“The country will revolt because of all the things you are incapable of doing, the problems you cannot solve,” a Communist deputy warned Italy’s democratic parties not long ago. “There is no other alternative to your impotence than rebellion, a rebellion which will take place whether we Communists want it or not, a chaotic, disorderly, violent revolution for which you alone will be responsible.”

It has been said before and will doubtless be said again, but suppose it comes true? What if Italy—heavily industrialized and technologically advanced, founding member of the Common Market and guardian of NATO’s southern flank, least demanding of our friends in Europe and practically our last remaining one in the Mediterranean—should finally skid out of control? Come to terms with a Communist Party polling close to ten million votes, the biggest in the Western world? Or, for fear of just that, fall into the hands of a rightist military juntathe “Colonels’ Solution,” as Italians call it? Considering the state of Italy’s democratic forces, the wonder is that one or the other hasn’t happened already.

It is over a year now since what was supposed to have been a historic center-left coalition of Christian Democrats, Social Democrats, Republicans, and Socialists died unmourned. Having set out to change the face of Italy with a program running to forty-seven typewritten pages, it managed to get no more than four or five major bills through Parliament in eight years. By the time it fell apart, with the dominant Christian Democratic Party divided into nine factions, the Socialists into six, and the Social Democrats into three, the deadlock was so complete that Parliament was dissolved a year ahead of time, a confession of humiliating impotence unmatched since 1922, the dawn of Mussolini’s Fascist rule.

The emergency elections in May, 1972, changed little, save the next government’s label from center-left to center-right, as the conservative Liberals replaced the departing Socialists. No less faction-ridden and paralytic than its predecessors, the new “government of centrality” was unable to keep a single one of its important legislative promises. Long before its standard year was up, this incoming government was already written off as outgoing, and negotiations were under way to revive the inanimate center-left again.

Breakdown

By the time Premier Mariano Rumor’s new Cabinet was sworn in last July, an economy famous the world over for its miraculous postwar growth had virtually slowed to a halt. Despite flickering signs of recovery in the past few months, Italy is still languishing at the outermost fringes of the Common Market, in the fourth straight year of its worst recession since the war. Its growth rate, plunging from an average of about 6 percent annually during the previous two decades to close to one percent in 1971, had crept back to barely 3 percent by the end of 1972. Profits also dropped to almost zero and have stayed there. Investments are nearly at a standstill. Capital fleeing abroad amounted to $5 billion in 1972. Industry is working at three-quarters of capacity. Unemployment rose 14 percent last year to about a million, more than 5 percent of the labor force. The rate of inflation is among the highest of any industrial state on earth, with living costs up 12 percent in the last two years and on the way to rising another 18 percent this year. The national deficit has almost tripled in three years, from $5 billion to going on $15 billion. The Italian lira, solid since 1948. has floated into a de facto devaluation of around 18 percent. And exasperated workers have taken to walking off the job at the drop of a hat. During the past decade. Italy’s losses of man-hours through strikes have run fifty-five times higher than West Germany’s, and the nation has had scarcely a strikeless day in the past four years.

Whether as a cause or effect (or both) of Italy’s present troubles, these strikes have become a paramount fact of life here. In one way or another, most of the pathological symptoms of this country’s nervous breakdown have shown up since the “Hot Autumn” of 1969. For three months, while negotiations were under way then to renew labor contracts for the next three years, hardly anybody—or anything— worked. All services broke down— from public transport to mail deliveries, telephone and telegraph, garbage collection and street-cleaning, traffic police, customs, prisons, and courts. Bars, cafes, and restaurants shut down, along with hotels, filling stations, banks, nurseries and schools, newspapers and printing plants, soccer fields, drugstores, car, steel, rubber, chemical, and textile factories, oil refineries, shipyards, even cemeteries. Student contestatori took over and closed down their universities. Thousands of the seven million peasants who have migrated from Italian farms to cities and from south to north since the war burned down their squatters’ shacks. Seventeen large cities called their own general strikes, including Turin, Milan, and Rome, with riotous mobs barricading the streets, wrecking cars, sacking public buildings.

