Federalism and the Great Ideologies

By Francesco Rossolillo

Essays | Year XXXI, 1989, Number 1, Page 7

The task in hand.

To understand the nature of federalism as a political movement, it is essential to identify its place within the tortuous and contrastive historical flow of events and ideas, and thus to examine the relationship in which it stands with regard to the great political ideologies which preceded it from the French Revolution onwards. This analysis may be seen as tending to coincide with the global analysis of the meaning of recent history, characterized by the gradual development, in Europe and the World over the last two centuries, of man’s awareness as a social being; the emergence of those values which constitute the main points of reference for political thought and action in our age; and of the formation of the institutions of the modern democratic state and the categories which people today usually adopt when coming to grips with the ways in which social life is organized.

Commitment to federalism thus cannot be separated from an examination of the past, and, in particular, from an examination of the methods used to interpret it which have been handed down to us by Marxism, i.e. by the most recent of the trends of thought which view history as a meaningful process. What we have to do is go beyond the conception of history as the history of class struggle: not in the name of a philosophy which conceives the historical process as a succession of events each of which only makes sense in itself — in other words, which makes no sense at all — but by replacing the Marxist frame of thought, which is now in irreversible decline, with a new conceptual framework. This new conceptual framework would allow us to carry out a persuasive analysis of the events in our past which Marxist culture has been unable to explain, and should thus enable us to indicate a credible vision of the future and to provide criteria to direct the thoughts and actions of those people today who feel the contradiction between values and facts in the current state of society as something which deeply affects their personal sense of responsibility.

Ideologies in today’s world.

Anyone observing the political alignments in Western Europe today is faced with liberal, democratic and socialist ideologies in the diverse interpretations placed on them by the parties which refer to them, forming a synchronic panorama, in that they are all present contemporaneously on the political scene.

These same ideologies are generally seen as fragile screens, now practically devoid of any real content, whose pre-eminent function is to provide some justification for the parties’ power games: a justification which is generally felt to be so tenuous and insubstantial as to lead part of the educated world to believe that ours is the era of the end of ideologies.

All this should not cause us to forget that the liberal, democratic and socialist ideologies emerged in successive historical eras, and in the periods in which each of them arose they constituted powerful motivations for human behaviour, sparking off the great revolutionary drives which marked the history of Europe in the last two centuries. In those times they gave the European peoples — or at least the active sections among them — the vision of a future worth fighting for and the fundamental categories for interpreting the past from which their struggle sprang.

It is precisely in this historical perspective that the great ideologies must be placed if their link with federalism is to be established.

Pre-industrial society.

Thus we are trying to see if there is a thread which links the great revolutionary explosions in Europe which followed each other from the end of the 18th century and the ideologies which inspired them, and which reveals their link with our contemporary political horizon and with the ideological options at our disposal.

This thread must be sought first of all in the deepest currents of the historical process, in what Braudel calls long duration movements. In particular these currents relate to the evolution of the basic structures of human society, those on which all others depend in the final instance. What we are talking about is the mode of production, that is the organization of human activity on which the reproduction of the species depends and which thus, by determining the forms in which the biological life of mankind is perpetuated, assures the foundation on which the cultural aspects of civilized society may develop.

The thread we are seeking is that gigantic and progressive acceleration of the production process — begun in Europe and soon afterwards extended throughout the world — which goes by the name of the Industrial Revolution and whose beginnings go back to halfway through the 18th century. Certainly the Industrial Revolution was simply a great speeding up of a process of modernization whose beginnings in Europe can roughly be located in the early 16th century (and even in the 14th century in Italy). It was in fact between the beginning of the 16th and the middle of the 18th centuries that, at least in some parts of Europe, the structural and cultural preconditions for the Industrial Revolution were laid, with the birth of the urban network, the development of an embryonic merchant and financial bourgeoisie, the birth of modern science, the first great inventions, such as the printing press and firearms, and the gradual laicization of culture.

For the purposes of this paper, however, it would be irrelevant to take up any position in the debate regarding the exact beginning of the modernization of European society. What matters is that, up to the middle of the 18th century, that process was slow and irregular, affecting only limited areas of the continent and Great Britain, while, from the mid-18th century onwards, the development and synergetic effect of each of the factors contributing to modernization imposed an ever faster rhythm on the process, caused it to spread throughout Europe and caused the emergence of a new and decisive factor in the transformation, namely the conscious action of the masses. Thus, whatever the importance of the transition period, from the point of view of this analysis there is a precise meaning in distinguishing between an industrial and a pre-industrial phase in modern European history.

Let us now schematically recall the fundamental characteristics of the mode of production in the pre-industrial phase. The survival of the great majority of the population of Europe at that time depended on subsistence farming, a system employing techniques which allowed those who worked the land to produce only the goods necessary for the bare survival of their own family (apart from the payment of any fees or subsidies payable to feudal overlords). Alongside agriculture there existed a small craft industry and a small commercial sector (whose horizons, however, were limited to the village or district of a town), and a few major commercial streams concerning a small number of luxury goods and involving only a thin layer of society comprising aristocracy, merchants and bankers in a few large cities.

Pre-industrial European society was thus essentially devoid of vertical mobility and deeply fragmented. On the one hand, in fact, a bare subsistence economy condemned the vast majority of the population to a passive and subordinate role, taken as natural and immutable, which excluded it from any form of participation in the decision-making processes on which the collective destiny depended.

On the other hand, the spatial horizon of people’s lives was defined by the very nature of their occupation. The world of peasants who consumed what they produced without obtaining a surplus to sell on the market (or obtaining a surplus of negligible size) consisted of the fields they cultivated and the village where they met the other peasant-farmers and the craftsmen in the neighbourhood.

This was the society which generated and perpetuated a feudal type of organization of political power. Feudal is intended not only in the strong sense, valid for the Middle Ages, meaning regimes based on the relationship of loyalty between lords and vassals, but also in the more general sense which means forms of state in which, thanks to the ideological and institutional foundation of the divine right of kings, the thin social layer consisting of aristocracy and of the growing merchant and financial bourgeoisie, held, through land-ownership, the monopoly of political and economic power and exercised it, without check, on the inert and inarticulate mass which constituted almost the entire population.

The Industrial Revolution and the growing interdependence in human relationships.

