political revue


Year XLV, 2003, Number 2, Page 78



The Course of History*
1. The Course of History and the Concept of Common Understanding.
The course of history is a problem, and in the first place an idea, that has no clear “statute” in modern culture. But its lack of a definite cultural framework (in terms of historical theories, etc.) is contrasted by its clear position in the realm of common understanding. The “course of history” is, from this latter perspective, a widely-used concept: it is found in the language of journalists, of historians, and of the man in the street. In short, it is a concept that, despite lacking a clear foundation in the scientific, cultural and sociological spheres, is nevertheless widely employed. It must also be remarked that behind this verbal expression lies a whole series of extremely important facts and opinions relating to the laws of social development. It is perhaps worth analysing briefly, from the perspective of common understanding, the meaning both of this idea and of the reality onto which it seeks to shed light.
An irresistible force seems to characterise all great historical events (I refer not to the minor ones, but to those that define an era, and give meaning to the evolution of mankind). Whether we consider the fight of the middle classes against the aristocracy, or the struggle for democracy and the creation of national parliaments so that the power of the people might be set in opposition to that of the king, whether we cite the formation of the working class and its acquisition of self-awareness, its organisation and its fight to win economic, social and political rights, or today, the liberation of the Third World, that is to say the struggle of those countries that have been excluded from the “course of history” and exploited by colonial powers, the manifestation of an irresistible force emerges as a constant feature. The particular characteristic of this force is that it cannot be linked to any precise or identifiable will. While its manifestation is marked by the start of political struggles to impose liberalism, democracy, or socialism, it is not heralded by any decision on the part of a government, party, leader, or any other group of men. There is something of an incommensurability between the triggering of these great historical currents and the decisions of men.
The character of these historical events, that is to say their lack of dependence on any conscious human will, can be defined better if one considers their so-called precursors. Indeed, precursors can be found for all the major currents of history. The emergence of the working class and its struggle for emancipation can, for example, be said to have had its precursors. And in this search for precursors, this attempt to identify the thought and deeds of those men whose orientations are, in retrospect, truly reflected in the subsequent evolution of events, one can go back as far in time as one wishes. The proletarian struggle, for example, can be traced back to the utopian socialists, and even as far back as the Christian revolution. However far back in history one chooses to go, it is always possible to find, in the thought and deeds of men, positions that can be seen as heralding the start of a new historical period.
What never emerges, however, is a direct relationship with the events in question. These precursors are simply men who saw the need for some transformation, political, social, etc. And as long as the thought of a man, or of individual men is their sole manifestation, these orientations can never constitute the setting in motion of a historical event. This explains the fact that these great historical events have never been accompanied by the existence of anything that might conceivably be termed will. One needs to look, then, for something that belongs more to the sphere of determinism. In fact, whenever the thread of history is broken, and a collective experience draws in all those men who have the ability to recognise this fact, and to find solutions to the problem they face, no evidence of truly voluntary decisions can, initially, be found. Indeed, no central committee of any party has ever made the decision: the revolution is to start tomorrow.
Even the major revolutions, like the American Revolution, the French Revolution and the Soviet Revolution (and this also applies to Lenin, who to a considerable extent was the conscience of the Russian Revolution) exploited seeds of action that had already been spontaneously sown in society before events assumed a definite form. There is, in all these historical events — and this also extends to refusal of and opposition to them — something fatal, something not desired and not understood, no conscious action. When men try to prevent an inevitable historical transformation, it is blindness that moves them. A contemporary example of this is the South African government, which opposes the emancipation of the blacks, and seeks to preserve apartheid. There are even theologians (the Church in South Africa is known to be particularly guilty of this) who quote the Holy Scriptures in order to justify racial discrimination. Businessmen and the country’s ruling class in general — and let it not be forgotten that this is a solid country that has evolved through history — also oppose black freedom. And yet to anyone who has no direct involvement, it is clear that they have lost their senses, that they will never be able to prevent emancipation even if they spend ten or twenty years resisting it. It is clear that they have failed to understand the reality of the situation and that they are setting themselves in opposition to something that cannot but triumph. South Africa might hold out for a while, but that is all. If, in order to ensure that there is no ambiguity, one wanted to use an expression of common usage, one might say that those opposed to emancipation are swimming against the tide.
In short, we have, on the one hand, historical movements that are not, apparently, triggered by any conscious will, and on the other, those that oppose them, but that have no hope of halting the march of history, or of channelling it in another direction. These great historical events, characterised by their element of fatality, involve not only the institutionalised dimensions of society (its political, legal institutions, and so on), but also the sphere of customs and the life of ideas. In universities, too, as in all other seats, permanent and otherwise, of cultural organisation and expression, it is possible to witness the sudden onrush of unexpected change. One might, seeking a term of comparison, think of the development of modern science. In Galileo’s era, for example, the men of science were nearly all Aristotelian. They had a metaphysical conception of science — which did not permit the formation of controllable relations between observations and conceptual schemes and opposed the birth of modern science. Galileo was practically a lone voice. But in this case, too, there was some force that could not be resisted, something that had to evolve and that did indeed evolve, entirely beyond all human imagining.
We now know that the evolution of modern science has been vast, and that everyone has been caught up in it, including the religious world, fearful of and for a long time opposed to this form of thought (today we have come as far as Theillard de Chardin, whose thought will perhaps ultimately be accepted by the Church, even though he has taken a large step forward in his attempt to extend application of the results of scientific research to the fields of ontology and cosmology).
Here again, it must be acknowledged that historical experiences can develop beyond the will both of those who implement them and those who oppose them, in such a way that they almost appear to be directions that are imposed on man; and it must also be noted that instances of this kind involve countless aspects of human behaviour.
