Year L, 2008, Number 3, Page 218



In an attempt to grasp the significance of our experience as militants of the European Federalist Movement (Movimento Federalista Europeo, MFE) and of the Union of European Federalists (UEF), we can take, as our starting point, two statements of fact. The first is that the federalism we have inherited represents a transition from a type that can be described as utopian (in the manner of Proudhon), institutional (after Hamilton), or founded on individual political behaviour (federalism in the Spinelli mould), to a scientific type that (thanks to Albertini) is based on the active political behaviour of an organised movement. The second fact is that this active political behaviour is still an experiment whose future depends on us. The uncertainty of its outcome can be attributed to three factors.
The first factor is the absence in society and politics of elements conducive to the development of an autonomous political behaviour: if those becoming involved in politics do not come into contact with federalists, they may still become federalist at a later stage, i.e. starting from Europeanist positions or after having previously been something else (socialist, liberal, radical, environmentalist, etc.); alternatively, they may never become federalist. The fact that Europeanism, to some degree, now pervades all the political families actually makes it more difficult, rather than easier, to embrace an autonomous federal position. For this reason, in order to survive as a political behaviour federalism needs to be supported by a particular type of organisation, one with a clear political line. To date, there have been only two breeding grounds of federalists: a historical one (the Second World War, which influenced the individual choice made by many of the politicians who switched to federalism in the post-war period) and a political-cultural one (the sections of the MFE refounded by Albertini). Since the historical breeding ground of federalists ceased to exist, the recruitment, training and material presence of federalism has depended, more and more, on the possibility of keeping the political-cultural hotbed of federalism alive.
The second factor is the end of bipolarism and of the Cold War (now over fifteen years ago), which created the problem of differentiating between the framework of European integration and the narrower one of European unification, that is to say, of distinguishing more clearly between Europeanist and federalist objectives.
The third factor is the decline of federalist terminology, which reflects the fact that there is now less rigorous theoretical analysis and less use of cultural instruments. As a clear effect of this state of affairs, the words used in the ambit of the MFE, culturally the most coherently federalist setting within the UEF, no longer have an unequivocal meaning; in the same way, definitions of the current state of the process of European unification are ambiguous.
The Changing Nature of the UEF: the Generation that Lived Through the War is Now Disappearing and the Historical Breeding Ground of Federalism has Ceased to Exist.
Federalism, like all great ideas, can progress through history only if there are men and women willing to work for its advance in the context of everyday life. Until a decade or so ago, these active federalists were the same people who had contributed to the founding (in the 1940s) and the re-founding (in the 1960s and ’70s) of the UEF and its national sections. These men and women, in spite of their different political backgrounds and activities, were ultimately united by a moral (more than political or cultural) stance: their rejection of war and refusal to accept the prospect of history sidelining the European people. Thanks to these men and women, federalism and the battle to unite Europe, like the strategies and actions of the federalist movement, became embodied in life experiences and activities that can be summed up in the names of a handful of distinguished individuals, such as Spinelli, Albertini, Hirsch, Kogon, Frenay, Marc, Ordner, Van Schendel, and Schöndube. Through them, federalism managed to become, not only symbolically but also in real life, something alive and readily identifiable both at European level and also in the single countries (the individuals listed above, now deceased, are just some of the UEF leaders who, despite not always being on exactly the same wavelength, became the names and faces of organised federalism, an idea that thrived right up until the last decade of the last century). With the gradual loss, as the years went by, of these points of reference, the UEF and its sections began reflecting, in a confused manner in the late 1990s and more clearly in recent years, upon the need to guarantee the federalists their status as individuals with a real identity and role in the course of history, as opposed to mere by-products of the aftermath of the Second World War.
The State of Organised Federalism Sixty Years on.
It is clear, from quick glance at federalism across Europe, that the survival of the federalist experiment, of federalism as an independent and active political movement, hangs by a thread.