The three national labor federations—the Communist-Socialist Confederazione Generale Italiana del Lavoro (CGIL). the Social Democratic Unione Italiana del Lavoro (UIL), and the Catholic Confederazione Italiana Sindacati Lavoratori (CISL)—working closely together for the first time since the war. were not so much leading the movement as hanging on for dear life. This was a grass-roots uprising, crashing out of all ideological and political bounds, pressing not just for more money but for more houses, schools, medical care, washing machines, holidays abroad, serenity in old age. social justice, mental peace, material comfort—a whole way of life that one of the ten most industrialized nations in the world should be able to afford and its torpid Establishment has failed to produce.

As the Establishment has done nothing in the face of this nearinsurrection. conditions have predictably worsened. Steeply and perennially rising labor costs after the Hot Autumn—up 45 percent from 1969 to 1972 and another 10 to 14 percent after latest contract renewals—have hurt the economy badly. Wildcat strikes and factory violence have flourished, frowned on by official labor and party leaders but warmly applauded by leftist extremists in “extra-parliamentary” groups such as Lotta Continua (“Constant Struggle”) and Potere Operaio (“Workers’ Power”), which are frankly dedicated to destroying the whole fabric of Italian society.

Mingling in a strange terrorist underworld with this same extraparliamentary Left—which prides itself on being the first in Italy to have published detailed instructions on how to make a Molotov cocktail—is an extra-parliamentary Right so vicious that even the neo-Fascist Italian Social Movement dare not sponsor it officially. Together, these terrorist groups have done their best since 1969 to keep the country on the brink of panic. Considering that a bomb a day goes off somewhere or other on the peninsula, and a million Molotov cocktails were turned up in various caches during a nationwide police roundup on the eve of the election in May, 1972, they would appear to be succeeding.

How could a nation with so much vitality and promise have come to such a pass? What have the democratic parties done, or not done, to alienate the affections of so many students, workers, and intellectuals? How, with a safe majority in Parliament since the postwar Republic was founded and an electoral mandate renewed year after year, could they have failed to satisfy the voters’ most elementary needs?

Bureaucratic bog

Take the civil service. For an Italian contemplating anything from paying his taxes to getting a peddler’s license or collecting an oldage pension, the nation’s millionman bureaucracy is a nightmare. Most staiali and parastatali, as these employees are called, are recruited by letters of recommendation from politicians, and many others get in under a quota system for citizens afflicted by natural or man-made disasters. “Essentially,” suggests a high government functionary, “this makes the Italian state a sort of charity organization, while those in its employ largely work as volunteers.” Once past their six-month trial period, they don’t have to work unless they want to. Nobody on the state payroll can be fired unless he is jailed for committing a crime. Officially. gross inefficiency is a cause for dismissal also. But such is the state’s fear of tangling with its own bureaucracy should an aggrieved employee appeal his dismissal that, for a century, hardly anyone has been fired on these grounds.

The resulting bottlenecks are incredible. Not only does it take at least three years for a projected new school or workers’ housing development to get ministerial approval, but many projects never get through the ministries at all. Time and again they simply vanish into a baffling category of stale bookkeeping known as the residui passivi: money allocated for public investment but never spent because all trace is hopelessly lost in some ministerial bog. To date, well over $15 billion in public funds have backed up. unused, in that way. Although Italian Cabinets always include a minister whose sole task is to study bureaucratic reform, not one has made so much as a dent. Yet until they do, they are not likely to get very far in any other direction.

Italy’s school system is a case in point. Although education is compulsory here until the age of fourteen, going to school does not necessarily mean getting educated. First of all, schools have no room for nearly one student in eight. Secondly, teachers often lack even a smattering of professional training. Italy has no teachers’ training colleges. and a new after-school program to “teach teachers how to teach” has proved such a timewaster that its drastic overhaul was a primary demand in the teachers’ strikes which continued on and off throughout last winter. Another major demand was for an overhaul of the standard curriculum, retouched here and there but essentially unchanged for the better part of a century.

It is hardly surprising, then, that one out of seven Italian children— and four out of five peasant children—flunks out before the fifth grade, and only one in four makes it as far as a high school diploma. Those who do. and go on to a university, are worse off still. Though university enrollments have more than tripled since 1969, practically no new classrooms have been built. The University of Rome, with eighty-seven thousand on its rolls, has only one seat for every eleven students. Few students bother to show up. Nine out of ten simply study at home, often hundreds of miles away, nailed to a curriculum dating back to World War I. What with such conditions and the resulting student contestazione (riots), the country’s educational currency is so debased that job offers in the classified ad columns specifically ask for graduates with diplomas predating 1968.

