Richard J. Samuels – Machiavelli’s children: leaders and their legacies in Italy and Japan – 2003

Richard J. Samuels
Ithaca-London, Cornell University Press, pp. XIV-456, euro 39,95

Anno di pubblicazione: 2003

This work offers both a comparative political and economic history of Italy and Japan, and also, and primarily, a study of leadership, from the nineteenth century right up to the present day. The work set as it objective to reassert the importance of political and economic leaders in shaping the destiny of both these countries at crucial turning points in their histories. Samuels highlights the role of leaders as creative improvisers and practical problem solvers, what Claude Lévi-Strauss termed bricoleurs, who set their own rules and who play a ?transformational? role in history. He rejects economic or cultural determinism. He is also at pains to stress how far the leaders of both countries were able to promote national interest even in the most difficult international circumstances, including the decades after 1945.
The book is organised on the basis of a series of portraits of Japanese and Italian leaders, who are paired together to ascertain the degree of individual influence as against the pressure of structural determinants in shaping choices. All of these portraits are interesting. The Italian leaders are quite well known: Cavour, Rossi, Giolitti, Agnelli, Mussolini, De Gasperi and Fanfani. The portraits of the Japanese leaders ?kubo Toshimichi, Shibusawa Eichi, Hara Kei, and Kishi Nobusuke ? ?America’s favourite war criminal? (p. 249) ? make for fascinating reading. The book also has some interesting detours: the comparison of corruption in Japan and Italy is particularly illuminating.
With a text of 160.000 words, 45 pages of notes and 30 pages of bibliography this is a substantial and richly documented work. The analysis does not flag, but in truth the book would have benefited from substantial pruning. Samuels justifies the choice of these two countries for comparison in terms of the ?rich and remarkable parallel histories of Italy and Japan?. But, as the author acknowledges, these parallels are often more superficial than substantive, and in terms of political culture the two countries are poles apart. Given Japan’s emulation of the German State and economic models from the nineteenth century onwards a comparison of these two States might have been more easily justified. The book, nevertheless, brings out very strongly the distinctive traditions of State building and economic management of both Italy and Japan.
In the conclusion the author attempts to pull together some generalisation about the nature of leadership. The invocation of Machiavelli’s name is apposite but rather superficial. By bending the rules, by reinventing themselves, in skirting the murky world of the criminal and the morally dubious, these were leaders who bent history to their will. Samuels acknowledges that often decisions are ?overdetermined?, but he makes a convincing cases that the decisions taken by individual leaders are often crucially important, and thus worthy of analysis and appraisal in their own right, especially as regards the enduring legacies they left to their successors.

E. Arfon Rees