France has countless pro-European and pro-federalist associations, of which the French section of the UEF is just an insignificant part (young people there have even stopped calling themselves federalists); in Germany, the Europa-Union (the German section of the UEF), which until a few years ago, was a strong and wealthy organisation, is now looking shaky and its regional sections are largely independent of the organisation’s national and European organs; in Italy, the MFE, contrary to its declarations, made for appearances’ sake, is relinquishing its role as a vanguard of federalism on a number of levels, theoretical, practical and organisational; Belgium continues to be dogged by the problem of reconciling two different brands of federalism, Walloon and Flemish, and also by that of distinguishing federalism from a simple association of officials (or would-be officials) of European institutions or organisations; the Netherlands never managed to form a national section of the UEF, while federalism in Great Britain, despite having important historical and cultural traditions — it is to these, after all, that we owe the birth of the Italian MFE —, has long been dominated by generally pro-European stances in British politics. Looking beyond these countries, in Scandinavia and Eastern Europe, federalism is barely distinguishable from Europeanism. Federalism fares no better outside the framework of the UEF, where, at most, it is possible to find individuals who are interested in or attracted by it, and who study it, but who are both unwilling and unable, individually, to tackle the problem of sustaining it on an organisational level and of transmitting it as a political behaviour.
In Europe, the UEF is an umbrella organisation with around twenty national sections and several tens of thousands of members, but, excluding Italy, there are only four or five sections in as many key cities (each with around fifty militant federalists) that have the capacity to carry out an independent, albeit limited, action that would be both credible and useful for the building of the initial core of a European federal state. This weakness is reflected in the structure of this organisation, which, at European level, is very much dominated by its various national sections. This is not a new problem. As early as the time of the collapse of the EDC project, Spinelli, but especially Albertini, were already questioning the wisdom of preserving the autonomy of the national headquarters of the various federalist sections. Indeed, they were in favour of creating a European federal headquarters that, rather than being answerable indirectly to the national organs (as was — and still is — the case), could instead have been rendered subordinate to a congress of delegates from the local sections. However, the difficulty of such a project is confirmed by the fact that, even though countless European institutions have grown up, no European political family has thus far managed to do any better. The parties’ so-called European congresses have continued to be little other than intergovernmental conferences of the national representatives of the various political parties — socialist, Christian democratic, liberal, green, radical, etc.
The choice, as regards their practical and personal engagement, facing those considering this political experience appears patently clear: either they can decide to accept as inevitable the umpteenth failure of an attempt to organise a movement at international level, and abandon organised federalism, or they can decide that federalism continues to be necessary in spite of the difficulties it throws up and opt to take on the challenge of trying to set it in motion again.
The Failure of the “Widening and Deepening” of Europe.
As long as the framework of European integration continued to coincide with that of a possible gradual unification of Europe — albeit a unification that, with Great Britain’s admission to the European Community, ceased to be one that might ultimately involve all its member states —, Europeanism and federalism were able to benefit from a kind of process of osmosis, on both an organisational and a political level: for a period of around twenty years (between 1970 and the early 1990s), advances in the field of integration were hailed (and claimed) as successes by Europeanists and federalists alike. But this phase is long over. For some time now, Europeanist victories (the various enlargements and treaty reforms) have been moving away from, rather than towards, the creation of a European federation. Just as it did in the years between the failure of the EDC project and the first battles for the direct election of the European Parliament, federalism today is having to face the unpalatable truth that its actions and battles have brought neither success nor immediate recognition for its militants. But there is an important difference between the situation now and the previous difficult period just mentioned: this time, we are not, as we then were, on the threshold of a new phase of gradualism in the process of European unification. Having been engaged for years in a war of position, we can now advance no further. We are in the last trench and the time has come to throw ourselves into the decisive battle to secure the federal leap forward.
In the past fifteen years, this difficult truth has been masked by two UEF-led campaigns: the campaign for European democracy and the one for the European constitution. Both had a twofold aim. Externally, they were intended to serve as levers for putting pressure on governments, politicians and different sections of public opinion to pursue political unity in the wake of the decision to create the single currency. Internally, for the different sections of the UEF, they were meant to provide a common umbrella under which to conduct national and local activities of even vastly differing kinds: in the public arena, harsh criticism and incitement of politicians; in other settings, a milder approach. Today, these campaigns can be seen to constitute a last-ditch attempt to find an opening in what has now become a merely euro-cooperative phase in the EU’s development: it was already clear that the federalist struggle gradually to transform the Community, and subsequently the Union, into a European state was a historical phase drawing to its definitive close. In the wake of the decision to create the single currency and the start of a rapprochement between the two Europes, what real meaning, on a practical level, could the deeper and wider approach possibly have, unless it were allowed to culminate rapidly in the creation of a sovereign European state?
