City Hall Politics in Italy

EDGAR ANSEL MOWRER began his adventurous career as a foreign correspondent on the western front in 1914, little more than a year after his graduation from the University of Michigan. He scored several scoops in Flanders, was twice arrested for espionage, and in 1915 was shifted to Italy, a country of which he now possesses expert knowledge. He left Rome in 1922 when he no longer found it possible to work under Fascist censorship. He covered the last days of the Weimar Republic and in 1932 received the Pulitzer Prize for the “best correspondence from abroad.” He was the first American journalist to be expelled by Hitler, but neither dictators nor censors have been able to suppress his pertinent, penetrating, and passionate exposure of the touchy situations in Europe.



ITALY today is closer to Communism than at any other time since the end of the war. Despite the billions of economic aid U.S. taxpayers have poured into that country and the earnest if not ideal use that the able and loyal Italian government has made of them, the Communists control every third vote in the country.

Why did we fail? A number of U.S. officials overseas are scratching their heads in bewilderment. I submit that they have overlooked the strongest element in social Communism — its efficiency as a party machine. To see what I mean, let’s take a look at a typical Red stronghold in the midst of Italy’s “Red Belt.”

Halfway between the river Po and the Apennine Mountains, the eity of Ferrara snuggles into fat, fertile country. In the center of the handsome town rises the tall and moated castello of the onetime ruling House of Este — a symbol of power. Today the castello is in the hands of Communist city fathers who have ruled it ever since the end of the war. They not only keep, they increase the number of their supporters from election to election. They do this because they are a smooth-working cog in an effective nation-wide Tammany machine.

Why do the otherwise intelligent and distinctly prosperous Ferraresi vote Communist ?

Consider a typical family whom I shall call Bassi. Old Ugo Bassi came from a farm near the birthplace of Benito Mussolini. Long before Fascism, this area was a nest of revolutionary peasants, who had spun a network of Socialist Coöperatives called “Bed Leagues.”

Ugo was mobilized in 1915, fought well, went A.W.O.L. after Caporetto, and returned home in 1919 in time to take part in an illegal peasant seizure of big estates. When, in 1922, Fascist squadristi burned the coöperatives’ offices and took over, Ugo moved to rooms in a little street in Ferrara’s older city (the newer part, called the “Addition,” was laid out only in the fifteenth century) and set himself up as a mechanic, a trade he had learned in the army. He became first an avowed, then (under Fascist threats) a secret Communist. To the end of his life he lived in anticipation of the day when he could get his strong hands on a Fascist’s throat.

His two sons, Michele and Giorgio, had no preFascist memories. To them, the Fascist Headquarters near the railroad station was something like the weather — bad or good. Michele, a Communist. like his father, deserted from the army early in World War II and hid in the mountains. His distaste for fighting in “Mussolini’s war” vanished, however, when he saw a chance to strike at personal enemies, the Germans whom he disliked and the Italian Fascists whom he hated. With the liberating English, he re-entered Ferrara in triumph. From then on, his troubles were over. He was, so far as his limited intelligence would permit, a personage in the ruling “progressive forces.”

Giorgio, on the other hand, remained immobilized at home all this time, married, had three children, and bet on Mussolini. The victorious Communists eventually pardoned his Fascist party card. By 1947, it was possible for Giorgio to join the Communist Party and be forgiven.

The Bassis of Ferrara live in a Red society almost without contact with non-Communists. The Party is their world. To the “hero,” Michele, it has given both importance and a sure income. To pliable Giorgio, it has given the sense of “belonging” which he craves. On Giorgio’s frail, overworked wife, Lucia, and her three children, it confers daily benefits.

Giorgio Bassi and his wife live in a three-room apartment and pay about a tenth of the normal rent, for which blessing, in the form of rent controls, the Party takes credit. They buy their pasta and wine at a Communist shop and their eggs from a Communist farmer just outside of town. A Communist dairy delivers their milk and pro-Communist shops supply their groceries. A Communist coöp can provide them, furthermore, with anything from clothes to a motor-scooter.

They subscribe to the Communist daily L’Unità. Since they do not read non-Communist publications, their only source of information about anything outside Ferrara is the governmental radio. This, they believe, specializes in “bourgeois lies” which Communists are too smart to believe.

