Mazzini on Revolutionary Nationalism

The journalist and politician Guiseppi Mazzini (1805–72) was the apostle of nationalism during the first half of the nineteenth century. He was exiled by the Austrians from his native Italy in 1831 and spent the next two decades working unsuccessfully through Young Italy, a secret society dedicated to beginning a European–wide revolution on the Italian peninsula. In the revolutions of 1848, he returned to Italy and became president of the short–lived Roman republic before it fell to French forces protecting the papacy. Mazzini played an important role in spreading the cause of Italian nationalism and Italian unity, although his hope for a revolution proved to be greatly delayed.


Every revolution is the work of a principle which has been accepted as a basis of faith. Whether it invoke nationality, liberty, equality, or religion, it always fulfills itself in the name of a principle, that is to say, of a great truth, which being recognized and approved by the majority of the inhabitants of a country, constitutes a common belief, and sets before the masses a new aim, while authority misrepresents or rejects it. A revolution, violent or peaceful, includes a negation and an affirmation: the negation of an existing order of things, the affirmation of a new order to be substituted for it. A revolution proclaims that the state is rotten; that its machinery no longer meets the needs of the greatest number of the citizens; that its institutions are powerless to direct the general movement; that popular and social thought has passed beyond the vital principle of those institutions; that the new phase in the development of the national faculties finds neither expression nor representation in the official constitution of the country, and that it must therefore create one for itself. This revolution does create. Since its task is to increase, and not diminish the nation's patrimony, it violates neither the truths that the majority possess, nor the rights they hold sacred; but it reorganizes everything on a new basis; it gathers and harmonizes round the new principle all the elements and forces of the country; it gives a unity of direction toward the new aim, to all those tendencies which before were scattered in the pursuit of different aims. Then the revolution has done its work.

We recognize no other meaning in revolution. If a revolution did not imply a general reorganization by virtue of a social principle; if it did not remove a discord in the elements of a state, and place harmony in its stead; if it did not secure a moral unity; so far from declaring ourselves revolutionists, we should believe it our duty to oppose the revolutionary movement with all our power.

Without the purpose hinted at above, there may be riots, and at times victorious insurrections, but no revolutions. You will have changes of men and administration; one caste succeeding to another; one dynastic branch ousting the other. This necessitates retreat; a slow reconstruction of the past, which the insurrection had suddenly destroyed; the gradual re-establishment, under new names, of the old order of things, which the people had risen to destroy. Societies have such need of unity that if they miss it in insurrection they turn back to a restoration. Then there is a new discontent, a new struggle, a new explosion. France has proven it abundantly. In 1830 she performed miracles of daring and valor for a negation. She rose to destroy, without positive beliefs, without any definite organic purpose, and thought she had won her end when she canceled the old principle of legitimacy. She descended into that abyss which insurrection alone can never fill; and because she did not recognize how needful is some principle of reconstruction, she finds herself today, six years after the July Revolution, five years after the days of November, two years after the days of April, well on her way to a thorough restoration.

We cite the case of France because she is expected to give political lessons, hopes, sympathies; and because France is the modern nation in which theories of pure reaction founded on suspicion, on individual right, on liberty alone, are most militant, therefore the practical consequences of her mistakes are shown most convincingly. But twenty other instances might be cited. For fifty years, every movement which, in its turn, was successful as an insurrection, but failed as a revolution, has proven how everything depends on the presence or absence of a principle of reconstruction.

Wherever, in fact, individual rights are exercised without the influence of some great thought that is common to all; where every individual's interests harmonized by some organization that is directed by a positive ruling principle, and by the consciousness of a common aim, there must be a tendency for some to usurp others' rights. In a society like ours, where a division into classes, call them what you will, still exists in full strength, every right is bound to clash with another right, envious and mistrustful of it; every interest naturally conflicts with an opposing interest: the landlord's with the peasant's; the manufacturer's or capitalist's with the workman's. All through Europe—since equality, however accepted in theory, has been rejected in practice, and the sum of social wealth has accumulated in the hands of a small number of men, while the masses gain but a mere pittance by their relentless toil; it is a cruel irony, it gives inequality a new lease of life, if you establish unrestricted liberty, and tell men they are free, and bid them use their rights.

A social sphere must have its center; a center to the individualists that jostle with each other inside it; a center to all the scattered rays that diffuse and waste their light and heat. The theory that bases the social structure on individual interests cannot supply this center. The absence of a center, or the selection among opposing interests of that which has the most vigorous life, means either anarchy or privilege—that is, either barren strife or the germ of aristocracy, under whatever name it disguises itself, this is the parting of the ways, which it is impossible to avoid.

Is this what we want when we invoke a revolution, since a revolution is indispensable to reorganize our nationality?

. . . We are therefore driven to the sphere of principles. We must revive belief in them, we must fulfill a work of faith. The logic of things demands it. Principles alone are constructive. Ideals are never translated into facts without the general recognition of some strong belief. Great things are never done except by the rejection of individualism and a constant sacrifice of self to the common progress. Self-sacrifice is the sense of duty in action. . . . The individual is sacred; his interests, his rights are inviolable. But to make them the only foundation of the political structure, and tell each individual to win his future with his own unaided strength, is to surrender society and progress to the accidents of chance nature, his social instinct; to plant egotism in the soul; and in the long run impose the dominion of the strong over the weak, of those who have over those who have not. The many futile attempts of the past forty years prove this. . . . If by dint of example you can root in a nation's heart the principle that the French Revolution proclaimed but never carried out, that the State owes every member the means of existence or the chance to work for it, and add a fair definition of existence, you have prepared the triumph of right over privilege; the end of the monopoly of one class over another, and the end of pauperism; for which at present there are only palliatives. . . Christian charity, or cold and brutal maxims like those of the English school of political economists.

When you have raised men's minds to believe in the other principle that society is an association of laborers—and can, thanks to that belief, deduce both in theory and practice all its consequences; you will have no more castes, no more aristocracies, or civil wars, or crisis. You will have a People.

Source: Thomas E. Hachey and Ralph E. Weber, European Ideologies since 1789: Rebels, Radicals and Political Ferment, repr. (Malabar, Fla.: Krieger, 1979), 33–36.