essays

May 1, 1978

The Revolution Comes to Italy

“I found that the Libertarian Party is not an historically isolated phenomenon but is, on the contrary, the landing place of a great cultural tradition.”

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The Revolution Was, said Garret Garrett, meaning that the irreversible state-socialist transformation of America had already occurred. The Revolution Will Be, some of my optimistic libertarian friends tell me, meaning that libertarianism is truly the idea whose time has come. One tends to be a little skeptical—on the political level, at least, things seem mostly to be going the other way. But perhaps those optimistic friends are on to something. There is, after all, the surprisingly favorable response that libertarianism encounters from people in all walks of life; there is the individual person one increasingly comes across, who gives every evidence that this idea has changed his or her life.

In mid-March I received in the mail a copy of a new magazine. It was entitled Claustrofobia and was well-made; I leafed through it. What immediately caught my eye were some very familiar faces: Murray Rothbard, Ed Crane at the 1977 Libertarian Party National Convention in San Francisco, Dave Bergland, John Hospers, Nathaniel Branden, Tibor Machan, Mary Louise Hanson (the Secretary of the National LP), others. Names leapt up at me from the text: Rothbard, Ayn Rand, Roy Childs, Thomas Szasz, Robert Heinlein. Then I noticed that the text was in Italian. What is this?

Claustrofobia is a monthly magazine published in Rome by Riccardo La Conca and some friends. The issue I had in my hands was of February 1978, Year 1, Number 1. A 32-page, professional-looking job, it contained an editorial, “The Fever of Liberty,” which explained the name of the magazine. The name derives—it’s obvious when you think about it—from the state of mind a libertarian must experience living in a society such as Italy, where intellectual life is dominated by priests, Communists, and a few timid liberals. There were other articles by La Conca, and translations of Sharon Presley’s essay on feminism and of Libertarian Party position papers—by Murray Rothbard on inflation and Dave Nolan on “Pot, Helmets, and Vitamins.” The latter, from what I could make out (I had edited the originals), were quite good—either La Conca or someone else out there has a professional translator’s knowledge of English. From Reason there was Rollins’ “Lucifer’s Lexicon” and Hylkema’s comic strip, rendered into Italian. There were the classifieds (“Signorina libertaria attraente, simpatica …”) an ad for a punk-rock disco in Rome, and a house ad urging the reader to “Support free trade … Smuggle!” On the back cover was a notice for a libertarian radio station, broadcasting at 88 megahertz FM in Rome.

La Conca’s lead article, “Who are the Libertarians?” proved to be intelligent and displayed a truly astonishing knowledge of libertarian ideas and of the American libertarian movement. Among the works cited are Karl Hess’s article “The Death of Politics,” Franz Oppenheimer’s The State, Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, Rothbard’s For a New Liberty and Power and Market, Hospers’ Libertarianism, Roy Childs’ “An Open Letter to Ayn Rand,” Albert Jay Nock’s Our Enemy the State. La Conca points out that part of Rothbard’s achievement is that, to the antistatist philosophy of 19th century thinkers like Spooner and Tucker, he has “united a scientific approach in economic questions … incorporating … the doctrines of the Austrian school of economics of Hayek and von Mises.” La Conca goes on to discuss with some sophistication the differences between Szasz and Branden on psychology. A number of Szasz’s works, it turns out, have been translated into Italian, including The Manufacture of Madness and Ceremonial Chemistry; La Conca’s exposition of Szasz’s principal ideas is necessarily brief, but reveals an easy familiarity. The author is familiar even with libertarian-oriented science fiction, mentioning, besides Heinlein, Eric Frank Russell and Poul Anderson. He even knows Ira Levin’s novel, This Perfect Day. Who is this?

A photo accompanies another essay by La Conca, “Conceiving the Inconceivable,” which I have translated here. It shows him to be young, intense, handsome. The essay itself is well-reasoned, with a particular bent toward philosophy. There is a really moving part, when La Conca tells of what the discovery of the American libertarian movement meant to him:

In our country, a libertarian is a Martian, a one-hundred-percent foreigner. His break with his surroundings is so total that he lives always on the borders of psychic disintegration. I myself have experienced this lacerating experience, in conceiving the inconceivable. What removed me from this situation, in part, was the casual reading of an article on the Libertarian Party of the United States in an Italian magazine. The article was critical and ironical, but for me reading it constituted a great event. It was like the discovery of a piece of terra firma, of a kind of ideological homeland for a philosophically displaced person. After reading that article, I know that I was not alone. I knew I had companions in the faith, even if they were across the ocean. I knew that my madness—if that’s what it was—was shared by others.