With the beginning of the Industrial Revolution an element of overpowering dynamism erupted into this immobile and pulverized society. Thanks to a series of profound transformations in manufacturing production, agriculture, commerce, finance and transport, the historical process underwent an unprecedented acceleration. The new methods of organizing work, the technological innovations, the reduction of distances brought about by the evolution of the means of communication allowed the creation of ever greater surpluses and at the same time created the conditions for their absorption. The market was born, no longer as a specialized phenomenon limited to a restricted number of operators and goods, but as an integral structure in the daily life of the people. The cycle which goes from production to consumption, practically inexistent in the pre-industrial phase, tended to become increasingly longer and more complex. The productive process became an integrated phenomenon, requiring the co-operation of everyone, whether in the roles of producers, distributors, or consumers. Human relationships became increasingly more interdependent.

In the context of this great drive towards an increasingly intensified interdependence — which has remained a constant feature of the historical process, from the beginning of the Industrial Revolution till today — it is useful for the purposes of our analysis to distinguish two directional tendencies, each corresponding to the progressive surmounting of the two different kinds of obstacle — the social and the spatial — which segregated and almost immobilized most people’s lives in the pre-industrial phase. From this point of view we can thus speak of an increasing interdependence in depth and in extension. The first of these two tendencies had the effect of progressively reducing the enormous social distances which in the previous phase had separated the narrow layer of the aristocracy and the great merchants from the passive masses, the rest of the population. Thus it is that the latter has gradually divided up into social classes, each with its own particular characteristics and a definite role of its own in the production process; here the classes have gradually entered the circle of power, taking on the responsibilities corresponding to the role they played in the production process.

The second tendency has brought about an enlargement of people’s territorial horizons: thanks to the changing conditions of work, speeded up transport and the diffusion of knowledge, people came to see themselves as members of ever-larger communities. It is thus that the modern state arose through uniform legislation and rational administration, in response to the need to regulate the production process and the functioning of the market in vast areas.

These two aspects of the process of increasing interdependence in human relations have manifested themselves with varying results in the diverse parts of Europe. In the areas which, like Italy and Germany, were divided into regional states — or indeed into city-states — the impulse towards an increased interdependence in extension encountered the obstacle of political division, with all its economic and social consequences. This meant that the problem of political unification became the principal problem in German and Italian history in the middle years of the 19th century. In this period, in these two regional areas, the problems linked to the growth in interdependence in depth were in a certain sense overshadowed by those linked to the growth in interdependence in extension.

This was inevitable, since national unification constituted an essential presupposition for any scheme of political and social emancipation, so that it can safely be said that without that, the Italian and German areas would have been condemned to a state of backwardness similar to that found in the Balkan states. But the fact remains that the pre-eminence of the national problem over social considerations was for many decades the cause of considerable delays in political and civil growth in the two countries.

Meanwhile, in other European regions, which were already politically united when the Industrial Revolution got under way, the impulse towards interdependence in extension — which coincided with the interests of governments and most political forces — found no great institutional obstacles and was able to proceed without any violent upheavals towards the complete unification of the national market and the consolidation of the bureaucratic state. From this point of view France and Great Britain are paradigmatic cases.

But the problem was posed in different terms when it came to the process of integration in depth. The progressive subdivision of society into classes and the acquisition by each of them of social dignity and political responsibility took place through a process dramatically marked by revolutionary explosions (more violent on the Continent than in Great Britain, because of the latter’s less rigidly structured organisation of power, due in turn to its insular situation).

This happened because the spontaneous movement of society towards growing integration inevitably encountered institutional obstacles from time to time. This movement, in fact, by continuously altering the economic and social balance, provided the preconditions for a parallel evolution in the structure of political power. The two processes, however, could not advance at the same pace.

This was because vested interests crystallized around the existing institutional system — in this specific case class interests — which tended to perpetuate its survival even after the historical conditions which had determined its birth no longer existed.

In the historical period which we are considering, phases in which the institutional structure of the major European countries affected by the Industrial Revolution could provide an evolutionary response to problems arising from the stage in the evolution of the production process — and in which therefore the productive forces expressed by that process could give the maximum impetus to society’s economic and social progress — were followed by phases in which the institutional structure was in opposition to the production process, and thus suffocated instead of liberating the productive forces. In these phases political power no longer expressed the values which were developing in civilized society, but held back the evolution of the latter and frustrated its aspirations.

It was precisely in these situations that there developed the numerous revolutionary explosions that marked European history from the beginning of the Industrial Revolution to the end of the 19th century. Contradictions between the mode of production and institutional structures could in fact only be resolved by the conscious uprising of the excluded masses.

It is for this reason that the most obvious political consequence — at the level of the history of events — of the impulse towards an increase in the degree of interdependence between people in Europe in the first phase of the Industrial Revolution was class struggle. And class struggle provides us with an indispensable key — though not the only one — to a reading of the history of Europe in this period, that is to say of the events which are the principal framework of our political culture, if it is true that the values which today direct the political debate in Europe — and, in the wake of Europe, in the world — have become the common heritage of mankind thanks to the great social struggles that marked the period.

The class struggle.

This process came about through the successive emancipation of distinct social classes: first the great manufacturing, farming and financial upper bourgeoisie, then the petty bourgeoisie of the crafts and trades, and finally the proletariat. Each of these classes, in the period of its rise to emancipation, by raising the question of a transformation of the established order, forced it to adapt to the degree of evolution reached by the mode of production (thus at one point this meant replacing absolutism with constitutional monarchy; at another point the introduction of universal suffrage; at a third the construction of the welfare state). In so doing, each class in turn led the process of human emancipation, interpreting the instances of progress in the whole of society and thus setting itself up as representative of the people as a whole. But as soon as each class had won its own battle, installed itself in power and imposed a new established order, evolution in the mode of production gave rise to a new class, and with this it also gave rise to a new set of contradictions between the needs of productive life and existing institutions. The class in power ceased, after some time, to act as a universal class, and allowed itself to be guided by the logic of defending the privileges it had acquired and its own power interests.

Thus the same situation reproduced itself in each succeeding period. The development of the productive forces was suffocated, the evolution of society towards a more advanced stage in its own process of emancipation was halted. Hence the conditions for a new revolutionary explosion were created, with different institutional objectives but with the same general historical meaning: that of a further step on the way to human emancipation.

