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9-08-2015, 22:40

THE TRIBULATIONS AND SUCCESSES OF ITALIAN DEMOCRACY

Italy remains persistently self-effacing in international affairs. The Italian people have with relief turned their back on the ‘glorious’ years of the bombastic duce. Two decades of fascist rule and two bloody European wars brought Italy to a point in its history in 1945 where it seemed unlikely again to exert a major influence. Italy emerged with Britain, France, the Federal Republic of Germany and Spain as one of the big five democracies in Western Europe, with a population comparable in size and a large economy to match, which in 1987 generated about one-fifth of the gross national product of the European Community. The Italians have concentrated their talents on their own welfare. The post-war years were in many respects decades of achievement and success, of rising standards of living, though they were also years beset by problems. The fortunes of war decided Italy’s future in the first place. It was the Allied armies of the West that liberated the Italian peninsula in 1944 and 1945. Italy thus found itself on the Western ‘free nation’ side of the great post-war divide of Europe. This determined not only its international position after the conclusion of the peace treaty on to February 1947, but also its internal politics and social developments. Italy’s relations with the East (and its markets there) were cut off; economically its future lay in close relations with the West. Liberal economics, the abandonment of fascist autarchy or self-sufficiency, the Italian version of a more socially responsible capitalism, all set Italy on a fundamentally Western path of political and economic development. The politics of post-war Italy were dominated by the Christian Democratic Party, firmly committed to a parliamentary system. In the post-war world Italy moreover occupied a crucial strategic position in the Mediterranean and Adriatic, and was seen as a bulwark against communist south-east Europe. Yet impoverished Italy in the early post-war years, in the aftermath of the destruction and dislocation of the war, facing dire poverty in many regions and with an industrial proletariat in the north, did not appear secure against a communist takeover from within. The resistance had attracted the working masses to communism, especially in the north. The Italian Communist Party now numbered 2 million, the largest in the Western world. According to Cold War ideology, a communist anywhere had but one purpose, to subvert democracy and to seize power violently when the moment was ripe, following the successful model Lenin had created in 1917; it was believed, moreover, that all communists were totally subservient to Stalin and followed the dictates of the Kremlin. In 1945 the partisans in the north of Italy were strong and there were many communists among them who believed that the hour of revolution had indeed struck, but, disciplined and obedient to their leadership, they took care to avoid any direct challenge to the anti-communist Anglo-American forces. The Italian Communist Party after 1945 behaved in a way that was contrary to communist tradition, deliberately seeking general acceptance by shedding its violent revolutionary image. The party was led by the astute veteran Palmiro Togliatti, who had returned from Moscow as recently as 1944. The communists would prevail, he believed, only by following a democratic course, winning mass support among the Italian people first and then dominating society from this position of strength. It would take time. This was a rejection of Lenin’s revolutionary line and Togliatti had to assert himself against the more ardent traditional communists. Stalin probably approved this strategy for communist parties in Western Europe, where the ‘Anglo-Saxons’ had taken firm control, because he hoped to be left in peace to consolidate Soviet power in central and Eastern Europe. Togliatti’s avowal of the constitutional, non-violent path to socialism prepared the way for a close electoral alliance, virtually a fusion, with the Socialist Party, which was led by another veteran and Togliatti’s companion in arms during the Spanish Civil War, Pietro Nenni. One pivotal question for the future would be whether a democratic left, including the communists but not necessarily dominated by them, would emerge in post-war Italy. The year 1947 was crucial for the future of Italian politics. The US and Britain had identified a critical Soviet challenge in Europe: Turkey was under pressure and in Greece civil war was raging: they were, in Truman’s words, ‘still free countries being challenged by communist threats both from within and without’ – while in Poland and the rest of Eastern Europe the Soviet Union and the indigenous communists were tightening their grip. Truman’s response was to offer the democratic Western European states US support – diplomatic, economic and military. The outcome was the Truman Doctrine, the Marshall Plan and the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation. The effect of this support on Italian politics was that the Christian Democratic leader Alcide De Gasperi, after a visit to Washington, forced his communist– Socialist partners out of the governing coalition in May 1947. The heightening tensions of the Cold War also created enormous strains within the communist– Socialist pact. Could the communists continue to be trusted? A minority among the Socialists led by Giuseppe Saragat demanded that