In his foreword to a recent translation of parts of Garibaldi's memoirs, Tim Parks says of Garibaldi that he appreciated that "only complete singleness of mind could make anything happen... he sacrificed every other consideration for Italian unity". Parks clearly thinks this is a virtue in Garibaldi. I'm pretty sure it's not: as Parks acknowledges, what sacrificing every other consideration for Italian unity meant was not just sacrificing himself - and let's not forget that Garibaldi lived to see Italian unification - but "the lives of thousands upon thousands of others". Garibaldi's own view seems to have been that anyone who wasn't prepared to take ill-equipped and untrained young men off to fight guerilla campaigns in the firm belief that, despite the hostile attitude of the two nearest Great Powers, the sheer glory of being prepared to kill and be killed to be united under a tinpot monarchy would be enough to ensure victory. For example, when criticizing the behaviour of Cavour in allowing French interference during his attack on Naples in 1860, he says of some of his own followers who assisted Cavour that they were
swayed by the hypocritical, terrible pretext of necessity. The necessity of being cowards! The necessity of abasing oneself in the mud before some ephemeral image of power instead of heeding and understanding the vigorous, forceful, virile will of the people who wish to exist at any cost and are prepared to destroy these insect-eating icons and bury them back in the dung from which they sprang.
This is just batshit crazy. This is not, it's a gamble and maybe it won't come off, but that doesn't make it not worth trying; this is, because we want it enough, it will happen. Never mind the fact that the book is full of the refusal of peasants in what was still a predominantly rural society to assist Garibaldi's troops; never mind that if it was true that merely wanting it was enough to make it so, it'd be hard to explain how it hadn't happened yet, or indeed why it would be wrong to try and stop it happening; never mind the price that both sides pay for showing that you want it enough; Garibaldi has seen the virile will of the people, appointed himself its tribune, and thereby licensed himself to demand that all others yoke their will to his, to throw away their plans and commitments in the service of some greater glory. Parks ends his encomium to Garibaldi's ability to drive the campaign for Italian unification out of the murky shadows of high politics and out into bloody fields and mountainsides up and down the country with a discussion of Garibaldi's instructions for his funeral:
He wanted his body to be cremated in a red shirt. 'Plenty of wood for the pyre', is his last exhortation. The remark is emblematic of his personality. He consumed his whole life and the lives of thousands upon thousands of others in a conflagration that is still the most illuminating moment in modern Italian history. Very few of those warming their hands at the bonfire look well in the weird light it casts.
Perhaps those who outlived Garibaldi, who embody the tendencies that he struggled against - for the backroom deal rather than the barriacdes in the street, for compromise and often deceit and even betrayal rather than plain-speaking - are emblematic of the forces of reaction in Italian politics, as Parks clearly thinks. But they are not the forces of reaction because of their methods; they are the forces of reaction because of the use they put them to. This is what politics is like, and without it, as the corpses strewn over the Italian penisula in Garibaldi's crimson wake show, whatever glories we may be fortunate enough to find, they will be cold comfort when we're lying in the mud trying to hold our guts in.