It is important to be aware that what was at stake in the various stages into which the history of class struggle can be subdivided was much more than the opposition of economic interests. The great historical transformations which developed at that time presupposed the mobilization of enormous moral energy in the masses which were playing the leading role: and purely economic interests could not provide a sufficiently strong motivation to human action. In those struggles much more was at stake. What was at stake was the possibility of thinking of the future not simply the individual’s future, but the community’s, and of the whole species; therefore the possibility to work out new criteria for interpreting reality and the past and hence for directing action. In the end, this is the common characteristic of all the periods of revolutionary fermentation, when the established social roles break down, motivations for action change and what had seemed impossible only a short time before suddenly becomes possible. What guides those who fight at the vanguard of renewal is not self-interest, but the awareness of being agents in the process of human emancipation.

The ideologies.

The degree of awareness of each of the classes which were protagonists in the various stages of the process were expressed in the liberal, democratic and socialist ideologies. Each of these contained the identification of values which constituted the essential motivation of the revolutionary impulse of the class emerging at one time or another; the indication of the specific institutional bottleneck which in each of the successive phases was holding up the process of the free development of the productive forces and that of the alternative structure to be realized; and an analysis of the social and historical situation which justified and conditioned the options worth taking, the choice of objectives and the definition of strategies.

The liberal, democratic and socialist ideologies thus bear the stamp of the historical period in which each of them motivated man’s struggle for emancipation. But at the same time they have transcended the immediate historical circumstances in which they were affirmed, since after all they did not disappear from the political and cultural debate with the end of their respective historical periods, but have continued, right up to the present day, to be alive in our culture and to provide political orientation: and that not only in the regions of the world which experienced the events of the class struggle later, but even in the European societies which experienced them first.

This came about because, in the French Revolution and in the other incandescent phases of transformation which punctuated the first period of the Industrial Revolution until the end of the 19th century, the values of liberty, equality and social justice, which gave the liberal, democratic and socialist movements their specific physiognomy, were not thought of, or experienced by these, as values of a single social class and limited to a single historical period, but as eternal and universal values, which as such maintain their validity even for us. They were values which expressed a hope, stirred by the illusion characteristic of all revolutionary moments, that every obstacle to progress will disappear: the hope that we are not far from a world free from every form of oppression and exploitation, in which man’s creativity can be fully expressed in the context of a community based on mutual respect and solidarity. It was a hope which could not be identified with a single value, but which brought all of them into play in the idea of human emancipation itself, and whose real justification lay in the fact that, behind whichever class was at the time emerging, the real protagonist of the transformation was the people as a whole.

The same ideologies, on the other hand, showed a completely different face in the historical periods following their affirmation, after the class which had been their standard-bearer was installed in the balance of power and was beginning to be faced with the problem of looking after their own specific interests and consolidating the institutional structure that guaranteed them. These were the periods during which it clearly emerged that the affirmation of the dominant ideology of the time had only been one step towards human emancipation, but had not fully realized it, and thus had not fully realized itself, because the revolution through which it had been imposed had not liberated mankind as such, but only part of it (the grand bourgeoisie, the petty bourgeoisie, the proletariat, or all the classes, but only within one country) or only one aspect of it (that specific aspect of man’s being which is associated with membership of a class, and not its being in its entirety). The content of the ideology in question then appeared partial and historically determined.

At these involutionary periods of modern European history, the ideology imposed on culture through the accession to power of the class which had been its standard-bearer, gradually ceased to be the frame of reference it had been for the behaviour and hopes of almost the whole of society in the previous period of revolutionary transformation. Although in an underground, unconscious process, it gradually became the instrumentum regni of the ruling class. The same words which years before had been revolutionary took on a conservative or reactionary meaning: the liberalism of those who, during the Third Republic, in the name of liberty opposed the reduction of the working day to ten hours had nothing to do with that of the revolutionaries of 1789.

Thus it became the goal of the new emergent class to overcome the limits of the dominant ideology. This new class was gaining an increasingly important role in the production process with the evolution of the production system, whereas in the previous phase it had not yet acquired a definite profile or a clear consciousness of its own revolutionary vocation and had been shut out of the circles of power; now it was knocking on the door demanding more advanced changes in institutions and pointing the way to new prospects to come.

The great revolutions which accompanied the first phase of industrialization in Europe must thus be interpreted in a line of continuity, albeit purely dialectic, as attempts (themselves incomplete) to complete the design of the preceding phase. Thus the historical succession of the liberal, democratic and socialist ideologies must not be seen as the result of a series of conflicts between opposing cultures, each provided with its own historical legitimacy. On the contrary, each ideology which in turn followed on historically from the last transcended its predecessor in the Hegelian sense, precisely because it came after it. This was because it did not limit itself to denying it, but in denying, conserved it: that is to say, it took over its content but put it into perspective, setting it in a wider context.

So it was that the democrats were able rightly to maintain that only with equality could true liberty be realized, and the socialists that only with justice could true liberty and true equality be achieved. This means that the most coherent way to be liberal in 1848 was to become involved in the battle for democracy, and the most coherent way to be both liberal and democratic at the turn of the century was to engage in the fight for socialism, since these were the fronts on which progress opposed conservatism and the struggles which involved all values (or at least the historically mature ones).

It is certainly true that the violent climate of class warfare has often caused features to emerge from the ideologies which, distinguishing one from the other, justified the social conflict; and overshadowed the aspect of continuity which is constituted by the fact that in negating its predecessor, each ideology nevertheless conserved what was still alive in it. But it is equally true that the dialectic continuity of this process can be seen today, beyond the superficial differences which are still maintained in political divisions, in the sediment which liberalism, democracy and socialism have left in the language, culture and institutions of contemporary Europe: that sediment which means that Europeans, and with them the whole of mankind, cannot now but call themselves at once liberal, democratic and socialist.

The birth of national peoples.

Socialism, of which communism is simply a variant, was the last ideology to emerge in Europe during the period of class struggle.[1]

To assign a date to the historical affirmation of socialism in Europe would inevitably be arbitrary. It is an accepted fact that socialism continued to strongly motivate the political behaviour of the working class, and with it, one way or another, of the whole of society, right up to the first decade following the Second World War. But it is also an accepted fact that, as regards the inclusion both of the proletariat into the political process and of the principles of socialist doctrine into culture, the final episode of the historical phase of class struggle can be said to be basically concluded with the entrance into the national parliaments, due also to the introduction of universal suffrage, of socialist and then communist representatives; with the recognition of the right to strike and the workers’ right to organize themselves into trade unions; and with the creation of the first social security provisions.

