Mazzini’s Cosmopolitanism of Nations

Written by: Andrea Telò

Andrea Telò is a Third Year History and International Relations student at King’s College London. His main academic interests include the History of Political ideas from Machiavelli to Mazzini, the theories of European integration and the role of the EU on the international scene and, among others the Political and Military History of the World Wars. 

The succession of the two deadliest conflicts in human history has turned away the citizens of Europe from the doctrine that has paved the way to such unprecedented devastation and deaths: aggressive ultra-nationalism. Few today would proudly define themselves as “nationalists”, a term that is now mostly associated with the Extreme Right in the European context to the point that even the very nationalist Right has often re-branded itself as populist or “souverainist” to increase its appeal to otherwise reticent voters. Historically and, in particular in the century of their emergence – the nineteenth century –, the intertwined concepts of Nation and Nationalism had a very different connotation: The great Italian political philosopher and chief inspirer of the Italian unification Giuseppe Mazzini conceptualised the Nation and the ideology that promoted its right to existence and self-determination, Nationalism, in eminently liberal terms: the Republican and Democratic Nation was to emerge as guarantor of the inalienable rights delineated in the French Declaration of the Rights of Men and Citizens and, crucially as precondition to any Cosmopolitan project. This article would seek to shed some light on this often overshadowed but not least fundamental conceptualisation of a Cosmopolitanism of Nations. 

The Nation as guarantor of rights 

Mazzini believed Italian unification and the establishment of an accountable Liberal-Democratic Italian Republic to be the only possible way for the Italian citizens – defined as the inhabitants of the Italian peninsula and Italian states united by a common linguistic, cultural, political and historical background – to achieve their individual rights, fundamental preliminary stage towards Cosmopolitan Humanity. Individual political rights could never be realised under the dominion of foreign monarchs and empires, hence the absolute need of political emancipation through unification for the peoples of Italy and other repressed European and non-European peoples the like. 

The enemy of Mazzini’s national republican-democratic movement was certainly not an abstract and diabolised idea of foreigner – depicted as intrinsically evil because of its very status as foreigner – but instead Absolutist governments and hereditary aristocracy, [1] that is to say the forces of the reaction united in the Holy Alliance that endeavoured to oppress the freedoms irradiating from the French Revolution after the Congress of Vienna in 1815. Mazzini thus sought to replace polities that denied individual and social rights with new systems of governance – the Liberal-democratic Nation-State – that would protect these very inviolable rights. At a time when Empires still ruled the world, Mazzini was concerned with the liberation of subordinated people from Empires and could, quite naively I must say, not even imagine that their liberation could result in the subordination of others – the ones who do not fit within the newly established Nation and its associated national narrative for instance. He quite similarly underestimated the tendency of Nations-States, very much like the dynastical empires that Mazzini so firmly repudiates, to act on the international stage out of self-interest and greed.

Nations as essential vehicles for Cosmopolitanism 

Mazzini’s Republican Human Rights Movement had an eminently transnational vocation that sustained its internationalism: his, however, was “an internationalism for the sake of Nations”, [2] as suggested by the Harvard historian Samuel Moyn in his article, Giuseppe Mazzini in the History of Human Rights. This is why he created, in 1834, together with Polish and German Patriots, the political association Giovine Europa only three years after having founded the Giovine Italia movement: he saw the Italian national cause as intrinsically intertwined with that of other repressed European nationalities and thus conceptualised the need for an Alliance between all the Nations to be contrasted to the aforementioned Holy Alliance with the ultimate objective of establishing a European federal order. 

Mazzini insisted on the need of harmonising Cosmopolitanism with the Nation within the European system: while he considered the revival of the nationalities of Europe as an “indispensable condition for the advancement of our epoch”, [3] he crucially saw these nationalities, once having acquired their right to Republican statehood, as the starting point for the establishment of a general organization that will have Humanity – intended as a united Humanity – as its ultimate objective. A staunch advocate of the principle of association as the basis for progressive development, Mazzini thus firmly rejected the idea of the nation as an instrument for the fractionalisation of humanity and instead pointed at the impossibility to achieve the unity of humanity at once. “Every epoch has its own assigned task”, [4] he wrote, suggesting that the time of ultimate unity for humanity had not yet arrived. Interestingly, Mazzini had not read Immanuel Kant’s Perpetual Peace and was philosophically influenced by Christian Cosmopolitanism: [5] this fundamental Christian background of his helps us better fathom his vision of a synthesis between God and Humanity as the ultimate horizon for Humanity. 

