Eight Million Bayonets

Alexander Stille

  • Modern Italy: A Political History by Denis Mack Smith
    Yale, 534 pp, £35.00, October 1997, ISBN 0 300 07377 1

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.

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