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The New Italy & Its Politics

Just over a decade ago, when the De Gasperi era in Italian history came to an end, it seemed as though the country had settled into a semi-permanent postwar equilibrium. Alcide De Gasperi, like his counterpart Adenauer in Germany, had put his stamp on the political and institutional arrangements that succeeded the Fascist system: he had guided Italy back to parliamentary democracy; he had led his own Christian Democratic party to the electoral victory of 1948 in which it had gained an unprecedented majority in the Chamber of Deputies; he had curbed the power of the Italian Communists—the most powerful such party in the non-Communist world—and of the left-wing (Nenni) Socialists who were in alliance with them; and as the logical corollary to these “center-right” political stands, he had tied his foreign and economic policy to the United States, giving priority to financial soundness over economic growth and reassuring the propertied interests that the modest reforms the government undertook would not unhinge the established structure of Italian society.

In the early 1950's there was no visible alternative to Christian Democratic rule. On the Right the continuing threat from neo-Fascism and authoritarian Monarchism, on the Left the Communists, ruled out the possibility of nonconformist political experiments. To be sure, in 1953 the Christian Democrats lost their parliamentary majority—thereby bringing about the old Prime Minister's fall. But Christian Democracy remained by far the strongest party, and all of De Gasperi's seven successors came from its ranks. It was only gradually in the course of the next decade that it became apparent how much was changing under a surface of political immobility: in 1956 Nenni's Socialists broke loose from the Communists, giving the Italian voter a viable democratic alternative and drawing the main wing of Socialism closer to the Socal Democratic secession which Giuseppe Saragat had led; about the same time the rightist parties went into a slow but evidently irreversible decline, as the Europe-wide prosperity finally impinged on the Italian economy, bringing a boom in consumption and a social mobility that were more spectacular than elsewhere since Italy was coming up from farther behind.

Under these altered circumstances, the De Gasperi system no longer worked. The most talented of his heirs, Amintore Fanfani, realized this and began to modernize the Christian Democratic party and to push along a new generation of leadership. A man of restless energy and an economist by profession, Fanfani saw that the economic boom was hitting Italian society most unevenly, that it was favoring North over South, industry over agriculture, and the already prosperous over the weak and the dispossessed. The corrective, he argued, was nation-wide planning and an enlargement of popular political participation. In 1962—with his way smoothed by tacit encouragement from Pope John—Fanfani changed the political formula from center-right to center-left; he recast his ministry to give it a reform tinge and to win the Socialists' parliamentary support. The following year, he appealed for electoral endorsement of this “opening to the Left.” Sixty per cent of the voters responded in the affirmative by supporting the four parties (Christian Democrats, Socialists, Social Democrats, and Republicans) of the center-left coalition. But what loomed largest in the public mind was that the two major coalition partners had both lost votes and that the Communists had gained—which was in itself sufficient testimony to the urgency of planning and reform, to the fact that while Christian Democratic conservatives or Socialist militants might object to their parties' current cohabitation, the electorate as a whole was voicing its dissatisfactions by moving leftward.

The bewildering fashion in which the parliamentary election of 1963 endorsed the opening to the Left made the chief coalition partners feel aggrieved and rebuked by their constituents. In the post-electoral recriminations, the Christian Democrats talked of a “cleaned-up” center-left (which presumably meant dropping the ministers most closely associated with the new course), while the Socialists were even warier than before of compromise with “bourgeois” policies. The first and most apparent conclusion from the nearly universal disappointment was that Fanfani must go. His logical successor was Aldo Moro, the Christian Democratic party secretary and a key participant in the center-left policy.


In the early days of June 1963—when the attention of most Italians was riveted on the protracted death of Pope John—Moro put together a new coalition of Christian Democrats, Republicans, and Social Democrats, with the Socialists once more counted on to supply support from outside the government. Its program and composition were slightly to the Right of the defunct Fanfani ministry—an understandable response to the Christian Democrats' conviction that the opening to the Left had lost them votes, but certainly not in line with the general leftward shift of the electorate. This was the view of a powerful minority among the Socialists; at the last moment the opposition of Riccardo Lombardi, Nenni's most influential collaborator and heir apparent, brought the artfully contrived combination crashing down.