Mayoress Balboni and her pals know how to reward friends. When a member of the Bassi family is sick, he promptly gets a bed in a hospital and is treated by a Communist doctor at low rates. Last summer, when little Ugo, Lucia’s second son, was threatened with tuberculosis, the Party sent him for ten days free to a Communist camp in the mountains.

If little Michele, Lucia’s eldest son, breaks a window, tears down a non-Communist poster, “borrows” a motor-scooter or otherwise has difficulties with the police, the Party intercedes for him. If this does no good, since the courts and the Questura (national police station) are non-Communist, the Party provides a lawyer. if, after all this, young Michele is condemned, the Party will pay his fine.

If the Post Office were to fire Giorgio Bassi as “undesirable,” the Party would first contest the decision and, if unsuccessful, see that he got another job, if necessary in some near-by town.

Even more important than the way it looks after “friends” is its ruthless discrimination against anti-Communist or uncommitted citizens. To members, the Party is “the little guy’s big brother, the little girl’s big sister.” For outsiders, it has nothing but indifference — or worse.

Now there are thousands of “little guys” in Ferrara alone — and millions throughout the Italian peninsula. In a country where for two thousand years little guys and little girls have been systematically kicked around, Tammany “protection” is irresistible. Certainly it is enabling the Red city fathers to strengthen their hold on the castello in Ferrara from year to year. Despite occasional Party slips. The first elected mayor after the liberation, “Doctor” Giovanni Buzzoni, was suppressed by the Communist Party for assuming an academic title without bothering to earn it.

His successor, Werner Curti, a storekeeper, doubled as president of the municipal Consumers’ Coöperative. When it went broke, a court investigation revealed that His Honor had “paid himself 300,000 liras without authorization. That ended Curti.

For several days, the Communist City Council (which chooses the chief magistrate) sought a successor of impressive respectability to take the curse off the Party’s record. It came up with the wife of a local engineer, who seemed to be just what the members were looking for. Luisa Balboni had opposed Mussolini at a time when that was risky, and she was uncompromisingly “anti-American" and a loyal and zealous champion of the “Left.”

Yet her prim respectability, good looks, and pleasant smile make it easy for the townspeople to forget about her Communist predecessors in the castello. For anything less “revolutionary-looking” than Mrs. Balboni would be hard to imagine. Fortyish, slim, with short dark hair neatly parted in the middle, almost elegant in her blue suit, and white shirt with blue trim, her garnet brooch and pearl earrings, perfumed, she might be a woman doctor — or the high school teacher that she was.

Somehow this “city mother” typifies the attraction of a political party that carefully hides its true nature and — contrary to current American belief — attracts not the poorest but the richest segment of Italy’s workmen and farmers.


TO RUN smoothly, a successful political machine needs plenty of “oil.” The Italian Communist Party has oodles. It started off with a bang after the war by “liberating” the banks and grabbing the dead Duce’s personal treasure. Now it collects from each of its two million adult members from 1 to 3 per cent of his income. Better-heeled officials, shopkeepers, professional men, businessmen anxious to have an anchor to windward, contribute more. All “companions” turn out for election work and regularly attend a stated number of meetings. They favor partisans and slur outsiders, keep Party secrets, denounce spies and traitors and even, on safe occasions, beat up overzealous opponents. Also, as under Fascism, they give up independence of speech and action and vote as told.

Yet this severe discipline seems to millions only a reasonable price for benefits received. Italians are too worldly-wise to expect something for nothing. In exchange for loyalty, the Party not only provides for the Bassis. It offers social activities at all levels, from reading rooms and lectures to parties, dances, picnics, excursions, sports, beauty contests, attractive fairs. It gives participation in a society of “like-minded” people.

Giuseppe Dozza, Vice President of Italy’s Cominform and Mayor of Bologna, is the person who made Communism gay as well as profitable. Dozza is a onetime blacksmith of immense strength, with dark eyes, white curly hair, and hamlike hands that he keeps in his pockets when he speaks.

As boss of the entire area from Piacenza to the Adriatic, he specializes in expanding the Red coöperatives. But he is best known for the Red social events that bring in members and money. Held first in Bologna’s attractive park, La Montagnola, Dozza’s fairs and festivals have since been imitated from one end of Italy to the other.

