Year XLII, 2000, Number 3, Page 207

 

 

ORTEGA Y GASSET
 
 
Ortega y Gasset (1883-1955) can undoubtedly be regarded as a highly complex intellectual figure, one who is difficult to interpret. This difficulty derives both from the breadth of his writings, and from the events of his life. He was engaged not only in theoretical reflection, but also in political militancy, the latter being an involvement not, however, conducted within the normal framework of party-based politics.
In view of the essential role he attributed to élites, and because of his theory of the mass-man, Ortega y Gasset has often been labelled a conservative. But in fact, at least up to a certain point in his life, he was, in his pursuit of the liberation of the working classes, a supporter of, and contributor to the cause of, socialist parties.
However, quite apart from the beliefs and issues on which his fame rests, it is Ortega’s vision, in pointing to a united states of Europe as the answer to the historical crisis of Europe’s nation-states, that prompted us to examine a part of his thought. In The Revolt of the Masses, of which we publish a few pages here, Ortega writes, “The evident decadence of the nations of Europe, was not this a priori necessary if there was to be one day possible a United States of Europe, the plurality of Europe substituted by its formal unity?”[1]
This conclusion is reached through an analysis of the concept of nation which very closely echoes the criticism of the nation-state that constitutes such a key element in the federalist doctrine. Taking as his starting point a dynamic conception of the state, a state whose forms and dimensions are continually superseded through a process of progressive enlargement of its sphere, he criticises visions of the nation, and of the nation-state, that isolate and crystallise certain characteristics (race, language and territory) as though they were immutable. The same criticism is levelled at Renan, and is based on the fact that his “daily plebiscite” regards a nation that has already been formed and is already established and, as such, that bases its legitimacy more on its past than on its capacity to produce a design for the future.
Despite emphasising the importance of “unifying enterprises”, which are seen as the kind destined to streamline and vitalise states, and to give them the capacity to overcome moments of crisis, Ortega’s views are not, in this text, presented from a federal perspective.
He does not, that is to say, broach the problem of creating adequate institutions for the union of states, nor that of the preservation of their autonomy in a setting characterised by unity — even though he does stress that “the current plurality” must not be lost in a united Europe.[2] This leads him to see unification as a process of incorporation (albeit not conducted through a war of conquest), to define this incorporation as “national fusion”, and to regard the “national idea” as the driving force of unification itself: “There is now coming for Europeans the time when Europe can convert itself into a national idea… The more faithful the national state of the West remains to its genuine inspiration, the more surely will it perfect itself in a gigantic continental state.”[3]
This “national idea”, also called “principle of nationalisation”, introduces a note of ambiguity into this otherwise clear analysis of Europe’s destiny. But we must not forget that Ortega’s language is linked to, and conditioned by, a common misconception — one belied by Albertini’s analysis and criticism of the nation-state[4] — in other words, the idea that a distinction must be drawn between the nation (and the values inherent in it) and nationalism seen as a degeneration of the national idea: “Nationalism — Ortega writes — is always an effort in a direction opposite to that of the principle which creates nations”.[5]
Nevertheless, the fact remains that Ortega recognised and drew attention to the crisis of the European states between the two world wars, that in his view concerned who would be destined to rule, and that coincided with an incapacity to assume responsibility and to overcome what he refers to as “grave demoralisation”. “The European cannot live unless embarked upon some great unifying enterprise… The groups which up to to-day have been known as nations arrived about a century ago at their highest point of expansion. Nothing more can be done with them except lead them to a higher evolution.”[6]
 
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THE REVOLT OF THE MASSES
  
 
7. […] Once again, I repeat: the reality which we call the State is not the spontaneous coming together of men united by ties of blood. The State begins when groups naturally divided find themselves obliged to live in common. This obligation is not of brute force, but implies an impelling purpose, a common task which is set before the dispersed groups. Before all, the State is a plan of action and a programme of collaboration. The men are called upon so that together they may do something. The State is neither consanguinity, nor linguistic unity, nor territorial unity, nor proximity of habitation. It is nothing material, inert, fixed, limited. It is pure dynamism — the will to do something in common — and thanks to this the idea of the State is bounded by no physical limits.