Yes, something out of a novel, but sometimes, at least, nature does imitate art. So, across the ocean—Hello, friend.

Moreover, there prevails in Italy a dogmatic, authoritarian mentality and culture. In our country, there has been hardly a trace of an empirical culture of the Anglo-Saxon type. This point seems to me extremely important for its political implications, because there is a profound interconnection, I believe, between philosophical and political individualism on the one hand, and philosophical and political collectivism on the other.

A Marxist epistemologist, Ludovico Geymonat, divides contemporary philosophy into two far-reaching tendencies. One, with an individualistic hallmark, derived from David Hume; the other, with a collectivist hallmark, derived from Hegel, and it is symptomatic of the Italian cultural atmosphere that in our country, Benedetto Croce, the very guardian deity of liberalism—that is, of a school of thought that elsewhere was intimately connected with a philosophy of the empirical type—was a follower of Hegel, the father of modern philosophical collectivism.

It was this idealist and reactionary framework that led Croce to devalue the importance of economic liberty and to uphold, in polemics with Luigi Einaudi, the theory of the divisibility between it and other liberties. Because of this theory, some disciples of Croce seceded from the Liberal Party and founded the Radical Party, which later, under the leadership of Pannelli, was to carry to its furthest logical consequences the division between economic and civil liberty, by resolutely embracing economic collectivism.

Thus, a tradition of individualistic libertarianism has absolutely not existed in Italy. Italian anarchism, for instance that of a Malatesta or a Merlino, has always been wholely collectivist in economic matters.

Thanks to the provincialism that pervades our culture, the great Anglo-American libertarian tradition is completely unknown in Italy. A book like Herbert Spencer’sSocial Statics has never been translated into Italian. Neither has any American individualist-anarchist work whatsoever been translated, with the exception of Thoreau’s On Civil Disobedience. Finally, we cannot find selections from Spooner or Tucker in any of the numerous anthologies of anarchist thought published to this day in our country.*

It is my belief that, thanks to this conspiracy of factors, a libertarian in Italy necessarily experiences the state of alienation of which Rothbard speaks—but to a degree that cannot be even distantly imagined by an American libertarian. In Italy, libertarianism is something truly inconceivable. In our country, a libertarian is a Martian, a one-hundred percent foreigner. His break with his surroundings is so total that he lives always on the borders of psychic disintegration. I myself have experienced this lacerating experience, in conceiving the inconceivable. What removed me from this situation, in part, was the casual reading of an article on the Libertarian Party of the United States in an Italian magazine. The article was critical and ironical, but for me reading it constituted a great event. It was like the discovery of a piece of terra firma, of a kind of ideological homeland for a philosophically displaced person. After reading that article, I knew that I was not alone. I knew I had companions in the faith, even if they were across the ocean. I knew that my madness—if that’s what it was—was shared by others.I knew that my idea of a combination of civil laissez-faire and economic laissez-faire was not something inconceivable, conceived by me by mistake, who knows how or why. I knew it was an idea that many others had thought of before me, an idea on which even a party has been founded.

That discovery was followed by a series of other delightful discoveries. I found that the Libertarian Party is not an historically isolated phenomenon but is, on the contrary, the landing place of a great cultural tradition. I found that there existed an anarchism that was not collectivist but economically liberal [that is, deriving from classical liberalism]. I began, finally, to read authors like Rothbard, Rand and Hospers.

To constitute for all the potential libertarians in Italy what American libertarianism has been for me—that is, a place of anchorage, where shipwreck can be avoided, and one can “conceive the inconceivable”; to put on record in Italy the existence of a fundamental current of thought which has been surrounded, until now, by a curtain of silence—these are the fundamental reasons why I have founded, together with a few friends with similar ideas, an Italian libertarian movement.

From Claustrofobia, February 1978. Via Cadlolo, 90; 00136 Rome, Italy. Annual foreign subscription (airmail) 15,000 lire.

* However, the publication of an anthology, Il labirinto anarico, edited by Professor Domenico Settembrini, is imminent. This work will give ample space to the literature of American anarchism, including selections from contemporary libertarians like Rothbard. I have had the occasion to read Settembrini’s introduction to his anthology, and what emerges from it is an extremely revolutionary approach, at least for our country, in regard to the themes of anarchism. His judgment, that American individualist anarchism is, at any rate, much purer and more coherent than that of the Bakuninist-Kropotkinist tradition, represents an absolute novelty in a country where, incredibly, “libertarianism” is conceived in connection with economic collectivism and even only in connection with economic collectivism.