What happens when a parliamentary constitution is imposed on an underdeveloped society? The answer is not without relevance to conditions in the Third World in the twentieth century. Italy provides an interesting early case history. In population size Italy, Austria-Hungary, France and Britain belong to the same group of larger European nations, but the differences between their development and power are striking. The greater part of Italy, especially the south, was in the late nineteenth century among the poorest and most backward regions of Europe. But its rulers in the north imposed parliamentary constitutional government on the whole of Italy, over the more developed as well as the undeveloped regions. Furthermore, a highly centralised administration was devised dividing the whole country into sixty-nine provinces, each governed by a prefect responsible to the minister of the interior.
Parliamentary institutions suited well enough the north-western region of Italy, formerly the kingdom of Piedmont, the most advanced region of Italy, where parliamentary government had taken root before unification. The problem arose when the Piedmontese parliamentary system was extended to the whole of Italy in 1861; it was now intended to cover the very different traditions and societies of the former city states, the papal domains and the Neapolitan kingdom. It was a unity imposed from above. For many decades ‘unity’ existed more on paper than in reality. Italy had the appearance of a Western European parliamentary state.
A closer look at the Italian parliament shows how very different it was from Britain’s. To begin with, only a very small proportion, 2 per cent, of Italians were granted the vote. This was gradually extended until in 1912 manhood suffrage was introduced. But in the intervening half-century, the small electorate had led to the management of parliament by government; a few strongmen dominated successive administrations. There were no great political parties held together by common principles and beliefs, just numerous groups of deputies. The dominating national leaders contrived parliamentary majorities by striking bargains with political groups, by bribes of office or by the promise of local benefits. When a government fell, the same leaders would strike new bargains and achieve power by a slight shuffling of political groupings.
In such a set-up, parliamentary deputies came to represent not so much parties as local interests; their business was to secure benefits for their electors. Politicians skilled in political deals dominated the oligarchic parliamentary system from 1860 to 1914. In the early twentieth century Giovanni Giolitti became the leading politician. These leaders can be condemned for their undeniable political corruption as well as for undermining the principles of constitutional parliamentary and, eventually, democratic government. The ordinary voter could scarcely be aroused in defence of parliament which seemed to assemble only for the benefit of politicians and special-interest groups.
On the other hand, the particular conditions of recently united Italy have to be taken into account. It had a strong tradition of local loyalties. Central government was regarded as an alien force. The difficulty of building bridges between the political oligarchy of those who ruled and the mass of the people was great. Outside Piedmont there was little tradition of constitutional parliamentary government of any sort. At the time of unification three-quarters of the population could neither read nor write. The poverty of southern and central Italy was in great contrast to the progress of the north. And the enmity of the papacy, which had lost its temporal dominion, meant that Catholics obedient to the Pope were alienated from the state and would not participate in elections. In a country so rent by faction and regional rivalry as well as so backward, it can be argued that the firm establishment of unity and the solid progress achieved represented, in themselves, a notable success. The franchise was extended, and illiteracy greatly reduced so that by 1911 almost two-thirds of the population could read and write; in the south the proportion of literate to illiterate was reversed.
Politics cannot be divorced from society and poverty. Compared to France and Britain, Italy was a poor country; the greater part of Italy, especially the south, was caught in the poverty trap of a backward agrarian economy. A larger proportion of the population remained dependent on agriculture right down to the First World War than in any other Western European country, including France. Some agricultural progress was achieved as landowners and peasants turned to exporting olive oil, fruit and wine, but protection against the influx of low-cost wheat from the Americas benefited principally the great landowners of the south, while high food costs bore most heavily on the poorest landless labourers. The masses of the south were exploited in the interests of the north. Deforestation, exhaustion of the soil and soil erosion, taxation and overpopulation forced some of the peasantry to emigrate in search of a less harsh life elsewhere in Europe or across the Atlantic. During every year of the 1890s, on average 280,000 people left Italy, rather more than half this number to go overseas; this human stream rose to 600,000 a year in the first decade of the twentieth century and reached 873,000 in 1913, by which time about two-thirds went overseas, principally to the US. No European state suffered so great an exodus of its population in the early twentieth century. By 1927, the Italian government calculated there were more than 9 million Italians living abroad, where they formed concentrated communities: among them, half a million in New York, 3.5 million in the US as a whole, 1.5 million in the Argentine and 1.5 million in Brazil.
