Norberto Bobbio, 1909-2004

“It is difficult to think of another intellectual who has had such a real and visible effect on the political climate of their country since the war” said Perry Anderson in his 1988 essay on Norberto Bobbio, the Italian democratic socialist and political philosopher who died on 9 January.

Bobbio was a liberal socialist, part of an Italian tradition of radical liberalism represented most notably by the great Piero Gobetti, murdered by Mussolini’s fascists in 1926, but also Carlo Roselli, Guido Calogero and Aldo Capitini. From 1942 Bobbio was involved in the radical liberal Partito d’Azione. He was briefly imprisoned by the fascists in 1943-4. After the Liberation Partito d’Azione aimed to fuse liberalism and socialism but failed to gain support. Bobbio retreated to academia.

The steady stream of books and articles he produced over the next half century – apparently over one thousand items – are one of the most important democratic, liberal, and socialist meditations on questions of law, justice, democracy and liberty that we possess. Works in English include Which Socialism? (1976) The Future of Democracy (1984) Liberalism and Democracy (1988) Left and Right (1994). In debate with Galvano Della Volpe and Togliatti in the 1950s, and with Negri in the 1970s, Bobbio stressed the value of the liberal legacy of the rule of law, the separation of powers, the limitation of powers, and challenged the anti-democratic elements in so much Marxist theory.

He argued for the “Historic Compromise” between the Italian Communist Party and the Christian Democrats long before it happened in the 1970s. On retirement he was made a life senator in the Italian upper house, sitting as an independent socialist. He nearly became the President of the Italian republic in 1992, and was a fierce critic of Silvio Berlusconi.

Bobbio claimed that Marxism lacked a political theory. Marxists only asked the question “who rules?” They did not ask (did not even seem to be able to employ their theory to formulate) “how do they rule?” Bobbio despaired of the preference of Marxists for Talmudic discussions of the holy texts. He once asked “what does [Marxism] have to say [about] the permanent debate on the relationship between parliamentary committees and parliament; between parliament and executive power; between the head of state and his or her powers; between the administrative state, including the State Council, and the State Audit Court; between local power and central authority, between electoral systems and democratic power and so on ad infinitum and ad nauseam?” Marx’s brief comments on the Paris Commune, he said “for the last century have been repeatedly squeezed dry to extract some vital juice”.

In a debate with Antonio Negri in the 1970s Negri stood for the incoherent anti-democratic sentiments of the student Maoists and autonomists, denouncing all democratic forms as nothing but the trick of capital to dupe the workers. Negri’s socialist polity was to be a permanent “resistance”, or some such thing. All questions of sovereignty, suffrage, authority, legitimacy, rights and law were swished away by Negri as “bourgeois” questions. Such, said Bobbio was the nadir to which some Marxist political thought had fallen. Who would have thought that Negri’s childish ideas, rewritten in post-structuralese, would reappear as the Very Latest Thing in the 21st century?

Bobbio was not uncritical of actually existing liberal democracy. Quite the reverse. He argued that “the various centres of real power of a modern state, such as big business, or the most significant instruments of real power, such as the army and bureaucracy, are not subject to any democratic control”. And “as for the right of dissent, this can only operate within a highly circumscribed sphere”.

Nonetheless (and it is with this “nonetheless” that I think a critique of Bobbio must begin) Bobbio advised socialists to turn to the liberal tradition and adopt it wholesale; democracy was the only possible framework for the transition to socialism. And liberal democracy was the only kind of democracy there was. Talk of “direct democracy” as an alternative (rather then supplement) to representative democracy was utopian for large complex societies. Democracy is a set of rules and procedures.

Perry Anderson notes that there are four “rules of the game” for Bobbio: equal and universal adult suffrage, civic rights which assure the free expression of opinions and the free organisation of currents of opinion, decisions taken by a numerical majority, and guarantees of the rights of minorities against any abuse on the part of majorities.

Democracy is this set of procedures. It establishes who is authorised to make collective decisions and through which procedures. Questions of participation, rotation, accountability, and of the extension of democratisation to ever-new areas of social life (for which he passionately argued) should only be posed within this procedural framework.

How should we democratic socialists respond to Bobbio’s challenge? I think four kinds of response might be combined.

First, there will be no getting away from the need for Marxism to reengage with the liberal tradition. Bobbio is absolutely right about that.

Second, we should negotiate hard for decent articles of reconciliation with egalitarian liberalism. We have much to bring to such negotiations, from our critique of the dull compulsion of exploitative capitalist economic relations and its attendant disfiguring of any democratic institutions, to our appreciation, sharper than any other political tradition, of both the tremendous capacities for self-governance of working people, and (a painfully acquired knowledge, this) of the dangers of bureaucracy and the presence of a hard core of unaccountable power at the heart of the existing state.

Third, we should recapture a democratic Marxist tradition, thin though it is. That will mean reading again some old texts. Bobbio misunderstood Marx in part because of his impatience with debates about texts.

The “dictatorship of the proletariat” was never, for Marx, a governmental form, but a mere polemical phrase capturing (for the education of the Blanquists) that socialism meant the proletarian majority, not the revolutionary elite, must hold sway, socially. The governmental form envisaged by Marx and Engels was, simply, the democratic republic. But Bobbio was only following Plekhanov, Lenin, Trotsky and Bukharin in this error. He just put a minus sign where they put a plus sign. No doubt the absence in Marx of any sustained discussion of the forms, problems, and principles of a socialist polity lies behind both errors. But errors they are. And we need to re-read the work of those who did not make those errors. We could start with the Kautsky of the 1920s.

Fourth, we need to attend to the new thinking that is taking place and the movements with which it has been attached – one thinks of the work on participatory democracy of Erik Olin Wright and the Feasible Utopias Group, Joel Rogers and Joshua Cohen’s book On Democracy, or Hilary Wainwright’s recent books on new democratic forms, for instance.

Bobbio made many other contributions to socialist thinking. A leading figure in the peace movements of the 1980s, he had criticised the post-war pro-Soviet fake “peace movements”. His words of 1952 should cause some – those waving the “victory to the Resistance” placards – to think about the kind of “anti-war movement” they are building today.

Strange peacemakers, these partisans of peace. They offer themselves as mediators to establish peace between the two contenders. But they announce from the outset and without any reticence that one of the contenders is right and one is wrong.”

Bobbio was one of the first on the socialist left to be a green (though he seemed to miss completely those ecological aspects of Marx’s thought that have been highlighted more recently by writers like John Bellamy Foster and Jonathan Hughes).

Bobbio said we should propose a “possible” socialism. He meant two things. First, we should not propose an impossible utopia. It should be genuinely feasible. Second we should not imagine socialism as “historically necessary” but only as historically possible. “Socialism can become a reality through conscious and intelligent human action, but may also not become one, and its future is not guaranteed by the irresistible momentum of history”.

Most importantly, Bobbio argued that democracy and socialism stood in a relation of necessity “as maintained by the doctrines and movements of social democracy, in which democracy is regarded as the only means by which socialism can be realized, and socialism is regarded as the only way in which the process of democracy can be fully achieved”.

Lastly, there is something about Bobbio’s intellectual style we can learn from as socialism degenerates into inchoate “anti-imperialism” and pro-tyrantism. We might weight the emphasis Bobbio placed upon “the most salutary fruits of the European intellectual tradition, the value of enquiry, the ferment of doubt, a willingness to dialogue, a spirit of criticism, moderation of judgement, philological scruple, a sense of the complexity of things”.

Alan Johnson, in

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