The missing link of the Italian left  

                                                                             Mauro Abate    About the author

The Italian left after WW2 and the P.C.I.

You might be surprised to know that in Italy after WW2 there was a very popular Communist party, called P.C.I. (Partito Comunista Italiano). An efficiency-minded, nearly colossal organization (with 2 million members, over 10 million electors, and up to 34.4% electors in the 1976 polls), it was the most important communist party of the western world. Notably, it was also the most loved by its supporters. Dubbed Picci' (pron. Pitchy, stress on y), to many Italians the party was a second family, another Church, their permanent cultural society, and dear as their favourite football team.
In the 70s, the party proactively pulsed with life and culture, and under the leadership of the virtuous Enrico Berlinguer it also attracted the votes of the middle class and of the Catholics. The Picci' was a catch-all party, seemingly with a solution for everything and for everyone who was not right-wing, and who deemed the ruling Christian Democratic party (D.C.) uninspired and smouldered in corruption. The lack of modern, lay parties alluring middle class electors contributed to the success. The process was favoured by Berlinguer's Compromesso Storico policy (the Historical Compromise), i.e. by the convergence and alliance of the left-wing with the liberal Catholic political forces to overcome conservatives. Moreover, a consistent part of Italian communists merges Marxism or socialism with traditional, deep-seated popular Catholic values, or they are Catholics themselves (mocked as Catto-Comunisti, or "Catho-Communists").

A left-wing rally by the Vatican

Left-wing rally by the Vatican

Berlinguer's split ("Strappo")

Enrico Berlinguer
Enrico Berlinguer

In the 80s however the P.C.I. slowly declined. The world was changing. The western countries recuperated efficiency and delivered prosperity - though with the usual contradictions. Bettino Craxi's revitalized Socialist Party (P.S.I.), ruling Italy with the D.C., campaigned to appear as a moderate alternative to the P.C.I.. The latter did not make a further effort of political creativity and dynamism, and had thus lost some of its shine. On the other hand, the Eastern European countries simply collapsed, after decades of horrendous management by the non-democratic local Communist parties. To most international observers, the P.C.I. was somehow related to them, because after all it had the same denomination: it was a communist party. For some western allies of Italy, for ex. for the Americans, this denomination is just taboo. The P.C.I. actually had a democratic nature, and it contributed to fight fascism thus founding the newly born Italian democratic Republic after WW2.

Moreover, although in general the P.C.I. was an ally of the Eastern Communist parties, having endorsed their policies for over 50 years, it gradually distanced itself from them. Finally, when the army took power in Poland in 1981, Berlinguer formalized the split (known as "strappo") with the Soviet Union-led "real socialism". Berlinguer asserted that the stage that had begun with the 1917 October revolution was ended (Moscow's Pravda condemned the statement as "monstrous" and "sacrilegious"). However, to the outer world, all this seemed hardly believable, and the allegiance of the P.C.I. to the democratic values was still questionable. The bottom line: to gain credibility, and governance, the party name also seemed inadequate, and it became debatable whether or not to change it.

Occhetto's shift ("Svolta")

In 1988 Achille Occhetto was appointed General Secretary of the P.C.I.  Pugnacious and inclined to accept challenges, he led a courageous democratic process of evolution of his party. He first showed concern with a number of liberal issues (protection of the environment, pacifism, Palestinians' rights etc.). He then brought his party to interact closely with the other Italian liberal forces, and to form an alliance with the European Socialist parties.

Achille Occhetto

Achille Occhetto

Occhetto went beyond Berlinguer's Compromesso Storico policy, as he understood that a new era was rising, in which the alliance of a multitude of liberal forces was needed to reform the society, fuelled by ideas and values. To complete the process  - known as "svolta" or shift - just after the fall of Berlin's wall he changed the party name into "Democratic Party of the Left" (Partito Democratico della Sinistra or PDS), ultimately changed into "Democratic Leftists" (Democratici di Sinistra, or DS).
Predictably enough, a fraction of his party found the shift a right-wing betrayal of the party's mostly Marxist essence. They claimed that after all the P.C.I. was not to blame for the Eastern communist parties' wrongdoings. The dissidents founded another communist party, Rifondazione Comunista. Occhetto rejected the claim, asserting that his was a necessary step to bring new life to the ideals and to the heritage of the party ("We chose the way which brought us to die in order to be born again"). 