In the second half of the 1990s, the incompatibility of the framework with the objectives of the European campaigns was a problem already being raised by some federal committees and it was also brought up at the Vienna Congress of the UEF in 1997, by the then outgoing president Francesco Rossolillo. By the end of the 1990s and the start of the 2000s, following the Amsterdam and Nice Treaties, the terms of the debate were quite clear, as is clearly shown by this extract from one of the first European letters:
“Can it really be hoped that the current Union, to say nothing of an enlarged Union, might carry off in the coming years all that it has failed to achieve to date? The answer is no. It is important to take note of the fact that politicians and public opinion in Great Britain and Scandinavia continue to be strongly opposed not only to the prospect of the federal unification of Europe, but also to any suggestion of a strengthening of the Union’s institutions, and negative attitudes are also starting to emerge in some traditionally pro-European countries. Furthermore, the countries that are candidates for EU membership, which, in spite of all the difficulties, are destined to become increasingly drawn into the Union’s decision-making mechanisms, albeit in an informal way to begin with, declare quite openly that they have no intention of renouncing their recently regained sovereignty. The fact must be recognised that a serious debate on this problem cannot even be started in the fragile framework of the current fifteen member states; indeed, even proposals for reform that in other settings would appear reticent and minimalist are rejected as unacceptable threats to national sovereignty by the governments of some of the member states. The idea that the current European Union or, even more unlikely, an enlarged Union might prove able to develop a new institutional structure that is democratic and capable of acting is nothing more than an illusion that it is high time to do away with.
Many of Europe’s politicians, while their sights may not be set clearly on the objective of federal unity, nevertheless appreciate that the salvation of the continent depends on a radical strengthening of the Union’s institutions. But as long as they continue to be proposed in the current 15-member framework — on the brink of enlarging to 20 or 25 members — the declarations they make and the proposals they advance inevitably sound fanciful and propagandistic. It is now crucial for these politicians to realise that any project whose aim is the creation of a solid political union (of whatever form) has now become impracticable in this setting. And it seems that some are beginning to realise that it is only by changing the framework that the process can start moving again, and become irreversible.
What this means is that, if the idea of political unity is to recover credibility, the process must be restarted in the context of a smaller group of countries that has sufficient solidity and strength of will to advance. (F. Rossolillo, European Letter n. 20, October 2001).
The Choice Facing Federalists: to Consolidate that which Exists or to Embark on the Difficult Task of Creating a True European Power.
The successes of European integration are measurable in the enlargement of the EU, in the clearly greater welfare of Europe as a whole, and in the existence of European institutions that, in many fields, now make laws in collaboration with national institutions. These successes have led many, including the majority of UEF and MFE members, to adopt the view that the European Union itself is already an embryonic sui generis federation that merely needs to be strengthened and transformed through a series of reforms, and to stop seeing European unification as a political objective to be pursued in itself. On a political-organisational level, it is a view that has had very clear consequences: politically, it has fostered a growing tendency to claim various rights — this is an attitude summed up by the slogan Let the European people decide, often used with scant concern for what the people are meant to deciding about and in what context — and to demand various concessions (extension of majority voting, greater joint decision-making with the European Parliament) from a power that, albeit weak, is believed already to exist, which thus implies abandonment of the objective of creating a new power. On an organisational level, when a movement’s main purpose becomes that of influencing and accompanying something that already exists, this means abandoning the revolutionary organisational model, by nature extraneous to the existing power framework, and embracing the political party- or NGO-type model, which instead has its place within the existing power framework.
This is the theoretical point on which federalists came, and continue, to be deeply divided, in Italy particularly, although the split is now apparent elsewhere, too. In fact, their differences of opinion have never been over minor questions, wool quotas or stubborn dogmatisms, as some, doing a disservice both to the truth and to the citizens, who are entitled to receive clear information on the issues actually being debated, would instead have us believe.
Abandoning the Paradigm of Federalist Action Means a Return to Utopian Federalism.