The alliance between northern industry and the large, and frequently absentee, landowners growing wheat in the south impoverished the mass of the peasantry: protected by a high tariff, these landowners were able to farm large tracts of land inefficiently and wastefully without penalty; unlike in France, no class of peasant proprietors, each with his own plot of land, would emerge. Almost half the peasants had no land at all; many more held land inadequate even for bare subsistence.
By the turn of the century, there was a growing recognition that there was a ‘southern question’ and that the policies of united Italy had been devised to suit the conditions of the north; special state intervention would be necessary to help the south. In December 1903 Giolitti, when prime minister, expressed the will of the government to act: ‘To raise the economic conditions of the southern provinces is not only a political necessity, but a national duty’, he declared in parliament. Genuine efforts were made by legislation to stimulate industrial development in the Naples region, to improve agriculture and reform taxation, build railways and roads, improve the supply of clean water and, above all, to wage a successful campaign against the scourge of malaria. But too little was done to improve the wealth of the peasants and to increase peasant proprietorship; the middle class was small and, in the absence of industry, mainly confined to administration and the professions. Government help on the economic front was but a drop in the ocean of widespread poverty and backwardness. Despite the undoubted progress, the gap between the north and south continued to widen. Little would be achieved until after the Second World War, but even at the beginning of the twenty-first century the problem of the south persists.
Italian industrialisation was handicapped by the lack of those indigenous resources on which the industrialisation of Britain, France and Germany was based: the amount of coal in Italy was negligible and there was little iron ore. But helped by protection (since 1887), Italian industry developed in the north. The first decade of the twentieth century was (apart from the brief depression of 1907 to 1908) a period of exceptionally fast growth, overcoming the depression of the 1890s. Textile production, led by silk, rapidly expanded in Piedmont and Lombardy and dominated exports. Large quantities of coal had to be imported but as a source of energy coal was supplemented by the exploitation of hydroelectrical power, in which large sums were invested. Italy also entered into the ‘steel age’, building up its steel production to close on a million metric tons by the eve of the First World War, a quantity five
Times as large as in the 1890s. A start was made, too, in promising new twentieth-century industries in typewriters (Olivetti), cars (Fiat), bicycles and motorcycles. A chemical industry producing fertilisers rapidly developed. State aid, in the form of special legislation aiding shipbuilding or by stimulating demand through railway construction and through tariff protection, contributed to this spurt of industrialisation in the early twentieth century. The banks provided investment funds; the help of tourist income and the money sent back by Italians abroad enabled a greater investment to be made than was earned by the industrial and agricultural production of the country.
But a weakness of Italy’s industrialisation was its concentration in three north-western regions, Piedmont (Turin), Lombardy (Milan) and Liguria (Genoa), thus widening further the gap between administrative political unification and industrial economic unification.
The growth of industry in the north led, as elsewhere in Europe, to new social tensions as factory workers sought to better their lot or simply to protest at conditions in the new industrial centres. During the depression of 1897 and 1898, riots spread throughout Italy, culminating in violence and strikes in Milan. They were met by fierce government repression. But the year 1900 saw a new start, a much more promising trend towards conciliation. The Socialist Party was prepared to collaborate with the Liberal parliamentarians and accept the monarchy and constitution in order to achieve some measure of practical reform. This was the lesson they learnt Italian production (annual averages)
From the failure of the recent violence in Milan. Giolitti, who became prime minister for the second time in 1903, saw the involvement of the masses in politics as inevitable and so sought to work with the new forces of socialism and to tame them in political combinations. But he looked beyond this to genuine social and fiscal reforms.
