How does Giuseppe Mazzini understand nationalism?

How does Giuseppe Mazzini understand nationalism?

This essay aims to understand Mazzinian concept of nation through the analysis of his works and his thought. In doing so, I could not fail to consider his personal relationship with religion. The religious aspect of the poet will be the first and the core topic of this text. Faith and God in the Mazzinian vision plays a fundamental role in his idea of nation. I will start by briefly describing the relationship between Mazzini and the Catholic Church and his considerations on Christianity. Secondly, I will deal with the Genoese patriot’s concept of God and Religion and the role he entrusted to them in his model of nation. In the second part, I will analyse Mazzini’s vision of the people and his concept of duties towards the nation and towards humanity. In the last part, I will portray the order that Mazzini attributed to the State and to its role as a social carrier and guarantor of freedom, with a small focus on the Mazzinian method of “building the nation”. In the conclusion, I will try to find assonances between Mazzinian nationalism and the currents of thought that study the nationalist doctrine, to understand if the thought of the Genoese poet can be included in a specific current of nationalism.

Mazzinian nationalism transcends mere geographical expression and embraces all the peoples of Europe and the world in a sort of ‘collectivism and religious universalism.’[1] In fact, reducing Mazzinian nationalism to the Italian question alone would be reductive to understand his thinking. He certainly worked on the Italian cause with assiduousness but at the same time he did not neglect to work for the rights and emancipation of other oppressed peoples of Europe[2]. Indeed, his nationalist idea is one of a kind. The origins of his patriotic fervour date back to the Enlightenment ideas of Kant and Rousseau (equity and rule of law) and arise as a reaction to Napoleonic imperial expansion, combining ‘the Saint-Simonian[3] religion of humanity and the Romantic ideal of nationality into a message that retained the universalistic temper of the Enlightenment’. [4] A sort of universalistic religious nationalism that in his view would guarantee the freedom of individual peoples through the establishment of the democratic republic model and the nation state.

Despite his clear rejection of interference from the religious sphere in political life, [5] he is convinced that only faith in God could guide humanity through progress. Yet, his idea of religion is very different from the Catholic one. According to Mazzini, Christianity is incompatible with progress and too concentrated on personal divine salvation. [6] Nevertheless, he never denies the fundamental role that the Catholic Church could assumed in society: In fact, the Church should be the messenger of those principles of solidarity and commonality that must guide the actions of men and therefore of the nations, which should ensure the application of these principles.

[7] Nevertheless, he does not grant any privileged role to the Roman Church, being strongly sceptical of the clerical power, regarded as ‘(people) that only represent class interests and greed and lust of power’.[8] The clerical and political power has to coexist peacefully until the nation would mature that political and national conscience that would consecrate itself as sacred, achieving social unity. As a matter of fact, Mazzini’s religious vision is in fact based on secular worship of the state as such, considered the highest organizational expression of a people who share a common lineage. The Church would fall as a natural consequence of this national awareness. [9] Until that time, all religions could be professed freely, and the state must intervene only if the civil and social status was endangered.

Unlike the French Revolution, which preached liberation from tyranny through a grassroots revolution driven by the force of reason, Mazzini’s vision believes also in revolution as a force that starts from below, but is desired by God[10], in total contrast with the French rationalism. In his Duties of a Man, Mazzini is convinced that it is not possible for man to pursue the path of progress unless he recognizes the divine nature of his earthly rights. Hence, the human commitment to the liberation of the oppressed peoples.[11] Mazzini maintains that without a common faith, man consecrates himself to a self-interest ideology, just like happened in France. [12] Mazzini condemns the French thought for exalting individual freedoms and thus forming an egoistic society that could never think of the collective good. [13] He opposes this doctrine by promoting a form of democratic republican associationism which lays the ultimate authority in God. In fact, despite being a fervent supporter of democracy[14], he does not place great trust in the people.

Therefore, he advocates God as final judge, to whom they would have responded. Religion, according to Mazzini, is the only way peoples have in order to save themselves from capitalist individualism and collectivist socialism, both considered expressions of the materialistic philosophy. [15] In this regard, Mazzini recognizes distinctions within the ‘people’. Those who had a national conscience were the only ones who deserved the name of popolo (people). All the others were simply considered gente (folks). The writings and the Mazzinian propaganda aim to inform above all three ‘categories’ of people: the new generations, the intellectuals and the popolo. [16] If united by religious community and values, these people would overthrow the established power through popular uprisings. Despite these distinctions, he does not exclude any category or class from The Nation he imagines[17]. He attributes to all humanity the duty to claim its own nation and free it from foreign oppression[18].