As already mentioned, two factors, namely the framework of the fight for a European federation and the discovery, thanks to Albertini, of the revolutionary nature of the federalist struggle, have characterised the development of organised federalism in the past half century, distinguishing it from the federalist aspirations, never more than idealistic designs, of the nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth century. The framework for the federalist struggle was defined by the political and social conditions of post-WWII Europe, which were conducive to the creation not of a broad federation, but of an initial federal core made up of a clearly defined and limited group of countries. Until that time, the idea of European unity had been associated with projects and proposals to unite, haphazardly, states with vastly differing interests, such as post-Napoleonic France and Czarist Russia — this was an idea advanced by the federalist current within nineteenth century pacifism — or to federate democratic states, including some European nations (France and Great Britain), with the United States of America (traces of this idea can still be found in some fringe factions of the World Federalist Movement in the USA). However, after the end of the Second World War and the division of Europe into two areas of influence, the importance of and need for unity coincided with the need to start uniting a small group of countries around France and Germany, thereby highlighting the paradigm of action indispensable to active federalism: creating a federation means founding the initial core of a European federal state.
Addressing the first congress of the UEF, held in 1947 in Montreaux, Spinelli pointed out that the Marshall Plan had created an opportunity to act and that this action, in order to have any chance of succeeding, would have to be restricted to a smaller area than that of Europe as a whole; to be more precise, smaller even than the area under American influence. When the MFE’s statutes were reformed in the 1980s, Albertini wanted to keep the reference to the federal core.
It is thus clear that European federalism broke free of utopian federalism only when a certain number of individuals worked out the paradigm of action for a federal core, a model that they then shared with others and strove to keep to the fore. But should this model be abandoned, federalism will inevitably go back to being nothing more than a current of utopian thought, alongside so many others that, to this day, live on in society.
The Gradual Loss of Control of the Key Position.
From the 1970s through to the mid-1990s, the Italian federalists undoubtedly acted as the UEF’s cultural and moral leaders. This is shown by the organisation’s campaigns for the direct election of the European Parliament (unilateral actions and demonstrations staged in Rome in 1975 and in Strasbourg in 1979), for the conferring of a constituent mandate on the European Parliament (demonstrations held in Milan in 1985, Luxembourg in 1985, The Hague in 1986, and Brussels in 1987, and the referendum held in 1989), and for the single currency (demonstrations in Strasbourg, Rome and Maastricht). However, this position of leadership was weakened by the Nice demonstration in 2001 (the umpteenth Italian mobilisation that had been hoped to have repercussions at European level), and definitively crumbled with the campaigns over the European convention and the ratification of the Constitutional Treaty. Granted (not conceded) that it was right to conduct these campaigns, to be effective, they really should have been organised around and based on the possession of real power, by the federalist sections (outside Italy), to influence national politics in their respective countries. But this power of influence was lacking and, as we have said, still is. Thus, the grave error of pursuing objectives that deliberately moved away from the logic of federalist paradigms of action and strategic intervention was compounded by that — deleterious in any battle — of sending one’s forces into danger after abandoning the key positions from which to defend one’s position. As it became clear that choosing ambiguous objectives served the anti-European and eurosceptic cause more than the European one in the various countries, the UEF’s full inadequacy was laid bare.
The Local Sections as Vital Players in the Bid to Re-launch Federalism.
The evolution of federalism as the political behaviour of a group rather than a single individual can be attributed to an actionthat, over time, has stimulated and made it possible to transmit, from generation to generation of federalist militants, a general practice, namely the working out and sharing, among many, of a rational and coherent theory, linked to a strategic and tactical approach right for the political times and for the forces available, within a potentially European framework of action. But there is no escaping the fact that this mechanism worked only as long as, and where, the political engagement was supported by proper organisation and constant endeavour in a cultural sense. This is because — and here we come to another frequently analysed fact — one cannot long stand alone, or keep forces alive, on a battleground (like the federalist one) that is characterised by lack of success, unless one is armed with strong cultural motivations and moral convictions. This is why it is important not to underestimate either the cultural part of the groundwork that has to be done, or its scientific nature — a rigorous approach is called for, and a proper method for verifying the correspondence between theory and reality. It hardly needs saying that this does not mean creating a sort of community of scholars, an umpteenth think-tank, or even a type of sect, given that such approaches are incompatible as much with the type of political action that is called for as with the experience of the past and with simple common sense. Nevertheless, all these points help to clarify why the survival of federalism (as opposed to other experiences, political and otherwise, which have instead become embodied in revolutionary successes or institutions of power) depends on the extent to which there exist groups determined to ensure that it lives on (or to make it rise from its own ashes).
