Year XL, 1998, Number 3 - Page 214



Only recently has federalism become a widespread and widely accepted political outlook in Italy. This is certainly an effect of the success of European unification and of the movement of ideas behind it. However, during the nineteenth and much of the twentieth century federalism remained largely extraneous to Italian culture, which, as in the rest of continental Europe, was influenced by the political model of the French state, i.e. of “one and indivisible republic”.
Between the French Revolution and the Second World War federalism never became a leading principle for political action, nor did it succeed in affecting the historical development of the European continent, except in the small state of Switzerland, which adopted the constitutional model of the United States of America. Thanks to its marginal position and neutral role in the European states system, Switzerland remained sheltered from the centralizing effects of power struggles. Consequently it has succeeded up to the present day in maintaining a form of state organization consisting of two independent and coordinated levels of government (federal and cantonal). However, the mainstream of history favoured the affirmation of the opposite principle: that of the unitary and centralized state.
But the federalist point of view made it possible to identify the limitations of Europe’s nation state organization. In Italian political culture, the federalism of Carlo Cattaneo was the viewpoint of an isolated thinker, on the sidelines of the risorgimento movement. Like others in the previous century (for example Constantin Frantz in Germany or Pierre Joseph Proudhon in France), he had seen the negative aspects of the political formula of the unitary nation-state. He sensed the profound relationship that exists between war and the absolute sovereignty of states, between international anarchy and the predominance of centralizing, militarist and authoritarian tendencies within the states. He consequently challenged the claim of the unitary state to be the highest form of political organization.
During the 1848 revolution, as at every outbreak of war or revolution in Europe from the French Revolution on, the need emerged to reorganize the continent on a democratic basis, and the banner was raised from several quarters (for example Considérant, Hugo, Lamartine, Ruge) championing the United States of Europe. Cattaneo was among the first to use this formula in his Memoirs on the insurrection of Milan of 1848. “We will have true peace”, he wrote in conclusion to his essay, “when we have the United States of Europe”.[1]
Knowledge of the institutional mechanisms of the federal state offered Luigi Einaudi a criterion for highlighting the limitations of the League of Nations and for suggesting the European Federation as the real alternative to war. The First World War marked the beginning of a new phase in the history of Europe, the first manifestation of the crisis of the nation-state and the decadence of the European states system. With Einaudi a new idea emerged, attributing the cause of war to the crisis of the nation state and indicating a precise alternative: the United States of Europe.
In fact, the nation state had assured the progress of Europe as long as it was able to control the development of industrial production, which tended to intensify and multiply economic and social relations between individuals and to unify them across ever vaster areas. As production and trade relations extended beyond state borders, individual societies emerged from their original isolation and became more and more closely interdependent. Thus a socio-economic system of global dimensions was formed, the world market, on which all people and all peoples depend for the satisfaction of their needs. Faced with this tendency, the political formula of the nation state fell into decay. At the root of the crisis of the nation state lies the contradiction between the internationalization of the productive process and the national dimension of political power. In consequence, because of the fragmentation of Europe into many small states, which blocked the development of modern productive power tended to emigrate towards the vast spaces of the United States and the Soviet Union, where the tendency to expansion in production and trade relations met no obstacles.
According to Einaudi, the First World War must be interpreted in the light of the crisis of the nation-state and Europe’s need for unity. “‘The present war”, he wrote in 1918, “is the sentence of European unity imposed by force by an ambitious empire, but it is also the bloody endeavour to develop a superior political form”.[2] On other words, the war was the expression of Europe’s need for unity, and Germany’s search for “living space” was the attempt by violent means to follow the push of the productive forces, which demanded an economy, a society and a state of European dimensions.
The democratic and rational alternative to German imperialism was, in Einaudi’s view, the European Federation, which would have enabled a consensual unification of Europe “by the sword of God” and not “of Satan”, as he said in his memorable speech of 27th July 1947 to the Constituent Assembly in Italy.[3] In the era of the crisis of the nation-state, the alternative facing the states is not between unity and division, but between two different forms of unity: an empire or a federation.
