Year XLVIII, 2006, Number 2, Page 83
The Legacy of Altiero Spinelli
Today, twenty years after his death, the thought and action of Altiero Spinelli remain as valid as ever. One might even go so far as to say that the crisis into which the European Union has been plunged in recent years makes Spinelli’s struggle for a United States of Europe appear particularly relevant.
The legacy left us by Altiero Spinelli is highly complex: the outstanding features and topics of his writings are his penetrating analysis of the crisis of the nation-state (which lies at the root of his own conversion to federalism), his harsh criticism of traditional ideologies, the historical meaning of the process of European unification, and the principles that should inspire the life and action of a revolutionary movement like the Movimento Federalista Europeo (European Federalist Movement, MFE). In his action as leader of the MFE and in his activity within the European institutions, he will be remembered for the extraordinary tenacity with which he conducted every struggle, never once allowing himself to become disheartened by failure, convinced that the struggle for a good cause is always a success, because it leaves an indelible mark in history and thus ensures that all those who follow will not each time be forced to go back to the beginning and start again.
The first part of Spinelli’s legacy to the federalists is the Ventotene Manifesto, which he wrote together with Ernesto Rossi (author of the first part of the third chapter) in 1941 during their internment on the small Tyrrhenian island of Ventotene. The Manifesto is universally regarded as the most important Europeanist treatise of the Resistance period the only one that, after all this time, still conserves all its original vitality and constitutes (or should constitute) the criterion against which the European action of the governments, parliaments, political forces, Europeanist organisations and militant federalists should be measured.
If the content of the Ventotene Manifesto has stood the test of time, this is because Spinelli did not merely limit himself to highlighting the European alternative to the nation-state in crisis (this had already been done, with equal clarity, by Luigi Einaudi, who, moreover, had failed to advance precise proposals for realising this alternative). Instead, Spinelli got right to the heart of the problem, working out a political plan to be pursued by a specific organisation, separate from the parties. Like a true revolutionary, Spinelli was able to see, in the midst of the destruction wreaked by the war, the seed from which a new era could grow, one in which men would overcome national boundaries to unite at supranational level. According to Mario Albertini, the originality of the Ventotene Manifesto lay in the fact that its main author had grasped, with particular clarity of vision, “the relationship that exists between the development of new principles of action and recognition of the embryonic nature of new historical processes. This relationship must be regarded as a practical, but also as a theoretical fact. And to set it in its correct theoretical framework, it is important to remember that those who concern themselves with the future try to pick out, in historical-social reality, those situations that, if adequately nurtured, could bring about a new historical situation. Second, one must remember that these situations, whose peculiar nature is that of possibilities to be exploited, can be recognised only when these possibilities are highlighted through the working out of new principles of action. Otherwise, this peculiar nature will not fall within our field of vision. It follows that political militancy is the only the method through which we can strive to recognise a precise moment in history: that of the start of new historical processes.”
The revolutionary is forward-looking, but he is not a prophet and — as Spinelli did — he can get his predictions wrong. Spinelli imagined that the situation emerging in Europe following the defeat of Germany and the weakening of the nation-states would allow the birth of a European federation, and thus prevent a rebuilding of the old powers. Things did not turn out this way because, deep down, the Europeans regarded the nation-states, together with their ideology (the nation), as the only realities that existed, as the only ones with the capacity to stir up the energies needed for the task of rebuilding. But precisely because Spinelli was able to appreciate the profound nature of the changes that were taking place, and to translate them into new principles of action, his disappointment at the rebirth of the nation-states — this rebirth was all a façade, not corresponding to any real power on the global stage — failed to influence, except transiently, his commitment to the European cause, which he renewed with even more intensity when the Marshall Plan created a new situation favourable to the re-launch of the struggle for European unity.
If one needs to make forecasts in order to act, it follows that when these forecasts fail to come true one must ask oneself wherein lies the error, and whether it throws into question the basic principles underlying one’s judgement and action. The most famous passage from the Ventotene Manifesto provides, in this regard, the ultimate criterion that must guide the federalist struggle in all circumstances, especially in the event of defeats that seem to remove from the political horizon even the very possibility of fighting. “The dividing line between progressive and reactionary parties no longer coincides with the formal lines of more or less democracy, or the pursuit of more or less socialism, but the division falls along a very new and substantial line: those who conceive the essential purpose and goal of struggle as being the ancient one, the conquest of national political power, and who, albeit involuntarily, play into the hands of reactionary forces, letting the incandescent lava of popular passions set in the old moulds, and thus allowing old absurdities to arise once again, and those who see the main purpose as the creation of a solid international state, who will direct popular forces towards this goal, and who, even if they were to win national power, would use it first and foremost as an instrument for achieving international unity.”
