Piero Gobetti and the Politics of Liberal Revolution, by James Martin, Palgrave Macmillan, 220 pp, £42.50, ISBN: 978-0230602748
Although it may, to a late nineteenth century observer, have seemed like a sleepy town, Turin’s more complex past was easily betrayed by its splendid baroque architecture, royal palaces and wide, elegant boulevards, all fitting for a capital city. Better known in recent years as the city of Fiat, Turin had in fact been at the centre of Italian politics long before it became Italy’s first industrial city. Capital of the kingdom of Piedmont, whose territories are now divided between France and Italy, it was one of the strongholds of the Risorgimento; the nineteenth century movement of nationalist “resurgence” which aimed to drive out the foreign occupiers from Lombardy and Venetia and to unify the Italian states under one national government. It was in the famous Turin café Fiorio on Via Po (and possibly over hot chocolate) that the Piedmontese prime minister, Count Camillo Benso di Cavour, plotted the creation of a new Italian kingdom under Piedmontese rule. He began the process through diplomacy in 1861. General Garibaldi claimed Naples and Sicily for the new kingdom, bringing the peninsula’s southern tip into Italy. It would take another nine years before the kingdom was complete: Rome was still ruled by the Pope and protected by the formidable French army. But for Garibaldi, it was “Rome or death”; in 1870 the French army finally left and he was able to storm the city with his troops and proclaim it the new capital of Italy.
Because of its role in the Risorgimento – Cavour had claimed Italy for the Piedmontese king and it was Piedmontese law and military might that managed to hold the new kingdom together – Turin briefly became capital of Italy in 1861. The Alpine city did not hold onto this role for long. Its citizens often spoke French and Piedmontese more readily than Italian and the grandiose baroque and neoclassical architecture and the grid of straight, interlocking streets and stern, grey buildings made a stark visual contrast with the Mediterranean feel of the towns and cities of most of the rest of Italy.
In both geography and culture, Turin was perceived by many as “not Italian enough” to be a fitting capital and it lost out in the long term to Florence and then Rome. Although the city was politically dethroned, its intellectuals did not give up so easily, and continued to consider themselves the educators and moral guides of the new nation; expounding to anyone who would listen on the supposedly characteristic Piedmont values of hard work, sobriety and morality. They also relentlessly promoted the heroic and revolutionary character of the Risorgimento, which had created Italy and made Italians out of Sardinians and Milanese, Piemontese and Romans alike. It was in Turin that the first Museum of the Risorgimento was opened in 1878 as the Torinese sought to remind Italians that it was in their city that Italy had been “made”. Generations of schoolchildren were reminded of this too in the 1886 novel Heart, which wove the heroic legacy of Garibaldi and the moral and civic values of a Piedmontese education into a sentimental and nationalist narrative about life in a Turin boys’ school. The new Italians certainly needed to be convinced of their national identity given that they stubbornly clung to their regional loyalties, continuing to consider themselves Sicilian, Neapolitan or Genovese rather than Italian. They were, perhaps understandably, ill-disposed to recognise a remote new government whose soldiers and tax collectors were often, outside the main cities, its most visible representatives. Piedmontese intellectuals, seen by fellow Italians as proud and remote, were possibly not best suited to spreading the message of national unity.
Despite the self-importance of Turin’s intellectuals, it was not a thinker but a young entrepreneur who transformed the city several decades after it had lost its political role, giving it its modern identity. Motor-racing was the exotic new sporting craze of the aristocracy in the 1890s, but Giovanni Agnelli saw that what seemed just a passing fad of the idle rich had the potential to tap into a much greater market. He gathered together the capital to found the Fiat factory in 1899. It was from this point that Turin, still a vibrant intellectual centre strong in economics, science and political theory but lacking the more cosmopolitan atmosphere of Rome or Milan, began to find a new role for itself. As industry grew in strength in the early years of the new century, Turin’s new role was confirmed and the landscape of the city began its rapid transformation. That this was happening at a time when most Italians were still peasants who lived on and worked the land makes the city’s speedy development even more remarkable. Hastily constructed shanty towns sprouted up on the outskirts of the city as thousands of peasants left their homes to work in the new factories. While the middle class city centre, with its fashionable shops and elegant cafes, betrayed little of this transformation, Turin was in Gramsci’s view a city under siege from the new working class one that encircled it. Polarisation resulted in social tension: between middle and working class; city dweller and peasant; industrialist and factory worker; socialist and conservative. Turin after 1918 was both an exciting and a troubling place to be; the presence of Italy’s largest and best organised working class carried the promise of the creation of a new social order, but the threat of reaction, especially as Mussolini’s violent fascist squads gained in strength after 1919, was equally strong.
