We moderns prefer to say with Napoleon: destiny is politics.
Johann Wolfgang Goethe
Destiny is only the enemy and man stands firmly against it as a force that fights him.
The Young Hegel
Hölderlin calls the blessed gods “without destiny.”
The idea of destiny requires a lived experience and not that of the scientist, it requires a force of vision and not calculation, depth not intellectualism.
What we call destiny comes out of men, it does not enter them from outside.
Rainer Maria Rilke
Whoever leaves their destiny without returning will see their soul dead.
December 6, 2001*
These are spoken words, which were then written. It remains like a hesitation in form, which dissolves when reading or listening. I love writing almost as much as I hate speaking. And yet Max Weber’s phrase — “I was born for the platform and for the newspapers” — has always intrigued me. Every political thinker is trapped within this paradox. Their writing is speech so as to act. Two eyes open to their own time: one that pays attention to the logic of discourse, the other attentive to the consequences of words. Conviction and responsibility in divergent accord.
Everything lies in finding the right tone for the theme from the very beginning. The first chords are decisive. The theme emerges, which then guides the composition. Politics and Destiny: two capital letters, two nouns, an equal relationship, a conflict on the field, and there is no solution, neither definitive nor temporary. A theme between heaven and earth: that’s how I see it, that’s how I develop it. Rach 3, as they say in the film Shine, Rachmaninoff’s third piano concerto and orchestra, in D minor, 1909, the manuscript symbolically completed in the crossing from Europe to America. The soloist’s part is politics, the orchestra is destiny. Just as the piano directs the orchestra, so politics guides history. In the finale, in breve, the last word belongs to the piano, politics has conquered history, has dragged it to fulfillment, not in itself but of itself. Difficult execution, complex score. The beginning of the twentieth century: there are no longer just harmonies. On the contrary, only contrasts. I sense it. Our theme is within a broader container: crisis and critique of modern politics, the leitmotif of the long Sienese permanence. Stabilitas loci - stabilitas rei.
Even “politics and destiny” is expressed in terms of politics and modern history. But with a doubt, which I want to make explicit here, in a sort of ironic announcement. The choice of the boundaries of modernity, the ancient decision for us to dwell in the modern with our thoughts, is now consummated. It is now rather a matter, due to necessitated contingencies, of escaping the trap of the Jetztzeit, with a predisposition for the longue durée. Not because it has more value, but because in it, in this time of damnatio memoriae, there is an added convenience. The laws behind the movement of politics appear more eternal than modern. Politics is constitutive of great philosophy, from Plato to Hegel, and through this expresses the Stimmung of a search. Politics does not add as a part to the philosophical system, but rather the latter begins from there or the rest of thought clusters there. How human beings hold together in society, “how” rather than “why”: this is the problem. From Thucydides to Hobbes, from the Bhagavadgita to the Old Testament, from Paul to Luther, from Kant to Weber. And yet, we have been overwhelmed by the passion for the modern: in love, since melancholic youth, with the verses of Rimbaud: "il faut être absolument moderne [one must be absolutely modern]"1. This was the battlefield. Here, one had to arm oneself with thought. The reason for one’s ideas must always be founded in the clash with one’s own time.
The category of destiny intervenes to complicate the picture. A word within me, returning, evoking. I have tried to understand why. Instead of saying politics and destiny, one could say politics as destiny. The latter is the title of a dear book from the late 1970s, which collected two “Schmittian” texts by Karl Löwith and Salvatore Valitutti2. A vocation for politics, an original calling. In this sense, fatum, μοῖρα. But the discourse would take a biographical turn. I quickly say no. I maintain “politics and destiny.” And this, not as ἀναγκαία τύχη3, an inescapable fate, necessitated fate, but as Schicksal, a Hegelian concept, rather young-Hegelian, from the romantic and mystical Hegel, according to Della Volpe–or revolutionary and theologian, according to Dilthey–which emerged from the Jugendschriften written between 1790 and 1800, as we have known them in the editions of Nohl (1907) and Hoffmeister (1936). Historical theology, Troeltsch will say. A definition we can confirm even considering only the fragment Freiheit und Schicksal, composed at the conclusion to this period between Frankfurt and Jena (1799 according to Rosenzweig; 1800 according to Haering)–which today is always to be cited with the incipit “Der immer sich vergrössernde Widerspruch [the ever-increasing contradiction].” Politics and destiny here become the same thing as freedom and destiny. Hence the declination of politics as freedom from history, which is also conditioned, determined, necessitated by history, but does not submit or surrender to this determinism and conditioning. Politics does not reflect, but produces; it does not describe but creates, and it produces and creates within the iron cage of history, which is and has been. This is the greatness, I would say, the beauty of politics, when it rises, when it is forced to rise, to the grandeur of history.
Hyppolite reads “destiny” in Hegel as an irrational concept, derived from a tragic conception, which belonged to Hölderlin and will belong to Nietzsche. It is the dark background behind the light of Greece. Confirming Dilthey’s thought, according to which Hegel penetrated the historical world from the side of religion, I prefer to grasp the origin of the concept of destiny in Hegel as a theological politician. Let us take that work which is at the center of the “crisis” in Frankfurt, elaborated, according to Nohl, between winter 1798 and summer 1799, “The Spirit of Christianity and its Fate [Schicksal].” Splendid pages:
The fate of Jesus was to suffer for the destiny of his nation: either to make it his own and endure the necessity, share the enjoyment and unify his spirit with that of his nation, but thus sacrifice his own beauty and his union with the divine; or to reject the destiny of his people but preserve within himself his undeveloped and unenjoyed life [...]. Jesus chose the second destiny, the separation between his nature and the world [...]. But the more deeply he felt this separation, the less he could bear it calmly, and his activity was the courageous reaction of his nature to the world: his battle was pure and elevated because he knew fate in all its breadth and opposed it [...]. The existence of Jesus was therefore a separation from the world and a flight from it towards heaven [...]; but in part, it was also the realization of the divine and therefore a battle against fate.
With an addition, full of theoretical-historical consequences, which we cannot pursue here because it would take us far away: “except for the part of fate that immediately appeared as the State”4. Politics, as a residual form in the harsh fate of power, is difficult to separate from itself without naively relying on the ineffectiveness of action. But that is a topic for another time.
