01. A distrusted state

Recurrent questions in Italian historiography and political discussion have included: Why is the Italian nation-state so lacking in social and political cohesion? And what has led to the incapacity of the ruling bloc to modernize Italy’s institutions? Some writers have traced the roots of the problem back to the failure of the attempt to found an absolutist state in Italy in the late Middle Ages, but the usual point of departure for analyses is the Risorgimento, the movement of national unification in the mid nineteenth century. The key theses setting the agenda for debate were set out in Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks1 For Gramsci, the model bourgeois revolution the French Revolution was the yardstick for assessing the Risorgimento, which he called a ‘failed revolution’ (rivoluzione mancata). According to Gramsci, the failure of the Italian bourgeoisie to form a national-popular alliance, involving the subordinate classes in the struggle against the backward landowners, meant that the unification remained formal rather than real. The division between north and south, corresponding to the compromise between northern capital and the southern latifondisti, and the exclusion of the great mass of the population from participation in the political life of the new state, meant that a conservative settlement was eached at the expense of economic and social progress. For Gramsci only the Italian proletariat, in alliance with poor peasants, could make a nation out of Italy. Whether Gramsci’s analyses withstand criticism by historians today is a matter for debate, but the liveliness of the discussion since the mid sixties suggests that they are useful in giving pointers to understanding the contemporary crisis of the Italian state.

One of Gramsci’s concerns, the externality of the popular classes to the formation and subsequent history of the Italian state, is of particular interest. The southern peasantry exemplified this hostility or indifference to nationhood. It was tied by intense local and family loyalties, and shared cultures and dialects having little affinity with a national culture. This peasantry did not identify with Italy as a state, and saw its utopias in the Americas rather than in the peninsula. But the working class of the north, despite its relative privileges, also found itself in conflict with a repressive state 2 The experience of universal suffrage was an interlude between periods of government exclusively by and for social elites. There were only two free general elections before the Fascists took power in 1922. In other words, the Italian working class before 1945 did not develop a strong sense of citizenship through participation in political parties, elections, voting and celebrations of formal freedoms and equalities.

The other major processes whereby the working class in Western Europe was ‘nationalized’ education and war affected Italian workers less than those of other countries. Education had little impact on the predominant use of dialect, and acted more effectively as a channel for middle-class social mobility than as a means of promoting mass civic consciousness. Wars mobilized sections of the population in a way only paralleled by spurts of industrialization, and aggravated class tensions, creating horizontal solidarities that threatened the unity of the state. The debacle of late-nineteenth-century Italian imperialist expeditions at Adowa, the mutinies and non-collaboration during the 1914-18 war, and the disastrous Fascist military campaigns, all proved counter-productive for the ruling bloc. They also fuelled opposition to nationalism in the form of anti-militarism, anti-statism and internationalism.

The persistence of anarcho-syndicalist tendencies within the working class and the wide-spread identification of the state with all society’s evils testify to the traditions of popular anti-statism. In the post-1945 period the relationship between the working class and the state changed. The establishment of a democratic republic changed the rules of political conflict, and the major parties and unions of the working class made themselves the upholders and interpreters of parliamentary democracy. The principal protagonist of the Resistance, the Communist Party, took a leading part in ‘re·educating’ the working class into this role. Togliatti’s reading of Gramsci (whose Prison Notebooks were published between 1948 and 1951) centred on the idea that the working class had the task of forging a national solidarity that the weak bourgeoisie was incapable of doing. It had to represent the ‘national-popular’ and lay the foundations of social and economic reconstruction, as the transitional stage to the construction of a future socialist society. In a speech of June 1945, Togliatti claimed that:

the democratic revolution in our country has never been completed or seriously developed .... In demanding the Constituent Assembly, we find ourselves in the company of the best men of our Risorgimento - in the company of Carlo Cattaneo, Giuseppe Mazzini and Giuseppe Garibaldi, and we are proud of it.3

But the Communist Party rank-and-file had to be taught that the new parliamentary state was ‘theirs’ and that they had to act responsibly - a task that was not always easy. A report at the 6th Congress stated:

The persistence of sectarian positions is seen in the tendency to disrupt other political meetings singing songs with words in bad taste . .. leaving work early to attend meetings, the use of banners without the tricoleur 4

For many, the leadership was only saying these things so that it could fool the other parties, which, it seemed, were happy to work with the Communists for as long as it suited them.

