The liberation theology of Giuseppe Mazzini

by Elias Blum

Giuseppe Mazzini is not well known in the English-speaking world. To the extent that his name is remembered at all, it is as an agitator for Italian unification. He is portrayed as a radical intellectual emigre, whose idealism – in an era dominated by the pragmatic, ruthless calculation of Cavour and the dashing, heroic populism of Garibaldi – left him stranded on the outside of events.

Yet Mazzini deserves to be taken down from the dusty, footnoted shelves of history and re-read. His writing is a passionate plea for the liberation of the working class and the peasantry from crippling conditions. He opposed the arrogant selfishness of the ruling class, the corruption of the clergy, and the cold, materialist liberalism of the middle class ‘doctrinaires’. Most of all, he opposed the self-debasement and apathy of the common folk, taking a stand against such debilitating notions as ‘mustn’t grumble’, ‘could be worse’ and ‘not for the likes of us’.

His seminal work, ‘On the Duties of Man’, differs markedly from the mainstream of nineteenth century radical thought, in that it does not appeal to the rights of the individual, but to the duties of the person – their duties to God, country, family and self. Liberation was not about standing up for your own selfish interests, but about standing for a community in which duty would be done to all. Mazzini’s commitment to the good society, based on a deeply Christian ethic of democratic fraternalism, offers a way in which modern progressive politics can reconnect with the ethical concerns of those millions who are moved to moral indignation by our present circumstances. It rejects the culture of ‘me-first’ individualism (which is rightly perceived as powerless in the face of corporate greed and consumerism). It exposes the clash between bankers’ bonuses and benefit cuts, of money for Olympic circuses but not for pensioners’ bread, of billions poured into the machinery of war while the NHS is sold off in slices, for what it is: namely, a gross dereliction of duty by the Government, and a gross dereliction of duty by the people in allowing democracy to atrophy to the point at which successive Governments have got away with it for decades.

In many ways, Mazzini’s writings prefigured what was to become liberation theology. You might even, in a metaphorical sense, call him a prophet. He recognised that at the core of political liberation and of the Good Republic lay spiritual liberation and the Good News. His call for radical change in the political and economic order of society was predicated upon a call for radical repentance in our hearts. The New Democracy was to be born out of the New Life.

Mazzini drew instructive parallels between the circumstances of his own time and the events described in the Bible. Jesus was born into a time of crisis. His country was under foreign military rule, and a rich class of collaborators – the temple hierarchy and the tax gatherers – were oppressing the people. As we know from the work of modern New Testament scholars such as Marcus Borg that the Old Testament laws of the jubilee, requiring the redistribution of land, had fallen into disuse, and that the very things that the Mosaic law had been introduced to prevent (that is, Pharaonic power and slave labour) were resurgent. In the Roman world, meanwhile, the Republic had died: society and civility had passed away, the honour of Brutus had given way to the wealth of Crassus and the power of Pompey, and the ‘easy yoke’ of liberty had been exchanged for the subtle but ensnaring bonds of licentiousness. As Mazzini writes:

“The times were wrapped in shadow. Heaven was a void.  The peoples wandered, pricked by strange fears, or paused torpid, puzzled wonderment.  Whole nationas disappeared; others just raised their heads as thought to see them die.  A hollow sound as of dissolution was heard in the world.  All creation, earth and sky, trembled.  Man seemed in a hideous case.  Placed between two infinities, he knew neither; he knew not past nor future.  All belief was dead: dead the belief in the Gods, dead the belief in the public.  Society was nothing: naught but a power that drowned in blood, or ate itself away in deeds of shame and sin; a senate, a poor parody of the majesty that it had been, which voted gold and statues to the tyrant; pretorians who despised the one and slew the other; informers, sophists, and a slavish and obsequious multitude.  There were no principles of saving virtue: there existed but the calculation of antagonistic interests.  The republic was exhausted.  The solemn voice of Brutus from the tomb had told the world that virtue was but a name.  And the good withdrew from that world, to keep their souls and intellects from stain.  Nerva starved himself to death.  Thraseas made libation of his own blood to Jove the Liberator.  The soul had disappeared: the senses alone reigned.  The people asked for bread and circus games.  Philosophy had become scepticism, or mere sophistries and words.  Poetry was satire.  From time to time man stood appalled at his own solitude, and drew back from the wilderness.  Then the citizens, almost frenzied with dread, clasped the bare, cold statues of the gods that once they worshipped, and of them a spark of moral life, a ray of faith, even some illusion; but they went away unheard, with despair in their hearts and blasphemy on their lips.  Such were those times, so like our own.”

These were dark days indeed. Times, so it would seem, for for despair, despondency, and futile self-destruction. Yet Mazzini saw that Jesus’ birth heralded a new hope. For a light would shine in the darkness, and the darkness would not overcome it.

“But yet, that was not the death-agony of the world; it was but the end of one phase of the world’s evolution.  A great epoch was exhausted, passing away to leave the road clear for another, whose first notes were already ringing in the north, and that awaited only its initiator to declare itself.  He came.  He was the soul most full of love, most virtuous and holy, most inspired by God and the future, that men have ever hailed on this earth: it was Jesus.  He bent over the decaying world, and murmured in its ear a word of faith.  To that obscene thing which retained nought but the aspect and notions of a man, he uttered words unknown up to that day: love, self-sacrifice.  The dead arose; a new life thrilled through that which philosophy had tried in vain to bring to life.  From it came forth the Christian world, the world of liberty and equality.  Man was made manifest, the image and foreshadowing of God.  Jesus died.  As Lamennais has said, he asked on men, to save them, only a cross to die on.  But before he died, he announced to the people the good news.  To those who asked him whence he had it, he answered: From God the Father; and from the cross twice he called on Him.  But from that cross his victory began, and still endures.”

And the consequence of this victory?

“Have faith then, ye that suffer for a noble cause, ye apostles of truth that even today the world ignores, ye that the world condemns and calls rebellious.  Tomorrow, perhaps, that world, today incredulous or careless, will bow with fervour before you.  Tomorrow, victory will crown your banner.  Onward in faith, and fear not.  That which Christ did, humanity can do.  Believe, and you will conquer.  Believe, and the peoples will end by following you. Let not your lips utter the cry of hate, not the conspirator’s hollow phrase, but the tranquil, solemn word of the days that are to come.  From our cross of poverty and proscription, we, the men of exile, who represent in our heart and faith the races of the enslaved, the millions doomed to silence, we will reply to you, and say to our brothers: the alliance is made.”

Mazzini lived in the springtime of the peoples, at a time when democracy was being fought for and new constitutional and social settlements, full of possibility and promise, were being established. I fear we live coming winter, with darkness ahead. But we should not faint nor despair. The Lamb is waiting to be born in human souls, and when it is a new spring will come, a time when the law of liberty, equality, and fraternity, shall be inscribed not on tables of wood or stone, but on the hearts of men. It is for this that we should watch, wait and work. It is for this that we should keep our lights trimmed and burning, ready to seize any opportunity to bring light and to dispel darkness where we find it.