The Importance of Norberto Bobbio

By Nadia Urbinati

Norberto Bobbio died in January 2004 at the age of ninety-four in Turin, the city in which he was born and spent most of his life. Over the years, his home had become a haven for intellectuals, political leaders, and scholars of several generations. He used to receive his guests at 4 p.m. for approximately two-and-a-half hours of extraordinary conversations about philosophy and politics, Italian politics in particular, Bobbio’s main interest (and source of anxiety) since his youth. His life, as one sees from his Autobiography, is a historical and political profile of twentieth-century Italy and Europe. This is not merely because of its length but also because of the political events it spanned-from the time when governments were the business of a tiny agrarian-industrial oligarchy, to the age of fascist populism, to the building of constitutional democracy, and finally to the new video-populism and plutocracy. The year Bobbio was born, 1909, FIAT was celebrating its tenth birthday and producing 1,800 cars a year, while the Italian police were on alert against demonstrations by anarchists and socialists protesting the visit of Nicolas II, the Russian czar. In the month he died, European leaders failed to reach an agreement on the constitution of the European Union, the chief of the Italian government, Silvio Berlusconi, was undergoing plastic surgery, and the Constitutional Court had just rebuffed an effort to grant him immunity from all criminal charges pending against him.

A scholar of the philosophy of law and political theory, in his maturity Bobbio taught at the University of Turin and lived on the same street where he was born-a telling detail if one recalls that in the years of his youth the Italian government (liberal and constitutional, not yet fascist) was subsidizing the exodus to the United States of millions of its subjects. The description he provides of his social background matches the black and white picture of Italian predemocratic society: the rich and the poor, the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, lived close to each other like two hostile nations. Bobbio belonged to the former. “From my family I never got the impression that there was class conflict between bourgeois and proletariat. We were educated to think all men equal.” Early on, he realized that Italian children were not at all equal, comparing his lifestyle to that of peasant friends with whom he played during summer vacations in the countryside. “The contrast between their homes and ours, their food and ours, their clothes and ours, could not escape us. . . . Every year, we learned that some of our friends had died of tuberculosis during the winter.”

IT WAS NOT with the help of his family that Bobbio developed his hostility toward fascism, social inequality, and injustice. As with other Italians and Europeans of his generation, public school was the place where he began his political education and discovered ideals of emancipation. Turin was not an ordinary city, but the “moral capital” of Italy. There the Risorgimento had started in the mid-nineteenth century and then, later on, industry and trade-unionism were born together. The earliest mass demonstrations took place there. In Turin during Bobbio’s youth, Antonio Gramsci led the movement for the factory councils, and Piero Gobetti edited the journal Liberal Revolution (Rivoluzione liberale), the first Italian attempt to advance a critique of “the liberalism of the few.” In the 1930s, finally, Turin hosted the most active Italian branch of the clandestine movement Justice and Freedom (Giustizia e Libertà), which Carlo Rosselli had founded in Paris in 1930. Bobbio enrolled in Rosselli’s liberal socialist movement and became after the war one of its most prominent advocates and interpreters.

LIBERAL SOCIALISM is the most original contribution Italy has made to the culture of the non-Marxist left. Its origins date back to the end of the nineteenth century, during the debates over the doctrinal legacy of the socialist movement; its formulation and militant organization began under Rosselli’s leadership in the thirties, in the course of the struggle against both fascism and state planning (Soviet as well as fascist); its most mature development took place in the second half of the forties in the Action Party (Partito d’Azione)-a party, as Palmiro Togliatti, chief secretary of the Italian Communist Party, said, that was made up of “generals without an army.” The Action Party did not reach the necessary minimum in the first democratic election (1946) and disappeared as a party just when party politics re-emerged in Italy. However, liberal socialism did not depend on the party for its identity and significance. Rather, its ethical and political vision was based on a few clear beliefs: that modern democracy is an ongoing project that can never finally be achieved; that it rests on two equally important principles, liberty and equality; that these two are forever in tension; and that this tension is vital to democratic health. Liberty and equality are not “natural” rights; to live with their tension requires a disenchanted view of human life, but this disenchantment is consistent with democracy. As Bobbio put it, “human beings are not at all born free and equal,” but they can become free and equal through their struggle against the specific conditions in which they live. To do this, they must create a political order that allows them to sustain their struggle peacefully.

