Some years ago, while researching an essay on the Eurozone crisis for Overland, I listened to the recording of a symposium held at the London School of Economics. When it came to discussing whether or not the technocrats who designed the common currency had known that the system wouldn’t work, but counted on using the eventual crash to force the reforms they wanted on a recalcitrant political class, one of the eminent participants candidly said that yes, they probably had. The discussion quickly moved on, but against the background of the rapid immiseration of the Greek people, that comment struck me as disarmingly cynical. It was almost as if it didn’t need to be said. Why would you be so naïve as to think that this is not how the Union went about building its power?
We’ve reached a different crisis now, this one precipitated by an act of democracy instead of the flawed calculations of a team of economists. Yet it would be equally foolish to harbour any great hope that the social fallout will be at the centre of the coming negotiations. The only thing standing between Great Britain and the kind of treatment meted out on Greece are its much greater economic power and a healthier balance sheet (at least for now). But if it wants out, it won’t be on favourable terms, lest other countries get the same ideas. It’s a variation on the theme of the ‘moral hazard’ that led to the criminal refusal to bail out Greece on the part of the Troika. Banks can be trusted. People can not.
Don’t get me wrong, I am dismayed by the result of the referendum, not just because of the hardship it will create in the short-term but because of the political forces that the vote has legitimised and empowered. However, those who – in the name of condemning the recklessness of British voters – have waxed lyrical in the past week about Europe as if it were a beacon of peace and human rights need only look at how it imposes the strictest austerity at its periphery, or at the fate of the tens of thousands of migrants that have crashed against the walls of its fortress. They should also remind themselves that the union was first of all and is still above all an economic pact. Even before it went by the name of Common Market, what we know now as the EU had its very beginnings in something called the European Coal and Steel Community. The task of grafting progressive ideas about coexistence and citizenship onto an industrial consortium was always going to be a difficult one.
But there were other, alternative beginnings. In the Summer of 1941, while exiled by Mussolini on the island of Ventotene, anti-fascist intellectuals Altiero Spinelli and Ernesto Rossi wrote a document which they called ‘Towards a free and united Europe’. It mapped the post-war future of the continent as a federated socialist democracy based on universal suffrage and the ‘abolition of the division of Europe into national, sovereign states’. To this end, it envisaged a revolutionary phase during which individual states, critically weakened by the conflict, would be reshaped into branches of the new federal state. This would be ‘the grandest and most innovative creation that has occurred in Europe for centuries’, controlling a single unified army and capable of ‘breaking the economic autarkies which are the backbone of totalitarian regimes’.
Neither Rossi nor Spinelli were Marxists and stopped short of advocating the abolition of private property, believing instead that enterprise could flourish at the service of ordinary working people. However, they did advocate the ‘wholesale nationalisation’ not just of utilities and vital industries but also of any concern capable of exercising undue influence on the state. They placed at the heart of the revolutionary movement a coalition of intellectuals and the most enlightened sectors of the working class. Crucially, they believed that this movement needed to be ready to come into shape as soon as the power vacuum was created. Hence their drafting of the manifesto barely two years into the war, of which they correctly anticipated the outcome.
There are two passages in particular that are worth quoting at length, for they signify the extent in which Rossi and Spinelli viewed internationalism as the only alternative to a future return to barbarism and destruction.
The dividing line between progressive and reactionary parties no longer falls therefore along the formal lines of more or less democracy, or more or less socialism, but along a radically new and substantial division: between those who conceive the central field of struggle as being the old one, aimed at the conquest of national political power, and who will, albeit unwillingly, play into the hands of reactionary forces, letting the incandescent lava of popular passions set in the old mould and allowing the old absurdities to arise once again; and those who see as the central task the creation of a strong international state, who will direct popular forces towards this goal and who, having conquered national power, will use it above all else as an instrument for achieving international unity.Having set this scene, the authors sound a warning concerning the forces of reaction that ought to have some contemporary resonance.
The point they will seek to leverage will be the restoration of the nation state. Thus they will be able to seize what is by far the most widespread popular feeling, the most injured by recent events and the most easily manipulated to reactionary ends: namely, patriotic feeling. This is also their best hope to confound the ideas of their adversaries, since for the popular masses, the only political experience acquired to date has been within the national context, making it quite easy to channel them and their more shortsighted leaders towards the reconstruction of the states destroyed by the storm. If they achieve this end, they will have won. Even if these states appeared to be largely democratic or socialist, it would be a matter of time before power is returned to the forces of reaction.
I don’t need to tell you that nothing came of the Ventotene Manifesto, although historians regard it as a precursor to some of the debates that informed the birth of the European Union two to three decades later, and although a brief attempt was made in the early 1950s to create a unified European army, which was opposed by Great Britain from the outside and ultimately scuttled by France from the inside. But the document is also an intellectual model for the kind of thinking that can be produced even in times of acute crisis.
Once it was completed, the original text of the manifesto was smuggled out of the island by Ursula Hirschmann, the wife of imprisoned partisan Eugenio Colorni. It was written on strips of cigarette paper which were stuffed inside a roast chicken to get past the gaolers’ inspection. If four people stuck on a small island guarded by Fascists managed to reinvent Europe under those conditions, what’s our excuse?
The text of the Ventotene Manifesto is available here. The translation of the excerpts in this post is mine.
The photograph at the top of the post is of the Carcere di Santo Stefano on the island of Ventotene where Spinelli, Rossi, Colorni and other anti-fascists including Sandro Pertini were imprisoned.