Foreign Affairs: 100 Years
A New Americanism
Why a Nation Needs a National Story
FOREIGN observers of the Italian political situation have the advantage of a comprehensive view. Italians themselves, on the other hand, are acquainted with a host of details which have to be taken into consideration in the formulation of an efficient line of action. Sometimes those who rely on the bird's-eye view make trouble when they attempt to advise those who have to put the advice into practice. Take the attempt of the British Labor Party to unite the forces of Italian Socialism. The result of this attempt is that today there are two Socialist parties in Italy where before there was one. Or take the effort of the American trade unions to create a single non-Communist Italian labor force. The Minister of Transportation has just told me that there now are eight railway workers' unions where six months ago there were two.
Of course the mistakes that foreigners make about Italy are no different from the mistakes made by Italian observers in other countries. I know this from my own experience when I was in exile during the Fascist régime. After I had spent a fortnight in France I was sure that I understood that country completely, but after 18 years I was completely in the dark and found the political setup unutterably complex and mysterious. Fortunately for the French, I was a mere exile and had none of the influence wielded in Italy by the British Labor Party and the American trade unions.
Those who read this article will find neither a complete explanation of what is going on in Italy today nor a key to the solution of all her problems, but merely information on various details and an Italian politician's opinion on certain questions of interest not only to Italy but to other countries as well. The first thing I must say is that in my view the democracy which was installed in Italy after the fall of Fascism is in crisis. But let me add quickly that this crisis was inevitable and that with intelligence and steadiness our free institutions may come out of it stronger instead of weaker than they are now.
The symptoms of crisis are visible to all. During recent months there have been numerous violent clashes between workers and the police. When bloodshed of this kind occurs in a democracy there clearly is something very wrong. And yet poverty is slowly but surely decreasing. If the economic condition of the workers is in the process of improvement, why do they resort to violence? The fact is that economic improvement and the promise of social reform are actually the causes of the recent disorders. Let us analyze this paradox.
In the countries of southern Europe, which suffer from overpopulation and a lack of raw materials, democracy is bound at a certain phase of its development to fall into contradictions. As soon as the workers have obtained democratic rights they go on to demand better living conditions. But, someone may object, isn't this equally true in northern Europe and the United States? There is an important difference. In richer countries the only obstacle to the rise of the workers is the selfishness of the more privileged classes. The struggle is against the excesses of capitalism, and it can take place in the democratic framework without disrupting it. But in poorer countries the workers are up against not only the egotism of the rich but adverse forces of nature as well. The workers' chance to get ahead is so small that they are inclined to throw overboard the democratic system and look for a totalitarian solution.
Italy's position is an intermediate one. The Po valley in the north is fertile and the central part of the country is fairly prosperous, whereas most of the south and the outlying islands are barren and extremely poor. We must remember that though Italy has 48,000,000 inhabitants her total area is only 116,500 square miles, of which all but about 30,000 are composed largely of mountains. As a result, the Italian Socialist movement is caught in a vicious circle; for while the workers cannot hope to better themselves except through a strong, independent Socialist party, no independent Socialist party can become strong unless improved living conditions bring the masses of workers into its ranks. Or, if you like, independent, democratic Socialism can flourish only when extreme poverty has been overcome, and it can be overcome only where Socialism is already strong. Philosophers may say that this is all a matter of dialectics, but practical politicians know that the difficulty is real. When the working class lives at an almost sub-human level it cannot understand the cause of its troubles or find a remedy. Instead, it inclines to put faith in totalitarian Communism, which makes a pretense of helping the very poor only in order to install a dictatorship over them.
In a democracy, poverty is visible to all, and because the poor have full political rights they conduct their struggle with no holds barred. In a country like Italy, moreover, democracy is faced with a constant dilemma. If economic conditions improve, the social struggle seems to enter an acute phase (though this may have a happy outcome). But if economic conditions are static or deteriorate, then democracy's days are counted. For then the political struggle boils down to a fight between revolution and reaction. The alternatives become Communism and Fascism.
Meanwhile the independent Italian Socialists are trying to win more voters to their side. Their present membership consists of the most enlightened portions of the working and middle classes. Powerful centrifugal forces always are pulling them to one extreme or the other. When foreign observers see the disunity of the Italian Socialist movement they are too apt to be content with a superficial explanation of a psychological or personal kind, saying that Italians are politically immature or have no good leaders. In 1922, Italian Socialism was led by Turati, a man of no less stature than the French Jaurès, and yet at the crucial moment it broke into three factions and Fascism won the day.
