Saint of Nationalism


by Denis Mack Smith
Yale University Press, 302 pp., $30.00

Giuseppe Mazzini has a street named after him in every Italian town. He ranks with Victor Emanuel II, Count Cavour the statesman, and Giuseppe Garibaldi the guerrilla leader as a founding father of united Italy. Yet he boasted neither exalted birth nor military skill; he held office for only a few months; and for most of his life he lived secretively in exile. His weapons were his personality, his plots, and his pen.

He was born in Genoa in 1805, nine years after the city, capital of an independent republic for centuries, had been conquered by revolutionary France. So he was ten when, after Napoleon’s defeat, the congress of Vienna claimed to restore the old order. It restored the monarchs Napoleon had deposed, but not the republics he had liquidated. The Italian peninsula was divided between eight absolute monarchies. Genoa was handed over to the kingdom of Sardinia, whose dynasty came from French-speaking Savoy and whose capital was Turin, in half-French Piedmont. The Genoese saw their new rulers as foreign, authoritarian, and obscurantist—engendering one of the bitterest of the many internal divisions that made the unification of Italy seem to most people utterly inconceivable right up to the time when, in 1859–1860, it suddenly came to pass.

Mazzini’s resentment was especially acute. Having shown himself to be a brilliant student of literature at the University in Genoa, he turned to revolutionary writing and conspiracy against the government in Turin. He was imprisoned, released for lack of evidence, and sent into exile in 1831—thereafter returning to Italy for only a few short, mostly clandestine visits during the remaining fortyone years of his life.

Within months of going into exile in France he had founded Young Italy, an organization advocating and working for the political unification of the peninsula. The particular emphasis that Mazzini gave to its program was something new. To him nations were divinely ordained moral entities based on popular consent. Each nation—at least each major civilized nation, and especially Italy—ought to have its own state; and only through such nation-states would social progress prove possible. Mazzini always insisted on combining thought and action, journalism and conspiracy. So the existence and aims of the movement were to be publicized while its plotting to start revolutions had to be secret. Young Italy inspired a relatively small number of Italians to engage in various activities aiming at revolution or assassination. According to Mazzini, such activities would sanctify the national cause by supplying martyrs to it, and, sooner or later, the nation would be sufficiently stirred to rise up and unify itself. A rather larger number of Italians, without being persuaded of the wisdom of conspiracy, were convinced by Mazzini’s example and writings to adopt unification as their ultimate goal.

Young Italy, though never large, became a source of inspiration for patriots and a bugbear to established states, especially to Austria, which ruled Lombardy and Venetia and whose army was, in effect, the guarantor of the Restoration settlement throughout Italy. Mazzini’s activities so alarmed the various governments of the peninsula that he had to leave France for Switzerland and then Switzerland for London, which from 1837 became his base.

He continued to write articles, to create societies and to devise plots. These he organized through a vast correspondence, much of it in invisible ink. As one conspiracy after another designed to bring about a revolution claimed its toll without rousing the Italian people to action, many of his early disciples rejected his methods. The revolutions that occurred in 1848–1849 in every Italian state owed less to national feeling and the scheming of Mazzini than to regional discontent, trouble in Paris and Vienna, and initial encouragement to the revolutionaries from a “liberal pope,” Pius IX. But they gave Mazzini his only opportunity to exercise political power, as a “triumvir” of the Roman Republic. The Austrian government soon recovered itself, the revolutionaries were defeated, and repression became more intense. Though Mazzini was now famous throughout the world, after the collapse of the revolutions his renewed conspiracies seemed to many patriots even more futile than before.

Then in 1859 Cavour, prime minister of Piedmont, having won the support of Napoleon III of France, provoked Austria to war, defeated it, and so set off an extraordinary sequence of events that left Italy, except for Venetia and Rome, unified under Victor Emanuel by the end of 1860. This outcome was made possible by the romantic expedition to Sicily of “The Thousand,” the rebel force commanded by Garibaldi, many of whom were followers of Mazzini. The expedition would never have succeeded if Mazzini had not first engineered a mini-revolution in Sicily, which helped to persuade Garibaldi to take command. The rebels’ success in driving out the far larger army of the Bourbon kings from both Sicily and Naples seemed at last to vindicate Mazzini’s belief in the possibility of tiny forces toppling the old regimes with the aid of popular support. He wrote:

We have constantly acted as the spur: we worked, fought, and bled for Italy, the Cavour cabinet constantly opposing, then reaping the results as soon as won or unavoidable.

