The New Prince

By Ofir Haivry

Silvio Berlusconi and the Italian conservative tradition. A roadmap.

During the centuries of division and foreign rule, many important Italian political thinkers expressed their disappointment with Italy’s inability to unite, despite its magnificent past, and with its consequent subjugation to foreign rule. The most outstanding of these was Niccolo Machiavelli, who sought in his essay The Prince to guide a ruler into becoming the “new prince” who would free Italy from the foreign soldiers who were sowing destruction in the land.10 These hopes were not realized in Machiavelli’s time, nor for many long years afterwards, but they were not forgotten. Italians in following generations continued to nurture the vision of the “new prince” who would demonstrate, in the words of Machiavelli (quoting Petrarca), that their forefathers’ pride “in true Italian hearts has never died.”11
The Lion and the Fox
A prince, being thus obliged to make use of the characteristics of beasts, should choose those of the fox and the lion, for the lion cannot guard himself from traps, and the fox cannot defend himself from wolves.
The Prince, ch. 18
Toward the middle of the nineteenth century, it became clear that the movement for Italian unification had become unstoppable. The benefits of unification, however, were accompanied by clear dangers. Some thinkers were concerned that existing privileges and rights would be taken away by a new and unpredictable regime. The principal fear, however, was that the casting off of existing frameworks would lead to a general undermining of societal values and an unbridled revolution based on the guillotine. This fear was intensified by the ideas and actions of revolutionary leaders such as Giuseppe Mazzini, the ideologue of the Italian liberation movement which sought to establish a republican regime, and Giuseppe Garibaldi, the military hero who attempted, time after time, to unite Italy through a tempestuous military conquest.
The revolutionaries’ approach was opposed by conservatives, whose most prominent representative was the prime minister of Sardinia, Camillo Benso, Count Cavour. Cavour favored a slow and gradual process of constitutional unification, which would utilize mainly diplomatic, rather than military, means and would not pose a threat to the existing social order.
In 1859, these two approaches came into open conflict. The victory of the French-backed Sardinian army over Austrian forces made possible a political arrangement whereby an expanded Sardinia, including large portions of northern Italy, would be given international recognition. Cavour regarded this as a first and important step towards Italian unification. In a surprise move, however, Garibaldi then set out at the head of a small army of volunteers, succeeded in conquering all of southern Italy within a few months, and threatened to make this territory the base for a revolutionary Italian state. Cavour now had to decide whether to agree to an immediate unification of Italy, with the accompanying danger of internal subversion by revolutionaries, or to risk a full-blown civil war. It was a situation reminiscent of Machiavelli’s description of the properties needed by the prince who would unify Italy—the lion’s strength and valor (Garibaldi) and the fox’s cunning and prudence (Cavour). Combining their forces, they might succeed; divided, they were certain to lose.
Cavour resolved the conflict by acting on the assessment that Garibaldi and his followers were more Italian than revolutionary. He gave his blessing to the latter’s action, but called upon Garibaldi to join his conquests in the south to the northern regions in a united Italian state, under a northern monarchical and conservative regime. As the Count anticipated, Garibaldi preferred national unification to a civil war and handed over all of southern Italy to the northern kingdom with a one-word reply: “Obbedisco”(“I obey”).
Inspired by Cavour, a classical liberal-conservative regime12 was established in the new state—similar to those in Great Britain or Austria-Hungary of the time—dedicated to a constitutional monarchy, a liberal economy and a conservative social order. The revolutionary left remained a marginal element. Garibaldi withdrew from public life, and Mazzini, who at first was not permitted even to enter the unified Italy, was removed from any position of influence in the new state. The revolutionary wing of the Italian liberation movement gave way to a consensus-based moderate-conservative regime, which united the traditional sources of local power with those revolutionaries who embraced the new order.
During the following half-century, this regime suffered no critical disturbances, and neither the socialist left nor the liberal-radical left gained a foothold in the government. Even devout Italian Catholics, who at first opposed the new regime because of its forceable conquest of the papal state, gradually accepted it, though without particular enthusiasm.13
But the crisis of World War I brought about the collapse of this political system. After the war, states throughout Europe had difficulty in contending with the demands of masses of angry demobilized soldiers, who filled the streets and insisted upon sweeping changes. The situation was especially acute in Italy, due to the frustration of having been on the victors’ side without reaping the expected benefits of victory. The classical liberal regime, accustomed to power remaining in the hands of traditional elites and institutions, could not handle this undermining of the social order and began to lose control of events; the Catholics, whose support for the regime was tepid, were uncertain how to act; and it seemed to the revolutionary left that its hour had finally arrived.
The country began to descend into anarchy, which threatened to degenerate into a bloody maelstrom along the Russian model. The Communist revolutionary spirit was matched by a new force, the Fascists, consisting mainly of former leftists who had rejected internationalism in favor of a fiery nationalism forged on the battlefield. The Italians were forced to choose the lesser of two evils. In the end, the conservative Italian majority preferred the Fascists, who championed a political dictatorship but not a socioeconomic one, over the “Reds” who would institute a dictatorship in both spheres. This decision led to the appointment in 1922 of the Fascist Benito Mussolini as prime minister.
It soon became evident that not only was the economic-social impact of Fascism indeed limited, but the Italian conservative tradition was too powerful for Mussolini to dominate, and forced him to suppress his more totalitarian tendencies. The Fascist rule was characterized more by corruption and stupidity than by radicalism and brutality. In post-World War I Europe, which faced economic and military crises and bloodthirsty revolutionary and counterrevolutionary movements that took the lives of millions from Russia to Spain, Fascist Italy was not the worst place to be. Having lost democracy, the Italians felt that at least they were living under the least evil of the possible dictatorships.14
The Italians, however, supported Fascism only as long as it provided them with stability and freedom from the tempests that rocked the rest of Europe in the 1920s and 1930s. When Mussolini changed direction after 1938 and attempted to emulate the Nazis by adopting racial legislation and embroiling Italy in the war, the Italians ceased to support him. The overwhelming majority of Italians (and not a few in the Fascist leadership) disassociated themselves from the racial laws, opposed Italy’s entry into the war, and participated in it with blatant antipathy—until one bright day in the summer of 1943, when Mussolini was deposed without fanfare by a majority of the Fascist leadership which, in this difficult military situation, preferred its Italianism to Fascism. The conservative institutions—the King, the army and the Church—replaced Mussolini’s regime in the blink of an eye, with not a person in all Italy willing to rise up in opposition.
The overthrow of Mussolini was intended to extricate Italy from a war it did not want, but neither the Nazis nor the Allies allowed such a move. Thus in the last two years of the war, Italy found itself torn between Hitler’s forces, which had occupied the north of the country and established a puppet regime, and the Allied forces that controlled the south.

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