political revue


Year LIX, 2017, Single Issue, Page 27



Albertini’s Demystification the Nation-State and of the Idea of Nation*





This talk differs in a specific and important regard from the one you have just heard, and from all the others you will hear this morning. I will not be dealing with the topic of Albertini’s valuable elaboration of federalist doctrine and its application in political practice. Instead, the issue I have been asked to examine is another one, namely, his reflections upon the nation-state,[1] meaning that form of political organisation that divides humankind into separate and mutually hostile communities, and in so doing impedes the attainment of two goals that Albertini had identified as theoretically valid, and that drove his actions: federal unification of Europe (in the near future) and unification of the entire human race under the umbrella of a global democratic federation (in the distant future). For Albertini, therefore, working to clarify the nature of the nation-state and of nationalist thought was tantamount to grappling with his own particular bête noire: a concept that, for him, held no positive value at all.

It would thus be naive to assume that Albertini approached this task without having first developed his own clear mindset. In his view, the whole variegated and confused jumble of ideas, sentiments, judgements and prejudices through which the concepts of nation and nationalism find expression shows, even on a superficial analysis, all the traits of mythical thought. And there are two ways to try and get rid of a myth: one is to set it against a counter-myth of equal or greater plausibility and effectiveness; the other is to subject it to critical scrutiny, in the light of reason. Albertini, a Weberian intellectual, could only choose the second option, which meant gathering the vast body of material produced over centuries of study and elaboration of national ideas, and setting this against the reality of known facts, so as to arrive, through painstaking conceptual decomposition and re-composition, at a satisfactory and entirely rational answer to the question: what is a nation?

Albertini’s study of the nation-state and nationalism must therefore be considered, first of all, from the perspective of his chosen approach: systematic application of the analytical method.[2] Albertini is a deep and sophisticated thinker who, in his writing, is careful to relieve the reader of the need to look for and identify the epistemological and methodological assumptions underpinning his investigation: he himself points these out at every stage in his analysis. Indeed, anyone who has read his book Lo Stato nazionale will know that, in it, adopting a remarkably systematic approach, he advances on two fronts. This is because he is well aware of the scholar’s need, all the time, not only to consider the object of his study, but also to monitor the method of study being used; essentially, this second task entails constantly checking the logical foundations and methodological “soundness” of the propositions that are progressively advanced as a result of the work being done on the first front. It is his firm belief that the immaturity of the analytical tools available to the social sciences — the weak sciences — oblige the scholar to take on this “extra” workload. And it is a responsibility that he himself never shirked, even in his most militant writings.

This working condition, peculiar to those involved in the social sciences (perhaps with the partial exception of economics), may be considered fortunate or unfortunate, depending on one’s point of view. Albertini tended to consider it unfortunate because he saw it as a reflection of the backwardness of the field of knowledge in which he had chosen to engage his talents, a backwardness that he wanted to see overcome. Whether now, sixty years on, things have improved in terms of the capacity to produce reliable knowledge is debatable. One difference, without a doubt, is that there now seems to be far less awareness of the fragility, in an epistemological and theoretical sense, of our disciplines (naturally I refer first of all to my own discipline, political science). This has resulted in scholars working in a state of substantial epistemological anarchy and in a theoretical vacuum, and seeking to compensate for this by engaging in endless debates on the “methodologies” (or, more accurately, research techniques) used. Therefore, even if it is only to re-establish and cultivate this awareness, anyone engaged in, or wishing to embark on, the study of social phenomena would do very well to read, or re-read, Albertini’s book and, in general, all his more theoretically oriented works: it is a healthy exercise, and of value in itself.

