Year XLIX, 2007, Number 2, Page 126

 

 

The Cultural and Historical Roots of European Federalism*
 
MARIO ALBERTINI
 
 
The Theory of Federalism.
 
It is not easy to formulate a precise, that is to say scientific, definition of federalism. After all, notwithstanding the growing tendency to approach political and social thought in a scientific manner, we do not even possess such definitions for far more deeply studied and widely debated phenomena, such as liberalism, socialism, and so on. As for federalism, it is unclear, at the current stage of political culture, whether it can even be considered an idea on a par with liberalism and socialism, etc., or whether it is instead, a less important, less significant idea.
In this situation, I feel that we can get close to a sufficiently realistic idea of federalism simply by dismissing, for the reasons we shall see, the idea that it is merely the theory of the federal state, and by extending our investigation so that we might think of it, hypothetically at least, as an independent social behaviour, with its own characteristics (in terms of its value, structure and social-historical context).
Perhaps this is also the way in which the ideas of liberalism, socialism, etc., can (as far as possible) be clarified. But this is a methodological question that, while worth bearing in mind, cannot be dealt with here. In this exposition, which concerns European federalism specifically, and above all the history of European federalism, I will not be dealing with this question, nor attempting to put together an exhaustive account of the most important facts (theoretical or practical) related to federalism.[1] I will only say that, in my view, federalism has peace as its value aspect, the federation or the federal state[2] as its structural aspect, and a particular moment, or phase, in the course of history as its social-historical aspect.
Peace, of course, should not be confused — even though unfortunately it often is, in spite of Kant’s rigorous clarification of the concept (including an illustration of its relationship with freedom and justice) — with the simple absence of war in progress. Situations in which war is simply absent may more accurately be defined “truces” given that they are based on relations of force between armed states, i.e., states that are organised for war (with all the moral, cultural, political, economic and social implications of this), and for which war, entered into, threatened or simply imagined as one state’s means of weighing up its capacities vis-à-vis those of the others, is the fundamental criterion in international decision making, be it a case of sacrificing one’s own interests in order to avoid war, or accepting the risk of war in order to safeguard them.
Neither should peace be confused with the pacifism of states (UN), parties (internationalism), or individual consciences (religious, moral or psychological ideas). Peace is the organisation of power that transforms the relations of force between states into proper legal relations. As such, it demands that the sphere of democratic government be enlarged from a single state to many states; and, as far as the relations between peace, freedom and justice are concerned, recognition of the right of everyone to contribute to the taking of all the political and social decisions that concern them directly; in other words, it demands the creation of spheres of local democratic government at every level at which there is concrete expression of human relations.
From this clear idea of peace derives the federalist idea of the distribution of political power and, to this end, the need to identify the historical-social conditions in which peace can be established and maintained within a section of mankind, or indeed within the whole of mankind. It is a question of historical moments: the particular situation of the thirteen former colonies at the time of the Philadelphia Convention, that of the European states in the current process of integration, and so on. And, looking ahead, it concerns a future historical phase, that of the overcoming of conflicts between classes and nations, and of the formation of a global society thanks to the material development of production and the forging of objective bonds between all men.
What I have said thus far shows that if one attempts to reduce the whole of federalism to the mere concept of the federal state one will be left without an adequate understanding even of that. In fact, we actually know very little about a state if we understand its machinery, but not the type of society in which it can function and endure. It follows that to claim that federalism is the theory of the federal state does not get round the question of the federal society, in other words, the question related to the federalist way of thinking and acting (we understand a society when we understand the behaviour that constitutes that society).
On the other hand, we are faced, in this regard, with an absolute certainty: federalist behaviour is a concrete and common-sense reality, not an imaginary product of fanciful thought. First of all, the societies where federal states exist must possess some federal character, which means that we have to presume that in federal states there exists a specific federalist behaviour. Second, we must consider the fact that we also find federalist behaviour outside the existing federal states, in Europe to be precise. Throughout the nineteenth century and right up to the Second World War, the only federalists to be found in Europe were isolated individuals. If one ignored what was happening within the existing federal states, one could thus presume that the federalists were just a small, scattered group of utopians, that their thought was nothing more than pie in the sky, and that the prospect of a genuine federalist behaviour, concrete and socially significant, existed only in their imaginations. Yet, over the past thirty years or so, things have changed. These isolated individuals and small gatherings have grown into proper federalist movements, evidence that there now exists a socially significant number of people who are adopting federalism — in the same way as others adopt liberalism, socialism, etc. — as their concrete stance vis-à-vis power, society and the historical process. We thus need to clarify the exact nature both of this stance and of the federalist behaviour that manifests itself in existing federal states.
As I have said, these considerations allow us to outline hypothetically the ambit of federalism. They have highlighted the existence of three categories into which facts can be divided, categories relating, respectively, to the actual working of the federal constitutional model of state, to the federalist behaviour of people who live in federal states, and, finally, to the federalist behaviour of people who do not live in federal states. It is reasonable to suppose that these facts have something in common, and equally reasonable to suppose that this common element encapsulates the meaning of federalism. If this is true, then these facts are the ones that identify the field that we must explore in order to arrive at a satisfactory definition of federalism, and a deeper understanding of the federal state.
 
The Federal State.
 