But in fact Mazzini gave only grudging approval to unification as it actually happened, even after Venetia had been incorporated in 1866 and Rome in 1870. He had wanted Italy to be made from below, for it to be socialist and republican (in his particular senses of those words) and to be reconciled with the papacy. Unification under a king, achieved mainly through war and diplomacy, with the conservative half-Italian governing class of Piedmont taking over control of the whole peninsula and the Vatican totally estranged—this was not the outcome he had worked for. “I had hoped,” he said, “to evoke the soul of Italy and instead find merely her inanimate corpse.”

He died in Italy in 1872, still in hiding from the police. The new regime had refused to accord him any honors or give him any credit for unification. The Church condemned him. If he was deemed too dangerous by the right, he was considered too mild and conciliatory by the left. There were exceptions: Francesco Crispi, who had worked for him and later became prime minister of Italy, declared him to be “the most eminent thinker of the century” and a greater man than either Cavour or Garibaldi, adding for good measure that historians would refer to the nineteenth century as “the century of Mazzini.” But it is only in the twentieth century, and especially since the Second World War, that he has become widely accepted in his own country as a major contributor to unification. His claim to that relatively modest title, moreover, remains controversial.

Outside Italy, especially between the 1870s and the 1930s, Mazzini had a much higher reputation. Nietszche called him “the man I venerate most.” Woodrow Wilson placed him on a level with Lincoln and Gladstone as a prophet of liberalism and tried to embody his ideals of national self-determination in the Treaty of Versailles. Lloyd George, British prime minister and another architect of the Versailles settlement, wrote soon afterward:

I doubt whether any man of his generation exercised so profound an influence on the destinies of Europe as did Mazzini. The map of Europe as we see it today is the map of Joseph Mazzini…. He taught us not merely the rights of a nation; he taught the rights of other nations…. He is the father of the idea of the League of Nations.

He was especially popular in Britain, where he inspired two notable biographies by Bolton King (1902) and Gwilym Griffith (1932).

Denis Mack Smith’s new biography easily surpasses its predecessors in any language. This is not surprising, since Mack Smith is one of the finest living writers of historical biographies and the most distinguished living historian of the Risorgimento. He has already published studies of Victor Emanuel, Cavour, and Garibaldi, as well as of Mussolini. All are based on prodigious research and scrupulous scholarship and are written in prose that is at once economical, precise, and vivid.

To write a biography of Mazzini poses special problems. One major difficulty is that a high proportion of his vast correspondence was destroyed. He burned all the letters he received, and those that he wrote were usually burned by their recipients as compromising if not incriminating. Still, the collected edition of his letters and writings runs to over a hundred volumes. It is also inherently difficult to assess the influence of an exiled thinker, writer, and agitator on developments so vast and complex as the Risorgimento and unification of Italy. Further, a biographer of Mazzini has to grapple with the paradox that, while he is truly significant only for his impact on Italy, most of his adult life was spent in London.

Mack Smith writes splendidly about his life in England. It was in Londonthat Mazzini’s personality flourished and worked its full charm. It did not hurt that he was, in his austere way, an exceptionally attractive and benign-looking man. He used false names and spurious addresses, and for a few years his letters were opened on the orders of a Tory home secretary. But he was in no danger from the English police, who would sometimes even give him protection. He was quickly taken on to write about literature and politics in prestigious journals such as the West-minster Review, edited by John Stuart Mill. He got to know the Carlyles, frequently visiting them in Chelsea. With their aid he became a public figure in England after protesting that his letters were being opened, a revelation that caused such an outburst of indignation that the practice had to be abandoned altogether.