The idea of duty is the heart of the Mazzinian thought. He dedicates his entire life to the national and democratic cause from childhood[19]. For this reason, it is impossible for him to distinguish human happiness from daily political commitment. Even death was necessary, if it served to pursue national unity and freedom. [20]. Although the continuing insurrectionary failures in Genoa and Marseille and the expulsions from various European territories for subversive activities, he never stopped promoting insurrectional causes throughout Europe. According to Mazzini, the citizen has duties before rights, and only through constant commitment rights can be guaranteed. [21] He believes in daily pledge and education: ‘In each of you exists a certain sum of faculties […] to which education alone can give life and activity. […] Education is the bread of soul’.

[22] Only through teaching, human virtues can be fully expressed, and only through faith in God can man pursues the common good, namely the establishing and defence of the nation. If the nation is considered the supreme and natural political unity of man, its citizens are its guardians and God was the giver. The Nation was granted by God to men and it was the task of men to understand it and preserve it. [23] Failing to do this means failing as men and therefore being ‘downgraded’ by God to the level of other earthly creatures who do not possess self-consciousness.

[24] Indeed, morality should lead the lives of men, not critical reason. For the poet, the State is the supreme social entity in which the moral duty towards The Nation must be cultivated and improved. Essentially, it has a dual function: to guarantee the freedom of citizens from foreign interference (therefore the self-determination of the people) and to promote that form of associationism essential to the growth and moral progress of its individuals. [25] The only law that the state should fosters is the Law of God, [26] namely the divine right and duty of the people to possess their Nation and their freedom. The divine mission of God could be explained to the citizens of a territory as wide as the European’s only using written propaganda. In this sense, Mazzini is one of the first intellectuals to understand the importance of spreading ideas through writing.

[27] Since the founding of the newspaper The Young Italy, which was a direct expression of his secret society, the poet committees himself in spreading patriotic and democratic ideas throughout Europe by massively using the press. He recognizes the natural social condition of man in The Nation but at the same time men have to be educated to acknowledge this condition to pursue or improve it. Mazzini relied to a great extent on symbols[28] and words[29] as means of cohesion for peoples.

The concept of Mazzinian nationalism certainly has assonances with the current called Primordialism of the study of nationalism, especially in its religious component. Gellner in his Nations and Nationalism (1986) states that ‘the natural social condition of man is that of the nation and the people are the sole and legitimate depository of political power’. Mazzini has very clear from who this ‘natural social condition’ derives: God has entrusted to men their nations along the duty to govern them. Although Gellner does not consider the condition of man of divine origin, the assumption that the nation is of ‘external’ origin to the human will fits with the Mazzinian vision.

Also, the perennialist approach of Adrian Hastings seems to find points of contact with Mazzinian nationalism: Hasting rejects the cultural approach of Shils and Geertz, too focused on bonds of blood and brotherhood, considering the nation more as a self-recognized community, as Mazzini does. According to Hastings, nationalism can be considered as a political current typical of the late 19th century, which preaches the self-recognition of nationality and therefore of the nation. [30] In fact, Mazzini promotes not only the unity of the Italian people, but of all the peoples of humanity, urging them to claim their own freedom by self-determinism. In the modernist approach, which considers nationalism not as a human ‘natural condition’ but rather as a social construction, [31] the Mazzinian vision matches the extent to which it committed himself in the development of national consciousness. Nevertheless, unlike the modernist exponents, the poet believes that the national conscience should not be built, but only recognized and put into practice daily through the application of duty. The nationality was in fact entrusted by God to man, and not conceived by man himself.

In conclusion, we can say that Mazzini’s conception of state is more unique than rare: fervent cosmopolitan but at the same time a staunch supporter of the national cause. Defender of the people as the only legitimate and sovereign entity, but the ultimate authority was placed in God. The complex nature of Mazzinian thought is evident in the words written above. Nevertheless, he managed to surround himself with many pupils and thinkers throughout Europe, and his constant and tireless dedication to the national issue makes Mazzini one of the most important exponents in the acquisition of the national conscience of the European peoples. Although rejecting his religious view, that model of a democratic and republican state would then be largely established in Europe from the nineteenth century onwards.



Daniele Scano



[1] E.E.Y. Hales, Mazzini and the Secret Societies (London, 1956) p. 199

[2] In addition to the Young Italy, the Young Poland, the Young Germany and finally the Young Europe were founded. All these secret societies promoted liberation from foreigners through a popular uprising.