Here, instead, a crucial point. Either… or: the dichotomous logic that belongs to Hegel the theologian, which was that of Machiavelli the politician. The latter was recalled by Althusser. Young Hegel reads Machiavelli: “Germany is no longer a State,” from The Constitution of Germany, just as Italy was not yet. Once again, politics as the foundation of the modern, as the genealogy of philosophy, as the logic of thought, the Organon of being in the world as a subject. An active reading of the modern social condition, that is, of an objectivity as destiny. Without subordination, but without resignation. In the rejection of both-and, in the assumption of either-or, lies the greatness and beauty of political action and thought: whatever the cost, and therefore in a tragic feeling always inscribed within the impassable boundary of Kultur, a higher human civilization than the current barbaric state of affairs. Dialectic of positive and negative, of yes and no, with positions that interchange between friend and enemy, without fixed positions, being either one or the other, either yes or no, depending on the needs of the era, seen from only one side. Without synthesis, without reconciliation. There can be mediation, tactics, but not conciliation, strategy. It is the hallmark, the style, of our acting/thinking, happiness, comfort, one might say in the feminine, of being in the world like this, even in the discomfort of being in this world.
But let’s return to Freiheit und Schicksal, in the translation by Luporini:
The state of man, which time has driven into an inner world, can be either only a perpetual death, or, if nature impels him towards life, it can only be a striving to overcome the negativity of the existing world […]. His suffering is linked to the consciousness of limits, because of which he despises life as it would be allowed to him; he wants his own suffering, whereas the suffering of the man who does not reflect on his own destiny is without will, since he honors the negative.5
“The man who does not reflect on his own destiny”: in recent times, new dark times, among a small circle of old friends, we have begun to say homo democraticus, to mark the ultimate degree of depoliticization of homo oeconomicus. We have begun to say without listening, as it is so difficult for the intellectual common sense of the masses to realize that the glorious inhabitant of the West has in fact remained “without will,” democratically honoring the negative. Because the limits (die Schranken), in the form of their legal and institutional, economic and technological existence, are considered invincible, and on this basis their own determinations and contradictions are considered absolute, therefore it is a matter of sacrificing oneself and others to them. The alternative here is the assumption of the entire dialectic as an unresolved and insoluble conflict: on one hand, fate, what is, determinateness, limit, on the other hand, what? Here then comes a poetic word, which is also a philosophical concept, a disposition of the free spirit characteristic of that revolutionary age that goes from Sturm und Drang to early Romanticism: Begeisterung. Enthusiasm? It seems insufficient as a translation. The Geist is missing. Where is the ascent, the elevation, and therefore the longing of the spirit to free itself from the conditionedness of contingency? Where is what the Greeks called “divine inspiration” or divination, which Plato saw realized, consumed, and in any case passing away, only in dreams or madness? Hyperions Schicksalslied, 1799, Hölderlin: "But it is not given to us / to rest in one place / the sorrowful mortals vanish and fall / from one hour to another / blindly / like water from rock to rock / in the years / down into the Unknown”6. Brahms’ op. 54, Schicksalslied, accompanies us in this reading. But already in Stift (1793) - the hope of revolution still open - we find Das Schicksal, with the epigraph from Aeschylus “the wise worship fate,” contradicted by Hercules’ victory over fate itself, and yet die Not, necessity, die grosse Meisterin, and at the same time “sacred storm,” which “descends like God’s lightning,” stopped by the struggle of the giants: “In the storm, the most sacred of all / let the wall of my prison collapse / and let my spirit advance / sovereign / free / in the unknown land”7 because, as in Die Titanen: “Even the lofty must feel among mortals”8.
Delirio y destino, María Zambrano will say later, in our beloved twentieth century. Delusions, like “the deception of a deceitful dream,” on which, however, rests that Adsum, that “yes, I am here, yes, I am here”9.
And what she saw were white and motionless clouds, gigantic writing in the sky of a life that projected itself, that all human beings projected, but then, seeing it discharge as rain above their heads, called it destiny and even history.
In the seventeenth century, a century in some ways so close to the twentieth century, Baltasar Gracián mysteriously declaimed the oracle of raison d’État: “the body of history,” “the soul of politics”10.
Luporini comments on Begeisterung: “it always means something that belongs to the character of the free man, the true man, that is, the man of nature, not mortified and bent and distorted by unhappy times […]. It always indicates, in some way, a celebration of the freedom of the spirit”11. Cassirer put it, in his own way, in an objective-symbolic manner. In a speech in 1929, “The Idea of the Republican Constitution,” he quoted Goethe’s saying: “The best thing we have from history is the enthusiasm it ignites”12. This is the Goethe who had the cannons of Valmy in front of his eyes. But here there is an important passage. Hegel says: “the enthusiasm of a bound individual,” of a bound individual13. “Bound,” Luporini clarifies, “evidently, to fate itself, and to one’s own determined, historical situation: to that situation from which there is no escape; in the face of which it is vain and illusory to seek oblivion; in relation to which it is mortal to close oneself off and separate oneself”14. “Situation” is a twentieth-century term for “fate.” One of the rediscoveries of recent years in Siena has been the reading, together with today’s boys and girls, of that speech on the culture of crisis that young Luporini brings from Germany to Italy. But the commentary on the Hegelian text continued as follows: “‘The enthusiasm of a bound individual’ is like a formidable intoxication with which one deludes oneself into doing violence to one’s own destiny […]. ‘Fearful moment,’ says Hegel, for the one who perpetrates this violence, ‘in which he loses himself’”15. It is in this case that destiny not only remains what it is, but becomes what you are. And thus, those that Hegel calls “the determinations not forgotten, not become dead” triumph16.