In discussions on European integration, one often hears it said, even by leading Europeanists, that the difference between a confederation and a federation is of little importance, or that the federation is the last step in a process that begins with a system of nation-states endowed with absolute sovereignty and progresses towards the federal level gradually, passing through goodness knows how many increasing levels of “supranationality”.
Opinions of this kind, which ignore the fact that a federation is a state whereas a confederation is not, and fail to understand that a group of nation-states remains essentially a group of nation-states right up to the point at which it is replaced by a federal state, are able to emerge only because “ideas are malleable”. But since “reality is hard and difficult”, the only ideas of any value — the only ones that men can use in order to function — are those that really get to grips with “reality”, however hard and difficult it may be.
This means that anyone concerned with European integration, if he or she wants to avoid talking nonsense and acting blindly, must take reality into account, by which I mean, specifically, the circumstance that explains the emergence of federalism as a new factor in the history of mankind. One need only name this circumstance — the Philadelphia Convention — to see immediately that there is an abyssal difference between a federation and a confederation, and that the birth of the federation was the birth of a new type of state.
The Philadelphia Convention, in creating history’s first federal constitution, constructed the model of the political mechanism that Kant expected to produce peace among states and the universal establishment of law. Hamilton, together with Jay and Madison, writing The Federalist during the fight for ratification of the federal Constitution, in order to highlight the advantages of the latter over the confederal formula, developed (without intentionally setting out to do so) the first principles of this political mechanism, the mechanism of the federal state. To set his thought in its correct theoretical framework, it must be realised that these papers were, formally, just political propaganda, albeit of the highest level, and it is also, indeed, above all, necessary to consider that the historical situation that gave rise to this propaganda was the drawing up, by an assembly, of the text of a constitution.
The Constitution of the United States of America is recognised to be the fruit of compromise — compromise in the strictest sense of the word, given that the most important points in it were reached simply as settlements between the different opinions of the opposing parties, and certainly not as the single parts of a coherent structure. Yet, despite this, these settlements in fact proved to be the fundamental parts of the federal mechanism, and the foundations of a solid construct. This remarkable outcome is easily explained. America’s political class emerged from the War of Independence split into two currents, one basically unitary and the other basically pluralist, and both had a basis, respectively the Union and the states, that could not be eliminated in the short term. Compromise was clearly the only possible way out of their confrontation, and it could be reached in only one way: by conserving the Union through the creation of a truly independent pan-American government, in other words a government that would act at the level of the citizens, not the states, but at the same time would safeguard the states’ independence, and thus pluralism. The difficulty, then, lay in finding a formula for a central government that, despite intervening directly at the level of the citizens of the member states, would not destroy the states’ independence. Basically, a federation was the solution arrived at because a federation was the only solution that could be arrived at.
But the federal formula, which is the main thread running through this interpretation of these events, was not in fact known to those who actually lived through them, and the evolution of the situation was in reality far more complex. At the time, the federal formula was not just unknown; it was also quite unthinkable, given that, in traditional political thought, a government’s independence was bound up with the absolute and indivisible sovereignty of the state. This bond made it impossible to attribute independence both to the central government and to the governments of the states and, in the minds of these men, presented them with a choice (which did not correspond to reality and would indeed have been impossible) between indivisible unity and pluralism, since the organisation of pluralism within unity, which is what the situation demanded, was at the time beyond the capacity of human action. The unitary current thus proposed ways of organising central government that excluded all independence of the states and thus, ultimately, pluralism, while the action of the pluralist current went no further than pure and simple defence of the confederal league, which guaranteed the states their independence, together with the maintenance of their absolute sovereignty, at the cost of paralysis of the Union and a slow but fatal crumbling of unity.
Naturally, these projects remained on the drawing board, leaving the problem without a solution and the differences unresolved. This state of affairs persisted for some time, until, on the initiative of the unitary current, the two sides clashed in an arena that put the problem firmly on the table, precluded any avoiding of it, and made it necessary to make a choice: this arena was the convention held to revise the federal system of government, commonly known as the Philadelphia Convention. At this point, both sides started trying to impose their will, but quickly seeing that they would not succeed, stopped trying half way. As luck would have it, they stopped at exactly the right point. The real trial of strength came over the question of the composition of the legislative assembly, in which the question of sovereignty was at stake. The defenders of the Union wanted proportional representation, while the defenders of the states insisted on equal representation for every state. In the end, the first criterion was adopted for the House of Representatives, and the second for the Senate, thereby sacrificing the sovereignty of the states in the lower chamber, and that of the Union in the upper chamber. Following this trial of strength, the Constitution was rapidly completed, but — and this is the crucial point — we use word “Constitution” with the benefit of hindsight. The Philadelphia delegates had no way of knowing that it really was a constitution, a functional mechanism. What they did know for certain was that they had reached a compromise, and reached it contrary to their own particular concept of state (to understand clearly what had happened, they would have needed to be presented with anew theory of state, and with the force of evidence). There thus followed a period of time during which, in the minds of men, a veil separated reality from its representation.
This, then, was the early attitude of men to history’s first federation. I have recalled this aspect of the history of the birth of the United States of America in order to highlight the circumstances in which Hamilton managed to develop the first principles of the federal state theory. The truth is that Hamilton was able to see through the veil that separated consciousness from reality; The Federalist itself is proof that he understood, even before the Constitution was operational, how it would work. It is true that there were ambiguities in his understanding, that the full depth of his intuition emerged only in the context of the tension of the struggle for ratification and when he had the text of the Constitution as a set point of reference, and, finally, that in other circumstances his views changed, even leading him to judge the federal Constitution in negative terms. But this certainly does not detract from him. Foreseeing does not carry the same certainty as actually seeing, nor does it give us the same clear outlines. Hamilton fought ceaselessly for the consolidation of American unity, first trying to found a pan-American government, and then trying to strengthen it. The ambiguities in his understanding are entirely justifiable. Moreover, the fact that there were ambiguities in Hamilton’s understanding is irrelevant to our purposes here; what is important is to highlight them, pointing out the federalist character of some of his ideas that, while he formulated them in general terms, are in fact applicable only in the federalist context to which he was actually, and implicitly, referring.
Hamilton described, with enormous clarity and insight, the nature and consequences of the extension of the sphere of representative government from the area of just one state to that of many states. It also emerges in his writings that, in the federal system, the judicial power really can be endowed with the capacity to subordinate all the other powers to constitutional law, and moreover that it is possible, by combining the roles of head of state and head of government in a single individual, to give the executive power the strength it must have if it is to govern well, while also guarding against the risk of tyranny or Caesarism. But he failed to clarify the link between these improvements to the executive and judicial powers (essential to the establishment of the rule of law and the consolidation of democracy) and the division of power that is produced in the federal framework, in which the central government is checked by the governments of the member states, and in which the judicial power, depending on whose interests the judicial decision converges with, has the support either of the federal government or of the governments of the states (in unitary states, on the other hand, the judicial power lacks the strength to withstand the excessive power of the legislative assembly and the executive, which are more often combined than distinct). He also failed to clarify the fact that it is only at this level of refinement of the executive and, above all, the judicial power that the constitutional state, the community in which all powers really are made to bend to constitutional law, emerges as a typical form, and not just as an accident of history.
With integrations of this kind, Hamilton’s thought can be regarded as the first formulation of the federal state theory. What his thought does not contain, however, is a systematic analysis of the relations between the new American Constitution and American society of the time. And this analysis is indispensable if one wants to arrive at a complete theory of federalism. The federal state theory describes an organisation, not the human setting in which that organisation can be born and endure; it identifies the political framework for a given behaviour, not its social basis and historical context (which must be established together since social phenomena have a historical character). As a result, it does not enable us to understand every aspect of federalism and its historical unfolding, or even to set Hamilton in the history of federalist thought or to place the American federation in the course of history. We therefore need to look again at the birth of the United States of America to see whether this re-examination enables us to highlight, after the structural and value aspects, also the social-historical aspect of federalism.