their party break off their close relationship with the communists; when they failed to persuade their colleagues, they left the party in 1947 and eventually formed the Italian Social Democratic Party (PSDI). By giving up the struggle within the party and splitting the socialists, the PSDI left the communists in a position from which they were able for the next three decades to dominate the left. Thus the communists opposed the Marshall Plan, though earlier the communist–Socialist alignment had accepted American economic aid. But the communist and Nenni Socialists were never strong enough to form an alternative government on their own, nor could they find any other small parties to join them to provide a majority in parliament. Domestically the Communist Party tried to make itself acceptable by espousing democracy and a multi-party system, an Italian road to socialism. But the autocratic organisation and leadership principle which the Communist Party itself strictly adhered to undermined confidence in the authenticity of their democratic avowals. Their unwavering support of Moscow in international affairs had a similar effect: they defended the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in February 1948, opposed Italy’s membership of NATO and military links with the US, were against Italy’s membership of the European Economic Community and failed to denounce the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956. Not until nearly two decades later did Italian communism openly take a lead in the formation of what became known as Eurocommunism, a policy of independence from Moscow and the US, and the declared pursuit of national interests. In fact, Togliatti had been critical of Moscow long before this, and a change of attitude had been evident, for example, with the acceptance by the communists of membership of the European Economic Community in 1962. But it was the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, the brutal assertion of Soviet dominance over a supposedly sovereign country, albeit a Soviet ally, that provoked the broad Eurocommunist movement of Western Europe. By the mid-1970s, the Italian communists were even sanctioning NATO. The acceptable face of communism, with its enhanced appeal to the electorate, caused even more apprehension in Washington than did traditional communism. In this respect little had changed in Washington’s assessment over forty years. In the immediate post-war years, communism was believed to be deriving its support mainly from conditions of poverty and misery, and there were plenty of those in Italy and Europe. Opponents of communism were given financial aid and sustained by whatever means were possible. But, since former enemies were being taught the arts of democracy, interference could not be too obvious. To safeguard the Western alliance from a communist takeover in Italy, a very secret organisation called Operation Gladio, named after the double-edged Roman sword, was set up. It was to play a sinister and corrupt role in Italian politics, though its existence was not uncovered until a judicial investigation in 1990. The threat of communism had a beneficial effect for Western Europe and Italy too. Extensive, predominantly American, aid was sent to Italy through the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA), then the US provided direct economic aid, because (in the sombre words of a State Department Policy Planning Staff report) the margin of safety politically and economically in Western Europe had become extremely thin. These stop-gap forms of aid were followed after 1948 by the planned approach of Marshall Aid. Between 1948 and 1952, Italy received more than $1,400 million in US grants and loans. So once the Italian economy had taken off in the 1950s, state, private and foreign capital ensured an investment rate in industry that fuelled rapid expansion. The millions of Italian immigrants who lived in the US made this largesse easier to justify. But in general it was appeals to America’s own self-interest and above all the need to contain communism that persuaded Congress and the American public to provide such a huge transfer of resources to Italy and Western Europe. One of the more important objectives of the Marshall Plan was to bring the non-communist European nations into closer collaboration. The means was the European recovery programme, which was to be planned jointly by the European participants. In April 1948, sixteen countries signed a treaty which, for this purpose, set up the Organisation for European Economic Cooperation (OEEC) with headquarters in Paris. The sixteen countries were Austria, Belgium, Denmark, France, Britain, Greece, Iceland, the Irish Republic, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Sweden, Switzerland and Turkey, together with the three Western zones of Germany. Italy was one of the full members, but its adherence to this block of noncommunist nations still seemed problematical to Washington, even after the resounding victory of the Christian Democratic Party in the elections of 1948. Contrary to the experience in the Western zones of Germany, the Cold War had not discredited the Italian Communist Party in the eyes of the Italian electorate. American hopes that Marshall Aid would weaken the communist left remained unfulfilled. In its relations with other countries, Italy has not sought a leading role. In the aftermath of the war, the dispute over the Trieste territory created some agitation until it was resolved in the mid-1950s. An