There was no recourse but the usual stop-gap “monocolore” of Christian Democrats alone. The election results had ruled out any trafficking with the Right. They had also made impossible the sort of pseudo-caretaker government—such as Pella and Tambroni had headed in the past—that served as a cover for a conservative resurgence. The ministry formed by Giovanni Leone on June 21 (the very day when Giovanni Battista Montini was being elevated to the Papal throne as Paul VI) was just what it pretended to be, a device for getting through the summer months while giving Italy's political parties a chance to recover from their post-election shock. No more than a routine Christian Democratic politician himself, with the titular distinction of being president of the chamber, Leone at least remained true to his mandate and kept the conduct of government business at a correspondingly routine level.

As political therapy, the Leone experiment worked. Once the party leaders had regained their equilibrium, they realized that nothing was fundamentally changed—that there was no alternative to the previous coalition. This was the conclusion of the Christian Democratic party meeting in August; indeed, the final motion went beyond the previous opening to the Left in suggesting that the Socialists should be included in the new ministry. Such was also the outcome of the Socialists' deliberations two months later, when a comfortable majority of the congress authorized Nenni to begin negotiations (for the first time in more than sixteen years) for full Socialist participation in the government. The delegates had been sobered by hearing the seventy-two-year-old Nenni recite a record of four decades of lost opportunities, the greater part of which had been his own. Yet the voice which had most impressed the congress was that of Riccardo Lombardi—now back by Nenni's side—who had warned that Italian Socialism could not afford to reject the chance of influencing the economic transformation which the next decade would bring. This was an argument that touched the party's central aspirations and was calculated to win assent on all sides. In comparison, foreign-policy considerations seemed secondary: the Socialist congress neatly side-stepped the issue of the multilateral force by passing to the British Labor party the initiative in opposing it.

With a double party endorsement now behind him, Moro could try once more with better hope of success. In early November, Leone resigned and Moro began to form a coalition ministry; as finally constituted a month later, it included sixteen Christian Democrats, six Socialists, three Social Democrats, and one Republican. Nenni was designated vice-premier and Saragat foreign minister, with Socialists and conservative Christian Democrats canceling each other out in the economic portfolios. Economic issues naturally dominated the new government's reform program: besides the perennial matter of overhauling the tax system and the civil service, Moro made precise commitments in the four areas where the coalition partners could agree that prompt action was urgent—the establishment of regional administration, a radical revision of agrarian tenures, urban planning and housing construction, and the strengthening of public education. The parliamentary vote of confidence went through with ease in mid-December, although about thirty of the Christian Democratic Right threatened to walk out of the Chamber, and a slightly smaller number of the Socialist Left actually did so; the latter were to be heard from again within a very short time.

This painless beginning was deceptive. For one thing, three of the strongest proponents of the opening to the Left remained outside the government—Fanfani, Lombardi, and La Malta. While Fanfani's absence was understandable, that of Lombardi was more serious, since he was Italian Socialism's leading economic strategist. These two were presumably expressing their doubts of Mora's ability to keep their divergent parties working in harmony. But La Malfa's absence could be attributed only to political ingratitude: the Socialists wanted his ministry, and in the scramble for office La Malfa's long service in the cause of economic planning was forgotten; his colleagues in the diminutive Republican party might also have remembered that their chief reason for continuing to exist was to provide their most talented figure with a secure political base.

Beyond these disappointing omissions, the Moro experiment—the full opening to the Left as opposed to the partial one that Fanfani had inaugurated nearly two years earlier—had come too late. It had come after a decade of political struggle, and by the time it finally arrived, much of the moral impetus behind it had already been expended. Still worse, it came in the full flood of inflation. In the previous two years imports had mounted sharply, and the rival labor federations—for once working in harmony—had lifted the workers' share in the national product by nearly five percentage points. This wage raise was certainly overdue and in itself was not necessarily inflationary. But it had been delayed so long that it impinged on the economy with explosive force and in the absence of official measures for controlling other inflationary pressures such as the boom in real estate.