I saw one of these Dozza-type productions in the aristocratic park of Le Cascine in Florence. Communist business organizations and coöps had taken booths as a matter of course. Other merchants were participating for the business involved. On the opening day, Communist winegrowers handed out wine free, and when the visitors had their fill, collected their signatures on documents like the Stockholm Peace Appeal. Children got paper hats with Communist slogans, candy, balloons, and toys. Young people danced, strolled, and rode their bicycles and motor-scooters up and down the main avenue lined with billboards.

These billboards — 300 yards of them — advocated peace, anticlericalism, and freedom of the press. They denounced Uncle Sam in turn as a warmonger, as a germ-dropper in Korea, and as a killer of babies (A-bombs). One poster showed a loathsome black octopus with a U.S. top hat and flag, being repulsed, in the act of dropping bombs, by a noble hammer and sickle torch.

The strength of a political machine — whether in Ferrara or Chicago — is its organization. The Party welcomes almost anybody. Not long ago, L’ Unità urged the enrollment of new members on a family basis — husbands, wives, children, brothers, sisters, sweethearts — as a means of “activating a greater number of militants.” Under this easygoing hospitality (“Join the Party and have a good time”) the organizers concentrate on winning over the two elements they must have if they are to seize power — labor and youth.

Since 1945, they have controlled the official Socialists (half their own number) who vote with them at the polls, in the Parliament, at CGIL (biggest labor federation) conventions, and in the single unions. In addition, they use their formerly direct, now indirect, control of hiring, their leadership of strikes, their extravagant demands, to attract workmen of any persuasion.

The other vital target is the children. Communist leaders do not care whether adult members “believe" or not. They cheerfully let them attend church on Sunday and go to confession. But they miss no chance to indoctrinate young people indelibly by getting them into the Communist Scouts (Pionieri) and Youth Federation. Entrance is easy. However, once a child enters a Red organization, no effort is spared in turning him into a do-or-die militant ready to denounce his parents or kill a bourgeois whenever the Kremlin says the word.

Communist mayors have a separate organization of their own. Less publicized are the Italian Politburo and Cominform, top directing bodies on the Moscow model where the real work of preparing future revolution goes on. Totally unmentioned are the Red duplicates of existing governmental organs. Leading Italian officials believe that there exist a shadow cabinet, a shadow secret police, shadow army cadres, educational and propaganda chiefs, all biding their time but ready to start at a moment’s notice. Of all this, ordinary social Communists and hangers-on hear less than nothing.

This pattern of Communism accounts for the strength of the movement, not only in Italy but in other countries. Wherever social Communists manage to get hold of local administrations, dispense local patronage, and create a society within a society, then — just like American city bosses — they seem to become all but impregnable to ordinary political attack. Here lies one reason for our failure in Italy. Properly understood, our experience reveals several useful conclusions.

First, since it thrives on prosperity, Communism of this type cannot be bought out of existence. Pouring in more U.S. billions without careful direction might even strengthen it by providing more plums for the Party’s fruit basket.

Second, the movement is proof against the usual types of criticism. It cannot easily be proved to be unpatriotic. Its leaders talk only of patriotism and never mention Russia.

It cannot be proved to be subversive; its professed aim is merely the well-being of the masses. Italy’s social Communists established their reputation as fighters against Fascism and are still living on it.

Moreover, membership in the Party is not dangerous to citizens of modest position like the Bassis. If Communism turns out to be the Wave of the Future, they will be riding high when it arrives. If that wave collapses, the Party card will have been a convenient surfboard through stormy breakers. Who later will wish to punish obscure (and doubtless, at that moment, repentant) ex-Communists?

Nor can social Communism of this Italian type be held responsible for failure to realize the Party’s limitless promises. For while strong enough to hand out substantial rewards locally, it cannot be loaded with blame for the omissions of a government it does not control.

For all these reasons, the Party may continue its undisturbed development right up to the point where it can aspire to take over the state. At present this is impossible. But let a storm arise (such as a new war or another Fascist March on Rome) and Italy’s Reds will certainly make a bid for supreme power.

U.S. taxpayers dare not overlook the lesson of our partial failure here. For no country, however well intentioned its government or its majority, can be a reliable ally of the United States so long as it harbors a powerful center of treason in its midst.

Sooner or later, our Italian friends will — in my judgment — have either to create other parties that will do even more for average people, and so wean them away from the Reds, or they will have to pull the Communists’ hands out of the public funds by outlawing them as a party.