Before the War of Independence, the colonies lying along North America’s east coast had achieved a sufficient level of development, both in a material sense and in the sense of the evolution of ideas, to allow the formation of a representative government. These were thirteen societies that belonged to the British imperial system. Above them, as their only social and political point of reference, stood the great British community. It was only when their fight for English freedoms turned into out-and-out war with the mother country that the colonies began to see themselves as sharing a deep bond and to form a new and independent society: American society. The war destroyed all their affection for the British Crown, and created, in its stead, a new allegiance — to the American Union. At the end of the war, the colonies no longer belonged to the British; they were American.
However, it was only as former colonies that they enjoyed an organisation based on independent governments and solid institutions. What they had on an American level was only a de facto unity with the confederal superstructure. Hence, this new pro-American sentiment was, initially, merely the manifestation of a spontaneous converging of the colonial people’s inclinations and behaviour. Of course, this sentiment was also deeply rooted in the geographical and historical context. But it has to be remembered that, at this stage, production and trade relations in North America had not yet generated a close and stable interdependence of the behaviour of the various colonial people, which means that it was the war, bringing a proliferation and intensification of inter-American relations, that was responsible for turning the embryonic American unity into proper, de facto unity. Being so immature, this unity would not have lasted long without a political stabiliser, without a government; nevertheless, it did enjoy, for a time, a form of autonomy of its own. Precisely because it stemmed from a de facto situation, and was not based on membership of a single state, this American unity must be considered, for analytical purposes at least, as a raw, social factor, rather than as a specific, political factor, even though here, as in many other cases, the distinction between the social and the political is rather blurred.
This de facto unity, sufficient to sustain the new pro-American sentiment, was insufficient, on the other hand, to attenuate dramatically, or even to destroy, the thirteen local patriotisms that state autonomy, historical traditions and even the colonies’ very nature as “nations” in the etymological sense (nations as the territorial dimensions of individuals’ birth, life and death) combined very effectively to defend. Thus, the new American sentiment was added to, but did not replace, the old local patriotisms, and the combination of these equally strong sentiments led to the birth of a generalised social behaviour that was characterised by true bipolarity, by a division of loyalties between the Union and the states — a social behaviour that united all the colonies into a single, vast society but at the same time divided them into smaller societies, distinct from the former and from each other, each with its own clearly established territorial boundaries within the boundaries of the larger, common society. This behaviour can be defined federal. It is this that constitutes what, in turn, we can term federal society (or, in the political context, federal people), that is, a community with independent, territorially based social differences. Or, more precisely, a community with territorially based social groups that are strong enough to sustain independent governments and to overcome all other social differences, but not strong enough to produce separate societies, precisely because they are comprised of men who, at the same time, remain loyal to a wider society. In this form, this phenomenon was, and still is, new. It is true that it is a general tendency of humans to belong to a number of different social circles, but it is also true that this tendency is incapable of producing true bipolarity, either in unitary republics, where state centralisation and the national ideal are such that national sentiment prevails, to the detriment of all other group sentiments, or in feudally-organised imperial societies, where it is stifled by the fact that the members of these societies are subjects, in other words, individuals who cannot freely express their social sentiments.
These observations show clearly the close relations between the new social behaviour that emerged in North America and the novel aspect of the federal Constitution, namely, the division of sovereignty. It is now clear that the situation in Philadelphia stemmed from the fundamental nature of American society, even though, in taking the form of a confrontation rather than bipolarity, it did have a political explanation: the impossibility of dividing sovereignty. It is also clear that the need for a compromise, like the fact that one could be reached only in federal terms, highlights not only the process of the creation of the federal institutions, but also, and in particular, their relations with a society able to function only with institutions of this kind, a society too unitary for a simple system of sovereign states existing in equilibrium with one another, and too diversified, and at the same time too inclined to enlarge its borders, for the closed and compact unitary form of state. It is also clear, finally, that federalism has specific social significance. What we must now do is clarify the nature of this social significance, that is to say, evaluate the basis of the federal society that emerged in exceptional circumstances at the end of the eighteenth century in North America and, more generally, define the historical framework of federalist social behaviour.
Incompatible both with the unitary republic and with the feudally organised empire, this behaviour can manifest itself only in areas that embrace many states and that have achieved the conditions (material and in terms of the evolution of ideas) necessary for political freedom, as well as a certain degree of unity. But even this is not enough. For this behaviour to be sustained, there has to be an end to, or at least an attenuation of, both the class struggle and the military power. The class struggle destroys any solidarity between proletarians and the middle classes that might unite social groups at territorial level, and subordinates these groups to the general division of society into antagonistic social classes. In addition, a military power encourages a concentration of power in the central government, destroys the political balance between the centre and the periphery and therefore makes bipolarity impossible in the social domain. In fact, during the period in which federalism in North America enjoyed is fullest expression, the region’s island status (which Hamilton described so well) effectively ensured that American society remained protected even without the formation of a proper military power. Furthermore, because this period coincided with an exceptionally favourable situation in terms of the availability of work, the class struggle was prevented from developing in American society, and the path to the development of socialism effectively barred.
Nevertheless, in all situations (real or envisaged) like that of America, that is to say, characterised simply by a reduction of the class struggle and of the military power, or by a reduction of the consequences of these phenomena, federalism can still only emerge in a partial and precarious manner. Partial because there exist two poles of federalist social behaviour, one that tends to develop too much, and the other that tends to develop too little. The pole constituted by territorially-based social groups develops too little because, as long as class differences persist, these groups cannot in any sense become free communities or, as a result, foster the community spirit to its natural outcome. The pole constituted by society as a whole, on the other hand, develops too much, because the existence of military power in other parts of the world also has repercussions on the individuals who belong to less-armed societies, and encourages them to develop a sense of loyalty to their wider society that is reminiscent of the nationalistic sense of loyalty that develops in armed societies. The precariousness, in turn, derives from the fact that in an armed world no society can, for long, escape the logic of power and of the raison d’état. In this kind of world, it is only in certain exceptional natural or historical circumstances that particularly fortunate societies manage, for a short time, to remain substantially unarmed and thus able to sustain the balance between the federal government and the member states.
In short, as long as the historical situation offers nothing more than an attenuation of the class struggle and of the level of military power, or of the consequences of these phenomena, federalism will be able to manifest itself, in an unstable and imperfect manner, only in certain privileged sectors of the world population. This is the same as saying that it can manifest itself fully and stably only in a clearly defined historical framework: that in which class differences and military power are no more, in other words, when a stage has been reached in the development of material production, and consequently of human interdependence, in which society’s division into classes will already have been overcome, and in which it will at last be possible to overcome mankind’s division into nations. All this shows that the two poles of federalist social behaviour are, in their deepest essence, community and cosmopolitanism.
To conclude these reflections, I would like to remark that the Philadelphia Convention, together with the American Constitution and its first major commentary, The Federalist, if considered as a whole — and, in truth, they form a whole —, allow us to view the problems of the institutions and of the course of history from a new perspective. On this basis, federalism makes it possible to widen the horizons, which liberalism, democracy and socialism have continued to narrow, of political and social interpretation and assessment. Obviously, we are not questioning the value of these milestones in political thought, but rather considering the fact, clear for all to see, of the growing gap that is separating the real situation from the universal thought of the classical authors (up to Marx), a gap that is probably becoming unbridgeable as we move further and further away from the historical situations in which the great traditional ideologies, faced with all that they were seeking to demolish, achieved their fullest expression.
In any case, I feel there can be no doubt that federalism should be taken into proper consideration by all those who can see the need for new forms of participation in political and social life (new institutions and new decision-making mechanisms) yet fail to call into question the nation-state, whose indivisible sovereignty prevents the creation of true regional and local autonomies and whose exclusive sovereignty, a result of the fusion of nation with state, prevents the formation of genuine political and social solidarity above the level of the nation-states.
 