At the same time, Einaudi considered the European Federation as an alternative to the limitations of the League of Nations. This international organization had been created to guarantee peace, but was entirely inadequate to the purpose because of its lack of any power to limit state sovereignty. Having identified the basic shortcoming of the organization, Einaudi wrote two lucid articles published in the Corriere della Sera in 1918,[4] predicting that it would not eliminate division, conflicts and wars among the states. This was duly confirmed by the Second World War.
Other authors, such as Giovanni Agnelli and Attilio Cabiati in Italy, Lord Lothian in England, Jacques Lambert in France, and Clarence Streit in the United States, made similar criticisms of the League of Nations in the inter-war period, basing their ideas on the theory of the federal state. The fact remains that Einaudi was able to identify the limitations of the League of Nations when it was still at the planning stage.
These writings, which, under the pseudonym of Junius, Einaudi collected in 1920 in the small volume entitled Political Letters,[5] published by Laterza, had no influence on politico-cultural debate after the First World War and were forgotten by the author himself.
However, during the Second World War, when they happened to fall into the hands of two antifascists, Altiero Spinelli and Ernesto Rossi, confined on the island of Ventotene, they appeared as a revelation. Together with some books by Lord Lothian and Lionel Robbins, the leading personalities of the federalist school which developed in England during the 30’s, they were the starting point for the reflections which led to the elaboration of the Ventotene Manifesto.
What united these two personalities was not simply anti-fascism. It was also dissatisfaction with traditional political ideas, which had revealed their inadequacy to counter fascism. Hence the search for new political formulae.
Rossi’s great merit was that of having circulated the federalist literature at Ventotene. Being a professor of economy, he had been authorized to correspond with Luigi Einaudi, who had arranged for some precious federalist books, entirely unknown to Italian political culture, to reach Ventotene. Here lie the sources which inspired the Ventotene Manifesto.
The greatness of these men lies in having seen the underlying evolutionary line of contemporary history. At the time when Hitler was dominating Europe, having overthrown France, and was shifting the attack to the Soviet Union, these solitary thinkers, meditating in the isolation of internment on how Europe and the world should be organized after the tragedy of the war, had the intellectual strength to launch the idea of the United States of Europe.
It is not possible to make a detailed examination of the Ventotene Manifesto here. I will limit myself to extracting the essential concepts, which seem to me to mark the novelty of the document, which represents a genuine turning point in federalist literature: the shift from theoretical reflection to a plan of action.
As regards the theoretical fundaments of the Manifesto, the concept of the crisis of the nation state occupies a central position. Colorni writes in the preface: “In the minds of various people the central idea was forged that the basic contradiction which causes crises, wars, and the exploitation that afflicts society is the existence of sovereign States which have a geographic, economic and military individuality, consider other States as competitors and potential enemies and live in a perpetual state of bellum omnium contra omnes with respect to each other.[6] This concept allows a new reading of contemporary history. On this basis, the authors of the Manifesto made a deeper analysis of the causes of imperialism and fascism, the essential elements of which were already present in the works of their federalist sources. What gave rise to these phenomena was the fusion of state and nation. It created an explosive mixture which developed authoritarian tendencies within the state and aggressive tendencies on the international level. The aggressiveness of the state is explained in the context of the theory of raison d’état which in the final instance assigns the cause of imperialism and war to state sovereignty and international anarchy. The more specific cause of imperialism in the era of world wars is identified in the crisis of the European states system. This is determined by the growing interdependence of the national economies, which pushed each state to seek to weaken its neighbours by protectionism and to enlarge the economic area subject to its control, and pushed Germany to wage the hegemonic war to conquer the continent.
As regards fascism, it is defined as the point of arrival of the historical evolution of the nation-state, the expression of the bellicose and authoritarian tendencies latent in its closed and centralized structure, which had become virulent with the exacerbation of the struggle for power in Europe. On the socio-economic level, fascism is the totalitarian and corporatist response to the economic stagnation of a market whose dimensions are inadequate to the development of the modern productive techniques; to the disintegration of society, degraded to the ground of the clash between corporative interests; to the need to eliminate every social division, which weakens the state’s capacity for defence; and to the exigency to adapt the productive system to the imperatives of a war economy.