There was much ingenuity in the well-known political emblem of Saavedra Fajardo: an arrow, and beneath it, “It either rises or falls”. That is the State. Not a thing, but a movement. The State is at every moment something which comes from and goes to. Like every movement, it has its terminus a quo and its terminus ad quem. If at any point of time the life of a State which is really such be dissected there will be found a link of common life which seems to be based on some material attribute or other — blood, language, “natural frontiers”. A static interpretation will induce us to say: That is the State. But we soon observe that this human group is doing something in common — conquering other peoples, founding colonies, federating with other States; that is, at every hour it is going beyond what seemed to be the material principle of its unity. This is the terminus ad quem, the true State, whose unity consists precisely in superseding any given unity. When there is a stoppage of that impulse towards something further on, the State automatically succumbs, and the unity which previously existed, and seemed to be its physical foundation — race, language, natural frontier — becomes useless; the State breaks up, is dispersed, atomised.
It is only this double aspect of each moment in the State — the unity already existing and the unity in project — which enables us to understand the essence of the national State. We know that there has been as yet no successful definition of a nation, taking the word in its modern acceptation. The City-State was a clear notion, plain to the eyes. But the new type of public unity sprung up amongst Germans and Gauls, the political inspiration of the West, is a much vaguer, fleeting thing. The philologue, the historian of to-day, of his nature an archaiser, feels, in presence of this formidable fact, almost as puzzled as Caesar or Tacitus when they tried to indicate in Roman terminology the nature of those incipient States, transalpine, further Rhine, or Spanish. They called them civitas, gens, natio, though realising that none of these names fits the thing. They are not civitas, for the simple reason that they are not cities. But it will not even do to leave the term vague and use it to refer to a limited territory. The new peoples change their soil with the greatest ease, or at least they extend or reduce the position they occupy. Neither are they ethnic unities — gentes, nationes. However far back we go, the new States appear already formed by groups unconnected by birth. They are combinations of different blood-stocks. What, then, is a nation, if it is neither community of blood nor attachment to the territory, nor anything of this nature?
As always happens, in this case a plain acceptance of facts gives us the key. What is it that is clearly seen when we study the evolution of any “modern nation”, France, Spain, Germany? Simply this: what at one period seemed to constitute nationality appears to be denied at a later date. First, the nation seems to be the tribe, and the no-nation the tribe beside it. Then the nation is made up of the two tribes, later it is a region, and later still a county, a duchy or a kingdom. León is a nation but Castile not; then it is León and Castile, but not Aragon. The presence of two principles is evident: one, variable and continually superseded — tribe, region, duchy, kingdom, with its language or dialect; the other, permanent, which leaps freely over all those boundaries and postulates as being in union precisely what the first considered as in radical opposition.
The philologues — this is my name for the people who to-day claim the title of “historians” — play a most delightful bit of foolery when, starting from what in our fleeting epoch, the last two or three centuries, the Western nations have been, they go on to suppose that Vercingetorix or the Cid Campeador was already struggling for a France to extend from Saint-Malo to Strasburg, or a Spain to reach from Finisterre to Gibraltar. These philologues — like the ingenuous playwright — almost always show their heroes starting out for the Thirty Years’ War. To explain to us how France and Spain were formed, they suppose that France and Spain pre-existed as unities in the depths of the French and Spanish soul. As if there were any French or any Spaniards before France and Spain came into being! As if the Frenchman and the Spaniard were not simply things that had to be hammered out in two thousand years of toil!
The plain truth is that modern nations are merely the present manifestation of a variable principle, condemned to perpetual supersession. That principle is not now blood or language, since the community of blood and language in France or in Spain has been the effect, not the cause, of the unification into a State; the principle at the present time is the “natural frontier”. It is all very well for a diplomatist in his skilled fencing to employ this concept of natural frontiers, as the ultima ratio of his argumentation. But a historian cannot shelter himself behind it as if it were a permanent redoubt. It is not permanent, it is not even sufficiently specific.
Let us not forget what is, strictly stated, the question. We are trying to find out what is the national State — what to-day we call a nation as distinct from other types of State, like the City-State, or to go to the other extreme, like the Empire founded by Augustus. If we want to state the problem still more clearly and concisely, let us put it this way: What real force is it which has produced this living in common of millions of men under a sovereignty of public authority which we know as France, England, Spain, Italy, or Germany? It was not a previous community of blood, for each of those collective bodies has been filled from most heterogeneous blood-streams. Neither was it a linguistic unity, for the peoples to-day brought together under one State spoke, or still speak, different languages. The relative homogeneousness of race and tongue which they to-day enjoy — if it is a matter of enjoyment — is the result of the previous political unification. Consequently, neither blood nor language gives birth to the national State, rather it is the national State which levels down the differences arising from the red globule and the articulated sound. And so it has always happened. Rarely, if ever, has the State coincided with a previous identity of blood and language. Spain is not a national State to-day because Spanish is spoken throughout the country, nor were Aragon and Catalonia national States because at a certain period, arbitrarily chosen, the territorial bounds of their sovereignty coincided with those of Aragonese or Catalan speech. We should be nearer the truth if, adapting ourselves to the casuistry which every reality offers scope for, we were to incline to this presumption: every linguistic unity which embraces a territory of any extent is almost sure to be a precipitate of some previous political unification. The State has always been the great dragoman.