At present, as I have said above, Communism has a very strong leverage in the extreme poverty of the lower classes. But this does not mean that the workers are fundamentally Communistic. The little people of Italy are very far removed from the implacable, inhuman, "true" Communist. They are kindly, averse to violence, and inclined by centuries of civilization to a tolerant view of life and its vicissitudes. Communism appeals to them only in disguise, only when it assumes a vaguely revolutionary but definitely human and Socialistic pattern. This is why extreme poverty is the great danger. The Communists hide behind the rags of the poor. What the independent Socialists are trying to do is to tear away the Communist disguise. We are not without the needed courage to make this difficult effort. Our greatest ally, we find, is the basically sound heart of the Italian people.
The real problem before the independent Socialists today is how to pave the way for a program of social reform--redistribution of land, lowering of manufacturing costs and government reorganization. None of these things can be obtained without efficient democratic machinery, geared to the achievement of definite social aims. We must have the right kind of government and the bureaucracy must be overhauled and made to function more smoothly.
Many foreign observers have a ready answer. Without stopping to take into account the particular character of Italian democracy, they say that it fails to work well because of the lack of a constitutional opposition. Having adopted this theory, they are forced to say that we non-Communist Socialists should step down from the government now in power and set up the opposition which they feel is so necessary. Every time that the present writer has the pleasure of meeting a Socialist from another country he is faced with the question: "Why are you in the Government?"
Certainly it would be much more comfortable to be in the opposition, but I do not know that it would contribute much to the preservation of democracy. I feel strongly that in a poor country like Italy democracy is not mainly a matter of parliamentary or electoral tactics. Our job is not to exploit poverty and discontent but to work toward their elimination. The Communists are past masters in the art of exploiting the masses and it is no use competing with them on their own ground. In Italy democracy must be built up to meet one fundamental need--the elimination of poverty and the betterment of the working-class standard of living.
The Communists agree with the criticism of many foreign Socialists and say that there should be a government of national unity. So, instructively enough, do the extreme right-wing parties--the neo-Fascists, monarchists, etc. Both extremist groups want to reconcile the contradictions of the democratic process by killing off democracy, of course leaving the contradictions as unreconciled as before. Our aim is diametrically the opposite. Since the policy which is designed to achieve it is less obvious and simple it often is misunderstood by foreign observers.
Since we decide that we must turn down the proposal of a national unity government which, we feel, masks dangerous anti-democratic tendencies, we must study all the more carefully the relationship which exists among the truly democratic parties--the Socialists, Liberals, Christian Democrats and Republicans. These parties, while not abandoning their individual principles, participated in the national election of April 18, 1948, with a pledge to work together for the strengthening of democracy. Now they can carry out that pledge either by forming a coalition or by a division of labor, with some in power and others in the opposition.
If in Italy there were no large and powerful political party other than the Christian Democrats, then the place of the independent Socialists would be in the opposition. This is the logical pattern in Western Germany. But in Italy there are other powerful political forces. The election of April 18, 1948, was not a contest between two or three democratic parties, but a much more serious fight between democratic parties on the one hand and anti-democratic parties on the other. The former won. Now the problem is whether they should split up into government and opposition or else stick together against their anti-democratic foes.
When almost the whole political scene is occupied by two rival democratic parties, as it is in the United States and England, it is natural that the rôles should be divided between government and opposition. The drama entitled "Democracy" is played according to rules as classical as those laid down for the theater by Aristotle. But when other characters burst upon the scene with the express purpose of overthrowing the rules of the game there is danger that the whole thing will degenerate into a comedy of errors and misunderstandings, and the upshot will be that both the government and the loyal opposition will be beaten--and beaten up--by their anti-democratic enemies.
In this case is it not wiser for the democratic parties to make common cause against the anti-democratic ones? Common sense would seem to advise it.
Common sense also tells us, at the same time, that we must not take part in the government at the cost of sacrificing principle. We have said that Italian democracy must be built up on the basis of combating poverty. But it is natural that on the issue of concrete social reforms there should be a divergence of opinion. And this is exactly what happened in the recent governmental crisis. The Liberal Party did not approve of the project of agricultural reform devised by the other parties in the Government, and so it went into the opposition. This was an act of political honesty. But it would be dishonest and disloyal to the democratic cause if any of us were to make the same move merely for demagogic purposes. In the serious plight in which Italy finds herself today a truly democratic party must take its share of responsibility and not sit it out on the sidelines. Democracy today is on the government benches, and the fact that the Liberals could not accept the Government's bold land reform project is proof of it.
Our independent Socialist Party had already shown its willingness to assume responsibility on a previous occasion, when the time came to vote on the Atlantic Pact. The attitude we took then is one of the causes of the present crisis in Italian Socialism. It would have been easy for us to fall back on a declaration of neutrality, especially since the Pact was already sure of having a parliamentary majority. But we believe that a Socialist party must always vote as if its vote were to be decisive. Because we thought that the Atlantic Pact was a step favorable to both Italian security and the cause of peace it was our duty to speak up for it, and so we did. It is regrettable that the Socialist Parties in various other European countries could find no better way to reward us than by encouraging a minority group in our Party to break away on the grounds that it could not approve of any kind of military agreement.
