Modern Italy: A Political History 
by Denis Mack Smith.
Yale, 534 pp., £35, October 1997, 0 300 07377 1
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Originally published in 1959 and revised ten years later, Denis Mack Smith’s Modern Italy: A Political History has been the standard work in its field for nearly two generations. Mack Smith has chosen to update it at a propitious moment, now that the Cold War is over and the political parties that governed Italy for the last half-century have been swept from power. As a result, it is possible to see the broad outlines of the postwar period as a distinct historical epoch and to think about contemporary Italy in the broader arc of its 136-year history. Given that the very idea of Italian national unity is currently being challenged by the Northern League, which seeks to divide the prosperous North from the bureaucratic capital in Rome and the poorer regions of the South, it is useful to reread Mack Smith’s account of the Risorgimento and the origins of Italian unification.

Italy is a recent invention. Even in ancient times, while enjoying political and cultural unity, it was more of a geographic than a political expression, since the boundaries of the Roman Republic and Empire stretched far beyond the Alps and across the Mediterranean. With the collapse of the Empire in the late fifth century, the peninsula was divided into numerous separate states, duchies and principalities, each with its own extraordinary history, culture and dialect. ‘The patriotism of the Italians is like that of the ancient Greeks, and is love of a single town, not of a country,’ a Neapolitan historian quoted by Mack Smith wrote in 1851. ‘It is the feeling of a tribe, not of a nation.’

Unification was not, as Mack Smith makes clear, the result of a democratic, mass movement. It was mainly the work of a thin layer of intellectuals and politicians (mostly in the North), who, through diplomatic cunning and military force, imposed it on the rest of the country in 1861. Pushed by dreamers and idealists such as Garibaldi and Mazzini, it was directed by Cavour, the shrewd, pragmatic count, who saw it as a means to expand the territory of the small Northern state of Piedmont and only later considered the possibility of a single, undivided Italian state stretching from the Alps to Sicily.

Nonetheless, there were powerful historical imperatives behind the movement towards unity. While the political unit of the city-state had served Italy well during the late Middle Ages and the Renaissance, the fractiousness among the principalities led to constant wars and foreign invasions. The experience made early Italian patriots of those, Machiavelli among them, who saw unity as the natural response to the emergence of the nation-state in European life.

By the early 19th century, with Italy now a political, economic and cultural backwater, the benefits of unification were increasingly apparent. The industrial revolution, with its unifying technologies such as the railroad and telegraph, made the trade barriers between the different Italian states – each with its own weights, measures, currency, tariffs and postal service – seem pointless obstacles to growth and progress. Similarly, the French and American Revolutions, and the development of constitutional democracy, made the Austrian occupation of much of Northern Italy, the theocratic Papal States in the centre and the feudal Kingdom of the Two Sicilies in the South appear hopelessly anachronistic.

The imperfectly democratic character of the Risorgimento and the highly centralised nature of the new Italian state have, however, created their share of problems. Some of the leaders of the Risorgimento – Carlo Cattaneo was one – fought for a federal system, which would have granted considerable autonomy to the various regions – precisely the kind of arrangement Italy is today trying to hammer out, in order to forestall the secessionist movement in the North.

Although Cavour paid lip-service to the idea of regional autonomy, he and the Piedmontese imposed their own system on the new nation, with power concentrated first in the northern capital of Turin, and then in Rome, when the Papal States were conquered in 1870. This centralisation – seen by the Leghisti of Umberto Bossi as the original sin of the Italian state – helped to undermine the self-sufficiency and initiative of some parts of the country, especially the South, where functioning arms of the old Bourbon government were allowed to atrophy. What the Leghisti ignore, and Mack Smith reminds us, is that the North profited from this new arrangement, often at the expense of the South. Before unification, Southern Italy, while poor, was a self-sufficient agricultural society, with a positive balance of payments. After the Risorgimento, taxes went up and for many decades the South contributed far more to the state coffers than it received. It found itself tied to a national policy that favoured Northern industry over Southern agriculture. Naples, in particular, sank from being one of the great capitals of Europe into a large provincial slum.

In the wake of unification, many nascent Southern industries, suddenly exposed to competition with the North, began to fail. Then in 1887, when Southern agriculture was beginning to prosper, the Government in Rome started a trade war with France, Italy’s chief trading partner, causing a major depression and a string of bankruptcies in the South. ‘The agricultural products to be given protection, rice, sugar and hemp, came almost entirely from Northern Italy, whereas such wheat as was grown in the South was more for subsistence than for sale,’ Mack Smith writes.