After this brief and somewhat free account of the method used by Albertini in his analysis, let us move on to its substance. His objective is clearly stated right at the start of the book: to answer satisfactorily the question “what is a nation-state?”, which therefore also entails establishing the meaning of nation, here used as the adjective that both describes and colours the noun. In Albertini’s introduction to the second (1980) edition of his book, the question is posed from the dual perspective of a collective historical experience (Italy’s experience of Fascism and the war) and an individual one (the author’s own), and thus given an existential dimension. Albertini can be counted among those who, as he himself put it, “had opened their eyes” in time, before the regime plunged the country into the disaster of war. But this early awareness of being on the wrong side of the fence, or of history, should be seen in its proper light, if we want to understand Albertini’s intellectual project, and the way it unfolds in the pages of Lo Stato nazionale. It was a question of considering the state and its supporting ideology (nationalism) in relation to their historical context. Like any other form of political organisation, the modern state came into being as a response to the pressure of certain environmental factors. But political organisations tend to remain in place even after the needs that triggered their development no longer exist, and their continued existence can sometimes slow down and impede historical development.

This diagnosis thus presents a theoretical challenge: that of understanding a situation of power, the nation-state, and the objective and subjective structures that continue to sustain it, as a prerequisite for identifying the conditions and means that can allow it to be overcome. Viewed in this perspective, commitment to the federalist project,[3] which extends from the intellectual sphere to direct political engagement, seems to provide a solution and an endpoint, and at the same time to constitute a way of redressing a past existential experience. It emerges as an expression of the rehabilitation of Italy: of the homeland understood as a place of life and of memory, and as a nation that, no longer exclusive, is free and independent together with other nations, also free and independent.

The aims of the book are therefore expressly formulated from the very first lines: to clarify what is, or appears to be, obscure, and to submit to reason-based analysis that which conventional wisdom takes to be fact without subjecting it to reflection and criticism.[4] At this point, my exposition must necessarily become more analytical. Hoping to avoid making it heavy going, I have decided to summarise Albertini’s development of his analysis, setting it out as a chain of propositions that are necessarily abstract because each one represents a theoretical step:

1) the nation is an entity whose statute is not clearly understood, because the way it is interpreted (in terms of ethnicity, language, culture, historical heritage, etc.) by the various nationalist doctrines never corresponds perfectly to the context in which it has historically been incarnated; it stems from a fact of experience: national conduct, i.e. from actions, actual or potential (attitudes), that are linked or attributed to this mysterious entity;

2) for this reason, national conduct cannot be identified and explained solely on the basis of a direction of meaning that sets it within a given framework (economic, religious, cultural and so on), since the very reference (the definition national) “warps” and absorbs that direction of meaning;

3) the extension of this reference to a multiplicity of subjects, individual and collective, has the effect of unifying a mixture of different behaviours (different not just in the sense of their being concretely adopted by different subjects, but also in that of their content, which can be economic, cultural, etc.), with the result that each one appears to be the manifestation of a single direction of action: the national one;

4) this link between the nation and behaviours that are not intrinsically national rests on the assumption that the nation as an entity exists, in other words that it has been taken into consideration as something already established, or at least as a project that aspires to be realised: in short, the idea of nation must be present;

5) for its part, this idea of nation, meaning the representation of situations (current or potential) in national terms, requires that the state of things reflected (even obscurely and imperfectly) in the national idea be identifiable: for Albertini this state of things corresponds to the unification and standardisation of behaviours fostered by the centralised bureaucratic state;

6) finally, the idea of nation, understood as a mere representation, is not enough to act as a motivating force of behaviour, unless it succeeds in turning the nation into a value (possibly even raising it to the level of a supreme value); in other words, unless it can give it the status it needs to win support and dedication, and even generate a measure of emotional attachment: insofar as it achieves this, the idea of nation becomes a true ideology.

I do not intend to examine each of these steps in detail, as it would be far too time-consuming an exercise, and above all an inexcusable abuse of my audience’s patience. I use them purely to identify the nature of the problem addressed by Albertini, which is essentially to analyse the relations between the following three elements: a) the formation of a specific power structure, that is to say the emergence of the bureaucratic state as the pre-eminent political form of the modern era; b) the affirmation of the idea of nation as a representation or even ideal that, without as such being adequately described, is nevertheless “realistic” (or at least not unrealistic) because it has aspects that correspond to reality, i.e. to the new power structure; c) the infusing of the idea of nation with value in such a way that it generates loyalty and a spirit of sacrifice among the people, both individuals and groups, operating within the “national” domain.

