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The Idea of a Federation

ISSUE:  Autumn 1941

The question of federalism is today bound up with the question of war aims. It is no longer simply an internal problem for countries like the United States, the British Empire, and Switzerland, but a world problem of the greatest urgency. “Until now federalism has been merely a traditional heritage in the countries I have just named. Now it appears to our best minds as” the only alternative to totalitarianism, the only ‘possible future for a world at peace. Hence the more or less precise or Utopian plans propounded and championed in books like Clarence Streit’s “Union Now” and Coudenhove-Kalergi’s “Pan-Europa.” Hence the reiterated concern of certain political leaders, church authorities, and molders of public opinion. The totalitarians themselves have occasionally spoken of world federation.

In contrasting, in the pages which follow, the traditional federalism, born of historical and geographical necessities, with these more recent Utopian federalisms, born of moral desires and pacifistic or utilitarian ideologies, it is not my intention to exalt the first at the expense of the second. I should simply like to draw from history certain practical and theoretical conclusions, without which our proudest blueprints for the future will remain what they actually are: so much utopianism. Finally, as a Swiss, as an inheritor of the oldest federalist tradition—six and a half centuries old this year—I should like to address myself to the supporters of “utopian” federalism (whose hopes I share) in order to bring home to them the truth that a certain empiricism is the necessary condition of any federalist effort. The Swiss example is minuscule in comparison with the tasks that await our generation. But it is conclusive. It can and must serve as a guide, by its failures as well as by its achievements. It represents a “first-hand experiment” worked out concretely during the course of history. At the very least, it enables us to see what must not be done if we would achieve a universal federation.


It may be that federalism was nothing more than a natural necessity in its origin. It may be that through the centuries it has simply remained a local commonplace, and functioned all the better for it. Yet one thing is sure: from a certain moment on, no praxis can become illuminative or creative without the support of a theory.

That moment has arrived. We are living in it now. In the revolution of the twentieth century, those who keep silent may not be wrong, but they are certainly beaten. The “secret weapon” so often mentioned today is simply propaganda. All propaganda is effective—that is the basic tactical principle of our century. Unless some counter-propaganda enters in to neutralize its effect, all propaganda attains a certain efficiency, which varies from five per cent in countries where there is free opinion to nearly ninety-nine per cent in other countries. Federalism therefore faces the necessity of expressing itself today, if only in self-defense. Yet it is at the same time given the possibility of expansion, over continents and even over the world. But before we get ready to preach federalism, we ought to know where it has come from, where it is tending, and what its essential nature is.

In the world of transgression everything originates in necessity and tends to lie confined thereto. In the world of spirit everything is open and free, and becomes grace and novelty. The real deed is to pass from the world of necessity into the world of freedom. This deed alone raises us to human stature and maintains our dignity as man. It is not a question of rising to the level of angels; we have enough to do to keep from falling back to the level of beasts.

So with federalism. To escape irresponsible utopianism, we must begin with the fact that federalism is a product of geography. But we must only begin with this fact, if we would grasp its meaning, for no fact makes sense in itself. Spirit alone imparts a meaning to the data in which history is rooted. The material circumstances of federalism condition the Swiss destiny, but they do not determine it. To overlook this distinction is to fall into a “geographism” which is next-door neighbor to racialism, and which is after all but another of the forms of modern materialism. Yet nothing is at its source more artificial, more Utopian, than materialism. This doctrine is in fact only a resentment. It is always born out of the disappointments of idealism, its abuses and its lacunas. It is always a vengeance of the instincts, a nostalgia for the concrete elements which idealism, in its naive arrogance, had thought it might disregard. But the misuse ought not to prohibit the use. The answer to faulty idealism need not be materialism; it can be efficient idealism: faith that works.

These general considerations apply as much to the United States as to the British Commonwealth or the Swiss Confederation. But in the last case it is particularly easy to illustrate them with precision.