The PDS, and thus Occhetto, led the left coalition which lost the crucial 1994 elections against magnate Silvio Berlusconi's right-wing coalition. Occhetto was blamed of not mediating a broader alliance with the centre, appearing too radical to the electors (an allegation he rebuts). He resigned as General Secretary. Since the PDS official policy was to reform society, an internal debate thus begun on what "reformism" actually meant. Occhetto radically believes in egalitarianism and freedom, ideals whose roots he claims date back to the French revolution, and he thus believes in "strong reformism", which should be a constant feature of the "true left" (in his words). To the new leaders of the PDS (at this stage called DS) Occhetto appeared too radical, while he was only consistent with the former P.C.I. ideals.

In the end, while the large majority of the P.C.I. electors (let alone of the Italians) understood and approved his shift, within his party Occhetto was overtaken - at least nominally - both from the left (the dissidents of Rifondazione Comunista) and from the right (the new DS leaders). Shamefully, he was also marginalised, ignored, and to some extent banned by the new leaders of the DS, i.e. by the very same party he founded.

Still up and running

Occhetto was deeply saddened by his unjust alienation. Nevertheless, after a few years of reflection, also spent writing a book (Secondo me, "According to me", an interesting insight into the history of the P.C.I.), he steamed ahead. As he deemed his former party too moderate in the attempt to please electors of the centre to defy PM Berlusconi, he formed an off-the-beaten track alliance and founded a party with Antonio Di Pietro. The former judge of the trials on political bribery in the 90s, Di Pietro is now a politician radically supporting uprightness in the Italian political world, while also embodying traditional, popular cultural traits. The party (called Italia dei Valori, "Italy of Values") defended uprightness in the government and in the public authority - another teaching of Enrico Berlinguer - and also tackled the conflict of interest regarding PM Berlusconi, the business magnate monopolizing Italian politics and the Italian economy.
In the June 2004 European polls the result was not good. The reason lies in the different political orientation of the party leaders and of their electors, as Di Pietro's are far more moderate than Occhetto's. The latter announced that he and his group will separate from the party. Yet Occhetto
didn't throw in the towel: he just founded the "Cantiere per il Bene Comune"  or "Building yard for the Common Good", a society whose plan is to help founding the above mentioned "true left".

The Italian centre-left, currently

The Italian left is traditionally diversified. Not only parties, but also denominations, coalitions, nicknames, synonyms and definitions abound. There follows a synoptic table (coloured cells explain political standpoints or coalitions). Also shown is the percentage of votes in the 2004 European polls.

Centre-left coalition: 44.2% (the centre-right coalition has equal strength).

"Ulivo" (Olive tree, official name) coalition: 35.7%

Olive tree allies: 8.5%



Uniti nell'Ulivo ("United within the Olive Tree" aka "Tricycle"):  31.1%

United in the 2004 European elections (Italia dei Valori), now separated: 2.1%  


- Democratici di Sinistra (DS)

- Margherita ("Daisy") including Partito Popolare Italiano P.P.I. (Ital. Popular Party, Catholic) and liberal-democrats.

- Socialisti Democratici Italiani S.D.I.
(Social Democrats).

Lista di Pietro

Occhetto's group

Federazione dei Verdi: 2.5% (Green Party) 

Partito dei Comunisti Italiani-P.d.C.I.: 2.4% (Party of the Italian Communists, originated in 1998 from Rifondazione Comunista, and less radical).

Rifondazione Comunista 6.1%

Notably, all post-WW2 left-wing parties disappeared, and all the current ones are very recent. The Green Party, usually the most recent party in the West, and founded in Italy in 1986, is the oldest of the present ones (!). The same phenomenon occurred to centre-right parties. This testifies to the outstanding dynamism and creativity of Italian politics, yet it also demonstrates that hardly political forces are able to continue from generation to generation. The probable reason is that the evolution of the complex - and complicated - Italian society is faster than the source of ideas and solutions provided by the parties. This explanation might seem a valid justification; however it prompts a few considerations.