Different historical and social contexts have shaped the political goals of liberal socialism. Under a despotic and totalitarian regime, basic civil and political liberties are the first and most urgent goal. In consolidated democracies, in the West today, the main ideological enemy is the neoliberal view of liberty as the affirmation of individual interests against society-a view that is either indifferent or openly hostile to social justice and to the ethos of solidarity that underpins democratic citizenship. Liberal socialism is not “beyond left and right.” Rather, Bobbio always insisted that the ideological divide is unavoidable; it is the result of oppositional interests that a free market society inevitably promotes. This opposition is reflected in the understanding of liberty. Conservatives stress the liberty of the individual as a primary good, regardless of the circumstances of its actualization and of who and how many actually enjoy it. Leftists think instead that the equal distribution of opportunities to exercise freedom is essential to the success of a democratic society. Thus liberal socialism acknowledges “equal liberty” as the regulative principle that should orient policies and programs in the specific contexts of injustice. It does not recognize any “privileged” exploited class, but warns us that the exploited men and women of today may be tomorrow’s exploiters.

This activist and conflict-based understanding of politics is perhaps the most interesting aspect of Bobbio’s interpretation of liberal socialism and certainly the one that attracted the post-Marxist generation to which I belong, a generation that could accept neither the doctrinaire official left of the 1960s nor the far left’s war against the liberal foundations of democracy in the 1970s. Bobbio resisted giving the ideal of a just society the status of a doctrine and criticized political theorists who create comprehensive systems out of some simple premises. He thought that political ideals had to be pragmatic if they were to generate activism and political dialectic. In this sense, he argued that liberal socialism was an “ideology” or an ideal commitment, not a theoretical system. The distinction between theory and ideology needed to be preserved, he argued, in order to protect the former from the moralizing of the ideologues and the latter from the dogmatism of the theorists. As he wrote in 1967, “It is all well to fantasize about a society at once free and just, in which liberty rights and social rights will be globally and totally implemented. . . . Even if [both liberalism and socialism] claim to make the synthesis . . . what we may expect is not an ultimate synthesis but, at most, a compromise-that is, a synthesis indeed, but provisional.”

The central place he gave to political action and open debate explains Bobbio’s conviction that the insurmountable difference between liberal socialism and Marxist socialism lay in the way each of them conceived of political liberty and minority rights. The question he posed to the intellectuals and leaders of the Italian Communist Party-“Which Socialism?” and “Which Democracy?”-presupposed a conception of democracy that demands the political recognition of minorities. A consistent democracy needs to defend the existence of minorities, not merely to accept or tolerate them. This was the normative premise that Bobbio developed from the tradition of the Enlightenment (within which he situated himself as a philosopher) and that led him to practice throughout his life a politics of dialogue and to oppose a politics of sectarianism. His interlocutors epitomized the stages that Italian and European society passed through after World War II: in the 1950s, his dialogue was with Italian Communists on the meaning of liberty; in the 1960s and 1970s, with the leaders of the student movement on the meaning of democracy and participation; finally, most recently, with the neoliberal ideologues of the New Right on the meaning of individual liberty and equality. The ethos of dialogue and his profound antipathy toward dogmatic forms of political discourse are, along with liberal socialism, the most timely legacy that Bobbio has left to the democratic leftists of our time. The fact that he lived such an extraordinarily long life makes it the legacy of an entire century.

Nadia Urbinati teaches political theory at Columbia University. Her most recent book is Mill and Democracy.


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