His ideas would admittedly have far-ranging echoes with the President of the United States Woodrow Wilson identifying him as the key inspirator for the creation, at Versailles in 1919, of the League of Nation, the first International Organisation devolved to the maintaining of global peace. In a highly symbolic gesture, Wilson would make a pilgrimage to Mazzini’s statue in Genoa, in 1919, right before going to Versailles to negotiate the treaties that would put an end to the First World War and seek to build a new Europe based on the very Mazzinian principle of National self-determination. 

Cosmopolitanism of Free and Republican Nations as the only true Cosmopolitanism 

Mazzini’s singular position that saw nationalism and internationalism as mutually reinforcing ideas is to be understood in the context of his ardent debate with Karl Marx – as emphasised by Mark Mazower in his work Governing the World [6] – but also as a response to wider Cosmopolitan claims suggesting that the Nation and Nationality act as dangerous and superfluous catalysers of division and conflict within the edifice of Humanity. Mazzini’s critique of these Cosmopolitans revolves around the practical impossibility of realising unity of humanity at this stage of history and the vagueness of such an ideal. The focus, according to the great Genoese political philosopher should be on action, not on the sole organisation of ideas but rather on their crucial transformation into reality: the world is beyond the grasp of the individual-focused Cosmopolitan that seeks to ignore the Nation, facing the reality of the limits of individual action and the non-recognition of his rights, being therefore condemned to either inaction or despotism. [7] 

To those, like Marx or the Socialist Utopians, who saw the Nation as a “bourgeois sham to divide the transnational working class”, [8] Mazzini would respond that they are willing to sacrifice individual freedom in the name of an abstract idea of well-being of all. The denial of Nationality, as articulated by Saint-Simonians and Communists, indeed often solely results in the denial of the Nationality of others, while theoretically privileging their own Nationality which would play a special role as intellectual and moral leader in the construction of their supposedly cosmopolitan utopia, thereby “usurping all the others”. [9] 


Mazzini theoretically elaborated a version of liberal national-republicanism primarily devolved to the protection of individual rights that saw the collective emancipation of nations as the only possible vehicle for their universal achievement and most crucially the necessary premise towards Cosmopolitan Humanity. Crucially, Mazzini insisted on the futility of any design “to confound Nations into the uniformity of I do not know what abstract Cosmopolitanism”. [10] He contemplated instead the creation of an association of mutually-assisting nations for the common good of humanity, guided by the principle of “improvement of all through everyone’s contribution, the progress of each for the benefit of all” [11] as the task that would follow the emergence of Republican and democratic Nations-States. 

Works cited

[1] Giuseppe Mazzini, “On the Duties of Man”, in Stefano Recchia and Nadia Urbinati (eds), A Cosmopolitanism of Nations: Giuseppe Mazzini’s Writings on Democracy, Nation Building and International Relations (Princeton University Press, 2009), 91

[2] Samuel Moyn, “Giuseppe Mazzini in (and beyond) the History of Human Rights” in Revisiting the Origins of Human Rights, ed. Pamela Slotte (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015), 122

[3]Giuseppe Mazzini “Humanity and Country” in A Cosmopolitanism of Nations: Giuseppe Mazzini’s Writings on Democracy, Nation Building, and International Relations ed. by Stefano Recchia and Nadia Urbinati (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009), 53

[4]  Ibid 56

[5] Samuel Moyn, “Giuseppe Mazzini in (and beyond) the History of Human Rights”, 129

[6]  Mark Mazower, Governing the World, The History of an idea, 1815 to the present (London: Penguin Books, 2013)

[7] Giuseppe Mazzini “Nationality and Cosmopolitanism (1849)” in A Cosmopolitanism of Nations: Giuseppe Mazzini’s Writings on Democracy, Nation Building, and International Relations ed. by Stefano Recchia and Nadia Urbinati (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009), 58

[8] Samuel Moyn, “Giuseppe Mazzini in (and beyond) the History of Human Rights”, 128

[9] Ibid, 59

[10] Ibid, 61

[11] Ibid.

Editor: Manfredi Pozzoli


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