On a practical level, as well as endeavouring to keep these mechanisms alive and working in the local sections in which this has already been shown to be possible, there are also other things we could do:
a) We could establish where, in Italy and in Europe, there are other federalists who share these concerns;
b) We could create, within the ambit of the MFE and UEF, opportunities for debate and for meetings between the groups and sections of federalists who have remained alive to these problems and who are beginning to perceive the crisis now afflicting federalism, not so much (and not only) in its organisational but also in its cultural dimension;
c) On a strategic level, we could get people thinking again about the importance of promoting a political line that will put the need to create a federal state firmly back where it belongs, at the heart of our action and our dealings with Europe’s politicians, in the full awareness that different approaches might be needed in the different national scenarios in which it will be necessary to operate;
d) On a cultural level, we could go on applying federalist instruments of analysis to reality and to the world around us. This means first of all, as a group, looking to promote the development of what has been, over the past half century, our main symbol and point of reference for analysis of history, of events and of the evolution of federalist thought: our political review The Federalist.
The Need to Campaign for a European Federal State.
The model of a political organisation is clearly linked to the objectives it pursues. In turn, the choice of these objectives is linked to what we do and the people we are: nomina sunt omina, especially in politics. This, extremely briefly, is what, on an organisational level and in practice, a political campaign and the instruments of its action must convey. It also explains why we need to keep the campaign for a European federal state alive and very much to the fore. For example, let us imagine a list of questions and general issues that the UEF, internally, could tackle and seek to resolve in a bid to strengthen its internal cohesion and capacity for external action. The items on the list are, of course, already familiar to us:
– Why a European federal state is necessary.
– Why political union depends on the creation of a state.
– The question of writing a constitution and creating a state.
– What a federal state is.
– What a federal constitution is.
– The necessary conditions for founding a state.
– Who and what the creation of a state depends on.
– The conditions for joining a federal state.
Analysis of these general issues should make apparent the need to organise the federalist action on all the national fronts, starting from the observation that the first task would obviously have to be that of distinguishing between that which is worth pursuing in a narrow framework and through a direct approach, with a view to unification (limited to a few countries), from that which is worth pursuing in an enlarged framework and through an indirect approach, with a view to integration (embracing most of the countries).
Use and promotion of the following, for example, could be the basis of the direct approach:
– The federal pact.
– Appeals to the founding member states.
– Declaration of the weight of responsibility borne by France and Germany.
– Appeals to countries that enjoy close relations with the founding member states.
– Calls for a constituent assembly in those countries that should decide to enter into the pact.
– The creation, at different levels, of committees for a federal state.
Meanwhile, the indirect approach could be based on the use of the following instruments:
– Campaigns to raise awareness of the need for deeper political union.
– A manifesto to promote political unity on a federal basis in the countries of the wider European Union.
– Appeals in support of a European federation, or the initial core of a European federation (which would remain open to other countries should they subsequently wish to join it), regardless of whether or not the federation or core includes a given federalist section’s own country.
The War of Manoeuvre or the War of Position.
In the mid-1980s, Albertini began drawing attention to the need for militants to get ready to engage in a “war of position”, by which he meant a type of political action increasingly influenced by the fact that the intermediate objectives pursuable through the “constitutional gradualism” approach were on the point of being reached. Aptly applied by Albertini, “war of position” was actually an expression previously coined by Gramsci to describe the difficulties a revolutionary movement must confront when it finally finds itself of the brink of the decisive battle. In view of the confusion it has generated, it is worth recalling here — these were questions discussed extensively both in the 1980s, prior to the 1987 Verona congress, and in 2001 in the run-up to the Ferrara congress — exactly what Gramsci meant by the expression: “ In politics, …the war of manoeuvre subsists so long as it is a question of winning positions which are not decisive… . But when, for one reason or another, these positions have lost their value and only the decisive positions are at stake, then one passes over to siege warfare; this is concentrated, difficult, and requires exceptional qualities of patience and inventiveness. In politics, the siege is a reciprocal one, despite all appearances, and the mere fact that the ruler has to muster all his resources demonstrates how seriously he takes his adversary.”[1]
The war of position is thus one of the avenues that can be followed in pursuit of the strategic objective. Unlikely as it may seem if we consider the current power relations, the battle that will decide Europe’s future is actually now being played out through the reciprocal siege between the federalists and some governments over the issue of the creation of a federal core.
