Year XLVIII, 2006, Number 2, Page 90
The Principles of Action of the Ventotene Manifesto*
It is now widely held that the Ventotene Manifesto — written by Altiero Spinelli and Ernesto Rossi in 1941 during their internment on the island of Ventotene — is the most important Europeanist treatise of the Resistance. But this view does not adequately convey the real content of this text — and of the writings that complete it — because “Europeanist” is a very vague umbrella term that can cover a range of widely differing and even opposing things. It is better to say that the Ventotene Manifesto is a key example of the militant political literature of the Resistance period, and to tackle, on a basic level at least, the problem of this kind of literature, which, despite its clearly identifiable purpose (political militancy) and texts (which range from Machiavelli to Lenin), continues to lack an effective theoretical framework and adequate interpretation.
The main problem is that there is still no clear distinction between what is contained in this type of literature (particularly that of our own era: Lenin’s Imperialism, Supreme Phase of Capitalism is a classic example) and what is contained in descriptive accounts of contemporary history, which are written by individuals who are merely recording history, not setting out to shape its course. And in the absence of this distinction, the true nature of this political literature, whose key element may be defined as the will, or determination, to become a part of history, remains hidden. The question, then, is this: what kind of events fall within the field of vision of those who examine the times in which they live with the eyes of a mere spectator, either giving no thought at all to the future, or merely predicting it from the outside (furnishing those so-called scenarios that, currently so popular, reduce history to a mechanical process that according to the “experts” will unfold in this direction or the other), and what events fall within the field of vision of those who examine the times in which they live as active subjects, concerning themselves with the future and, indeed, viewing the present purely in terms of its bearing on the future?
Just to make quite clear the breadth and complexity of this question, we must remember that in the second case (with regard to political activism of course) what we are concerned with is the attempt to submit the future to plans based on reason. And this implies, among other things, acceptance that reason has a place in history (in other words, that history has a meaning); it also implies that one must in fact choose progress — rather than wondering in abstract terms whether it is possible or impossible —, thereby avoiding making the catastrophic mistake of applying reason to everything but the very thing that determines all things, i.e., the course of history. But what really matters, in the narrower framework of this discussion (on the distinction between the two types of events), is that from this perspective, the present and the future each assume a specific configuration.
The present — the historical situation in progress — is not regarded as a separate entity, and something to be accepted, but rather as something that must be built into the will of men, and that must therefore be considered not in isolation but together with all its possible repercussions, i.e., with all that will follow should this or that plan of action (general political line) succeed. Thus the present may be viewed, in one way, as the means to a struggle’s specific ends, and in another, as a meaningful reality, whose meaning lies precisely in the fact that it harbours the seeds of its own evolution towards a new situation that has the capacity to change, for the better, the destiny of mankind. For its part, the future does not take the form of a simple picture (of false predictions painted by so called contemporary historians, sociologists or experts), but instead that of new principles of action, together with their relative consequences. It follows, again with regard to the future, that thought takes on the form of reality (since action is the future in embryonic state); and, more precisely, of the reality that can be constructed through reason, because the new principles of action, providing they are just that, and not self-mystifications, link the present with the future according to a plan established on the basis of reason.
These remarks bring us to the very heart of the problem, that is, to the relationship that exists between the development of new principles of action and recognition of the embryonic nature of new historical processes. This relationship must be regarded as a practical, but also as a theoretical fact. And to set it in its correct theoretical framework, it is important to remember that those who concern themselves with the future try to pick out, in historical-social reality, those situations that, if adequately nurtured, could bring about a new historical situation. Second, one must remember that these situations, whose peculiar nature is that of possibilities to be exploited, can be recognised only when these possibilities are highlighted through the working out of new principles of action. Otherwise, this peculiar nature will not fall within our field of vision. It follows that political militancy is the only the method through which we can strive to recognise a precise moment in history: that of the start of new historical processes.
