political revue


Year LIX, 2017, Single Issue, Page 18



Albertini and the Theoretical Basis of Federalism*





Albertini’s fundamental contribution to federalism is his development of a rigorous definition of the concept of federalism, which is to say his theoretical foundation of the same. Although his work, in this regard, was essentially carried out in the period 1962-1963, Albertini went on to provide further insights[1] around the time he replaced Spinelli at the helm of the European Federalist Movement (Movimento Federalista Europeo, MFE).[2] Prior to Albertini’s reflections, there existed essentially two ideas of federalism. The first of these was federalism understood as a theory of the federal state, i.e. as a juridical doctrine that discards as ideological (in the sense of non-rigorous) considerations of any other kind. It has to be said that this was precisely Spinelli’s understanding of it (even though it was Spinelli, through his considerations on the crisis of the nation-state, who actually laid the foundations for Albertini’s subsequent definition of federalism).[3] The second idea was the concept of integral or global federalism, as espoused by figures ranging from Proudhon to Denis de Rougemont and Alexandre Marc,[4] one of the founders of the UEF. According to this concept, federalism is a criterion for interpreting key aspects of social, economic, moral, philosophical and even religious life. Basically, the concept argues that it is possible to find federalist aspects (meaning facts and circumstances that can be explained by federalism) in all areas of human activity.

Albertini considered both these ideas defective.

The first, which reduces federalism to a theory of the federal state, fails to take into account the fact that states always rest on a social basis, which conditions their existence; it also fails to recognise that the nature and workings of their institutions are determined by particular types of political behaviour. Accordingly, this first idea of federalism does not clarify the workings of federal institutions, and it does not allow the development of a theory of social and political reality able to serve as the basis on which to create true federal institutions that really work.

Meanwhile, the concept of integral federalism, which holds that federalism indicates ways of acting and thinking that can be applied to all spheres of life, is out of touch with reality, as it is too vast to be able to identify specific behaviours or realities. We see this in the way Proudhon is treated.[5] Proudhon, of course, has been exploited on all sides: by the left and the right, by socialists and fascists, by the democratic and the anti-democratic, and so on — and this is precisely because his thought lacks a clear link with reality. Depending on the perspective from which it is considered, Proudhon’s thought can justify the most diverse political positions.

According to Albertini, to form a rigorous idea of federalism (one that provides precise insights and makes it possible to act according to defined canons), i.e. a true theory, we need to rethink federalism in terms of human behaviour. In other words, we must identify the stable social behaviour upon which federal institutions, in order to come into being and work in a lasting way, must be based. Once we have identified a widespread and consolidated social behaviour, we must, adopting an analytical rather than a real perspective (because in real terms behaviour is viewed as a unitary phenomenon), look at its following three aspects:

its value aspect, i.e. the end towards which it is directed, which must be capable of explaining the emergence of human passions and ideals;

its structural aspect, in other words, the well-defined, i.e. institutional, form that it assumes in order to accomplish its purposes;

its social-historical aspect, by which we mean the set of social and historical conditions in which the behaviour can spread and become established (given that behaviours directed towards a purpose, and showing a clearly defined structure, emerge only in specific social and historical contexts).

Identifying these three aspects of federalist behaviour effectively places federalism, as an ideology, on a par with liberalism, democracy and socialism, in other words with the great ideologies, rooted in the Enlightenment, that have guided the development of the modern world and to which, according to Albertini, federalism is the successor.[6] It should be noted that the concept of ideology to which we refer here is not to be confused with the concept of false consciousness; rather, it coincides with the idea of active political thought whose aim is to know and change the world. And it should also be noted that democracy as we now understand it shows a convergence with the other ideologies stemming from the Enlightenment, in the sense that it cannot be separated from liberalism (which prevents dictatorship of the majority), or from social justice (which ensures the effective exercise of liberal and democratic rights).

That said, let us examine concretely the three aspects of federalism as clarified by Albertini.

1. The value aspect of federalism, according to Albertini, is peace.[7] Peace, as understood in this context, was identified and introduced into the history of culture by Kant. Let us recall its main points.[8]

First of all, Kant, adopting a realistic view of international relations (based on the doctrine of raison d'état), and thus starting from the theory that international anarchy is the structural cause of war, provided a rigorous explanation of peace as the result of a specific organisation of power: essentially, he theorised that transforming the balance of power between states into true juridical relations has the effect of overcoming international anarchy, and, through the extension of statehood on a universal scale, eventually makes war impossible.