This idea of common understanding constitutes — albeit not always sufficiently clearly — the starting point for all those who have sought and who seek to identify the significance of this irresistible force that characterises historical trends. Even without espousing the historical philosophy of Hegel (or even that, less well known, of Kant), one must nevertheless admit that this irresistible force idea shows some similarities with the dialectical concept of history. In fact, these irresistible forces, which push in predetermined directions derive from the opposition, on the part of new energies, to old relations, old institutions and old privileges, forces in short that resist the crystallisation of social, legal or political relations. Events of this kind thus have a certain dialectical character, because within them historical action always implies a negation of the past, or at least of certain aspects or institutions of the past.
One could pursue this analysis much further, taking it, for example, into the sphere of language, but I believe that, through this notion of common understanding, the relevant concepts have already been made sufficiently clear. I would only like to draw attention once again to the fact that ideas that belong to the realm of common understanding are the prerogative of all those who reflect on any experience. The philosopher, the jurist, and the political theorist all try to view social realities in a theoretical dimension, so as to be able to control them and to gain a clear and precise understanding of them. The impression is therefore sometimes created that they are beyond the reach of common understanding, but this is not the case. A concept of common understanding is, in fact, a reality that men become aware of through common language, and the latter is something that belongs to everyone. Without ideas of common understanding, that are imposed on all men and that underlie all analysis, theory or knowledge, there would no longer be philosophers, jurists or political theorists. For this reason, if one wishes to examine the question of the great historical currents, and in so doing take a first step towards understanding our moment in history, so as to exploit it and to act, it is useful, and methodologically correct, to start from the concept of common understanding, as this is the basis of our relationship with reality. And the name that is given to this reality, this complex set of facts, is the “course of history”.
2. Determinism and Freedom.
At the stage we have now reached, common understanding — that is, the acquisition of an awareness of reality, but not a level of cultural sophistication great enough to allow it to be attributed a clear, coherent meaning — is no longer enough. If we try to say what, in concrete terms, the course of history is, we come up against different problems and different opinions. The first thing that can be noted is that men use this concept in a contradictory way. In fact, in spite of its widely accepted meaning, many people who regularly employ it in specific circumstances draw in general, as regards their worldview, on concepts of history and of society that actually contradict it.
The first and most important contradiction is that between determinism and freedom. If these irresistible forces do exist, if the only possibility left open to man is, indeed, the possibility to develop that which exists irrespective of his decisions, and which he must accept if he is not to remain at a complete standstill, condemning himself to a state of sterility, then it is clear that history’s decisive element — the element that determines its significance — lies outside the realm both of human conscience and even of human consciousness. An awareness of the meaning of history might, from time to time, be acquired, but only when this meaning has taken shape and not while the seed is still germinating.
For as long as this contradiction persists — on the one hand we accept determinism (because it is impossible not to accept it), but on the other we demand freedom, and autonomy of human consciousness and human will — we find ourselves losing sight of the real nature of things, stumbling into a form of abstract rationalism, and arriving at an arbitrary, and in fact very widespread, understanding of history. According to this understanding, man as an individual is free and master of his own destiny. But this free man, who makes his own choices, who plans his own destiny, who is his own project, in actual fact amounts to nothing, because history in any case follows its own direction and places him, in an entirely different perspective. Together, these free men find themselves obtaining results that appear, in relation to the choices they have made, quite casual. In truth, man is free and does plan his own existence, but this existence is bound up with that of every other man, and a result is imposed that is outside the realm of any possible consciousness, will or decision. If then, we limit ourselves to acknowledging historical determinism on the one hand, while on the other simply demanding freedom of conscience, then irrationalism is the inevitable outcome.
To overcome this contradiction, we need to try to create a vision, a theory that can be used to highlight the relations that exist between the freedom of individuals (which is a real experience, and must therefore have a basis), and the course of history, which is also a real experience that cannot be overlooked each time efforts are made to understand the evolution of human events.
3. Historical Materialism.
To move our analysis of this problem forwards a step, and to overcome the irrationalism that results if we stop at mere affirmation of the two terms of this contradiction, it is perhaps useful to try to know better, and to theorise, the nature of this irresistible force. The free “pole” of human nature is by no means obscure; on the contrary, it has a glorious history, which coincides to a great extent with the history of the Christian religion and of western philosophy. The other pole, on the other hand, that of determinism, which everyone ends up by acknowledging in some way or another, is comparatively obscure; and it is precisely this obscurity that harbours one of the causes of the irrationalism, of the sensation that history is the theatre of chance, that it is not possible to understand the world in which we live. However, while it is true that the idea of this irresistible force has not yet been satisfactorily theorised, it is my belief that the philosophy of Marx, in this regard, provides us with a valuable insight, which constitutes, perhaps, the beginning of sociology, that is to say, the start of a scientific approach to the study of social phenomena.
I believe that Marx perceived the more general character of this irresistible force of history, and that historical materialism constitutes an initial sketching out of a “course of history” theory. It is, of course, difficult to identify in historical materialism the start of a scientific analysis and, consequently, of a realistic awareness of the course of history, because Marx — as indeed is often the case in the initial stages of mankind’s great discoveries — failed to formulate his sociological discovery in a sufficiently clear and unequivocal manner. This more general character of the irresistible force of history would appear to be represented by the evolution of production, of the mode of production. It must be underlined that this idea is often confused with other ideas, whose character is not so general. This is understandable if one bears in mind that Marxism is known more through the theology of Stalin and of Lenin than through a critical reading of the writings of Marx himself. Thus exploited by a political power, Marxism has to be viewed more as a collection of forces than as a theory.
This is the first problem. But the real difficulty derives from Marx’ s actual texts. Marx presented this factor, the mode of production and its evolution, on the one hand as something that could not be distinguished from the economy in general (Marx is commonly thought of as the scholar responsible for developing the idea of the evolution of production relations as the law of historical evolution, developing it however in such a way as to make production relations and economics — often taken by Marx and by his interpreters as synonyms — coincide), and on the other, as something always interpretable in terms of a class struggle. The error that Marx committed was immediately to identify, on a theoretical level, mode of production with class conflict. It is also because of this that the idea of class confrontation took on the fixed form of a conflict between two antagonistic classes. Marx has thus been interpreted as follows: production is the law of history, production is the economy, the economy is conflict between two antagonistic classes.