The new government was aware of the problem it faced. In their initial statement of the coalition's program, the center-left partners had agreed on the need for short-term anti-inflation measures sufficient to deal with the current crisis in international payments while not so drastic as to impede the rhythm of Italy's economic development. This carefully balanced double-talk betrayed how fragile the understanding between the parties had been. The deeper divergence could not be papered over: the Christian Democrats put the fight against inflation before everything else; the Socialists refused to sacrifice their reform goals. From the outset, the Moro government labored under an almost insuperable handicap.

Nor was the Prime Minister himself a man to dominate his colleagues, and by overpowering personal force to induce them to settle their differences. He had neither Fanfani's drive and economic expertise nor Nenni's standing as an already half-legendary historical figure. Skeptical, infinitely patient, a southerner with the congenital melancholy of the Mezzogiorno joined to an almost Anglo-Saxon impassivity, Moro might be a nearly ideal leader to put a coalition together, but he was less equipped to control his own party's representatives in the ministry when they began to quarrel with the Socialists. By early summer Moro's Christian Democratic colleagues had lost all restraint: the Minister of the Treasury leaked to the press a supposedly confidential letter to the Prime Minister in which he announced that the country was on the verge of bankruptcy: somebody else slipped into the budget a special appropriation for Church schools which even the Socialist under-secretary in the Ministry of Education knew nothing about. This last—a trifling matter in itself—exhausted the Socialists' dwindling reserve of forbearance. They abstained from the vote on the offending provision, and the government was left seven votes short of a majority. The irony of the episode was that Italy's economic situation was already improving: the balance-of-payments crisis had been relieved, and it was recession rather than inflation that was now the danger.

After nearly a month of political maneuvering—and with a nationwide rail strike threatening—in late July, Moro reconstituted his government almost exactly as it had been before. He had accomplished this in the face of bitter reproaches from his conservative party colleagues and a further secession of Socialists. Perhaps the ministerial hiatus had brought home to both sides the perils of inter-party warfare. Yet the basic disagreement between them remained unchanged; only the economic outlook had brightened.


The divergence within the coalition over Church schools—even the deeper cleavage on how to deal with inflation—are far from sufficient to explain the agonizing difficulty in keeping Christian Democrats and Socialists in tandem. The simple fact is that neither party trusts the other. Such a lack of mutual confidence is nothing new in European politics: it has always characterized the relations between Catholics and Marxists-turned-democrats ever since the two first began working together under the Weimar Republic; sometimes the distrust has been minimal—as in the Netherlands today; sometimes it has flared into open civil war—as in Austria in the 1930's. In Italy things have never gone that far; for nearly a generation the two parties had a common enemy in Fascism. But the fact that under Italian conditions Christian Democracy is necessarily more Catholic and Socialism traditionally more socialist than elsewhere has given a particular local bite to their mutual antagonism.

Italian Christian Democracy stands in a special relation to Catholicism for the obvious reason that Italy is the headquarters of the Universal Church whose head is an Italian. Hence it is peculiarly sensitive to directives or hints emanating from the Vatican. This closeness created no serious political problem so long as the party and the Papacy had common interests—however it might infuriate Italian anti-clericals. During the De Gasperi era the two could agree on the overriding importance of the Communist danger; Catholic Action was happy to supply the precinct-workers for a party that most of the time remained true to the cause of political and social conservatism. Then in the mid-1950's things began to change: Fanfani scandalized the orthodox by pushing Christian Democracy toward positions that seemed quasi-socialist. A half decade later something even more extraordinary occurred: under Pope John's guidance the Papacy took a great leap leftward—clean over the heads of the Christian Democratic majority—and good Catholics were perplexed by the thought that the crusade against Communism might no longer be a holy war at all. The result was a profound contusion which certainly contributed to Christian Democracy's loss of votes in the election of 1963.