Aside from the gap between North and South, there are many other elements of continuity between the liberal period – 1861 until the advent of Fascism in 1922 – and the more recent postwar period: revolving-door governments; unstable Parliamentary majorities; a proportional electoral system with a large number of political parties; political corruption and blackmail; election fraud and financial scandals.

The 19th-century tradition of trasformismo, in which the Right and Left governed together, prefigured the ‘historic compromise’ of the mid-Seventies, when the Italian Communist Party allied itself with the ruling Christian Democratic Party. In both cases, these broad alliances placed greater emphasis on staying in power than on clarity of policy and often led Parliament to ignore signs of corruption which would have torn the parties apart.

In Sicily in the 1870s, Mafia potentates played Left off against Right in order to avoid a full-scale crack-down on organised crime, just as they tried to do in the 1980s, by shifting their allegiance from the Christian Democrats to the Socialists. In 1893, a distinguished former bank official in Sicily was assassinated when he threatened to blow the whistle on political corruption. The man arrested for ordering his killing was a prominent MP – a troubling precedent for a number of current trials dealing with the relations between Mafia and politics. While transformismo is hardly unique to Italy – witness the Clinton Administration’s compromises with the Republican Congress – it tends to become a more severe problem when, as in Italy today, there is a multi-party system of proportional representation impeding the effort to create a bipolar system.

The elements of continuity between Italy’s early history and its more recent past may be less important, however, than the profound, but perhaps less obvious differences. It is important to remember just how thin popular participation in Italian democracy was in the 19th century. Only 2 per cent of the population was eligible to vote in the early elections of the 1860s. In 1882, the suffrage was expanded from half a million voters to a mere two million – in a country with a population of some 30 million.

What comes through clearly in Mack Smith’s narrative is the widespread contempt for democratic procedure in ‘liberal’ Italy – a contempt that helped pave the way for Fascism. On numerous occasions, the Government declared martial law to put down banditry and political unrest, as, for example, when it used violence to destroy the budding farmers’ unions (the Fasce Siciliane) in Sicily in 1893. Various governments continued to take important decisions with the Parliament conveniently in recess for periods as long as seven or eight months at a time. While most people tend to associate ‘liberalism’ with democracy, the Italian liberal élite was highly suspicious of democracy. Even Croce, the great liberal philosopher, theorised ‘that liberalism and democracy were irreconcilable and indeed antithetical’, as Mack Smith writes. (One should not forget, however, that other great European liberals, including John Stuart Mill, had profound misgivings about pure democratic government.)

It was the liberal leader Giovanni Giolitti who tried gradually to open up politics to wider circles of the population in the last years of the 19th century and the first two decades of the 20th. He greatly increased suffrage and allowed the formation of unions, seeing them as a means of creating greater harmony between workers and industry. ‘Giolitti himself,’ Mack Smith writes, ‘looked upon democracy as something which should grow naturally out of liberalism, though he did not possess the skill or imagination to control the difficult process of transition.’

It was in all likelihood the First World War that caused Giolitti to lose control of events. Giolitti – along with most of Parliament – was against intervention in the war. Italy could well have used its neutrality to win the same territorial concessions from Austro-Hungary that it obtained by fighting. But the Prime Minister, Antonio Salandra, and King Vittorio Emanuele III went behind Parliament’s back and negotiated a secret treaty (the Treaty of London) in which they engaged to fight alongside the British and French. Strong and timely action by Giolitti and other leaders – insisting on the prerogatives of Parliament – might well have prevented Italian involvement. But throughout much of this period, Giolitti did not bother to stir from his home in Turin to confer with his colleagues in Rome. The lack of faith in constitutionalism, combined with the usual squabbling among the party leaders, allowed the King to overstep the boundaries of his role – a dangerous precedent for his decision several years later (in the face of another Parliamentary majority) to hand the government over to Mussolini.

While Mack Smith underlines the flaws in Italy’s constitutional monarchy that allowed the King to disregard the will of Parliament, I am not sure that he emphasises as much as he might how crucial the intervention in World War One was in setting the stage for Fascism. The militarisation of society; the suspension of civil liberties; the execution of thousands of troops accused of desertion; the creation of a state-controlled war economy; and the validation of violent action over peaceful negotiation were all important preconditions. The Bolshevik Revolution – another consequence of the war – exacerbated the already deep split between pro-war nationalists and socialist workers, who generally opposed intervention. Foolishly, the Socialists made matters worse by excluding veterans from their ranks and insulting men in uniform returning from the war. This mass of men, demilitarised but still armed, and embittered by both the war and its aftermath, formed a natural constituency for Mussolini’s Fascist movement.