Carlyle made some of the most extravagant assessments of Mazzini: “a more beautiful person I never beheld,” “the most pious living man I now know,” “full of sensibilities, of melodies, of clear intelligence and noble virtues,” “by nature a lyrical poet,” “a man of true genius.” But other literary giants were almost equally impressed, among them Mill, Dickens, Trollope, Ruskin, Bagehot, Jowett, and George Eliot. He had the special magnetism of a person who manifestly lives for an ideal. He could have been comfortably off, but he took cheap lodgings and starved himself, giving his money away, mostly to further the Italian cause. One of his chief concerns was to raise funds to sustain a free school for Italian children in London, work which brought him close to the main currents of Victorian philanthropy. Nearly all his English admirers, even Radicals, questioned the practicability of Italian unification until it actually came to pass, but his utter commitment to the cause, his eloquence in support of it and his saintly self-sacrifice in working for it compelled them to take it seriously and to view it with respect.

Late in his life, the young Algernon Swinburne worshiped Mazzini both as “a born king and chief and leader” and as “the most wonderfully and divinely unselfish man I ever knew.” The situation in England had not only enabled him to cultivate these personal qualities, it had also ensured that they were widely publicized. His utter devotion to his cause earned him a reputation, reminiscent of Gandhi’s and Mandela’s, inspiring other Italians to similar sacrifices. In this sense his personality mattered as much to the national movement as his plots and his pen.

Mack Smith does not write uncommitted biographies. He made it absolutely plain that he regarded Mussolini as a fool, a fraud, and a knave. Garibaldi, by contrast, was a hero. Victor Emanuel was in some ways better than later kings of Italy, but that was not saying much. Cavour received the most subtle portrait.1 On the one hand Mack Smith felt he had to call into question his reputation for unblemished liberalism, and for incomparable skill and prescience; on the other hand, Cavour’s brilliance and the centrality of his role in the unification of Italy could not be denied.

For Mack Smith, Mazzini is another hero, and one who needs to be vindicated in the face of neglect and criticism from the Italian historical establishment. Mack Smith is particularly dismissive of the late Rosario Romeo, who in 1984 completed a long and distinctly uncritical life of Cavour, refused to acknowledge that Mazzini played a significant part in the story of unification, and once described him as “above all a terrorist.” Mack Smith makes point after point against this denigration. First, Mazzini was scarcely a terrorist at all.

He himself justified resort to violence by arguing that governments used terrorist tactics and were “waging a war of barbarians, not of civilised Europeans”; moreover by their refusal to permit political debate in the press they were preventing any alternative method of peaceful protest…. He regarded assassination as almost always an immoral and useless absurdity, but he admitted that there were moments in history when individuals—he mentioned Brutus, Charlotte Corday, William Tell and the biblical Judith—might see the killing of tyrants as a lesser evil, a view that he knew was supported by many Catholic authorities. Though he always strongly opposed terrorism, Mazzini would not deter such individuals if they sincerely and in good conscience resisted his contrary arguments.

Hence he provided Antonio Gallenga, who proposed to assassinate King Charles Albert of Sardinia, with money and a letter opener.

Second, when he opposed the Paris Commune in 1871, Mack Smith writes,

He confirmed an aspect of his nature that only close friends had known. He was opposed to violent revolt except as a very last resort. As a general rule “I declare myself a man of authority and government” opposed to the “large portion of the democratic camp.”

When a triumvir in Rome in 1849 he had ruled with unexpected wisdom and moderation. Far from being a ceaseless plotter, careless of lives and oblivious to practicalities, he could be remarkably pragmatic, discouraging hopeless military expeditions and accepting monarchy as the price of unification.

Third, Cavour, having failed to beat the Mazzinians, tried joining them, and made several attempts to promote revolutions on behalf of Piedmont in 1859 and subsequently—all of which failed despite the fact that they were far better financed than anything Mazzini could ever afford. Cavour had even been subsidizing Felice Orsini, who had tried to assassinate Napoleon III in 1858, in an attempt which Mazzini had sought to prevent. So admirers of Cavour are not entitled to criticize Mazzini for his own conspiracies.

Fourth, Mazzini’s importance is attested to by the extent to which the conservative statesmen of Europe were literally terrified of his influence, had him spied on, had his letters opened, and tried to get him arrested. He nearly always evaded capture (although other men with the same surname were sometimes not so fortunate). Cavour was at least as worried by him as Metternich had been. As a well-to-do, aristocratic liberal, Cavour oscillated between deriding the idea that Italy could be united and dreading that this result might be achieved not by Piedmont but by democrats, socialists, and republicans, many of them inspired by Mazzini.