The geographical situation of Switzerland seems to have predestined it to a federalist future, the terrain of mountainous regions calls for a political system altogether opposed to that of the flatlands of Prussia or the steppes of Asia. The geographical fact that the Gothard ridge is the only point where a single pass allows transportation across the Alps is sufficient to explain the great historical fact of the “imperial immediacy” (the right of being responsible to the head of the Holy Empire alone, and not to local barons) which was accorded to the first three cantons during the thirteenth century, and which became the cornerstone of Swiss liberty. But even that early, the historical factors seem to have been much more determinative than Nature, which served only to provide a definite frame for them. At was the spirit of the Italian communes that had the decisive influence upon the foundation of the earliest confederacies, in Grisons and Tessin, at the end of the twelfth century, and then later, on the other slope of the Gothard, around 1291. Indeed, even during this early period, it was the special mission entrusted to the primitive cantons—I mean the guardianship of the Gothard, the one physical link between the two parts of the Holy Empire—that defined the existence of Switzerland and assured its independence. The necessity for mutual aid and the need of independence existed in the rest of the Alps as well: what permitted their realization at just this point in space and time was not merely the physical fact of the Gothard pass, but also the sociological fact of the ideas which traveled through the pass. The first conditioned the second, but it was the second which determined activity and life. And above all, dominating both these factors, there was the idea and the ideal of the Holy Empire: in other words, the idea of a united Europe whose heart must be protected.

All Swiss history, from that time on, illustrates the same balance between factual conditions and spiritual aims. It is an endless interrelation of the ideal and necessity, of local interest and the general interest, of the little fatherland and the Empire. Little by little, the Gothard lost its economic significance; but it acquired a symbolic value, and the mission of the Swiss people expanded. Little by little, new cantons attached themselves to the Gothard communes. An intricate network of pacts bound city and country. And every time one of the cantons tried to set itself up as head of the confederacy, it found all the others united against it in its desire for hegemony. Thus to the end of the fifteenth century.

At that time, the temptations of material power and territorial greatness arose to befuddle the Swiss people, the “first soldiers of Europe.” Italy spread open before them, Swabia, Burgundy. . . . Were they to fail in their mission? Was the Guardian of Europe to make a coup d’etat and, betraying the Empire, become imperialist in its own right? It was then that the Reformation exploded. Modern historians sometimes accuse Zwingli of having shattered the fighting spirit of the Swiss, and of having halted their drive towards the sea and adventure. The fact is that Zwingli saved the Swiss, and the Reformation saved Switzerland. A great state taking part in the struggles of the developing national powers could never have been governed by cantons deprived of a central power. Either a central power of some sort would have had to be rigged up, and this would have meant the end of our federalism, or else the annexed provinces would have attained too great an influence, and this would have meant perpetual warfare until the inevitable dismemberment. The division of the Swiss into two religious camps had at least the effect of killing off the germ of centralist ambition among the very people who were bound to be affected by it—the citizens of Zurich and Berne, the two most powerful cities within the confederacy.

Switzerland was therefore returned to its special mission. The two factions refused all foreign support, and this was the new foundation of Swiss neutrality. They reconciled their exigencies to the needs of the union, and this was the new foundation of Swiss federalism. Progress was thus made from an alliance dictated primarily by necessity to an alliance that was much more spiritual in nature. And when the latter was firmly established after the civil and religious wars of the eighteenth century, the confederacy was ready to admit new races and new languages: this is what happened in the early part of the next century, when the Italian and French cantons were incorporated as equal members with full rights. The present Swiss federalism was legally constituted in 1848, and it is only since 1919—after the end of the World War bitterness between French Swiss and German Swiss—that the legal statute has gone into full effect.

New and serious problems, however, demand new and decisive progress. Economic problems raise the question of possible successes attained by other systems. Less than any other country in Europe can Switzerland afford to dream of autarchy. She produces no raw materials, and she is fully dependent upon the industrial complex of powers which surrounds her. Her political federalism can subsist, therefore, only if it can be integrated with a European economic federalism. A common desire for federation in Europe has been gradually making itself felt since the war of 1914-18. The League of Nations was one of its symptoms, though not a very marked one. The idea of a network of bilateral, or trilateral, or quadrilateral, pacts was another. In both instances, the federalist tendency was sidetracked in favor of hegemonic policies. Nevertheless, the feeling has continued to grow and to develop. The present war has whipped it up again. Suddenly there is posed the question of how to federate Europe as soon as peace is restored. And because it is posed suddenly, there is a danger that it may be posed badly, that it will only give rise to rational plans and systems.

