The Quiet Communism of Modern Italy

Sarah Taylor, Staff Writer

 Though commonly considered to be a thoroughly Western and modernized country, a look into Italian politics sheds light on the deeply rooted cracks in the system created by underlying communist ideals. Smaller cities in Italy experience lower living conditions and struggle to develop sustainable local economies, leading to commonplace power outages, high unemployment, and low salaries. The unemployment rate in Italy is around 11%,[1] with the average salary less than 1400 euros per month.[2] For contrast, the United States’ unemployment rate as of October 2017 is 4.1%[3] with an average salary of around $3400 per month.[4] In the case of Italy, these conditions are representative of a more deeply rooted and intricately difficult political history. Many of the central regions in Italy have maintained close ties to the communist ideology that was once reflected in the local power of the Partito Communista Italiano (PCI). The depressed living conditions of many historic cities and towns stems from a history of political complexity, spurred by the everlasting search for power of the Italian communists.

Many elements of the particular brand of communism predominant in Italy differ from the traditional Stalinist origins of the ideology. Compared to the Bolshevik-driven birth of communism in the Soviet Union, Italian communism and the PCI specifically were not revolutionary in origin, and operated within a capitalist regime, adapting to the system in place.[5] Italian communism encouraged political pluralism, and worked to actively attract new members to the party by acquiescing to the extant ideology of the Italian people. A country steeped in Catholicism, the Church posed a potential, and sometimes real, threat to the legitimacy and operations of the PCI. After World War II, Communists and Catholics alike participated in the Resistenza (Resistance) against Fascism, working to topple Benito Mussolini’s dictatorship. Italians who felt allegiance to both Catholicism and Communism formed the Party of Communist Catholics.[6] As the Christian Democrat party started to take shape, however, the possibility of cooperation between Catholics and Communists dissipated. The tensions between the Catholic church and the Communist faction in Italy reached their height in 1947, leading up to the 1948 election. In May of 1947, Alcide de Gasperi, the leader of the Christian Democrats, drove the Communist party representation out of government.[7] The election of 1948 pitted devoted Catholics against staunch Communists. The victory of the Christian Democrats was seen as a victory of the Church over the USSR. Relations between Catholics and Communists began to improve after the 1948 election, however. Pope John XXIII (1958-1963) brought in a new era of political freedom within the Church, encouraging Italian Catholics to make their own political choices, and supported cooperation between the Socialist and Communist parties.[8] The elections of 1948 in Italy brought great concern to the United States and Great Britain, who feared that the feverish communism would spread from the USSR and Eastern Bloc into Italy. In order to prevent a full transition into a communist Italy, the CIA allegedly worked to sway the elections against communism, supporting a rising Christian Democrats party that would continue to rule in Italy until 1992.

One of the major points that makes Italian communism unique in the international community is its survival after the fall of the Soviet Union. The PCI developed a unique brand of Communism from Soviet Communism, maintaining a much larger degree of internal differentiation in terms of structure, ideology, and behavior.[9] The elites and the mass population were brought together under the common ideals of Communism, and the existence of a party that encouraged this pluralism the way the PCI did enhanced the general stability of the Italian political system as a whole, thereby legitimizing the spread of Italian Communism. While the ideology of different communities and different people varied greatly, leading to conflict between regions and individuals, the PCI kept radical leftism in check and pushed for more left-leaning policy under the Christian Democrat rule.[10] Achille Occhetto, a prominent Italian Communist politician, was responsible for the major reforms that aimed to place a larger emphasis on individual liberties, environmental protection, and women’s rights. These changes led to the official dissolution of the PCI in 1991, permanently transforming Europe’s largest communist party (second only to the Soviet Union).[11] The party was officially renamed to the Partito Democratico della Sinistra (Democratic Party of the Left, or PDS), though this rebranding was merely that: a curtain over the still-existing communist ideology of the party in the face of the fall of the Eastern Bloc. Interestingly, many of the similar elements of Communism in Italy are seen in the conservative parties farther right. The prevalence of Communism enabled the Italian people to think of politics in terms of anti-institutional and anti-establishment sentiments. The rising populist party, Lega Nord (Northern League), draws on these same sentiments translated into conservatism and federalism.