But the truly innovative significance of Ventotene Manifesto lies in the area of action. Federalism thus becomes a criterion of knowledge and action, which inspires a new form of political behaviour and an autonomous political commitment.
The autonomy of the federalist vision of politics and history compared to that of other political currents makes it possible to consider the European Federation as a genuine political alternative to the nation-states system and as the priority objective of a new political programme, from which springs a new movement, organized solely to pursue that objective. Spinelli advanced further along this new route on which Einaudi had embarked. Closer examination of the former’s contribution reveals two major limitations of Einaudi’s federalist thinking. First, for the latter, federalism remained a supplementary outlook to liberalism, a simple institutional schema capable of protecting liberal-democratic values and institutions from the consequences of international anarchy. Moreover, the works of Einaudi contain no political proposal to translate the federalist design into reality. These are also the limitations of Ernesto Rossi’s conception of federalism which, on the whole, was closer to that of Einaudi than to that of Spinelli. And this explains why Rossi, who was after all one of the promoters of the European Federalist Movement (MFE), abandoned his federalist commitment after the collapse of the European Defence Community (1954).
Spinelli developed a theory of democratic action to unify a group of states, intended as a new sector of federalist thinking. The fundamental objectives of this action are: a) the current relevance of the struggle for the European Federation, b) the priority of European Federation over any other political objective, and c) the shift of the dividing line between the forces of progress and the forces of conservation onto the international level.
a) In the Ventotene Manifesto there is a different attitude to that of those who, previously, had chosen federalism to define their position towards power, society and the course of history, but had confined themselves to denouncing the historical crisis of the nation-state, placing the European Federation in an indeterminate future, without drawing up a precise action plan. This document is inspired by a central idea, that of the current relevance of the European Federation, a political objective which is not only necessary but has also become possible in the new historical context created by the Second World War. The Manifesto predicted that the war would develop the objective conditions for European unification, by making the historical crisis of the nation-state evolve into a political crisis, thus opening the way to the federalist initiative. In the preface we read, “While the ideal of a European Federation, a prelude to a world federation, might have been considered a distant utopia a few years ago, it would now, at the end of this war, seem to be an achievable goal, almost within our reach”.[7] The European Federation, seen as a stage on the way towards world federation, is the objective of an immediate and concrete battle, led by a movement created for that purpose.
b) The second innovation consists in the strategic priority of the struggle for the European Federation over the struggle for the reform of the nation state. All political parties, whether inspired by the liberal, democratic, socialist or national ideologies, are united by the priority they give to improving the situation of their state, and the conviction that peace is the automatic consequence of the affirmation respectively of the principles of liberty, equality, social justice and national independence. What singles out the federalist point of view is its reversal of this order of priorities. In the Manifesto we read: “‘The question that must be resolved first, failing which progress is no more than mere appearance, is the definitive abolition of the division of Europe into national, sovereign States… Anyone taking the problem of the international order as the central problem in this historical age and considering its solution to be the prerequisite for solving all the institutional, economic and social problems imposed on our society, is obliged to consider all the issues relating to internal political conflicts and the attitudes of each political party from this point of view, even with regard to the tactics and of daily struggle”.[8]
The fact is that whoever is concerned only with national reform fails to address the cause of international conflicts, imperialism and war. Because of international anarchy, national independence tends to turn into nationalism, freedom tends to be sacrificed to the need to centralize power and to promote military security, and military spending is an alternative to social spending. All this reveals the lack of autonomy in internal politics and the illusion of the reform of the nation-state, overtaken by processes which transcend it.