Like father like son? A questionable continuity

Like father like son? A questionable continuity

Distinctive features of the Italian political movements

(a) The middle class

It is no surprise that Italy undergoes major changes in the present swiftly changing world. Yet changes occurring in Italy are more profound than in other western countries because the "Bel Paese" (Nice Country, one of the nicknames the Italians give to their homeland) has a wider gap to fill. Namely, the industrial revolution which changed Europe in the last two centuries was only partially effective in Italy. Reference is not only to the renowned North-South gap, but also to the incomplete creation of an established "Civil Society", following the ideals and the social and economic patterns brought by the European Enlightenment. In other western European countries, it was the middle class who took upon itself the burden of the process. In the 19th century, the Italian middle class fulfilled entirely and also heroically the responsibility, during the process called Risorgimento (Resurgence), which brought to the reunion and independence of the country. The Italian patriots were admired internationally not only for their bravery, but also for their political creativity, and frequently also for their great erudition. They mostly belonged to the upper-middle class.
However, the newly born Italian Kingdom which they founded (1861 AD) was unable to fulfill the ideals of the Resurgence. It was a class-based, conservative and increasingly nationalistic society. Notably, many Italians found the society under Fascism closer to the people than the pre-WW1 elitarian Monarchic society. This was one of the reasons of the popularity of Fascism. To many Italians, the Fascist regime delivered more public infrastructures and more working opportunities (especially in the Civil Administration, or in the Army), and it was perceived as being less distant than the Monarchic regime. Also the middle class in general appeased Fascism, despite its wrongdoings. 
On the other hand, as opposed to other western countries, many individuals of the middle class contributed to the achievement of the left-wing or Catholic political forces. For example, both the above mentioned Berlinguer and Occhetto belonged to the middle class. So while the middle class failed to become the backbone of a modern country, many individuals, with an idealistic and quasi-missionary approach, were essential to carry on the ideals of political forces frequently at odds with the interests and outlook of the very class they belonged to.

(b) The working class

The above mentioned incomplete emancipation of Italy (together with its overpopulation) brought about the migration of millions of Italians in the second part of the 19th century and in the early years of the 20th century. At the turn of the 20th century, as it occurred in all other European countries, workers founded political parties to protect themselves from exploitation and defend their rights. Later, such parties had to defend themselves from Fascist tyranny, which they fought back during WW2. After the collapse of the country following WW2, the workers' political organizations - especially the parties and the trade unions - contributed to the foundation of the newly born Italian Republic. At this stage, when the gap accumulated by Italy compared to other western countries was greater, the workers and their organizations were called to an effort not only of reconstruction of the devastation brought by the war, but also of construction of key aspects of the country.

Women rallying

Women rallying

As result of the inadequacy of the middle class to construct a complete country, symmetrically and distinctively the workers' political organizations thus filled the gap, acquiring managerial and governmental responsibilities. One of its consequences was that a strong welfare state was established and maintained. The Socialist Party (P.S.I.) ruled Italy for nearly 30 years from 1963, together with the prevailingly conservative Christian Democrat Party (D.C.). They mediated and reached a compromise with the P.C.I. on important issues throughout the duration of their various governments. The P.C.I. was also the most elected party in five "red" regions, usually of central-northern Italy, thus administering advanced economy areas.

As a result of all the above mentioned factors, unlike other western countries, in Italy the working class in the last century didn't consider the middle class a political reference. The general idea was that the middle class didn't have political, social or cultural commitment, and that it was primarily concerned with its own interests. The moderate left also always believed that the free trade policy in economy - deeply rooted in the middle class - needed corrections to avoid individualism and to reallocate wealth also to the weaker classes. Moreover, the extreme left rejected the free trade policy as selfish and aggressive (Bertinotti, the leader of Rifondazione Comunista states "The freedom they talk about is their freedom, achieved at the expense of someone else, the workers"). Conversely, the general belief was that the workers' organizations were more cultured, farsighted and capable of addressing any political, social or economic issue for the wellbeing of all. Whether this was right or not, for 40 years the Italian left-wing endured a cultural hegemony in Italy. A left-wing outlook on most things was not only trendy, but practically mainstream. The most alluring reviews and papers, the most attractive TV shows, the most read books, were all left-wing.