Alarmed by the Socialists’ revolutionary rhetoric and a plethora of strikes, Italy’s conservative-liberal majority was not unhappy to see Mussolini’s squadristi breaking up demonstrations, destroying Socialist newspaper offices and burning workers’ union halls. Even Giolitti and Croce, pillars of liberalism and later bitter opponents of Fascism, welcomed the King’s decision to invite Mussolini to form his own government after he had threatened a violent March on Rome.

Rereading these tragic pages of the country’s history, one cannot help feeling that, while Parliamentary dickering and government inefficiency have remained a constant, contemporary Italy is light-years ahead of liberal Italy in terms of its respect for political dissent and fundamental civil rights. It is interesting to contrast the earlier failure to deal with Fascist violence with the response to terrorist violence in the Seventies and Mafia violence in the Eighties and Nineties. While there were unpardonable delays in dealing with both terrorism and the Mafia, in part a consequence of collusion between the Government and criminal elements, eventually the state managed to act decisively without crippling the country’s democratic and legal guarantees. With all its defects, the Italian system worked – in part, at least, because the political parties could not insulate themselves from public opinion, which came to demand action from the Government as well as basic respect for the law on the part of the political class.

Another striking difference between the first eighty years of Italian history and the last fifty is the almost complete disappearance of zealous nationalism. Mack Smith repeatedly points out that a wounded, exasperated sense of national pride, and delusions of grandeur, were a significant strain in the liberal culture that prepared the terrain for Fascism. ‘Italy must not only be respected, she must be feared,’ Vittorio Emmanuele declared. Speaking of himself in the third person (prefiguring both the rhetoric and sentiment of Mussolini), Francesco Crispi, the leading political figure of the 1880s, announced: ‘A man has appeared who considers Italy the equal of any other nation and intends to see that her voice is respected.’ Perhaps to compensate for centuries of foreign domination, the political culture of post-unification Italy was astonishingly shallow, allowing the invasion of another country to be justified in terms of national morale and the deaths of hundreds of thousands to be praised as character-building. ‘There is no beauty now save in struggle, no masterpiece can be anything but aggressive, and hence we glorify war, militarism and patriotism,’ Marinetti declared in the Futurist Manifesto of 1909. (That these words now sound impossibly hollow is some measure of how far Italy has travelled in this century.)

To satisfy these nationalist impulses, Italy embarked on a series of ill-advised imperialist adventures, first a failed invasion of Ethiopia in 1895 and then the creation of a colony in Libya in 1911. Nationalism and lack of democratic culture went hand in hand. Of the decision to occupy Libya, Mack Smith writes: ‘Parliament was neither called to sanction the declaration of war, nor to debate the royal decree that proclaimed annexation. When the deputies met at last in February 1912, Turati was shouted down, and the Foreign Minister announced that Parliament ought not to be allowed to debate matters of high policy.’ (Turati was the Socialist leader.) Interventions of this kind set an obvious precedent for Mussolini’s own aggressive foreign policy, in particular the second and finally successful invasion of Ethiopia in 1934-35.

Mack Smith’s treatment of the Fascist period constitutes the strongest and most compelling part of the book. The first 308 pages, which treat the period from unification in 1861 until Mussolini’s March on Rome, are a somewhat plodding, government-by-government chronicle. Perhaps because he attempts to cover so much ground and to maintain an Olympian, even-handed tone, no especially vivid figures stand out from this portion of the book. The larger historical themes do emerge gradually, but they can at times get lost in the detailed discussions of the De Pretis Government of 1876 or the Cairoli Government of 1878. Because Mussolini was Prime Minister and absolute leader for 21 years between 1922 and 1943, Mack Smith allows himself greater interpretative liberty in discussing the Fascist period.

A reading of the section on Fascism provides a useful antidote to much recent discussion in contemporary Italian politics. After several decades in which Mussolini and Fascism were demonised, the pendulum has been swinging back, now that the Neo-Fascist National Alliance Party has joined the political mainstream. The television magnate Silvio Berlusconi has spoken of the need to distinguish between the good and bad sides of Fascism. The left-wing leader, Luciano Violante, president of the Camera dei Deputati, has insisted on the importance of understanding the ideals of the Republic of Salò – the puppet government Mussolini headed during the Nazi occupation at the end of World War Two. This partial rehabilitation comes from an ahistorical interpretation of Fascism as having two distinct periods: a national period, in which Il Duce concentrated on such worthwhile enterprises as draining the Pontine marshes and making the trains run on time; and an international period in which his fatal decision to ally himself with Hitler and enter World War Two undermined much of the good he had achieved earlier. Many followers of the National Alliance refer to Mussolini’s alliance with Hitler as a ‘mistake’ – as if it were comparable to taking the wrong exit off of the autostrada. But, as Mack Smith shows quite clearly, the Rome-Berlin Axis was the virtually inevitable result of 18 years of bellicose rhetoric, megalomania and an expansionist foreign policy, all of which were central to the Fascist credo.