Second, Kant provided essential clarification of the relationship between the pursuit of peace as a guiding value and the ideologies of liberalism, democracy and socialism (Kant does not actually speak of socialism, but his argument implicitly includes it).[9] This clarification can be divided into three considerations:

– peace is structurally linked to the aforementioned ideologies, since the global state that is the indispensable condition for overcoming global anarchy will (providing freedom, democracy and social justice are guaranteed) be stable and unchallenged, in other words, it will not be an authoritarian empire;

– the overcoming of international anarchy is indispensable for the full realisation of freedom, democracy and social justice, because as long as power relations persist between states, external security will remain their top priority, and this is a situation that inevitably has authoritarian implications;[10]

– progress in the democratic direction (and therefore also in the direction of liberalism and social solidarity), despite encountering, as indicated, considerable obstacles in the form of international anarchy, introduces a structural driving force for the elimination of war, which is a phenomenon whose negative consequences impact mainly on the citizens. This last point should not be interpreted as a convergence between Kant and the theory of democratic peace (part of internationalist ideology),[11] which argues that democracy is enough to bring about peace; instead, for Kant, peace demands the elimination of international anarchy.

2. The structural aspect of federalism is the federal state.[12] Albertini’s definition of the configuration of the federal state was based on Alexander Hamilton’s comments[13] on the Constitution of the United States of America drafted by the Philadelphia Convention of 1787, and on the insights of Kenneth C. Wheare,[14] contained in his analyses of the various federations that have taken shape since Philadelphia. Let us examine the key points of this definition.

In general terms, the federal state is a new form of state capable of reconciling the unity necessary to prevent the emergence of conflicts between states with the level of autonomy (of each state) necessary to safeguard their freedom. It is a state of states, and precisely for this reason is different from a confederation, which is, instead, a union of states that each retain full sovereignty.

In addition to the functional division of power (legislative, executive and judicial), the federal state also provides for the territorial division of power between different levels of government, which are, at once, independent and coordinated; this is its main characteristic. It must be said that whereas in existing federal states essentially two levels of government have been identified, that of the federal state and that of the member states, in recent times there has emerged a very strong need, especially in Europe, to recognise all local communities (from neighbourhoods to cities and regions) as autonomous levels of power. With regard to this territorial division of power within the federal state, it should be noted that (unlike what happens in unitary states) the central government retains only the minimum competences and powers necessary to guarantee the political and economic unity of the federation, whereas the other levels have full capacity for self-government on all other matters. Within its own sphere of competence, no level of government should be subordinated to the one above.

This constitutional balance is reflected in: bicameralism (the existence of a chamber of the people of the federation and a chamber of representatives of the states, which jointly exercise legislative power and control over the executive); the fiscal autonomy of each level of government, which must have the power to impose taxes to finance its services and policies; and the role of the Court of Justice. The latter protects the division of powers between the central government and local governments on the basis of a written constitution and, being founded on the existence of different levels of government, each of which is keen to protect the independence of the judiciary vis-à-vis the other levels, it is endowed with truly autonomous power that enables it to undo legislative and administrative measures not conforming to the constitution, and to have the last say on disputes over the division of powers. The federal state, characterised by the supremacy of the constitution, is thus the effective realisation of the constitutional state, in which power is subordinate to the law.

A fundamental point should be stressed here. The existence of different, independent centres of decision making within a given area overcomes the principle of indivisible sovereignty — a principle that was originally established in order to guarantee unity of decision making within the modern state and counter feudal anarchy. In view of this, some scholars of theory of state have suggested that a federation cannot be considered a true state, i.e. one able to eliminate internal anarchy. But this argument can be countered by the observation that providing there is unity of decision-making on each single issue, i.e. providing individual decisions are not subject to different laws, then the problem of internal anarchy is overcome. In the federal state, this singleness of the decision-making process vis-à-vis each issue is preserved, given that every single issue falls within the clear competence of either the central power or other levels of government. Hence, the division of sovereignty within the federal framework preserves the unity of decision-making that serves to prevent anarchy. In short, the federation implies no loss of the fundamental capacity of the modern state, and it thus constitutes a form of state.

Finally, it should be underlined that the federal state is the structure that can achieve peace understood as the overcoming of international anarchy, since the unity it can guarantee on a world scale preserves the autonomy, and thus the freedom, of the other levels of government.

3. The social-historical aspect of federalism refers to the historical situation in which peace can be achieved through the power structure that is peculiar to the federal state.[15] For Albertini, this means a situation in which mankind’s division into antagonistic classes and nations has been overcome, thereby opening the way for the development of the pluralism, expressed by the principle of unity in diversity, that characterises federal society. Indeed, in a federal system, loyalty to society as a whole coexists, in a non-hierarchical relationship, with loyalty to the smaller, local communities that comprise the system (states, regions, cities, neighbourhoods). But in the federal societies that have existed to date, this social equilibrium has been attained only partially. On the one hand, the class struggle (which can be radically overcome only through the full development of the scientific revolution and thus the structural overcoming of the proletarian condition, i.e. the dichotomy in the world of labour between managers and those who are managed)[16] has made the sense of class membership stronger than any other form of social solidarity and prevented individuals from forming strong bonds of solidarity as members of state communities. On the other hand, the struggle between states at international level (which can be eliminated only through the unification of the whole world) has led to a strengthening of the central power to the detriment of local powers, and resulted in loyalty to the former predominating over loyalty to other powers. It follows that the full establishment of federalism will come only with the creation of the world federation, and also with a level of social progress that consigns the class struggle to the past.