But this observation should not prompt us to “throw away the baby together with the dirty water”, the dirty water being Marx’s clearly erroneous identification referred to above. Indeed, care must be taken, when throwing it away, not to discard Marx’s real discovery as well. Having isolated the valid element, that is to say the evolution of the mode of production, we can consider it separately, and see whether it really does correspond to the general framework of historical evolution. Naturally, it is not a question, here, of reconstructing the story of this evolution, merely of keeping it in mind. If we proceed in this manner, we can in fact see that it is the mode of production that determines men’s relationships with nature, and with one another, in other words the social interdependence of individuals, without them being able, in any real sense, to oppose this state of affairs. If we think for example of man’s hunting and fishing stage, the way men act in order to survive can be seen as determining the mode of their interdependence. When the first European colonists reached North America, they found men, native Indians, who, on the whole, were still in the hunting and fishing stage. Several hundreds of thousands of individuals required the whole of the north American territory just to feed themselves. Clearly, if hunting is the mode of subsistence practised, then each individual must have at his disposal sufficient land to sustain the number of animals he himself needs.
On the other hand, the degree of material evolution of production determines not only the size of the population, but also, as already pointed out, men’s relations with other men. Indeed, if hunting is your means of survival, then human organisation inevitably stops at the level of the clan, the social arrangement that characterises groups of hunters. No other relationship is admissible precisely because it is impossible to organise human groups beyond the dimensions needed to carry out the operations involved, in this case, in hunting; and this highlights with precision the correlation that exists between the interdependence of the acts necessary for survival and the degree of evolution of the mode of production.
The mode of production determines, then, both the type of interdependence among men, social roles, and the size of the groups that can be formed and live autonomously. In the case of hunting, few social roles are needed, but if Fiat or Renault, for example, constitutes your means of production, then you need a chairman and managers, as well as white- and blue-collar workers. This distribution of roles in society is fixed: no one can do anything about it, no one wanted it, and no one can oppose it. It has to be borne in mind, moreover, that the group itself constitutes a means of production. In the context of modern industry, if one wants to build automobiles, then one must have not only engineers to design the vehicles, technicians and factory workers, but also the whole political bureaucratic structure needed in order to guarantee a market; and this means that it is also necessary to make provision for (to produce) the appropriate human grouping. Together, Fiat’s tens and tens of thousands of men also constitute a means of production, as indeed do the ideas according to which it is thought that some individual has to be in command. The very idea that there have to be managers and technicians and so on, right down to the worker carrying out the most basic task necessary within the whole production apparatus, is itself, as Marx says, a means of production. It is a social product that can be likened, in the final analysis, to the technical design of a physical instrument. It, too, is a means of production, because at the current stage of historical evolution, no production would be possible if we lacked the concept of the boss, of the worker, etc. We will subsequently see how even legal principles, moral principles, and so on, must also be considered, in view of their origin and their social function, as means of production.
4. Historical Materialism and the Human Condition.
Now, therefore, we must take a look at the relations between this irreducible crux of history (the mode of production), which, as we have seen, determines human groupings, roles, etc., and the other manifestations of life (other in the sense that, at the current stage in mankind’s cultural development, they are not perceived as parts or aspects of the mode of production). We might begin by looking at a first series of interdependences. If one considers a human grouping, one can note that its characteristics are determined by the needs of production. If, for example, the mode of production is primitive farming, then the social organisation — the general means of production — will be a large family group living in a village. On the other hand, the mode of production that determines the social group constitutes, at the same time, the basis of the economy as well (in this case a sort of primitive, domestic economy), which must thus be regarded, in comparison with production relations, as a subsequent, and less general feature. It is clear, furthermore, that the mode of production also provides the basis of law, insofar as it also determines the social roles, and the social rules that correspond to those roles — rules that must be applied coercively, because without respect for the rules, and the exercising of the roles, the whole social machinery of production would seize up.
The mode of production is not only the foundation of the economy and of law, it is also the basis of the state. In fact, the state cannot be much smaller, or much larger, than production relations allow. All the transformations in the form and dimensions of the state, or pre-state (from the clan, to the city-state, the regional state, the great modem monarchies, the nation-state, and even as far as the most advanced form of state, the great continental federations) can be linked to the fact that production has developed in a way that increases continually the extent of man’s interdependence. If the mode of production is industrial, then there also has to be an outlet for industrial production, that is to say the guarantee of a market, which cannot be the national market and has now assumed, or is tending to assume, greater dimensions.
The mode of production also determines customs and habits. Obviously, if I am a lawyer I will have certain habits, and if I am a labourer I will have others. Habits and customs are bound up with social roles, and social roles are determined by production relations. Taking this observation as a starting point, one can go on to examine a second series of interdependences, which bring out even more strongly the depth of Marx’s concept of history, providing, as we have said, that this is used in a critical way, and extricated from all that which does not correspond to reality.
As we have seen, the mode of production determines the overall make-up of society. When hunting was the only option, all men were predators; today, with the existence of agricultural, industrial, commercial and service activities, each man is rendered, by the mode of production, part of a given sector. The labourer, and we refer here to a time when labourers really did form a distinct part of society, constitutes a good example. At that time, if a man was a labourer, he was necessarily a labourer: he was a labourer simply because his father had been one. The barrier was absolute: no labourer could send his son to school and have him educated to university level with a view to making an engineer of him; equally, the son of a doctor, or of a member of the middle-classes in general, would in turn become a member of the same social class (instances of individual decline apart).