Here is the passage: it is the essence of determinateness, the contrast that binds you and the confrontation that obliges you. You must measure yourself. It is fate that keeps you alive, and yet you must make it die: if you want to act/think as a free spirit. The “situation” is to be crossed and forgotten, to be thrown behind, in order to rise above and beyond what is there. I am reminded of a prophetic thought by Simone Weil, in La pesanteur et la grâce: “The great mistake of the Marxists and of the entire 19th century was to believe that by walking straight ahead one climbs high”17. The 20th century corrected the mistake: not, as everyone thinks, in excess, but rather in deficiency. There is always an aura of mystery surrounding the meaning of great events. Let us be guided by the wonderful words that almost conclude The Spirit of Christianity and its Destiny: “To every visionary who fantasizes only about himself, death is welcome; but he who dreams of the realization of a great plan can only leave the scene where it was to be realized with pain. Jesus died with the trust that his plan would not be lost”18. In the misery of contemporary political language, I seek other ways of saying great things. And so I read passion and death, and also waiting, hope, and the will for the resurrection of a revolutionary spirit.
At this point, the discourse foresees a logical grafting of the philosophical confrontation of the 20th century. I mention it superficially, and I leave out the substance, because the technicality of the matter would take over and overload an attention that I would like to remain vigilant on the path that is more congenial to me, that of a sort of “modern classicism.” I am talking about the passage through the difficult concept of Geschick in Heidegger, as corresponding/contrasting with Hegelian Schicksal. The Heideggerian “destiny” as the authentic decision of man encompasses our entire past century. All the questions - what is philosophy, what is history, what does it mean to think, what does it mean to do - they pass by. Only a few references. Here is Dasein in the face of the nakedness of its destiny. “With this term we designate the original historicizing of Dasein that takes place in authentic decision, historicizing in which Dasein, free for its death, is transmitted in an inherited and yet chosen possibility”19. Can such a possibility be simultaneously inherited and chosen? Yes, it can be. In the twentieth century, it was, for individuals and collectivities, women and men, classes and states. Happy, even in tragedy, is the one who could live that possibility, who could measure themselves, on equal terms, with their own destiny. For those who did not live the twentieth century, there is little or nothing to do in the world, to change it. Hence, the daily recommendation to my students: think about that history that you could not live, if you want to be free in and from the present.
We call destiny the self-transmission that anticipates and decides in the There of the moment. Here also finds its foundation the common destiny, that is, the historicizing of the Being in being-with others. The common destiny, laden with individual destiny, can, in repetition, thaw in its connection with the received heritage20.
The idea of “common destiny” could only be thought and lived in the greatness of the just-passed century, and it could be extinguished before and criminalized later, well before its end, only by its small epigones. Heidegger could write, in fact, in 1946, at the conclusion of the second act of the European and world civil wars, the decisive word on the matter:
Man is rather thrown, by being itself, into the truth of being, so that, thus existing, he guards the truth of being, so that in the light of being, the being appears as that being which it is. Whether and how it appears, whether and how God and the gods, history and nature, enter into the clearing [Lichtung] of being, present themselves and withdraw, it is not for man to decide. The advent of the being rests in the destiny of being. The problem remains for man to find the destination suitable [schicklicke] to its essence, which corresponds to this destiny [Geschick].
Between Bestimmung and Geschick, between destination and destiny, there is the free field of political decision, because politics is decision, between what is given to you and what you can do, between what you are called to and to which you know you must jointly respond [con-rispondere]. At least for those who have the Machiavellian “fortune” to act in a state of exception, because in the normal state, despite all your cultivated “virtues,” politics is something else and nothing at the same time, as one can easily show from the pit of our times.
Let us reason then about that mysterious Hegelian phrase: “reflection on one’s own destiny.” The true dichotomy, the true entweder/oder, in politics, is not between Schicksal and Begeisterung, between the course of history and the destiny of the spirit. It is rather precisely between those who have and those who do not have reflection on their own destiny. “Own destiny”: what does it mean? What is my own destiny? That is the original question. And here is the outline of a non-provisional answer. “Own destiny,” for me, is that of my part, that of the part to which I belong, its historical determinateness, its situation in the world, and therefore its now-time with which I measure myself daily, its reasons which are also mine, its needs which are also mine. Adsum, precisely. I am there, that is what I am. And yet - here is the difficult thing to understand - there, in this decision of belonging, there is an extraordinary exercise of freedom. Greater freedom, compared to those lesser freedoms granted by enlightened political systems. because it transcends, that is the right word, the limit imposed by that princely figure of bourgeois modernity, which is the individual so-called sovereign but so-made subordinate. If anything, here one must recognize the character, “the strength of character,” spoken of by Hillman21.
Here we come to the point. My condition is not that of a political thinker. It is that of a thinking politician. A reversal, without recognition. And indeed, I assure you, a very uncomfortable posture, not at all natural, and therefore in continuous need of radical maintenance exercises. What do you think my journeys into the metapolitical are if not this? Because when “time drives a philosopher into an inner world,” good things can come out of it: see from the young to the old Hegel. But when time drives a politician into an inner world, it’s just a big mess. Over the years, over the decades, it has happened to us, as with Schmitt in Ex Captivitate Salus, to practice a thought-out politics, except for a few hours of air, “in the immense vastness of a narrow cell”22. And yet, without ever wanting to make history, let alone theory, “written by the defeated.” This is because the point of view that has been represented has never been subordinate. And because this is what we have been fortunate enough to learn from the beginning. Behind us was the long, eternal history of the subaltern classes. But, precisely, behind us. Ahead, there was the task of organizing ourselves as a ruling class, hegemonically dominant. This is what the great school of the working class told us.