But any system, even if called federalist, is unitary in essence, and therefore anti-federalist. It is so in spirit, and it will therefore be fatally so in its application. True federalism is the absolute opposite of a system, which is always conceived in the brain and centered about one abstract idea. I should even define federalism as a constant and instinctive refusal to make use of systematic solutions.

This does not imply, however, that a world federation can do without some kind of federalist philosophy.


Today there arises in the concrete the problem of developing that federalist philosophy. For when it comes to planning, empiricism is still necessary but no longer sufficient. A broader outlook is required, and the only prospect that the Swiss may contemplate is one embracing Europe as a whole, and not Europe as a group of neighboring powers. For Europe is an ideal, a civilization and a mind, much more than it is a geographical entity.

To promote a federation is not to create a new systematic order with a clear, simple outline which is satisfying to our sense of logic. Federation is quite simply the arrangement together of concrete realities. If one would truly grasp the meaning of the real alternatives of our time, totalitarianism or federalism (and not Right or Left, free capitalism or government control, Communism or Fascism, and the like), one must first comprehend a most simple everyday fact: the infinite difference there is between “putting a desk in order” and “arranging” papers. (There are no trivial examples for those who know how to read reality in the original.) Occasionally my cleaning-woman puts my office in order, according to her own notion: it is a minor totalitarian catastrophe! My files are “straightened out,” carefully aligned and piled up, so that nothing sticks out—and everything is hodgepodge. So far as I am concerned, when I arrange my notes into a file or folder, I pay no attention to their size or color, but to what I have written upon them. And that is why I can easily find what I want. It is my personal order, my “federalist” arrangement, in keeping both with the sense and particular qualities of each note, and with my practical purpose. All these things are taken into account in a rather indefinable manner, plainly indicated, however, by whatever work is in hand.

Let us now consider the Swiss federation in this light. The first negative lesson of the small Swiss experiment we have just seen: that it is necessary to renounce all system in order to promote a federation. It is necessary to start with as intimate a knowledge as possible of national diversities in their profoundest aspects. For it is not superficial or partial similarities (language, race, geographical vicinity) which are federated, but essential differences, which reveal themselves as complementary. It should no longer be said: “Let us renounce what sets us apart and underline what forms a bond between us.” For it is precisely on the basis of recognized and legitimate differences and diversities that fruitful unions are formed. A federal union is a marriage, and not an economic, military, and geometrical alignment.

Our second negative lesson is that it is necessary to renounce any idea of an educating and organizing hegemony in the future federation.

Many people imagine that Europe can be federated only through the action of a great power. That was Napoleon’s idea. It may be Hitler’s. It is also the idea of certain neutrals and admirers of England, and, I feel, of “Union Now.” Here Switzerland can say: “Look at me I I have been able to live and to last only through incessant struggle against every effort towards hegemony within the federation, and this from my earliest days, from the time when the small cantons united against Zurich, which wanted to control everything.” It may be that the union of the United States and England that is urged by many is the germ of a federation. There is no doubt that this germ will be killed off if either of these states, or both, conceive of the world federation as a body of which they would be head. It is the total renunciation of hegemony which creates a federation.

Let us here introduce a new concept: the essential paradox of federalism, which means taking seriously the expression “union in diversity.” Unitary or totalitarian systems are easy to conceive and to carry out: it is enough for them to crush opposition. But federalism implies the vitality of a large number of opposing elements and their harmonization. That is the whole problem.

