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Mauro Lenci, Edmund Burke and the issue of a conservative and liberal tradition in Italy, 1791-1945

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I would like to begin this paper by proposing an image and suggesting an explanatory theory. To synthesise, by means of a metaphor, Edmund Burke’s acceptance in Italy, we must imagine him as the silent guest whose weighty presence upset the political thought of many writers. I use the expression “silent guest” because most of the writers who used his rhetoric abstained from quoting their source and from explicitly stating that it was Burke. To explain this reluctance, we must widen our gaze to consider, more broadly, the understanding of Burke’s political thought, which, over time, has generated entirely opposite views. That is to say that scholars have found reasons both to enhance Burke’s reputation as a reactionary while also fostering the idea that he was a modern liberal. Hence, the fear of those who quoted him of being misunderstood and considered as members of one of two opposing coalitions that they were not part of.

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If we proceed with a historiographical analysis, it will be easy to verify how, from the end of the 18th century to the end of the 19th century, Burke’s theses and comments were re-elaborated by authors of differing backgrounds, from contra-revolutionaries tout court, to liberal Catholics and moderate pro-revolutionaries.

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We could begin our brief excursus with the first reactions to the French Revolution by two writers who were very different from one another in style, interests, and in the fame they enjoyed: Nicola Spedalieri and Vittorio Alfieri. In 1791, the former wrote an essay on the Rights of Man, criticising the abstract version of the French and their individualistic interpretation in the democratic sense, a real time bomb for the old regime. Spedalieri openly admitted his debt to Burke whom he referred to in order to“make up for my shortcomings with his [Burke’s] enlightenment”1. Alfieri instead, though never quoting Burke, was nevertheless influenced by his arguments2 as a few significant historical and textual coincidences show – he began to display his evident hate for the French shortly after 1790. Could it have been possible that Alfieri was ignorant of Burke’s first, strongly antagonistic declaration regarding the Revolution held in the House of Commons on 9 February of the same year and published in all the gazettes and newspapers of Europe?3And what can be said of all the famous opinions and metaphors of the author of the “Reflections” which we find reproduced in Alfieri’s writings? Here are some examples: the fact that France was coming in contact with the tragic experiences which the English had endured some hundred and fifty years before, namely the “French apes” who “bloodily parrot” the English; the reference to the barbarous, cannibal French, as fanatic as Moslems, distinguished by a false humanity and seduced by Rousseau and Voltaire’s abstract theories, those “icy philosophers, who are in no way moved except by the fact that two plus two make four”. Alfieri who, like Burke, ironically commented on the obscure provincial lawyers guiding the upheavals and melancholically regretting the old regime as well as invoking the counter-revolution4.

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In the course of the following century, Italian reactionaries were prevalently influenced by De Maistre, Bonald and Lamennais. Nonetheless, how can we ignore how much De Maistre and Bonald owed to Burke’s criticisms of the individualistic rationalism of the Enlightenment? For instance, Monaldo Leopardi, the father of Giacomo the poet, and the Jesuit Gioacchino Ventura, criticised political and religious atheism and claimed that the only alliance which could legitimise a government was the one between the throne and the altar. However, Burke was never cited in this regard, perhaps because he was both English and liberal, the mere reference to the latter attribute horrified them5. Only the Prince of Canosa, explicitly quoting Burke, aimed to make a distinction between the doctrine of English liberty and French and Jacobin liberalism praising the nobility and priesthood which were the foundation of those manners”. Those “manners” had allowed the monarchy of the old regime to prosper and were being attacked by those very democratic principles that the ill-omened alliance between Jacobinism and English radicalism had spread throughout Europe6.

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Burke’s influence is present even in the writings of the Italian Jacobins, who, in Franco Venturi’ s opinion, were not at all devotees of Robespierre. One of the most famous of these Jacobins was Vincenzo Cuoco, whose fears were probably different from those of the reactionaries, and who cited Burke only on minor issues in his well known book on the Neapolitan Revolution of 1799. However, his analysis of the developments in France is carried out in the typical ‘Burkean’ style. The declaration of the Rights of Man was criticised for being too abstract and was defined as being An American algebraic formula”. Moreover, the Neapolitans, acting upon the French model, had created a “blank sheet” of the past, destroying and overturning the old institutions, while they should have acted by starting from the needs for reform existing within their own historical and political traditions7.