The part I was talking about, we can now name it. And here is the specificity of a position: not belonging to a current of thought, not even Marxism. Marxism comes later. Rather, it is belonging to a piece of the social world. Workers’ movement: that’s the name. Class plus organization, also here in its long history and in its determined practice. A daily reference for the existence, that’s the right word, of intellectual work. I believe I have never written a line without having in mind, there and now, the needs, interests, motivations, aspirations of that world of modern work, as a universe of civilization, alternative to everything that is. I looked around and back, with every twist of thought, with every uphill stretch, to see if I was well within that territory, if I hadn’t lost contact with the group, to understand if I was responding to that question, not of liberation but of revolution, or of liberation through the forms of revolution. Not an ethical instance but political action: not protest, not contestation, not revolt, but overturning of power relations, reversal, intellectually possessed and controlled, practically organized and built, elites that move the masses, using “the fox and the lion”, skill and strength. This was - here is the further specification - the workers’ movement in its declination, that is, in its organization, which it had in the communism of the twentieth century. Not the communism of philosophers, but the communism of workers: complete with a party form. It is difficult to say, and I know it is difficult to understand - especially today! - how much security, made of conviction and responsibility, how much calm and at the same time restless serenity, that feeling gave you, deep down, under your feet these roots. So strong is this approach that the miracle happens. Even when that reference seemed tragically to fall, this disposition of the soul remains with you, which you always find yourself comparing with the neuroses of the intellectual world that unfortunately surrounds you. Here it is: “I am that”, a filter, through which a biased point of view passes, even after the retreat, after the return to an ancient history of subordinate classes, following the failure of the modern project to become a dominant class. Your daily task, your spiritual cultivation, is to keep the filter clean, so that it can be said, as in The Gay Science: despite the fact that, even if we wanted to, we cannot in any way prevent “the era in which we live from casting its ‘actuality’ upon us […], we will do as we have always done: what has been cast upon us, we will welcome it down into our depths […] and we will become clear again”23.
Here, an interlude, in the manner of that Mahlerian use of kitsch, when he inserted in the folds of his complicated symphonic interweaving, between a despairing adagio and a majestic presto, popular tunes, Moravian peasant songs, marches for band. In reality, there is a passage that I was not able to say aloud, even though it was on the program. Modesty obscures speech where one touches the sacred of one’s own existence. Only the solitary shadow of writing succeeds in expressing the hidden of the authentic. There is a phrase from Workers and Capital, which I don’t feel like looking up now to see what page it’s on. I don’t know how it was read. I know that it contained, metaphorically, a very rare autobiographical reference. It said: “we don’t need to go towards the people, because we come from the people”24. When I say “roots,” the political-theoretical ones are in the workers of Turin, the historical-human ones are in the Roman workers. The meaning was this: the present workers’ struggles come from the distant tradition of the people, and I with them. Then there has been a passage of emancipation from this tradition. But the sign remains, in the depths of the soul because that tradition is the modernity of the people. It is not the Pasolinian archaic of the metropolitan peripheries. It is the wise irony of a popular urban center, like Belli. My true University: of thought and of life. I tried to transmit it, culturally mediating it in teaching, or rather in its negation. When my children went to elementary school, I would sometimes walk them to Nicolò Tommaseo, just before the Basilica of San Paolo. In the morning, we would walk along Via Ostiense, passing in front of the General Markets, bustling with work, shouts, commerce and effort. Someone, from atop a cart, would call out to the children: “ahò, saluteme a’ maestra” [dialect: ‘hey, say hi to the teacher for me’]. And I was happy, because I would tell myself: if they enter this school with this viaticum, they won’t get lost… They didn’t get lost… I would tell them: look, these are “our” people. Now that “our” people are almost gone, simple family memory comforts me, and it confirms to us that we are right simply because we come from there. A citation in passing. Unfortunately, certain references can only be made by those who have thought them and no one else. In With Our Backs to the Future, right at the beginning, one can read: but how, didn’t you notice, didn’t you listen to the new cry of Zarathustra with the announcement that “the people are dead”? This is the novum sub sole25. And this, even this, is the tragedy in today’s politics. The people, individuals, citizens, the masses, are what remains after the victorious passage, on a global level, of the processes of neutralization and depoliticization because why do you think there is populism? Because there is no longer a people.
On this point, a theoretical problem of great intensity and great difficulty has been grafted and has come to consciousness, slowly but also deeply. A problem that includes the historical theme of the encounter between the labor movement and modern politics. The labor movement has remade [redeclinato] in terms of strategy and tactics the strictly modern relationship between politics and contingency. A relationship to be rethought now, after the twentieth century. At its sunset, politics suffers in a crepuscular fashion from this illness: contingency from within consumes it. Politics has lost its relative freedom from the conjuncture, which was always a constitutive element of it. Contingency in politics has its permanence in the longue durée of modern history: from Machiavelli to Weber, and then, from here, fully unfolded, in the age of European and world civil wars. Machiavelli and Weber, between the sixteenth and twentieth centuries, “are” modern politics, with, never be afraid to remember it, Hobbes and Schmitt. Why is it so difficult to understand Machiavelli, Merleau-Ponty wondered? Because Machiavelli - he answered - unites the contingency of the world and the consciousness of man: therefore, something finite and determined with something infinite and absolute. Two things that do not go together, or only go together in conflict. Like in Marx: the historical contingency of capitalism and the class consciousness of the proletariat. As long as there has been a struggle between these two dimensions, there has been politics. Without this struggle, there is a crisis of politics. Machiavelli - it is an idea of Althusser - “is the first theorist of the conjuncture”26. Not because he thinks “about” the conjuncture, but because he thinks “in” the conjuncture, that is, in the concept of the aleatory single case. Strategically thinking politics in the conjuncture; thinking, in the aleatory case, what Miglio called “the regularities of politics”27: that’s the “absolutely modern” sense of political action.
For politics - Nietzsche said - “the grand style” is suitable. It is here that politics clashes with historical time, brought, invoked, to reproduce, sometimes with Miserabilismus, the always-equal, and that turns, viciously, from an anthropological point of view, in the circle of the eternal return. The contingent is not only the momentary situation, not only the task that you give yourself, that you are forced to give yourself, in that situation. It is also the irruption of the unforeseeable, the event that exceeds both the given and the objective. The excess more than the exception: what remains, free, beyond this damned normal state, this condition always the most unfavorable for those who want to change things. Who decides in the state of excess? How does the sovereignty of decision-making exercise itself here? The dark charm of politics is that you can never rationalize everything. It is never an exact science. Rather, it is a game of conjectures. And at the same time, neither art nor technique. Similar to the art of war, close to the techniques of governance, yet not the same thing: there is an inexplicably added something. What exceeds is not only outside, in history, it is inside, in motivation, in articulation, in the decision of political action. Both projectivity and pragmatism are disrupted by the mysterious weight of an unconscious that cannot be removed. I am not commenting on Weber’s phrase: the possible can only be achieved by always attempting the impossible. Not a trivial phrase, but trivialized by the conspicuous consumption made of it, by the most improbable pulpits. We live in the terrible era of the dictatorship of communication, where even the stroke of genius becomes an idea of common sense. In politics, the impossible lies in possibility itself. The soul of the impossible lies in the body of possibility. because not everything, ever, depends on you. When you act politically, you must know that destiny is not in your hands. Again, here, without any aestheticism, the tragic beauty of politics. But here, also, is the problem of the form of thought suitable for the “grand style” of politics.