agreement with Austria in 1969 settled the only other problem affecting its own territory, the Alto Adige region or South Tyrol, with its predominantly German-speaking population, though irredentist terrorism still upsets internal law and order in this region from time to time. Post-war Italy has not aggressively sought any special areas of influence in the Mediterranean. In a revulsion against wartime experience and imperial vainglory, the Italian people wish to be left in peace and to leave others in peace. Italy’s policy has been to maintain good relations with all its neighbours and to keep out of conflicts in the region, whether in the Middle East or over Cyprus. There is, indeed, a strong neutralist tendency noticeable in the attitudes of the major political parties. But successive Christian Democratic-led coalitions have remained firm in the Atlantic orientation, the alliance with the US, the membership of NATO and the European Economic Community. For four decades Italian foreign policy has been strikingly consistent. Consistent would not be an appropriate description of Italy’s policies at home. Italian democracy’s unique feature is that government has not alternated between a party in power and a party in opposition. The communists and their allies, the Nenni Socialists, polled between 31 and 36 per cent of the votes at general elections. Even after the Socialists had broken away from the communists in 1963, the communists polled more than 30 per cent of the vote on their own. Only the Christian Democrats could also claim to be a mass party, attracting some 38 per cent of the votes. None of the many other parties even reached 10 per cent. Since neither the Christian Democrats nor the various small parties from the centre to the fascist right would accept communists in the national government, the communists formed a virtually continuous opposition, while the Christian Democrats remained permanently in power, forming various opportunistic alliances with smaller parties in order to carry the necessary vote of confidence in parliament. But there were constant conflicts between the coalition partners, as frequently over personal differences as over questions of policy, the distribution of ministerial posts being an especially rich source of animosity. Party discipline hardly exists outside the Communist Party; indeed, because voting in parliament is secret, party members can vote with impunity against their own ministers in office. Personal ambition became a major cause of instability. Between 1944 and 1988 forty-seven Italian governments came and went. After a short-lived period of stability from 1983 to 1986, the pattern of frequent change resumed. Another important feature of Italian politics is the strength of grassroots organisations and dependent interest groups. Decades of uninterrupted power have enabled the Christian Democrats to look after their clients through patronage, from high civil service appointments to postmasterships. Italian Christian Democracy, which contains elements of both left and right, has no distinct ideology of its own and represents no single interest group. It is not the party of industry and big business, but industry and big business have no other mass party to turn to. Moderate conservatives also support the Christian Democrats. At the same time state intervention in industry has been a consistent feature of Christian Democratic government, coexisting with private enterprise and, of course, private property in the mixed Italian economy. In its early years particularly, the party had the advantage of the support of the Vatican. Through the parish priests, especially in the south, the support of the peasants was won for Christian Democracy, to set against the support of the urban workers for the communist–Socialist alliance. But the conservative landlord also votes Christian Democrat. Yet Christian Democracy, though avowedly dedicated to Catholic values, is not simply a confessional party. Its unifying spirit is a virulent anti-communism, and since the 1950s it has sedulously contrasted communist policies with its own pro-Western European and Atlantic ties. Alcide De Gasperi, prime minister from December 1947 to August 1953, headed eight successive governments. His anti-fascist credentials were impeccable. One of the founders of the People’s Party, a newspaper editor and a member of parliament in 1921, he opposed Mussolini and was imprisoned for his pains. On the intervention of the Pope, he was released in 1929 and spent the next few years quietly employed in the Vatican as a librarian, stealthily making contact with Catholic anti-fascists in Milan, Florence and Rome. Already in his sixties, he joined the active resistance and earned wide respect, though he lacked the charisma of a really popular leader. A practising Catholic, his relations with the Vatican remained close, but during the last years of his political life he was careful not to let the Church dominate the Christian Democratic Party. After leading governments of national unity until May 1947 he thereafter headed coalitions with small centrist parties, though the 1948 elections had given the Christian Democrats – as it turned out for the only time – an absolute majority. By the time of De Gasperi’s sudden death from a heart attack in 1954 (he had resigned the premiership a year earlier) Italy was set on a course embodying moderate, conservative policies and featuring an economic boom, increasing integration with the Western alliance and West European