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Similar theories can be found in the first half of the 18th century in other moderate, pro-revolutionary authors. The historian Lazzaro Papi for example, described Burke as being one of the most important figures to slander the French Revolution, and to whom Mirabeau was opposed to. This negative view however, did not prevent Papi from pointing out how the metaphysical and abstract maxims which had been hurled “in the face of the world” caused discord and upheavals. Furthermore, Papi also carried out a social and psychological analysis of Jacobinism which was surprisingly conservative and startlingly similar to Burke’s. Both found in Jacobinism a kind of ambition, arrogance and individualism that could have disintegrated any society8.

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In 1789, another historian, Carlo Botta, cautiously admitted the need for certain reforms, such as the suppression of some hateful feudal remnants, but the fear that these reforms could be replaced by much more damaging ones made him adhere completely to Burke’s theories. The example set by the Americans glowed upon the French catastrophe; they had in fact demanded and fought for their rights as English citizens. As Botta explicitly stated, Burke’s opinion was that, in such a disquisition there should be no consideration given to idle imagination, abstract ideas on rights or general theories of government, but rather based on arguments concerning the nature of things, present circumstances and customs and experience”9.

This interpretation was supported by Alessandro Manzoni, who in the second half of the century, acknowledged the same difficulties experienced by Alfieri and others. Although he possessed a French copy of Burke’s famous essay on aesthetics, he never cited it directly even though his interpretation of the developments in France was practically identical to Burke’s. The original sin of the Revolution that had caused it to become a loose cannon, occurred, according to Burke, when the three states, having decided to reunite and to “vote by heads”, disrupted the old system of “voting by orders”10. Manzoni as well, saw the origin of all the troubles of the revolution in the fact that “the deputies of the General Estate had appointed themselves as the representatives of the entire nation”. The assembly had made a very serious mistake in “appropriating a sovereign authority, on the basis of the false reasoning of the Abbot of Sieyés”, against the king’s will and without any legal justification or consideration of the offended ancient orders. According to Manzoni, power in France had been seized by a group of “base and lowly” persons who claimed to govern in the name of a majority which defined itself as “the nation”. They had claimed to have established a form of individual liberty, but actually “ it begun to be something more than just the simple term for ‘Liberty’,” only found after the constitution of 18141. Even more surprising is the similarity and depth with which Manzoni and Burke shared the view regarding the transition between the old and the new concept of sovereignty.

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Regarding this last point, we can trace a link connecting Burke to liberal-Catholic figures such as Cesare Balbo and Manzoni, including a great Burkean such as Hyppolite Taine and then leading to a liberal-conservative such as Guglielmo Ferrero. Manzoni can in fact be considered a forerunner of the issues set forth by Ferrero who would later masterfully outline the clash between the two forms of legitimacy, namely monarchic and democratic, in the transition from the old regime to post-revolutionary society. This seems to be one of the central issues of Manzoni’s essay, as it compares the Italian Risorgimento to the French Revolution, a theme which had been underestimated in the past starting with Benedetto Croce, who defined the work as a “sophistic trial of the Revolution”12. But even Furio Diaz condemned Manzoni’s “mystifying formulation of legalistic moralism, which consists in viewing the revolutionary events under the sign of a biased denunciation of their inherent faults”13.

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In effect, Manzoni perceived the cause of the main difficulties that the French had experienced in forming a stable government, in the establishment of the new principle of legitimacy and in abandoning the old order. He had in fact asked himself : “What more conclusive proof can there be of the difficulty in establishing a government than having had ten constitutions in little more than sixty years?”. In the Third Estate which had appointed itself as the “Assembly”, Manzoni had seen the key to all the subsequent developments: the establishment of popular sovereignty inherited from the Enlightenment, the very engine of the Revolution, and above all, the destruction of the existing government, which the Assembly never was able to realize and never thought of replacing14.