In my study, in Ferentillo, next to a now yellowed old reproduction of El Lissitzky’s painting, With the Red Wedge Strike the Whites, I recently placed a large photograph of a work by Rodin, The Thinker. He worked on it in various versions from 1882 until the one in 1904, of which he wrote: “I conceived another thinker, a naked man, crouched on a rock on which his feet contract. Fists clenched to his teeth, he thinks. Fertile thought is slowly elaborated in his brain. He is not a dreamer. He is a creator”28. It’s true. I look and see not only the closed fist supporting the chin, but also the other closed fist resting on the knee. I have always been convinced that thinking politically on a grand scale can only be done with closed fists, and that acting well can only be done with open hands. It is exactly the same for political thought: it does not dream, but creates. It elaborates slowly. In the sense that Rilke could say that one understands nothing when young, one understands everything later, little by little, very slowly. Politics requires a mature style of thought, I would say senile. Dealing, on an equal footing, with destiny requires the greatest accumulation of one’s strength, the refined wisdom of one’s character, if one wants to sustain the contrast without yielding, without retreating. But if the thinker is this vigorous male body, then The Thought always with Rodin exhibits a dreamy female face. In The Man and His Thought, 189629, one sees a large rock - a friend saw a thought emerging from matter - and on this rock, behind, a small female figure, in front, a man, who almost depends on her. The idea has always crossed my mind of a thought - masculine - of politics - as feminine. Yes, because politics is a mother, it creates in the sense that it generates. Politics is birth of the unexpected and therefore of the unrecognized. The symbolic disorder of politics is the only rip capable of tearing the fabric of being, worked by history, for death. Even here, the 20th century docet. I don’t really think I managed to realize this idea. So far, perhaps, only a relation of difference, which tries to express itself best in political writing. But… it’s not over.
Strong thought, therefore, for the “grand style” of politics. A difficult and also uncomfortable frontier in these times, divided, sometimes and mostly unconsciously, between the violence of reason and the tenderness of the heart. One must take a position, even in solitude, with clarity regarding the method and with passion regarding ideas: taking it to the ultimate consequences, whatever the cost. That character, damned in memory today, called Bertolt Brecht, a true intellectual love of youth, wrote: “From the fact that we fight, no one has the right to conclude that we are not objective”30. And with respect to our adversaries, “it is not true that they are ‘right from their point of view’: the fault lies in their point of view. Perhaps it is inevitable that they are as they are. But it is not necessary that they be”31. In times of humanitarian wars - which, as Schmitt said, are the most inhumane wars - the request for consensus around the bourgeois-liberal, Enlightenment idea of tolerance returns punctually. Since this is everyone’s thought, I gladly leave it, respecting it, to all those who have cultivated it. Instead, I take on another need, which I feel is not collected, indeed, which I feel abandoned. It is the thankless work of criticizing dominant reason. Behind it, a long process of distancing oneself from the Lockean reasonableness of Christianity and the Kantian reasonableness of socialism. The communism of the 20th century - our Heimat - has also been this. It has perhaps been in crude forms that need to be refined, in tragic forms that need, so to speak, to be cathartic: and here lies our task. But it has also been this: self-criticism of alternative reason, democratic-progressive, and assumption of the irreducible, organization of the irrecuperable, in the ways and times of the present that is given to us.
At the beginning of a long essay, in La politica al tramonto [Politics at Sunset] you will find two epigraphs, one from Machiavelli and one from Taubes32. There was a third one, which inexplicably got skipped in the printing. I need to bring it up now. It was a verse by Hölderlin, from “To the Young Poets”: “lehrt und beschreibet nicht,” “do not describe, do not teach”33. In coherence with the thought-form we were discussing above, there has always been a search for a proper way to transmit it. Romano Guardini invited us to be not “teachers” but “masters.” The pre-modern and almost sacred figure — unthinkable in secularized modernity — expressed in the word “Meister.” Yet perhaps it is not a coincidence that Eckhart, the master par excellence, for whom Meister has assumed the role of a proper name, has been a red thread that has crossed various stages of research. The instinctive rejection was that of the meticulousness of the teacher. The students of Siena knew a non-demanding master, who during exams did not ask but listened. It is already a struggle to follow a course and undergo an exam, to aggravate the situation by weighing the disparity between those who know more and those who know less. During the discussion of the theses, the appropriate methodological, philological, and bibliographical notes were left to the examiner. While the traces of even a small discovery were being valued. For the girls and boys, this was the message: I don’t care what you know, I’m interested in who you are. Here is the master: to help, guide, orient, correct if necessary, the Nietzschean “become who you are.” Because I think this: either you are something, or you become nothing. And frankly, I have never thought that one can teach something to someone. Important, essential, is that “do not describe.” I am talking about political thought: which always has two dangers to flee. The first: to take the fact and treat it empirically as such, to passively assume facts as given, sovereign, legitimized by themselves, a source of legal obligation. A subordination to reality, literally impossible for me. Between the, let’s call it, Keynesian wisdom that “facts are stubborn” and the perhaps Blochian madness that would be “all the worse for the facts,” I choose the second. The other danger: to inscribe oneself in the horizon of the world of culture, considering oneself a link in the history of intellectuals, a transmitter of knowledge, writing book after book, descending from thought to thought: another form of subordination, this time to the science and knowledge of a few. For me writing, and this form of thought-writing that I lovingly cultivate, is a direct confrontation with history, where culture is mediation between word and idea, and books are weapons, weapons of critique, which you must learn to use well: make the target clear, straighten your aim, keep your eyes cold and your hands warm.