This has been clear for a long time past, which makes more strange the obstinate persistence in considering blood and language as the foundations of nationality. In such a notion I see as much ingratitude as inconsistency. For the Frenchman owes his actual France and the Spaniard his actual Spain to a principle X, the impulse of which was directed precisely to superseding the narrow community based on blood and language. So that, in such a view, France and Spain would consist to-day of the very opposite to what made them possible.
A similar misconception arises when an attempt is made to base the idea of a nation on a territorial shape, finding the principle of unity which blood and language do not furnish, in the geographical mysticism of “natural frontiers”. We are faced with the same optical illusion. The hazard of actual circumstances shows us so-called nations installed in wide lands on the continent or adjacent islands. It is thought to make of those actual boundaries something permanent and spiritual. They are, we are told, natural frontiers, and by their “naturalness” is implied some sort of magic predetermination of history by terrestrial form. But this myth immediately disappears when submitted to the same reasoning which invalidated community of blood and language as originators of the nation. Here again, if we go back a few centuries, we find France and Spain dissociated in lesser nations, with their inevitable “natural frontiers”. The mountain frontier may be less imposing than the Pyrenees or the Alps, the barrier of water less considerable than the Rhine, the English Channel, or the Straits of Gibraltar. But this only proves that the “naturalness” of the frontiers is merely relative. It depends on the economic and warlike resources of the period.
The historic reality of this famous “natural frontier” lies simply in its being an obstacle to the expansion of people A over people B. Because it is an obstacle — to existence in common or to warlike operations — for A it is a defence for B. The idea of “natural frontiers” presupposes, then, as something even more natural than the frontier, the possibility of expansion and unlimited fusion between peoples. It is only a material obstacle that checks this. The frontiers of yesterday and the day before do no appear to us to-day as the foundations of the French or Spanish nation, but the reverse; obstacles which the national idea met with in its process of unification. And notwithstanding this, we are trying to give a definite, fundamental character to the frontiers of to-day, in spite of the fact that new methods of transport and warfare have nullified their effectiveness as obstacles.
What, then, has been the part played by frontiers in the formation of nationalities, since they have not served as a positive foundation? The answer is clear, and is of the highest importance in order to understand the authentic idea behind the national State as contrasted with the City-State. Frontiers have served to consolidate at every stage the political unification already attained. They have not been, therefore, the starting-point of the nation; on the contrary, at the start they were an obstacle, and afterwards, when surmounted, they were a material means for strengthening unity. Exactly the same part is played by race and language. It is not the natural community of either of these which constituted the nation; rather has the national State always found itself, in its efforts towards unification, opposed by the plurality of races and of tongues, as by so many obstacles. Once these have been energetically overcome, a relative unification of races and tongues has been effected, which then served as a consolidation of unity.
There is nothing for it, then, but to remove the traditional misconception attached to the idea of the national State, and to accustom ourselves to consider as fundamental obstacles to nationality precisely those three things in which it was thought to consist. (Of course, in destroying this misconception, it is I who will now appear to be suffering from one.) We must make up our minds to search for the secret of the national State in its specific inspiration as a State, in the policy peculiar to itself, and not in extraneous principles, biological or geographical in character.
Why, after all, was it thought necessary to have recourse to race, language, and territory in order to understand the marvellous fact of modern nationalities? Purely and simply because in these we find a radical intimacy and solidarity between the individual and the public Power that is unknown to the ancient State. In Athens and in Rome, the State was only a few individuals: the rest — slaves, allies, provincials, colonials — were mere subjects. In England, France, Spain, no one has ever been a mere subject of the State, but has always been a participator in it, one with it. The form, above all the juridical form, of this union in and with the State has been very different at different periods. There have been great distinctions of rank and personal status, classes relatively privileged and others relatively unprivileged; but if we seek to interpret the effective reality of the political situation in each period and to re-live its spirit, it becomes evident that each individual felt himself an active subject of the State, a participator and a collaborator.