With these conquests, the proletariat was no longer the class which had nothing to lose but its chains, that was considered a biologically different race, by virtue of the social discrimination which had separated it from the bourgeoisie. It now became a recognized actor in the political process. It can thus be reasonably argued that, with the first two decades of this century, national peoples were born out of the integration of the classes.

That clearly does not mean, to take up a point made by Albertini, that the values of liberty, equality and social justice were completely realised in Europe at this time. But these values had been historically affirmed, had become part of the common heritage, part of the culture of everyone, even of those who denied them in their actions. And in keeping with this historical affirmation was the fact that, in the national context, new institutional transformations were no longer in view which might liberate the productive forces still suffocated by the existing structure of power (considering that the objective of proletarian dictatorship had shown itself in Western Europe to be a myth) and thus mobilize new resources and enlarge the internal market by creating new purchasing power.

The European system of states and nationalism.

The fact that at the beginning of the 20th century the process of integration in depth — at least in the form of class integration — had mostly been completed does not mean that the expansive potential of the process of industrialization as such had been exhausted. On the contrary, the evolution of the production system tended to proceed at an ever faster rate. It is worth noting that this was precisely the period in which American capitalism made its overwhelming expansion in the sectors of railways, iron and steel, banking and, later, the automobile. And it was in those years that the United States began to demonstrate a more vital economy than European countries.

The reason for this historical “leap ahead” lies in the fact that in the United States the faster development of productive forces was effectively underpinned by the continental dimensions of the market, while in Europe the same tendency, clearly present here too, found its path blocked by the dimensions of the market, bounded by national borders.

In this way a contradiction began to take form in Europe — one which had already been foreshadowed in the last quarter of the 19th century — which was to have a tragic effect on European history, and hence on world history, for the entire period up to the end of the Second World War.

In order to define its terms it is necessary to add one aspect to the picture which has been left aside so far: namely the nature of the international relationships in the context of which the process of industrialization in Europe had begun and was proceeding.

This context was the European system of states, the logic of which, in the various forms it took on to suit the various evolutionary stages of political, economic and social conditions on the Continent as a whole and in each of its parts, had conditioned the recurrence of certain events in European history from the reign of Charles V, giving a common stamp to institutions in all the countries in the area.

The essential characteristic of the European system of states was given on the one hand by its instability, due to the presence, on a relatively restricted territorial area, of several sovereign states, each of which constituted a danger for its territorial neighbours; and on the other hand by its permanence, due to the structural incapacity of any single state — reinforced by the deliberate policy of the insular power of Great Britain — to establish definitive hegemony over all the others. There was, therefore, a balance, but a balance in which war was recurrent and the prospect of war was constantly on the horizon, both in the lives of the people and in the calculations of governments.

This situation had a deep influence on the structure of the Continental powers, determining their political, administrative and territorial centralization (a destiny which only Great Britain escaped in part, thanks to its insular position). And when the process of industrialization and modernization allowed central power to create the necessary instruments — in particular an army formed by compulsory conscription and a state school system — the bureaucratic centralized state also generated its own ideological legitimation, using the idea of the nation to effect a profound change in the relationships between citizens and power.

To ensure the survival of the state in a context characterized by the constant presence of war (whether actual or potential), it was necessary for the citizens to become soldiers, prepared even to lay down their lives for the defence of the community. This objective was realized by spreading the idea of a bond, at once natural and semi-religious, which united the members of the same nation together against other nations, foreigners, who were seen as the enemy whom one must be ready to fight at any moment.

From the French Revolution onwards, a tendency emerged in European history which ran counter to the class struggle expressed through the great universal values of liberty, equality and social justice. The idea of the nation divided mankind into opposing hordes, even questioning the fact that mankind belongs to a single species.

Thus hatred for the foreigner per se was instilled in the spirit of the people, the universal nature of the values under the banner of which human emancipation was proceeding along its difficult path was negated and the defence of the fatherland was presented as more important than any struggle for the liberation of the classes.

The contradiction which thus became apparent continued for a long time to affect only the cultural sphere and was perceived only by a few isolated great minds, but did not have any serious effect on the collective awareness, so that for much of the 19th century the myth of national sovereignty was confused for most people with the democratic ideal of popular sovereignty. This was due to the fact that in that period, although war was continually evolving with the advance of the process of industrialization as regards both armaments, technology and strategic doctrines, and although it had, in the Napoleonic Wars, made a considerable qualitative leap, it nevertheless remained an event with a limited destructive capacity which only mobilized a relatively small proportion of the human and material resources of a country.

The contradiction between national sovereignty and the dimensions of the productive process.

The constraints dependent on the international context had thus left sufficient space within the principal European societies for the class struggle to produce its liberating impulse and for the great values of liberty, equality and social justice to take root in the collective awareness.

But in the decades around the turn of the century this changed radically.

With the affirmation of the socialist movement — as has been said above — the process of emancipation was nearing its completion, having by now eliminated the principal obstacles to social mobility within the more advanced European countries, while the process of an increasing interdependence in extension, having created national markets, continued to exert its effect, spurred on by the continual progress in the technique of labour organization (Taylorism), in the direction of growing interdependence between national economies and the creation of a market of continental dimensions. But, while it was able to exert its influence on the United States without meeting any obstacles, in Europe it was hindered by the national boundaries.

These proved an insurmountable obstacle at that time: the constant threat to their own independence and their own survival facing the European powers that arose from the structurally unstable nature of the European balance of power made economic self-sufficiency an indispensable security factor for each of them. No country dependent on provisions from abroad for strategically essential goods as a result of an increased international division of labour would have had even the slightest chance of victory in the case of war.

This was the root of protectionism, that phenomenon which, from the early years of the century and at an ever faster pace, produced huge distorsions and a progressive contraction of international trade. Thus the historical decadence of Europe began and the loss of its role as pivot of the political balance of power and the international economy grew steadily. This role went to the two continental powers, which until then had played a marginal role in the European balance of power: Russia and the United States of America.