I do not underestimate the risks of this exposure of discourse. Autonomy from it is not enough, it tends to be dominant over it. Here arises the great problem that the twentieth century has left unresolved and that goes by the name of working-class culture. A theoretical problem that survives the death of the centrality of working-class politics. Culture in the sense of Kultur, civilty, not civilization. I prefer this expression today to the one that caused scandal, of “working-class science,” or even “working-class point of view.” There was in those expressions a kernel of truth, very much of the 1960s. And it was not something excessive, if anything, it was insufficient. The working class, which did not succeed, lacked an effectively offensive tool. There was, in some way, a Weltanschauung. There was, in no way, another alternative political theology, capable of interacting, as well as conflicting, with the Kultur of the adversary. There has been, in an absolute sense, a deficiency in coming to terms with the great bourgeois tradition, a complex work of critique of the operative and disciplining parts - humanism, rationalism, enlightenment, idealism, historicism, positivism. There has been a disenchanted operation of appropriation of the exceeding and disordering parts - libertinism, romanticism, irrationalism, nihilism, cultures of crisis, historical avant-gardes. I will speak elsewhere of the happiness of that stellar encounter, which took place within operaismo, with this self-critical constellation of the bourgeois spirit. I will say here the fact that, officially, in representation, and in the representation of the workers’ interest, the exact opposite happened. We enrolled ourselves in the continuity of a modernity that made an apology for itself; we acquired, without criticism, all its ideological apparatus; we privileged the ordinal character and the disciplining function of bourgeois institutions; we remained subaltern to capitalist interest, manifest in the forms of modernization, as neutralization and depoliticization of conflicts. What we are witnessing today is nothing more than the conclusion, moreover unconscious, of this bad path. The workers’ movement has become extinct, without producing a new world horizon, and a future “other” than what miserably exists. The encounter between modern politics and the working class – the only eschatological figure capable of realizing a modern principle of hope – has fallen prematurely, without leaving successors, without even hinting at heirs. It is an immense tragedy, a true and proper Actus tragicus: a political pain, which resonates with Bach’s “Es ist der alte Bund: Mensch, du musst sterben [it is the old covenant: Man, you must die]”. A tragic event, not only for the part that wanted to free itself in this way, but for the rest of humanity that had to be liberated in this way. This harsh realization of a historical defeat explains the tone of the last phase of thought. I find this tone expressed best in the unending Melodie, obsessively repeated, until absolute internalization, of compositions like Verklärte Nacht, by the young Schoenberg, and like Metamorphosen, by the old Richard Strauss, two works that symbolically open and close the first part, the great part, of the twentieth century. Or perhaps the form equal to the thing lies in that all-twentieth-century expression that is the composition for voice and orchestra. The daily soundtrack, which accompanies the writing, is given by the Vier Letzte Lieder and by the fourth or fifth, depending on the performance, but here Elisabeth Schwarzkopf is needed, of the Fünf Lieder nach Rückert, the one that sings: “I am lost to the world”. Those Rückert-Lieder which, together with the two Wunderhornlieder of 1899-1901, were called, after Mahler’s death, Lieder aus letzter Zeit [songs from the previous time]34. Strauss and Mahler, the “great contemporary” and the “great non-contemporary” shake hands. And this also explains the why and how of that “virtuoso” arc drawn in the Sienese university courses: from Machiavelli, in the first year of the seventies, to Nietzsche, in the last year of the nineties. Always in desperate search for the unspeakable, the unpronounceable, the unsayable, of modern politics.
At this point, two thoughts carrying such doubt as to become potential creators of new thought. First: perhaps the working class had too short a time of historical existence to produce everything that we have willingly loaded onto its shoulders. No, the doubt is not whether that was the subject to focus on. It was. But something unexpected happened. The working class, becoming the labor movement, chose politics and therefore first inhabited a medium interval of time, then, with an acceleration imposed by circumstances, became unable to exceed the smallest temporal horizons. The longue durée of history, with its relentless power, stretched out its arm and brought it down. Like every revolutionary, in the manner of the mathematician Galois, who died very young in a duel suffered more than desired, Lenin understood that “he did not have time”. Second: perhaps the working class did not need a Marx, but another Hegel. Young Marx hinted at this. Or perhaps it needed that Hegelian Jesus, who gave a loud voice to those who are below. I do not discard the scientific analysis - the critique of political economy - when it serves, as in Marx, to give weapons to the proletariat in struggle. But alongside it, a prophetic vision was needed, not so much about the after and beyond of capitalism, but about its own destiny, which was not one of catastrophic collapse but of inhuman development, not of proletarianization but of bourgeoisification, not of growing misery but alienating well-being, absolute freedom for the few and democratic servitude for the many.
Here, all our insufficiencies and inadequacies and incapacity to understand and act, the insurmountable limits of an intellectual journey like the one described. We have not given what was necessary. And for my part, I still feel indebted. The reasons are largely within us. But outside of us, it is true that there has been the “time of poverty,” intellectual, moral, existential. What the high-bourgeois genius of Goethe saw on the distant horizon of his world, “the era of ease and vulgarity”, has arrived. Today we experience it in its full glittering development. But, highs and lows, apparent falls and fake exits, it has accompanied us from the beginning until now. The great history has always been behind us, already set. Thinking politically has been the gesture of pulling oneself up by the hair like Baron Munchausen. Tearing great thoughts from a lesser era is more than a vain effort of Sisyphus. We have tried, with Camus, to imagine “Sisyphus happy.” And, laughing at the era and ourselves, we have not become so melancholic. But the paradox that still burns in the flesh of the soul says this: that this was a thought of and for the state of exception – and instead we have had to live through a process of normalization. We must seek this something that has not worked for us in the surroundings of the problem as formulated.