The Birth of European Federalism.
 
Let us now try to conduct a similar analysis of the idea of the European federation, of militant federalism, in order, in the same way, to bring out its peculiar characteristics. Like all political realities, European federalism has historical roots. To highlight these immediately, we can start by remarking on the curious fact of the coincidence of the concrete establishment (through the French Revolution) of the modern principle of the nation with the birth of ideas (not facts) of a federalist, albeit vaguely federalist, nature. And I think the reason for this coincidence, which the dominant culture has failed to highlight, is this: the nation-state constituted a new principle of social, political and economic organisation. It was, too, the formula that allowed democracy to be introduced into the old framework of the absolute state. But as such, and precisely because it brought the interests of all the citizens into the sphere of the politics of government, it undermined the functioning of the old international mechanism, which was based on the dynastic idea of state, on the aristocracy as a European social phenomenon, and on authoritarian, but limited, power — all factors that allowed the maintenance of a certain international equilibrium, precisely because the states’ own demands were limited.
The introduction of the new nation-state formula thus created the need to re-build, in new terms, international coexistence. It is the evolution of this need that explains, starting with Saint-Simon (that is to say, with the publication, in 1814, of his essay on the reorganisation of European society, which indeed considers the end of the politics of balance), the change that came about in pacifist literature. Abstract projects started to be replaced by an attempt, albeit embryonic, to resolve a new contradiction in the historical process: the nation-state formula affirmed the rights of men and of citizens within the ambit of the old states, but entirely negated them, negating even the right to live and not to kill, at international level.
This solution to this contradiction lies in popular control of international relations, which is possible only through federalism, since federalism gives the people, through the vote, direct control over the single states and also over an organised group of states.
Seen in this way, the course of federalist affirmations in Europe is no longer a story purely of ideas (as it has wrongly been regarded), but instead a story of men, of the endeavour, difficult and uncertain like all human endeavours, but for this reason realistic, to solve a problem presented by the development of history and not simply an insubstantial product of the perfectionism of some enlightened mind.
Basically, the history of European federalism is merely the history of the emerging contradiction between the affirmation of democracy in the national sphere and its negation in the international sphere. This means that European federalism has been an aspect of European history from the French Revolution onwards — an aspect (albeit still unclear, like all the historical trends yet to come to full fruition) more extensive than one might think, in which, alongside an evolution of the thought begun with the philosophy of Kant, there is slowly unfolding that element of universality that is common to all great revolutionary movements. And it calls into question liberalism, with regard to the rights of the citizen, democracy, with regard to the rights of the people, and socialism, with regard to the socioeconomic rights of the people.
These three great ideologies, which have progressively filled the nation-state with its democratic and social content, in fact display, from their very beginnings, a federalist component, even though awareness of this is undermined by the tendency to confuse, on theoretical level, federalism with internationalism, which is, in fact, the opposite of federalism, since it entrusts leaders rather than the people with the task of solving international problems.
This theoretical confusion, which can be explained by the absence, up until the Second World War, of the objective conditions for the realisation of federalism, nevertheless carries the risk of a surrendering to nationalism, a risk proven to be real each time the nation has prevailed over freedom, democracy and socialism on the scale of values actually pursued. The manifestations of this tendency to surrender are striking, from the statalism of the liberals, to the naive nationalism of the democrats, and the “national ways” pointed out by socialism. In this context, the collapse of the Second International prior to the First World War, like the construction of socialism in a single country, take on the character of a historical turning point, definitively sealing that supremacy of the nation brutally sustained by the racists and accepted by all the states on a formal level as the principle of the absolute sovereignty of the nation and of the non-interference in the affairs of other states. But, in essence, the struggles for freedom, democracy and socialism concern all men and not just one’s fellow countrymen. This is the reason why their federalist component, in spite of all the surrenders to nationalism, cannot be eliminated.
This is not the place to analyse the history of European federalism as an aspect of European history. Nevertheless, we can recall the thought of Proudhon in order to show how such a historical reconstruction could shed light on a hidden facet of European history after the French Revolution. Proudhon does not offer only “integral federalism” (economic, social, political), a concept that embodies a fundamental criterion for socialism if its end (human freedom) is not to be sacrificed to its means (the transformation of property). He also advances a criticism of the nation-state and of international relations that goes so far as to demystify the idea of nation. Thanks to his great farsightedness, Proudhon was able to see the tragic limitations of a national democracy uncorrected by democracy at local and at European level. With his penetrating vision, he saw, behind the façade of the modern nations, their true reality as political myths produced by the centralised state, by the “single and indivisible republic”.
In a passage that is unfortunately too often forgotten, Proudhon actually wrote that the French nation (France being the “nation” par excellence) does not exist, and that France is an artificial, political, collection of fifteen nationalities. Until a few years ago, this affirmation might have sounded like a boutade. But the truth of it is now clear to see: the historical crisis of the nation-state has led to a re-emergence in France of the different nationalities (Breton, Basque, Occitan), a phenomenon that has exposed the essential artificiality of political life confined within a centralised and exclusive state, of the separation of the interests of workers in different European countries, and of the very concept of the nation (shown to be an ideological façade), and even forced De Gaulle to address the Bretons in Breton.
European federalism, if one considers not only what it has meant in the past, but also what it means now and what it can mean in the future, is seen to be linked to the history of Europe at every stage in its evolution. European federalism faces an important task. As a new form of modern state, federalism is, as we have seen, an American reality. But the United States of America, in order to come into being, did not have to overcome historically established nations and thus did not have to solve the series of problems that the Europeans now face. Unification, in Europe, will demand a profound revolution. In Europe, the problem is that of going beyond the historical nations, the nations par excellence: France, Germany, Italy, Spain (one day, once democracy is restored to it), and so on.