The State is always, whatever be its form — primitive, ancient, medieval, modern — an invitation issued by one group of men to other human groups to carry out some enterprise in common. That enterprise, be its intermediate processes what they may; consists in the long run in the organisation of a certain type of common life. State and plan of existence, programme of human activity or conduct, these are inseparable terms. The different kinds of State arise from the different ways in which the promoting group enters into collaboration with the others. Thus, the ancient State never succeeds in fusing with the others. Rome rules and educates the Italians and the provincials, but it does not raise them to union with itself. Even in the city it did not bring about the political fusion of the citizens. Let it not be forgotten that during the Republic Rome was, strictly speaking, two Romes: the Senate and the people. State-unification never got beyond a mere setting up of communication between groups which remained strangers one to the other. Hence it was that the Empire, when threatened, could not count on the patriotism of the others, and had to defend itself exclusively by bureaucratic measures of administration and warfare.
This incapacity of every Greek and Roman group to fuse with other groups arose from profound causes which this is not the place to examine, but which may definitely be summed up in one: the man of the ancient world interpreted the collaboration in which the State inevitably consists, in a simple, elemental, rough fashion, namely, as a duality of governors and governed. It was for Rome to command and not to obey; for the rest, to obey and not to command. In this way the State is materialised within the pomoerium, the urban body physically limited by walls. But the new peoples bring in a less material interpretation of the State. Since it is a plan of a common enterprise, its reality is purely dynamic; something to be done, the community in action. On this view everyone forms a part of the State, is a political subject who gives his support to the enterprise; race, blood, geographical position, social class — all these take a secondary place. It is not the community of the past which is traditional, immemorial — in a word, fatal and unchangeable — which confers a title to this political fellowship, but the community of the future with its definite plan of action. Not what we were yesterday, but what we are going to be tomorrow, joins us together in the State. Hence the ease with which political unity in the West leaps over all the limits which shut in the ancient State. For the European, as contrasted with the homo antiquus, behaves like a man facing the future, living consciously in it, and from its view-point deciding on his present conduct.
Such a political tendency will advance inevitably towards still ampler unifications, there being nothing in principle to impede it. The capacity for fusion is unlimited. Not only the fusion of one people with another, but what is still more characteristic of the national State: the fusion of all social classes within each political body. In proportion as the nation extends, territorially and ethnically, the internal collaboration becomes more unified. The national State is in its very roots democratic, in a sense much more decisive than all the differences in forms of government.
It is curious to observe that when defining the nation by basing it on community in the past, people always end by accepting as the best the formula of Renan, simply because in it there is added to blood, language and common traditions, a new attribute when we are told that it is a “daily plebiscite”. But is the meaning of this expression clearly understood? Can we not now give it a connotation of opposite sign to that suggested by Renan, and yet a much truer one?
 
8. “To have common glories in the past, a common will in the present; to have done great things together; to wish to do greater; these are the essential conditions which make up a people… In the past, an inheritance of glories and regrets; in the future, one and the same programme to carry out… The existence of a nation is a daily plebiscite.” Such is the well-known definition of Renan. How are we to explain its extraordinary success? No doubt, by reason of the graceful turn of the final phrase. That idea that the nation consists of a “daily plebiscite” operates on us with liberating effect. Blood, language, and common past are static principles, fatal, rigid, inert; they are prisons. If the nation consisted in these and nothing more, it would be something lying behind us, something with which we should have no concern. The nation would be something that one is, not something that one does. There would even be no sense in defending it when attacked.
Whether we like it or not, human life is a constant preoccupation with the future. In this actual moment we are concerned with the one that follows. Hence living is always, ceaselessly, restlessly, a doing. Why is it not realised that all doing implies bringing something future into effect? Including the case when we give ourselves up to remembering. We recall a memory at this moment in order to effect something in the moment following, be it only the pleasure of re-living the past. This modest secret pleasure presented itself to us a moment ago as a desirable future thing, therefore we “make remembrance of things past”. Let it be clear, then, that nothing has a sense for man except in as far as it is directed towards the future.
If the nation consisted only in past and present, no one would be concerned with defending it against an attack. These who maintain the contrary are either hypocrites or lunatics. But what happens is that the national past projects its attractions — real or imaginary — into the future. A future in which our nation continues to exist seems desirable. That is why we mobilise in its defence, not on account of blood or language or common past. In defending the nation we are defending our tomorrows, not our yesterdays.