Consequently, “if tomorrow the struggle were to remain restricted within traditional national boundaries, it would be very difficult to escape the old contradictions”.[9] Since the traditional political forces pursue the reform of the nation state, they remain prisoners of this institution, they are subject to its decadence and therefore stay in the field of conservation.
c) Thirdly therefore there is a resulting shift of the centre of the political struggle from the national to the international level. In other words, a new dividing line tends to form between the forces of progress and those of conservation, as we read in the Ventotene Manifesto. “The dividing line between progressive and reactionary parties no longer coincides with the formal lines of more or less democracy, or the pursuit of more or less socialism, but… along a very new and substantial line: those who conceive the essential… goal of struggle as being the ancient one, the conquest of national political power — and who, albeit involuntarily, play into the hands of reactionary forces, letting the incandescent lava of popular passions set in the old moulds, and thus allowing the old absurdities to arise once again — and those who see the main purpose as the creation of a solid international State, who will direct popular forces towards this goal, and who, even if they were to win national power, would use it first and foremost as an instrument for achieving international unity”.[10]
In the era of the crisis of the nation state and of the internationalization of the productive process, the clash between the forces of progress and those of conservation no longer takes place on national ground between the principles of liberty and dictatorship, or between those of socialism and capitalism. Anyone choosing to commit himself in the national field, even with the objective of achieving more democracy or more socialism, is automatically involved in conservation, because his political action consolidates the nation-states. Consequently, the prime objective for anyone who wants to promote progress is the commitment to overcome the division of Europe and the world into sovereign states. The supranational course of history is bringing out a new dividing line among political and social forces: that between nationalism and federalism.
Ernesto Rossi’s contribution to the Manifesto is limited to part of the third and final chapter, entitled “Post-war Duties. Reform of Society”.[11] The gist is as follows: first, a harsh polemic against communism, which, by bringing the economy under state control, creates new privileges by concentrating power in the hands of the single party; the task of social policies is to correct the distortions of the market through state intervention in the economy; nationalization of the most powerful economic groups, cooperatives, worker share-holding and agrarian reform are indicated as the main instruments of the struggle against the monopolies and landed property; emphasis is laid on the fight against all forms of corporativism, even trade unionist, which perpetuate the prileges of the more powerful categories at the expense of the rest of society; proposals are made for free compulsory education for the most gifted young people, the guarantee to all of social minimum, without however reducing the stimulus to work and save, the abolition of the concordat between Church and State, and the firm separation of Church and State. These pages contained in a nutshell the themes which he developed in his books and in his political and cultural activity after the war and which were to make him well-known throughout Italy.
Another of the recurrent themes in Rossi’s writings which appears in the Manifesto as a result of his contribution, although it is developed in the first part (which was written by Spinelli), is the critique of nationalism. Rossi’s specific contribution is found in the Enlightenment-style polemic against the doctrinairism and mystification of nationalism, which hide the privileges of the dominant political classes and of the military and bureaucratic castes.
As emerges from his most important work on federalism, The United States of Europe,[12] published in Lugano in 1944 under the pseudonym of Storeno, Rossi conceives of federalist politics as a constitutional technique for the organization of power, which permits the elimination of armed conflicts between states which have signed the federal pact. More specifically, by removing military sovereignty from its member states, the Federation acquires the power to prevent war within its own borders. From this perspective, he illustrated with exemplary clarity the incompatibility of the organization of Europe into nation states with the principles of liberty, democracy and socialism. The first part of this essay, still relevant today, is especially noteworthy. It concerns the consequences of armed peace and shows clearly how the division of Europe into sovereign states constitutes an insurmountable obstacle to the full realization of the ideals of liberty and equality.
Understood in these limiting terms, federalism in Rossi’s thinking is the logical completion of radical liberalism or liberal-socialism and not a criterion of autonomous political action. Being closely bound to the solution of the problem of war, Rossi’s adherence to federalism is much more weakly motivated than that of Spinelli. The practical consequence of this theoretical position was to be the abandonment of the European Federalist Movement after the failure of the European Defence Community (30th August 1954), i.e. when, with the attenuation of the East-West conflict, the danger of a third world war began to recede.
Starting from 1954, when he considered that the European Federation was no longer of immediate relevance, Rossi dedicated himself to the reform of the Italian state, an objective identified as illusory in the Ventotene Manifesto and condemned to failure.
