon
the character of their subjectivity. A successful
revolution will hinge on such fine tuning. With the
post-revolutionary period similar considerations
of broadening the base through education should
prevail and the success of this likewise depends on
assessing people in a much more sophisticated
manner than is required in extreme situations.

But so far I have only remarked on the obvious
and strictly utilitarian considerations in judging
whether or not we sIDuld determine our posture
towards the objectively reactionary solely in terms
of the tendencies of their actions~ There is another
important aspect in assessing the importance of
individual subjectivity or what Poole describes as
the unique ability of human beings to distance themselves from their own existence and submit it to
practical scrutiny. However reactionary a person
m~y be, the reactionary in some sense or other
does need to know that he or she is acting in a way
that can be characterized as objectively valuable.

They are, like other agents, in need of some positive confirmation .from others that their actions,
attitudes and beliefs, within their terms of reference,
are of some objective significance and worth. An
ideology does not get off the ground unless it provides individuals with a framework by which they
can see their lives as having some Significance by
others as well as themselves, however corrupt and
perverted that vision may in fact be. People must
see good in their actions that could be recognized
as such by others. Nationalism is a good example
of an ideology which provides individuals with a
framework by which they can see their actions,
however Slave-like, as having significance simply
by being members of a greater whole which embodies
certain ideals and values shared and expressed by
its members in their simplest day to day activities
and customs. Rob people of thp.t very minimum of
meaning in their lives and you rob them of their
self-respect and .they very rapidly become antisocial in a violent or neurotic manner. It is this
capacity for seeing oneself as an agent operating
within a framework that at least in part bears the

stamp of the agent and objectively colours one s
actions with Significance that is either destroyed or
diminished in some respects by authoritarian
oppression. The self -acceptance and validation of
one’s action required for meaningful agency can
only be maintained if that framework can cope
with change.

If authoritarian pressure does not result in a
change or hardening of the oppressed’s ideology
then what usually happens is a demoralization of
the agent which is either expressed in anti-social
behaviour or a distorted acceptance of the ideology
being forced upon the individual. As a consequence
of this the ideology itself will be distorted in the
mind and the character of the person by the mode
of its acceptance. The received ideology will be
seen by the person as a tool by which others can be
reduced thereby proving one’s forced acceptance
was not the peculiar fault of the individual as well
as proving one has the a’Oility to do it to others
which at least gives some grounds, however grotesque, for viewing one’s actions with significance.

With regards to socialism, if methods are used
to bludgeon all opposition – objectively defined this phenomenon can take place and a rot can set in
affecting both the socialist and the reactionary in
such a way as to destroy the chances of ever building a socialist society. The real danger of treating
all people as road-blocks because of their objectively reactionary tendencies is that it breeds this moral
rot amongst the real and potential builders of socialism. The original answer does not distinguish though it may be hard to – between the real enemies,
those who will have no truck or trade with socialism and will fight it bitterly and those who are quite
possibly potential allies or people that can be
accommodated in some sort of quaSi-neutral
manner. If all are labelled as enemies using the
criterion of the consequences of their actions then
trust cannot be extended beyond the inner circle of
true believers. And it is an important feature of
trust that if it is not allowed to grow it will wither
inside the group itself and affect adversely the
capability for action by the revolutionaries themselves with sectarianism and dogmatism the result.

People must be allowed to grow to accept the
general framework of socialism or at least be
tolerated as long as they provide no serious threat
to its development. This of course all depends upon
the historically defined limits of th~ revolutionary
situation for which there are no hard and fast rules
for identification. It is also naive to think that this
capacity to differentiate the real enemies from those
that can be changed or accommodated is something
that can be grafted on to class-consciousness in a
purely theoretical manner. What must be high on
the priority of socialists is the identification of
those structures that maintain the myopia and
paranoia of regimes like the Soviet Union. Things
like party structure, the existence of sexual roles,
the technologies employed, schooling, the family
are all features that must be and are being
examined so as to prevent the crude and unnecessary
destruction of the individual’s capacity for selfobjectification and redirection.”; While we need not
recognize the autonomy of all we must be able to
select those situations which do and do not require
its recogn.ition.

In the light of this it is also incumbent upon
socialists to recognize the limits of their methods
and knowledge. Historical materialism, Marx
warns us time and time again, is net a crystal ball
but demands careful analysis of every social situation to which it is applied. The most that can be


expected is an analysis of our present situation
with s’ome general guidelines for the transition to
socialism. Dialectical change provides us with
ever new situations which for an understanding
demand that a wide range of experience .be drawn
upon from within and without the revolutionary core.

This in turn requires a respect for the opinions
and efforts of others although of course not necessarily all. To be able to do this necessitates once
more a distinction between real enemies and those
that can be brought into alliance or tolerated as
non-conformists. There is, as we remarked earlier,
a need to distinguish between what could be called
the positively reactionary, those forces directed
against the very heart of socialism, and those
forces which are hindrances of a non-fatal variety.

A socialist ethic depends very heavily on the


Hitherto, Sebastiano Timpanaro’ s work has been
known to English readers only through the occasional
extract from his books published in New Left Review.