For today something else happens. This happening, in the life of thought, must be accepted with a willing sign of inner hospitality. The more the ordering normality of the world advances, the more the exceptionality, the excessiveness, of thought is exacerbated. This singular intellectual event seems at this point to lead, I no longer know if temporarily, to an irreconcilability of thought with the world. The more I think about it, the more I am convinced that only in the geopolitical age of civil and world wars was the social and institutional social-democratic compromise possible. The more I look, the more I see that this latest capitalism, just as it happened with the last socialism, is irreformable. The second half of the twentieth century has brought about a subtle and profound turning point in the management of ongoing history. Here too, I must say that only the feminist revolution has grasped its significance to the point of re-directing it, as one should do, in its own favor. On other fronts, nothing has been understood, and therefore everything has merely been adapted to. In fact, there has been a silent and not thunderous end to reconciliation: not the death of philosophy, much less the end of history, but the extinguishing of dialectic as the method of conciliatory reason. Synthesis of opposites no longer exists. It is not understood that the figure of the “great war” was precisely the form of this synthesis. Today’s local wars are internal contradictions within the Sovereign. No, ideological confrontation has not given way to a clash of civilizations, but only to a settling of scores within the field of the victors. The jus publicum europaeum - contrary to what Schmitt thought - had been restored, after the two great wars, and had functioned throughout the time of the world’s division into two power blocs: the “war” between capitalism and socialism was kept “in form”. It fell again afterwards, with the reunification of the globe under a single absolute power, which still needs justum bellum and no longer needs the Nomos of the earth.
However, I am mainly interested in saying something else here. That overcoming of synthesis, that operation of destroying conciliatory reason, had behind it a theological-political tradition that we in the workers’ movement have had the fault of frequenting too little. Pascal, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, and from there the entire twentieth century of crisis, are the heritage of all the forces that conflict with “what is” in the current structure of the world. Historically oriented Marxism has paid a much greater debt, that of subscribing to the form of a conciliatory action, which has not led to any subjective transformation of things. This turn in discourse allows me to pose the real problem. Just as conflict is irreconcilable, so is thinking with doing. Here, reflected upon at length: on the reason for this immense difficulty, this literal impossibility of political thought to become history, of the thinking of politics to become concrete action. It is not a mistake, it is just useless to consider it as an eternal problem. It is better to place it in the contingency of history. The problem we have experienced, over the years, over the decades, as “lived thought”. And those who know how to read find it expressed in the body of writing. It’s all here in the “political search”.
The fact, this stubborn fact, that we must deal with, is that the twentieth century entirely and nihilistically deconstructed any form of philosophy of praxis. Here is the original foundation of the crisis of militant Marxism, of the thinking working class movement, and with them of modern politics. A comprehensive crisis that engages us in an impossible task: a reconstruction of the foundations. Central to this is the research direction of a new anthropology: the great theoretical void that exists in the tradition of working-class culture. An unassimilated residue, and unassimilable, by the history of the modern, which had spoken of this and was founded upon it, from market economists to state politicians, and then, with different conceptions and different solutions, from liberalisms to totalitarianisms. The critique of political democracy itself must now be based on a critique of the idea and practice of the human being that it presupposes. Here, once again, feminist research has said more, much more, in taking on this problem and has, only in part, begun to fill this void. The thought of difference is the only one that has intervened in the crisis of politics with substitute categories. It seems to me that, as far as the critique of dominant bourgeois ideology is concerned, if there has been a process of male deconstruction, there is also, albeit with uncertain outcomes, a process of female construction underway. We need to reflect together on what we want to result from this. My problems lie there, caught between tradition and revolution: but caught, here is the novelty, with new connections, with unprecedented obligations and in conditions of unwanted minority. What place is there for the freedom of political decision within the iron cage of the “eternal return”? How can one decide on the rupture of history if the ever-same is destined to return? What should be done with politics within a non-progressive conception of history? Accelerate, contain, delay? Oppose with force, in the Western way, to reject what you do not accept? Or in the Eastern way, yield to bring down those who oppose you through their own impulse? I look back and see in the phase of operaismo perhaps an addition of eschaton, corrected in the phase of autonomy of the political with an addition of katechon. But I know the incommunicability of the cipher of these discourses, and I leave it here. Today I feel, partly I suffer, without doing much to avoid it, the temptation, which I recognize as masculine, of an apocalyptic outcome. Not fear but hope of the Apocalypse. I am comforted by a line of friendship, personal or intellectual, with anomalous characters who have disappeared, Sergio Quinzio, Jacob Taubes. I like to paraphrase a phrase of the latter: anyone who believes they can think politically without considering the sense of the end is weak-minded. I confess that, at this point, faced with the current state of the world, I am more interested in the prophecy of the end than in the utopia of a beginning. Rather than being neurotically precursors, one can choose to be serenely epigones. It has already been said, and this was also a winning move of destiny against the choice of being totus politicus: not Prometheus but Epimetheus. It doesn’t matter: it’s fine like this.
It is time to conclude an intervention that could continue to wander indefinitely, in the manner of the Benjaminian flâneur. After all, the beloved Benjamin said, more or less, that getting lost in a city is an art. Getting lost in the polis, in the res publica, in the Staat, in the Partei is also an art. We have abundantly done so throughout our lives. In conclusion, I don’t want to say: I have a dream. I don’t like the phrase, not because of the one who said it, but because of those who have repeated it. Rather: I have a desire. Desire is a more beautiful word than dream. Here, I would not like to become an old sage. Senile wisdom is like youthful moderation: something odious. If, after seeing so much and thinking so much, one ends up becoming, well, good, just, equanimous, tolerant, and reasonable, and at peace with the fanfare of good feelings, that is, if one ends up becoming narrow-minded, frankly, my smile fades and sadness rises. In the thirty years of work, as an immigrant in a foreign land, that I have spent in the academic institution, I have been comforted by the daily dialogue with the successive generations of girls and boys. There was a thread that connected the exchange of experiences, knowledge, feelings, of reasoning. Never proclaimed, rather argued, sometimes with that “storming heaven” characteristic of thinking, sometimes with the “honest dissimulation” characteristic of action. I like to read that space of “thoughtful thinking”35, the realm of spiritual freedom, which Warburg longed for, according to what Cassirer tells us. The thread said: “rebelling is right.” I have always recommended weaving this thread subtly, that is, realistically, nourishing it with skill as well as strength, because one must never let oneself be defeated once and for all. One can be generous on the sole condition of not being naïve. Rebelling is right: but it must be done well, knowing how to do it well, learning to know how to do it well, and this is the task of a lifetime. And so: armed with memory, masters of the past, rulers of the present, and… disillusioned about the future.
