The Tribune - Spectrum

, August 4, 2002

Off the shelf
Contemporary Italian social and political thought
V.N. Datta

REGRETTABLY, and I need not go into the reasons for it, the fact is that the study of Western political theory has suffered greviously in our universities. For the understanding of even contemporary society, the study of Western political theory is bound to prove a valuable asset. This is not to deny the advantages that have accrued to us from the extensive use that our academics have made of the Marxist method of historical analysis in their studies. We also notice a marked influence of Antonio Gramsci in our historiography, much to our benefit. For some time the study of Machiavelli was much in fashion and his writings gave us insight into the vicissitudes of Indian politics. But now the study of Western political theme has almost become a Cinderrella for our students. The book under review is Modern Italian Social Theory:Ideology and Politics from Pareto to the Present by Richard Bellamy, California, first published by Stanford University Press, Stanford, and now by Plackwall, 2002 (pages 215).

Originally, the author produced a Ph.D thesis on Italian political thinker and historian Vil Fredo Croce, but later he expanded this work and included in it other social and political thinkers such as Vil Fredo Pareto, Gaetono Mosca, Glovanni Labriola, Benedetto Croce, Glovanni Gentile and Antonio Gramsci, which he studied with the intellectual and social context of Italian and European political traditions. The closing debate focuses on the debate between Bobbio della Volpe and others about the validity of the Italian road to Socialism and its compatibility of Western democracy. In short, the book focuses on the social development of the Italian intellectual tradition, a field generally neglected by Indian academics.


The introductory chapter shows how the Italian unity was achieved by 1861 despite heavy odds against it due to internal conflicts and external pressures. Bellamy waxes lyrical over the unification of Italy but laments how the gains achieved by patriotic sacrifices were subsequently lost due to poor leadership. In the post-unification era Italy presented a piteous spectacle. In 1861, 75 per cent of the people were illiterate; 1/9 per cent had the right to vote and of that 57 per cent exercised it in the elections. Only 8 per thousand could speak the national language. The political party system was ineffective, ridden by corruption. The industrial and landlord zone of the northern Italy contrasted sharply with the declining conditions of the peasants in the South.Politically the peasants were in the pockets of the landlords. Italy was unified politically, but there was hardly any actual social cohesion. In other words, there was Italy unified, but there were no Italians in the authentic sense.

In each chapter Bellamy provides a brief biographical sketch of the political thinker, a discussion of his ideology and its relationship with the type of political action proposed for the social, political and economic amelioration of the Italian society.

The question what went wrong with the Italian society and state and how to stem the rot that had set in had agitated the minds of the political theorists whom Bellamy has taken up for discussion. According to the author, ideas of Pareto on the nature of the Italian state and society took a tortuous turn. Originally attracted by Marxism, Pareto adopted the Elitist theory, and veered towards Fascism. Emphasising that economic factors were incapable of explaining human behaviour, Pareto regarded education, adult franchise and individual liberty as panacea for the advancement of society. In his analysis of the Italian society, his approach was non-rationalist. He looked on Mussolini as a statesman of the first order, who was capable of resolving the Italian social and political problems by his vision, will power and cunning.

A convinced and confirmed Marxist, Antonio Labriola inveighed against crude Marxism. He regarded Marxism as a scientific method of analysis and a practical philosophy whose cardinal principles were a close study of class interests and a given mode of production for understanding social and economic realities. Mosca can easily be regarded as the father of Elitist theory. Following Guiccardini in his emphasis of meritocracy, Mosca’s ideal was the gentry, the political class, free and independent like the English country gentlemen, composed of an inherently superior upper middle class, that was capable of ruling over the majority by a judicious use of authority.He was cynical about democracy and its inherent abuses.

Gentile, Mussolini’s EducationMinister, the author of Reforma Gentile, was a philosopher of Fascism.He justified the Fascist seizure of power which he thought was the only way for the preservation of human freedom and autonomous creative morality in the existing situation. He wanted all human activity to be organised within the Fascist corporate state which represented the fundamental unity of man as articulated in all its diversities. The social aspect of his thought became a part of apoligia for the organic state of Fascism.

As a technical historian and political philosopher, Croce wrote on political history and aesthetics. His work tends to be somewhat obscure due to metaphysical incrustations. Rejecting Marxism and Fascism, he developed a highly sophisticated nature of humanist philosophy by using empathy as a means for understanding the complexity of human behaviour. According to him, our conception of reality is a product of the history of thought, and our present state of mind is to be understood in terms of past events; he wrote:"It is our experience that transforms the present."

In his writings Croce projected the elitist exaltation of limitless creative activity in which an autonomous individual plays a vital role and wrestles with the manifold problems of human existence. He also developed a notion of the history of liberty in which he gave too philosophical and providential a viewpoint.His philosophy can be described as the "philosophy of spirit". He identifies philosophy with the historical development of concepts. His entire approach can be described as idealist, a Hegelian echo.

No Italian political thinker except Machiavelli had such a profound influence on Indian historical and political thought as Antonio Gramsci who had worked zealously for setting up the Communist Party. Because of his political activities he was arrested in 1926 and sentenced to 20 years’ imprisonment. In a solitary confinement he filled 33 exercise books with 2,948 pages that propounded a humanistic philosophy stressing the need for transformed self-consciousness or "battle of ideas" in society before Revolution would occur. Thus he dismissed the historical fatalism and materialism of orthodox Marxism.

Gramsci accepted the Marxist notion of the objective conditions of production and material goods but denied that there existed objective laws of historical development. According to him ideas are not external to reality or separate from its purpose and needs. He thought the Marxism base-superstructure concept too simplistic. He gave importance to cultural factors in resolving the problem posed by the historical process. He was firmly convinced that while economy was the motor of history, in itself it could not produce any radical political change. He pointed out that institutions and belief systems have their own internal dynamics without being connected with economic development. According to him, facts do not speak for themselves, but only make sense within a theory that provides certain criteria for their selection and significance. Thus Gramsci emphasised the independent role played by politics and culture in upholding the authority of the State and in organising popular resistance to it. Gramsci recognised the vitality of human will and consciousness in moulding the course of history.

Dellas Volpe pleaded for the democratisation of society along with the gradual socialisation of economy via workers and state control of the means of production. This was the only way to reconcile the complexity of Communism with the so-called liberal freedom. Babbio’s model was neither liberal or socio-democratic nor the revolutionary Leninist, but a fusion of both. In other words, democracy must be responsible in form and social in action. Dellas and Bobbio represented the post-World War political trends in Italian thought.

This book will be extremely valuable to students, scholars and professionals in Italy, in particular, and to those who are interested in political theory, sociology and history, in general.