On a cultural level, overcoming the historically established nations should equate to overcoming a historical phase and, for this very reason, creating a new development model for the countries of the third World and, in general, for the whole of mankind, which is rapidly approaching the point at which he will have to choose between unity (which the UN prefigures but does not realise) and environmental disaster.
But before dealing with this broad historical significance, it is worth analysing briefly the social and political significance of the European federation, considering its objective aspects. It is never made clear that the passage from the nation-state to the European state implies a material and historical transformation of great importance, a real grassroots social change. There is a tendency to consider the word “social” as synonymous with “class” and “class struggle”. But the reality is far more complex, because to confuse these terms is to forget the huge social importance of the fact of the nation.
The nation-state is the political community that attempts, and in part manages, to render homogeneous all the communities that exist within it. Basically, its tendentiously totalitarian nature is already evident in the fact that this type of state is able to survive only if it succeeds in establishing a single language and uniform customs throughout its sphere of action (even though, as far as the latter are concerned, it is a semblance of unification more than real unification that it has actually managed to impose). This artificial social basis is what makes a man born in Turin feel like a man born in Palermo and different, in his human origins, from any man born in any other state (even though, in reality, and leaving aside the common origins of all men, the difference between a man from Turin and a man from Palermo is greater than that, say, between someone from Turin and someone from Lyons).
A European state could not, on the contrary, be founded on this social basis, and neither could the formation of this social basis be induced by and helped along by a European state. Although Italian and French were, starting in Florence and Paris respectively, turned into national languages, no development of this kind could ever occur on a European level. There is no centre of power that has the capacity to impose a single language in Europe, the capacity to make the French stop speaking French and the Italians stop speaking Italian. Even more so, there is no centre of power with the capacity to create in Europe the illusion of, or even a degree of, uniformity of customs. This is a situation that can be illustrated neatly in a formula that federalists never tire of repeating: what will be possible in Europe is the formation of a people of nations, not a national people. This formation of a people of nations is not something that belongs to a far-off and indefinite time. The Treaties of Rome make provision for European general elections, a goal supported by an array of forces that has every bit as much chance of success as the forces that oppose it. And it goes without saying that the first European elections will be the first expression of a new popular political entity: the European people. But this will be a pluralist not a monolithic people, and it will be, as history decrees, the people of the European nations.
This is a concrete, social aspect that cannot fail to be taken into consideration when one talks of European unity. The second concrete aspect that must be considered is of a political-institutional nature. First of all, it needs to be said that the accusations of “institutionalism” levelled at federalists are quite meaningless. It is obvious that institutions cannot exist without an underlying social basis and also that institutions cannot be fought for without the belief that there exist the necessary social foundations on which to build them and make them work. The supreme duty of politics is, often, to destroy institutions that are stifling new social developments and to create new institutions in response to new developments. It also needs to be pointed out that those who refuse European institutionalism are, in fact, and even without realising it, accepting national institutionalism, regarding as “organic” a process — that of the nation — which in reality demands a preliminary institutional condition: an organised national framework for the expression of historical forces.
That said, a quick pointer on this question is provided by Anglo-Saxon culture, in comparison with which the culture of continental Europe is found to have a gap. In Anglo-Saxon culture, a clear distinction is drawn between the unitary (national) principle and the federal (pluralist) principle. In the nation-state, sovereign representation is unitary. The idea of the republic being “one and indivisible” is the natural consequence of this. But this republic reduces the division of powers, the thing that should constitute the political guarantee of freedom, to a mere outward appearance. And, with truly diabolical results, it entrusts schools even, and culture, to the centre of power that “wields the sword”, that is the army.
This kind of state is bound — aspirations in any other direction are insignificant, vain — to use schools, culture, to turn citizens into good soldiers. And it does precisely this. The history of the nation, which hounds us throughout our education from primary school to university, lays bare, starting with the edifying tales aimed at youngsters, the submission of historical-social culture to the practical, authoritarian and bellicose needs of the state. It is this same culture that we see emerging in state-related areas of social behaviour — national elections, national military service — and in political rituals.
It is this culture again that emerges in the arbitrary application of universal facts — historical facts and current facts of political and social importance — to national frameworks, in a way that is all the more insidious because this manipulation, not being openly uplifting, quells fears of having served power rather than truth. This culture, which depends on the state, makes the nation-state the lord of all individual consciences.
The federal state, on the other hands, represents a splitting of the sovereign function, of sovereignty. Politics is not restricted to a single framework and political battles are not fought for a single power, which, through its prefects, controls all lower powers. Instead it operates in the federal framework and in the framework of the member states. The difference is fundamental. This territorial, as opposed to exclusively functional, division of power is supported by a solid social basis. And this territorial distribution of power, in its most typical form, cannot survive without the primacy of the Constitution.
Its unity is based, in fact, on a rule — that of the distribution of power among all the member states and the federal government; in the unitary state, on the other hand, unity lies in a centre of power to which everything is subordinate, and which is judge and party at the same time. It is not mere chance that the birth of the theory of the judicial review — and not just the Constitutional Court, a late fruit of the decline of the nation-state — coincided with that of history’s first federal state, the American federation. Neither is it mere chance that the American federation, embryo and remains of the first federal pact, has no education minister, no interior minister and no prefects.
This is the social basis, institutional character and legal distribution of power that Europe could have. It constitutes a reasonable forecast of a realisable situation, even though, admittedly, it still would not constitute a perfectly federal solution. It is a forecast, not a dream, because this is a situation that would stem not from individual will, but from the objective impossibility of forming a centralised and unitary European nation-state.
 