In the process of European unification, the most searing defeat was the failure to ratify the EDC; the project was buried on August 30th, 1954 by the French National Assembly in the wake of a period during which, for a time, success had appeared to be within reach. The collapse of the EDC dampened the commitment of the governments, even the most strongly Europeanist ones, and created a widespread sense of bewilderment and disorientation, to which even the MFE proved vulnerable. The Movement, having seen its ranks swell and its influence grow during the years of the EDC, found itself reduced to just a few hundred militants, gathered around Spinelli, who, in October 1954, launched “the new course”. The era of the Europeanist governments was over, and the forces of nationalism had worked their way back to the fore, throwing the project for a United States of Europe into a state of limbo. What was to be done?
For the MFE, the most urgent thing was to identify a new strategy, so as not to lose what few forces it had left in the field, but, at the same time, it had to reject, with a resounding “no”, the false Europe, the Europe that the governments had outlined at the London and Paris conferences.
“The first consequence of all this, for the federalists, — Spinelli wrote — is that the methods of action employed thus far have become meaningless. To seek to be a source of inspiration and suggestion made sense as long as there were governments ready to be inspired, and ready to listen to suggestions; as long as there were ministers who were themselves convinced of the need to move in the direction of supranational institutions. Then, to accept, or even to propose, a compromise, to strive for a partial success in order to obtain a complete one, had a precise and concrete political meaning.” The partial success to which Spinelli referred was the European army; the complete one, the European federation.
To avoid making fatal mistakes, it was also necessary to understand clearly the intentions behind the actions of the federalists during their battle for the EDC. Directing his comments at federalist organisations, Spinelli wrote: “We never asked for the creation of the EDC; since the governments had come up with the idea of creating the EDC, what we asked for, on the basis of the internal, supranational, logic of the EDC, was the creation of a European government and a European parliament. If, today, on the basis of the Union of Western Europe, whose internal logic is the preservation of national sovereignties, we were, absurdly, to request an arms pool, Franco-German arms cartel, which would disintegrate at the first conflict between the two states, we would foolishly be applying an old tactic that had been valid in entirely different circumstances, and instead of making progress in a supranational direction, we would instead be moving towards the swamping of federalist ideals by a nationalist way of thinking. We would be disuniting the federalist movement without obtaining anything positive at all.” He concluded his analysis: “The federalists must demand the direct election, by the free European peoples, of a European constituent assembly, and that the constitution voted on by this assembly be put to popular referenda for ratification. They know very well that, at the present time, no government is ready to accept this procedure. They outline it as a way of underlining their total rejection of the nation-states, to make it clear that the European constitution must, at its outset, possess European democratic legitimacy, in other words, that the organ that draws up its constitution cannot be made up of diplomats or national parliamentary delegations, but must comprise representatives of the European people, chosen to carry out a European action; equally, its sanctioning upon completion must have European democratic legitimacy: the Yes or No must come from the peoples, not from their national parliaments, which can legislate only on national matters. What we must obtain from the national governments and parliaments is that they relinquish their illegitimate sovereignty in those fields in which they are no longer able to exercise it, agreeing to the convening of a European constituent assembly.” Getting right to the heart of the problem, Spinelli illustrated the new logic that should inspire the action of the federalists: they had to force the governments and the national parliaments to relinquish — through an act that must be clearly visible — their sovereignty and launch the European constituent process.
According to the founder of the MFE, the success of “the new course” depended on the emergence of a “rebellious federalist consciousness, a hundred times stronger, more widespread and more self-assured than it is today”. And to help to sow, over the difficult European terrain, the seeds of a federalist renaissance, he ended this period of “re-foundation” with the publication of his Manifesto dei federalisti, written in the summer of 1956, in which he summarised with characteristic efficacy, the historical conditions that had made the struggle for a European federation possible, the deaf resistance of its opponents, the fundamental role of the federalists, and the new strategy that revolved around the Congress of the European People. It was Ventotene revisited, but it also constituted a decisive step towards the new strategy that would characterise the action of the federalists over the subsequent years.