Today the party, while still the welter of factions and interests that it has always been, has two main tendencies struggling for domination—those who want to keep Christian Democracy about as it has been in the past, and those who want to make it a vehicle for welfare-state policies within a modern industrial society. The former include what remains of the party Right—now led by Mario Scelba, who has joined so many other Christian Democratic “notables” in an evolution toward conservatism—and, more importantly, a shifting, pragmatic Center that for the present is willing to work with Moro and the party Left. The label under which this group travels changes every few years; of late they have been calling themselves the Dorotei. But their underlying purpose remains constant: refusing to draw the consequences from the fact that Christian Democracy is no longer the majority party, they try in every possible way to maintain its hegemony over Italian public life; cooperation with the party reformers and even with the Socialists ranks in their minds as only one more device toward this higher purpose. Meantime their grass-roots support is gradually being eroded: it is composed too heavily of old people, of women, and of earnest adolescents who soon drop out of party activity. This was what Fanfani realized long ago: he saw that it was necessary to raise up a new generation of leadership which would be drawn from and appeal to the junior executives, the technicians, and the skilled workers who were the type-figures in Italy's new industrial society. Yet he never scored more than a half success: for one thing, leaders like himself and Moro remained too much old-fashioned politicians to recast their party utterly. The modernizing faction within Christian Democracy is best represented by younger men whose names are totally unknown to the American newspaper public: strong at party congresses, it becomes progressively weaker as the young reformers try to rise to a seat in parliament and beyond that to a ministerial portfolio.


Italian Socialism is more socialist than in other European countries in the sense that it has not forgotten its pre-First World War origins. Its rank-and-file and more sectarian leadership remain class-conscious, profoundly anti-war, and millennialist in their hopes for the future. This ideological innocence can be both appealing and exasperating: it was largely responsible for the party's disastrous two decades of cooperation with the Communists. Yet for all his mistakes, Nenni is still one of the most attractive figures on the Italian political landscape—a true popular leader whose honesty of purpose no one can question. Perhaps he alone could have persuaded the ordinary Socialist militant that it was no class treason to go into coalition with Christian Democracy.

But Nenni belongs to another age: he is of Mussolini's generation, as he was, in the Duce's Socialist days, Mussolini's friend. It is younger men who will have to drag Italian Socialism, despite its protestations of fidelity to the heroic past, into the late 20th-century world. It is they who must make the mighty effort to lift the party over fifty years of history straight from the atmosphere of pre-1914 Marxism into the post-Keynesian universe of input-output analysis. In this respect, Italian Socialism is obliged to make an even greater leap than Christian Democracy. The party militants are aging: they hate ideological change, and they distrust intellectuals. One of the gravest handicaps that Lombardi and his colleagues suffer under as party reformers is that so many of them are intellectuals, in a movement where until very recently such people were regarded as outsiders, and that their ideological origins derive from the wartime Party of Action rather than from Marxism.

Suspicions of this sort had a great deal to do with the walk-out of twenty-five Socialist deputies during the vote of confidence on the first Moro government. Subsequently these organized a secessionist party—the PSIUP1—under the leadership of Tullio Vecchietti. Although the secession deprived Italian Socialism of more than a quarter of its deputies, the effect on the rank-and-file was less serious. Most of the trade-union leadership remained with the old party; some of them may have reasoned that their Communist union colleagues wanted them to do so, since the Communist party as a whole was far from happy about a split that merely created new competition on the Left while weakening the philo-Communist minority within the main body of Italian Socialism. Moreover, one of the two chief types among the rare recruits that the new party picked up was of particular concern to Communists on the alert for deviations within their own ranks. They were not worried about the older Marxist sectaries who rallied to Vecchietti. They were alarmed rather by the young men with “Chinese” or Castroist enthusiasms whose protests against “respectability” and compromise with the Italian “establishment” they were already hearing at their own party gatherings.

The secession from Italian Socialism, then, weakened the main party only slightly. On the positive side it made it more homogeneous and increased the likelihood of its reunification with Saragat's Social Democrats, who had lost their raison d'être when Nenni completed his evolution toward parliamentary democracy. The importance of the new splinter group—if it has any at all—is its position to the Left of Communism itself as truer to Marxist doctrine and more genuine in its revolutionary claims. The only ideological standing-ground it can find is as the first European version of a “Chinese” Marxist party. Such an evolution still lies in the future. Its chief role today is to call attention to the curious phenomenon that Italian Communism has become since the death of Stalin.