The middle class comeback

In 1993 the so called centre-left government came to an end ruinously. The magistrates found that many politicians, mostly of the D.C. (Christian Democratic Party) and of the P.S.I. (Socialist Party), allied and ruling Italy, had been bribed. The culprits claimed that bribery was meant to lobby their parties, and that it was a customary, ordinary business in Italy. The massive bribery - dubbed Tangentopoli "Bribe town", or Mani Pulite "Clean Hands" - arouse general indignation. To most Italians it was the last straw, as they had enough of the ruling establishment, which appeared corrupt and inefficient.
When in 1963 the P.S.I. broke up the strict alliance with the P.C.I. to join the apparently centre D.C. to form the "centre-left" government, one of its purposes was to lead the D.C. along a centre-left, liberal path. As a matter of fact, quite the opposite occurred. The liberal character of the P.S.I. vanished over the years. It became a centre party, mainly concerned with holding power, and having as many key-positions (and in turn power) for its members. The D.C. purported it was an ecumenical, universal party, representing all social classes and orientations, with a left, a centre, and a right-wing within the party. Actually, its right-wing ruled the party, and thus the entire country. It held most of Italy's key positions and power, and it thus ultimately controlled, and in the long run changed the P.S.I., eager to have more and more power. The two parties, and especially the D.C., set up a gigantic, ruthless, diabolical - and disgusting - patronage system or clientelismo, promising jobs and "favours" (= unfair advantages) to their "clients" in exchange of votes. Under their rule, productivity decreased, the Italian economy lost competitiveness, and with it the entire country simply collapsed.
In the 1994 elections the left coalition, which had opposed the centre-left government for more than 30 years was thus favourite, but at that stage something unexpected happened: the centre-right wing middle class appeared on the scene, and it won the elections.
After more than half a century of bad government, of inefficient and unfair public authority, the Italians naturally sought uprightness in the central government and in the public authority. Yet they wanted their country to be finally modern, without the quirks and quibbles they face every day. The popular password was to seek "normality". The Italians also sought an efficient economy delivering prosperity. They were allured by Silvio Berlusconi, a magnate who made his way through building firms, real estate speculations, and advertising with his privately owned TV stations. Berlusconi wooed electors promising to reverse the economic downturn by implementing efficiency and economic free trade ideas in the Italian economy. The favourite slogans bombarding electors was that he was going to create one million new jobs during his mandate, and that he was going to reduce taxes. Berlusconi's newly founded party, Forza Italia ("Go Italy") became the hinge of the centre-right wing coalition which won the elections, thanks also to the massive hyping up through his privately owned TV stations.

Berlusconi's rule

Fifty-six years after WW2 thus political forces openly representing the middle class, and centre-right, ruled Italy (the D.C. as mentioned pretended to be a universal party, representing all classes). Yet Berlusconi's coalition, still ruling Italy, despite the denomination resembling that of similar forces in the west - "Casa delle liberta'", i.e. House of (all) freedoms -, is far from being the "normal" i.e. constructive, enlightened middle class force, which Italy never had since its independence, as opposed to the other advanced western European countries.  Never mind Berlusconi's self-righteousness and frequently insulting arrogance. Politics is not for the weak of heart, and such personal traits are subjective. In fact Berlusconi's admirers consider them signs of his leadership, deeming him the saviour of the fortunes of the country.  What though is unacceptable of Berlusconi and of his party is the lack of political fairness, and his unscrupulousness. He tries to own as many media he can (TV stations, papers, reviews etc.), where his journalists plug him and his ideas gaining public consent, and thus political power, with which in turn he controls the state-owned TV stations, multiplying public consent and power. He is always on TV for some reason, whether because interviewed, or even as president of the Milan AC football club. Seemingly Berlusconi considers Italians "vidiots" which he can easily influence, as his media strategy is prepared in a clear-headed way.
Naturally, Berlusconi is also omnipresent in the political arena: he is PM, yet at times he appointed himself also as Foreign Minister and Minister of Finance. When magistrates indict him on a number of cases of corruption, he in turn wages war upon them, discrediting them as puppets in the hands of the left-wing, thus reversing the allegations, as if they persecuted him rather than prosecuted him. Moreover, to avoid investigation, or to be acquitted, the coalition that he leads passes specific bills, sometimes "ad personam" or "a la carte", to favour him or his friends in particular trials. His conflict of interest is consequently unheard of in western countries, and he obviously does very little to regulate it.
Economy-wise, Berlusconi and his coalition promised to bring prosperity by implementing free market, reducing taxes, thus stimulating a thriving economy, and creating millions new jobs. Actually, taxes were not reduced, and there are talks of an upcoming tax squeeze to save the national revenue. There was no significant amelioration of the status of large companies or corporations.  The welfare service was dramatically reduced, while in general the government stimulated a private, individual approach to work. The "one million jobs" were not created, and Berlusconi's companies (Mediaset, RTI etc.) shamefully did not even employ the compulsory quota of disabled or refugees. Finally, important workers' rights were contested and debarred.
The major outcome is that professionals and merchants (especially of low profile) increased their expectations, and they have become greedy - despite they deliver a bad service. Moreover, scores of self-styled "entrepreneurs" - mere speculators, usually petty and operating borderline illegally - feel encouraged. As a result inflation skyrocketed and prices nearly doubled in three years (!). Workers, employees, the retired, and the unemployed cannot change their income, and they are on the edge of poverty.
In conclusion, Berlusconi's purported "new Italian miracle" is only delivering social problems and conflicts, and an unfair society. The "miracle" is also generating an even worse consequence: it is subtly changing negatively the Italian culture. The Italians were renowned as gracious, tactful, and compassionate people. If you visit Italy you will find out that they have become increasingly litigious and concerned mainly about their own businesses.  