The reasons why this contradiction assumed a dramatic importance only with the advent of World War I — after forty years of international free trade and relative peace — cannot be satisfactorily understood unless we also bring into the picture the way in which the evolution of the production system was changing the nature of war. The sophistication of the means of destruction, transport and communications was in fact making war an increasingly wider and more devastating phenomenon. It no longer affected only the military machine in the strictest sense, or those areas of the country which constituted the theatre of war. On the contrary, it was beginning to have a profound effect on production too, and on the structures of society.

The relationship between security and the production system became closer than it had ever been before.

It is now necessary to recall the way in which awareness of these changes showed itself. Gradually, as the new phase of the process began to assume a more definite form, the irreconcilable nature of the myth of the nation and the great universal ideals of liberty, equality and social justice tended to change from being a cultural contradiction into a searing political and psychological conflict, destined to leave a deep mark on the life of European society and often on individual minds. And in this conflict the national myth was destined to prevail. Since the possibility of war was beginning to be felt as a concrete threat to the independence and existence of the political community — the basis of all values — and since, on the other hand, the war effort meant an ever-vaster mobilization of the human and material resources of a country, there was less and less space in the state in which to carry out the struggle for human emancipation. Any internal division would have caused an irreparable weakening of the state, in an international balance of power which was becoming increasingly tense and fragile. The only value had to become that of the nation, in whose name all internal conflicts were forcibly overcome in order to fight the enemy beyond the border more effectively.

Thus began a new era, in which the principal obstacle to the expansion of the forces of production, and hence of the advance of human emancipation, was no longer an institutional order (regime) which excluded part of the population from the exercise of power, but the actual dimensions of the political community, in other words the national phase in the evolution of the state. This was destined to be the most tragic period in the modern history of Europe. The evolution of the mode of production dramatically presented the problem of creating — in the economically developed areas of the world — markets of continental proportions. On the other hand, the nation-state, even though now historically doomed, was still alive, and in the eyes of its citizens it seemed eternal and indestructible. The idea of voluntarily giving up sovereignty through a federal pact among European states thus seemed inconceivable. The only way out of the contradiction which appeared practicable at that time was to enlarge the market through the imperial expansion of the nation-state.

The first manifestation of this tendency was the colonial conquests, particularly in Africa and Asia, in the last quarter of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century. For those European countries which had only recently attained the status of great powers, since they had only recently been unified, these conquests took on the meaning of conquering a place in the sun. Colonialism, too, was not new, and at that time Great Britain already controlled a great maritime empire of global proportions. But there is no doubt that in the imperialist period the expansionist impulse among the European countries changed in nature and underwent a sudden acceleration, employing vaster and vaster resources and provoking growing tensions. In this period Europe laid the premises for a process which was to lead to an end the European balance of power and to the establishment of a new world balance of power. Conditioned by the logic of the confrontation of power with their competitors, which obliged them to seek consensus with the local élites to try and draw them onto their side, the European powers exported, along with war and violence, both material resources and the very dynamism of their civilization, thus creating areas of interdependence which extended beyond Europe (and the United States) and progressively activating parts of the world which until then had been inert and isolated. At the very moment in which Europe’s supremacy over the rest of the planet seemed to be reaching its peak, Europe began imperceptibly to lose the global monopoly of power.

The First World War.

Colonial conquests, however, could not resolve the contradiction, above all because the European power whose economy exhibited the greatest degree of dynamism — namely Germany under William II — had been almost completely left out of the process. Meanwhile, the German leadership at that time realized the need for Germany to assume the role of a world power alongside Great Britain and — later on — the United States and Russia. If not, its development and the well-being of its citizens would have been irreparably compromised, and Germany itself would have been relegated, along with the other countries of the continent, to the status of secondary power. But, in order to achieve this objective, it was essential for Germany to achieve a position of permanent hegemony over continental Europe. This was, moreover, a credible objective by virtue of the increased fragility of the European balance of power, which now constituted a political context that was no longer sufficient to ensure full expansion of the forces of production and which, because of this, was losing the capacity it had always had for self-regulation. In a Europe which the evolution of the mode of production was causing to shrink, the position of domination attained by a new hegemonic power would probably have been irreversible. But this prospect was seen by governments and public opinion in other European countries as a serious danger. Apart from the intentions of the protagonists, the circumstances that speeded up the process (the disintegration of the Ottoman Empire, the weakness of the Austro-Hungarian Empire) and the occasion which sparked off the catastrophe as if by chance, it was this prospect which caused the arms race in the months preceding the beginning of World War I, and thus the explosion of the conflict.

The First World War was a turning point in the process precisely because on this occasion for the very first time the European balance of power was unable to re-establish itself on its own. The United States’ intervention was in fact decisive. This was the most eloquent demonstration that, by now, the European balance of power was to be supplanted by a new world balance between continental powers.

On the other hand, the Treaty of Versailles did not solve any problems: rather, it aggravated them. This however, apart from the admittedly serious errors of judgement committed by the negotiators of the treaty, was inevitable. In order to remove the causes of war in Europe it would have been necessary to suppress the sovereignty of nation states: but this was unthinkable at this point. The problem therefore arose once more, but aggravated by the destruction and hatred sown by war. The contradiction between the tendency of the productive process and of the market to grow to continental proportions, and the inertia of the nation-states’ institutional structures was destined to become still further aggravated. Protectionism increased. Certainly it could not entirely stem the flow of international trade, but it did cause serious upsets, making trade insecure and unpredictable. Hence the succession of economic crises which afflicted European countries in various forms until the world crisis of 1929, which decisively speeded up the advent of Nazism in Germany.


Fascism (and of course Nazism, as its extreme form) were the last, desperate attempt to find a national answer to the crisis, that is to solve the contradiction without questioning the sovereignty of the nation-state. It was a foolish attempt, since the nation-state was by now an outdated instrument and thus inadequate to face the challenge. But at that time, as is always the case, people’s awareness lagged behind the real facts of the process, precisely because it was strongly conditioned by the very institutional context which the process was making obsolete. In the view of the governing class of that time, Europe continued to be the centre of the world, and this false perspective conditioned their strategies in foreign policy. Moreover, this was a mistake which also affected the policy of the United States, which did not know how to adapt its decisions to its new responsibilities and which withdrew from the League of Nations, leaving the Europeans to their own destiny (whereas the USA could have positively influenced events if it had used its position as creditor of the victor countries to impose a less unstable balance of power).

