How do I review this book?
It’s not a rhetorical question– this is the first book I’ve reviewed here that isn’t a narrative. Socialismo liberale (Liberal Socialism, translated, but I read it in Italian and so I’m calling it by its Italian title) is a political polemic, published in 1930 by recently-escaped-from-exile antifascist Carlo Rosselli. While in internal exile, he had begun to write this argument– not, as you might expect, against Mussolini, who had put him there– but against his fellow socialists, whom he felt to be in the grip of an outdated ideology that prevented them from reacting effectively to the situation at hand.
Another problem with blogging about this book is that because I was slogging through the Italian, I read it very slowly and with many books in between. I’ve been working on this one since last fall. So I barely remember the beginning. I’m pretty sure it started with a discussion of the links between and ethical origins of both liberalism and socialism, a discussion of the origins of Marxism and the role that ideology played in the socialist movement, and a thorough critique of Marxism. He moves on to describing the history of the socialist movement in Italy and the ways in which Marxism limited its effectiveness. Among his criticisms is that Marxists see liberty as a conditional, historically limited value rather than a universal value. Marxism, in Rosselli’s view, also doesn’t allow for the role of free will in history, because it’s all about how people’s actions are determined by material conditions.
Rosselli then proposes a new, liberal socialism– in fact, he sees socialism as the heir and fulfiller of liberalism, a view that I share. I don’t share, however, insofar as I understand it, his criticisms of the materialistic and non-spiritual outlook of other socialists– ideals are good and necessary, but they don’t exist in and of themselves. In trying to challenge Marxist internationalism, he also falls into some dubious ideas of national character, although thankfully nothing racist or colonialism-endorsing (Eduard Bernstein, I’m looking at you!).
But I agreed with a lot of Rosselli’s criticisms of Marxism, especially when he points out that the useful parts of Marxist analysis are not the parts that try to predict the future or claim that socialism is inevitable, as Marx did. I also really liked the link Rosselli made between liberalism and socialism, his point that you cannot have socialism without democracy– which is obvious now, but less so when this was written!
I was divided on Rosselli’s points about the importance of moral education. Clearly, in order to get a majority for a more just society, some sort of moral progress is necessary. However, who gets to do the moral educating? Who already has those values? And doesn’t this come off as paternalistic?
Rosselli seems to assume that if socialists follow his prescriptions, they will achieve a majority. Ironically, the party founded by Rosselli’s followers, the Party of Action, though it played an honorable role in the resistance, lost its popularity soon after WWII. So this assumption is questionable.
Rosselli ends with a confession of faith in thirteen theses, and the words “Who lives, will see.”
The conclusion seems prophetic. Rosselli was assassinated by fascists in 1939, just prior to the outbreak of the war.