The word “federalism,” in Switzerland, has in our day taken on among conservatives the limited and inaccurate meaning of the autonomy of the canton or district and the systematic opposition to central authority. To be a “federalist,” in French Switzerland especially, is to reject on principle whatever proceeds from Berne, the capital of the confederation. This amounts to a kind of local nationalism. On the other hand, the German word corresponding to federation—Bund—emphasizes only the central union. When we speak of federalism, we ought to mean both the union and the autonomy of the parts that are united; both one for all and all for one, the two parts of our ancient Helvetian motto.


The third negative lesson that we ought to derive from the Swiss experiment is of a more intimate and everyday kind. The organization of a country—or tomorrow of Europe or of the world—on the basis of autonomous organic regions has the advantage of doing away with all possibility of imperialism, all inhuman gigantism, all frenzy for power. But it may have the drawback of limiting vision and creating a certain mediocrity of mind, the price that is paid for sacrificing material bigness. We are here confronted with one of the specific illnesses of federalism. This manifests itself in various unmistakable symptoms: moral intolerance, intellectual timidity, distrust of the neighbor whose tongue or religion is different, and perpetual fear of being outnumbered. This illness made its appearance in Switzerland at the time when the cantons concluded an all-embracing and uniform pact, instead of each taking part in several networks of cumulative alliances, as they had formerly done. Thus each became self-contained, with a tendency towards a kind of lame autarchy. Each was isolated before all the others. Hence that timidity disguised as caution and tolerance, but caused by hope of peace or simply by weakness. Hence that fear of being too noticeably different. Hence, finally, that kind of moral uneasiness, and then secret and dull intolerance which clamps down upon “too” enterprising minds.

To prevent this illness, it is imperative to insist upon the non-systematic and non-unitary character of a sound federalism. It is imperative that the groups, or the individuals who make them, preserve the right, the care, and the desire, to belong to several supra-regional organisms. I shall offer a concrete example. In Switzerland, the freest and most individual minds are those attached: sentimentally, to a district or canton; legally, to a commune (and in this alone are they citizens of the Swiss state); religiously, to a church whose boundaries extend much further than those of the state; intellectually, to one of the great neighboring cultures; and so on—and all this knowingly and wholeheartedly, not merely through historic accident (birth or tradition) but also, and more importantly, through an act of will. Their minds and personalities are thus broadened beyond the limits of their native cantons, and without the least detriment to the latter—in fact, quite the reverse. The little, intolerant minds are those which can only conceive of “federalism” as Kantonligeist—that is, a miniature autarchic and totalitarian patriotism—those which seek to be of their canton first, or of their canton solely, and label this “federalism” while they destroy the very principle which gives their cause its name.

The formula of maximum tyranny is that of the state which demands that its political and tariff boundaries shall also be the boundaries of its citizens’ religion, culture, honor, and love—though not of their cupidity. This is the very formula of totalitarianism.

Constructing a European federation will perhaps at first be simply developing, and affirming, a plurality of already existing religious, cultural, linguistic, ideological, or economic organisms, on the condition that they have one thing in common: that they be ecumenical, willing to concede the relativity of political frontiers. (There is no need to abolish the latter: if we keep the right to overstep them in many domains, they also have their relative legitimacy.)


The historical mission of Switzerland since the thirteenth century has been to keep free the mountain passes of central Europe for the peoples and princes: a practical mission which has now become symbolic. Henceforth we have the duty of proclaiming its modern significance: it is the defense of the spiritual heart of Europe, the mounted guard about the red flag with the white cross, where red is the color of empire, meaning the union of nations, and the cross the sign of redemption, of self-sacrifice, and of hope. There is much to be done before Switzerland may aspire to play the part of seed for a new Europe. But our own independence is as much at stake as the peace of the Western world. If we do not embrace this mission, history will soon take care of our omission—whether we will or no.

I hope that these few remarks may awaken a friendly echo in America, and more than that: the desire to translate into native American terms—which is easy—the lessons to be derived from the Swiss experiment, so small but at the same time so laden with agelong significance. Many things in Europe depend upon the Swiss fact, upon this paradox miraculously maintained in the heart of the continent. But almost everything in the present world depends upon the American goal.


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