Now, with the publication in full of what are perhaps
his most controversial works – On Materialism, and
more recently The Freudian Slip – we are given a
much more substantial basis for assessing his

Timpanaro writes in an aggressive style that
elicits and even invites peremptory and dismiSSive
jUdgements on his work. But it would only be to ape
the cruder aspects of his own polemic to dismiss
him straightforwardly as a ‘vulgar materialist’,
‘Popperian’, ‘crude empiricist’ etc. Even though
such labels may not be wholly inappropriate, they
must fail to do justice to the sensitivity’which informs Timpanaro’s work. His contribution to debate
on the problems relating to the materialismjidealism distinction, the science/ideology couple, the
relations between synchrony/diachrony, theory and
practice etc cannot easily be neglected. Even if·at
times his formulation of these issues is incomplete
and dogmatic, it is nonetheless true that at other
times he reveals an unnerving ability to touch to the
heart of matters that must be the concern of anyone,
whatever his or her particular philosophical alignment, who has not simply opted for a credo, whether
:of empiricist or non-empiricist, humanist or antihumanist form, but is still prepared to admit and
discuss the unresolved nature of the problems
around which the contemporary oPPositional formulae of Marxist studies have been erected. Moreover,
Timpanaro’s no-nonsense approach makes a refreshing change from more soft-pedalling incursions into
these areas and from ultra-sophisticated and jargonised discussions of the issues involved. Timpanaro
may lose some of the trees, but at least we keep the
wood in sight.

On Materialism, which first appeared in Italian in
1970, comprises a collection of essays which were
originally published in the journal Quaderni
Piacentini, and evoked a good deal of response in
Italy (1) – where Timpanaro is widely known and
respected, not only for his contribution to Marxist

success of drawing this distinction and repression
must be directed only to those in the former category. Such an ethic is based on the conception of
human beings as re/producers of their own and not
a class reality and as such is universalistic. But
it is universalism with a difference, being historically specific it recognizes the existence of class
struggle and hence the necessity of excluding some
from the realm of autonomy. Because this exclusion threatens the objective validation by all of
0[:£” S moral ideology – albeit a Marxist one – it
D1 …. t be done with care in some of the ways I have
just mentioned so as not to be forever exclusivist.

That is, the ideal of the classless society must be
maintained and made the place where all can develop
and construct their own reality to a degree hitherto
unattained in any previous historical epoch.

study and his political activity, but also as a philologist, Leopardi scholar and student of nineteenthcentury culture (2). Only the fourth chapter on
‘Structuralism and its Successors’ wa,s written for
the book. Despite its piecemeal formation the book
reads as a coherent whole since its first four chapters represent the development of Timpanaro’s
main theme: the construction of a hedonistpeSSimist-Marxism and the recognition of the relevance of Engels in this respect. Only the last chapter, which is a study of Korsch’s critique of Lenin’s
philosophy, can be said to stand apart from the rest
of the book, though it too continues the idealismmaterialism theme.

On re-thinking Marxism
Timpanaro’s starting point has become something of
a cliche: a need to re-think Marxism in the light of
what has happened in the capitalist West, in RUSSia,
in ,China and in the Third World. More polemically,
he proceeds immediately to reject the respective
contributions of both the two main ‘schools’ of 20th
century Marxism. The Frankfurt school and its
various offspring on the one hand, and Althusserianism, on the other, “allow very little of Marxism to
survive”; moreover, they “represent in many respects a step backwards”. The former is retrogressive because it ignores the need to found a ‘scientific socialism’ and sees in science only bourgeois
false objectivity; the latter because, although it
insists on the scientific character of Marxism, it
adopts from current epistemology what Timpanaro
refers to as a ‘Platonist conception of science’,
which, he claims, makes it impossible to pose
correctly the question of the relations between
theory and practice.

Marxism, he argues, if it is to avoid becoming
merely a ‘revolutionary sociology’, must refer itself again to the fundamental question posed by
Marx and Engels of the ‘real liberation ‘ of mankind.

For Timpanaro, this is a question of re confirming
and developing materialism, through the provision
of a ‘theory of needs’ which is not “as so often,
reduced to a compromise between Marx and Freud,
but which confronts on a wider basis the problem of
.the relation between nature and society”. We must
recognize nature’s continued conditioning of man,
not in a way which reduces the social to the biological, but in a way that asserts the autonomy of the
biological relation to the demand for happiness”.

1 See ‘ll dibattito suI materialismo’ that was conducted in Quaderni
Piacentini nos. 29, 30 and 32. The main bone of contention related to
Timpanaro’s assertion of the need to recognize the paSSive element in
experience, and the dispute was conducted to a large extent from the standpoint of a ‘philosophy of praxis’, of which, to my mind, Timpanaro is right!)
critical. The second chapter of his book is a translation of his reply to these _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ __

2 His major work in this respect is Classicismo e llluminismo nell ‘Ottocento


Sebastiano,Timpanaro: On Materialism, NLB, 1976,
260pp, £5.75

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