If the possibility of creating a federal core is indeed the front on which the war of position is today being waged,[2] the incitement and propaganda associated with it must necessarily differ, in content, from the arguments advanced by those who instead want to transform the whole Union into a federation, i.e., those who count on the possibility of triggering a constituent process in the current framework. In short, if the federal core is the focus of the strategy, then it is necessary to think and act within a new framework of battle, in other words, to be able to distinguish: a) the framework that throws up all the contradictions of the process of unification (the 27-member EU, etc.) from the framework in which a European federation could be created (an initial core group of states that must include France and Germany); and b) the mutable elements of power (the Union’s institutions) from the effective ones (the national sovereignties). If, instead, the focus of the strategy is EU reform, then one remains, psychologically too, in the present framework. Therefore, choosing one strategic course over another is not just a matter of using forces differently; it also means generating different ideas and expectations with regard to the political results aspired to, the personal motivations of those involved, the type of mobilisation, and the criteria for measuring the success, or lack thereof, of an action, and so on. In this sense, the strategic course becomes indivisible from recruitment policy and the education and training of new recruits. Whereas the strategic choice has an essentially theoretical-moral basis, resting on “agents that, not part of the knowledge contained in books, cannot be reduced to figures or categories”, as Clausewitz puts it, its application has a practical-political basis, given that it “depends on the means most suitable for achieving the political objectives” (B.H. Liddell Hart). The first of these affirmations, which Clausewitz clarifies excellently, referring to the important role played by moral forces in determining the outcome of a war, is explained by the fact that the choice of one strategic course over another depends only in part on rigorous calculation of the relations of force, given that without the moral courage and will of a group of individuals to share and support a certain strategy, the essential stimulus to act and to channel energies in one direction rather than another would be lacking. The second affirmation, on the other hand, is borne out by the fact that the unity and efficacy of the strategic course, once it has been established, depends not so much on its unequivocal pursuit as on the sharing of the ultimate strategic objective by a number of individuals who are organised politically — an objective that need not necessarily be pursued through a single approach (and thus a single action).
The Direct and Indirect Approaches.
The UEF should take note of the need to re-launch a strategy for a European federal state, through two approaches: anindirect one, to be adopted in all those European countries in which, despite these countries’ membership of the EU, the conditions (historical-political, economic, social) are not yet ripe for political union; and adirectone, to be adopted in all those countries that shoulder the political and historical responsibility for launching an initiative geared at achieving the federal state objective, starting with a small group of countries. The problem of introducing a more transparent and efficient dual strategy remains to be solved, and it is based on the de facto observation — this is something now acknowledged by the governments themselves, even though they fail to draw the necessary conclusions — that today’s confederal Union will inevitably disintegrate if Europe persists in its attempt to move forward with its present twenty-seven members. Basically, this dual strategy would need to provide guidelines: a) for adirect approach to be implemented by a European network of federalist groups demanding the immediate creation of a European federal state, made up initially of Europe’s founding member states (even though this strategy would target these member states, nothing and no one could stop other groups of federalists from trying to pursue it in other countries too); and b) for the development of anindirect approach, to be adopted by a probably larger number of federalist sections and groups, targeting those governments and parliaments from which it would first be necessary to obtain assurances that they intend to preserve the acquis communautaire, are prepared to encourage the will and potential for greater integration in their countries, and, at the same time, will not seek to impede other countries’ pursuit of political unity. This, basically, is the challenge that organised federalism in Europe will have to rise to in the coming years if it is to survive: to manage and successfully marry the approach designed to ensure that the Europe of the treaties survives and where possible moves forward, among many countries, with that designed to bring about the birth of the Europe of the constituent federal pact, initially among just a few countries. It is with this objective in mind that we should be seeking to encourage debate and spirit of initiative in favour of the re-launch of the European political unification project. This means developing and nurturing, starting in the greatest possible number of the cities and regions in which we are present, a federalist action compatible not only with the objectives for whose pursuit Europe’s federalist movements were born, but also with the current power situation, in Europe and the world.
