Ravenna 3.3

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III

Spring 2010

Giuseppe Mazzini, A Cosmopolitanism of Nations. Giuseppe Mazzini’s Writings on Democracy, Nation Building, and International Relations, Edited and with an Introduction by Stefano Recchia and Nadia Urbinati, Translations by Stefano Recchia, Princeton University Press, 2009, pp. 249

Review by Gaspare Battistuzzo

A Cosmopolitanism of Nations is a collection of essays by Mazzini which focus on his concept of “Cosmopolitanism”. Its Introduction needs to be considered in detail, as it is certainly an interesting guide in the abundant production of the Italian political thinker. The first aspect to be highlighted is indeed that of Mazzini’s internationality. This is not at all a secondary feature, since for many years Italian scholars have been inclined to neglect Mazzini’s concerns about Nations – where the final “s” marks the genuine interest of a man for all the peoples of this World – in order to concentrate on his role on the formation of the Italian nation. It seems perhaps worth explaining that the average Italian usually considers Giuseppe Mazzini as one of the founding fathers of their country and very often do not realize that the same man was also instrumental in the creation of an international “flow of thoughts” which was to influence other great thinkers, such as John Stuart Mill, Karl Marx and Mikhail Bakunin, and to lead them towards what it was to become Internationalism. All this is very well described by the editors of this volume by hinting at the friendly relationships that Mazzini entertained with a considerable number of economic/political philosophers of his time, such as the ones mentioned above, and with Italian patriots self-exiled in England, like Count Giovanni Arrivabene and Sir Anthony Panizzi.

Another focus is that of education. The editors are clearly very interested in this aspect of Mazzini’s work, which indeed represents one of the cores of his thought. Education, according to him, has to be supplied to all the citizens of a Nation, since this is the first step to grant them the right to influence, through vote, the decisions concerning their country. The relationship between education and Mazzini’s middle-class milieu is very well described as one of the main justifications for his activity in favour of republicanism, which he conceived of as the supremacy of the cultured middle classes over the uncouth and conservative aristocracies which oppressed Europe in those days. Although the analysis of this aspect is very acute, it appears nonetheless as one of the main limitations of the volume. The fame still surrounding Mazzini in the United States and in present-day Italy is greatly due to his attitude towards the middle classes and his justification of their moral right to power. In this case, both editors do not hide their personal support for this republican-bourgeois theory, support which in a sense may turn up to be a deminutio of Mazzini’s own achievements, which are not merely those of suggesting the substitution of a ruling class with another.

The Introduction also supplies the reader with a very useful background on Mazzini’s first steps as a political thinker. His disillusionment with the Carboneria, the Italian secret society originally modelled on Freemasonry and meant to be the strategic organizer of Italian Risorgimento, which he thought to be too secret and detached from the people; his middle-class aspirations for a Nation governed by learned and deserving élites; his progressive separation from Socialism which ended up in a final and complete divorce from it.

One of the best parts of the book is certainly the chapter dedicated to Mazzini’s notion of Duty. Starting from his disillusionment with Cavour’s policy of Italian unification, which indeed suppressed the right of the People to take the lead of what should have been in Mazzini’s eyes a national movement, Recchia and Urbinati uncover Mazzini’s natural hostility towards Liberalism. He thought Liberalism was basically a selfish doctrine, which forced human beings to pursue a restless search for money and to deny the “brotherhood of nations” he aspired to. At this point the editors deal with what is indeed the main concept in Mazzini’s thought, namely the theory of “Right and Duty”. They offer a very intriguing explanation of right to be considered as “negative liberty” (non-interference) and duty as “positive liberty” (autonomy and self-development); this aspect is strongly connected with some founding principles in the Italian Constitution, whose Article 48 explains that the right to the vote has to be considered a duty of the citizen, and not simply a right.

Another aspect much dealt with in this noteworthy volume is that of Non-intervention in other countries’ internal disputes. Indulgence in this aspect of Mazzini’s political doctrine cannot help being connected to the international events that occurred in the last few years. The notion according to which Intervention risks perverting the balance of a Nation and undermining the brotherhood between nations, reminds the reader of American foreign policy during the George W. Bush presidency. This line of thought is linked to Mazzini’s idea of Nationalism. One may be easily led to think that he must have been one of the greatest supporters of such a creed, whereas we are reminded by the editors that Mazzini looked at Nationalism as something which, despite its good side connected to the waking of peoples’ conscience, may quickly transcend this positive notion and become a dangerous obstacle on the path towards friendship among the peoples. This was indeed what Mazzini was most concerned with – the cosmopolitanism that the moral countries (i.e. the republics) had to nurture and which could be the only answer to oppression and autocratic rule.

One of the great merits of this book is however that of highlighting some visible contradictions in Mazzini’s ideas, without hiding them as several Italian scholars have done. As Recchia and Urbinati put it, Mazzini was both a progressive thinker and a man of his time. This means that he believed in God’s providential design for this world and was also fairly in favour of colonialism, even though he was convinced that Europe had a moral duty towards other peoples. These sides of Mazzini’s personality and thought have to be contextualized in the epoch he lived in and in the general frame of mind he was brought up in. Nonetheless, his idea of “colonial intervention” was surely less aggressive than that practiced by countries like France, Great Britain, Germany and Italy itself. Moreover, it was argued through a minimum-interference policy which was meant to free natives from tyrants, and was backed by the idea that European occupation might in the end lead to self-government.

To conclude, it is worthwhile to spend a few words on the translations of Mazzini’s texts collected in the book. Recchia is indeed a very gifted translator and his achievement is impressive – in fact, Mazzini’s prose is oftentimes characterized by a density of thought which makes the effort at translating it a great challenge. Sometimes Recchia indulges in Italianisms, which however enrich the text by giving it a somewhat archaic register. The final result is a readable anthology of capital essays, hitherto not very much known both among Anglo-Saxons and Italians, which can be perfectly appreciated thanks to the scholarly and acute Introduction.

  • Gaspare Battistuzzo received his MA in English Literature from the University of Venice, Ca’ Foscari with a dissertation on Sir Walter Raleigh and is currently a Ph.D candidate at the same university. His interests cover different authors, periods and genres: from Trollope to Thackeray to P.G. Wodehouse, from the Georgian revival to the fin de siècle, from medieval romances to dandyism. A member of several societies dedicated to the study and promotion of heraldry, he is a regular contributor to periodicals dealing with the subject. 

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