Federalism As the Overcoming of the Division of Mankind.
 
The conclusion we reached in the previous section is not a sufficient basis for an analysis of militant federalism. Federalists assume responsibility for Europe’s imperfection, to which I alluded earlier, and for the fact that this imperfection corresponds, in truth, to a failure to negate completely the authoritarian and bellicose values of the nation-state. This is why their argument extends, and in a very precise manner, beyond the confines of Europe. This is why, when horizons are narrowed by the requirements of political struggle and there emerges the need to look far ahead, we say that there is still a need to conduct politics in order to pave the way for the day in which men will no longer be forced to engage in politics. We are fighting for the European federation only because our revolutionary conscience does not allow us to run away from reality.
In this regard, there are two things that I would like to underline. The first is that nobody will oblige federalists — even should the Europe they are fighting for become, with their contribution, a reality — to support a future European government. Even at the risk of attracting derision, as has occurred in the past, the most responsible among us have maintained that the place of federalists, in Europe, will always be among the ranks of the opposition. Europe will allow this because Europe will have an opposition. What is peculiar is the failure of the Continent’s leftwing parties to see this; and this leaves them envisaging a European state that will be more compact, more totalitarian, than the nation-state. What the left-wing parties in Europe’s nation-states should actually be thinking about is how much more effective a European opposition is likely to be compared with the national oppositions.
But I want to explain the paradox of our participation in the building of a state that we already know we will have to criticise. There is nothing absurd about this. It is the paradox that accompanies every advance made along the road of revolution. The revolution is global and universal. This is why every advance made towards it immediately becomes meaningless to those fighting for it, unless they are able to accept that their destiny is to continue to be in the ranks of the opposition even after fulfilling their task. This truth is revealed in its positive form by those who are prepared to renounce power in order to remain in the ranks of the opposition, whereas its negative expression takes the form of a loss, a reversal, of the true historical perspective in the hearts of those decide, after accepting responsibility for a revolutionary transformation, also to accept the responsibility for managing power.
This paradox will become clearer, I hope, as I move on to my second point. Important stages in revolutionary progress have had two meanings: one that is practical, immediate, verifiable in the new institutions and in new political and social behaviour, and one that is theoretical and can be seen only on a cultural level (culture being taken to mean that which drives, deep down, the formation of human thought). The end result of the French Revolution, if viewed in the light not of life prior to it, but of the fierce revolutionary ideals that inspired it, was rather unexceptional: the state that, despite recognising the barriers it brought down and the historical forces it freed, we today condemn as “Jacobinic-Napoleonic.”
In any case, the “Jacobinic-Napoleonic” state did not destroy the global significance of the French Revolution, which led to the affirmation, within the culture of mankind, of the democratic principle. Despite its imperfect realisation, despite all the defeats democracy has suffered, this principle became strongly rooted in the hearts of men, where it has remained firm. Fascism, which openly repudiated it, has been swept from the scene. One-party socialist states, which repudiate it in practice, are unable to negate it in theory and in the rituals of political life.
Similar observations can be made about the Soviet Revolution. So great is the distance that separates the revolutionary aspirations from the resulting Soviet state that the obvious conclusion now is that what was realised in the Soviet Union was not communism, but a rigid form of state capitalism. However, the expression “state capitalism” highlights an empirical aspect of the Soviet situation that reduces its historical significance. We know that communism has not become a reality. But we should also be aware of the fact that, in the wake of the Soviet Revolution, private ownership of the social means of production has, in a cultural sense, lost its legitimacy. True social ownership of the means of production is still a long way off, as is, moreover, genuine democracy. But, in the same way as absolutism died in the hearts of men, in my view for good, so the principle of the legitimacy of private ownership of the social means of production is now dying out in the hearts of men.
Reality can adapt to the democracy, imperfect, guided and manipulated, of the West; and the management, guided and manipulated, of collective production in the East. Culture cannot. And it is culture that separates that which is and that which should be, and that thus motivates life’s deepest currents.
In the light of these observations, I do not feel that we can evaluate the future European state without considering, alongside that which it will negate in practice, that which it will negate in theory, thereby highlighting not only what it will practically and immediately affirm, but also what it will affirm in the sphere of culture.
In practice, the European state will negate — with consequences that have already been discussed — the Continent’s division into nation-states. In theory it will negate the nations, or rather, the fusion of nation with state — the enslavement of the nation (which stands for culture and universality) to the closed, unitary state (which, per se, is synonymous with power and particularism). It was for precisely this reason that, in his 1954 Christmas message, Pope Pius XII defined, correctly in my modest opinion, this type of state as one of the most diabolical creations in the history of mankind. And it is significant that this criticism, which recurs in the most coherent expressions of liberalism, democracy and socialism, should also have been advanced in the framework of religion, where the criterion of transcendence makes it possible to distinguish more clearly between that which is always open, which renews life, and that which is forever closed, which subdues and extinguishes life.
What is the significance of this theoretical negation? For historical reasons, this is not a question that can beanswered on the basis of consideration of the American federation. The American federation came into being in what was still a side road of history, sheltered from the great conflicts between states and classes. And it negated — this is the real point — thirteen small states that had no state or national history.
The European federation, on the other hand, will, from the outset, have to negate, in the dialectical sense of the word, France, Germany and Italy: the great historical nations. These great historical nations have turned the concept of the nation as the organic division of mankind into a typical idea; they are the secular, historically concrete expression of the culture of the political division of mankind. Their negation will thus be the negation of this culture.
It is true that the European federation will be a state among states. It will create a dual loyalty in the citizens, introducing European elections alongside national ones. It is possible to imagine that, putting an end to obligatory military service, it will also put an end to the “citizen equals soldier” equation. But, as a power among powers, it will have to defend its autonomy with military means too. In practice., it will remain on the terrain of the political division of mankind, even though examination of its raison d’état, something worthy of a separate discussion, suggests that it will be less brutal and, in social terms, less constricted than the Soviet Union or the United States of America.