It must be borne in mind that this situation is changing. The scientific mode of production, still embryonic, will turn labourers into technicians, rather in the way that the industrial mode of production turned most farmhands into factory workers. But the fact remains — and this is repeatedly underlined — that social roles are determined. Each man finds himself in the company of other men who do his same (or a similar) job; throughout his working life, every man therefore has, every day, one experience and not other experiences. His culture is thus the culture of his job, that is to say the culture of the men who do the same job as he does, who inhabit the same environment. Even his language, the words he uses (his cultural background), and thus his way of acquiring experiences — his knowledge of life and of the world is dependent upon the language he possesses and uses — are decided by his work, by the role that the mode of production has assigned him.
If society has made a man a labourer, then his labour will be the basis of his culture. As a result, his language, his worldview, his habits and so on will be perhaps not rigidly determined, but certainly greatly conditioned by this particular line of work, this type of lifestyle, this role (group of roles) that he has not chosen, but been assigned. Obviously, such conditioning does not apply solely to labourers, but to everyone, and one must ask oneself, in each case, what the relationship might be between type of work and level of evolution of thought (cultural heritage). Generally speaking, men are deeply acquainted only with what they themselves do. It thus follows that their understanding of all that which lies outside the framework of their own work — and in particular that which goes beyond the level of social conditioning and touches the sphere of freedom (the great ideas of religion, culture and science, moral principles, works of art) — cannot be any greater than their own language skills and capacity for thought (which is to say the language skills and capacity for thought generated by their direct experience, or work) allow. It follows, too, that the mode in which one assimilates experiences that are outside one’s own sphere of activity inevitably implies a process of distortion of reality caused by a divorcing of the object of thought from the effective capacity for thought. And this brings us back once more to the basis of this whole discourse, the mode of production. The evolution of the mode of production assigns men to given spheres of experience; it does not give them access to all experience.
For the sake of clarity, it is worth giving an example. If one considers the way in which the Christian religion still manifests itself in certain parts of southern Italy (left on the fringe of the Industrial Revolution), it can be remarked that the population is very Catholic and apparently very religious, but almost to the point of superstition. The miracle of Saint Gennaro is a case in point. The clergy, or much of the clergy at least, must know that the miracle of Saint Gennaro is a superstition, but they find themselves in a very difficult position. The sudden abolition of traditions that have been reduced to superstitions could trigger a crisis of religious conscience, which is in many respects a socially and historically determined conscience, not a pure expression of freedom of thought (thought that, in a collective sense, is certainly not capable of reaching the sublime level of that of a great saint or philosopher). As long as an area continues to remain industrially underdeveloped, particularly if it is an area characterised by strong traditions and social decay, poverty will prevail, as will the need to live on dreams, because real life offers nothing, as this kind of religiousness (the awaiting of the miracle of Saint Gennaro) indeed shows.
5. Politics.
At this point, it has to be said that if, on the one hand, we have the mode of production, which assigns social roles and does not yet allow all people to acquire an open, free, scientific mentality, or to elevate religion to the level of spirituality and morality, on the other there is another factor relating to human action and the course of history that Marx failed to consider. One of the things that has long caused me, personally, to hesitate before Marxism, and has for many years prevented me from using some of its concepts, is the realisation that economies are very often determined by politics. This is a commonly understood idea. For example, the autarchic economies and the corporative system that Italy has known, or the state capitalism that appeared in Russia, were not effects of a tendency that would inevitably have emerged in the economy itself; on the contrary, they resulted from the fact that the state, politics, decided to mould the economy in this particular way. It is impossible to accept the idea of the evolution of the mode of production as the most general characteristic of the course of history without first clarifying the concept of politics, and of the sphere of political autonomy.
And this is what Marx failed to do. His view was actually the opposite: according to Marx, politics is nothing other than a determined consequence of the economy (and this calls into question the ambiguous formulation of historical materialism).
Very briefly, I believe that politics can be said to be an activity in which the action of men is channelled, within certain limits, in pre-established, that is forced, directions. When one wants to pursue a political objective, such as the European federation, before one can present it as an accomplishment that will be useful to all men, one must first be quite clear exactly what the European federation is. In fact, men can accept it as a political objective only if they know what it is, and how it will benefit them in the political, social field, and so on. This established, were politics not a channelled activity, with its particular determinations, we could, for example, already go ahead and found the European federation. Today, almost 80 per cent of the population of the Six is in favour of effective European unity, and yet this unity is not being created, or at least is not being created yet.
Politics can thus be seen, first of all, from this perspective: it is not enough to agree upon an objective, it is also necessary to find the way of gaining the power needed to decide its realisation. In the example we have given above, the situation is the following: if we want to build the European federation, then we must have, first of all, a theory of the federation and of its advantages; second, we must discover how to win the power necessary to decide the foundation of the European federation. Every political objective, prior to its realisation, has to go through this process of discovering the nature of the power needed for its accomplishment; and analysis of this power raises problems quite different from those raised by analysis of the objective: it raises problems that are associated specifically with politics.
We need to consider power. Power is a determinate thing: the power to do this, or the other. If there is something I want to do, I must first of all identify the institutionalised power that has the capacity to decide the realisation of this particular thing; I must thus follow certain directions that are imposed by the nature of power. But power does not determine only the conduct of men; it also determines results. If we want to found the European federation, we do not have to win power at national level; by winning power in Italy, for example, we will not have won the power to decide the founding of the European federation. We would need, at least, to have the power in France, Germany, Belgium, etc. all together.
Power is thus a forced channelling of behaviours, and as such the factor that determines political life. At the root of this political determination lies the fact that politics is a double-faceted activity: in politics, the power to do something and effectively doing something split and give rise to two different activities. If you want to wage a war, or implement an economic plan, then you must, first of all, secure a majority or a dictatorship, the power, in other words, to decide to wage this war or to apply this economic plan; during the actual waging of the war, or development of the economic plan, it is the military, the economists and the administrators who will actually act. In short, if you want to attain a social objective that can be realised through politics, then there are two problems that have to be faced: the first is effectively understanding the objective, and the second is effectively understanding how to win the power needed to decide its realisation.
