The awesome floods of November aside, Italy in late 1966 was in a state of non-crisis. There has been enough political and economic instability in the past, however, to make us view this period of often frenetic progress toward industrialization and social unity as temporary. Fundamental social changes are in process. The business recession of 1964 seems a thing of the past. A government budget of $14.3 billion for 1967 has been prepared, including $1.4 billion for much-needed agricultural development during the next five years and another $600 million for the still depressed southern regions. After hesitant beginnings in February, the third coalition center- left government of the taciturn Christian Democratic premier, Aldo Moro, appears to be settling in with a minimum of open controversy for the period between now and the general elections in 1968. The strains among the basically mismated members of his cabinet are temporarily eased while the two major elements (Christian Democrats and Socialists) reform for the campaign to win the adherence of more than 32,000,000 voters. In foreign policy, reflecting as it does the gentler phase of the cold war, no initiatives are likely. None the less, there is much for Italy's politicians to do.

The long-sought reunification of the Italian Socialist party and its junior Social Democratic partner, together holding the loyalties of about 20 percent of the electorate, had its serious beginnings in 1957 when the shock of the Hungarian revolution broke the Socialist-Communist "unity of action" pact. Reunion was finally sanctioned this past October when separate, simultaneous congresses approved a transitional charter covering ideological and organizational principles. Following the 1968 elections, the two parties will formally unite under a new constitution, the twenty- year rift will be healed, and Western Europe's second largest social democratic party will be reborn. Meanwhile, they will operate through a combined secretariat and central committee, with equal representation by each party. The decision not to merge totally until after the 1968 elections makes for cumbersome electioneering, and a fuzzy image, but it protects the minority position of the Social Democrats. It was they who requested the delay in the hope of making the wedding one of more equal partners.

Even this much reunification has not been altogether welcomed by the Christian Democrats. A resurgent and unified Socialist party represents, at least theoretically, an alternative government that could break the twenty- year dominance of the Christian Democratic party. In 1948, there had been a genuine fear that a combination of the Communists and Socialists would provide Italy with a Marxist régime, but the efforts of the Vatican and the moral endorsement of the United States were perhaps conclusive in insuring that the government remained in the hands of the Christian Democrats, who, that once, won a slim majority. Two decades after that critical moment in Italian politics, the Communist party appears in retrospect to have been stalemated, its strength among the electorate hovering around 26 percent,[i] and presenting no more than a distant shadow of a threat as a governmental alternative. Moreover, the lack of Communist progress in these years has caused some attrition in the party's leadership. Defections of important members are increasingly frequent, and the concept of "democratic centralism" is being weakened by a lack of unified party policy.

On the other hand, while the anti-Communist forces have not been unified, certainly, the Church has remained a constantly concerned and effective grass-roots influence, and the présence of the United States continues to be indirectly effective through countless family ties resulting from Italian emigration to America, by America's increasingly significant industrial investment, by trade ties and by nuclear-equipped NATO forces. Socialists have charged that the Christian Democrats have at least passively encouraged the persistence of the static Communist strength as a domestic defense against a competitive socialist alternative. In any event, for many Italian political strategists the dangerous years of threatened Communist takeover have passed, and the appeal of a rigid Communist- Christian Democratic contest no longer serves.

The Communist party itself seems to be in a state of ambivalence. It has openly suggested closer ties with the Church itself, softening its traditional anti-clerical position for the sake, apparently, of a new reformist and national legitimacy in the eyes of the voters. Its once monolithic structure under the late veteran leader, Palmiro Togliatti, who died in 1964, has been badly strained by a lack of accepted leadership under his successor, Luigi Longo. For example, while the central committee remains committed in its long-term loyalty to Russia, many of the party's intellectuals complained that Moscow's rivalry with Peking led it to abandon Communist universalism. Perhaps, too, some of the radicalism of early postwar Communism has moderated as a result of the prosperity which many of the party functionaries have enjoyed, undergoing the process of imborghesimento themselves. In 1966, 67 (out of 306) middle-sized communes have ousted their Communist mayors.

However, the continued effectiveness of Communist organization in Italy should not be denied. The party's durability is based upon its vigilant efficiency as a political machine which still controls the largest of the country's three labor federations, and much of the prospering coöperative movement. To many voters it seems to offer the only potentially successful alternative to a Church-influenced Christian Democratic government that contains a not inconsiderable proportion of reactionary elements. Nevertheless, the relatively unchanged strength of the Communist party in recent elections, and its lack of a clear political profile in an era of coexistence, suggest that it may have become virtually hors de combat; thus its supporters offer a more promising target for conversion than ever before.