Though the Christian Democrat party was the majority party for half a century, the PCI and communist ideology had a lasting impact on the social structure and functioning of Italy. The communist following in Italy developed a cultural dictatorship to compensate for their political losses, a facet of Italian culture that has remained heavily ingrained in present-day culture. PCI brought high culture, literacy, personal dignity and an enhanced sense of self to many Italians.[12] Tensions within and between the political parties that dominate Italian politics have created an uncertainty among the Italian people over whose cultural program to follow. For a country with an already deep divide between the regions, these competing ideologies and cultural elements have only strengthened the regionalism of the country. Different regions represent different political ideologies that produce rivalries between regions and disunity over the entire country, such as the rising populism of the Lega Nord in the northern regions and prevalent communism in the central and southern regions. With these tensions drawing most of the focus of the competing parties, little attention is paid to the real underlying problems that have been caused by the political infighting and erroneous wealth distribution. The regions of Tuscany, Emilia-Romagna, and Umbria in particular still show strong allegiance to the communist ideology, as the PCI had a stronghold in local and municipal government administration in these regions, establishing a “red belt” through the country.[13] The cities remain the same aesthetically as they did in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries as a testament not only to the importance of beauty and history in Italian culture, but also to the stagnant growth and reluctance to spend money on public works. The cost of living is high while the salaries are low, and the youth unemployment rate of over 35%[14] is forcing most people under the age of thirty to move back in with their parents. When the PCI was dissolved, the provincial and local governments that had relied on Communist leadership in these key regions were left with gaps in their administration. The resulting political instability left the regions stuck in a 1980s time-loop, unable to resolve the poor living conditions and properly allocate resources. Communism in Italy underlies many of the problems with polarization and conflict at the government and regional levels, as well as the slow economic growth of the country as a whole. Interregional tensions and a Western aversion to Communism make it unlikely that the problems caused by this political instability will be resolved with definitive, comprehensive policy.

Footnotes:

[1] “Italy Unemployment Rate 1983-2017.” Trading Economics. Accessed November 10, 2017. https://tradingeconomics.com/italy/unemployment-rate.

[2] 2

[3]“Bureau of Labor Statistics Data.” U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Accessed November 10, 2017. https://data.bls.gov/timeseries/LNS14000000.

[4] Doyle, Alison. “How Much Is the Average Salary for US Workers?” The Balance. October 24, 2017. Accessed November 10, 2017. https://www.thebalance.com/average-salary-information-for-us-workers-2060808.

[5] Bosquet, Michel. “Aspects of Italian Communism.” The Socialist Register. 1964. 83.

[6] Carrillo, Elisa. “The Italian Catholic Church and Communism, 1943-1963”. The Catholic Historical Review, 77 (4), 644-657. 1991. 644.

[7] Carrillo, “The Italian Catholic Church and Communism, 1943-1963”, 650.

[8] Carrillo, “The Italian Catholic Church and Communism, 1943-1963”, 654.

 

[9] Tarrow, Sidney. “Political Dualism and Italian Communism”. The American Political Science Review, 61 (1), 39-53. 1967. 42.

[10] Tarrow, Sidney. “Political Dualism and Italian Communism”. The American Political Science Review, 61 (1), 39-53. 1967. 40 – 41.

[11] Eubank, William Lee, Gangopadahay, Arun, Weinberg, Leonard. “Italian Communism in Crisis”. Party Politics, 2 (1), 55-75. 1996. 55.

[12] Baranski, Zygmunt G. The Cambridge Companion to Modern Italian Culture. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001.

[13] Breschi, Danilo. “From Politics to Lifestyle and/or Anti-Politics: Political Culture and the Sense for the State in Post-Communist Italy.” Telos, 2013. 113 – 114.

[14] https://tradingeconomics.com/italy/youth-unemployment-rate