Past Event

From the Republics of Virtue to the Republic of Parties: the Transformation of Republicanism in Modern and Contemporary Italy

October 22, 2010
9:30 AM - 6:45 PM
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Organized by Nadia Urbinati (Columbia) in collaboration with the Journal of Modern Italian Studies, The Columbia Seminar of Italian Studies, and The European Institute of Columbia University

Workshop participants:

Anna Maria Rao (University of Naples, Federico II)
“Eighteenth century republicanism to the start of Risorgimento movements”

Adrian Lyttelton (Johns Hopkins SAIS, Bologna Center)
“Sismondi, England and Italy: between cities and the nation”

Nadia Urbinati (Columbia University)
“Mazzini’s republicanism and the ‘socialist question’” 

Mauro Moretti (University of Pisa)
“The construction of the political Italian and republican tradition:
Pasquale Villari and Gaetano Salvemini”

Michele Battini (University of Pisa)
“The ‘good’ use of utopia: Liberal socialists in Giustizia e Libertá”

Mariuccia Salvati (University of Bologna)
“The Republic of parties”

Republicanism as a theory of political liberty under the government of the law and a constitution is the distinguished political culture to with Italy has made fundamental contributions. The role of Roman republicanism in the making of the liberty of the moderns has been the core thesis of the work of seminal scholars like Quentin Skinner and J.G.A. Pocock, who have reconstructed the trajectory of classical republicanism from Italian city-states of early Humanism to the English and American revolutions. More recently, Jean-Fabian Spitz has re-evaluated the influence of republicanism in the nineteenth and the twentieth centuries, moving away from the ‘obstacle’ of the French revolution and the Terror to show how the republican theory of liberty shaped and permeated liberal and democratic society in France. Without necessarily sharing these interpretations and historical reconstructions, they serve to highlight the wider significance of the subject and its interest for political theorists and historians.. 

The leading idea of this workshop is to bring to light and study the republican political tradition as it emerged in Italy after the French revolution, an event that radically changed republicanism and inaugurated new problems. These include, for example, the role of civil society and wage labor, the relations between political virtue and individual liberty, between inalienable humans rights and the ethics of citizenship, and finally between private morality and public ethics. But above all, the legacy of the French revolution meant that the nation now became the new political reality in which popular sovereignty was seen to be rooted and based. All these issues come together when we confront the question of how reception and revision of classical republicanism after Napoleon was able to rekindle a political culture of civil liberty in Italy. 

The workshop will start with the Neapolitan revolution of 1799, since this marked the most distinctive attempt in Italy to build a constitution of freedom despite the presence of a foreign force of occupation. The experience and failure of that revolution gave rise to extremely important debates over agency and strategies of self-government. These debates refocused on the cultural foundations of republican government, an issue that makes the analysis of the role Sismondi timely and crucial. Sismondi was not only an economist and a critic of free market liberal economics, but also an historian who consciously sought to reposition the roots of the republican tradition in the Middle Age in order to emancipate it from the Roman tradition that the Jacobins had appropriated to legitimize their revolutionary language. As a result of this historical relocation, Sismondi was able to present republicanism not solely as a theory of liberty but above all as a theory that individual liberty and social stability required a modern constitutional government. It was from Sismondi’s work that an Italian national historiography of liberty took inspiration. Indeed, Sismondi set the origins of the modern history of liberty in Europe as well as Italy in the independent Italian city-states of the Middle Age. It was this that made it possible for the leaders of the Italian Risorgimento to call for political unity in the name of an historical tradition of liberty -- the comunes-- that emerged in the Middle Ages during the struggles against the Empire and as vindication of self-government. 

Sismondi’ work is also essential for contextualizing the work the historian and theorist Pasquale Villari. Although he is associated primarily with conservative thought and his writings on the Southern Question and the moral question of the new Italian state, Villari played a central role in the debate on republicanism. His great political history of the Florentine republic, along with the important monographs on Machiavelli and Savonarola that were read throughout Europe, were critical historiographical and political texts that deeply influenced the work of Gaetano Salvemini, the great historian of the Medieval Italian communes, who brilliantly linked the analysis of political institutions and political liberty to that of social struggles for emancipation and who saw in republicanism the opportunity to expand the idea of liberty as non-domination (to use a contemporary rendering of republicanism) in ways that would engage with the issues of economic inequality and class conflicts. 

Before Salvemini, Giuseppe Mazzini had already tried to connect the domain of production and the domain of politics, and his work clearly had an impact on the following generation of scholars (like Salvemini himself) that deserves closer exploration and study. However, Mazzini’s revulsion with all theories of class conflict because of the threat they posed to his search for new forms of national consensus compromised the encounter between republicanism and socialism in ways that deeply affected the identity of Italian socialism and the place of the theory of liberty. But Mazzini remains a pivotal figure in post-French revolution republicanism, both Italian and international, and the leading protagonist of the need for a strongly democratic republic framed by the ideals of national concord that its constitution would reflect and document. 

These questions all converged in the political experience of republicanism in the years of fascism. In my view, there is a very strong case for reconsidering Piero Gobetti’s suggestion that Italian national republican tradition was the key foundation of modern liberalism and democracy. This idea, together with Salvemini’s call for finding ways of integrating the issue of social emancipation more fully in the republican idea of liberty, also inspired first Carlo Rosselli during the period of his exile and leadership of Giustizia e Libertá as well as the political program of the Partito d’Azione, one of the protagonists – albeit not a successful one – in the post-World War Two process of constitution making in Italy. In investigating the political culture of anti-Fascist movements the answers to be address might be phrased as follows: ‘Is it possible to discover similar notions of civil liberty in the ideal of liberty shared by the Communist and Socialist anti-Fascism movements? Is it possible to detect in their political ideas a notion of political liberty that is autonomous from economics? And moreover, how important was the 19th century’s social ‘contamination’ of political republicanism in the making of 20th century liberal and democratic culture? In a word, can we interpret Italian political tradition – the republican tradition—as a tradition that was not only able to persist but also to permeate the culture that inspired leftist movements, which have made an important contribution to the formation of citizenship in post-World War Two in Italy? 

This brings our inquiry to the highest moment of Italy’s modern republicanism: the making of the Constitution, the first expression of a constituent democratic power that Italy has experienced as a unified nation. What was the presence and impact of republicanism in the Republic of political parties that led the Constitutive Assembly, and discussed and approved the Constitution of the Italian Republic? It is not, for instance, significant that the suffrage right has been discussed and sanctioned by the Italian constituents as a ‘right-and-duty’ and that ‘labor’ was conceived as foundational of the very political legitimacy or liberty. Now, it is possible to detect the presence of the republican tradition in the political culture of the constituents and the political parties that represented it?