Viewed from this perspective, it is easy to see why the very first federation (the American one) came into being, and also to appreciate the relevance, in the wake of the two world wars, of federalism for Europe (and ultimately the world).

In the United States, two exceptional historical circumstances allowed the federal system to come into being and then survive, albeit in imperfect forms, through to around the Second World War (after which centralising tendencies began take hold, throwing the country’s federal character into question).

First of all, there was a marked attenuation of the class struggle, due to the fact that labour was consistently better paid there than in Europe; basically, in the United States, the availability of endless expanses of unexploited land constantly drew workers away from the urban centres of the East, and slowed down the formation of a large, organised, urban proletariat. Added to this, the energies of America’s boldest and most vigorous popular forces (those which in Europe found their natural outlet in proletarian agitation) were absorbed by the country’s westward expansion. This attenuation of the class struggle (which, among other things, explains why socialism never really developed politically in the United States) allowed the citizens of the single states to develop a sense of solidarity that went beyond class, in other words it fostered a strong and lasting territorial loyalty towards the single states, in addition to the loyalty felt towards the USA as a whole.

Second, in the military field, the USA’s geographically insular position meant that it did not need to develop, in order to guarantee its security, a strong military apparatus of the kind that, with all its centralist (and therefore authoritarian) implications, would have resulted in loyalty to the central power prevailing over loyalty towards lower levels of power (which is what happened in the states of continental Europe). Subsequently, however, the discovery of the most modern means of destruction, able to reach any point on the globe, led to the emergence of the strong centralising tendencies, mentioned earlier. As a result, the federal experience that has unfolded in the United States must ultimately be considered precarious and limited.[17]

As regards the relevance of federalism for Europe (and ultimately the world) following the world wars, Albertini’s theory clarifies the objective reasons underlying the drive for European integration and the resulting creation of a union that, alongside its confederal aspects, also represents a definite movement towards a complete federal system. Here, the central factor was the de facto decline of the national sovereignties, followed by the de facto unity of the European nation-states that grew from their irreversible historical crisis: in other words, the structural weakness of the European nation-states in the face of the international interdependence driven by the advancing industrial revolution. In this setting, Europe’s single states, finding that they could no longer address the fundamental problems of the modern world, whose scope had become supranational, had no choice but to cooperate in an increasingly deep and stable manner in order to survive; furthermore, the close of the era of world wars had brought their power to an end and resulted in a strong convergence (in Western Europe) of their foreign, defence and economic policies, under the protection of America’s hegemony in the framework of the bipolar world system. Basically, there was a definite reduction in recourse to power politics between the European states, and this greatly weakened the system of opposing nationalisms; these circumstances encouraged a process of supranational unification that created the conditions for the establishment of a sense of loyalty towards Europe. But, Albertini stressed, the situation will remain precarious until such time as Europe’s unity is secured by fully federal institutions. Once these are in place, there will follow the creation of a European federal society, characterised by a balance between loyalty to Europe and loyalty towards the member states of the federation; and this balance will remain solid because the federation will represent a coming together of historically consolidated nation-states (as opposed to the former British colonies that united to form the US federation).[18]

With regard to the class struggle, the process of European unification, creating an economy of continental dimensions, has resulted in marked social progress that has greatly reduced the conflict between antagonistic classes, and this has, among other things, strengthened loyalties towards regional and local communities and paved the way for the realisation of federalism within the single states.

The logic of European unification can be applied, potentially and with a long-term view, to the question of global unification, too. In this regard, the advancement of interdependence, associated with progress towards the post-industrial system and the scientific revolution, is giving rise to the phenomenon of globalisation, which, although it is bringing forth the first elements of a global society and a global economy, is making states of continental dimensions incapable of adequately addressing the fundamental problems of global dimensions (problems that, being linked to the development of weapons and technologies of mass destruction and the upsetting of ecological balances, are threatening the very conditions allowing human life on our planet). For this reason, the global unification (and thus global federation) issue is no longer a matter confined to the sphere of utopian reflection.[19] Albertini, in this regard, recalled that Kant had anticipated these developments, arguing that the growth of trade (and the resulting spread of interdependence beyond states), together with the unstoppable march towards ever more destructive weapons, constituted objective factors that would, in the long run, lead to global unification.