Only by making this distinction between historical knowledge of the past (including all that is carried through to the present) and knowledge of new historical processes just beginning (or even knowledge, as yet unattained, of the overall historical process) can one avoid the risk of misunderstanding the meaning of militant political literature. To appreciate this, one need only think of Lenin’s Imperialism, Supreme Phase of Capitalism. According to what was (until fairly recently at least) the most common interpretation, this text sets out to describe contemporary history’s essential features. But were this truly its purpose, one might justifiably declare the book wholly unsound, given that capitalism, far from collapsing, has gone through a new cycle of development. And there is more. The worst consequence of this interpretation is that it hides the true significance of Imperialism, because it makes no provision for the observation that Lenin, while wrong over the meaning of contemporary history, nevertheless brilliantly grasped one aspect of it, recognising the beginning of a new historical process in Russia and in the colonial setting of the countries belonging to the poor, underdeveloped and dependent world.
But this emerges clearly only if one seeks, in Imperialism, and in the writings that complete it, not just a simple description of the present but also, and above all, the future in its true form, that of the new principles of action (remembering, of course, that all that is genuinely new will always struggle to come to the surface from under the huge mass of the old that still seems to represent the whole of reality). It is therefore necessary to realise that following the outbreak of the First World War and Western socialism’s almost complete slide into social-chauvinism and into the internecine war that so tragically revealed the impotence of the workers’ movement, Lenin’s aim was not to paint a picture of the world as it was, but rather to make possible once again a struggle that seemed to have become impossible due to the very disappearance of its leading actor, the working class, which had succumbed with disturbing passivity to the course of events. Lenin’s texts speak quite clearly in this regard when they say that the working class cannot fulfil its global revolutionary function without fighting a ruthless battle against this betrayal, against this lack of character, against this servility in the face of opportunism, and against this unprecedented theoretical degradation of Marxism (the pamphlet was Socialism and War, written in July-August 1915 and distributed at the Zimmerwald Conference; Lenin’s remarks were aimed at Kautsky and, more generally, at the Second International). And once this is clear, as it is for example, at least in part, in the analysis by Lelio Basso to which I refer the reader, one can see how, in Lenin’s thought, the development of new principles of action in fact coincided with the beginnings of his awareness of the presence of a new historical process in embryonic form, a process that has today assumed proportions so vast as to include China, and its revival. The same considerations apply to the Ventotene Manifesto and Spinelli himself, in his discourses, makes them quite openly, admitting that he was wrong about the global nature of the situation that was to come about upon the defeat of Germany and Italy in the Second World War. Not considering the possibility (indeed the inevitability) of a reversal of American and Soviet foreign policy, from isolationism to interventionism, Spinelli and Rossi had completely failed to imagine that the USA and the USSR would assume direct political control of Europe, thereby guaranteeing in the immediate aftermath of the war a level of political stability that, in view of the political and moral collapse of the nation-states, would otherwise have been impossible. It was this evolution of events that put paid to the plan to exploit the political instability of the immediate post-war period and the extreme weakness of the nation-states in order to found the United States of Europe.
Conversely, Spinelli quite rightly claimed that he was not wrong in his formulation of two new principles of action; and in this case, the passing of time has allowed us to remark, again, that the development of these new principles of action coincided, indeed, with an early awareness of a new historical process in the making: that of European unification. The new principles worked out at Ventotene were: a) the precedence of an international objective, European unity (i.e., European federation since there is no other stable and effective form of association of states), over all other political and social objectives; and b) the need to shift the dividing line between progressive and reactionary parties from the national to the international sphere. Spinelli and Rossi remarked in the Manifesto: “If [through failure to overcome Europe’s division into sovereign nation-states] tomorrow the struggle were to remain restricted within the traditional national boundaries, it would be very difficult to avoid the old contradictions”. And on the basis of this assessment, which turned out to be correct (the nation-states did in fact find themselves caught up once more in the spider’s web of corporativism, moderated only by that degree of European unity that exists), they affirmed, quite correctly, that “the dividing line between progressive and reactionary parties no longer coincides with the formal lines of more or less democracy, or the pursuit of more or less socialism, but the division falls along a very new and substantial line: those who conceive the essential purpose and goal of struggle as being the ancient one, the conquest of national political power, and who, although involuntarily, play into the hands of reactionary forces, letting the incandescent lava of popular passions set in the old moulds, and thus allowing old absurdities to arise once again, and those who see the main purpose as the creation of a solid international State, who will direct popular forces towards this goal, and who, even if they were to win national power, would use it first and foremost as an instrument for achieving international unity.”
