political revue


Year XXXI, 1989, Number 1, Page 69



In 1918, towards the end of World War l, Giovanni Agnelli, founder the of the automobile company FIAT, and Attilio Cabiati, economist and teacher at the Royal High School of Commerce in Genoa, decided to make public the considerations they had been discussing among themselves for some time, concerning the horrors of war and the European Federation: the only solution which could guarantee security for future generations. Thus a book entitled Federazione Europea o Società delle Nazioni? (European Federation or League of Nations?) was published, in which the two authors, besides analyzing the concepts of nationality and nationalism, also criticize the League of Nations. Their arguments, similar to those expressed by Luigi Einaudi that same year, were a turning-point in the idea of European unification. For the first time crucial aspects of the problems connected with European unification were singled out and clarified with theoretical accuracy and the idea of a European federation as the only suitable solution to the basic problems which had caused the First World War was convincingly underlined.
The fact that these clarifications appeared within the context of a critique of the League of Nations, at that time still at the stage of a project is not accidental. Actually, the emergence of such a project was clearly a sign that the First World War, with its unheard level of destructiveness, had concretely shown the danger that the European civilization itself might disappear, had forced the political classes of the great powers to face the problem (on which the very survival of European state system depended) of making any future war impossible and, therefore, changing the structure of international relations. On the other hand, the projected new international organization represented a wholly insufficient and inappropriate answer to such a problem (as historical experience has amply shown), because it did not eliminate the real causes of war. The very need to confront a concrete and clearly defined political proposal allowed these authors not only to lucidly point out its structural inadequacies, but also to demonstrate in a non-abstract way that the European federation represented a suitable solution to the problems posed by the First World War.
Hence the usefulness of reappraising Agnelli’s and Cabiati’s criticism of the League of Nations, which, apart from revealing how it is not only of historiographical interest, also clarifies some aspects of the current problems of European integration and the debate on UN reform. Three points in particular are worth mentioning. The first two are already present in the works of Einaudi, to whom the two authors explicitly refer, and they are the conceptual explanation of the opposition between interstate collaboration and unification, and the indication of the federal solution as an answer to increasing interdependence on a continental and worldwide scale. The third, on which the two authors express the most original ideas, more specifically concerns the critique of the League of Nations.
Agnelli and Cabiati maintain, with wide-reaching and articulated arguments, that this international organization will not prevent new wars, but on the contrary will favour their outbreak. Going deeply into Einaudi’s critique, which identifies the absence of any real limit to sovereignty as a structural defect of the project, the two authors criticize the idea of a supreme court, which is of crucial importance in the project. Historical experience, in fact, shows that an arbitration court is unable to get its decisions accepted by states which retain their formal sovereignty and the capacity to enforce it with arms, in all those cases in which these states consider that their vital interests have been damaged. Any attempt to impose the court’s decisions would in fact require military intervention or the enforcement of economic sanctions. In the first case a renewal of the rush for armaments would be inevitable and it would fatally result in another war. In the second case the rebel power might get round sanctions, either by preparing in advance for such a possibility or making agreements with other states to counterbalance the economic bloc. On the other hand, the idea of being able to guarantee peace by disarming is untenable, since adequate means of controlling the military organization of states are missing.
Another fundamental criticism examined by the two authors is the one which underlines how an international organization, implying the transfer of important state powers to interstate organisms which escape any democratic control by the citizens of the member states, can only favour the economic and social forces that most benefit from a weakening of democratic controls over the action of the state. The validity of concept can be generalised and extended, in its core, to integrating structures of a confederalist-functionalist nature, implying precisely the absence of democratic controls over interstate organs. At that time, not only the nationalists and conservatives, as would have seemed obvious, but even the most progressive political forces failed to take up the issues introduced by Agnelli and Cabiati. It was after the Fascist experience, when the Resistance appeared, that their anticipations were up by the federalist culture.