Of course, the bureaucracy is partly to blame for this. Of the $600 million appropriated to build classrooms in 1967. barely a third had gotten through the necessary ministries to be spent bv 1970. But even improvements costing little seem to get nowhere. From 1963 to 1972. two major education reform bills died in parliamentary committee. Though yet another was promised by the incoming Education Minister Oscar Scalfaro after the May, 1972, elections, he did not get around to presenting more than limited patchwork proposals for the universities by the following spring.

Nudging Rome

Wherever Italians turn, it is the same sad story. With the highest social welfare costs in Europe, for instance, Italy is losing a billion dollars a year through bureaucratic inefficiency in the hospital and public health sector alone. Yet a series of health care reform bills, pending since 1963, has yet to reach the floor of Parliament. One emergency measure, rushed through just before the last legislature expired, did provide substantial wage hikes for hospital personnel. As a result, a hospital bed can cost upwards of fifty dollars a day even in the poorest southern regions,, but patients sometimes have to provide their own clean sheets and send out to the corner trattoria for edible food. Yet another reform bill has been prepared for the incumbent Parliament, but the Minister of Health who drafted it admitted to me without blinking an eye that he had no hopes for its passage before 1975, if then. In low-cost housing, Italy has dropped behind all Western Europe. There is no end to the list of such government failures, or the human dramas they cause.

It is mostly because such things happen that about one in every four Italians votes Communist. They have no better, or no other, weapon (a blunt instrument, the only useful kind) to punish the wicked, frighten the powerful, jolt Rome. In this sense the Communists’ many defects hardly matter. However watered its revolutionary wine, stale its slogans, disingenuous its leaders, and questionable their severance from Moscow, the Italian Communist Party is still a magnificent Ministry of Protest. What it might be like in a different capacity is getting to be more and more an intriguing question as Communist strength grows in direct proportion to the democrats’ decline.

The steady disintegration of Italy’s democratic forces defies understanding. Emerging from the ruins of Mussolini’s dictatorship and the war, Italian democrats had a lot of headaches. Who didn’t? Yet they were more privileged than most in the remarkable qualities of their hardworking, ingenious, and timelessly patient population. With that, as well as generous Marshall Plan aid, solid American backing (when it still counted), and the colossal machinery of the Church mobilized to head off a Communist advance, they won the first free elections, in 1948. in a walk. The Christian Democrats alone came very close to an absolute majority (48.5 percent); with their smaller democratic allies, they controlled two-thirds of Parliament.

Working in reasonable harmony, and even allowing for the frailties of politicians the world over, they might have renovated the nation from top to bottom. But what little harmony prevailed, especially in Christian Democratic ranks, died with Alcide de Gasperi, their one true statesman. Since his death in the fifties, the ruling Catholic party has been wracked by power struggles of unimaginable ferocity. Conceived from the start as an all-purpose governing party representing every kind of voter from pious, illiterate peasants and hotly militant industrial workers to captains of industry and Catholic philosophers, it has always been divided into a dozen-odd perpetually shifting and intractably hostile factions of the Right, Left, and center. On any but supreme issues affecting the Church, such as divorce or abortion, anywhere from a handful to a hundred parliamentary “snipers” from one or another of these factions might vote against their own Prime Minister (providing the balloting is secret, of course). On most other issues, the last party a Christian Democratic Prime Minister might count on for solidarity in Parliament is his own.

Since Italy’s fragmented system of multiparty proportional representation imposes the need for political alliances, the ruling Christian Democrats’ alternating courtship and betrayal of their smaller democratic allies has become a fixture of Italian political life. Whether because or in spite of this, none of the smaller democratic parties has been altogether free from the sin of factionalism either, the Hamletic Socialists least of all. Bound to the Communists by an iron alliance in the early postwar years, the Socialists have long been torn between a centuryold tradition of working-class unity (with the Communists, that is) and increasingly urgent distress signals from the centrists. In 1963, when electoral slippage left the Christian Democrats no choice, they lured the Socialists into the government. The idea of this “opening to the left” was to isolate a Communist Party thriving on governmental immobility, its share of the national vote having by then risen from 18 percent to 25 percent. The enticement for the irresolute Socialists was an elaborate program of reforms as well as the fleshpots of patronage.