As regards Italy’s foreign policy, he proposed the neutral option, inspired by the model of the Swiss Confederation.[13]
It was in reality an impossible option, considering the strategic position occupied by Italy in the Mediterranean, and meant abandoning the grand federalist design for Europe, which had been intended as the start of a great international peace process, the first stage in the unification of the world. With hindsight, one may see the recent entry of three neutral countries (Finland, Sweden and Austria) into the European Union as justifying the criticism of Ernesto Rossi’s neutralist position. On one hand, the dissolution of the communist bloc (an event to which the European Community contributed) brought about the bankruptcy of neutralism (which even Switzerland will sooner or later have to renounce). On the other hand, the fact that neutral countries are joining the European Union marks the victory of the prospect of European unity over neutralism.
In domestic politics he was a tireless opponent of corruption, monopolies and the excessive power of the Church. He did not realise that the excessive power of the monopolies and the Church was a consequence of the crisis of the nation state, and hence of the incapacity of the latter to make the general interest prevail over the particular interests expressed by these centres of power. In other words he did not fully understand the importance of the European Federation for the solution of the major problems of our time, including the realization of the reforms which were closest to his heart. For federalists it is quite obvious that a state like the European federation would have the power and the means to impose antimonopolistic legislation and to prevent the Church from intruding into the political sphere.
A page from Spinelli’s European Diary illustrates these limitations in Rossi’s political thinking. The year is 1954: after the collapse of the European Defence Community, and with it the prospect of establishing a European Political Community, the survival of the MFE is in danger. Rossi shows generous concern for Spinelli’s future. He knows Mattei and wants to suggest that he takes on Spinelli at ENI. But Spinelli refuses: “Rossi... is very fond of ENI”, he notes, “this great national Italian oil corporation. He is always writing in its defence against the danger that oil exploration and the exploitation of Italian oil will end up in the hands of the Americans. I thanked him, but I did not accept. I do not believe in the value of nationalizing Italian oil. Del Viscovo, who is in the research department at ENI, has told me some of the goings-on in this big state trust. And it is natural that it’s like that. A big nationalized company can only be an element of moralization in the economic life of a country if one can be sure it will be administered with criteria of public morality which today exist perhaps in England, but certainly not in Italy. Here it is an endless source of graft, especially for the governing party and its hangers-on… It’s strange that Rossi, a federalist, cannot make these after all quite simple observations on the inanity of certain sovereign acts of our current European states. But Rossi’s federalism has always been born of that superficial way of thinking which Hegel calls räsonnieren. He has never even suspected that it could be a canon for the interpretation of politics”.[14]
This last sentence underlines the radical difference between Spinelli and Rossi. The idea that federalism is a “canon for the interpretation of politics” casts light on Spinelli’s innovative aim to make federalism fully independent of traditional political thinking. Spinelli’s greatness lies in a powerful concentration of thought, in the indomitable will always to begin again, even after the most bitter defeats, and always to keep the European Federation as priority political objective. Because he never, even at the most difficult moments, abandoned his commitment to the European Federation, as the alternative to the regime of nation states, he always knew what had to be done to hasten the death of the nation states. His objective was always to give the federalist conception of politics the same autonomy of judgement as the liberal or socialist ideologies.
Usually anyone who decides to engage in politics chooses to improve the situation of his own country, and to this end, chooses a party and an ideology as the context of action. Spinelli on the contrary, while Italian, did not think of Italy as a reality to accept uncritically, nor did he consider the existing ideologies as the only frameworks within which to limit his own political projects. He continually sought to detach himself from national conditioning and that of traditional ideologies. This is closely akin to a scientific attitude, selecting the most effective means for the chosen end; and at the same time it is in some ways an ascetic attitude, in that it involved renouncing the benefits deriving from the occupation of power. Since the objective was, and continues to be, international, he refused the nation and the parties as the context of his own political action and founded a supranational movement. He set up a political struggle for a power which does not exist, but which must be created. Hence the extraordinary concentration of thought and action to carry out a revolutionary change: to organize a political struggle and a movement for a power which does not exist, but which must be created ex novo. This is the great innovation which we owe to Spinelli: having introduced a new form of political behaviour.