In theory, however, the terrain of the European state will be the terrain of the negation of the political division of mankind. This is, historically, the most important thing. National culture, like the theory of the political division of mankind, is the culture that, by mystifying liberalism, democracy and socialism, has, in fact, legitimatised the duty to kill. The culture of the negation of the political division of mankind is the historical negation of this duty; it constitutes the affirmation, in the sphere of thought, of the political, not just spiritual, right not to kill, and is thus the historical framework of the struggle to affirm it in practice — beyond the European federation — through world federation.
This analysis may seem abstract and meaningless. But is it possible to exclude, from the horizon of thought, the dawn and the dusk, the first, tentative light in which things are born and the semi-darkness in which they perish? There is a fixed point of reference in all these considerations and it is this: a negation has the same value as that which it negates. And the nation legitimatised, in theory, the duty to kill, because it was unable to eliminate it in practice. To negate the nation, through the European federation, to do away with the fatal association of nation with state and nation with culture, and to overcome historically the nation as the ultimate point of reference in all human action in the political and social sphere, is to negate the basis of the legitimisation of the duty to kill, and to remove the darkness surrounding the idea of national culture, which has prevented men from seeing that neither liberalism, democracy nor socialism can be realised without the affirmation of the supreme right not to kill.
This interpretation of the historical-cultural significance of the European federation, like any attempt to understand the meaning of contemporary history that sets out to be more than just a cursory analysis of the present in the light of the past, may seem not only abstract and meaningless, but also over-ambitious and too arbitrary.
But man, in the making of his history, which evolves and is not simply a pattern of repetition, is right to be ambitious, given the enormity of the gap that separates what is from what should be. Anyway, there is something non-arbitrary in this interpretation: the fact that it is not a solitary excogitation, but reflects, rather, the growing significance of the reasons for the federalists’ struggle.
For thirty years now, this struggle has left the federalists isolated from most of the other forces in the field. As a result, the federalists view the question of European unity in totally different terms from everyone else. Thus, as things currently stand, what I have said up to now is meaningful only within the context of the federalist struggle; it will become meaningful for everyone only upon the advent of the European federation, and only providing the European federation, in its two dimensions — as a practical and theoretical fact — does indeed present the practical and cultural aspects that today constitute the motivations and expectations underpinning the federalists’ battle. But some things already have a universal meaning, even though they still need to break free from the obstinate tendency to approach the new with old ideas.
First of all, there is the simple, basic fact of European unity as an aspiration and as a real historical process. Millions of people, including great statesmen, scholars and politicians, believe that European unity is necessary. But on realising that European unity is necessary, and that only a federation can guarantee this unity, it is an illusion to believe, as many do, that one has reached a conclusion. What one has reached is only the starting point of a new experience that makes every apparently certain thing appear problematical and throws into question, together with the nation-state (which is to say “Italian-ness” for the Italians, and the same for the other nationalities), the whole of the past and the present. The proof of this lies in the fact that those who refuse to embark on this experience preach fine words, but do not accomplish fine actions.
Second, there is the crisis of the ideologies and, because of this, the loss of historical identity. There are events of the past and present that cannot be explained in the framework of prevailing social and political thought. The federalists are beginning to perceive a new thread running through the history of Europe, which, in spite of so-called European revisions, continues to be, for everyone else, the history of Italy, of France, and so on. This guiding thread may prove correct or incorrect. But the fact is that the European system of states has died, and its place has been taken by the world system of states. And it is true that we still have to sort out the knots that the French Revolution created and the Soviet Revolution failed to unravel. Those who believed in individual freedom, in rule by the people, and in the collective ownership of the means of production have been forced, in the very framework of recognition of individual freedom, of rule by the people, and of the collective ownership of the means of production, to face up to man’s incapacity to be free, to exercise self-government and to control production collectively. And it is not enough to say that no value is acquired indefinitely. It is always necessary to appreciate the historical conditions in which values are fought for.
At this point, an observation is called for. Liberalism, democracy and socialism, which as concepts lie beyond the raison d’état, in reality still find themselves struggling against — and more often than not losing — the raison d’état in the ambit of the raison d’état by which the world continues to be governed.
So why not revisit the thought of those who predicted this development, or who have criticised it in the course of its unfolding? The question here is not just the history of militant federalism: it is the history of everyone; it is the federalist core present in the ideologies that, in turn, have represented dominant thought and the dominant course of action. Reason shows, as I have said, that liberal, socialist and democratic thought could not have been developed and proposed as anything other than solutions valid for all men, as opposed to only the citizens of one country or another.
This internationalist core, tendentiously federalist, of the ideologies that moved the historical process of the last century is far stronger than it is usually thought to be, if it is indeed true that Lenin, in 1915, felt the need to adopt a stance on the “United States of Europe watchword”. The force of this watchword was still such as to constitute an obstacle to the affirmation of his political line, and Lenin, writing on the subject, neither wished, nor perhaps was able, to deny the positive significance of the United States of Europe, limiting himself instead to an affirmation of the need for a prelude, i.e., a socialist revolution in Europe, something he considered to be imminent, thus putting off the battle for a United States of Europe to some, foreseeable, near future time.
The federalists must at least be credited with having assessed these events, reread the authors that had predicted or criticised them, and taken account, in their attempt to understand the historical situation in which we find ourselves acting, of what is due to the raison d’état and what, instead, can be attributed to the germ of federalism present in the great ideologies. This allowed them, as I have said, to highlight the contemporaneousness of the affirmation of the nation-state in reality and the affirmation of the United States of Europe as an ideal, and, in their efforts to explain it, to perceive the nature of the fine European thread running from the cosmopolitan component of the French Revolution to the current process of European integration.