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Before Cuoco, the reactionaries, Balbo and Manzoni, Burke had perceived the importance of the question of legitimacy. He was firmly convinced that a democratic, elective system could never substitute the aristocracy in legitimizing society . It is here perhaps, that we can not only identify his basic error, but also his acute perception of the future problems of a democratic society. In fact, “the revolt of the enterprising talents of a country against its property”15 which was the basis of the new democratic order would, sooner or later, dissolve the traditional relationships of subordination which held society together, and it is certain that Burke could not have conceived them, in Dumont’ words “as the mechanical result of the interaction between individuals”16 – an interaction solely based on Carlyle’s “cash nexus”. Burke therefore would never have imagined that authority would be reduced to sheer power, even by merely relying on the influence of public opinion. He understood that with the Revolution something unknown to the old order had been introduced, “a new evil that none of the ancient maxims can dissipate”17.

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According to Burke, the abandonment of the divine legitimacy by the State had implied the loss of any vital essence and had forced the new ruling class to devise the most outrageous contrivances to keep it alive. Indeed, the new rulers undertook “a thousand absurd contrivances to fill this dreadful void”. In vain, they tried to substitute traditional education based on the Christian religion with a new “civic education” and they ineffectively transformed the Church of St. Genevieve in Paris in “that abominable system of a modern pantheon”18.

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It has been stated that one of the causes of Italy’s misfortunes was the lack of a kind of conservatism that was not reactionary. Maybe this diagnosis is not entirely true. Perhaps, Burke’s legacy – and by this term I mean his harsh criticism of the revolutionaries and of their excesses and abstract theories, the praise of English freedoms and at the same time the strong call to reformers to proceed in the footsteps of the diverse political traditions – I wish to highlight the idea that probably Burke’s legacy contributed in creating a conservative and liberal school of thought also in Italy.

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Some of the representatives of this line of thought as diverse and heterogeneous as they were, beginning from the last decades of the 1800s until the advent of Fascism, could have recognized themselves in part of the Burkean legacy notwithstanding the fact that Hegel’s idealism, mediated by Antonio Rosmini’s teachings and culminating in the work of Giovanni Gentile and Benedetto Croce, had become paramount. A few of those representatives may be recalled, such as the earlier mentioned Guglielmo Ferrero and Gaetano Mosca, Giovanni Amendola, Giuseppe Prezzolini.

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I have scarcely referred to the problem of Burke and Ferrero’s political legitimacy, but I can even say that the latter, having read Taine interpretation of the French events, had practically derived it directly from Burke, even though reversing its meaning and accepting the inevitable rule of universal suffrage, of democracy and of the principles stated in 1789. This is the reason for which Ferrero, in criticizing the condemnation of Natural Rights by his mentor, Taine, implicitly criticized Burke19.

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Gaetano Mosca could have derived useful elements for his theory on the political class from Burke’s concept of ‘natural aristocracy’ and from his anti – democratic phobias. But even Mosca, as well as other 19th century interpretations, shows us Burke as dissociated: on the one hand he is the defendant of the English Constitution in the challenge with Warren Hastings; on the other, in his history of political doctrines, he is equalled to the main representatives of reactionaryism. Mosca however, underscored the importance of Burke’s criticism to those abstract principles that did not have a “practical application” and that caused the failure of any political reform that was not “the result of political maturity and of the social conditions of a people”20.

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Giovanni Amendola’s liberal-conservatism imbued as it was with theosophy, voluntarism and moralism appears as unique during an age and a context that was dominated by idealism. He fleetingly alluded to Burke. During a commemoration of Wilson’s death in 1924, he recalled his praise of the author of the “Reflections” for his critique of abstract thought and, for his fair idea to keep England away from the revolution. Wilson had in fact seen in the French Revolution the risk of “rationalism to the bitter end”, which had not been transplanted in England thanks to Burke’s endeavors21.

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Finally, I would like to conclude my observations with Giuseppe Prezzolini and the advent of Fascism with which the above mentioned authors were confronted with. In the end, they all distanced themselves from Fascism even though differing in manner and timeliness.