28. League of nations or federal Europe?
Without hesitation we believe that, if we really want to make war in Europe a phenomenon which cannot be repeated, there is only one way to do so and we must be outspoken enough to it: a federation of European states under a central power which governs them. Any other milder vision is but a delusion.
The most precise comment on this requirement can he found in the book by Curtis, The Commonwealth of Nations, which has already been quoted many times. Historical experience, that famous experience which should be, but is not, our guide in life, proves: 1) the fruitless end of all the attempts made, in spite of their lasting in some cases quite a long time, to set up those kinds of “League of Nations” which consisted of confederations of sovereign states; 2) instead, the ever better outcome of the other type of union of nations consisting in the transforming of sovereign states into provinces of a single confederate state.
Let us say that, on this subject, historical experience confirms our beliefs with the univocal response of centuries. We see the first Confederation of states dissolve miserably; it was that of the Greek cities in 470 B.C., for which they contributed to the common treasure of Delo and which saved Europe from Asian civilization. But the lack of a central authority to exercise a common will over the individual states caused the decadence and dissolution of the Confederation, civil war, the hegemony first of Athens and then Sparta, and finally the fall of the republics under the Macedonian Empire. Through almost identical reasons and mistakes, in the 18th century we see the decline of Holland, which had created a league of nations in the United Provinces, but not a federal nation. So the Holy Roman Empire from 800 to 1806 represented the widest dream of uniting a league of nations under one Emperor. But the Emperor’s power was established by the will of princes, bishops, free cities, Electors. For the ten centuries it lasted, it wasted the forces of the Papacy and the Empire, of Germany and Italy, in a vain struggle for a vain power, and all historians, from Bryce to Treitschke, have noted how Germany and Italy owe their belated national unity to this struggle.
We have already mentioned how, as soon as Europe emerged from the twenty years of bloody Napoleonic wars, there was an attempt to create a League of Nations with the Holy Alliance, which committed the member states to “staying united with the ties of a true and indissoluble fraternity, considering all subjects as fellow-citizens and offering on every occasion mutual aid and assistance”. We have seen the results!
The classic example. But the typical example, which shows how one community, for its very survival, has had to change from a league of sovereign and independent states to a more complex form of a union of states ruled by a central power, is given with unsurpassable clarity and evidence by the history of the United States of America. As is well known, they went through two constitutions: the first, drawn up by a Congress of 13 states in 1776 and approved by these same states in February 1781; the second, approved by the national Convention of September 17th 1787 and which came into force in 1788.
A comparison between the two documents explains why the first failed, threatening the independence and freedom itself of the young Union, while the second has created the Republic, which we now all admire.
The 1781 constitution started by affirming the sovereignty of the individual states. Article II states: “Each State retains its Sovereignty, Freedom and Independence, and every Power, Jurisdiction and Right…” It is true that Article XIII decreed that the states must “abide by the Determinations of the United States in Congress assembled”: but, as Curtis observes, Article XIII was in constant conflict with Article II The essence of sovereignty is legal omnipotence and it cannot acknowledge a higher sovereignty without destroying itself. Hamilton, Washington, all the most important men of the Confederation saw the danger and pointed it out. The events which followed were of greater impact and eloquence than any comment. As a brilliant scholar wrote on the Corriere della Sera:[1] “Those seven years of life, from 1781 to 1787, of the ‘league’ of the 13 American nations, were years of such disorder, anarchy, and selfishness that many patriots regretted the British rule and not a few wished for the advent of a strong monarchy, which was actually offered to Washington and was rejected by him with sad words, which betrayed the fear that his strenuous work of years might be wasted. The root of all ills was precisely in the sovereignty and independence of the 13 states. The Confederation, just because it was a simple ‘league’ of nations, did not have its own independent sovereignty, it could not directly impose taxes on the citizens. Therefore it depended on the consent of the 13 sovereign states for the army’s pay and for the payment of the debts incurred during the War of Independence. The national Congress voted for expenses, pledged the word of the Confederation and to obtain the necessary means directed requests for money to the individual states. But the latter either neglected to answer or none of them wanted to be the first to pay the contributions into the common fund.