In searching out the reasons for the Communists' gains in the election of 1963, Italian observers noted that although this had happened throughout the country, it had been most apparent in the two areas where Communism was already particularly strong—the industrial Northwest and the “red belt” of the North-Center. To explain the party's victories in the triangle Turin-Genoa-Milan was not particularly difficult: here it sufficed to point to the new voters who had poured in from the South. In regions like Tuscany and the Romagna, the election returns were more puzzling: the population shifts had been less extensive and social discontents less apparent. The explanation could be found only in terms of Communism itself having been transformed into a kind of “establishment.” In the North-Central part of the country, the Communists had been powerful for so long that they had become the dominant vested interest: they controlled the cooperative movement, the trade unions, and several important municipalities. Such tasks had given them a sense of public responsibility; as the holders of local power, they even received credit for the prevailing prosperity. In the “red belt,” to cast a vote for Communism meant to endorse a going concern.

It is hard to tell how deep this new attitude of respectability goes. To be sure, the recently deceased Togliatti and his heirs have done their best to project a “social-democratic image.” Some recent statements suggest that they may be ready to make the final jump to democracy in the Western sense and accept the idea of free competition among political parties even under a Communist regime. They loathe the idea of violent revolution and would not like to risk the secure position they have achieved as a domesticated opposition within Italian society. Nobody can say whether the Communists intend to live up to their democratic professions until they have a chance to put them into effect—and then it may be too late. Meantime Italian Communism's electoral strength and reassuring stance are a constant source of embarrassment to the two chief partners in the center-left coalition. How long will it be possible to keep from a share in power a party whose popular appeal is undeniable and whose ideological evolution so satisfactory? By the same token, the Communists' current posture is—or should be—a major foreign policy puzzle for the United States.


The Italian Communists today are back where they have always wanted to be—back to the conditions of 1945 before the cold war opened and Stalin forced them into a position of intransigence. With the near-collapse of the rightist parties (which again recalls the immediate postwar situation) and the lack of a conservative alternative to center-left government, the only remaining possibility is a Popular Front. This the Italian Communists are well aware of: their current propaganda is largely directed toward stressing its advantages and minimizing its dangers. As little as half a decade ago, a ministerial coalition including the Communists was unthinkable. Today it is only barely imaginable—an outside possibility at the very most. A few years from now, if the cold war continues to subside and the Italian electorate maintains its drift toward the Left, a Popular Front may become a real alternative.

In the past, such a possibility was excluded, among other things, for the simple reason that the U.S. would not have permitted it. In Italy, as elsewhere in the Mediterranean, the United States inherited a position of predominance that was originally to have been Great Britain's. During the Second World War, by an unstated but apparently well-understood agreement between Roosevelt and Churchill, Italy was treated as a country in which British influence was paramount. And the activities of the chief British representatives there, both civilian and military, strongly suggested that their government intended to prolong its quasi-protectorate into the postwar period. But here, as in Greece, the British proved unable to maintain the position they had won for themselves during the war, and the American government felt obliged to step in to fill the void. Under De Gasperi and his immediate successors, the Italian relationship to the United States was one of mitigated (and comparatively benign) satellitehood.

In Italy, as opposed to France, this dependent status aroused little resentment. The American yoke (if such it could be called) was the lightest that the Italians had borne in their long history of foreign overlordship. Yet when the time came to shake it off, the country was far from unwilling. With the French doing most of the talking, the Italians simply shared in the new independence from the United States that Western European prosperity and the relaxation of cold war tensions brought with them. The change arrived so effortlessly and imperceptibly that neither Italians nor Americans quite realized what had happened. A decade ago it was still possible to imagine our country's armed forces intervening in Italy to cancel the results of a leftist electoral victory. Today it is this that has become unthinkable.

It is not beyond the bounds of possibility, then, that sometime in the future the United States might face the unprecedented problem of a Popular Front government in a major Western country. Far more probable, however, would be a quasi-neutralist regime of Socialists and Left Christian Democrats for which the Communists would provide the sort of support from outside the government that Nenni's party gave the original opening to the Left. Or, to put the matter in terms of domestic Italian choices, the way to avoid a Popular Front would be through an evolution in the policy of the two present coalition partners that would make Communist participation unnecessary.