It was against this background in the city that Piero Gobetti, a young intellectual whose parents owned a grocery shop, began to make his name. Gobetti began his public career at the age of seventeen as the editor of a new magazine called Energie Nove (New Energies), eager to be part of the excitement and turmoil of the postwar years, but it wasn’t until he founded La Rivoluzione Liberale (The Liberal Revolution) four years later that he reached the height of his potential. In the intervening years Gobetti became more and more attuned to the dramatic changes that were taking place in his own city. A few months after the first appearance of Energie Nove, a group of young revolutionary socialists led by Antonio Gramsci began to publish their own magazine, Ordine Nuovo (New Order). Born in Sardinia, Gramsci had come to Turin on a university scholarship but soon abandoned his studies for political activism. The power of Turin’s working class had evidently inspired the socialism that led to his role in the foundation of the Italian Communist Party in 1921, his long imprisonment at the hands of Mussolini and premature death in 1937. Although their politics were very different, both magazines were inspired by the same ambitious desire to bring about a renewal of Italy, and soon the two groups began, in their columns, to converse with one another. Although Gobetti continued all his life to describe himself as a liberal, he had a close intellectual rapport with Gramsci and even assumed the position of theatre critic for Ordine Nuovo when the magazine became a daily newspaper in 1921.
Gobetti took the position at Ordine Nuovo as the fascists were gaining in strength in Italy and it was becoming clear that more and more Italians were prepared to support the charismatic Mussolini, with his reassuring promises of strong government and national glory, over Italy’s traditionally weak liberal government. Disillusioned by what he perceived as the moral weakness of his fellow countrymen in choosing a charismatic dictator over the more arduous road of building a stable democracy, Gobetti’s theatre reviews soon became a vehicle for his increasingly bitter musings on contemporary Italian life. The young liberal was scathing on the cultural pretensions of Italy’s well-to-do middle classes, attacking the favourite entertainments of the theatre-going public as much for their lack of moral and political consciousness as for the standards of acting and production. In true Piedmontese style, Gobetti told his readers week after week that Italian theatre was decadent and unworthy of “serious minds” and that foreign theatre – Russian, French, Swedish … anything but Italian – offered a more fitting education; a pity then that, on the rare occasions when it was shown, Italian audiences seldom understood it. Gobetti’s caustic wit was so effective that his repeated sniping at the well known actor Zacconi eventually earned him a ban from the Turin theatre where he performed.
His friendship with Gramsci meant that when the unrest of the Turin working classes finally culminated in dramatic factory occupations, Gobetti had a front row seat throughout the whole affair. The Turin factory workers, inspired by the example of Russia and encouraged by Gramsci’s communists, had gained in political strength throughout 1920, setting up “factory councils” to directly represent the demands of the workers instead of going through the stale and overly bureaucratic trade union system, organising strikes and eventually a wholesale occupation of the factories in early September 1920. Although the factory occupations quickly spread to the rest of Italy, they had begun in Turin and it was here that they were best organised, with the workers actually running the factories themselves and keeping production going throughout the month-long occupation. Deeply impressed by what he saw, Gobetti wrote to his fiancée, Ada, that the factories “were in full flow of revolution” and that the workers “were constructing a new order” (quoted by Martin). As time went on, however, and the idealism of the initial days waned, he became more disillusioned with what he saw at Fiat.