Summarizing the desperate and repeated appeals and complaints which are sprinkled by the hundreds through the letters of the great general and statesman, judge Marshall, in his classic Life of Washington, wrote that, after brief efforts made to put the federal system in a position to achieve the great goals for which it had been established, every attempt seemed desperate and American affairs evolved rapidly towards a crisis, on which the existence of the United States as a nation depended A government authorized to declare war, but dependent on sovereign states for the means to carry it out, able to incur debts and commit public faith to their payment, but dependent on thirteen separate sovereign legislations to keep this faith, could only save itself from disgrace and contempt if these countries were run by people who were free and superior to human passions. This was expecting the impossible. Men with power do not like delegating it to others; and it is therefore almost impossible, the biographer concludes, to achieve anything, albeit of extreme importance, that depends on the consent of many distinct sovereign governments. And another great writer and statesman, one of the authors of the 1787 Constitution, Alexander Hamilton, thus summed up in a vivid phrase the reasons the failure of the first union of American nations: ‘Power, without the right to levy taxes, in political societies is but a name’.”
The sad events of those sorrowful years, the solemn letters of Washington, in which the evils were revealed as far back as 1783 and which daily history confirmed continuously led to the 1788 Constitution.
In it a “union of sovereign states” is no longer mentioned. It is the whole people of the United States that places the milestone and realizes the indispensable conditions of the Commonwealth. The preface of the 1788 Constitution — which is basically the one currently in force — states solemnly: “We, the Peoples of the United States, in Order to found a more perfect Union, establish Justice, ensure domestic Tranquillity, provide for the common Defence, promote the general Welfare and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America”.
And in fact it sets up a central government, with legislative and executive power; this government has the necessary powers to “provide for calling forth the Militia to execute the Laws of the Union, suppress Insurrections and repel Invasions”; to “declare War”; to “raise and support Armies”; to “provide and maintain a Navy”; to “lay and collect Taxes, Duties, Imposts and Excises, to pay Debts and provide for common Defence and the general Welfare of the United States”; to “regulate Commerce with foreign Nations”. And finally determines (art. III) the central judicial power and establishes its jurisdiction.
From that moment the United States really existed, and was able to successfully overcome formidable crises, such as that of the Civil War. […]
32. League of Nations and balance of powers.
In conclusion, what is this concept of a league of nations, which preserves full sovereignty for each of them? If we think it over, it is nothing but a wider concept of the “balance of powers”; that is, a body which tries to create a stable equilibrium in European politics.
But what history has precisely demonstrated is the vanity of this concept and the dangers it brings with it. It is impossible to balance live forces. Nations and states are not inert masses which can be kept in suspense within a system; but on the contrary living organisms, that expand with different energy one from the other, according to natural laws which are unknown to us. Human conventions cannot stop natural development and if they try to do so, they simply add one more cause for conflict to those already existing.
Until the interests of Germany do not merge with those of France, England, etc., the international treaty which links nations will become, at every stage of historical development, a Procrustean bed, against the torments of which nations will naturally be driven to react, either by modifying regularly and periodically the international pact, or by breaking it.
In such conditions the league of nations becomes a workshop of suspicion and deception, which might hasten another European war instead of eliminating it. There is nothing better than a broken treaty for creating new and more menacing sources of disagreement.
The truth is that peace in Europe remains a dream, unless we first create those democratic conditions of freedom thanks to which all that is competitive in the very concept of nation-state is eliminated by the energies of a healthy and liberal democracy. These egocentric forces must be broken down, an atmosphere must be created which prevents the reproduction of the internal germs of militarism, oligarchy, protected industrialism, “political” agriculture, to achieve an effective, secure and stable pacific constitution.