Since the Socialists' determination to reunite became more or less clear a year ago, neither the Communists nor the Christian Democrats have been helpful to the progress of reunion. Socialist spokesmen in parliament have found themselves embarrassed by decisions that strained their commitment to unity-such as the government's unenthusiastic support of the American role in Viet Nam. The Italian press is heavily dominated by rightist influences and has not encouraged the public to take the Socialist man?uvre seriously. Major newspapers have repeatedly pointed out the historic alliance of the Italian Socialist party with the Communist party until 1957, asking whether the Socialists are really anti-Communist even now. The question is an obvious one for the government party to use polemically.

In the years since World War II, the unifying banner of the governing Christian Democratic party has been anti-Communism. This standard was enough to enfold the party's divergent factions, ranging from a progressively oriented element on the left to a once-fascist minority of extreme rightists. Any attempt to point the party definitively to either extreme would be likely to cause a split which its broad confessional ties to the Church might not be able to heal. Only the most skillful politicking averted such a threat when a narrow majority of center and left factions decided in 1963 to form a coalition with the Socialists in the "opening to the left," as it was called-a move which the Johannine liberal approach of the Church seemed to sanction. Internal party debates do not reveal any greater unity of the party as a result, and at least one Christian Democratic leader has publicly recognized recently that delays in the enactment and furthering of the reform program worked out with the Socialists-delays caused by rightist Christian Democrats to embarrass their Socialist partners-might force the more liberal elements to quit in disgust, leaving the Christian Democrats an essentially rightist party. This is a risk greater than the fate of one party. Few have forgotten the disastrous years of Mussolini's dictatorship when the fascist strength was drawn from reactionary elements of the suppressed Christian Populists, as well as from other conservative parties.

As for the Socialist parties, while enduring their Janus-like partnership in government, they have been forced to face some tactical alternatives. However uncomfortable their position, their departure from the government would be worse. It would force the Christian Democrats, lacking a majority, to seek a coalition with the rightist parties represented by the Liberals, Monarchists and Fascists. Reformist programs would be jettisoned and, without crying havoc, the democratic development of Italy might be jeopardized. Political polarity would again become extreme. The Communist party would be greatly encouraged and would come back into play as a potential alternative government. Meanwhile, the Socialist regrouping hesitates publicly to offer any new ideology or program. Instead, it has been satisfied to endorse the measures necessary to achieve an agreed reform program. Any effort to give itself individual identity could create irreconcilable differences with the Christian Democrats and the coalition would fall. Said one Socialist leader: "For the moment, our ideological position is like defending the old home against fire and storm, even though you know you will move into a new house next month."

If the combined party is to compete effectively with the now aging dogma of the Christian Democrats, its platform must be reasonable and pragmatic. Certain basic aspects of its program are already clear. A preliminary draft charter defines Marxism as "the fundamental theoretical experience of modern socialism to be constantly reinterpreted and reëlaborated in relation to existing historical conditions, instead of being professed as a rigid dogma." The new party's immediate association with the Socialist International, with which only the Social Democrats have maintained contact since 1949, provides certain obligations as well as offering the benefits of international support. It would appear to commit the party to social democracy as it has mutated in Europe, becoming virtually a "New Dealism" that emphasizes the government role in public welfare but does not deny the function of democratically monitored capitalism or, indeed, the persistence of economic inequalities.

The Italian Socialists' long ambivalence toward European cooperation will be clarified by these new associations-even including the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, which they have long viewed as provocative rather than peacemaking. They are likely to come into closer contact with German Social Democrats, for example, whose leader, Willy Brandt, once remarked to the writer that "Marxism brought up to date is no longer Marxism." A warmer endorsement of most European institutions generally can be expected, but with the obvious intent that the future management of Europe will fall to the Socialists and not to the Catholic parties.


In the political events of the last year in Italy, the Church has been more a silent influence than a participant, but the memory of Pope John XXIII is a significant factor. The papacy's long tradition of intervention in Italian political life takes a more shadowy and subtle form today-for both good and ill. It worked negatively, for example, in the refusal of the Christian Democratic party leadership last September to entertain a Socialist-supported bill that would make divorce possible in Italy, where as many as five million Italians live conjugally out of wedlock. And it has worked positively in the area of foreign policy, a circumstance which has a more complex explanation.

Since the sixteenth century and the era of the Counter-Reformation, the papacy has been predominantly an Italian institution. In matters of faith as in international relations, Italian prelates guided the Church, the guardian of a Christendom so exalted after the Gregorian reforms of the eleventh century that "all princes shall kiss the Pope's foot," as a contemporary protocol stated.