Nevertheless, although the September 1920 occupation ended in defeat for the working class, with the creation of a “new order” indefinitely postponed, Gobetti retained his faith in the power of the collective action of the working classes. He and Gramsci went their separate political ways soon afterwards – Gramsci became a founding member of the Italian Communist Party in 1921 while Gobetti remained a self described liberal – but the factory occupations retained an almost mythical significance for him, symbolising the revolutionary potential of grassroots movements to change the social order from below and ultimately giving his liberalism the “revolutionary” tag.
A virtual unknown in public life at the beginning of the RL project, Gobetti, through his charisma and ability to attract writers and commentators from all areas of Italian public life – from politicians to journalists, academics to university students, both established and unknown – ensured the journal’s success. While Energie Nove had the vague remit of bringing something new to Italian culture and waking up young minds, La Rivoluzione Liberale had a more focused political mission and was intended to be a forum for intellectuals to discuss contemporary politics, explore the historic roots of present problems and tease out the means of solving them. While his own ideas undoubtedly gave RL its direction, it was the contributions from figures as diverse as former prime minister Francesco Nitti, liberal economist (and future president of the republic) Luigi Einaudi, historian and campaigner for the depressed Italian south Gaetano Salvemini and renegade fascist writer Curzio Malaparte who gave the periodical its unique colour. Many were already established figures in their respective fields, while almost all the others would become well known names afterwards in politics, academia and journalism. Indeed, after the collapse of the fascist regime in 1943, the intellectuals, activists, journalists and politicians who laboured to reconstruct democratic society in Italy under the diverse labels of liberal, socialist, Christian Democrat and Communist were often united by the shared experience of having written for La Rivoluzione Liberale. The shared experience functioned almost as a select club uniting Italy’s brightest minds across political divides; a reminder of what had often been their first venture into antifascist activism.
The periodical was founded just as the fascist movement was gaining strength in Italy and Mussolini was drawing support even from liberals who saw it as the only way to restore order in a weak and divided state. It quickly made a name for itself as one of the few places where Italian journalists, writers and thinkers of all political creeds could freely articulate their opposition to the new ideology. It was through RL that many of Italy’s most acute commentators watched the fascist movement transform itself from a movement to a political party, to a government, to a regime, capitalising on the historic instability of liberal government coupled with the new threat of communism.
In addition to offering a platform for political debate, it was through RL that Gobetti worked out his theory of a revolutionary liberalism as the only antidote to a foundering liberal state and the dangerous new creed of fascism. Inspired by the example of the factory occupations, Gobetti was convinced that the working class was the only force with sufficient energy to inject the necessary revolutionary element into liberalism; a conviction he worked out in his journalism and in a book of collected articles he also entitled La Rivoluzione Liberale. Deeply disheartened by the tide of support for the illiberal and reactionary fascist movement, he turned to history in an attempt to explain why Italians were willing to abandon democracy with such ease.
In Gobetti’s view, the rot had set in with the Risorgimento itself: since Italy had been unified not by the will of the people but by the diplomatic machinations of Cavour, there had never been any solid popular support for the new liberal state, a little over fifty years old when it was dismantled by Mussolini. After the unification, the foreign laws of Piedmont were extended to the rest of Italy and loyalty to Italy often commanded by force. How could Italians be expected to support a government which they had not themselves created and a nation which they did not really feel they belonged to? Successive liberal governments had limped along in the decades after the unification, none of them really managing to convince Italians that they belonged to and should participate in the life of the new state. After having “made Italy” through diplomacy and war, successive governments had, in the oft-quoted words of Massimo D’Azeglio, failed to “make Italians”. It was in this context that Gobetti bitterly referred to fascism as “nothing new”; it was no less representative of the Italians than successive liberal governments had been, and given the continued ineptitude of liberal government it was no surprise that Italians jumped at the chance of a strong and charismatic leader. In his now famous assessment, the recourse to fascism was simply “the autobiography of a nation”. For Gobetti, the Turin factory workers’ movement was therefore the seed of the popular democratic movement which Italy had never had, and could inject the revolutionary impetus into liberalism. The only hope he saw was to work towards the development of “revolutionary liberalism” in Italian politics, encouraging the workers’ movement as the vanguard of the revolution. However what was required was not direct political action so much as a change of consciousness in the minds of Italians. As such, Gobetti’s project was to be a long-term, gradual one which aimed to defeat fascism not for his own generation but for the following one. He cast himself as a modern-day heretic, revealing unpleasant truths about their history to a closed-minded, reactionary people who did not want to hear them, who wanted heroes rather than heretics and easy solutions instead of the slow, steady path that Gobetti proposed.