33. The Supreme Court.
Once this fundamental point has been admitted, concerning the potential incompatibility between the persistence of sovereign states and the formation of a stable league of nations, all the means devised to achieve the league automatically fail, means that Wilson, as already mentioned, summarizes in the famous supreme Court, to whose deliberations all nations must bow.
To be able to enforce its rulings, a court must be provided with coercive force. But what will be the coercive force created by the united nations?
That of arms? But that is precisely what should be excluded, because otherwise we would be forced to continue the rush for armaments on ever rising scale, which is fatally bound to result in war. Moreover it would be a dangerous system, because if Germany, learning from the past, should manage to find an accomplice in the future conflict, the judgement of the international court would run the risk of being torn up by the dissidents, with the forced consent of the other free nations.
Therefore some suggest that the league of nations be set on the basis of an agreement establishing proportional disarmament by land and sea and the opening of European markets. But what means can be devised to prevent a state from preparing at least potentially a military organization superior to that which appears outwardly and on paper? Will not the most industrialized and less democratic peoples always be superior to the others in the rapid organization of armies?
Due to the possibility and the ease of mass production of submarines and the rapid perfecting of this new weapon, how will it he possible to guarantee absolute freedom of navigation over the seas in wartime, especially when the nation that has prepared the submarines has secretly made agreements with others to carry out a quick raid? And if such a guarantee is not absolute, how can it be expected that England should submit to the enormous sacrifice of renouncing its supremacy on the seas, the only pledge of security for its Empire, of safety in the case of a conflict?
And finally, for as long as independent states continue to exist, how will it be possible to apply the suppression of customs barriers, of every other form of protection and the consequent division of productive labour in Europe? What and how many ways exist of indirectly rewarding domestic industries and striking those of other countries? Are people aware of the vastness of interests that in Western Europe surround protectionism, of the attitudes it encourages, of the incalculable passive resistances it is able to keep up? […]
34. There is another strong argument against the illusion of the power of an arbitration Court among states, which are independent of any federal tie.
What will be the areas to be entrusted to the decisions of such a body? Will we expect to leave to it everything concerning the life, the honour, the future of the individual states, with a generic declaration on its powers? How could this tally with the acknowledgement of the full, absolute sovereignty left to the states themselves? In this case Treitschke is right when he declares: “War will never be banished from the world thanks to arbitration courts between nations. In the big issues involving the vital interests of a nation, the impartiality of the other members of the Society of states is absolutely impossible. The latter cannot avoid being a party, precisely because they form a living community. If the folly of Germany submitting the issue of Alsace-Lorraine for arbitration were feasible, what European power could be impartial? It absolutely does not exist. Hence the well-known phenomenon that international Congresses are able to formulate the results of a war, of juridically putting them in order, but that they are unable to avert the threat of a war.”
This assertion of the German historian is more than correct. Two or more states can establish among themselves some conventions on one or more common points and convene that in case of any disagreement over their interpretation, they will submit it to arbitration. It is absurd and anti-juridical for a state to generally entrust the solution of all the problems which closely concern it to the judgement of its peers: and it becomes even more so if this generic convention exist for an indefinite length of time. Because, again according to Treitschke, the meaning of international treaties undersigned for ever by two states is this: “while conditions of the two states do not change completely”.
But, it can be objected, if at the peace table one Power does not want to underwrite compulsory and perpetual arbitration, we will oblige it with armed force, or with economic weapons. Of course: but if it is a treaty which has been imposed, not freely accepted; and if we leave this state its free sovereignty and army, in due time we shall realize the practical value of this other “piece of paper!” […]
40. The European market and the advantages for
We also wish to dwell for a moment on another of the great benefits that only the creation of a federal Europe can bring with it: the setting up of the whole European Continent into one production market.