However, as nineteenth-century nationalism developed and bourgeois Italians sought to enjoy newly discovered freedoms and reforms, the papacy seemed willing to accept, if reluctantly, selected new social concepts. In the Papal States themselves, the constitution of 1848 providing for a bicameral legislature permitted a modest democratic approach to internal administration and taxation. Civil absolutism was moderated, but in foreign policy this limited liberality was restricted by a definitive article which stated that "all discussions concerning the diplomatico-ecclesiastical relations of the Holy See are forbidden to both Councils." The reservation of responsibility to the popes for foreign relations still operates, at least in setting the limits which an Italian government, led by a Catholic party, may follow.

By 1944, the Fascist era over, the Church was ready openly to endorse the reconstitution of the Christian Democratic party, but it was also confronted by the public rejection (if narrow) of a monarchy that had provided a national symbol of unity. The focus of a national mystique in the House of Savoy was obliterated, and a spiritual vacuum existed which the new institution of the presidency could not readily fill. This enhanced the role of the Church, whose continuity was untouched; even the Communists voted to include the Lateran Pact in the new republican constitution, which involved the Church inferentially and practically in Italian life. Moreover, in a world divided between the "atheism of Marxism" and the pluralistic Christianity of the West, the Church held a chalice of freedom and at the same time, by its presence and by its agent, the Christian Democratic party, it overshadowed Italian foreign policy. It would have been inconceivable for the government of Italy to deviate significantly from Vatican policy.

The accession of Pope John XXIII in 1958 created a marked change. This remarkable man attempted to reduce much of the Church's direct intervention in the Italian scene, but at the same time deeply affected Italian foreign policy and the structure of internal politics. His solicitude for the brotherhood of man (in contrast to the bitter anti-Communism of his predecessor) led him to give papal sanction to the necessity of peaceful coexistence in a world of ultimate weapons. The Church seemed to have successfully passed its own "missile crisis." Moreover, the second Vatican Council not only urged a more democratic modernization of the Church but also appeared to give approval to national solutions for social problems. It sounded a further note of political tolerance. "All men are equal in their natural dignity," Pope John wrote in Pacem in Terris; thus "All political communities are of equal national dignity . . ."

The effect in Italy was to make the gulf between the left and the center less distinct, and to make possible the "opening to the left." It also made acceptance of American leadership less obvious. Gaullism may also have had a marginal effect in encouraging greater independence of the United States, combined with an awareness that absolute adherence to one camp was no longer necessary or useful. A result has been a series of warmer diplomatic contacts with Eastern Europe and a conviction that Italian membership in Western institutions does not prohibit unilateral if cautious efforts to relax tensions with the East.

Still, though Italy achieved secular independence more than a hundred years ago, it has not been altogether liberated from the influence of the Vatican. The state tends rather to operate within the ideal theory of a Christian democracy, free to act so long as its choices fit a Catholic ethic as defined by the Church. No other polity in the Western World operates with both left and right political currents (and with the many gradations of each that a proportional representational system of voting encourages) and so intimately with the heart of the Church.


This change in the Vatican's world outlook has come at a time when Italy's economic expansion has opened new prospects for the good life for a majority of citizens. Radical changes in ways of life have already been accomplished for many. Nine million students entered school this autumn, compared to 4.7 million in 1950. Old ways, old laws, traditional views of societal taboos on sex, marriage and the family are now openly debated. The result is a still inchoate but persistent political pressure for reform, often involving radical change, though not the revolution Communists sentimentally demand nor the utopia Socialists once dreamed possible. Italy is already busy with development.

There is an abundance of growth statistics this year. Steel production has reached a record of 14,000,000 tons. Tourism is up nearly 15 percent over last year; some 25,000,000 visitors have spent about $1.5 billion, boosting Italy's total foreign exchange reserves to more than $5 billion, and bringing with it a $500 million surplus in the 1966 balance of payments. Traffic congestion in Italian cities attests to the 10 percent increase in new automobile registrations in 1965 and the 12 percent increment expected in 1966, making a total of more than 12,000,000 vehicles in a population of 51,000,000. The number of telephones has doubled in the last seven years, and nearly 900,000 television sets will be sold in 1966, reaching a total of 7,000,000, or one for every eight people. An increase in national income of 4.5 percent in real terms is reliably forecast for 1966, and will result in a per capita income of more than $1,000 although individual incomes in the south and the islands regrettably remain at about a third of the national average.