I conclude with an incipit: the beginning, of, I don’t know if the greatest, certainly the most beautiful, for me, among the books of the Nineteenth Century, The Man Without Qualities. It is the first paragraph, “From which, exceptionally, nothing is derived”36. Musil tells the story: there was low barometric pressure over the Atlantic, high pressure over Russia, the isotherms and isotheres intersected, the temperature was average for the year, the water vapor in the air was high, but the humidity was low. In short, “it was a beautiful day in August of the year 1913”37. And so, after this convoluted intervention, after this complicated intervention, on this beautiful winter day at the beginning of the millennium, in short, dear comrades, dear sisters and brothers, I present a scene from that symbolic miracle of the twentieth century that is cinema. Once Upon a Time in America: Robert De Niro returns to the places of his childhood/youth, after a long exile; he meets a friend, alone and loyal, they talk, they listen to each other in an empty bar. When he is about to leave through a door, the friend asks him the question: What have you done all these years? De Niro turns around, with his splendid face carved by the irony of defeat: I went to bed early. That’s the scene. You who call me to the point: Mario, what will you do in the coming years? I turn around and say: …I will go to bed early38.
- A. Rimbaud, Une saison en enfer (1873), in Id., Poésies. Une saison en enfer. Illuminations, Paris, Gallimard, 1984, p. 152.
- K. Löwith and S. Valitutti, La politica come destino, Rome, Bulzoni Editore, 1978.
- Sophocles, Electra, 48.
- Ibidem, p. 443.
- G.W.F Hegel, Freedom and Destiny (1799-1800), in C. Luporini, A Youthful Political Fragment by G.W.F. Hegel, in Id., Old and New Philosophers. Scheler, Hegel, Kant, Fichte, Rome, Editori Riuniti, 1981, p. 59.
- F. Hölderlin, Canto di Iperione e del destino, in Id., Le liriche, a cura di E. Mandruzzato, Milano, Adelphi, 1993, p. 253.
- Hölderlin, Il destino, in Id., Le liriche, cit., pp. 155, 157.
- Hölderlin, Die Titanen, in Id., Le liriche, cit., p. 728.
- See M. Zambrano, Delirio e destino (1989), translated by R. Prezzo, Milano, Cortina, 2000, p. 26.
- B. Gracián, Il politico don Fernando il cattolico (1640), translated by V. Dini, Napoli, Bibliopolis, 2003, p. 47.
- C. Luporini, Un frammento politico giovanile di G.W.F. Hegel. Notizia e commento, cit., p. 100.
- Goethe citato in E. Cassirer, L’idea della Costituzione repubblicana, in A. Warburg e E. Cassirer, Il mondo di ieri. Lettere, traduzione di M. Ghelardi, Torino, Aragno, 2002, p. 189.
- Hegel, Freiheit und Schicksal, in Luporini, Un frammento politico giovanile di G.W.F. Hegel, cit., p. 60.
- Luporini, Un frammento politico giovanile di G.W.F. Hegel, cit., p. 99.
- Ibidem, pp. 100-101.
- Ibidem, p. 101.
- S. Weil, Social Harmony, in Id., Shadow and Grace (1940-1942), translated by F. Fortini, Milan, Bompiani, 2002, p. 309.
- Hegel, Youthful Theological Writings, cit., p. 445.
- M. Heidegger, Being and Time (1927), translated by P. Chiodi, Milan, Longanesi, 1976, p. 460.
- Ibidem, pp. 462-463.
- See J. Hillman, The Force of Character: The Life and Work of Theodore Roosevelt (1999), translated by A. Bottini, Milan, Adelphi, 2009.
- C. Schmitt, Ex captivitate salus. Experiences of the years 1945-47, translated by C. Mainoldi, Milan, Adelphi, 1987, p. 81.
- F. Nietzsche, The Gay Science (1882), translated by F. Masini and M. Montinari, in Id., Works, vol. V, tome II, Milan, Adelphi, 1991, p. 303.
- M. Tronti, Workers and Capital (1966), Turin, Einaudi, 1971, p. 245.
- See M. Tronti, Con le spalle al futuro. Per un altro dizionario politico, Rome, Editori Riuniti, 1992, p. XIV.
- L. Althusser, Machiavelli e noi, Rome, Manifestolibri, 1999, p. 36.
- Cf. G. Miglio, Le regolarità della politica, Milan, Giuffrè, 1988.
- M. Adam, Le Penseur, Gil Blas, July 7, 1904, cited in C. Judrin, Dante and Rodin, in Rodin and Italy, exhibition catalog, Rome, De Luca Art Publishers, 2001, p. 89.
- Ibidem, pp. 44-45.
- B. Brecht, Notes on “Mother,” in Id., Theater, vol. 1, edited by E. Castellani, Turin, Einaudi, 1971, p. 903.
- Ibidem, p. 904.
- See M. Tronti, “Politics at Sunset,” Turin, Einaudi, 1998, p. 5 [see below p. 499].
- Hölderlin, “To the Young Poets,” in Id., The Lyrics, cit., p. 407.
- Q. principe, Mahler. La musica tra Eros e Thanatos, Milan, Bompiani, 2002, p. 871.
- E. Cassirer, “In memory of Aby Warburg”, in Warburg and Cassirer, The World of Yesterday, cit., p. 117.
- R. Musil, The Man Without Qualities (1930-1942), translated by A. Rho, G. Benedetti, and L. Castoldi, Turin, Einaudi, 1996, p. 5.
- [This ending was published many years later, in 2006. In the first version, it was not there, and many criticized me because they thought the other one was better. This one ended with this thing about De Niro, while the other one said: “expect anything from me.” Five years later, something had changed, there was a transition… this last one is more pessimistic (Tronti, conversation with the authors, Ferentillo, August 31, 2014)].
- This is the text of a Lectio magistralis given by Mario Tronti on the occasion of leaving the University of Siena on December 6, 2001, published with some variations (see note 38) in Mario Tronti, Politica e destino, Rome, Sossella, 2006, pp. 11-29.