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[Editor's Note: The following essay on the late Norberto Bobbio by Nadia Urbinati of Columbia University was published in the Journal of Modern Italian Studies. I thank Prof. Urbinati for submitting it to Political Theory Daily Review. I would also like to take this opportunity to remind visitors that they are welcome to submit articles or essays to be considered for linking or providing space on our site.]

Review of Norberto Bobbio, Autobiografia  (Rome-Bari: Laterza, 1997) in Journal of Modern Italian Studies, 8 (Spring): 121-25.

It is no rhetoric to speak of Norberto Bobbio’s Autobiografia as a historical and political profile of twentieth century Italy.  This is so not merely because of the extraordinary length of Bobbio’s life (he will turn 93 on October 18th 2002) but because his life experience reflects, like a microcosm, that of the Italian society throughout the most crucial years of its history as a unitary state.  Bobbio saw and suffered, contributed in shaping and critically understanding, the political events that history text-books analyze, from the African avventura to the adventure of the second Berlusconi government.  Thomas Carlyle thought that each country has its own “representative men,” individuals whose words and deeds, passions and ideals synthesize the complexity of their national identity, which is, much like individual identity, all but homogeneous and univocal.  I take Carlyle’s insight as my guide to Bobbio’s autobiography, a document that testifies to Italians’ painful trajectory to democracy, the political and existential dramas that marked it, and, most of all, the antagonistic interpretations of its character and meaning.  The legacy of Bobbio’s life and work speaks to contemporary Italian intellectuals in different voices.  To some it epitomizes a never-ending effort to shape a constitutional morality that anchors Italian public life on a secure sense of rights and legality and a shared belief in the value of the basic principles of equality and justice.  To others, instead, it epitomizes the liberal version of the utopia of modernity which, since the French revolution, was pursued with determination by reformists and revolutionaries, Girondins and Jacobeans, liberal-socialists and Leninists. (According to Ernesto Galli della Loggia, a leading figure of contemporary Italian revisionism, Bobbio is the last representative of the “ideologia italiana,” an “activist” view of politics that crossed all Italian secular traditions, from Giovanni Gentile to Piero Gobetti, from Antonio Gramsci to Carlo Rosselli.)  Hence the conclusion that Bobbio’s political vision sought to propagate values and ideas that are essentially inimical to the Catholic tradition and, as such, a breach of Italy’s very cultural identity which is prior, and superior, to its political identity, an artifact of the liberal ideology and the state.

Bobbio’s Autobiografia is representative of the Italian national experience in at least three aspects: social-political, ethical-political, and intellectual-political.  I shall devote the remaining part of this review to illustrate each of them, all the while knowing that the selective reading I’m proposing does not do justice to the richness of Bobbio’s life and book.  As for the social-political aspect, Bobbio’s representativity emerges from the narrating strategy of Alberto Papuzzi, the editor of Bobbio’s Autobiografia.  Papuzzi situates Bobbio’s birth within a broad political context, Italian and European, thus suggesting to read his whole life as representative of an entire epoch.  In 1909, the FIAT was ten years old and was producing 1.800 cars per year; and Piero Gobetti, one of Bobbio’s most important mentors, was eight years old.  On October 18, the day Bobbio was born, the Confederazione Generale del Lavoro called for a national strike in Rome and Turin, while rallies were held to protest against the execution, in Barcelona, of the Catalan revolutionary Francisco Ferrer.  Meanwhile, the Italian police was still alerted after the anarchists’ and socialists’ demonstrations against Nicolas II, the Russian Czar, who had just visited Italy.  In sum, Bobbio was born in a pre-Fascist Italy and Europe.  And he was born in a pre-Fascist middle class family.

Bobbio’s description of his social background matches the black and white picture of Italian society.  The rich and the poor, the bourgeoisie and the proletariat lived close to each other like two foreign and inimical nations.  Bobbio belonged to the former.  His family looks like a sample of the typology of the Italian bourgeoisie on the eve of fascism.  It was well read, its literary taste modeled on a national literature that combined the Catholic tradition (Alessandro Manzoni) and the belief in social progress (Achille Ardigò), yet neither provincial nor obtusely nationalist, and in fact familiar with the French, German, and English literature.  Rooted in Piedmont as though Piedmont were still a state of its own, Bobbio’s family shared with the majority of its class both the mistrust in the political “maturity” of the volgo and the fear of popular upheavals.  Predictably, it would welcome fascism as a pre-emptive necessity against the threat of Bolshevism.