The same lag in consciousness explains the fact that the consensus of citizens in favour of the nation-state was still strong enough to make a change in the political and institutional system unthinkable. The nation-state still had the capacity to mobilize much energy (in a certain sense, more than it had ever done before) and to transform it into power (even though this was a fragile power no longer founded on the coincidence between the institutional context and the degree of development reached by the productive forces).

The effects of this impasse made themselves felt much less dramatically in countries like France and Great Britain, where the control of a vast colonial empire offered a wider market to their domestic production and gave worldwide scope to their foreign policy. On the other hand, this was not the case in countries like Germany and Italy which had practically no colonies, and where democratic institutions generally having been held back by the struggle for unification, had not had time to develop solid roots. Here the attempt to safeguard the historical survival of the nation-state in a context of extreme tensions called for a total mobilization of resources and consensus.

This was the objective problem which gave rise to Fascism: a phenomenon which involved, to a greater or lesser extent, all the European countries, and had a strong popular base, demonstrating the fact that the madness which is habitually imputed to the leaders who made themselves its interpreters was in fact a general characteristic of the historical situation in which these regimes thrived. There were two paths which these regimes had to follow which were inseparable from each other. On the one hand the economic crisis had to be overcome, unemployment reabsorbed and an end put to social conflicts by artificially stimulating domestic demand. This in turn had, of necessity, to be based on a heavy state involvement in the economy, by means of a policy of promoting public works and above all the arms industry, to be carried out through the transfer to the public sector of a very high quota of family wealth (in other words by imposing heavy material sacrifices on the citizens).

On the other hand, this line of conduct could not help but feed the impulse, already inherent in the nature of the regime, towards an aggressive, expansionist foreign policy both in the European and in the world context.

These objectives could never have been achieved with the political apparatus of democracy. In order to obtain total mobilization of energy, totalitarian regimes were necessary, capable of conquering by force the resistance of the most heavily penalized sectors of society, of suppressing internal dissent, of taking political centralization to the extreme and of exercising an exceedingly strong ideological pressure on the citizens in order to assure consensus, at least among certain strands of the population, to the extent of unconditional dedication.

With Fascism, the incompatibility between the national ideology and the great universal values of the liberal, democratic and socialist tradition was absolute. The latter joined people across national frontiers, but at the same time opposed the oppressed and the oppressors within the same nation. Therefore, the ideologies which professed them objectively undermined the unity of the country and weakened its capacity to face external enemies, at the very moment when the historical survival of the form of the nation-state was at stake. The nation had to be the only value, and those for whom it was not so were traitors. The suppression of civil liberties and of political democracy in the name of the nation was in effect simply the result of the greater coherence with which fascism faced a contradiction which had been present throughout the course of European history starting from the French Revolution. The barbarous Fascist interlude provided a demonstration of how the values which had guided the great revolutionary adventures from the end of the 18th and the 19th century no longer had any chance of expression in the national context.

This was the climax of a process which had already recorded a significant episode on the eve of the First World War with the betrayal of the European social democrats who, faced with the approaching catastrophe, denied, in the name of the defence of their fatherland, their internationalist and pacifist principles.

To understand the nature of Fascism it is important to remember that its crude ideology was the distorted expression of two real historical imperatives. On the one hand, the aggressive extremism of nationalism was — paradoxically — the expression of the need to go beyond the confines of the nation-state. What Hitler tried to do was to build a continental empire in Europe under German hegemony by military conquest.

However, nationalism, which had provided the indispensable impulse to mobilise the energies of the country, inevitably revealed itself, just as the success of the Nazi adventure seemed imminent, to be an inadequate ideological instrument for the government of a multinational empire. Thus it was that, in the midst of German expansionism during the Second World War, the myth of the nation was supplanted by that of race. The acme of nationalism thus coincided with the beginning of its historical downfall.

On the other hand, Fascism brought to a close the historical period in which class solidarity had actually prevailed over popular unity, and affirmed itself at the moment when social conflicts, having lost their revolutionary momentum, were shrivelling up into futile internal struggles. Fascism crudely interpreted the general need for social peace and contributed — again paradoxically — to consolidating the identity of national peoples, making the citizens more equal amongst themselves in the common condition of oppression, and forcibly introducing into the production process and into the circle of political consensus, social groups and regions which had hitherto remained excluded.

The fascist regimes, with the brutality of dictatorship broke the last traditional loyalties and the last discriminations inherited from the pre-industrial period of European history, which constituted a residual screen between the citizens and the state, and thus contributed involuntarily to preparing the way for the epoch in which the process of human emancipation, having passed the phase of class and national liberation, was to enter that of liberating the individual.

The birth of the world balance of power and the beginning of the process of European integration.

The Second World War was the inevitable conclusion to the progressive degeneration of the balance of power in Europe caused by the Nazi attempt to establish hegemony, and marked the end of both the former and the latter. From the ashes of the European equilibrium was born a new global balance of power. This, in its first stage, was markedly bipolar in nature, basing itself on the total political, military and economic hegemony exercised by the two nuclear powers — the United States and the Soviet Union — on a world in part destroyed and exhausted by the war, and in part still maintaining the passive and subordinate role of the colony.

In the years following the Second World War, Europe was the part of the world where the passage from one balance of power to another produced the most dramatic transformations. The Second World War had done away with the illusion that had led Europeans, in the preceding period of history, to believe that their continent was still the centre of the world. The destruction brought by the war clearly showed their impotence. The countries of Europe were divided between the American and Russian spheres of influence. The question of security changed its nature completely: it was no longer a question of defending each single state from the threat of its territorial neighbours, but of defending Western Europe as a whole from the threat of the Soviet Union. This new situation brought Europe to the threshold of political unification at the time of the EDC. Thus the basic reason for protectionism fell away. As soon as reconstruction had begun, the economy, or at least the more dynamic sectors, progressively reorganized themselves, thanks also to the impulse provided by the United States, onto a continental scale.

Thus began the process of European economic unification. Social integration advanced along parallel lines. The Europeans, often unconsciously, began to think of the Continent, or at least its western part, as destined to be a true community of destiny. Apart from the various episodes in the process, the expectation, common to both politicians and citizens, of a more or less imminent European political unification, has played a decisive role in the political life of the European Community in the various forms and frameworks it has assumed since 1951, and has been the determining factor in guaranteeing Western Europe forty years of peace and progress.