* This is the text of a presentation delivered at the conference entitled Il federalismo europeo e la politica del XXI secolo: l’attualità del pensiero di Mario Albertini (European federalism and 21st century politics: the relevance of the thought of Mario Albertini), held at the University of Pavia on 16 November, 2017.

[1] See, in particular, M. Albertini: Il federalismo (transcript of a lecture given in 1962 and published in M. Albertini and S. Pistone, Il federalismo, la ragion di stato e la pace, Ventotene, Istituto di Studi Federalisti “Altiero Spinelli”, 2001; Il federalismo e lo stato federale, Milan, Giuffrè, 1963; Le radici storiche e culturali del federalismo europeo, in Mario Albertini, Andrea Chiti Batelli, Giuseppe Petrilli, Storia del federalismo europeo, edited by E. Paolini and with a preface by A. Spinelli, Turin, ERI, 1973; Il federalismo (an expanded and more detailed new edition of Il federalismo e lo stato federale), Bologna, Il Mulino, 1993. I recall that the period from 2006 to 2010 saw the publication of nine volumes, edited by N. Mosconi, that gather together Albertini’s complete works: M. Albertini Tutti gli scritti, Bologna, Il Mulino. Each of these volumes runs to around a thousand pages.

[2] Cf. S. Pistone, Il passaggio della leadership del Movimento federalista europeo da Altiero Spinelli a Mario Albertini, in Europeismo e federalismo in Lombardia dal Risorgimento all’Unione Europea, edited by F. Zucca, Bologna, Il Mulino, 2007.

[3] Cf. A. Spinelli, La crisi degli stati nazionali, edited by Lucio Levi, Bologna, Il Mulino, 1991.

[4] Cf. in particular A. Marc, Europa e federalismo globale, edited by R. Cagiano de Azevedo, Florence, Il Ventilabro, 1996.

[5] Cf. M. Albertini, Proudhon, Florence, Vallecchi, 1974.

[6] Cf. F. Rossolillo, Il federalismo e le grandi ideologie, in Senso della storia e azione politica (two volumes that collect the fundamental writings of Rossolillo), Bologna, Il Mulino, 2009.

[7] The value aspect of liberalism is individual freedom, while for democracy it is political equality, and for socialism, social justice.

[8] Cf., in particular, I. Kant, La pace, la ragione e la storia, edited and with an introduction by M. Albertini, Bologna, Il Mulino, 1985.

[9] Cf. L. Trumellini, Federalism and Human Emancipation, The Federalist, 52, Single Issue (2010), p. 52 ff..

[10] Cf. R. Aron, L. Dehio, H. Hamilton, O. Hintze, L. Lothian, F. Meinecke, L. Von Ranke, L. Robbins, Politica di Potenza e imperialismo. L’analisi dell’imperialismo alla luce della dottrina della ragion di stato, edited by S. Pistone, Milan, Angeli, 1973 and S. Pistone, Ragion di Stato, relazioni internazionali, imperialismo, Turin, Celid, 1984.

[11] L. Levi, What is Internationalism?, The Federalist, 33, (1991), p. 171 ff..

[12] For the other ideologies, this aspect corresponds to the separation of powers and the declaration of rights (liberalism), the participation of all citizens in the making of laws and the control of government (democracy), and the welfare state (socialism).

[13] Cf. A. Hamilton, J. Madison, J. Jay, Il federalista, (with an essay by L. Levi, La federazione: costituzionalismo e democrazia oltre i confini nazionali), Bologna, Il Mulino, 1997.

[14] K.C. Wheare, Federal Government, London, New York, Toronto, Oxford University Press,1963.

[15] K.C. Wheare, Federal Government, 1949, trad. it. Del governo federale, Bologna, Il Mulino, 1997.

[16] Cf. L. Trumellini, Mario Albertini’s Reflections on a Critical Reworking of Historical Materialism, The Federalist, 50, n. 1 (2008), p. 13 ff. and Mario Albertini’s Reflections on Kant’s Philosophy of History and its Integration with Historical Materialism, The Federalist, 51, Single Issue, (2009), p. 12 ff..

[17] Cf. M. Albertini and F. Rossolillo, La décadence du fédéralisme aux Etats-Unis, Le Fédéraliste, 4, n. 3, (1962).

[18] Cf., in particular, M. Albertini, L’integrazione europea e altri saggi, Pavia, Edizione Il Federalista, 1965.

[19] Cf. M. Albertini, Unire l’Europa per unire il mondo, second part of M. Albertini, Nazionalismo e federalismo, edited by N. Mosconi, Bologna, Il Mulino, 1999.



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