Bobbio spent most of his life in the same city, home, and street--via Sacchi, 66—a telling detail if one recalls that in the years of his youth the Italian government subsidized the exodus to America of millions of its subjects. “From my family I never got the impression that there was class conflict between bourgeois and proletariat.  We have been educated to think all men equal” (p. 9). Yet Italian children were not at all equal, as Bobbio would realize very soon in comparing his lifestyle and that of his little peasant friends with whom he used to play during his summer vacations in the countryside.  “The contrast between their homes and ours, their food and ours, their dresses and ours could not escape us… Every year, back to the countryside, we learned that some of our friends had died of tuberculosis during the winter” (p.9).

It was not from his family that Bobbio would learn how to make sense of that.  Nor it was within his family that he developed his hostility toward fascism and the Fascist regime.  Like with almost all Italian young generations, the public school was the place in which Bobbio met with political ideas and began his political education.  In addition, his high school was the Liceo Ginnasio Massimo d’Azeglio of Turin, not an ordinary public school indeed, but the one that formed the intellectual and political generation that contributed to form the future democratic Italy.  Piero Gobetti, Cesare Pavese, Giulio Einaudi, Massimo Mila, Vittorio Foa, Gian Carlo Pajetta, Felice Balbo, Leone Ginzburg were Bobbio’s friends in the Liceo d’Azeglio.  All of them would become active anti-Fascists, and many of them, like Bobbio, members of the clandestine movement Giustizia e Libertà (which Carlo Rosselli had founded in Paris in 1930) and the target of the repressive politics inaugurated by Mussolini’s regime in 1925.  In 1935, the whole Turinese group of Giustizia e Libertà (the most active one within Italy) was arrested.  Bobbio, who had meanwhile graduated from the Law School at the University of Turin, and just returned from his first study visit to Germany, was also arrested.  The events that accompanied his arrest bring me to the second of the three aspects that speak for Bobbio’s life experience as representative, namely the ethical-political one.

Briefly the events: In 1935, when he was arrested, Bobbio had acquired the libera docenza in Philosophy of Law at the University of Camerino.  Predictably, his arrest would put his academic life in jeopardy.  Thus, following the suggestion of one of his relatives, he wrote a letter to the Duce in which he pledged his Fascist loyalty and asked for clemency.  The existence of that letter became known to the public at large ten years ago, when the magazine Panorama published it on June 21st 1992.  Papuzzi reconstructs the political context of its publication.  The PCI had already changed its name after the collapse of the Berlin wall, mani pulite was moving on quite dramatically, and meanwhile the historical and ideological revisionism that accompanied the end of the so called prima repubblica had started.  Bobbio’s letter to the Duce was used by revisionist historians and intellectuals to put on trial the moral significance of anti-fascism and the Resistenza, and the only secular leftist tradition that had survived the Cold War and mani pulite.  Finally, Bobbio’s compromise with fascism was used to discredit him by making him guilty of duplicity and moral weakness.  In sum, once the “responsibility” of the Communists and the Socialists was reckoned (the former because of their ties to Moscow, and the latter because of their corruption) the time had come for the former members of the Partito d’Azione to confess their sins.  The Partito d’Azione was founded in 1942 by Guido Calogero, the author of the Manifesto del liberalsocialismo (1940) which was the normative statute of the party.  The party had not reached the quorum in the elections of 1946 and its electoral defeat put an end to its existence.  His founders and members took different paths: some entered centrist and leftist parties; others, like Bobbio, stepped down from active politics altogether, and chose to be active as intellectuals instead.

The attack on Bobbio’s choice to write a letter to the Duce took both a political and a personal character.  On the one side, it aimed at demonstrating that only a tiny minority opposed fascism directly and was ready to suffer the consequences of their militant anti-fascism; the large majority inhabited, instead, the “gray area” of either indifference or compromise.  Bobbio belonged to the latter, and this was used by his critics to prove he failed both as a man (moral responsibility) and as an intellectual (political responsibility).  The asperity of the polemic was unjustifiably harsh, so much so that the attack on Bobbio became de facto a personal attack, a despicable spectacle that is foreign to the ethos of a democratic dialogue.  As a consequence, Bobbio transformed the answer to his critics into a public and humiliating self-confession of his guilt.  “In this letter, I found suddenly myself face to face with another myself, one I thought I was able to defeat for ever.  I was touched not by the polemics on me as a person, but by the letter itself, and the fact that it was me who had written it” (p. 32.)

Sometimes historians make historiography into a tribunal.  Yet it is a strange tribunal one in which only the judge has the right to seat, and the judging standard is so absolute and abstract to ignore the specificity of the historical facts under judgment.  If ever, Bobbio’s compromise should serve to prove that, as we know from the works of Aristotle or Montesquieu, despotic regimes are a negation of the moral life precisely because they do not allow for individual liberty, or the liberty to make sincere choices. Despotic regimes make individuals immoral and dishonest precisely because they make the ruler the only free person, which means that they make him an arbitrary ruler who does not allow his subjects but two alternatives: either heroism or treachery and hypocrisy.  As Nello Rosseli wrote to his brother shortly before they were both killed by Mussolini’s emissaries, he was longing for a time when he could simply be a scholar without feeling remorse for not being able to be a hero.