This brief outline serves as an introduction to the concept of raison d’état. As we have seen, political ends bring to the fore a (relative) autonomy of power (which manifests itself in the political activities of the citizens — for example in their role as electors who vote — and in politics, understood as the profession of the political class). This is why it is the way in which a state’s power is acquired, maintained and strengthened that constitutes its law, the process by which the state is endowed with its political characteristics. And what applies to the power of the state applies to all powers. Thus, we can generalise the concept of raison d’état and talk of the “reason of power.” Wherever there exists an institutionalised power, there also exists a law by which power is won, maintained and strengthened. In the case of a state, this law is the raison d’état, in that of a political party, it becomes the “reason of party” and in the case of different, lesser power situations, it will be the law (or “reason”) of this or the other given form of power.
At this point, we can try to introduce some order into our reasoning. First of all, we considered the mode of production (forces, relations, instruments, and so on) and now we have looked at the raison d’état, or of power. If, as we have done here, we distinguish between the mode of production (a historical whole in evolution) and the economy (just one aspect of production relations), then we can affirm the existence of a relationship of the following kind: politics in general holds sway over the economy, but politics, as a circumscribed sphere of possibility, is determined by the mode of production. Politics may oppose, temporarily, the direction followed by the evolution of the forces of production, but in the long term, given that the mode of production determines the type of human grouping, the composition of social roles, the development of ideas, etc., this attempt to resist the course of history cannot succeed. The fact nevertheless remains that politics can, within certain limits, determine the economy. As we have said, the economy is just one aspect of the mode of production. The mode of production far outweighs the economy (the law of the market, of supply and demand, planning, etc.) because it involves all the means (practical, technical, scientific, legal, ideological, etc.) needed in order to produce and reproduce social life. This concept of production is much broader than that of economic science.
6. Ideology.
At this point, the following consideration needs to be made: if we want knowledge of the course of history (i.e., the knowledge that is possible at the current stage in mankind’s cultural development), then we must have recourse, in one respect, to the idea of the mode of production (“social reason”) and, in another, to the idea of raison d’état (“political reason”). The problem we come up against is that of the awareness men have of the course of history, and it is thus very important to know how, within man’s inner self, ideas are related to the course of history. In this regard, our earlier remarks, recalling the thought of Marx, might be useful: social roles (the role of the master, that of the slave, and all other roles) are determined by the mode of production. But it is also useful to recall that Aristotle, in reference to this social division, said that slavery is natural. This proposition does not derive from a theoretical understanding of the question; in theory there is no such thing as natural slavery. But in spite of this, Aristotle was able to affirm that certain men were naturally slaves because he accepted other men’s representation of the social situation in which they found themselves: a situation that obliged certain men to be masters and certain men to be slaves.
This is, clearly, a false representation — if we consider Man in the universal sense, we find neither the master, nor the slave. But the fact is that society, by determining men’s social roles, also determines the ideas that justify social roles. If a man is a master, he must have a worldview that justifies this privilege; in the same way, if a man is a slave, he must inevitably remain a prisoner of a conception of reality that justifies slavery. Were it otherwise, both would go mad. The social role generates the worldview, or at least certain aspects of the worldview. Thus, in our example, it might be said that the mode of production of the city-states of classical antiquity imposed this profound social division and split men into two categories, of which one, the category of free men, could exist only thanks to the fact that there also existed a very large number of slaves.
Christianity, with its idea that all men are made in God’s likeness, opposed this worldview. These two ideas, one rooted in liberty, and the other stemming from the conditioning to which man, as a social being, was submitted, co-existed right up until the evolution of the mode of production began to eliminate slavery. It was only from this time on that the idea of liberty and equality among men managed to establish itself also on the social level of widespread thought. Marx termed this type of mental representation, which is not an understanding of the facts as they stand, but a distortion of the facts that justifies the social roles, ideology. It is, in short, a type of consciousness, or false consciousness: ideological consciousness. All this comes down to a mode of mental functioning. The specific character of the representation that is formed in this context — a context of pressure exerted by social roles on the psychological state of individuals — is the transformation into universal of the merely historical and accidental. What ensues is a splitting in two of consciousness (taken singly, one by one, events are seen as they are, but taken as a whole they become something that does not exist: slavery becomes natural, while the slave, each individual slave, remains a miserable, defeated creature). What also ensues is self-mystification, a sort of unconscious self-deception, a psychological state that renders difficult (if not impossible) the normal practice of re-examining what one thinks and of discovering one’s error.
Another source of ideological thought, which Marx failed to see as a result of his view of politics as a simple consequence of the economy, is power. As we have said, power gathers men together in organisations of power: the state, the parties, etc. In each distribution of power, there are those who command and those who are commanded, as well, therefore, as all the representations of power that can be employed in the attempt to conserve power. If I command, I must justify, on the basis of the wellbeing of others, my power to command. I certainly cannot justify it before the people, or ultimately before myself, on the sole basis of my personal wellbeing. As a result the idea must inevitably grow within me that it is right that I should have power. Power is thus justified and guaranteed by a distortion of reality.
No power can be guaranteed without a representation that identifies power with justice, with the sense of history, etc. This applies not only to those who command, but also to those who are commanded. Every effective form of obedience requires a representation that justifies it. Perhaps an example will clarify these ideas. Times of war are, by definition, associated with the terrible power to have people killed, and to have people risk their own lives, but for this power really to manifest itself within all men, a representation is needed that justifies this terrible power to have people killed and to have people risk their own lives. There needs, then, to be the idea that the group to which one belongs, and its leader, are — even in the face of the Christian religion, which teaches that all men are made in God’s likeness — infinitely more real and more valuable than Man as such — than each individual man. Indeed, one can ask a man to kill only if those who give the orders, and those who carry them out, believe that the nation (to limit ourselves to recent history) is more important an entity than the individuals of which it is comprised. If they did not, the power to send men to war would not manifest itself.