This is what re-echoes through the phrase of Renan; the nation as a splendid programme for the morrow. The plebiscite decides on a future. The fact that in this case the future consists in a continuance of the past does not modify the question in the least; it simply indicates that Renan’s definition also is archaic in nature. Consequently, the national State must represent a principle nearer to the pure idea of a State than the ancient polis or the “tribe” of the Arabs, limited by blood. In actual fact, the national idea preserves no little element of attachment to the past, to soil, to race; but for that reason it is surprising to observe how there always triumphs in it the spiritual principle of a unification of mankind, based on an alluring programme of existence. More than that, I would say that that ballast of the past, that relative limitation within material principles, have never been and are not now completely spontaneous in the Western soul; they spring from the erudite interpretation given by Romanticism to the idea of the nation. If that XIX-Century concept of nationality had existed in the Middle Ages, England, France, Spain, Germany would never have been born. For that interpretation confuses what urges on and constitutes a nation with what merely consolidates and preserves it. Let it be said once and for all — it is not patriotism which has made the nations. A belief in the contrary is a proof of that ingenuousness which I have alluded to, and which Renan himself admits into his famous definition. If in order that a nation may exist it is necessary for a group of men to be able to look back upon a common past, then I ask myself what are we to call that same group of men when they were actually living in a present which from the view-point of to-day is a past. Evidently it was necessary for that common existence to die away, in order that they might be able to say: “We are a nation”. Do we not discover here the vice of all the tribe of philologues, of record-searchers, the professional optical defect which prevents them from recognising reality unless it is past? The philologue is one who, to be a philologue, requires the existence of the past. Not so the nation. On the contrary, before it could have a common past, it had to create a common existence, and before creating it, it had to dream it, to desire it, to plan it. And for a nation to exist, it is enough that it have a purpose for the future, even if that purpose remain unfulfilled, end in frustration, as has happened more than once. In such a case we should speak of a nation untimely cut off; Burgundy, for example.
With the peoples of Central and South America, Spain has a past in common, common language, common race; and yet it does not form with them one nation. Why not? There is one thing lacking which, we know, is the essential: a common future. Spain has not known how to invent a collective programme for the future of sufficient interest to attract those biologically related groups. The futurist plebiscite was adverse to Spain, and therefore archives, memories, ancestors, “mother country”, were of no avail. Where the former exists, these last serve as forces of consolidation, but nothing more.
I see, then, in the national State a historical structure, plebiscitary in character. All that it appears to be apart from that has a transitory, changing value, represents the content, or the form, or the consolidation which at each moment the plebiscite requires. Renan discovered the magic word, filled with light, which allows us to examine, as by cathode rays, the innermost vitals of a nation, composed of these two ingredients: first, a plan of common life with an enterprise in common; secondly, the adhesion of men to that attractive enterprise. This general adhesion gives rise to that internal solidity which distinguishes the national State from the States of antiquity, in which union is brought about and kept up by external pressure of the State on disparate groups, whereas here the vigour of the State proceeds from spontaneous, deep cohesion between the “subjects”. In reality, the subjects are now the State, and cannot feel it — this is the new, the marvellous thing, in nationality — as something extraneous to themselves. And yet Renan very nearly annuls the success of his definition by giving to the plebiscite a retrospective element referred to a nation already formed, whose perpetuation it decides upon. I should prefer to change the sign and make it valid for the nation in statu nascendi. This is the decisive point of view. For in truth a nation is never formed. In this it differs from other types of State. The nation is always either in the making, or in the unmaking. Tertizium non datur. It is either winning adherents, or losing them, according as the State does or does not represent at a given time, a vital enterprise.
Hence it would be most instructive to recall the series of unifying enterprises which have successively won enthusiasm from the human groups of the West. It would then be see — that Europeans have lived on these, not only in their public life, but in their most intimate concerns, that they have kept in training, or become flabby, according as there was or was not an enterprise in sight.
Such a study would clearly demonstrate another point. The State enterprises of the ancients, by the very fact that they did not imply the close adherence of the human groups among whom they were launched; by the very fact that the State properly so-called was always circumscribed by its necessary limitation — tribe or city — such enterprises were practically themselves limitless. A people — Persia, Macedonia, Rome — might reduce to a unit of sovereignty any and every portion of the planet. As the unity was not a genuine one, internal and definitive, it remained subject to no conditions other than the military and administrative efficiency of the conqueror. But in the West unification into nations has had to follow an inexorable series of stages. We ought to be more surprised than we are at the fact that in Europe there has not been possible any Empire of the extent reached by those of the Persians, of Alexander and of Augustus.