Mussolini’s aping of the imperial caesars was inscribed in the DNA of Fascism: the so-called March on Rome was a conscious echo of Caesar’s crossing of the Rubicon, as were the adoptions of the term duce or dux. His attempt to create a second Roman Empire preceded the alliance with Hitler, beginning with the invasion of Ethiopia in 1934, continuing with the decision to send troops to the Spanish Civil War in 1937 and with the invasion of Albania in 1939. Mussolini’s only regret about these wars, as Mack Smith reminds us, was that so few Italians died in them. Italy needed, he believed, more war and more death in order to harden its national character into true greatness. It would have been inconceivable, given these precedents, for Mussolini to have stood idle in fearful caution while France lay prostrate in the summer of 1940. In fact, Mussolini was in a desperate hurry to enter the war lest it end before he could stake a claim to his share of the spoils. Moreover, as Mack Smith ably demonstrates, the gradual elimination of all dissent meant there was no check on his silliest whims or most grandiose ravings. Living in the echo chamber of the Fascist propaganda machine, he came to believe his own rhetoric about the invincibility of Italy’s ‘eight million bayonets’ and the decadent weakness of the plutocratic democracies. Thus, while the majority of the Italian public and the Army may have had little taste for war, Fascism, by its nature, left no space for registering dissent or even debate.

In preparing his new edition, Mack Smith has added some forty pages covering the last three decades, while trimming a bit from his original text. Even so, the book remains heavily weighted towards Italy’s earlier history: the first eighty years receive more than 400 pages, while the years from the fall of Fascism in 1943 to the present are handled in just eighty. (Perhaps because he has added to the book in piecemeal fashion, this final section lacks a sense of the broad historical sweep.) As with the pre-Fascist period, he moves in straightforward, chronological fashion through a great many of the nearly one hundred administrations that have governed Italy in the last 136 years. We read a great deal about the negotiations and compromises required to cobble together this or that electoral alliance, but very little about the social and economic context. Looked at in purely political terms, Italian history appears to be an endless chain of government crises, but to tell the story this way may be unintentionally misleading. It has the effect of making this long stretch of history seem remarkably homogeneous: the Government today is performing the same delicate balancing act in trying to hold together its coalition as its predecessors performed in the 1870s. But the Italy of the 19th century was overwhelmingly rural, largely illiterate, enjoyed almost no political rights, ate a meagre diet consisting largely of black bread and lived in virtual isolation from the outside world. The average Italian family now lives in a town or city, has access to good public education, free healthcare, one of the world’s most generous pension systems, enjoys considerable rights, owns two or three cars, watches television and travels frequently within and outside Italy.

There is more discussion here, for example, of the Governments of Amintore Fanfani and Fernando Tambroni than of the economic boom of the Fifties and early Sixties. Yet the boom – when Italians graduated from the bicycle to the vespa and the automobile – was a key moment of transformation, as the great movie directors of the period, Fellini, Antonioni and Pasolini, understood so well. Mack Smith mentions the boom in passing, almost parenthetically, in a discussion of the Government’s industrial policy: ‘Alongside the private sector of the economy, which showed an extraordinary capacity for enterprise and wealth creation, the growing public sector in the Fifties was often crippled by being misused deliberately as an instrument of party politics.’

In fairness, Mack Smith announces clearly in his subtitle that his is a ‘political history’. But one wonders if a broader definition of ‘political’ might not have yielded a history that is not only richer and more interesting, but more fully reflective of the times. For example, by treating the left-wing terrorism of the Seventies almost exclusively in terms of government, the phenomenon of terrorism seems almost incomprehensible. It is first mentioned, almost out of the blue, as a kind of reaction to the ‘historic compromise’ between Communists and Christian Democrats in the late Seventies. But the phenomenon had been building up since the massive student demonstrations of 1968 and 1969. What were the social conditions that led hundreds of thousands of young Italians – in a time of growing prosperity – to join the extreme extra-Parliamentary Left, and tens of thousands of them to join terrorist groups which kidnapped, knee-capped and murdered several hundred people? In the Sixties, Italy had grown economically, but its social institutions had not kept pace. Only a tiny minority of Italians, for example, had access to higher education. Television – like so much in Italian life – was entirely in the hands of the Government, with the only public channel run by the ruling Christian Democrats. After 1968, the universities were suddenly opened up, creating an army of students with access to education, but limited prospects for work. The pointless bloodshed of terrorism, and a second economic boom in the Eighties, cured Italians of any developed interest in violent revolution. The Eighties were a time of fabulous wealth in Italy, somewhat greater social mobility, but also of deepening political corruption and cynicism.