We have thus outlined, albeit briefly, the theory that the consciousness of men contains not only representations deriving, ultimately, from the spirit of science (which sets out to present reality as it is), but also ideas that derive from social roles and positions of power. These ideas do not have a theoretical function, but a practical one: that of justifying, and thus supporting, etc., these social roles and positions of power. We are indebted to Marx, once again, for this conceptual clarification, which is necessary in order to understand historical events, or rather to discover — going beyond the way in which men have, in the course of history, represented role and power conflicts — the real truth of events and of their unfolding. This is the reason why the course of history can — not only through its effective trend, but also through the idea which men form of it — lead us back once again to the material basis of production and to the power situation. This common interpretation of historical materialism and of the raison d’état, necessarily brief, certainly does not allow us to arrive at a scientific idea of the course of history. I do believe, however, that it allows us to glimpse the first rational schemes of a sociological — to use one of the many meanings of the term — nature, schemes through which the possibility is starting to emerge of our being able to control our knowledge of the course of history, and thus of being able to exploit it in order to base our political action on a more solid foundation.
I wish to end this section with two observations that limit the sense of the course of history concept and serve as a further clarification of the field of experience to which it can be applied. First of all, I think that this concept (using it more specifically as a means of historical investigation) can be used to describe the “how”, but not the “why” of history. Second, I feel that it is applicable to large numbers (society, men as bound by social ties), but not to small numbers, or to individuals as such. The “why” of history belongs to another sphere. In the final instance, it has to do with freedom. And when freedom is drawn into the argument as a historical factor, one immediately thinks of religion, of metaphysics, of science, of the mysterious world of autonomous knowledge and will, which cannot be known through scientific laws, precisely because it is free. But what must not be forgotten is the fact that the way in which freedom (innovation) is transformed into a social reality, and produces institutions, rules, and so on, can be known in an empirical (increasingly scientific) manner, and that a scientific theory of the social process can be based only on an adequate concept of the course of history.
7. The Present Stage in the Course of History.
Through criteria of historical materialism, raison d’état and ideology, the idea of the course of history as the manifestation of an irresistible force passes from an obscure state, as a contradictory idea, to the state of an idea whose outline is — despite the fact that it has not yet been deliberately theorised, nor is yet sufficiently clear — nevertheless beginning to emerge. We can thus try to employ it in order to examine the stage now reached by the course of history, endeavouring, in order not to remain trapped by the mystifications of modern reality, to look beyond ideology.
Clearly, if we are to avoid mistaking for independent some variable that is actually dependent, we must first consider, ahead of everything else, the whole picture. It is, then, precisely the method of historical materialism to which we must turn, since it allows us to identify, in each situation examined, the underlying facts of a more general nature. On this basis, and considering the course of history in terms of the evolution of production relations, we might remark that it is above all in Europe that it has expressed itself in its most advanced form; and that the salient feature of the point reached by the historical process in Europe (and virtually everywhere else) is the vast extension, crossing the boundaries between states, of the interdependence of human action in the field of material production, and thus also in social, political, economic and cultural life.
We could stop at this simple assertion, merely pointing out, in order to make its meaning quite clear, that to refer to production relations is also to refer to the state, and that it is within the context defined by the term state that it is possible to perceive the historically vital combination of the forces of the mode of production with those of the raison d’état. But perhaps, in this sense, it is worth taking a look at Europe’s recent history. We can begin by remarking how, in many fundamental sectors of today’s economy, great concentrations of production are needed; and the fact that this tendency emerged at the start of the century above all in North America. The reason for this, i.e., the huge increase in quantities produced per hour of labour, rendered possible by the development of technology and by the organisation of labour that accompanied it, is well known. Unlike the past, it had become necessary, in order to produce profitably, to create huge manufacturing complexes. And these vast production units, like the increasing quantities they produced, needed to have large markets at their disposal.
At the start of the century, the course of history brought the United States of America and the more advanced states of western Europe face to face with the following alternatives: to create a large continental-size economy, or to regress. A single example is all that is need to illustrate what happened: in 1919, Ford was able to decide that he was going to produce and sell around a million automobiles a year. It was as though the whip had been cracked: indeed, around this formidable pole of economic growth (automobile manufacturing), countless other production transformations came about in other sectors, all characterised by the introduction of the assembly line, or at least by a more efficient division and organisation of labour. In Italy, in the same period, Fiat (and these considerations also apply to the other western European states) could produce only around thirteen thousand automobiles. It certainly cannot be said that Agnelli was less intelligent than Ford, or that Italian technicians and workers were less intelligent than their counterparts in America (in actual fact, in this regard, North America, with its huge mass of immigrants from the less developed areas of Europe, was at a disadvantage rather than an advantage).
The reason why Ford succeeded where Agnelli failed is quite simple. Ford was operating in North America, in other words in a setting in which the federal institutions had made it possible to unify a continent and create a large domestic market. He was thus able to plan the production of a million cars a year, whereas Agnelli, in the narrow Italian market, could not set his sights on producing any more than several thousand. In Italy, the historical challenge could not be taken up. It was the political institutions (that is, the nation-states characterised by their small markets and by their precariousness and lack of openness to international trade) that resisted, in Italy and in Europe, the course of history; and this fact explains not only developments on the economic front, but also, at least to an extent, the diabolical events that, through Fascism and Nazism, subsequently manifested themselves in Europe. Only a terrible concentration of power could oppose the march of history, which was pushing Europeans in the direction of unity. Both the start of the process of Europe’s political unification, with Briand and Stresemann, and the failure of this first attempt can be placed in this context. Reference to these events of our century might serve to clarify the meaning of the idea that I set out earlier: that of the extension, crossing state boundaries, of the interdependence of human action in the field of material production, and thus also in political, cultural life, etc.
It is clear that this extension will become even stronger with the mode of production that is already in gestation, i.e., the scientific-technical (post-industrial) mode of production.