Italy's birth rate is down to 18.3 per thousand, lower than that of the United States, and emigration is high. The loss of exported skills is partially recompensed by remittances which totaled more than $675,000,000 in 1965. Compared to a decade ago, unemployment in the country is at a relatively modest level of about 5 percent, but the labor market has remained highly concentrated. Even though Italy now has a total of almost 1.1 million artisan workshops and small industries, 0.7 percent of all enterprises employ 51 percent of all workers. Inevitably with industrialization, urbanization continues. More than 8,000,000 Italians have moved from the rural south to the industrialized north in the past decade. Whereas in 1901 only 14 percent of the Italian population lived in cities of 50,000 population or more, in 1966 the proportion approached 35 percent and nearly 60 percent of the population live in centers of more than 10,000 people. One result, however, has been that, out of 1.6 million farm families, only 41.5 percent have any male member under 50 years of age.

Italy's raw materials are, of course, largely imported and the economy is heavily dependent upon exports; more than a seventh of the national income is derived from foreign trade. Exports have risen nearly 20 percent annually for the past two years, and are expected to reach nearly that rate of increase in 1966. More than a third of Italy's trade is with the Common Market, and another fifth with the rest of Europe. Italy has clearly benefited from its association with the new institutions of Western Europe. As the lagging member of the Community, it is, for example, the recipient of 63 percent of the loans made by the European Investment Bank, amounting to nearly $400 million.


It is a commonplace to observe the theatrical quality of Italian public affairs. The classe dirigente sometimes seem like professional actors performing before the general population and viewed by it remotely, without a sense of participation. It suggests the persistence of an Italian feeling that democracy is still unproven, despite an astonishingly high vote by the electorate. The voter seems part of an audience momentarily involved on election day in passing judgment but never playing a central role.

In a study made public in 1963, only 28 percent of a nationwide sample of Italians felt that the individual citizen was effective in the making of national policy.[ii] In another detailed study made in 1962 to measure European sentiment in countries of the E.E.C., Italians ranked lowest of the respondents in the six countries both in knowledge of national or European issues and in the citizens' involvement with them.[iii] Only 23 percent volunteered any indication of an awareness of the Common Market. On questions of national concern, the largest number (20 percent) felt that individual well-being was the most critical issue confronting Italy and 42 percent gave no response at all on national issues. Indeed, 67 percent indicated that they had little or no interest in political matters.

This alienation from political participation has been called "amoral familism"-the tendency toward a civic attitude that sharply limits the interest of the citizen to what is of direct concern to his immediate family. In any event, the result is that Italian public policy becomes less the direct expression of the electorate than it is the independent creation of a political class. Few are the decision-makers, but these few are subject to the necessity for a working equilibrium within an intricate political system. The structure is multi-party, and the fragmentation of the parties themselves into still smaller cliques seems to inhibit individual political leadership. It necessitates a sharing of party power for the purpose of achieving an equilibrium. For the Christian Democrats, the range of political coloring is sufficiently wide to make a workable synthesis of ideology almost impossible to develop, with the result that only the negative dogma of anti-Communism and the naked fact of continuing political responsibility remain visible. In this may lie an answer to the frequently asked question why Italy has not produced another leader with the stature of Alcide De Gasperi, for example, who led the country with distinction during the difficult years immediately following World War II. Or another: why Italy, for all its economic success in these past two decades has not provided more notable political leadership in the formation of a Europe which both the Church and a majority vote of the parties have now endorsed.[iv]

Italy is the archetype of the Catholic society, and the first of its kind to adventure into industrialization. The value system it inherits tends to encourage that Italian individualism so often prized in literature, but rarely by the public administrator or the organizer of a coöperative. Italy is one of the newest countries of Europe in the modern sense of nationhood. It has enjoyed popular democracy in full measure only since 1948. The development of national confidence in a participant democracy is not easily achieved following centuries of alien rule. Moreover, the nation suffers from the continuing acceptance of class rigidity and an over-cautious approach to the open society. Nevertheless, there are evidences of social change that accompany the industrialization process, and from these, perhaps, a new Italy will emerge.

[i] Voter strength in Italy measured by the present parliament, elected in 1963, reveals the following proportions: Christian Democrats, 41.2 percent, Social Democrats, 4.9 percent; Socialists, 13.8 percent; Communists, 26 percent; Liberals, 6.1 percent; neo-Fascists, 4.6 percent; others, 3.2 percent. More than 95 percent of the electorate voted in that election.

[ii] Reported in "The Civic Culture, Political Attitudes and Democracy in Five Nations: an Analytic Study," by Gabriel A. Almond and Sidney Verba. Boston: Little, Brown, 1965.

[iii] "L'Opinion Publique et I'Europe des Six," conducted by l'Institut Français d'Opinion Publique for Gallup International (Paris: 1962).

[iv] De Gasperi's personal strength seems to have been drawn not only from his great political ability and his impeccable anti-Fascist record, but also from the fact that he was the leader supported both by the Church and by the United States, at a time when America was a prominent activist in Italian politics.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now