TELOSscope: The Telos Press Blog

In Search of the Left’s Political Theory: Norberto Bobbio and Telos

As an occasional feature on TELOSscope, we highlight a past Telos article whose critical insights continue to illuminate our thinking and challenge our assumptions. Today, Robert Wyllie looks at Norberto Bobbio’s “Is There a Marxist Theory of the State?” from Telos 35 (Spring 1978).

Norberto Bobbio’s 1978 article “Is There a Marxist Theory of the State?” marks a turning point in the history of Telos. The “red decade” was coming to a close in the mid-1970s, and the New Left was falling into disarray. Hence, Bobbio writes an epitaph in this 1978 article, which makes the convincing case that the Left was never able to develop a political theory that included a positive concept of the political state. In the years following Bobbio’s article, the Telos group would begin to look elsewhere. As Paul Piccone and Gary Ulmen later explained, “Telos‘ initial interest in [Carl] Schmitt’s work was triggered in the 1980s by the realization, in the collapse of the New Left and under the influence of Norberto Bobbio’s criticism, that the Left in general and Marxism in particular had no political theory.”[1] Bobbio moved Telos away from “revolution, dialectic, commodity fetishism, liberation, alienation, and monopoly capitalism”[2] to Carl Schmitt, federalism, and populism.

Did Telos abandon the New Left and turn “rightward”? Norberto Bobbio’s 1978 article is crucial for anyone who wants to understand how the contemporary direction of Telos is a legitimate extension of its critical theory principles. Bobbio searches in vain for the prominent Marxists of the 1970s to offer a compelling theory addressing how the modern state ought to operate. He rules out Louis Althusser’s structuralism, which appears to introduce purely scholastic disputes without “political or practical significance,” and furthermore divest Marxism of its powerful polemical situation vis-à-vis Enlightenment rationalism and theology:

Instead of using Marx for such disputes (which amuse philosophers and baffle the uninitiated who do not suspect that in order to be revolutionary it is necessary not to be historicists) would it not be wiser to use Marx’s work in order to obtain conceptual tools appropriate to the analysis of contemporary society?” (7)

But close readings of Marx—”Marxology”—will yield no promising results, either. Bobbio reminds us, “Although Marx may have wanted to write a critique of politics alongside his critique of economics, he never wrote it” (8). Worst of all, “Marxologists” conflate Marx’s critiques of the actual liberal state and Marx’s critiques of the ethical state in Hegel’s theory. Bobbio writes, “Marx knew very well what certain Marxists no longer know: the philosophy of the bourgeoisie was utilitarianism and not idealism” (10).

Stuck between structuralist theorizing and close readings of Marx, Bobbio argues that Marxists fail to take account of a rapidly changing world. There can be a healthy pluralism within the Marxist tradition, but that pluralism can also be enervating:

[There is] a certain waste of intellectual energy in the controversies between the various tendencies—energy which would be better employed in more carefully studying the branches of knowledge which remained outside the interests of the founders and their disciples, and most important, the increasing complex reality of the surrounding world. (6)

Fairly soon, one of the tendencies that Bobbio explicitly mentions, the phenomenological Marxists of “the Telos group in the United States,” would heed his call. A critical theory of the contemporary would begin with the complexities of the modern globalized world, not with academic quibbles about Marx.

Facing the complex reality of the world means, in turn, to activate political categories that Marx did not analyze. Bobbio criticizes Marxists for deferring to Marx when fuller sociological accounts are now on offer. For example, Bobbio indicates the Marxist sociologist Umberto Cerroni’s study of bureaucracy, which must pass over Max Weber’s voluminous work to privilege the young Marx’s critique of a bourgeois society that separates state and society. But “Marxology” might have strange, even anti-Marxian results. Bobbio explains:

Cerroni seems to long for an age in which economic and political power, private and public power, were not yet separate. . . . This is possible only if one seriously believes that, in an increasingly mastadontic state overburdened with necessary functions, the problem of the separation of public and private can only be resolved through the institutions of the small archaic society. (13)

Paradoxically, Cerroni’s Marxism becomes nostalgia for the past with no praxis for changing society. Although this insight may increase Alasdair MacIntyre’s credibility as a bona fide Marxist, Bobbio’s polemic spurred Telos to discuss federalism and populism as responses to the problem of bureaucratization.