Towards the unification of mankind and the liberation of the individual.

The decades following the Second World War have been characterized by another considerable speeding up of the evolution of the mode of production. Our epoch has seen the beginning of the Scientific and Technological Revolution, a stage in which knowledge as such is destined to become the most important of all factors of production. The world is changing under the influence of new information processing and communications technology, automation, the atom and biotechnology.

This turning point in the history of the development of the mode of production contains an immense potential for speeding up the process of human emancipation. Again, it can be analyzed in terms of an increase in interdependence of human relations both in extension and in depth. On the one hand, the radical reduction of distance is turning the image of the world as a global village into reality. Thanks to the increased mobility of production factors, to the involvement of ever wider areas in the world market, to the ever faster circulation of information and image and to the constant spreading of knowledge, new protagonists have emerged and are still emerging with an active role to play on the global political scene. The Third World, while, in part, still having to face appalling problems of economic and cultural backwardness, has nonetheless shaken the colonial yoke from its shoulders and some of its regions are making great strides in economic and technological progress. The bipolar balance of power has come to a crisis and the outlines of a new, multipolar phase are beginning to emerge. The premises for the march of the human race towards universal liberty and equality are being created.

On the other hand, the Scientific and Technological Revolution is creating the preconditions — now in the industrialized world, but in the future in the whole planet — for a cultural integration without precedent among the members of each single human community, and thus for breaking down the barriers which up to the present day have divided the ruling class from the rest of the population. The introduction of new technologies in fact, on the one hand, enhances the role of creativity and individual responsibility in the production process, progressively increasing its independence from large concentrations of machinery, labour and capital and questioning the actual role of the manual worker; and, on the other hand, it increases free time, encouraging the development of the needs linked to the quality of life, and hence to culture. It is a tendency which is creating the premises for the territorial and political decentralization of advanced industrial societies and for the development of a real participatory democracy rooted in the local community. This tendency foreshadows the possibility of organizing political power according to formulas which go beyond the exclusive sovereignty of the nation-state with, among other things, the creation of independent and co-ordinated levels of local and regional government.

But at the same time the Scientific and Technological Revolution is causing the world to face the reality of the most fearsome threat ever encountered by the human race — who are all equally affected by it: that of the destruction of the planet. The introduction and the continuing development of nuclear armaments and their carriers have increased the destructive capacity of war to the point where the arsenal of each of the two superpowers is able to kill all the inhabitants of the planet not once, but several times over. On the other hand, the unbridled industrial development in the traditional sectors — which have not stopped in their advance — combined with the enormous population explosion in the Third World exposes mankind to the risk of an ecological catastrophe, the collapse of cities, the exhaustion of natural resources and the explosion of blind and uncontrolled violence, with unforeseeable consequences.

The world thus finds itself faced with a decisive choice. The crisis in the bipolar balance of power may mean either the beginning of chaos or that of the process of political unification of the human race. And it is a matter of fact that today the leaders of the superpowers, and first and foremost Gorbachev, have realized the need to put their mutual relations on a new footing, putting the requirements of collaboration before those of competition. But it is also a fact that their efforts are destined to remain halfway measures because they come up against the obstacle of raison d’Etat — which is an intrinsic aspect of sovereignty and which leads states to give priority, in international relations, to their particular interests over the general interest of mankind — however senseless it may appear, in the nuclear age, to distinguish between one and the other.

On the other hand, even the tendency towards overcoming national sovereignty downwards is blocked by the absence of an institutional model, and by the lack of consciousness of the inextricable link existing between the continental and global levels on the one hand and that of the local community on the other. So it is that the impulse (which periodically manifests itself in the industrially advanced regions) towards experimenting with new forms of democracy in the context of the local community, and towards the rebirth of loyalty to the small regional fatherlands, soon exhausts itself or degenerates into sterile forms of separatism or racist micronationalism.

In order for the impulse towards unification of the human race and the development of participatory democracy really to become the driving force of the next phase in historic development, the world must be given the example of how absolute state sovereignty can be overcome by the creation of a new federal power. This must be able, on the one hand, to relieve the United States and the Soviet Union of much of the weight of exercising responsibility for managing the world balance of power, and to indicate the path which, by a series of regional unifications, should lead to the objective of world federation; and it must show the world, on the other hand, that the territorial expansion of the government’s scope through modern federal institutions does not mean the creation of a Superstate intent on levelling and negating originality, liberty and the ability of the local community to decide on its own destiny; but on the contrary, that it is the only way to promote these very values.

This example can only be given in that part of the world where the process of integration has reached its most advanced stage: Western Europe. But in order for this to come about, there must be a more widespread and positive awareness of the nature of the alternative offered to us. In other words, a new ideology has to be asserted, one that can identify the basic contradiction inherent to our times and show how to resolve it; one that can make conceivable a future freed from the spectres of nuclear war and of ecological catastrophe, and that can provide an orientation for human action in order to achieve this end. This ideology is federalism.


Federalism, as an opinion movement, was born in Great Britain in the years immediately preceding the outbreak of the Second World War, out of the fear of the gathering storms of war. It received new impetus, became more widespread and took on a more clearly political aspect on the Continent during the climate and in the atmosphere of the Resistance.

Thus federalism was born as a reflection on war and as a response to it. Without the horrors of Fascism and the two world wars, in particular the second, it would probably have remained at the stage of purely theoretical reflection for a long time to come. But the catastrophe which swept Europe brought some people to the understanding that by now modern war had become the negation of all values, and thus there was no longer any sense in fighting for human emancipation unless people committed themselves first and foremost to achieving peace. For the first time in history, a political movement adopted peace as the guiding ideal for its line of action, just as liberalism, democracy and socialism had adopted the ideals of liberty, equality and social justice.

This does not mean that the liberal, democratic and socialist movements had not given great importance to the ideal of peace during the revolutionary period in their history, and did not continue to give it great weight: but they had always thought of it as an ideal whose realization would come about as a consequence of the realization of the ideals of liberty, equality and social justice. It was an inevitable error of perspective in a historical period in which war still constituted a phenomenon of limited importance compared to the urgency of social struggles.

