Coming to terms with the legacy of socialism in Italy will hopefully help the Italian left address its own identity issues
No historical party has retreated more permanently from Italy’s collective mind than the unfortunate Socialist Party (PSI). It was consigned to the dustbin of history with its other government allies of the time, The Liberal Party, the Socialist and Democratic Party, the Republican Party and most notoriously Christian Democracy, which formed the Pentapartito. Of all these parties, it has been vilified the most, while on occasions the others still conjure up positive memories of times gone by. On the other hand, no such warm feelings are shown towards the PSI, but mere salt and vinegar. This can be due to the fact that its last leadership, under the control of the mercurial and forceful leadership of its secretary Bettino Craxi, was seen as responsible for some of the worst excesses of the political system in Italy. What did not help Craxi, a former prime minister, was that he was also scapegoated more than any other politician by great sections of the public, opposition and the media as exemplified by his television trial, which led to his subsequent dramatic escape from Italy to Tunisia.
However, the unfortunate last acts of a party leadership cannot tarnish the memory of one of Italy’s most influential and successful movements, that brought great levels of material benefit to large sections of the population. Like other major socialist parties, the PSI had its origins in the second internationale and was established at the end of the XIXth century, 1892 to be precise. Key figures in the early days of the movement were the couple Filippo Turati and Anna Kulischioff, a jewish émigré from Russia. They were at the helm of the reformist faction of the party, which in key instances supported some of the labour laws that were being enacted by the liberal leaders of the time, such as during the Giolitti government.
Like many other socialist parties, the PSI was consumed by an internal conflict between the so-called reformist sections that sought cooperation with traditional political forces and gradual reform, against the so-called maximalists, that sought a more outright disbandment of the existing political order. Both sections alternated their control of the party, and on occasions expelled each other’s members. One famous representative of the maximalist wing was Benito Mussolini before he created the anti-socialist fascist movement. These internal conflicts would be tested further with the advent of World War I, where the socialists would be divided between pro-war and anti-war factions. Some of the pro-war faction led by Mussolini would provide one of the future nucleuses for the fascist party after World War I. Unfortunately, divisions pervaded the party even after the war, with continued expulsions and creations of splinter parties. Two events would subsequently lead to the near-death of the party despite it being electorally successful overall. These were the departure of the most left-wing current to the Communist party in 1921, and the march of over Rome by the fascist in 1922. The divided left in the latter instance, proved too weak to counter the rise of Fascism.
However, some of the most enduring opposition to the new regime came from socialist quarters such as the Rosselli brothers, later killed in France, and the MP Giovanni Matteoti who was later killed by the fascists as well. After the war, the PSI once again provided a decisive contribution toward drafting Italy’s current constitution and turning it into a Republic during the 1946 referendum. At the time the PSI went against the European mainstream by siding openly with Italy’s Communist Party (PCI) and the Soviet Union, which led to another splinter by the pro-Atlantic Socialist Democratic party (PSDI) that insured that the Italian Left was not fully ostracised by European Social Democracy, and which was led by the charismatic Giuseppe Saragat. However this state of affairs was quickly reversed as the PSI condemned the soviets after the Budapest revolt in 1956 under the leadership of Pietro Nenni, a central figure in the history of Italian Socialism, who was then able to bring the PSI into a governing coalition that would last for the next 30 years, the so-called ‘pentapartito’. The PSI managed to introduce long-standing administrative reforms such as the creation of Italy’s new regions, with greater territorial autonomies. Pietro Nenni was subsequently instrumental in getting his ‘frenemy’ Saragat elected to be Italy’s first leftist president.
The PSI’s apex came about at the turn of the 1970’s with the election of Bettino Craxi as political secretary. In this phase, Italy’s first socialist president was elected, Giovanni Pertini, and Craxi led the only socialist-led government in Italian history. Pertini’s presidency is still remembered fondly as one of the most successful in history. Besides the aforementioned murky issues with Bettino Craxi’s leadership, one thing is beyond contention, is that he led one of the most stable and effective governments in recent Italian memory. His successful campaign in the reduction of the ‘scala mobile’ referendum or indexation mechanism, helped reduce inflation. Under his leadership, Italy experienced remarkable economic growth, which led to its GDP overtaking that of Britain and becoming the fourth largest economy in the world. Moreover, during this period, Craxi managed to become one of the uncontested political figures in Italy, punching above its weight despite his party hovering only at around 15% of the vote and being dwarfed by the Christian Democracy in terms of voters. In the field of international relations he succeeded in successfully standing up to the US during the Sigonella crisis, while also supporting the cause of Palestinian statehood. His modernisation of the PSI was seen as an inspiration to many other left-wing parties of the time that were coming to terms with changing societal trends, and he helped redefine Socialism for the twentieth century by cooperating closely with the leaders of socialist parties in France, Spain, Greece and Portugal.
Long-buried in the minds of Italians, the figure of Craxi has recently seen a surprising return to political discourse. This coincided with the celebration of the 20th anniversary of his death, as well as with the screening of a successful and critically acclaimed film about his exile called ‘Hamammet’, which included a magisterial performance by Pierfrancesco Favino as the elder statesman. These events re-opened the debate over the legacy of Craxi, and as well as some unhealed wounds, with many remembering his faults while others praising his work. Ironically, it is the right that now seems more comfortable with his legacy, rather than the left, which he helped redefine. However, the debate unfortunately failed to take note of the role that the PSI had taken in shaping modern Italy and its many positive contributions and great personalities. This has in no way been helped by the modern heirs of the PSI, which still remain too attached to the figure of Craxi instead of choosing other points of reference and trying to imagine a new definition of socialism which is future-proofed.
It was also a missed opportunity for the Partito Democratico (PD) and the wider Italian left, which have struggled to come to terms with the legacy of the PSI, because in many ways they are still under the influence of the schools of thought of the Italian Communist (PCI) party and the leftist wing of the Christian Democracy, which at various times were mistrustful of the PSI and which benefitted the most from its demise. Yet the PD stands today as an anomaly in European politics, by being a large tent containing the most disparate ideologies, ranging from Centrist liberals to Democratic socialists and Social catholics. The PD is in many ways the original Geringonça or political contraption, devoid of a any clear identity, having a cafeteria approach to choosing its political inspirations and maintaining a conflicted relationship with the PCI, as it is to some both the expression of a flawed ideology from which to distance themselves or a source of inspiration. However, they forget that there was once a political force that has always been on the right side of history in Italy: the PSI.
Hopefully, future progressives in Italy will seek inspiration from the figures of Mateotti, the Rosselli brothers, Pertini, Saragat and Nenni and remember the experiences of the 1960s and 1980s as examples of what socialists could do when they get into power. Coming to terms with the legacy of socialism in Italy will hopefully help the Italian left address its own identity issues, and perhaps ensure that like in other parts of Europe, and now increasingly in the US, Socialism is no longer a taboo word but one that encapsulates the hopes and dreams of many millennials.
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