The Atlantic Pact was bitterly opposed--and for obvious reasons--by Communists and nationalists alike. The Communists tried to convince the Italian masses that this was a new edition of the famous "Pact of Steel" signed by Hitler and Mussolini, with the United States playing the part formerly taken by Nazi Germany. But this line of argument was not very persuasive. The "Pact of Steel" was an alliance between Italy and the strongest continental Power. The Atlantic Pact, on the contrary, is an alliance among the sea Powers which in the course of recent centuries have guaranteed the smaller nations of the Continent against conquest and domination. The Italy of today cannot play the part of aggressor, and therefore the danger is that the strongest single continental Power may invade her. The Italian people see this for themselves and are not impressed by the campaign against the Pact carried on by the Communists on one side and by such nationalist leaders as old Vittorio Emanuele Orlando on the other. It has been made quite clear that the Communists are the real heirs of the "Pact of Steel," since they preach the subordination of Italy to the strongest Continental Power of today, which is Soviet Russia. And much of the people's enlightenment is due to the responsibility shouldered by the independent Socialists, who suffered a serious internal party crisis rather than fail to do what they thought was right.
The real problem faced by Italian democracy today, let me repeat, is of an economic and social nature. First of all there must be an agricultural reform such as to provide more work for farm laborers and at the same time increase the productivity of the land. Second, the costs of manufacturing must be lowered in order that manufactured goods can compete in world markets. Third, governmental administration, that is the bureaucracy, must be made less top-heavy and more efficient. All three of these problems are complicated by one irremovable fact, that of over-population.
Let us look, for instance, at the third of these points, that is administrative reorganization. Obviously we must eliminate a number of unnecessary and parasitical jobs and pay decent salaries to the employees who are left in their posts. But this step cannot be taken without making some provision for the two or three hundred thousand persons who would be thrown out of work. They could hope to find private employment only if the national economy were running at full speed. But governmental inefficiency is a drag upon the national economy. This is a vicious circle which cannot be dealt with on a wholly rational basis.
The same dilemma is presented in even more dramatic form when we attempt to lower the costs of manufacturing. A large number of workers who now swell industrial payrolls unnecessarily (for example, in the shipyards) should be dispensed with; but unless industry were prosperous enough to rehire them elsewhere they would simply go on relief. Once again there is little chance of prescribing any radical cure. We find ourselves up against a long-existing situation which cannot be disposed of overnight.
When it comes to agricultural reform, we have said that increased productivity of the land and work for more hands are the desirable aims. If efficient farming methods succeeded in making the land bear more fruit, in the long run farm laborers would find more work to do. But the immediate effect of the introduction of farm machinery would be to throw them out of their jobs. And the situation of farm laborers is already so bad that there can be no question of making it worse. Here, too, the burden of a heavy inheritance from the past makes it difficult to find a clearcut solution. The present government project offers the best possible way of dealing with such contradictory needs. It proposes to make over the large landed estates of the south, not into big commercial farms but into small peasant holdings. A foreign observer may say that this is not a radical enough answer. Those of us who live with the problem know that it is the only one possible.
From this short summary I hope it is clear that the single factor of over-population is the obstacle that lies in every path of progress. All our economic and social problems are bound up together in a solid block, and yet each interacts with the others. General improvement is not the sum total of improvements in various lines; it is the result of an interplay of actions and reactions so tangled that one cannot see from the outside where pressure can be best applied. Sometimes it looks as if sheer chance were the determining force. Yet improvement there has been, however slow, thereby proving that in spite of waste in production due to an overabundance of manpower good factors have outweighed the bad.
Meanwhile the most concrete aid that Italy's friends can give her, if they wish her democratic institutions to endure, is some outlet for her excessive population. Failing the possibility of large-scale emigration, Italian democracy must rely on maintaining a precarious balance between a genuine productive urge and the adverse factors of inefficiency that we have noted above. One disaster, such as a poor harvest, is enough to throw the ship of state off its keel.
True Italian democrats are striving to widen the base of this precarious position. The continual struggle against adverse natural factors will not allow us the luxury of adopting the same political tactics that can be practised in countries where the national economy has a more solid basis. The structure of the Italian economy, like that of its political democracy, is a slender one. To strengthen them both, and to contribute to the preservation of the civilization for which Italy like other parts of the western world is responsible, is a delicate task, requiring considerable discernment. An Italian democrat who tries to help fulfill this task does not need the qualities of a great organizer, as would be necessary in anyone called to exercise leadership in a country which was highly developed industrially. He needs rather the agility of a simple craftsman, practised in rules that come from long experience and first-hand acquaintance with things as they are. This difference in measurements and proportions is perhaps the most difficult thing for foreign observers to understand. That is why I have chosen it here as the topic on which an Italian politician might most usefully speak.