8. The Crisis of Traditional Ideologies.
From this perspective, we can try to arrive at an initial evaluation of the great political-social theories of yesterday (liberalism, democracy and socialism, including communism), and to set out the problem of the theory needed in order to understand what is happening today. If we compare, in the light of what has been said, the history of yesterday with that of today, the difference can be seen to lie in the fact that in the stages prior to the industrial revolution, the growth of the interdependence of human action manifested itself more in depth, within the individual states (whose dimensions, if measured on the basis of the degree of evolution of communications and of production, were already enormous) than in breadth (i.e., in extension to the world market).
This is a recurring feature in the entire history of the industrialisation of the nation-states, be it the industrialisation of Great Britain, France, Germany or Italy, etc. In this framework, the course of history, through the liberal, democratic and then the socialist struggle, intensified and then overcame the division into classes of the more developed societies. It went like this: to begin with, industrial production established, as two antagonistic elements, who was the master, or boss, and who the worker; subsequently, however, the very evolution of this mode of production gave the proletariat the economic, social and political arms it needed for its emancipation. The proletariat initially developed its capacity for self-organisation and struggle on a social (trade union) level, and later on a political level (through the socialist and Marxist parties). This process advanced at the same rate as the growth in production levels and in the dimensions of production units. Whereas once a boss could create an efficient production unit with just a handful of workers, now the number of workers per enterprise was starting to grow, as was the number of enterprises per unit of territory, resulting in a gathering and concentration of workers. This was the point at which the latter gained an awareness of their situation, of their strength, and could start to organise themselves. Marx’s great discovery was precisely this: the idea of organising something — the proletariat — that already existed. It was a question of giving this force a consciousness.
Having said that, it is necessary to examine the class struggle from a very specific perspective: that of concrete ways of life, of the human condition, of man’s existential state. On this level, the Industrial Revolution made the differences between the classes more serious. Precisely because it brought men together in the same workplace, it threw very sharply into relief the abyssal lifestyle differences that separated them: although bosses on the one hand, and workers on the other, found themselves side by side in factories, they were radically different from one another. A growing awareness of this difference generated in the workers the idea of the need to fight for their emancipation and kept them fixed in this viewpoint. This, in turn, led to their power, on a political and trade union level, increasing until a point was reached at which society might be considered to be no longer divided into antagonistic classes. It is true that in the eyes of most people, this going beyond the division of society into classes has never, in truth, come about. But what is in question is the term “class”. Here, the term is used, as in Marx’s time, to indicate a radical difference in living conditions. If, on the contrary, the term is used to indicate differences in role, and the fact that these differences continue to generate morally unacceptable inequalities, then these inequalities clearly cannot be said to have been overcome. But if we think of what class meant in the last century (and in Italy at the start of this one), that is, an abyssal difference between two strata of the population, one enjoying the full range of possibilities, material and spiritual, that life offers, and the other having only that of surviving physically in precarious conditions, with virtually no schooling, cultural opportunity, etc., then we have to conclude that all this is part of the past, and that the class struggle is dying out and evolving — with all the difficulties that derive from the fact that the present is still viewed through the theories of the past — into a new struggle. Now, the struggle is for the abolition of privileges of role and for the full freedom not only of the classes, but also that of the individual (and these two freedoms do not coincide: emancipation of the classes has not resolved the problem of the self-government of the people or that of political participation).
Having clarified these points, we can now tackle the problem of the crisis of the ideologies. It is best to start with nationalism, which brings in not only the ideologies of the parties, but also the ideology of the state, i.e., the idea of nation. In this regard, it is worth recalling that prior to the unification and integration of the classes (in particular of the middle classes) the states of Europe existed as aristocratic, dynastic, monarchical powers, not as nations. Men — Europeans — were classed as subjects of the king of France, or of Spain, for example, but not in such a way as to suggest that the division into states depended on radical differences in their very nature. There is no doubt that, in France, or in Spain, etc., a good subject considered himself first and foremost a Christian, second a man of his particular land (meaning region or city), and only after this, a Frenchman or a Spaniard, that is to say, a subject. Subsequently, with the evolution of the forces of production, the middle class struggle with the aristocracy, and then that of the proletariat with the middle classes, there also evolved an increasingly close integration of all the classes (and thus of all individuals) within the framework of the old states, or of those built according to the same model (integration in depth, which reached its peak in Europe with the nationalisation of socialism and the end of the II International). It was only from then on (because of the need to explain and justify these compact, exclusive and apparently insuperable state units) that the idea of seeing oneself, for blood reasons, as French, Italian, German, etc. first began to emerge. Basically, if one probes deeply the idea of nation, one will always come face to face with the idea of race. Now, in these post-war times, to avoid using this word that, with the events of Europe’s recent past, has taken on such hateful connotations, there is a tendency to use weaker words, such as “stock” for example, a softer word for race. But however we put it, the idea of nation is always based on the idea of a blood tie, or of a sort of natural kinship, or of some other thing, some mythical image that is used in an attempt to explain and justify something very real: the state (nation-state) as a highly integrated, very closed, and exclusive group.
Clearly, it is false to think that today’s nations are built on some blood tie. If, for example, we think of France in 1820, we are led to consider the French nation as a single entity. Everyone thinks the French nation is eternal, and there are French historians who have identified its origins in geography, in the “mystical Hexagon”. Nevertheless, in 1820, Augustin Thierry and other French historians still thought, on the basis of previous theories, that there existed two different nations on French territory: the Franks and the Gauls (Thierry: “we are two nations on the same territory”), and that the French Revolution was the revenge of the vanquished people (Guizot: “For 13 centuries, France has contained two peoples, a victorious people and a vanquished people”). This way of thinking, not surprising to the French in the period of the Restoration, has, albeit in different forms, resurfaced in our century. Today, with the nation-state in crisis, it emerges that behind France’s apparent homogeneity, there are in fact Bretons, Basques, Occitans, etc. and it must be readily admitted that these peoples have a language, and thus a nationality, that is different from their French one. This phenomenon can be witnessed all over Europe. Italy is characterised by a regionalist tendency, and by regional demands even of a nationalistic nature. West Germany has a federal state in which the autonomy enjoyed by the Länders mirrors effectively the pluralism of customs there: Bavarians and Berliners, for example, do not share the same customs, nor therefore, at least in some respects, the same nationality. These observations confirm what we have already pointed out. France, Italy, and the others, are not “nations” in the sense of national groups, coinciding for natural reasons with an exclusive (single-nation) state. The fusion of nation with state is not in any way a landing place of history. It is only the conception (ideological) of the European states that grew up when their dimensions were found to coincide with those of power and of economic development. This way of thinking is now in crisis, because this coincidence no longer exists. Power now has continental dimensions, and economic development dimensions that reflect, independently, all the different levels: regional, national, continental, global. The nation-state has thus lost its raison d’être. Only in this framework, and on the basis of the extension of the interdependence of human action across state boundaries, is national feeling destined to regain its freedom, its old regional and local expressions, its cultural value; only in this framework will it be possible once more to conceive of mankind both in his unity and in his different parts, none of which must have be exclusive or advantaged in relation to the others.