It is true to say that only the European Federalist Movement has applied these principles constantly and consistently. That said, it is also true that the unification of Europe — from the founding of the Community mechanism to the first stages of its democratic development — has depended, thus far, entirely on decisions reached in accordance with these principles. The explanation for this lies in that fact (ignored by public debate, but nevertheless undeniable) that at several crucial points in the life of Europe, at which the taking of decisions at purely national level would have been extremely harmful or even impossible, statesmen such as Adenauer, De Gasperi, Schuman and Spaak proved ready to listen to innovators like Monnet, Spinelli and the federalists, and to act accordingly, refusing to be taken in — as too often happens — by the false advice issued by the pseudo-experts on European matters who clog up the corridors of power. This was true in the case of all the decisions underlying the various stages in the building of Europe, not one of which, let us recall, stemmed from or was promoted by any political party or other national force. This point can also be demonstrated in reverse in that it is the parties that have slowed down, and indeed that continue (albeit unconsciously) to slow down European unification, precisely because they remain attached to the old priority of national objectives, even though this means a re-emergence of the old contradictions and makes it impossible to overcome the order imposed on Europe by the United States and the Soviet Union at the end of the Second World War.
Although repeatedly experiencing major problems of supranational proportions, the parties have not been induced to reconsider the traditional principles at the basis of their action; and this is why their conception of the future, still viewed in national terms, is so uncertain. But the situation is becoming urgent. And it does not concern Europe alone. The development of effective forms of state in large world regions (North America, the Soviet Union and China), the building of Europe, and the revival of all the Earth’s peoples are all beginning to look like evolutionary stages in a process of political unification of mankind that can culminate only in world government and universal peace. We are no longer talking about a utopian dream but about the supreme objective of political struggle, the only reasonable response to the fact that the advance of man’s technological capabilities is leading him gradually but inexorably towards the ultimate crossroads where the choice is that of nuclear and environmental catastrophe, or complete liberation of the rational element in human nature through the transformation of international relations between states into legal relations and an end to the need for human labour used as brute force or simply as a monotonous machine. It is in this light that we should consider principles of action and establish intermediate goals.
The time has now come to turn our backs on the old world. Following the liberation of classes and nations, the problem becomes that of liberating mankind as a whole and its every single member. No national objective, if pursued in isolation, can bring us closer to this goal. And no ideology or strategy of the past can allow us to choose, at each stage, the right direction in which to proceed. We must — as the wisest political leaders are now beginning to say — “democratise international relations”. This means developing the United Nations in a way that will give rise to institutions allowing the expression of the general will of the whole of mankind. It means building progressively, in Europe and everywhere, a democratic power capable of abolishing national armies within its own sphere, and of eliminating power relations between its member states without depriving them of their constitutional autonomy and effective independence. And there is only one power that fits this description: the federation understood as a set of governments [the international one and the national ones] that are “co-ordinate and independent”.
The principles enshrined in the Ventotene Manifesto hold true. Precedence must be given to the international objective, and political struggle clearly cannot be directed towards it as long as the forces are divided at national level on the basis of national objectives rather than at international level on the basis of international objectives. It is thus becoming increasingly necessary to set the dividing line between the progressive and the reactionary at international level, and to view national political struggle as just one aspect of a greater struggle. As regards European federation and world federation, practically nothing is as yet known. Just one thing is certain: the meaning of contemporary history becomes clear only to those who truly set out to change it. This means considering, first of all, its underlying principles of action, and it is a fact that those developed forty years ago on Ventotene provide a glimmer of light in this world that is no longer sure that mankind still has a future.
* This is the introduction to the reprint of The Ventotene Manifesto (Il Manifesto di Ventotene), Naples, Guida, 1982.
 Lelio Basso, “La teoria dell’imperialismo in Lenin” in Annali dell’Istituto Giangiacomo Feltrinelli, a XV, 1973.
 Kenneth C. Wheare, Federal Government, Oxford, 1946.