The rise of socialism in the 1890s had one beneficial result for the embattled state. It alarmed the Church and led to a revision of the papal interdiction against such activities as participation in government and parliamentary elections. The temporal rights of the Church - the ‘occupation’ of Rome - were becoming a question of history rather than one of practical politics. Pope Leo XIII expressed the Church’s concern for the poor and urged social reform as a better alternative to repressive conservativism on the one hand and atheistic socialism on the other. The Church was coming to terms with twentieth-century society. His successor, Pope Pius X, though more conservative, in 1904 permitted Catholics to vote wherever Socialists might otherwise be elected. This marked the cautious beginning of collaboration between Church and state, and a beginning, too, in creating a Catholic political force (Christian Democrat) to keep the Socialists out of power in collaboration with other groups. Catholic support was welcome to Giolitti. His progressive social views did not mean he wished to allow Socialists a decisive voice in government.
From 1903 onwards the Socialists were split into violently hostile factions: a minority, the reformists, were still ready to collaborate within the constitutional framework and to work for practical reform; the majority, the syndicalists, were intent on class revolution to be achieved by direct action and violence through syndicates or trade unions. The weapon that they hoped would overthrow capitalist society was the general strike. The split into reformist socialists, revolutionary socialists and syndicalists further weakened the Socialists, faced in the new century with the overwhelmingly difficult task of changing a well-entrenched capitalist state. The great strikes of 1904, 1907 and 1908 were defeated, the Socialist Party in parliament was small, the forces of law and order, strong; a Catholic labour movement, too, successfully diverted a minority of peasants and industrial workers from socialist trade unions.
The absence of strong parties and the commanding position established by a few politicians were the most noteworthy characteristics of Italian political life before the First World War. The Catholic political group was embryonic, unlike those in neighbouring France and Germany. Italian socialism could not overcome the handicap of the fierce factional struggles that characterised the emergence of socialism in Europe. Regionalism, the Church and the backwardness of much of the country also prevented the development of a broadly based conservative party. So government was dominated by the ‘liberal’ groupings of the centre, agreeing only on the maintenance of law, order and national unity, and bound by a common opposition to conservative extremism and revolutionary socialism. Were these characteristics of Italian political life the inevitable consequence of this stage of uneven national development, of the continuing regional particularism of a sharply differentiated society and of a limited franchise? Or should the arrested form of parliamentary government be regarded as forming the roots of the later fascist dictatorship and the corporate state? It is not helpful to look upon Giolitti as a precursor of Benito Mussolini. The two men and their policies must be examined in the context of the conditions of their own times. The shattering experience of the First World War separated two eras of modern Italian history, Giolitti’s from Mussolini’s.
Giolitti was a politician of consummate skill in parliamentary bargaining. He followed broad and consistent aims. The first was to master the whirlpool of factions and to reconcile the broad masses of workers and peasants with the state, to accept the upsurge of mass involvement in politics and industrial life and to channel it away from revolution to constructive cooperation. ‘Let no one delude himself that he can prevent the popular classes from conquering their share of political and economic influence’, he declared in a remarkable parliamentary speech in 1901. He clearly accepted the challenge and saw it as the principal task of those who ruled to ensure that this great new force should be harnessed to contribute to national prosperity and greatness. He was not prepared to accept revolutionary violence, yet repression, he recognised, would only lead to unnecessary bloodshed, create martyrs and alienate the working man.
Giolitti utilised the revulsion against the strikes of 1904 to increase his parliamentary support by calling for a new election which he fought on a moderate platform. His tactics succeeded and he never, down to 1914, lost the majority of support he then gained. But this support was based as much on the personal loyalty and dependence on political favours of individual deputies as on agreement with any broad declaration of policy. His management of parliament (and the electoral corruption) undeniably diminished its standing and importance.