Precisely because the project of “liberal revolution” was to be a slow one which aimed to transform attitudes rather than win votes, Gobetti stayed clear of party politics and concentrated on gathering as many intellectual voices as he could in the pages of RL. His mission was not purely a political one; it was also about creating a cultural shift in the minds of Italians to prepare the way for the liberal revolution. Although Gobetti was one of the first to perceive the illiberal nature of Piedmont’s “unification” of Italy, his own project was in some ways a continuation of the old Piedmontese mission to educate new Italians in the ways of responsible government. Gobetti created a publishing house which published on an immense range of subjects, from Nitti’s musings on postwar European politics to a translation of John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty introduced by Einaudi. He is also credited as the first editor to “discover” the poet Eugenio Montale (winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1975), whose debut poetry collection he published in 1924. In the same year he also founded a literary periodical named Il Baretti, after an eighteenth century Piedmontese Anglophile who had attempted to shake up Italian culture with his magazine The Literary Whip. With Il Baretti, Gobetti intended to continue his project of long-term intellectual and moral education by introducing Italians to the culture of their European neighbours. Amid the bombastic nationalist rhetoric of fascist Italy, he considered this a timely exercise, more necessary than ever to the project of liberal revolution.
By 1925 the government had survived its first real crisis, when public outrage at the murder of socialist leader Matteotti by fascist thugs had threatened to topple the regime. Mussolini tightened control over the opposition and the press, transforming Italy into a dictatorship. As one of the best known and most extreme antifascist publications, La Rivoluzione Liberale’s days were clearly numbered. Already in 1924 the police were regularly confiscating issues straight off the press, each time on different spurious grounds and throughout 1925 the political intimidation worsened. Such was Gobetti’s reputation that Mussolini himself even sent a telegram to Turin’s chief of police ordering him to “make life difficult for this insolent opponent of fascism”. Finally, in November 1925, at the same time as the editors of the main daily newspapers Corriere della Sera and La Stampa were quietly replaced with fascists, La Rivoluzione Liberale was served with an order to close down.
Gobetti’s plan was to move to Paris and to continue his publishing house and even a French edition of La Rivoluzione Liberale there. To this end he left Turin alone in February 1926, his wife and newborn son to follow as soon as he found a place for them all to live. A little over a week after he arrived in Paris, friends found him seriously ill with bronchitis in a hotel room, his health having already been weakened as a result of injuries sustained the previous year in a beating by fascist thugs. Although they brought him to a clinic immediately, his illness was too far advanced and he died a few days later, less than two weeks after his arrival in the city.
Even though he died before the age of twenty five, Gobetti’s remarkable achievements as an editor, journalist and theorist have ensured his place in Italian history. His curious blend of liberalism and open admiration for the communist movement have however made him difficult to pin down politically, and he is sometimes better remembered for his heroic antifascism than for his political ideas. Despite the countless pages devoted to him in print in his native country, he has until recently been little known outside Italy, attention focusing instead on Gramsci and his Prison Notebooks. These studies, written during Gramsci’s long spell in a fascist prison in the 1930s and published posthumously in postwar Italy, have shaken up western Marxist thought with their introduction of the concept of “hegemony”, which shifts the focus away from violent revolution and emphasises the need to cultivate consent through cultural education. Ever since the 1970s, when Gramsci was first translated into English, their impact, particularly in Britain, has been enormous. Coming at a time when Western Marxist thought was still reeling from the horror of Stalinism, Gramsci’s Communism seemed to offer another direction and was seized upon by Anglophone intellectuals. The originality of Turin’s “liberal” revolutionary – whose political ideas seem to offer another way out of the impasse between communism and capitalism, combining working class power with liberal democracy – has in contrast remained until much more recently virtually unknown outside Italy. This is beginning to be addressed: several years ago a collection of Gobetti’s writings on the concept of liberal revolution were published in translation and now, with James Martin’s book, Piero Gobetti and the Politics of Liberal Revolution, readers can enjoy the first full-length appraisal in English.