The landslide election victory of 1948 for the Christian Democrat Party finalized the expulsion of the Left parties from government. At this crucial conjuncture democracy as an idea was linked to the Western ‘camp’ and to the defence of Catholicism. Future governments worked to impose their definitions of what constituted ‘democratic’ and 'anti-democratic' forces; the Communist Party was treated as alien, while the CGIL was treated as its instrument in the workplace; meanwhile, the ‘apolitical’ and ‘free’ trade unions were encouraged. Systematic repression and discrimination and propaganda campaigns were used by governments and by managements in the factories to undermine working-class representative structures.

The close cooperation between the state and the employers’ federation (Confindustria), and the exclusion of the working-class parties from government were the two axes on which Italian ‘democracy’ revolved in the period 1948-60.5 Although the basic democratic freedoms were observed, there were some continuities with the Fascist state that help explain the ways in which those freedoms were circumscribed and curtailed. In this perspective, it is the period of postwar collaboration and reconstruction which appears as an aberration. The personnel of the state apparatuses had been mostly employed by the previous Fascist regime, and the Republic inherited laws that were the very antithesis of the constitution. The Rocco Penal Code, for example, includes among its list of 'crimes': the membership of anti-national and subversive associations, the incitement of ‘cIass hatred’ and the defamation of state institutions. 6 Although there were few laws controlling labour disputes, industrial conflict was heavily policed through instructions contained in the reports of the procurators-general, and in the circulars, letters and telegrams sent to them and to the prefects by the ministries of justice and of the interior. During Scelba’s period as minister of the interior these were directed almost exclusively against forms of picketing and ‘political’ strikes.7 From 1948 to 1954 an estimated 75 were killed and 5,104 were wounded as a result of police action directed against forms of protest.8

If the politicized and organized sections of the working class were the targets of repression, governmental policies encouraged private initiatives detrimental to all wage earners. Laissez-faire economic policy subordinated all state intervention to the immediate needs of private capital. Whilst in other Western European countries reconstruction was carried out with the objective of ensuring full employment and full utilization of capital resources, in Italy a policy of deflation and the containment of demandthrough a regime of low wages and high unemployment was actively pursued by Einaudi and his successors. State expenditure went towards the construction of motorways that suited the needs of Fiat rather than towards the creation of a welfare state. 9

The beneficiaries of this economic policy were the big companies and sections of the middle classes. Internal consumer expenditure rose for the small minority of the population that could afford to buy the goods (televisions, cars, fridges, and so on) that symbolized the reign of plenty. In 1960 only 11 per cent of the population owned a fridge. Otherwise production was oriented to the world market. The so-called ‘economic miracle’ was attained on the basis of increases in productivity much greater than increases in wages. In addition, it entailed the mass migration of labour from the south to the northern cities, and to northem Europe. 10 The ‘miracle’ aggravated social tensions, making the existing political arrangements untenable.

In 1953 the Christian Democrat government tried to introduce a law (the so-called ‘swindle law’) that would ensure the permanent majority which it had failed to win in the elections, but the attempt failed in the face of a mass national campaign of opposition. From 1953 to 1963 the Christian Democrats maintained power through coalition governments in which they were always the dominant partner holding the key ministries. In 1960 this politics, based on the exclusion of the Left parties, was put into crisis. The possibility of further alliances with parties to the Right was blocked by mass mobilization against Tambroni’s attempt to form a govemment with the neo-fascist MSI, and a wave of strikes showed the strength of the industrial working class, and the need to win its goodwill.