The creative process of nations in Europe has always followed this rhythm:
First movement. — The peculiar Western instinct which causes the State to be felt as the fusion of various peoples in a unity of political and moral existence, starts by acting on the groups most proximate geographically, ethnically, and linguistically. Not that this proximity is the basis of the nation, but because diversity amongst neighbours is easier to overcome.
Second movement. A period of consolidation in which other peoples outside the new State are regarded as strangers and more or less enemies. This is the period when the nationalising process adopts an air of exclusiveness, of shutting itself up inside the State; in a word, what today we call nationalism. But the fact is that whilst the others are felt politically to be strangers and opponents, there is economic, intellectual, and moral communion with them. Nationalist wars serve to level out the differences of technical and mental processes. Habitual enemies gradually become historically homogeneous. Little by little there appears on the horizon the consciousness that those enemy peoples belong to the same human circle as our own State. Nevertheless, they are still looked on as foreigners and hostile.
Third movement. — The State is in the enjoyment of full consolidation. Then the new enterprise offers itself to unite those peoples who yesterday were enemies. The conviction grows that they are akin to us in morals and interests, and that together we form a national group over against other more distant, stranger groups. Here we have the new national idea arrived at maturity.
An example will make clear what I am trying to say. It is the custom to assert that in the time of the Cid Spain (Spania) was already a national idea, and to give more weight to the theory it is added that centuries previously St. Isidore was already speaking of “Mother Spain”. To my mind, this is a crass error of historical perspective. In the time of the Cid the León-Castile State was in process of formation, and this unity between the two was the national idea of the time, the politically efficacious idea. Spania, on the other hand, was a mainly erudite notion; in any case, one of many fruitful notions sown in the West by the Roman Empire. The “Spaniards” had been accustomed to be linked together by Rome in an administrative unity, as a diocesis of the Late Empire. But this geographical-administrative notion was a matter of mere acceptation from without, not an inspiration from within, and by no manner of means an aspiration towards the future.
However much reality one may wish to allow to this idea in the Xl Century, it will be recognised that it does not even reach the vigour and precision which the idea of Hellas had for the Greeks of the IV. And yet, Hellas was never a true national idea. The appropriate historical comparison would be rather this: Hellas was for the Greeks of the IV Century, and Spania for the “Spaniards” of the XI and even of the XIV, what Europe was for XIX-Century “Europeans”.
This shows us how the attempts to form national unity advance towards their purpose like sounds in a melody. The mere tendency of yesterday will have to wait until to-morrow before taking shape in the final outpouring of national inspirations. But on the other hand it is almost certain that its time will come. There is now coming for Europeans the time when Europe can convert itself into a national idea. And it is much less Utopian to believe this to-day than it would have been to prophesy in the XI Century the unity of Spain. The more faithful the national State of the West remains to its genuine inspiration, the more surely will it perfect itself in a gigantic continental State.
 
9. Hardly have the nations of the West rounded off their actual form when there begins to arise, around them, as a sort of background Europe. This is the unifying landscape in which they are to move from the Renaissance onwards, and this European background is made up of the nations themselves which, though unaware of it, are already beginning to withdraw from their bellicose plurality. France, England, Spain, Italy, Germany, fight among themselves, form opposing leagues, and break them only to re-form them afresh. But all this, war as well as peace, is a living together as equals, a thing which neither in peace nor war Rome could ever do with Celtiberian, Gaul, Briton, or German. History has brought out into the foreground the conflicts and, in general, the politics, always the last soil on which the seed of unity springs up; but whilst the fighting was going on in one field, on a hundred others there was trading with the enemy, an exchange of ideas and forms of art and articles of faith. One might say that the clash of fighting was only a curtain behind which peace was busily at work, interweaving the lives of the hostile nations. In each new generation the souls of men grew more and more alike. To speak with more exactitude and caution, we might put it this way: the souls of French and English and Spanish are, and will be, as different as you like, but they possess the same psychological architecture; and, above all, they are gradually becoming similar in content. Religion, science, law, art, social and sentimental values are being shared alike. Now these are the spiritual things by which man lives. The homogeneity, then, becomes greater than if the souls themselves were all cast in identical mould. If we were to take an inventory of our mental stock to-day — opinions, standards, desires, assumptions — we should discover that the greater part of it does not come to the Frenchman from France, nor to the Spaniard from Spain, but from the common European stock. To-day, in fact, we are more influenced by what is European in us than by what is special to us as Frenchmen, Spaniards, and so on. If we were to make in imagination the experiment of limiting ourselves to living by what is “national” in us, and if in fancy we could deprive the average Frenchman of all that he uses, thinks, feels, by reason of the influence of other sections of the Continent, he would be terror-stricken at the result. He would see that it was not possible to live merely on his own; that four-fifths of his spiritual wealth is the common property of Europe.