As a specialist in political theory, Martin is chiefly concerned to introduce his readers to Gobetti’s novel concept of the “liberal revolution”, which he believes is still very relevant to twenty-first century democratic society. In doing this, he blends intellectual biography with political commentary, paying particular biographical attention to the early years of Gobetti’s career. The last two chapters examine his legacy and pose the questions: who carried on the programme or adopted the ideas of “liberal revolution” after Gobetti’s death in 1926, and what does it have to offer politicians, intellectuals and theorists of the twentieth century?
Martin’s opening chapter skilfully sets the context for the beginning of Gobetti’s intellectual career as teenage editor of Energie Nove. He describes the tumultuous atmosphere of postwar Italy; the tremendous change the war was almost universally and irrationally expected to bring about, the disappointed nationalism of those returning from the front that would soon turn to fascism and the inability of successive short-lived liberal governments to contain the crisis. Martin’s emphasis is primarily on the world of ideas, and much space is devoted to profiling the Italian intellectuals who most influenced Gobetti, from philosopher Benedetto Croce and historian Gaetano Salvemini to political theorist Gaetano Mosca and economist Luigi Einaudi. He discusses in detail Gobetti’s relations with Gramsci and Ordine Nuovo, and the pivotal experience of the factory occupations, as he cuts through the politically inspired myth of a heroic partnership between Gramsci and Gobetti using only the written testimonies of both figures to construct his account.
All of these experiences and intellectual encounters in Gobetti’s life add something to the formation of his political philosophy, from Salvemini’s focus on real problems rather than abstract formulae to Gramsci’s ideas about the power of the working classes. However, it was not until the years of La Rivoluzione Liberale that Gobetti really started to formulate the project of “liberal revolution”, and it is on the writings of 1922 to 1925, which elaborated his conception of a new type of liberalism and set out the grounds for his fierce antifascism, that Martin ultimately concentrates. This is not an easy task, as the author acknowledges, as far from formulating his ideas in splendid isolation, Gobetti was an editor and intellectual whose principal writings were his journalism. He wrote based on what was happening around him on a day-to-day basis, responding to political developments as they happened – whether another factory workers’ strike, Mussolini’s latest speech, the repeated confiscations of his own newspapers or the stances of other intellectuals towards the regime – and formulating his political ideas and convictions about Italy’s flawed history as he went. While some articles were later collected in book form, the fact remains that it is not easy to glean a systematic theoretical underpinning from a body of writing such as this. Given these limitations, Martin gives his readers an excellent synthesis of Gobetti’s political ideas.
Based around the concept of “liberty”, Gobetti’s understanding of liberalism was as a process of liberation more than a formula for government. In Martin’s words, his “liberalism was an emancipatory ethos immanent to popular struggles to extend freedom, rather than a doctrine of external, transcendent principles or a form of state”. It is in this context that the apparent paradox of the liberal Gobetti’s support for the communist workers’ movement and even the Russian revolution – both struggles for autonomy and freedom against oppression – becomes clearer. In both cases it was the people’s striving for liberty rather than their choice of new government which he admired. However it was not enough for Gobetti to confine this process of liberation to a single, revolutionary moment which would then crystallise into a new form of government, perhaps just as illiberal as the last. Continual conflict was at the core of his revolutionary liberalism because it was only by allowing the free and robust exchange of ideas that another tyranny could be avoided. He was convinced that achieving consensus at the expense of excluding the “heretics”, minority groups and marginal thinkers, was too high a price to pay. Gobetti’s was, in Martin’s estimation, an “agonistic” liberalism which was never static and continually evolved through conflict. He had consequently little in common with most other thinkers who go by the name of liberal.