But it is not only the concept of nation as the ideology of the state that is in crisis. So, too, is the concept of ideology, and the traditional ideologies (liberalism, democracy, socialism). To tackle this complex problem, it is worth going back to the course of history idea. This idea helps in a way that is essential to knowledge and to action, because it allows us to view the great principles of historical action (the ideologies) in relation to whatever element of necessity is contained within the evolution of history. It is true that to oppose the course of history means not to advance, to remain immobile, to run the risk of creating uncontrollable, catastrophic vortices. And it is also a fact (reflected in the crisis of the ideologies) that the entire political front (liberalism, democracy, socialism, nationalism) is currently at a standstill, precisely because it is seeking in vain to swim against the tide of history, a reality that becomes immediately evident when one thinks that the objective of this front is the renewal of the nation-state, that is the (impossible) renewal of the form of state that ought instead to be destroyed in order to liberate the international, regional and individual forces that it is currently trapping or suffocating.
From the perspective of the course of history (with its social reason and its political reason) the great milestones that have marked out the course of mankind are clear to see. Clearly distinguishable, too, is the era in which the nations and the antagonistic classes were formed; the triggering of the class struggles, that of the middle classes against the aristocracy and that of the proletariat against the middle classes; and finally, in the wake of these historical turning points, the latest turning point, that of the extension of human interdependence across national boundaries. Each of these turning points has been characterised by the affirmation of a value and of a new ideology. Let us take as an example liberalism, which allows us to clarify this point well. In question is the middle classes’ battle against absolutism. It was a battle waged in the name of liberalism, which must thus be understood, first of all, as the ideology that reflects that particular stage of history.
In short, we might say the following. In one respect, liberalism, in seeking to affirm the value of political and economic freedom, has managed to render absolute the terms of the struggle against absolutism (also rendering capitalism, in the sense of laissez-faire, absolute); in another respect, it has understood, albeit from this perspective, the real terms of the struggle taking place (that is, of the historical turning point); in yet another respect, it has discovered, through almost scientific means, some of the structural aspects of the more developed societies. The conceptual schemes used to describe these structures are: the rule of law, the function of the opposition, the government that is formed by the electors and, thanks to parliament, subject to the scrutiny of the electors, the market theory, etc. They are concepts that, with the passage of time, have not lost their validity. Applicable, too, to democracy and socialism, they have a virtually scientific nature and constitute an important part of the wealth of knowledge that is available to all those who want to understand historical, political and social reality.
The same criterion of analysis can, then, be applied also to democracy, socialism, and to the consequent transformations of the state and of society. But what must be borne in mind here is that the great turning points in history are reflected in human consciousness through an ideology, that is through a view of action (values, facts, structures) that, in one way, identifies the new aspects of history and promotes them, and in another tends to render absolute, universal and eternal the historical phase that it is interpreting. This makes it impossible, from the outset, to recognise the point at which a historical transformation is complete, and at which new divisions emerge to take the place of those created by struggles that are now at an end. We have currently reached one such point in time; and, as regards democracy and socialism, this is the current situation.
While democracy and socialism — like liberalism — reflect certain structural aspects of society, they no longer reflect the divisions that manifest themselves when, at history’s great turning points, it is the past and the future that are at stake. A close look at the facts is enough to remove all doubt in this regard. Indeed, to separate the working class from the rest of society (which is what happened when it was a question of breaking the middle classes’ monopoly on political and economic power) would now have no more point than mobilising the higher bourgeoisie (as in the case of liberalism), or the petty bourgeoisie (as in the case of democracy). Traditional ideologies are useful when it comes to securing votes and positions of power, but not when it is a question of tracing the dividing line between the past that is hanging over into the present, and the future. The old reactionary citadels that made freedom of the classes impossible have long since fallen.
The crisis of political action is due precisely to the fact that most men — including those involved in the media — still view the current phase in the course of history in terms of liberalism, democracy and socialism, in other words using the theories that served to interpret the phases that are now behind us. Clearly, it is only through liberal, democratic and socialist culture that the liberal, democratic and socialist aspects of our societies can be understood. But it is important that understanding the structural aspects of society is not confused with the march of history, because it is the latter that lies beneath the problems that must now be solved. And it is with a view to these problems, to the world’s new problems, that we should now be organising our forces.

* The manuscript of this text was found in Mario Albertini s personal archive. It is a re-working never published, of a meeting led by the author during a federalist training course, held in Pavia in 1964, the typewritten transcript of which was circulated among militant federalists. The questions dealt with were subsequently probed more deeply in the context of University lessons, but as a result of his many commitments as a director of the European Federalist Movement and of the European Union of Federalists, Mario Albertini was never able to develop the issues in writing.
Despite the form of this text, highly succinct, and in parts schematic, we feel that it will be of considerable interest to anyone considering the question of how to define the cardinal criteria that might allow history to be interpreted in a way that will enable us to rise to the challenges of our times.



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