The final section of the book, dealing with the period from 1968 to the present, is entitled ‘Italian Democracy in Crisis’. While, from a political point of view, it was certainly a time of constant crisis, seeing it under that heading does not convey the very strange, contradictory feeling of what it was like to live in Italy in those years, when extraordinary material well-being co-existed with apparent political chaos. Italy is a country where one can live more pleasantly than almost anywhere, and yet the lives of many Italians are full of frustration. They have succeeded in creating a democracy, but not in creating a meritocracy. Most people – on the right, as on the left – feel that they are playing with a rigged deck of cards; that their opportunities in life will be determined not by their abilities, but by their proximity to the levers of political power, that those who faithfully obey the rules are passed over while those who break the law and cheat on their taxes move ahead.

What no one who has written about contemporary Italy has managed to do so far (myself included) is to explain the extraordinary paradox of modern Italy: how a country so poorly governed, riddled with corruption, plagued by organised crime, with a bloated, inefficient bureaucracy and weak, unstable governments succeeded in transforming itself after World War Two from a poor, rural, semi-literate nation into (along with Britain) the fifth largest economy in the world. In Argentina, political chaos nearly destroyed what had been, fifty years before, one of the richest countries in the world; but this did not happen in Italy. There is no question that, by the Eighties, the corruption and inefficiency of the government became a serious drag on the economy (which helps explain why the business class turned against the politicians and aided co-operation with the prosecution in the Milan corruption scandal). And yet the peculiar relationship between state and society in postwar Italy somehow produced or at least allowed a remarkable degree of material well-being – perhaps precisely because it allowed so many to live outside the system. A German banker was being only partly facetious when he said: ‘How lucky the Italians are to have a government that doesn’t work.’ This is not to defend Italy’s party-ocracy, only to say that it is easier to identify the faults of the system than to explain how it works. We need to examine Italy less as a political basket-case and more as a country like Japan, which has also mixed a high level of political corruption with economic vitality.

Because of his commitment to writing about the strictly political, Mack Smith does not explain the astonishing proliferation of small and medium-sized businesses that has taken place in recent decades in Central and Northern Italy. Generally family-owned, and almost never listed on the Stock Exchange, they are successful in part because they live outside the rigid regulations of centralised but inefficient government. But they provide the Northern League’s economic backbone and it is therefore important to describe them and the major economic changes they represent, in order to understand the shifts in political power underway today.

Just as the emergence of the nation-state and the centralising technologies of the industrial age encouraged unification, so globalisation, a single European currency and supra-national political entities such as the European Parliament will affect the status of Italian unity, though it is unclear how. Much will depend on the effectiveness of the political process Mack Smith describes. The Government is grappling with the problem of reducing the budget deficit in order to meet the economic criteria for a single currency without destroying the social safety-net Italians enjoy. It is committed (verbally at least) to giving more power to the regions and cities, following through one of the unkept promises of the Risorgimento, as well as creating a state that is more responsive to people’s needs while being less intrusive than government traditionally has been. But the multi-party system, which has retained an element of proportional representation, has once again made clear and coherent action difficult. Mack Smith ends on a surprisingly upbeat note. ‘Despite these continuing problems,’ he writes, referring to the political situation, ‘there is possibly more reason for optimism than in any previous period. Italy in the last fifty years has known far more freedom and prosperity than in all its long history ... There are grounds for believing that the dreams of Cavour and Mazzini have never been so justified and close to realisation as they are today.’

Given Mack Smith’s great contribution – his biographies of Cavour, Mazzini and Mussolini, his history of medieval and modern Sicily, his books on the Italian monarchy and Fascist foreign policy – one would welcome much more of this kind of reflection on the overall course of Italian history. Modern Italy is an almost encyclopedic storehouse of information on Italian politics. Mack Smith’s knowledge is prodigious and his judgments almost always fair, nuanced and carefully calibrated. But one wishes that he had used this reissue as an opportunity to sum up and reflect on the broad historical issues of a field to which he has contributed so much.

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