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Response to Review no. 385

I would like to thank the editors of Reviews in History for commissioning a piece on my book. I am very grateful to Carl Levy for writing a review of Italy’s Social Revolution: Charity and Welfare from Liberalism to Fascism. He is to be especially commended as it is a lengthy book.

I wanted to take the opportunity to respond briefly to two points raised in Dr Levy’s welcome and thoughtful review. Firstly, Dr Levy refers to a passage in my preface in which I state

But those who are seeking an abstract generalization of the welfare state all’Italiana will be disappointed by this book. On the whole, I have tried to avoid discussing the numerous ‘typologies’ of the welfare state that, bafflingly to me, fascinate sociologists so much. I certainly have not been in the slightest bit interested in devising my own ‘ideal type’ of the Italian welfare state.

Dr. Levy takes issue with this stance, but argues that I am to be ‘forgiven’ for my ‘historian’s bewilderment at parallel sociological and political science universes’. An important methodological principle is at stake here, so I will respond to this point.

Those of you who are unfamiliar with the vast literature on the so-called ‘welfare state’ might be surprised to know that so much of it is synthetic and theory-driven because it is written by social and political scientists. I have nothing against these disciplines. Indeed, the best of work in these fields can help focus thinking and questioning about the past. And I am a very theoretically-minded historian, as Dr Levy has suggested in his review. But the disciplinary boundaries are very visible to me, as someone who considers the aim of inter-disciplinarity a very worthwhile endeavour. Social and political scientists are motivated by different methodological imperatives to historians. In recent decades, it seems to me, the concerns of economics, formal modelling, game theory and rational choice theory have dominated the increasingly enclosed enclave of political science. And even when they are historically-minded, as in the case of historical sociologists, social scientists essentially use history to serve theory (rather than the other way around). The tendency amongst them still is to seek to devise grand narratives of ‘modernization’, which depict welfare-state formation as characteristic of societies at different stages of development. Even when they are not teleological and deterministic, their abstract models or constructions are too generalized to grasp the nuances, complexity, detail, density, movement, shifts and turns of historical reality. There is too much theory and not enough history in the works of historical sociologists to satisfy me. I do not seek forgiveness for being an historian who is source-led. I think that good theory comes from good history.

This brings me to my second point: the issue of the importance attached to the post-First World War social reforms of the Italian liberal state. What I would like to say is that it was precisely my research in the archives, rather than my theoretical inclinations, which led me to the overwhelming conclusion that we needed to rethink our understanding of continuities and change in the history of modern Italy. When I began the project, I was operating within the framework of inherited certainties and, in the case of my chosen topic, these assumptions were that the Italian state experienced massive expansion first under Crispi, as a result of the famous 1890 reforms, and then in the pre-war period under Giolitti, as a consequence of his ostensibly social democratic programme. Scholars have presumed that this expansion in the structure and functions of the administrative state occurred and they have also assumed that a necessary accompaniment of this was a phenomenal expansion in ‘social citizenship’ (for example, welfare rights) at these critical junctures. The evidence pointed to a very different interpretation, namely that the real watershed occurred not in 1890, or circa 1900-1914, or (following the pattern of some other countries) even in 1914-1918. Rather, some real breakthroughs in social reform or ‘social politics’, as I prefer to call it, occurred as part of a plan for post-war reconstruction. Nonetheless, most of the plan remained unrealized in the last few years before the fascist ‘seizure’ of power in 1922. Moreover, fascism wiped out much of what was actually implemented in the immediate post-war period. Dr Levy believes that I should have emphasized the importance of this shift more. It is difficult for me to see how I could have done so, for the purposes of this book. I appreciate the importance of this era of crisis and change so much so that the post-war reconstruction effort will be the starting point for a new project, which I am undertaking on public health policy under fascism.

Once again, I would like to thank Dr Levy for the time and effort which he generously devoted to producing the review.