It is impossible to perceive what else worth while there is to be done by those of us who live on this portion of the planet but to fulfil the promise implied by the word Europe during the last four centuries. The only thing opposed to it is the prejudice of the old “nations”, the idea of the nation as based on the past. We are shortly to see if Europeans are children of Lot’s wife who persist in making history with their heads turned backwards. Our reference to Rome, and in general to the man of the ancient world, has served us as a warning; it is very difficult for a certain type of man to abandon the idea of the State which has once entered his head. Happily, the idea of the national State which the European, consciously or not, brought into the world, is not the pedantic idea of the philologues which has been preached to him.
I can now sum up the thesis of this essay. The world to-day is suffering from a grave demoralisation which, amongst other symptoms, manifests itself by an extraordinary rebellion of the masses, and has its origin in the demoralisation of Europe. The causes of this latter are multiple. One of the main is the displacement of the power formerly exercised by our Continent over the rest of the world and over itself. Europe is no longer certain that it rules, nor the rest of the world that it is being ruled. Historic sovereignty finds itself in a state of dispersion. There is no longer a “plenitude of the times”, for this supposes a clear, prefixed, unambiguous future, as was that of the XIX Century. Then men thought they knew what was going to happen tomorrow. But now once more the horizon opens out towards new unknown directions, because it is not known who is going to rule, how authority is going to be organised over the world. Who, that is to say, what people or group of peoples; consequently, what ethnic type, what ideology, what systems of preferences, standards, vital movements.
No one knows towards what centre human things are going to gravitate in the near future, and hence the life of the world has become scandalously provisional. Everything that to-day is done in public and in private — even in one’s inner conscience — is provisional, the only exception being certain portions of certain sciences. He will be a wise man who puts no trust in all that is proclaimed, upheld, essayed, and lauded at the present day. All that will disappear as quickly as it came. All of it, from the mania for physical sports (the mania, not the sports themselves) to political violence; from “new art” to sun-baths at idiotic fashionable watering-places. Nothing of all that has any roots; it is all pure invention, in the bad sense of the word, which makes it equivalent to fickle caprice. It is not a creation based on the solid substratum of life; it is not a genuine impulse or need. In a word, from the point of view of life it is false. We are in presence of the contradiction of a style of living which cultivates sincerity and is at the same time a fraud. There is truth only in an existence which feels its acts as irrevocably necessary. There exists to-day no politician who feels the inevitableness of his policy, and the more extreme his attitudes, the more frivolous, the less inspired by destiny they are. The only life with its roots fixed in earth, the only autochthonous life, is that which is made up of inevitable acts. All the rest, all that it is in our power to take or to leave or to exchange for something else, is mere falsification of life. Life to-day is the fruit of an interregnum, of an empty space between two organisations of historical rule — that which was, that which is to be. For this reason it is essentially provisional. Men do not know what institutions to serve in truth; women do not know what type of men they in truth prefer.
The European cannot live unless embarked upon some great unifying enterprise. When this is lacking, he becomes degraded, grows slack, his soul is paralysed. We have a commencement of this before our eyes to-day. The groups which up to to-day have been known as nations arrived about a century ago at their highest point of expansion. Nothing more can be done with them except lead them to a higher evolution. They are now mere past accumulating all around Europe, weighing it down, imprisoning it. With more vital freedom than ever, we feel that we cannot breathe the air within our nations, because it is a confined air. What was before a nation open to all the winds of heaven, has turned into something provincial, an enclosed space. In the European supernation, that we imagine, the current plurality cannot and must not be lost. While the ancient State annihilated all that which was different in peoples, or left it excluded and inactive, or at most conserved it in a mummified state, the national idea, more purely dynamic, demands the active permanence of this plurality which has always constituted the life of the West.
Everyone sees the need of a new principle of life. But as always happens in similar crises — some people attempt to save the situation by an artificial intensification of the very principle which has led to decay. This is the meaning of the “nationalist” outburst of recent years. And, I repeat, things have always gone that way. The last flare, the longest; the last sigh, the deepest. On the very eve of their disappearance there is an intensification of frontiers — military and economic.