[3] Henri de Saint-Simon was a French philosopher who conceived a new conception of Christianity as an element of social cohesion and as a guide to human progress. The Saint-Simonianism, which Karl Marx includes among the utopian socialisms in his Manifesto, idealized a society with a Faith in progress, in science and a mystical conception of religion, intended as the journey of peoples towards unity.

[4]C.A.Bayly and Eugenio F.Biagini, Giuseppe Mazzini and the Globalisation of Democratic Nationalism, 1830-1930, (Oxford University Press, 2008) p.12

[5]Politics are one thing, religious is another: don’t confuse the two […]” from Ernest Rhys, The Duties of a Man and Other Essays by Joseph Mazzini (London, 1936) p.23.

[6] John A.Davis, Italy in the Nineteenth Century, 1796-1900, (Oxford University Press, 2000) p.76.

[7] Essays, p.254.

[8] Essays, p.198-9.

[9] Essays, p.200-1

[10]Nationality is the role assigned by God to a people within the humanitarianism travail. It a people’s mission, their task to accomplish so that God’s thought may be realised in the world’ by Mazzini, from Jeune Suisse’s article, September 1835.

[11] “God: The Duties of a Man”, in Essays.

[12] Essay, p.121.

[13] Mattarelli, Sauro, “Duties and rights in the thought of Giuseppe Mazzini” in Journal of Modern Italian Studies, 13, no. 4 (December 2008) p.480-485.

[14]The nation stays for equality and democracy’, Giuseppe Mazzini, 1835.

[15]Without a common faith […] without unity of standard for its whole moral, political, economic life, the world to-day is at the mercy of caprice, of dynastic and popular ambition and egotism’, from Essays, p.223.

[16] The new generations, according to the poet, were the only ones not influenced by the old bourgeois and clerical system. On the other hand, intellectuals had the duty to spread the new revolutionary ideas through propaganda. John A.Davis, Italy in the Nineteenth Century, 1796-1900, (Oxford University Press, 2000) p.82-3.

[17] Italy in the Nineteenth Century, p.76.

[18] “Duties to Country: The Duties of a Man”, in Essay.

[19] Already at the age of 14, he ended up in trouble with the Piedmontese police for leading a student demonstration against the House of Savoy.

[20] “Mazzini borrowed the idea of the martyred nation from the Polish patriot and poet Adam Mickiewicz and made it an integral part of his creed”, Sarti Roland’s quote from Italy in the Nineteenth Century, p.85.

[21] This will be condemned several times to the French intellectuals in his work Thoughts on the French revolution of 1789.

[22] Essays, p. 69.

[23] Essays, p. 53.

[24] Essays, p.42.

[25] Ernest Rhys, The Life of Mazzini, (London, 1919) p.269-72.

[26] Essays, p.32-3.

[27] Giuseppe Mazzini and the Globalisation of Democratic Nationalism, 1830-1930, p.168-9

[28] Well-known is the discussion between him and Melegari on the choice of words to write on the flag of Italy. The scene is well described in Hales, Mazzini and the Secret Societies: The Making of a Myth (London, 1956), p.138.

[29] On more than one occasion, Mazzini expresses his concerns about which words to use to galvanize and unite the masses with the revolution. His watchwords “God and People” and “Thought and Action” are just two examples of the poet’s use of words.

[30] Umut Ozkirimli, Theories of Nationalism: A Critical Introduction, (London, 2017), p.60-1.

[31] See Tom Nairn, The Break-up Britain: Crisis and Neo-nationalism (1981).





Ernest Rhys, Essay: The Duties of a Man and Other Essays by Joseph Mazzini (London, 1936) p. 23,32-3,42,53,69,121,198-9,200-1,254.

Mazzini Joseph, Jeune Suisse, September 1835.

C.A.Bayly and Eugenio F.Biagini, Giuseppe Mazzini and the Globalisation of Democratic Nationalism, 1830-1930, (Oxford University Press, 2008) p. 12, 168-9.

E.E.Y. Hales, Mazzini and the Secret Societies (London, 1956) p.138, 199.

Ernest Rhys, The Life of Mazzini, (London, 1919) p.269-72.

Hales, Mazzini and the Secret Societies: The Making of a Myth (London, 1956), p.138.

John A.Davis, Italy in the Nineteenth Century, 1796-1900, (Oxford University Press, 2000) p. 76,82-3,85.

Mattarelli, Sauro, “Duties and rights in the thought of Giuseppe Mazzini” in Journal of Modern Italian Studies, 13, no. 4 (December 2008) p. 480-5.

Umut Ozkirimli, Theories of Nationalism: A Critical Introduction, (London, 2017) p.60-1.