To highlight the relations between these three elements — state, idea of nation and national ideology — it is necessary to make two crucial theoretical transitions: from the reality of the state to its idea or image, and then from the idea to the ideology.

With regard to the first of these, the relationship between the state and its representation in national terms is one not of dependence, but of out-and-out interdependence. Certainly, the affirmation of this form of political organisation, which concentrates power, drawing those who are governed, initially as subjects but then progressively as citizens, into a unified universe and thereby undermining cultural factors such as the class-based compartmentalisation of society, obeys a logic of its own, sustained by gigantic upheavals in the field of the production and distribution of material resources, and, in the political arena, by the formation and transformation of specialised structures that are instrumental in ruling. But the interchange with the cultural sphere nevertheless remains essential, with the result that even when statehood emerges precociously, it is soon visibly reflected in the field of ideas. Thus, Albertini explains, “the idea of nation emerges as a semi-real and semi-fantastic representation of what happens, but the things that happen would not happen without such representations, and such representations would not be possible without the things that happen”.[5]

This first transition, which, in a sense, sees the sphere of current ideas adapting to the changing order of reality, reaches completion with the emergence of the idea of nation. It is a necessary step — after all, nationalism cannot arise if there is no idea of nation —, but it is not enough. Albertini is a political realist. He is not at all willing to subscribe to the argument that nationalism, understood as a reality operating in the minds and then manifesting itself in the actions of individuals, is a direct effect of the doctrinal formulations of philosophers, men of letters, writers on political issues, and so on. The nation — the idea of nation — can be created at a drawing board, but nationalism — national ideology — cannot. Albertini, in reference to Rousseau and Herder and their alleged role in bringing about national behaviours, comments: “How can formulations that are purely ideal transform the power situation in the short term?”[6]

Thus, the reality of the state, if and as long as it is mirrored purely in a representation, however transfigured and idealised, of the new configuration of power, will not be able to influence behaviours — especially at the mass level — channelling them in a national direction. This demands the second transition. In other words, for it to happen, the idea of nation needs to take root, in people’s minds, in the form of a value, and a supreme value at that: indeed, accepting something as a value brings with it a commitment to act, so that the value is realised. In short, it can perform an effective motivational function.

This is the transition where, according to Albertini, the idea of nation is transformed into an ideology. To explain this, he uses two different lines of argument. One concerns a shift of what we might call the source of propagation of the idea from intellectuals to those in power, which occurs as the latter perceive how the idea can, by providing justification or legitimisation, be placed at the service of their own power objectives. But this line of argument is not enough, because while it tells us how the idea of nation can be preached as a value by someone who controls very powerful instruments for spreading it (through education, public rituals and so on), it does not indicate the mechanism that makes it accepted by the general public. This handing of the baton from intellectuals to those in power draws the idea out of purely scholarly circles and makes it available to the community as a whole, but we still do not know why the latter is led to believe it and to act upon that belief. Hence Albertini’s introduction of the concept of ideology, which is the second line of argument he uses to provide a theoretical explanation for the transition from nation as a representation to nation as a value.

Albertini’s use of this concept is similar to that of Gustav Bergmann, in that both believed that ideology is characterised by the self-mystification that can occur when values believed in are mistaken for real facts. To clarify this, it is necessary to make some considerations regarding the appropriate use of language: there exist assertions that serve to describe the world, and others that serve to express subjective judgements that, being such, are not subject to the application of the criterion of truth. Ideology takes assertions that, in their logical sense, describe facts, but it uses them to convey contents that are actually value judgements. Hence the falsity of the assertions it makes. This understanding of the concept of ideology helps to explain the transition from nation as a representation to nation as a value: from idea to ideology, and also the effectiveness of this in motivating human action.