Martin’s reading makes it plain why someone with Gobetti’s sensibilities would be an instinctual opponent of fascism. Indeed he is usually credited as being one of the first to fully apprehend the danger the new movement represented in early 1922, when traditional liberals like Croce and Giovanni Amendola still looked tentatively towards Mussolini as the saviour of Italian democracy from communism. Gobetti’s invective against fascism was forceful and bitter; in one article quoted by Martin, Mussolini was described as “the primitive head of a band of savages possessed by a dogmatic terror”. When Mussolini came to power in October 1922, after having threatened to seize it through violence, Gobetti’s emotional response appeared in La Rivoluzione Liberale in an article entitled “In Praise of the Guillotine”. In a desperate and bitter attempt to shock his fellow Italians, whom he dismissed as a “people of slaves”, into realising the nature of the political monster they had created, Gobetti expressed the hope that the situation would worsen before it got better. “And we have to hope that tyrants will be tyrants, that reaction will be reaction, that there will be someone with the courage to raise the guillotine, and that they will hold onto their principles. (…) We ask for whippings so that someone will wake up, we ask for darkness so that we will be able to see clearly”. It was the Italian people who lacked the moral courage to act, who were as much to blame for fascism as Mussolini and if tyranny would wake them up to the gravity of the situation then Gobetti was prepared to wish for it.
In the same article we are alerted to some of the curiosities and ambiguities inherent in Gobetti’s antifascism. Fascism was all that could be expected from such a morally weak people, who had effectively produced the governments they deserved. After all, it was really “nothing new”, merely, as he later put it (and as quoted in Martin), “the legitimate heir of Italian democracy”. Gobetti repeated time and again that he saw no point in defeating fascism just to go back to the same forms of liberal government as before. In the circumstances the disillusionment was understandable, but as Martin argues, when this spills over into hostility to parliamentary politics and democratic elections, it appears a little more worrying. Full of ideas and biting commentary about what was wrong with his country, it was not exactly clear what positive, practical solutions Gobetti could offer. Disgusted by fascism and parliamentary democracy alike, with what exactly did he propose to replace them? The “liberal revolution” project was a long-term one, concerned with the political and cultural education of Italians and offering no immediate solutions for the overthrow of fascism or for the prospect of a new government to put in its place. Furthermore, despite his enthusiasm for the Turin workers’ movement, Gobetti was no populist: he unashamedly dedicated La Rivoluzione Liberale to Italy’s intellectual elite, a select group of independent and intellectual young people who were capable of understanding its message. According to Martin, writers were even encouraged not to speak directly to the masses but to write so that they would be understood only by the educated elite. It was such elites then who would guide the masses along the right path by the use of simpler rhetoric and reassuring myths.
A closer reading of Gobetti thus reveals a much more complex and contradictory character than first appears. Even though he praises the political strength of the working class, he does not speak directly to them, he is sometimes just as scathing about liberal democracy as about fascism and though he proposes to tackle concrete problems he offers no practical alternatives to fascism. Martin acknowledges the “potentially illiberal” qualities of Gobetti’s thinking and does not shy away from a discussion of the contradictions and weaknesses in revolutionary liberalism. This results in a much more interesting treatment than is present in much Italian scholarship, where Gobetti’s status as a sort of national hero – albeit more an intellectual than a popular one – and a martyr of the fascist regime makes it difficult even now to write about him in a balanced tone. The fact that Martin comes from the British academic community and is an outsider in Italian intellectual culture allows him to consider his subject from a more balanced perspective. As an ardent admirer of English liberalism and of British culture in general, Gobetti might well have appreciated this himself.