economic union. For four decades the Italian electorate has shown extraordinary stability in its political preferences. This seems to indicate that the associations and benefits the party could confer on individuals were at least as important as considerations of national policy. Shifts in voting patterns were small, though sometimes crucial when it came to bargaining to secure parliamentary majorities for legislation. De Gasperi resisted Vatican pressures to ally with the right; instead, the Christian Democrats established centrist coalitions with a reforming programme. In the south, land reform divided up large estates and gave land to the peasants to farm. The government also wanted to lessen the divisions between the poorest regions and the industrial north. The Southern Italy Fund was created to finance the building of infrastructures, roads, aqueducts and irrigation schemes. The hope was that tax concessions and various inducements would tempt private industry south. Later in the 1950s the government established factories in the south, but few succeeded. The results of all these reforming efforts fell far short of their aims. The Christian Democratic share of the votes declined after the high point of 1948 throughout the 1950s and early 1960s and with this loss the centrist coalitions became increasingly vulnerable, finding themselves in a minority in overall parliamentary votes. This, together with the tensions within Christian Democracy as the reformists looked left and the conservatives sought to move to the right, was the main cause of government unsteadiness. The Christian Democrats attempted to bolster their parliamentary position by copying a fascist device: they changed the electoral law so that an electoral alliance gaining just over half of the popular vote would obtain an almost twothirds majority of the seats in parliament. The communist and Socialists bitterly attacked the ‘swindle law’. But the new electoral law did not help the Christian Democrat centrist coalition in the elections of June 1953, because they just failed to gain 50 per cent of the popular vote. Since they therefore had to rely on the votes of the right, the governments from 1953 to 1958 had difficulty in maintaining their reforming policies, though some progress was made, particularly the adoption of a ten-year development plan designed to reduce unemployment in the more backward regions of Italy through increasing investment. But for most of the decade the centrist coalitions were locked in a domestic stalemate, concerned with keeping their clients happy. Thus the Christian Democrats in the south worked with the Mafia and the landlords and also tried to assist the peasants; while in the north-east, the Christian Democrats appealed to workers and industrial leaders. The main political principle was not to represent a cohesive ideology but to amass as much support as possible from whatever source. There was movement politically on the left too. The communist and Nenni Socialist alliance fell slowly apart under the impact of events in the Soviet empire following Stalin’s death in 1953. Khrushchev’s denunciation of Stalin’s crimes in February 1956 shocked the Socialists, but the invasion of Hungary in November of the same year was even worse for the image of communism. Though Togliatti declared the Italian Communist Party independent of the Kremlin leadership, he could not hold the Socialists, who now accepted NATO as well as the need for a multi-party state, as a necessary safeguard against dictatorships of the Stalin variety. The Nenni Socialists nevertheless moved slowly; not until January 1959 did the Socialist Party Congress formally approve the break with the communists. Meanwhile, Amintore Fanfani, who was the dominant politician of the Christian Democrats in the late 1950s and 1960s, led the party away from the right-centre support which could no longer command a majority in parliament. The political crisis reached its climax in 1960, when for months no government capable of winning acceptance by the Chamber of Deputies could be formed. The choice for the Christian Democrats was between the fascists and the Socialists, the latter alignment bitterly opposed by the Vatican and the right wing of the Christian Democratic Party itself. But the Vatican’s Italian politics were also changing under the influence of a reforming pope, John XXIII. Even so, not until December 1963, after further government crises, did Aldo Moro, Fanfani’s successor, manage to form a coalition government that included Nenni’s Socialists. The change to a Christian Democratic alignment with the small Socialist Party did not, however, lead to any lasting stability. The relationship was an uneasy one in the 1960s. The Socialists feared that they would lose votes to parties standing to their left, especially the communists, if socialism was watered down too far and the new coalition did not pursue vigorous reform and economic planning. Fanfani had nationalised the electricity industry in 1962, as the price for Socialist cooperation, but as far as planning and social reforms were concerned, Moro, his successor, was cautious. He had in his own party, after all, a suspicious right wing to contend with. The key feature of the political landscape was the health of the economy. The extraordinary period of economic expansion had not come to an end, but it was certainly decelerating just at a time when trade unions and workers had become far more strident in pressing their demands. During the previous fifteen