Enjoying the support of King Victor Emmanuel III, Giolitti’s power was virtually unfettered for a decade. He used it to administer the country efficiently, to provide the stability that enabled Italy, in the favourable world economic conditions, to make progress and modernise its industry. His concern for the south was genuine, and state help pointed the way. In order to preserve the state, Giolitti appeased the left and claimed to be a conservative. His most startling move towards the politics of the masses, away from those of privilege, was to introduce a bill in 1911 to extend the electorate to all males. The bill became law in 1912. It was not so much the new extension of the franchise that undermined Giolitti’s hold over his parliamentary majority: he secured the return of a large majority in the new parliament of 1913. What transformed Italian politics was the unleashing of ardent nationalism by the war with Turkey in 1911 which Giolitti had started in quite a different spirit of cool calculation.
It was Italy’s misfortune to be diverted in the twentieth century from the path of highly necessary internal development to a policy of nationalism and aggressive imperialism. Italy lacked the resources and strength for an expansionist foreign policy. But for its own ambitions, Italy could have remained as neutral as Switzerland.
Italy was favoured by its geographical position in that it did not lie in the path of the hostile European states confronting each other. Luckily for Italy, its military forces represented to its neighbours a ‘second front’ which they were most anxious to avoid opening while facing their main enemy elsewhere. However little love they had for Italy, they were therefore anxious to preserve Italian neutrality and even willing to purchase its benevolence with territorial rewards. Thus, the diplomatic tensions and divisions of Europe were extraordinarily favourable to Italy’s security, which its own military strength could not have ensured.
One of the most virulent forms of nationalism is that known as ‘irredentism’, the demand to bring within the nation areas outside the national frontier inhabited by people speaking the same language. There were two such regions adjoining the northern Italian frontier: Trentino and Trieste. Both were retained by Austria-Hungary after the war with Italy in 1866. A third area, Nice and Savoy, which had been ceded to France in return for French help in the war of unification, also became the target of irredentist clamour. Besides this irredentism, Italian leaders also wished to participate in the fever of European imperialism. Surrounded on three sides by the sea, Italians looked south across the Mediterranean to the North Africa shore where lay the semiautonomous Turkish territories of Tunis and Tripolis and perceived them as a natural area of colonial expansion. They saw to the west the island of Corsica, now French, but once a dependency of Genoa; to the east, across the Adriatic, the Ottoman Empire was the weakening ruler of heterogeneous Balkan peoples.
National ‘egoism’ gave Italian policy the appearance of faithlessness and inconsistency. But it would be facile to make the moral judgement that Italian nationalism was either better or worse than that of the other European powers. What can be said with certainty is that it served Italian interests ill, but then it would have required vision and statesmanship of the highest order to have resisted the imperialist urge which swept over all the European powers. The Italians had not distinguished themselves in imperial wars. They were the only European country to be defeated by indigenous African people, the Abyssinians in 1896, but the Italians did not lose their appetite for empire.
In October 1911 the Italians, after declaring war on Turkey, landed troops in Tripoli. A month later Giolitti announced the annexation of Libya. But the Turks refused to give in. The Italians now escalated the war, attacking in April 1912 the Dardanelles and occupying a number of Aegean islands. By October 1912 the Turks had had enough and the war ended.
The consequences of the war were, however, far from over. As peace was signed, Montenegro, Serbia, Bulgaria and Greece began a new war, the first Balkan war, attacking Turkey. Italy’s policy cannot be said to have caused the Balkan wars but its success, and Turkey’s proven isolation, had certainly encouraged the Balkan states. Setting the Balkans alight was the last thing Giolitti wanted, yet that is what occurred. Just as serious were the reactions at home. Giolitti desired only limited expansion, but a reversion to a cautious pacific policy had been difficult. The nationalists thirsted for more colonies, more territory. And so it came about that Giolitti had unleashed a political force more powerful than he could control.