The first direct election of the European Parliament, in 1979, was also a result of this strategy, and the struggle led by Altiero Spinelli at the heart of it represented the continued pursuit of the constituent objective that dated back to Ventotene. Following the unique opportunity offered by the EDC, Europe again came close to success (a partial success, as Spinelli would point out, a prelude to the complete one) at the start of the 1980s, when, purely on the strength of his own will and the clarity of his reasoning, he managed to secure the European Parliament’s approval of his “Draft Treaty establishing the European Union” (more widely known as the “Spinelli Treaty”). Had the heads of state and of government who pledged to support this Treaty really supported it to the end, then the balance of power would have shifted in Europe’s favour, giving rise to a federation in the economic and monetary sphere, which, in time, would have been extended to the more controversial sectors of security and foreign policy, thereby completing the work begun on the island of Ventotene. But history — or more accurately the lack of courage of a political class devoid of real vision — decreed otherwise. The fact nevertheless remains that Spinelli’s struggle paved the way for the Single European Act, for the Maastricht Treaty, and ultimately for the single currency.
Spinelli was perfectly aware of the difficulty that his project would encounter, and he knew very well that the accusation of “extremism” that was often levelled at him, even by Europeanists, could at any time be dusted off and used against him. Anticipating the criticisms that the so called realists would pour on the European Parliament’s project, he took the opportunity presented by the “Jean Monnet Lecture” held on May 13th 1983 at the European University in Florence, to address his audience in the following terms: “Let it not be said that all this is too adventurous, that we should keep our feet on the ground and advance by small steps. You can all see the disastrous point to which we have been led by feet-on-the ground politics, by the politics of small steps, by politics defined pragmatic, when in truth it is politics founded on a lack of ideas or, to be more honest, on intellectual enslavement to old ideas that are now entirely inadequate.”
This was a categorical condemnation not of realism, but rather of the bid to pass off a dearth of ideas as an appeal for caution. Altiero Spinelli, in his action, always applied not only strict principles, without which one runs the risk of losing one’s line of march, but also the lucid pragmatism on which the realisation of any political project depends. A letter to Mario Albertini dated May 4th, 1983 clearly illustrates this need to ensure the coexistence, in a continual dialectic, of ideal principles and concreteness (above all in a revolutionary undertaking like the creation of a new state), without indulging in any weakness even in those moments in which one has to reckon with reality. Aware that his battle could not be a solitary one, and that it required the intervention of the MFE, the only political force in the field able to grasp fully the scope and the potentialities of his plan, he wrote: “In my view, the role of the MFE is to defend those proposals that are solutions to problems, in other words to represent the European political logic. Any compromises made should be the sole responsibility of those federalists called upon to conduct this action within the European Parliament. If those conducting it should find that any compromise accepted by the European Parliament totally undermined the project, then they should feel duty bound to dissociate themselves from it”, without moreover renouncing the struggle.
This determination and, in more general terms, the lifestyle of the man, show how Spinelli embodied the figure of the political hero outlined by Max Weber. “Politics is a strong and slow boring of hard boards. It takes both passion and perspective. Certainly all historical experience confirms the truth — that man would not have attained the possible unless time and again he had reached out for the impossible. But to do that a man must be a leader, and not only a leader but a hero as well, in a very sober sense of the word. And even those who are neither leaders nor heroes must arm themselves with that steadfastness of heart which can brave even the crumbling of all hopes. This is necessary right now, or else men will not be able to attain even that which is possible today. Only he has the calling for politics who is sure that he shall not crumble when the world from his point of view is too stupid or too base for what he wants to offer. Only he who in the face of all this can say ‘In spite of all!’ has the calling for politics.”
As clearly emerges in the collection of complete works currently being prepared, Altiero Spinelli’s legacy is extraordinarily rich. By reprinting, twenty years after his death, some of the writings that have left an indelible mark on the process of European unification and on the life of the MFE, The Federalist intends to turn the spotlight on three crucial moments in Spinelli’s battle for Europe: the moment of foundation, which can be identified in the Ventotene Manifesto, the moment of “refoundation”, embodied in The New Course, and the final moment in his struggle, without which the faltering European Union would lack the one solid point of reference that it has: the single currency.