But all these nationalisms are so many blind alleys. Try to project one into the future and see what happens. There is no outlet that way. Nationalism is always an effort in a direction opposite to that of the principle which creates nations. The former is exclusive in tendency, the latter inclusive. In periods of consolidation, nationalism has a positive value, and is a lofty standard. But in Europe everything is more than consolidated, and nationalism is nothing but a mania, a pretext to escape from the necessity of inventing something new, some great enterprise. Its primitive methods of action and the type of men it exalts reveal abundantly that it is the opposite of a historical creation.
Only the determination to construct a great nation from the group of peoples of the Continent would give new life to the pulses of Europe. She would start to believe in herself again, and automatically to make demands on, to discipline, herself. But the situation is much more difficult than is generally realised. The years are passing and there is the risk that the European will grow accustomed to the lower tone of the existence he is at present living, will get used neither to rule others nor to rule himself. In such a case, all his virtues and higher capacities would vanish into air.
But, as has always happened in the process of nation-forming, the union of Europe is opposed by the conservative classes. This may well mean destruction for them, for to the general danger of Europe becoming definitely demoralised and losing all its historic strength is added another, more concrete and more imminent. When Communism triumphed in Russia, there were many who thought that the whole of the West would be submerged by the Red torrent. I did not share that view; on the contrary I wrote at the time that Russian Communism was a substance not assimilable by the European, a type that has in its history thrown all its efforts and energies in the scale of individualism. Time has passed, and the fearful ones of a while since have recovered their tranquillity. They have recovered their tranquillity precisely at the moment when they might with reason lose it. Because now indeed is the time when victorious, overwhelming Communism may spread over Europe.
This is how it appears to me. Now, just as before, the creed of Russian Communism does not interest or attract European — offers them no tempting future. And not for the trivial reasons that the apostles of Communism — obstinate, unheeding, strangers to fact — are in the habit of alleging. The bourgeois of the West knows quite well, that even without Communism, the days are numbered of the man who lives exclusively on his income and hands it down to his children. It is not this that renders Europe immune to the Russian creed, still less is it fear. The arbitrary bases on which Sorel founded his tactics of violence twenty years ago seem to us stupid enough to-day. The bourgeois is no coward, as Sorel thought, and at the actual moment is more inclined to violence than the workers. Everybody knows that if Bolshevism triumphed in Russia, it was because there were in Russia no bourgeois. Fascism, which is a petit bourgeois movement, has shown itself more violent than all the labour movement combined. It is nothing of all this then that prevents the European from flinging himself into Communism, but a much simpler reason. It is that the European does not see in the Communistic organisation an increase of human happiness.
And still, I repeat, it seems to me quite possible that in the next few years Europe may grow enthusiastic for Bolshevism. Not for its own sake, rather in spite of what it is. Imagine that the “five year plan” pursued with herculean efforts by the Soviet Government fulfils expectations and that the economic situation of Russia is not only restored, but much improved. Whatever the content of Bolshevism be, it represents a gigantic human enterprise. In it, men have resolutely embraced a purpose of reform, and live tensely under the discipline that such a faith instils into them. If natural forces, so responseless to the enthusiasms of man, do not bring failure to this attempt; if they merely give it free scope to act, its wonderful character of a mighty enterprise will light up the continental horizon as with a new and flaming constellation. If Europe, in the meantime, persists in the ignoble vegetative existence of these last years, its muscles flabby for want of exercise, without any plan of a new life, how will it be able to resist the contaminating influence of such an astounding enterprise? It is simply a misunderstanding of the European to expect that he can hear unmoved that call to new action when he has no standard of a cause as great to unfurl in opposition. For the sake of serving something that will give a meaning to his existence, it is not impossible that the European may swallow his objections to Communism and feel himself carried away not by the substance of the faith, but by the fervour of conduct it inspires.
To my mind the building-up of Europe into a great national State is the one enterprise that could counterbalance a victory of the “five year plan”. Experts in political economy assure us that such a victory has little probability in its favour. But it would be degradation indeed, if anti-Communism were to hope for everything from the material difficulties encountered by its adversary. His failure would then be equivalent to universal defeat of actual man. Communism is an extravagant moral code, but nothing less than a moral code. Does it not seem more worthy and more fruitful to oppose to that Slavonic code, a new European code, the inspiration towards a new programme of life?
 
(edited by Nicoletta Mosconi)


[1] Ortega y Gasset, The Revolt of the Masses, New York, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1993, p. 139.
[2] Cfr. infra, p. 222.
[3] Cfr. infra, p. 219.
[4] Mario Albertini, Lo Stato nazionale, Bologna, Il Mulino, 1997.
[5] Cfr. infra, p. 222.
[6] Cfr. ibidem.

 

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