Bobbio’s letter to the Duce should be read as an accusation of a political system that forces its subjects to write that kind of letter, and beg their ruler like slaves beg their master to preserve what belongs to them legitimately (Bobbio had already acquired his academic position in a regular competition).  I have myself thought many times about Bobbio’s choice, and I found myself sympathizing with his lack of courage, because I’m not so sure I would not do the same given those circumstances.  His harsh judges seemed not to have had the same doubt.  Furthermore, they seemed to forget that they lived in a time and a society that did not force them to be heroes in order to be simply moral individuals.  Bobbio’s weakness is in this sense representative of the human condition, and the tragic choices it is forced into when no other choices are possible beside the tragic ones.  But is it true that he was unable to take a stand and make courageous choices?  After July 25th 1943, the day Mussolini resigned, Bobbio joined the clandestine movement in Padua, where he was then teaching and an anti-Fascist group operated under the moral leadership of Concetto Marchesi, the President of the University of Padua.  Bobbio was arrested and sent to jail. He had the chance to escape, yet he didn’t.

The third and last aspect that speaks for Bobbio’s life as representative is the intellectual-political one.  Bobbio held a prominent role in the reshaping of Italian high culture.  After the Fascist disaster, Italian political theory and philosophy found itself either arid or unfit to the democratic transformation.  For sure, there was a well established tradition of natural law, but it was held by the Thomists.  As for liberalism, Croce had given it an anti-jusnaturalist and anti-Enlightenment character, opposite to the Anglo-Saxon tradition.  On the eve of Resistenza, Bobbio, along with other prominent scholars, started planning the reissuing of the classic works of Western political thought, from Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau, to Kant, Hegel, Tocqueville, and Marx.  Meanwhile, he recovered the Italian liberal tradition from dust, freed it from discredit and the oblivion that Gentile and Croce had cast on it, and resuscitated the works of Beccaria, Romagnosi and Cattaneo.  In addition, Bobbio tried to make a democratic use of the theory of the elite, one of the most important legacies of Italian political science.  Thus, he re-interpreted the ideas of Mosca and Pareto while opening the door of Italian academy to the American democratic theory of the elite (from Schumpeter and Wright Mill to Robert Dahl).  Furthermore, Bobbio introduced Hans Kelsen’s work to Italian scholars, and in fact became himself a prominent interlocutor in the European debate on legal positivism and natural law normativism.  Finally, he turned his attention to the role of social justice in the extension of democracy in civil society and political institutions.  In this way he linked his theoretical reflection to that of Rawls and Habermas.  Through all these stages, Bobbio aimed at bridging the Italian tradition and the foreign ones, thus avoiding autarkic localism but also a passive and imitative importation of foreign ideas and theoretical models.

Bobbio was an engagé intellectual not identifiable with any credo or ideology, unless democracy itself is deemed an ideology.  He kindled the most important political debates that marked Italy after World War Two.  He chose to step down from political action once Italy was liberated and ready to endorse a democratic constitution.  From that moment on, Bobbio played mainly a civil and intellectual role.  A liberal socialist, he was actually a consistent constitutional democrat, always attentive to detect the discrepancies between norms and facts, and the tension between the ideal promises of democracy and their actual realizations.  His belief in the educational function of public dialogue made him a Socratic in a time and a country in which politics tended to be dominated by dogmatic loyalties and religious political identities.

Against the current: these are perhaps the best words to represent Bobbio’s role in contemporary Italian society.  This made him regularly and unavoidably the target against which, from time to time, political leaders and intellectuals strengthen their own credo.  In the 1950s, the Communists opposed their view of a substantial equality against the Western model of representative democracy endorsed by Bobbio. Yet he chose to dialogue with them (a further reason for contemporary revisionists to criticize him of supporting Communism).  Decades later, the young leaders of the 1968 movement opposed “true” or assembly democracy against his conviction that democracy must be bound by norms and procedures and be representative.  Yet Bobbio chose the path of dialogue rather than that of censure and intolerance.  More recently, the ideologues of the new right opposed their Manichean interpretation of liberalism (“right” liberals versus “false” ones) against Bobbio’s pluralist one.  Once again, he chose dialogue and clarified the normative foundations of the Left and the Right, equality and freedom.  Wishing to find the file rouge that unifies Bobbio’s life and work I would say that it consisted in a passionate defense and rational justification and interpretation of democracy as a permanent process of democratization.  This was actually the true issue at stake in the several debates and polemics he was involved, from the age of constitutional founding to that of neo-liberalism, from the time of Ferruccio Parri’s government to that of Silvio Berlusconi’s.

Nadia Urbinati
Columbia University