Spinelli was not utopist, as many continue to maintain. At the time of the EDC he succeeded in convincing De Gasperi that it was not possible to constitute a European army without a European government. De Gasperi in turn convinced Schuman and Adenauer. As a consequence the ad hoc Assembly was convened, an indefinite term for a constituent assembly, which worked for six months and produced a draft constitution which had strong federal elements: apart from constituting a centre of European power (the European army), it subjected the latter to the control of a European Parliament elected by universal suffrage. It was in short a fundamental stage on the way to the construction of a European state. Hence the EDC was a concretely achievable objective. It is a reasonable hypothesis that, without the death of Stalin and the ensuing thaw in East-West relations, the EDC would have been approved. This is the hypothesis which, with extraordinary timing, Spinelli formulated on the very day of Stalin’s death. Let us read what he says in his diary on 6th March 1953: “The most important event of today is the death of Stalin. In the interest of the construction of European unity it would have been good if Stalin had lived for one more year... Stalin’s death may also signify the end of the current attempt to unite Europe”.[15] It is worth noting however that four of the six member-states of the European Community had already ratified it.
Thus in a speech to the European Parliament on 24th May 1984, Mitterrand expressed his own support for the European Union draft Treaty proposed by Spinelli and passed by the European Parliament. It was a Community reform project which, while containing federal elements, would not have immediately established a European federal state. Similarly the European Political Community, the companion project to the EDC, was not a Federation, but nevertheless represented a decisive step on the road to the European Federation. In 1954 it was France which buried the EDC and with it the European Political Community. In 1985 it was Great Britain which brought down the project of European Union.
In conclusion to this examination of Ernesto Rossi’s contribution to the Ventotene Manifesto, I would like to refer to something said by Spinelli during an interview with Gianfranco Spadaccia, published in Astrolabio 26th February 1967, a few days after the death of Ernesto Rossi, about his own contribution and that of Rossi to the federalist battle. On the whole it seems to me a very balanced judgement: “Rossi on his own would not have promoted the federalist battle”, said Spinelli, “however without Rossi federalism would not have the physiognomy it had”.[16]
Spinelli was the founder of a new political movement: Rossi contributed to defining its character. Like Moses, they have both died before reaching the Promised Land. It is up to us to bring to a conclusion the path which was undertaken and which has been shown to us by its initiators by following the line drawn by them.
Lucio Levi

[1] C. Cattaneo, Dell’insurrezione di Milano nel 1848 e della successive guerra. Memorie, Milano, Feltrinelli, 1973, p. 244.
[2] L. Einaudi, “La Società delle nazioni è un ideale possible?”, in La guerra e l’unità europea, Bologna, Il Mulino, 1986, p. 27.
[3] Ibid., p. 48.
[4] L. Einaudi, “La Società delle nazioni è un ideale possible?” and “Il dogma della sovranità e l’ idea della Società delle nazioni”, in op. cit., pp. 19-36.
[5] Junius, Lettere politiche, Bari, Laterza, 1920.
[6] A. Spinelli, The Ventotene Manifesto, The Altiero Spinelli Institute for Federalist Studies, Pavia, 1988, pp. 11-12.
[7] Ibid., p. 14.
[8] Ibid., pp. 31 and 13.
[9] Ibid., p. 29.
[10] Ibid., pp. 32 and 33.
[11] Ibid., p. 34 and following.
[12] Storeno, Gli Stati Uniti d’Europa, Lugano, Nuove Edizioni di Capolago, 1944, republished in L’Europe de demain, ed. Centre d’action pour la Fédération européenne, Neuchâtel, Baconnière. 1945.
[13] E. Rossi, “Alleanza atlantica o neutralità?”, in Il Ponte, XX, 1964, n. 4.
[14] A. Spinelli, Diario europeo. 1948-1969, Bologna, Il Mulino, 1989, vol. I, pp. 213-14.
[15] Ibid., pp. 167-68.
[16] G. Spadaccia, “Ernesto Rossi. La battaglia federalista (interview with Altiero Spinelli)”, in L’astrolabio, V, 1967, n. 8, p. 29.

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