The question of how Gobetti’s ideas might have developed and what political direction he might ultimately have taken had he lived is one that is repeatedly posed by Italian intellectuals. His curious political views, which seem out of step with both traditional liberalism and communism, coupled with his tragically young death, leave him ripe for this kind of endless speculation. Would he have remained within the liberal camp, moved closer to socialism as some of Rivoluzione Liberale’s writers did, or even become a communist, as one former supporter suggested was the natural progression from revolutionary liberalism? The fact that these questions can never be adequately answered does not deter Italian journalists, intellectuals, historians and politicians from arguing about them. Martin wisely avoids this kind of supposition and instead devotes a chapter of his study to tracing the impact that Gobetti’s thinking did have on Italian intellectual history. Some of these intellectual heirs are well known. The Communist Party was very vocal about Gramsci and Gobetti’s shared antifascist past in postwar Italy, presenting Gobetti as a follower of Gramsci and an honorary or proto-communist. However they were more concerned with his symbolic value – as a heroic young antifascist – than with a set of political ideas which did not mesh with the Stalinist agenda. It was rather the group of intellectual liberal antifascists who formed the Action Party in 1943 who followed Gobetti’s ideas most faithfully. However even they didn’t put them to use as by 1943 they were out of step with the reality of modern Italy. It was rather Gobetti’s inspirational value, and his understanding of liberalism as bound up with liberty, that they inherited. Interestingly, Martin also includes the philosopher and liberal Croce, already a hugely influential figure when Gobetti’s career began, in the camp of those inspired by his antifascism. In Martin’s estimation, all of the thinkers who follow Gobetti are in some way drawn to the way in which he politicised liberalism and conceived of it as “a process of liberalization”.
It is Martin’s final chapter that readers without a specialist interest in Italian history might find most interesting as it poses the question of what relevance revolutionary liberalism might have to a Western democratic society in the twenty-first century. Setting Gobetti fully in the context of European liberal thinking for the first time, Martin argues that his emphasis on the centrality of conflict rather than consensus is his most valuable contribution to liberalism and more relevant than ever in an increasingly globalised society. In this kind of world, it is imperative for governments to encourage the participation of minorities in legitimate political struggle in order to prevent them seeking other means to make themselves heard. For Martin however, Gobetti’s failure to fully consider the issue of democratic citizenship – that is, how people would live together in this society and how conflict would be regulated – is a fundamental flaw. This failure to imagine the aftermath of the liberal revolution, focusing instead entirely on the struggle to achieve it, has prevented Gobetti’s ideas from making the leap from inspiration to practical use and it is ultimately for his capacity to inspire “a renewed faith in freedom” that he should be valued. Even if liberal revolution can have no concrete basis in reality, any ideas which inject new life into liberalism in a democratic society which is still coming to terms with the collapse of communism in the twentieth century and the new challenges of globalisation should certainly be welcomed.
Martin’s book is a comprehensive yet concise introduction to the figure of Gobetti and particularly to the concept of “liberal revolution” and its repercussions and implications for contemporary thinkers. The focus on its “agonistic” nature in particular gives a new and illuminating perspective on the ideas of this self-professed “heretic”. A background narrative of the politics and culture of postwar and early fascist Italy is provided throughout, rendering the book accessible to non-specialists. Written in a straightforward and engaging prose, it succeeds in its brief and will hopefully introduce many more English-speaking readers to this curious figure.
Since it is primarily a study of Gobetti as political theorist, there are however many aspects of the Turin antifascist that the book does not illuminate. By his own admission, Martin has not attempted a portrait of Gobetti the journalist, the cultural critic, the editor or political activist. There is thus no treatment of the literary magazine Il Baretti, founded in 1924 and kept alive by friends until 1928, long after La Rivoluzione Liberale had been suppressed by the authorities, nor of Gobetti’s role as tireless “cultural organiser” who spent perhaps as much time persuading others to contribute to his magazines as he did on his own writings. However Martin has rendered a service in setting Gobetti’s liberalism firmly in the context of European liberal thinking, both historic and more recent, rather than just in the Italian context in which he is usually considered. Readers may find that they have much to learn from both the life and the ideas of this twentieth century heretic who managed to reconcile the apparent paradox of revolutionary liberalism. Gobetti’s conviction that politics should be about more than electioneering, and that scepticism, dissent and popular participation are the cornerstones of a true liberal government, may be more important than ever in twenty-first century democratic society.
Niamh Cullen is a recent PhD graduate of University College Dublin, where she now lectures in modern European history. Her research focuses on the cultural history of modern Italy and she is currently preparing a book on antifascism in Turin in the 1920s.