A league of nations that left each the right to raise customs barriers and other obstacles to free trade would mean that those great particularistic and egocentric economic forces would persist which, as everyone acknowledges, bear a considerable part of the responsibility in the breaking out of the present conflict. […]
In Europe we had reached this level of absurdity, that every factory that arose in one state was a thorn in the side for every other state: that, while the superb inventions of steam applied to land and sea transport, of electricity as motive power, of the telegraph and telephone had by then cancelled distance and made the world one single large centre and international market, little men strove with all their might to cancel the immense benefits of the big discoveries, artificially creating isolated markets and small production and consumption centres.
And they did not seem to realize that the protectionist system had ended up destroying itself and making work a torment not a joy. As each state had the same objectives in mind, i.e. to produce everything, to produce it on a large scale, never before as in those last twenty years had the competition which everyone wished to avoid, become more acute, more convulsive, more refined and violent. Work was carried out on an ever larger scale, in teams and without interruption, with an ever reduced profit margin, with the constant preoccupation of what other countries were doing, thinking, inventing.
Only federal Europe will be able to give us a more economic realization of the division of labour, with the elimination of all customs barriers. It is enough to think of the weight of the artificial paraphernalia which nowadays burden almost all of continental Europe; of the industrial “duplicates” created by protection and of the daily destruction of wealth deriving from it; of the obstacles to the rapidity of exchanges and the circulation of goods; of the muddled economic legislation that all this involves, with a no less muddled and expensive bureaucracy, to understand how it would be sufficient to extirpate this cancer from Europe to compensate us in a very short time for the strain to which the war has subjected us. What reasonable person can, without any fear, envisage the possibility that, after such a gigantic conflict, an economic policy of preferences, exclusiveness, localization be taken up once again, loading its burden on exhausted consumers?
A European economy which, replacing with cautious and gradual adjustments the particularistic economies of the present individual states, fully achieves the division of labour, will give us, with the maximum benefit of the producers, the reduction in prices that will allow consumers to bear the financial burdens of war without exhausting their own physical and creative forces.
The problems of the distribution of raw materials, of transport, that of foodstuffs, which worry all European committees for postwar studies, will automatically be solved.
And the gigantic widening of the market from a national to a continental size will have the effect that manufacturers, after a period of adaptation, will see before them such unsuspected capacities of absorption that industries will derive from it the same enormous impulse shown by American industry after the Civil War.
41. The benefits for poorer classes and countries.
It is worth pointing out that the constitution of Europe into a Confederation would bring most benefits to the states which are most backwards in civilization and wealth. […]
And of course, just as it is in the interest of every state that the poorest and most backward of its regions reach the level of the richer regions as quickly as possible, because otherwise the whole social set-up would be weakened, so it would be necessary for the richest parts of Europe to promptly bring the less favoured areas to a higher level; building roads and railways, intensifying education, improving the economy, promoting banks, elevating social standards with cautious progression.
The working class would benefit immensely from this: because how would it be possible in a European state that, for example, the French, the Germans, the English should enjoy old-age and disability pensions, while the Italian workers had no such thing?
And this series of reforms would regenerate the entire spirit of the old Continent. They would do away with fanatically patriotic prejudices, the feelings of jealousy and rivalry, the need to maintain industries and — as in Germany — social classes, which are useful only because they keep alive the ideas of power and conquest; they would leave open the way for the rise of the lower classes and would educate them to an increasingly wider participation to political life. And finally, as in all areas the European Federation would have to choose the most advanced models, and not the most backward ones, it would mean applying the best systems to those countries where the culture of the masses is less advanced and therefore a rapid and intensive development of education. Buckle has written eloquent pages to show all the fruitful effects that perfecting means of communication, and the freedom of movement deriving from it, brought due to a greater knowledge of the french character in England. This demonstration should be repeated a hundredfold, if all the present states merged into a Federation which unified their aims, directed their efforts towards common ideals, amalgamated their interests. […]
(Prefaced and edited by Luisa Trumellini )

* Fratelli Bocca Editori, Turin, 1918.
[1] La Società delle Nazioni è un ideale possibile?, by Iunius, n. 5, 1918. (Iunius was the pseudonym of Luigi Einaudi)



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