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Ferrero immediately sensed the danger and wrote to Gaetano Mosca who still cherished the idea of Fascism as a necessary but temporary experience as it had been for the institution of dictatorship in Ancient Rome22 Even Amendola, like Mosca, had entertained false hopes regarding the order established by Mussolini, at least until the Acerbo law of 1924, prior to becoming the leader of the Aventino secession. Prezzolini, who felt akin to a liberal English gentleman, even though sympathising with Fascism, had avoided siding with it openly and, as soon as the opportunity arose, left Italy to join Columbia University and stated, in 1928, that the reason for his voluntary exile was his loss of any hope of doing something for his country, an obvious reaction to the regime. Yet, it could be stated that Prezzolini’s interpretation of Fascism was typically Burkean. For him, it had in fact been nothing but the modern product of Italian anti-liberal political tradition, and therefore in perfect agreement with the most profound spirit of its people and its history. To the objection supporting the idea that Fascism represented the union of two institutions such as banditry and ‘Camorra’, Prezzolini had irrefutably replied: “Those (institutions) are Italian, while parliamentarianism is Franco-English”23. This certainly is a paradox.

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The fact that Burke could be manipulated in such a way is shown in the first modern translation of the Reflections by Vittorio Beonio Brocchieri exactly in 1930, with Gentile’s approval. In his introduction in fact, Beonio Brocchieri believed that Burke’s criticism of the revolution was unacceptable as it was unfinished and incomplete. Adhering to Tocqueville’s opinion of Burke, Beonio Brocchieri thought that the latter had not understood the new sense of history, immersed as he was in his past, and that he had also erred in applying his own method not having fully understood the peculiarity of the French tradition. Obviously, these circumstances did not at all undermine the soundness of that method24.

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This line of reasoning could easily apply to Italian history and therefore it is not a coincidence that, still in 1930, Mario Einaudi published an essay which, as far as I know, is the first Italian monograph devoted entirely to Burke. In fact, with the publication of this book, whose content had been his college dissertation, Einaudi felt compelled to redeem a part of the Italian Liberal-conservatism from the accusation of being pro-Fascist. If we analyze the two versions of his work we realize how in the final draft he had dropped even his critical remarks concerning Burke’s position against the revolution. As he would later observe in a letter to Luigi Sturzo, at the time of the book presentation in the United States, he had been able to transform his “speech on Burke in a philippic against Nazism”25.

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Another great expatriate like Gaetano Salvemini would attribute to Burke the beginning of that “revolt against reason” that through Romanticism and the exaltation of the vital force, instinct and irrationality that bridged the end of 1800s and the early 1900s would lead to the criminal excesses of Nazi-fascism. Nevertheless, Salvemini, certainly not a conservative, wrote: “Burke would probably have refused to recognize all of these rebels against reason as his disciples”26

 1 N. Spedalieri, De diritti dell’uomo ne’ quali si dimostra che la più sicura custode de’ medesimi è la religione cristiana (1791),  Milano, Silvestri, 1848, vol. II, p. 297, also see pp. 291, 316, 322, and vol. I, p. 104.

2 Some of Alfieri’s opinions, according to John Lindon, originated in the English counter-revolutionary milieu inspired by Burke (J. Lindon, L’Inghilterra di Vittorio Alfieri, Modena, Mucchi, 1995, pp. 37-83).

3 On this point, I humbly refer the reader to myIndividualismo democratico e liberalismo aristocratico nel pensiero politico di Edmund Burke, Pisa-Roma, Istituti Editoriali e Poligrafici Internazionali, 1999, pp. 45-47.

4 V. Alfieri, Misogallo (sonnet n. XLI, 21 August 1796), in Id., Scritti politici e morali, Asti, Casa Alfieri, 1984, vol. III, pp. 405, in the same volume, La filantropinerìa, pp. 159-164. In the Epistolario 1789-98, Asti, Casa Alfieri, 1981, vol. II, p. 197. In Vita scritta da esso (1803), Asti, Casa Alfieri, 1981, vol. I, p. 281.

5 G. Ventura, Della disposizione attuale degli spiriti in Europa rispetto alla religione e delle necessità di propagandare i buoni principi per mezzo della stampa, “Giornale Ecclesiastico”, 1825, n. 13-14, p. 41. M. Leopardi, Dialoghetti sulle materie correnti nell’anno 1831, S.L., S.E., 1831, in N. Del Corno, Gli “scritti sani”. Dottrina e propaganda della reazione italiana dalla Restaurazione all’Unità, Milano, Angeli, 1992, pp. 128, 135.