The 2006 left revenge

With a very close victory, in 2006 the centre-left dethroned Berlusconi's centre-right coalition. Yet it is doubtful that the new rulers, led by Romano Prodi (a former Christian Democrat), will be better than the previous ones.  While Berlusconi is right-wing, overbearing, at times arrogant, and he frequently favoured his interests (and those of his lobby), at the end of the day for some aspects he is more liberal than the left-wing coalition which won the elections. In fact, Berlusconi, at least nominally, supports a free market society, and gradually this made a part of the Italians, traditionally sticking to the idea of a life-long state job, intrigued by the idea to work hard on their own.  In Italy, the centre-left parties govern well at the local level (where right-wing politicians usually look after their businesses - frequently illegal). But when it comes to central government, the centre-left supports a gigantic state-run economy, unproductive and inefficient, which enforces to the Italians a stifling bureaucracy. 
Also pushed by the Communists, the centre-left mindset brings them to find the revenues from the income of their all-time favourite targets, IE professionals, entrepreneurs, dealers, shopkeepers, and in general the productive middle-class. Taxation reaches 40%, plus various minor taxes totaling or exceeding 50% of earnings (!). In addition, the economy (and practically everything else) is bogged down by a mind-boggling and excruciating bureaucracy. 
In the end, the centre-left coalition brings two results, which start a vicious circle: (1) the economy goes bad because the productive part of the society not only has no incentives, but it is also ill-disposed against the entire system (2) the middle class and the professionals will then vote and support the centre-right coalition. The result is that Italy will have soon another bold and arrogant centre-right wing government, paving the way to the next comeback of the centre-left winning the subsequent elections etc. - so the entire vicious cycle repeats itself - generating a pointless and shortsighted process, to say the least. 

The missing link of the Italian left (and of western left-wing parties) 


In the end, the missing link of the Italian left - and of the European left - is its incapability to understand that the productive elements of society should become its engine, while they are conceived as opponents (or social enemies - according to radical leftists). In other words, within the market economy (so called "capitalist") the most productive working categories or social classes should become convinced partners of liberal ideas and projects, which would also avoid leaving the core of entrepreneurial classes in the hands of the centre-right parties, and of their plans. 
It is not only a tactical necessity. In fact, a just and developed society can only be achieved with the fulfillment of the hopes of both the individuals and of the community. It is therefore necessary safeguarding both the longing to elevate oneself of each individual, and the needs of the community. Actually, the best solution to reach this goal is to transform the productive classes into the flywheel of the amelioration of the society, not by simply collecting as much as possible their resources by taxing them, but by making them become convinced partners and pioneers of such far-reaching project.
In conclusion, finding a way to make the middle class become truly liberal and generous is the solution the left should seek, rather than sticking to the old clichés and to obsolete views, only leading to social fragmentation and to a sterile social conflict, from which astute and aggressive conservatory forces find grounds to emerge.




The author: Mauro Abate
Born from a mixed, international family and bred in post-WW2 multiethnic Libya, after his exile he lived in all parts of Italy (North, Centre and South) experiencing different social ranks and conditions (refugee, unemployed, employee in privately owned companies, state employee, self-employed). A versatile person, he practiced successfully different professions (including that of medical doctor), and he is now an entrepreneur in the hospitality-tourism business. A free spirit with an international outlook, his main interests are probably international relations and ethnic conflicts (he dealt extensively with the Israeli-Palestinian). In this article he takes stock of the Italian left, but above all he reflects on the evolutionary dynamics of liberal movements.

The written authorization of the author is required to use any part of this article. Usually free usage is allowed for cultural / political purposes.

Some photos are courtesy of C.G.I.L. (trade union) of Brescia,