The Political Siege.
In organisational terms and also as regards the need for cultural elaboration, a political siege is an arduous undertaking. According to Clausewitz, war is an “art” that stems from and is perfected though the siege. Prior to and outside the siege situation, it is nothing more than “a sort of war”. In fact, the siege demands that curbing of the “free activity of the spirit”[3] that, possible only in a rational organisational and strategic setting, is at the root of all theorising.
Gramsci, in his definition of the political war of position, applied to the political sphere terms that are used in military theory. Gramsci maintained that a political siege situation is characterised not only by the difficulties created by the external reality, but also by those relating to the need to cultivate courage and patience in one’s own militants. This is why it is important to be able to distinguish the moment at which there is still scope for various manoeuvres, designed to bring one closer to the objective, from that in which it has become crucial to focus on the decisive point, controlling moments in which “agitation becomes immobility”, and in which action, divorced from theory, becomes “doing for doing’s sake”.[4]This view is an elaboration of the observation on the role of the vanguard made by Lenin, according to whom “Victory cannot be won with the vanguard alone. To throw the vanguard alone into the decisive battle, before the whole class, before the broad masses have taken up a position either of direct support of the vanguard, or at least of benevolent neutrality towards it… would be not merely folly but a crime.”[5]
Holding the Key Positions.
Clausewitz’s expression holding the key positions[6] equates, in political terms, with complete control of the theoretical and practical instruments essential for conducting an autonomous action.
The Dual Approach.
a) In order to arrive at an effective strategy, consideration must be given to the application of at least two approaches: one aimed directly andthe other indirectly at the objective to be achieved. The decision to use one or both of these approaches is at the root of political action, as indeed it is the basis of military action. It is not a decision that can be taken once and for all; it will not be suitable for all situations, and its practical usefulness will depend on the degree to which it is adopted by a group organised at territorial level. Paraphrasing Gramsci, the capacity of a decision to become an act, a political reality, and the basis for the organisation of a fight depends on the extent to which it is understood and shared by active or potentially active elements, and the extent to which each of these elements appreciates the contribution it can make to its realisation and implementation.
b) The choice of approach depends on the current situation (political and historical conditions) and on an analysis of the relations and positions of the forces in the field. When the battle is protracted and fought across a broad front, the strategic approach adopted inevitably tends towards the dual one. This creates a twofold risk: that of failing to recognise its true nature and that of mistaking various secondary objectives for the true, ultimate one. As highlighted by L. Hart: “Opposition to the truth is inevitable, especially if it takes the form of a new idea, but the degree of resistance can be diminished — by giving thought not only to the aim but to the method of approach. Avoid a frontal attack on a long established position; instead, seek to turn it by flank movement, so that a more penetrable side is exposed to the thrust of truth. But, in any such indirect approach, take care not to diverge from the truth, for nothing is more fatal to its real advancement than to lapse into untruth.”[7]
Franco Spoltore

* These notes are based on debates conducted during recent meetings of militants and sections of the MFE (held in Bologna on March 31st, 2007, in Pisa on September 29th, 2007and in Rome on May 31st, 2008).
[1] Antonio Gramsci, “Passato e presente”, in Quaderni del carcere, Rome, Editori Riuniti, 1979, p. 90 (English quotation:
[2] See Francesco Rossolillo’s editorial “Europe after Nice”, The Federalist, XLIII (2001), n. 1, and Luisa Trumellini’s contribution to the debate at the XX congress of the Italian section of the MFE, Tesi di dibattito sul nucleo federale, which can be downloaded from:
[3] Karl von Clausewitz, On War, Volume 1, Project Gutenberg, 1946 (
[4] Antonio Gramsci, op. cit., p. 6.
[5] Vladimir Lenin, Left-Wing Communism: an Infantile Disorder, (English quotation:
[6] Karl von Clausewitz,op. cit., p. 601 (, Chapter XXIII).
[7] B.H. Liddell Hart, Strategy, London, 1991, Meridian Books, p. xxi (English quotation:


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