years the industrial north had been transformed, and contributing to this transformation was the low cost of labour, the Italian worker having failed to gain any but small rises. The Italian economy from 1945 to 1963 had been built on the back of low wages. The profits made by successful industrial expansion tended to be ploughed back, rather than distributed to shareholders or to the workers. This was made possible by two features of the Italian economy: there was a large labour pool from the south, which kept unemployment high and so weakened trade union bargaining power, though it is true that between 1946 and 1973 there was a net migration loss of 3 million people (7.1 million emigrated, 4.1 million immigrated); and there was no large group of shareholders to satisfy. Since the fascist years, the Italian state had indirectly controlled a large variety of industries through the IRI, a holding company for industrial reconstruction dating from the depression. The IRI controlled the banks which, in turn, owned large holdings in engineering, steel, shipyards and armaments. After 1945, it also inaugurated public works programmes in the south, but its most important contribution between 1945 and 1955 was the modernisation of the steel industry, basic to the success of private industry, which was complemented and supported by the public sector. After a period of great inflation up to 1947, the Italian governments’ fiscal policies produced price stability until the 1960s, which helped to create the right conditions for industrial growth. State investment in housebuilding, transport, railways and motorways, television and telephones and agriculture fuelled that growth in the 1950s. Through another holding company the state also developed the huge gasfield in the Po valley, and a petrochemical industry grew up. Entry into the Common Market in 1957 as a founding member was good for exports, Italy’s most efficient industrial sectors in private hands having been poised to take full advantage of the removal of tariffs. The most successful of Italy’s industrial giants was Fiat. Other Italian manufacturers became household names throughout Western Europe: Olivetti, Pirelli, Snia Viscosa and, in chemicals, Montecatini; their dynamic managers made Italian cars, office machines, domestic appliances, rubber products, textiles and chemicals fully competitive with those of the rest of the world. The increase in Italian production from 1958 to 1963 reached a peak that came to be called the ‘economic miracle’. But the growing prosperity of the north contrasted with continued stagnation in the south. The gulf of wealth and poverty between Italy’s regions widened. Industry’s easy years of expansion, profits and high investments based on low wages came to an end in 1963. For the ordinary people, however, living standards continued rising in the 1960s; with low unemployment rates the unions recovered in strength. Wage rises now regularly outstripped productivity and the country began to suffer again from a high rate of inflation. Economic growth became erratic, the kind of stop–go policies familiar in Britain as balance-ofpayment difficulties forced successive governments to tighten the economic reins in the mid-1960s. Nevertheless, the 1960s, when judged as a whole, still showed outstanding economic growth when compared with the rest of Western Europe. Italy held its own in the Common Market and in world competition, with substantial exports of cars, washing machines, refrigerators, typewriters, textiles, chemicals and consumer goods. A flair for design, good marketing and managerial skills kept the best of Italian industries abreast with the best in Europe. Where Italy began to lose out was in the new, less labour-intensive technological industries of the third industrial revolution. Italians were in danger of being overtaken unless a programme of modernisation was instituted. Like Britain, Italy fell behind the world competition in the 1970s. The south remained backward, with employment and wages much worse than the north, although successive governments made large-scale investments. Public development funds and regional reforms consistently failed to produce the hoped-for results. The years 1968 and 1969 mark a watershed between two decades of stability and steady growth and a period of social, economic and political impasse, conflicts and crises. In 1968, the year of student revolt, youth challenged attitudes and authority all over Western Europe. The new generation in their twenties and thirties were no longer content with what had been achieved since the end of the war: their standard of comparison was not with the depression of the 1930s or the miseries of war and defeat. They had grown up during the steady but not stirring days of reconstruction, when for the ordinary people life was unexciting. Their expectations went far beyond what was being provided. The political leadership from left to right had followed the road of compromise and bargain, while the young activists had utopian visions of social revolution and regeneration. The shining example of democracy and prosperity, the US, was cast in the role of barbaric aggressor in Vietnam. The disillusionment was as exaggerated as the earlier admiration had been, and riots broke out in the cities. While the froth on the surface of these exciting events soon blew away, in Italy the year 1968 had a long-term impact on industrial relations and economic growth.

 

 

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