Giuseppe Mazzini (1805-1872)

During the first half of the nineteenth century, many Europeans regarded nationalism as a benevolent ideology that went hand in glove with liberalism and democracy. Among the leading advocates of liberal nationalism was the Italian patriot Giuseppe Mazzini (1805–1872). From an early age, Mazzini was a leading advocate of Italian unification and independence and fought Austrian domination of his countrymen. Mazzini believed that nationalism meant the liberation of people from foreign rule and that, when people were liberated and assumed control of their own affairs, they would naturally adopt democratic political institutions. Europe in 1848 seemed on the verge of realizing Mazzini’s aspirations as revolutionary currents swept the continent, including Italy. In the end, however, liberal nationalism was crushed in Italy by conservative rulers, just as it was crushed elsewhere in Europe. Over a half a century later, another great liberal, President Woodrow Wilson, followed in Mazzini’s footsteps in advocating national self-determination as the way to bring about peace and democracy in global politics

Mazzini was born in Genoa and is associated with the cause of Italian Unification -liberating the separate Italian states from foreign rule and fusing them into a free and independent republic. Mazzini is seen as a liberal nationalist, but this is only true to a certain extent.

An Italian nationalist and apostle of liberal republicanism, Mazzini is often portrayed as the ‘prophet’ of Italian unification. He came into contact with revolutionary politics as a member of a patriotic secret society, the Carbonari. After spells in France and Britain, Mazzini returned to Italy during the 1848 Revolutions, helping to liberate Milan and becoming head of the short-lived Roman Republic. Inspired by a distinctively liberal form of nationalism, Mazzini championed two principles, which he believed to be universally applicable: ‘every nation a state’ and ‘only one state for the entire nation’. Although his influence on Italian unification faded once Piedmont assumed leadership of the movement, Mazzini’s nationalism had a profound influence across Europe in strengthening the idea that freedom entails the creation of one’s own nation-state. He nevertheless distrusted intellectualism and abstract thinking generally, arguing that thought must always be harnessed to action and vice versa, an idea he expressed through the concept of ‘thought and action’

Mazzini was strongly opposed to Marxism due to its doctrinaire stance on class struggle and social solidarity. He was also opposed to the liberal ideas of the Enlightenment. As with many other nationalist figures, he viewed the inherent individualism of liberal notion as contrary to the goal of creating a coherent national identity. He also opposed the rationalist basis of liberal ideas and the divisions caused by Protestantism; both of which stemmed from his own personal commitment to Catholicism. For him, patriotism is a duty and the Fatherland is “the home wherein God has placed us, among brothers and sisters linked to us by the family ties of a common religion, history and language.”

His worldview was shaped by a concept known as thought and action, in which both terms were joined together to create an independent Republic of Italy. According to Mazzini, every thought must be followed by action. Such an approach represents a rejection of intellectualism and the notion of divorcing theory from actual practice.

Nationhood: Mazzini believed that humans could only express themselves via their nation. People had to unite as nations to enjoy their rights; thus human freedom rested first and foremost on the creation of one's own state. For Mazzini, the nation-state was not merely a convenient form of government, but was a partnership of free and equal humans bound together in unity towards a single aim.

Patriotism and action: For Mazzini, the nationalist cause had to take precedence over all other causes. He regarded patriotism as a duty, and love for the Fatherland as a divine mission. Mazzini rejected intellectualism and rationalism and created an idea known as 'thought and action', in which every thought must be followed by action.

Spirituality: Mazzini's motto was Dio e Popolo - 'God and People' - and he believed that it was God who divided humanity into nations. Even though his writings can sometimes be understood as speaking out against the Catholic church, he remained deeply spiritual, distinguishing between religious sentiment and the Catholic church.