With a persistent focus on how to take power, Marxism has an underdetermined theory of how to use power. Lenin’s complaint that democracy is capitalism’s best integument, Bobbio argues, has led socialists to improperly infer that it is not the best integument for socialism as well. But, Bobbio argues, “It is a matter of life or death for socialism to recover the democratic appeal” (11). If Marxism cannot make a theoretical embrace with democracy and theorize how to use power, Bobbio implies, its ability to take power will be lost as well.

Bobbio consistently deflects the critical thrust of his piece away from Marx. Although he later claims to have addressed “the existence or non-existence of a political theory in Marx’s thought,”[3] Bobbio’s article takes Marxists rather than Marx to task for not developing a democratic political theory. Only at the end of the article does Bobbio acknowledge that Marx, in fact, wanted to abolish the state. He explains that Marx meant the political or “power-state.” Marx, Bobbio claims, “shares with the realist writers that the state is the domination of power” (15–16). Rather than elevating the state as “the highest form of rational society among men,” Marx makes the state an extension of the state of nature, a site of antagonisms and class interest (13). This makes it necessary for Marx to abolish the state altogether. And yet for some reason, Bobbio does not see a direct link between Marx’s utopianism (or underdetermined political theory) and the lack of a Marxist theory of the state a century later. It is unclear why Bobbio’s direct criticism of Marx is so heavily qualified, but perhaps he is loathe to contribute to what he calls the “Marxophobia” of the late 1970s.[4]

The direction of Telos has implicitly driven Bobbio’s critique of Marx further. Bobbio was concerned with internal arguments (Colletti, Althusser, Medvedev) about Marxism’s pretense to be a science. Insofar as he was a social scientist, Marx implied that once the political state withers away (schläft ein), and civil society reaches “the political form that constitutes its true, universal, essential existence,” political decisions would be superfluous. A thorough historian of Marx’s thought, Allan Megill, explains: “As I read him, Marx held the view that with an adequate theory of society and with adequate data one can derive all social solutions, as out of a computer. Properly speaking, no decision would have to be made—and certainly no political decision.”[5] Does that make Carl Schmitt’s decisionism the tonic for a contemporary Left that must transcend Marx? Bobbio, without explicitly acknowledging how far beyond Marx he goes, points out the problematic dialectic between Schmitt’s priority of the sovereign’s decision and Hans Kelsen’s priority of legal norms.[6]

Bobbio’s article must be read alongside its more positive companion piece, “Are There Alternatives to Representative Democracy,” published in the same 1978 issue of Telos. Here, Bobbio takes on the problem of the emerging technocratic bureaucracy.[7] A student of the Federalist Papers as well as Marx,[8] he argues that direct democracy is only practicable on a small scale. Willing to learn from liberals—even American liberals—as well as Marxists, the trajectory of Bobbio’s thought harks back fifty years earlier to Socialismo Liberale (1928) by his mentor, Carlo Roselli. It recalls Bobbio’s postwar arguments with Palmiro Togliatti in which he insisted that communism could, and must, accept democracy. Many acknowledge that Bobbio won these arguments. Social democracy has become, as Frank Adler’s tribute to Bobbio mentioned in Telos 82, Europe’s question. Today’s European Union might heed Bobbio’s arguments about the encroachment of technocracy upon democracy and into all of the personal and public spaces vital for popular political decision-making.

Can the Left go beyond Marxism in the spirit of Marx? Are the discussions of federalism and Carl Schmitt that have filled the pages of Telos from the 1980s onward legitimate extensions of critical theory? It is worthwhile to explore these questions by returning to the work of Norberto Bobbio.


1. Paul Piccone and Gary Ulmen, “Uses and Abuses of Carl Schmitt,” Telos 122 (Winter 2002): 12.

2. Robert D’Amico, “What Was Telos All About?” Telos 101 (Fall 1994): 100.

3. Norberto Bobbio, “Why Democracy?” Telos 36 (Summer 1978): 43.

4. Norberto Bobbio, “Marxism and Socialism,” Telos 39 (Spring 1979): 195.

5. Allan Megill, Karl Marx: The Burden of Reason (Why Marx Rejected Politics and the Market) (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2001), p. 255.

6. Michele Nicoletti, “Carl Schmitt nella Stampa Periodica Italiana,” review, Camilla R. Nielsen, trans., Telos 72 (Summer 1987): 221–22.

7. Norberto Bobbio, “Are There Alternatives to Representative Democracy?” Telos 35 (Spring 1978): 21.

8. Bobbio, “Marxism and Socialism,” p. 197.

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