Within the framework I have just outlined of what the European federation has come to mean to the federalists, I would like to return to the most solid aspect of this story, in order to link it to the two World Wars and to the current situation. I have said that the new nation-state formula was incompatible with the old European system of absolute, albeit limited, states.
This incompatibility was particularly clear in the sphere of international politics, and can be attributed to the fact that the aristocracy constituted a Europe-wide community that had a suprastate sense of European solidarity. Until the French Revolution, political personality was based ultimately and fundamentally not on attachment to the state, or to nationhood, but on an attachment to Christianity, or, according to the secular version, “Europe’s Republic of scholars”. Metternich thought in this way and truly believed in the existence of an order — even a legal order, European law — at suprastate level.
This incompatibility could also be seen clearly in the internal conditioning of international politics, both because popular culture (nationality) was not yet crucial to the state, and because the merging of the economic interests of all parties with the motivations behind the states’ policies (which accompanied the Industrial Revolution and the full realisation of the modern bureaucratic state) had still to occur.
The fusion of state and nation put an end to these limitations, which had excluded many civil and material values from the sphere of action of the state. Relations between states became very difficult. Europe experienced a division the like of which it had never known before. This aspect of the last stage in the life of the European system of states should, in my view, be borne in mind more, and studied in depth. One thing, however, is certain: the affirmation of the national principle in Italy and in Germany, marking the definitive end of the international politics of enlightened sovereigns, resulted in the First World War, and explains the new, generalised, and total nature of that war. Moreover, the spread, as a result of the First World War, of the national principle throughout Europe led to the Second World War, that is, to the end of Europe, whose chances of once again playing an active historical role now depend on its capacity to resolve, through its unification, the international problem generated by the creation of the nation-state.
Power, that is to say effective decision-making power at international level, has emigrated from Europe to North America, to the territory previously covered by the Czarist empire and which now makes up the Soviet Union, and to China. This is not a circumstance that we can already slot into the theory of historical cycles, citing it as an example of the exhaustion of old historical-social forces and the advent of new ones. Instead, what we are witnessing — and the game is not yet over, since Europe can still be unified — is the historical end of a political formula, the nation-state formula, and the irreversible historical affirmation of new, vaster, more complex forms of state based on implicitly or explicitly multinational foundations (China, like Europe, is a civilisation, not a nation, and the United States can, as we have said, be likened to a successful “European” federation, while the Soviet Union is a multinational state) and, beneath the veil of ideology, on a federal or almost imperial structure.
One can accept or deny the reality of this situation. The militant federalists embarked on their experience because they came face to face with this situation and refused to accept it. Whatever the current of their thought, liberal, democratic, socialist or Christian-social, one thing was clear to them: the nation-states divide Europe, and this division spells its historical death. It could be that all their ideas, which, hampered by the obvious limitations that derive from speaking also on behalf of others, I have tried to summarise here, are entirely wrong. But what is certainly not wrong is that division is fatal for the Europeans; what is not wrong is that in the face of all the problems created by division, the duty to fight for unity constitutes the only fixed point of reference. And duty alone is reason enough to continue, even when everything appears difficult and uncertain.
The federalists can question everything again. However, they cannot question what was written, expressed with lapidary concision, by this century’s most prominent Italian: “In the life of nations, the mistake of not seizing the moment is usually irreparable. The need to unify Europe is evident. The existing states are dust devoid of substance. None of them is able to bear the cost of its autonomous defence. It is only through union that they can endure. This is not a problem of choice between independence and union, but of choice between existing in unity and disappearing. Italians paid for the hesitation of and discord among the Italian states at the end of the fifteenth century with three centuries of lost independence; then the time for deciding lasted, perhaps, just a few months. Now, the time will be ripe for European union only as long as western Europe continues to share the same ideals of freedom. Can we really be sure that factors working against the ideals of freedom will not, unexpectedly, gain sufficient strength to prevent union, consigning some countries to the sphere of North America and others to that of Russia? An Italian territory will still exist, but not an Italian nation; the latter is destined to go on living as a spiritual and moral unit only providing we are able to forgo this absurd military and economic independence.”
These words are taken from a note written by Luigi Einaudi on March 1st 1954, when he was President of the Republic of Italy, a position that did not prevent him from seeing the republic for what it really was.
All historical situations are set in time and have a duration. Einaudi, by relating Europe to time, also placed Europe in relation to the sphere of human action, and gave a physiognomy to the Europe that is before us. It is not enough to fight for European unity, we have to make sure that we do not waste time, because time is of the essence; we cannot afford to miss our historical opportunity. Fifty years later, discussing the March on Rome, Amendola used similar terms, talking of the “political value of passing time.” In the period that followed the First World War, the parties that gave voice to the great ideologies had lost, together with their sense of history, their sense of the political value of time, and fascism prevailed as a result of this. The way in which they have approached European politics in the period since the end of the Second World War shows that they have still not regained it.
This is the unshakeable element that distinguishes the federalists from the parties. The federalists were, and continue to be, a small vanguard that stand apart from the majority of the forces in the field because they are not willing to waste time. The federalists have tried, in the way in which they are structured and in their policy, to offer an ante litteram living example of European unity, because life is lived in the framework of time, and only life can overcome death. In their struggles against all that divides Europe, they have progressively formed, in their thought, an outline of what Europe could be. This outline presents all the uncertainty of a prediction. But the reality against which the federalists fight is not uncertain. The federalists have been, are, and always will be the enemies of the nation-state, of the national division of political and social forces.


* From Mario Albertini, Andrea Chiti-Batelli, Giuseppe Petrilli, Storia del federalismo europeo, Turin, ERI, 1973.
[1] See Mario Albertini, Il federalismo, Bologna, 1993 (1st edition, Milan, 1963).
[2] Historically, a “federation” is an association of states (a whole), endowed with its own power, an association that, on account of this power, which distinguishes it from a confederation, has also been called “federal state”.

 

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