It is an ingenious explanation, even though its validity may be open to question. Bergmann’s interpretation of the role of ideology concerns the transition, on a linguistic-symbolic level, from value judgements to factual assertions, which is linked to the typically human tendency to assign an “objective” status to subjective convictions; Albertini, on the other hand, seeks to demonstrate the reverse: not the transition from values to facts, but rather the transition from facts to values, or more precisely from one fact (statehood represented in the idea of nation) to one value (nation as a value), and in particular to the establishment of this value in a position that would allow it to generate the highest level of loyalty: the exclusive nation.

But any weaknesses in Albertini’s arguments should not be allowed to detract from the overall significance of his endeavour: indeed, although even his positive definition of what the nation is (an exclusive ideology) does not seem, in the end, entirely convincing, his systematic work of demolishing the myth of the nation — the demystification mentioned in the title of this contribution — must be considered a complete success.

The refinement of his investigation, and above all the solidity of its results, are confirmed by the response of the scientific community, which, after all, is the ultimate test, the one that really counts in the evaluation of intellectual output. Indeed, if we consider the most important studies on the subject of nationalism that have come out since, in some cases long since, the publication of Lo Stato nazionale — I am thinking, in particular, of the works of Benedict Anderson and John Breuilly—,[7] it is impossible not to be struck by the convergence between the conclusions reached in these studies and those previously advanced by Mario Albertini. And although these authors’ failure to afford Albertini due and deserved recognition — there are no references or allusions to his works in their bibliographies — leaves rather a bitter taste, the fact that they share his conclusions does seem to constitute further confirmation of the scientific value of Albertini’s work, which can thus be placed in Popper’s third world of objective knowledge. Albertini, a modest man who had no interest in academic glory and took no excessive pride in his achievements, would nevertheless have drawn a certain satisfaction from this substantial convergence of visions.

* 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] The first edition of Lo Stato nazionale was published in Milan by Giuffrè and is dated 1960. The second edition, which is the one I have used, was published in Naples, by Guida, in 1980.

[2] This should be taken as a warning by the reader of this article. Albertini’s method is such that attempting (even from a purely descriptive perspective) to tackle his work without taking into account his analytical approach would make his conclusions incomprehensible, and also trivialise his achievements. On the other hand, an analytical exposition soon becomes difficult to follow when it is presented orally. Hence the decision to opt for what seemed to be an acceptable compromise. Bearing in mind that the topic of this contribution is well known, in its main lines at least, every effort has been made to limit, as far as possible, the reconstruction of the stages in the highly sophisticated in-depth investigation conducted by Albertini in his book. But this could not be avoided entirely. For a masterful reconstruction and comparative evaluation of Albertini’s theory of nation, see the essay by Franco Goio, Teorie della nazione, Quaderni di scienza politica, 1, n. 2 (1994), pp. 181-255, particularly pp. 209-13.

[3] Federalism constitutes the appropriate political-institutional solution to the ethical-political ideal that combines the value of democracy with that of peace. On this latter topic, developed from the Kantian perspective of perpetual peace, cf., in particular, Mario Albertini, War Culture and Peace Culture, The Federalist, 26, no. 1 (1984), pp. 9-31.

[4] This is a criticism that does not detract from the positive aspects introduced by the advent of the nation state: “nell’idea di nazione v’è un contenuto chiaro, un rapporto effettivo con una tappa essenziale della storia: la prima attribuzione dello Stato al popolo, qualcosa che può davvero essere pensato come la prima affermazione della libertà, dell’eguaglianza e della fraternità” (the idea of nation harbours a clear content, a real relationship with a historical milestone, namely the first assignment of the state to the people, something that can truly be considered the first affirmation of liberty, equality and fraternity), Lo Stato nazionale, op. cit., p. 13.

[5] Ibid., p. 147.

[6] Ibid., p. 142.

[7] Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities, London, Verso, 1983; John Breuilly, Nationalism and the State, Manchester, Manchester University Press, 1985.



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