Fifth, Cavour and many other public opponents of Mazzini acknowledged in private that he had made an essential contribution to Italian unity.

Mack Smith also takes issue with both fascists and Marxists. Mussolini seized on some of Mazzini’s more chauvinistic remarks to claim him as a supporter both of Italian imperialism in Africa and of the concept of the Mediterranean as Italy’s sea, mare nostrum. According to Mack Smith, this is unjustified: “Mazzini was a patriot not a nationalist, and indeed condemned nationalism as absolutely wrong.” He only wanted Italy to possess the territories that culture and language marked out for it, and he advocated a Europe of nation-states living together in harmony and mutual respect.

Then there are Marx and the Marxists. Marx denounced Mazzini for failing to accept and support the class struggle, for condemning communism, and for “false sublimity, puffy grandeur, verbosity and prophetic mysticism.” Antonio Gramsci, for decades the guru of the Italian left, was the most prominent among those who criticized Mazzini—and the entire national movement—for neglecting the peasants and failing to bring about an agrarian revolution as part of the unification process. According to Garibaldi himself, not one peasant joined his volunteer armies. Mack Smith admits that much of Mazzini’s thought is woolly, but endorses his description of himself as a non-Marxist socialist, who denounced laissez faire, fostered organizations of working men, and argued for a redistribution of landed property. As for the peasants, Mazzini simply could not reach them because they were illiterate, but he regretted the fact and believed they should be given land.

Mack Smith builds his case on statements made by Mazzini himself or his contemporaries, drawn from an immense range of sources and deployed with great artistry. It is a technique that sometimes leaves the reader uncertain about the position of the biographer. Mazzini described Napoleon III as a despot. Mack Smith makes no comment. Does he think Mazzini’s description fair? As we have seen, he defends Mazzini from the charge of nationalism by quoting his subject’s own denial and simply endorsing it. The distinctions between patriotism, nationality, and nationalism, however, are hardly so universally agreed on that Mazzini’s words can settle the matter. In the most brilliant recent study of the theme. Ernest Gellner defines nationalism as “primarily a political principle, which holds that the political and the national unit should be congruent.” Eric Hobsbawm, author of another major work on the subject, concurs.2 By that criterion, Mazzini is unquestionably a nationalist. Though it is true that he denounced national imperialism, he stated emphatically that Corsica and the Trentino must form part of Italy. As Mack Smith himself acknowledges, “where linguistic and strategic frontiers did not coincide,” Mazzini “gave Italy the benefit of any doubt.” There are inherent and inescapable contradictions in any attempt to make political and national boundaries conform to one another, as the present problems of Ireland, the Balkans, and the former Soviet Union make all too clear.

To assert, moreover, that “in practice [Young Italy] became the first organised Italian political party” is to employ an idiosyncratic definition of party: Young Italy was more of a fervently organized pressure group, many of whose activities were kept secret. To regard its successor, the Party of Action, “as the first truly democratic movement in Italian history” implies an unusual definition of democracy: the party may have favored it but it did not practice it.

Mack Smith gives a delightful picture of Mazzini’s life in England and brings out far better than any other writer the extraordinary allure of Mazzini’s personality, above all his genuine selflessness and idealism. It shows, with much fuller evidence than in any previous work, that Mazzini had an influence on many of the participants in the Italian national movement and that his activities were frequently in the thoughts of those involved. His fame can be exaggerated, though. In Germany in 1847 the best-known Mazzini was A.L., no relation but author of Italy in its Relation with Freedom and Modern Civilization, which had just been published in French. But it is of great value to have the case that Giuseppe was a major influence so strongly made as it is in this book. This applies not merely to the unification of Italy but also to later national movements, for example those of Indians and non-white South Africans. Gandhi, the apostle of Indian nationalism, who in his early days campaigned for Indians’ rights in South Africa, acknowledged the inspiration of Mazzini, as Mandela has acknowledged that of Gandhi.