6 Canosa (Prince of), Perché il sacerdozio dei nostri tempi e la moderna nobiltà dimostrati non siansi egualmente generosi ed interessati come gli antichi per la causa della monarchia e dei regnanti (1819), manuscript Mss 091-f section. II 61, at Biblioteca Labronica, Livorno, pp. 3, 6, 12, 13, 22, 28-29. See also Id., Un dottore in filosofia e un uomo di stato. Dialogo sulla politica amalgamatrice, S.L., 1832, in N. Del Corno, op. cit., pp. 83-84, 92-93.

7 V. Cuoco, Saggio storico sulla rivoluzione napoletana (1801), Torino, Utet, 1975, p. 170.

8 L. Papi, Comentarii sulla Rivoluzione francese. Dalla congregazione degli Stati generali fino alla morte di Luigi XVI, Bastia, Fabiani, 1836, vol. I, pp. 8-9, 16, 98-99, 107-8, 112, 156, 178, vol. II, pp. 14, 64, 89-90, 144.

9 C. Botta, Storia della guerra dell’indipendenza degli Stati Uniti d’America (1809), Firenze, Le Monnier, 1856, vol. I, p. 213.

10 E. Burke, The Writings and Speeches of Edmund Burke, P. Langford (ed.), Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1981-1997, vol. VIII, p. 92.

11 A. Manzoni, La rivoluzione francese del 1789 e la rivoluzione italiana del 1859 – Dell’indipendenza dell’Italia (postumi), Milano, Centro nazionale studi manzoniani, 2000, pp. 26, 53, 96, 135-136, vedi anche le pp. 71, 79-80, 129, 229.

12 B. Croce, Storia della storiografia italiana nel secolo decimonono (1921), Bari, Laterza, 1930, p. 189.

13 F. Diaz, L’incomprensione italiana della rivoluzione francese, Torino, Bollati Boringhieri, 1989, pp. 62-63.

14 A. Manzoni, La rivoluzione francese del 1789, cit., pp. 26, 53.

15 E. Burke, First Letter on a Regicide Peace (1796), in Id., The Writings and Speeches, cit., vol. IX, p. 241.

16 L. Dumont, Homo Equalis. Genèse et épanouissement de l’idéologie économique, Paris, Gallimard, 1977, p. 19.

17 E. Burke, Letter to the chevalier de la Bintinaye, march 1791, in Id., The Correspondence of Edmund Burke, T.W. Copeland (ed.), Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1958-1976, vol. VI, p. 242.

18 E. Burke, The Writings and Speeches, cit., vol. VIII, p. 197, vol. IX, p. 477, Id., Debate in the Commons on the Alien Bill, December 28th 1792, in W. Cobbet (ed,). The Parliamentary History of England from the Earliest Period to thr Year 1803, London, Hansard, 1816, vol. XXX, pp. 187-189.

19 G. Ferrero, Le due rivoluzioni francesi (1940-42), Milano, Sugar Co, 1986, pp. 105, 172.

20 G. Mosca, Storia delle dottrine politiche (1933), Bari, Laterza, 1937, p. 253.

21 G. Amendola, La democrazia italiana contro il fascismo, 1922-1924, Milano-Napoli, Ricciardi, 1960, p. 248.

22 G. Ferrero, Letter to G. Mosca, Firenze, 1923, january the 3rd, in C. Mongardini (ed.), Gaetano Mosca – Guglielmo Ferrero, Carteggio (1896-1934), in Opere di Gaetano Mosca, vol. VI, tomo I, Milano, Giuffré, 1980, pp. 322-323.

23 G. Prezzolini, Prezzolini: sul fascismo (1915-1975), Milano, Pan, 1976, p. 25, Id., Diario, 1900-1941, Milano, Rusconi, 1978, p. 380.

24 V. Beonio-Brocchieri, Introduction to E. Burke, Riflessioni sulla rivoluzione francese, Bologna, Cappelli, 1930, pp. 3-45.

25 L. Sturzo, M. Einaudi, Corrispondenza americana, 1940-1944, Firenze, Olschki, 1998, p. 60.

26 G. Salvemini, La rivoluzione francese 1788-92 (1905), ultima edizione riveduta 1954, Milano, Feltrinelli, 1962, p. 62.

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