The nature of these mobilizations gives some indication of the evolution of the working class's relationship to the state. The response to the calls by the parties in 1953 and 1960 shows that there was a strong desire to defend democratic institutions from manipulation and authori- ‘ tarianism. However, the actions were largely defensive. They were a response to a continuous war of attrition waged against workers’ organizations. Their point of reference was the Liberation and Reconstruction period, of which the celebration of 25 April and the battle to apply the spirit of the Constitution were important aspects. By way of contrast, the factory mobilizations of 1960-63 were offensive actions. Their chief objective was wage increases, but the mass street demonstrations signalled a revolt against conditions inside and outside the factory.

The Socialist Party response to the working-class mobilization was to use it as a bargaining counter with the Christian Democrats. It claimed to have a programme of radical reforms and economic planning which I would make capitalist development ‘rational’ and beneficial to the working class as a whole. However, the only reforms which the Socialists succeeded in carrying out as promised were in education and in the nationalization of the electricity industry. The 1969 Forecasting and Planning Report revealed that achievement of objectives for 1966-8 was as low as 11 per cent for urban transport, 16 per cent for hospital building , and 22 per cent for school building. 11 This failure was doubly serious because of the inadequacy of state provision of services and their farming out to private agencies. The movement of two million Italians from south to north between 1960 and 1970 created a demand for housing, services, education and basic infrastructures that a laissez-faire government policy had not been able to cope with.

The Centre-Left government created hopes of changes that would bring Italian living standards into line with northern European countries. However, its actions were heavily circumscribed. For the Christian Democrats there was no question of allowing the destruction of the state clientelism that provided one of its power bases (sottogoverno), and for them the inclusion of the Socialists had more to do with isolating the Communists and securing an incomes policy than with a strategy of structural change based on a high wage economy. 12 The imposition of a deflationary policy in 1964 had the political aim of undercutting wage demands by increasing unemployment. This measure effectively asserted ‘ the continuity of a low wage regime, and prevented further reforms on the pretext that reform had to wait for more prosperous times.13

The Centre-Left experiment contained elements of a longer term strategy for bringing the working class into a collaborative relationship with the state, but there was the minimum of institutionalization. Tripartite talks between unions, private industry and the government were rarely carried out, and then outside the planning framework.14 Although the Communist Party cooperated with legislation in parliament, it and the CGIL resolutely opposed an official incomes policy spoke instead of the need for more structural reforms, but little working-class mobilization took place around the issue of reforms.15

However, the idea of reform spread, and citizenship came to be considered not just in terms of formal, legal and political rights, but in terms of material well-being and rights to housing, education, health facilities and other services. The 1963 general strike over housing represented an important step in this direction.16 What was in question during the late 1960s was how changes could be brought about; whether a central government dominated by the Christian Democrats, or indeed any government, had the will and capacity to reform. If it did, how could sufficient pressure be brought to bear on it to do so, and, if it did not, what alternative strategies were open to the working class.

The rigidity of the political structures and their acknowledged inability to reform themselves fed popular distrust and suspicion of politicians and the political system. Power remained firmly in the hands of the Christian Democrats, who successfully prevented an alternation of parties in govern- ment. The resulting operation of the Italian parliamentary system has been compared to that of Namier’s eighteenth-century English parliament in which there were ‘ins’ and ‘outs’, and politics consisted of ‘place-seeking’ and cynical manoeuvring. Percy Allum writes:

the lack of an electoral alternative has led all parties to viewing their role as the occupation of as many posts as possible in the state institutions not for the purposes of transforming society but of accruing patronage... this operation has reduced them to being the defenders of sectional interests. 17

For a short time, it seemed that the Socialists would be different, but the gap between their promises and their achievements widened the longer they stayed in the office. Giuseppe Tamburrano, who was closely involved with the Centre-Left experiment, attributed its demise in the final analysis to the Socialist Party’s failure to mobilize support within the country for its reform proposals. Instead of doing this, it lost itself in a maze of bureaucracy. Its experience seemed to prove the old adage that power corrupts, rather than its own thesis that real changes could only be brought about by being the ‘control-room’ (stanza dei bottoni). Moreover, this failure of the Socialist Party’s reform programme discredited ‘reformism’, and it strengthened the hand of those who advocated extra parliamentary action and revolutionary politics.