At least until recently, Marxist historians like Hobsbawm have dismissed Mazzini in much the same terms as Marx himself had done, as woolly minded and ineffective, foolishly rejecting the key to historical development which dialectical materialism had supplied. Now that Marxist historicism is in eclipse, it is a good moment to restore to nationalism its due significance as a movement transcending the class struggle and powered less by economic forces than by Romantic, literary, and cultural aspirations. It is also worth showing students of the social sciences that serious thought about nationalism antedated the works of Durkheim and Max Weber.

What emerges less clearly from this book is why so many reasonable persons feared and detested Mazzini’s views and schemes. Mack Smith’s treatment of his revolutionary activity is less than satisfying. He sometimes defends Mazzini as being moderate, so moderate as scarcely to appear revolutionary. Elsewhere Mack Smith cheerfully takes it for granted that Mazzini’s plans were revolutionary and even in some cases terrorist. “Organising revolution was expensive,” Mack Smith remarks, and mentions that Mazzini “disingenuously” set aside money that had ostensibly been raised for more respectable purposes “for any operation, peaceful or warlike, that will promote success.” To defend him with the argument that Cavour and other conservatives could also plan revolutions is to concede that he was, after all, a revolutionary.

One has to begin by admitting that there was a great deal to be said for the Vienna settlement, a view given new force by two striking recent books, Henry Kissinger’s Diplomacy and Paul Schroeder’s The Transformation of European Politics, 1763–1848. The settlement had preserved Europe from war since 1815. Life in the Austrian-dominated monarchies, while certainly undemocratic and highly intolerant of dissenters and liberals, was not harshly oppressive for most citizens. Napoleon’s armies had brought revolution and reform, but they had also brought death, disruption, pillage, sacrilege, and confiscation. It is hardly surprising that many people feared any attempt at revolution and clung to the Vienna settlement as their best hope of peace and stability. Such perceptions help to explain the alarm and horror that Mazzini inspired.

Then it has to be acknowledged that if Italian nationalism, or even Italian liberalism, was to make headway, Austria had to be turned out of Italy, and this could only be achieved by war or revolution or both. Cavour and Napoleon III, for their part, planned in cold blood a war to drive Austria’s armies out of northern Italy. Archdeacon Coxe, writing the history of Austria when Napoleon I was at the pinnacle of his triumphs, declared: “War, to the regret of every milder virtue, must form the principal subject of history.” We need not go the whole way with Coxe, but it is necessary to admit that war makes possible changes that might never otherwise have occurred.

Similarly, revolutions sometimes succeed in toppling or shaking regimes, and even terrorism—to the regret of every milder virtue—can force on the attention of governments and peoples issues that they would have preferred to ignore. Like war, terrorism is most unlikely to achieve exactly what its promoters originally aimed at. But it is surely undeniable that Orsini’s bombs, the Sicilian rising of 1860, and Garibaldi’s expedition to support it—all without a shred of legal justification—were all crucial to the unification of Italy. On Mack Smith’s dust jacket the Italian Bettino Craxi is quoted as describing Mazzini as “The Italian Arafat.” Neither the source nor the comparison seems so persuasive as they did two years ago. But Craxi had a point.

In previous books Mack Smith’s emphasis has been rather different. He has argued brilliantly that unification was the unplanned product of a mix of war, diplomacy, revolution, terrorism, and national feeling rather than the achievement of any one or two of them. That Italy was made in this way, without a consensus among its people, created huge problems for the new state. Internal divisions, especially that between the prosperous, modernized North and the relatively underdeveloped South, remain so acute that many Italians now question the very foundation of Mazzini’s creed. It would be a tragic irony if they were now to dismantle the unified democratic republic that Mazzini worked so ardently to create for them.

  1. 1

    Mack Smith, Cavour and Garibaldi 1860: A Study in Political Conflict (Cambridge University Press, 1954; 1985); Garibaldi (London: Hutchinson, 1957); Victor Emanuel, Cavour, and the Risorgimento (Oxford University Press, 1971); Italy and its Monarchy (Yale University Press, 1990); Mussolini (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1981); Cavour (London: Methuen, 1985).

  2. 2

    Ernest Gellner, Nations and Nationalism (Cornell University Press, 1983); Eric Hobsbawm, Nations and Nationalism Since 1870, second edition (Cambridge University Press, 1993).