In contrast, the main document establishing federalism as a political movement, the Ventotene Manifesto, clearly reversed these priorities. Peace became the ideal whose historical affirmation was the condition for any kind of progress in realizing the others. And the institutional objective by which the ideal of peace was to be affirmed became the breaking down, first in Europe and then throughout the whole world, of the absolute sovereignty of the state. The construction of the international state became, in the famous phrase from the Manifesto, the new line to divide progress from conservation.

As the process of European (and, in the long run, worldwide) integration has advanced, federalism has gradually taken on a wider and more complex form. With the growing threat of a nuclear conflict and an ecological catastrophe on a planetary scale, the global nature of the federal struggle and the significance of European unity as an intermediate stage along the road to world unity have assumed increasing importance and reality. The newfound awareness of the vital nature of ecological and territorial problems, in a world which by now has passed the stage of class struggle, has more firmly instilled federalism with the awareness of the inextricable link between the global and the local, between the cosmopolitan and community polarities. The institutional objective of federalism has gradually defined itself, in opposition to the classical model of the federal state, as a structure which is subdivided into many levels of government, from the neighbourhood to the world level.

Thus federalism is presented as the awareness of that phase in human emancipation whose objective is no longer that of liberating man as member of a class or of a nation, but in his complex and global identity as a person, which is in fact defined in cosmopolitan terms (common membership of the human race, beyond any form of discrimination) and in terms of his belonging to the local community (in which the individual realizes himself in the concrete solidarity of a social life emancipated from bureaucratic levelling and from conflicts between classes).


If the analysis so far is correct, then federalism is not a rationalistic idea, worked out on the fragile foundations of an abstract reason which has, or imagines itself to have, made a clean slate of the past. On the contrary, it is the product of thought in context, which avoids the risk of the arbitrary by planning the future on the basis of the inheritance received from the past.

It now remains briefly to indicate, in a few concluding remarks based on the situation outlined thus far, the specific nature of the relationship of federalism with its own past, and in particular with the ideologies preceding it.

a) The first observation to make in this connection is that federalism is not in opposition to liberalism, democracy and socialism, but takes over their essential content and ideals — liberty, equality and social justice — just as these were historically affirmed, even though not completely realized, in Europe over the last two centuries. Indeed, it must be said that the historical affirmation of the ideals of liberty, equality and social justice should be considered the precondition for the historical affirmation of the ideal of peace through federalism, because a union of states in which those ideals had not been affirmed could not be founded on the freely-expressed consensus of the people. Such a union would thus not be federal, but imperial in nature, and as such would be destined to break up. Historically therefore, federalism necessarily comes after the liberal, democratic and socialist ideologies and preserves the living part of their content.

b) On the other hand, if it is true that the historical affirmation of federalism presupposes that of liberalism, democracy and socialism, it is equally true that it is the prerequisite of their complete realization.

It is a fact that the further advancement of the ideals of liberty, equality and social justice — even in the new forms which they are assuming under the urgency of the problems posed by ecological and territorial imbalances, by pollution and by the exhaustion of natural resources — presupposes struggles which are no longer on a national scale, but which must comprise both the international and the community scale. At international level there are the struggles for peace, control of the major variables on which the possibility of avoiding an ecological catastrophe depends, the relationships between North and South, while at the community level the freedom of towns and regions to govern themselves in accordance with their own specific cultural identity and the particular problems related to the nature of the territory are at stake, as well as the organization of community solidarity as an answer to the crisis of the welfare state. And so these struggles presuppose the institutional framework which constitutes the structural aspect of federalism: coexistence, on the same territory, of several independent and co-ordinated levels of government.

Here the picture must be completed by mentioning the decisive role played by expectations, which can guide human action, even if less strongly, in the same direction as would an as yet non-existent institutional framework (but whose establishment is already looked forward to). It is for this reason that the beginning of the process of world unification through the foundation of the European Federation would have the effect of encouraging and speeding up the process of democratization of all those countries where authoritarian regimes are still in power.

c) It follows that to be federalist in Europe today — and eventually in the whole world — is the only correct way to carry on the heritage of the liberal, democratic and socialist struggles. Whoever identifies himself with the liberal, democratic or socialist ideologies, on the contrary, without transcending them all into the federal view, gives up the possibility of pursuing his declared ideals and aligns himself with the forces of conservatism, if it is true that today it makes no sense to commit oneself to liberty, equality and social justice except in the context of the struggle for peace and quality of life in a federal institutional framework.

d) Federalism then is an ideology in the same way as liberalism, democracy and socialism are (even if, coming later, it is in a favourable position to comprehend their historical limitations and to correct their errors of perspective). It goes without saying that the term ideology must be rigorously stripped of any connotations that might suggest a corpus of indisputable and immutable dogma. Federalism is, on the contrary, a developing line of thought: it is a task rather than a result. But it is in any case an ideology in that it forces one to acquire a global consciousness of the historical process we are living through and of the nature of the institutional transformations on whose realization the destiny of mankind depends today. It is thus an exclusive political choice, and not a technical and institutional aspect of a more comprehensive political option. If anything, the opposite is true: it is liberalism, democracy and socialism, having come before, which constitute parts of federalism. The idea of the end of ideologies then is a conservative myth, even though it is justified by the incontestable fact of the crisis in traditional ideologies, which were born to guide the decisions of people faced with the great contradictions which marked 19th century European history and which, in consequence, — if not replaced in wider perspective — cannot provide the categories necessary to understand the problems facing the world in the last quarter of the 20th century.

e) As an ideology, federalism provides us with new criteria for historical interpretation. Thus we return to our starting point. The Marxist conception of history as the history of class struggle was fruitful in its time, but has now outgrown its usefulness. It came to a halt at Fascism and the two world wars, phenomena it was quite unable to interpret.

And, faced with this failure, official culture gave up every attempt to make sense of history, taking refuge in irrationalism or in the renunciatory philosophy of partial truths. Federalism enables us to pick up the thread of meaning in history, no longer interpreting it as the history of class struggle, but as the history of the advent of peace, and thus opens new horizons of research to future historiography.

[1]The formation of the Christian Democratic and Christian Social movements and their respective ideologies (which however are rather vaguely and variously formulated) is not tied to the emergence of a class, and thus cannot be explained by reference to the process of integration in depth. If anything, it marks the limits of the latter’s causal efficacy, and therefore, for the historian, of its explanatory capacity. It is a limitation which must be noted, but, given the level of generality of our analysis, can be set aside.