  • 1. For an excellent summary of Gramsci‘s writings on the subject and assessments of them, see John Davis, ed., Gramsci and the Passive Revolution, London, 1979. Diana Pinto has written of the way Italy, which in the 1960s was held up as a model of ‘modernization’, quickly became a focus of attention because of its crises: ‘Seen as the "sick man" of Europe, Italy has been studied recently as a special case among Westerndemocracies and advanced industrial nations. Indeed its very claim to membership in ‘ the ‘club‘ has been at times reconsidered by Italians and non-Italians alike when Italy was doing well she could be pointed out as an example of Westem strength and success; when she was doing badly, the specificity of her 'case' had to be stressed so as not to bring in question the entire Western frame of reference.' D. Pinto, ed., Contemporary Italian Sociology, Cambridge 1981, pp. 1-2.
  • 2. 'Italian workers in general, like the hand loom weavers of Biella had their political sensibilities sharpened by always seeing beside the factory-owner . . . the police representative, the 'carabinieri', and behind them the procurator to the king . . . the prison . . . that is, state violence'; Vittorio Foa, ‘Sindacati e lotte sociali‘, in Storia d’Italia, vol. 5, 2, Turin 1976, p. 1788
  • 3. Paul Ginsborg, ‘Gramsci and the Era of Bourgeois Revolution’, in Gramsci and the Passive Revolution, p. 43. For an outline of the development of Communist Party strategy in this period, see D. Blackmer and S. Tarrow, Communism in Italy and France, Princeton 1975.
  • 4. Giorgio Galli, Storia del PCI, Milan 1977, p. 298.
  • 5. G. Pasquino, ‘Capital and Labour in Italy’, Government and Opposition, 3, Summer ’ 1976.
  • 6. Percy Allum, Italy - Republic Without Government, London 1973, p. 207. See also C. Pavone ‘SuIIa continuita dello Stato (1943-45)’, Rivista di Storia Contemporanea, 1974.
  • 7. Umberto Romagnoli and L. Mariucci, ‘Ordinamento sindacale e sistema economico nella Costituzione’, in U. Romagnoli and L. Mariucci, lo sciopero dalla Costituzione all‘autodisciplina, Bologna 1975.
  • 8. D. Blackmer, ‘Postwar Italian Communism’, in D. Blackmer and S. Tarrow, Communism in Italy and France, p. 47.
  • 9. M. De Cecco, ‘Economic Policy, 1945-51’, in Stuart Woolf, ed., The Rebirth of Modern Italy, London 1971.
  • 10. See A. Graziani, L’Economia Italiana l945-70, Bologna 1972, especially the introduction; also M. D’Antonio, Sviluppo e crisi del capitalismo italiano, 1951-72, Bari 1973.
  • 11. 11. Gianfranco Pasquino and Umberto Pecchini, ‘ltaly’, in J. Hayward and M. Watson, eds., Planning and Public Policy, Cambridge 1975, p. 138.
  • 12. P, Farneti, ‘Partiti e sistema di potere’, in Castronovo, ed., Italia Contemporanea, Turin 1976, pp. 72-3, p. 81.
  • 13. See A. Graziani, ‘Aspetti strutturali dell’economia italiana nell’ultimo decennio’ in A, Graziani, ed., Crisi e Ristrutterazione nell’Economia Italiana, Turin 1975.
  • 14. 14. I.F. Mariani, ‘Incomes Policy and Employment Policies in Italian Economic Planning’, in Planning and Public Policy.
  • 15. Giuseppe Tamburrano, Storia e cronaca del centro sinistra, Milan 1971, p. 30; Farneti, ‘Partiti e sistema di potere‘, pp. 82-3.
  • 16. P. Ceri, ‘L’autonomia operaia fra organizzazione del lavoro e sistema politico’, Quaderni di Sociologia, 1, 1977, pp. 28-63.
  • 17. Republic Without Government, p. 92