Neither Christian Democracy nor Socialism in its current form is very well suited to governing a modern industrial democracy. Each is too burdened with anomalies inherited from the past. But no new political formation is likely to replace them. Like our own parties, the Italian Christian Democrats and Socialists embody such deeply rooted and even hereditary loyalties that it would be unrealistic to expect them to give way to something else. For all their faults, they are Italian democracy's visible and viable supports, and the real political question is not one of finding a substitute for them but how they can be modernized and adapted to contemporary purposes.

Most obviously, the Christian Democrats need to shed their clerical associations; these do them quite unnecessary damage in arousing mistrust and hostility among most of Italy's intellectual elite. Fortunately the policy of aggiornamento—of bringing the Church up-to-date—sponsored by Popes John and Paul is helping to steer the more old-fashioned Catholics away from clericalism. Likewise the social changes now in process, more particularly the population shifts from country to city and from South to North, are breaking up the fastnesses of Christian Democratic conservatism—and with them the power of local notables over their political fiefs and clientele. Viewed from this standpoint, Christian Democracy appears easier to modernize than Socialism: its history is shorter and its ideology less codified. Indeed, the ideological task for Moro and Fanfani and the young party reformers is almost the reverse of the one facing the Socialists—how to bring together the scattered and often contradictory precepts of social Catholicism into a coherent philosophy of the welfare state.


Italian Socialism is already a welfare-state party stressing economic planning rather than nationalization. In realistic terms, Italy's Socialists are not very different from their Social Democratic rivals in their own country or from other Western European parties that call themselves by similar names. But they hate to admit it: as opposed to British Labor's or German Social Democracy's pride in their ideological apostasy, Italian Socialism clings to its great memories and to the class-warfare phraseology of the past. And this injures the party's reputation among the middle-class and uncommitted public in the same fashion in which the Christian Democratic “image” suffers from the charge of clericalism. Italian Socialism needs to reunite with its Social Democratic offshoot; it needs more young people in its ranks; it needs to find a new flexibility in practice while retaining the innocence of aspiration that is so precious an ideological asset; but perhaps more than anything else it needs to convince itself and its constituents that wholesale collectivization is not its goal—that it is concerned rather to use as an instrument for social planning the massive segment of the Italian economy which is already in public hands.

The more alert and purposeful leaders of both Christian Democracy and Socialism can agree on their commitment to planning and the welfare state. This emphasis is only natural in terms of Italy's moral tradition and contemporary needs. The two parties are true to an age-old feeling for common humanity among their countrymen when they give first priority to the relief of poverty; it is when they indulge in sectarian appeals that they betray what is best in the Italian tradition. And in view of Italy's handicapped position within the Western community, the social welfare of its inhabitants quite properly comes before anything else. To such a purpose even Americans must assent when they ask the question (which is posed all too seldom in our deliberations on foreign policy): what is good for the Italian people themselves?

If in the future Italy's leaders put less stress than in the immediate past on foreign and miltary policy and on the alliance with the United States, this is not necessarily bad for our country. The American government is gradually getting used to the idea that it is perfectly legitimate for the rulers of poor nations to try to keep them out of cold war entanglements. And while it may be argued that Italy is only in part an underdeveloped country, it is undeniable that much of its 20th-century history of misfortune has arisen from involvement in international quarrels that were none of its concern. As a member of the European six-nation community, Italy is in no position to set out on a neutralist course of its own. It is more likely that Western Europe as a whole will move in that direction, with Italy encouraging the process. In all the most relevant respects—cultural, religious, sentimental—the Italians are bound to remain friendly to America; it is only the formal ties that may be relaxed.

Italy today is not merely absorbed in becoming a consumer-oriented society resembling our own. Its people are also engaged in an extraordinary spiritual and social adventure, often glimpsed in the past but never coming close to realization—nothing less than reconciling the two great popular faiths, Catholicism and Socialism, whose antagonism has immobilized so much of the country's ideal energy. It is far from certain that such an ideological realignment can be accomplished. Yet even its partial fulfillment would give Italians a new hope for the social consensus that has so long eluded them and release from the dead weight of inherited skepticism about the possibility of human improvement.


1 Partita Socinlista Italiana di Unita Proletaria.

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