Proxy power

The patronage helped—on one memorable occasion, the Socialist Party’s General Secretary was named along with a Christian Democratic Cabinet Minister in a billion-dollar state road-building scandal—but the reforms never got off the ground. From start to finish, propositions dearest to Socialist hearts were systematically blackballed by conservative Christian Democratic “snipers” representing a good third of their party’s deputies in Parliament. The circle grew increasingly vicious as the Socialists, frustrated and fearful of losing their electoral followers to the Communists, made new demands further irritating conservative Christian Democrats. After a decade of alternating schisms and reconciliations, perpetual demands for “clarification,” and repeated Cabinet reshuffles, the Socialists wound up in the improbably acrobatic position of belonging to the government while demanding a “more advanced equilibrium” with the government’s main enemy; the Communist Party. When the coalition collapsed, the Communists’ share of the national vote had risen from 25 percent to 27 percent.

The absence of authentic government has made for curious deformations in the body politic whereby, in effect, it is the trade unions, the Catholic Church, and the Communists who are running the country by proxy.

The three trade union federations, coordinating their strategy since 1969—and committed now to merge eventually into a single giant confederation—have not so much sought as drifted into a position of extraordinary strength. Since almost 20 percent of Italian industry and public services is controlled by the state, their chief interlocutor has often been the government, or more exactly a succession of nongovernments each feebler than the last. Whatever their private judgments about how much the economy might bear, it has been next to impossible of late for labor leaders here to exercise restraint. Such demands as they might refuse to make would in the end be made anyhow by wildcatters. Official or not, and however excessive, practically any demand made on a nerveless government has had excellent prospects of success. The latest example was last spring’s month-long postal strike. The longest on record and. in this fourth year of recession, surely the most damaging, it was stretched out by wildcatters despite the open disapproval of all trade union leaders from Catholic to Communist. Predictably, it ended with a government cave-in that might come close to doubling labor costs in this sector.

There is no question that trade union officials are acutely aware of the strains put on the economy by such victories. The Communists themselves have been warning their members lately that it might be for their own good to work more and strike less. But unless and until Italian workers can get something tangibly better than just more swiftly devaluing money—more houses, say, or schools, hospitals, pensions, price controls—the argument is unlikely to win them over.

The Vatican’s influence is exercised through the local clergy, whose powers, in a nation that is 99 percent Catholic, are immense. On national politics, however, the Vatican’s posture has changed almost beyond recognition since the first postwar years, when Pope Pius XII formally excommunicated all members of the Italian Communist Party.

Worried by the fate of many million Catholics living under Communist rule, renewed by a fresh ecumenical spirit, and caught up in the complexities of a vast aggiornamento since the reign of Pope John XXIII, the Vatican has taken a growing if still oblique interest in reaching some sort of modus vivendi with the Communists at home and abroad. It was surely no historical accident that Pope Paul VI collaborated secretly with Italian Communist leaders from 1969 onward to communicate with Hanoi and thus help bring about peace in Vietnam.

Going respectable

The Vatican is not alone. For several years now, a Communist movement once hopelessly beyond the political pale here has become the center of absorbing debate. How long can a party claiming to speak for the working class, and in any case polling close to ten million votes, he kept out of the government? Is it ethical, feasible, even desirable. to go on doing so forever? Until fairly recently, nobody of influence in Rome actually contemplated a change, least of all the Communists. “We do very well in the opposition: we grow bigger and fatter,” observes a top man in their Central Committee, Giorgio Amendola. “What, besides headaches, could a place in the government give us that we don’t have already?” asks another.

There is hardly much joy for these Communists in the idea of leaving their safe haven for a seat in the government where, as one party among many, they would have weightier responsibilities but scarcely more power than they have now. Nor do they imagine that they could make their way in as anything but one party among many. No Italian Communist of substance has thought seriously of seizing power by force since Stalin, Churchill, and FDR agreed on the division of Europe at Yalta during World War II. No sensible Communist here would dream of peaceful conquest by the ballot, either. Whatever their ability to pick up more votes at every election, the Communists are the first to concede that they could never win an absolute majority in this country.

Yet, for all the reasons given here, the question is no longer so remote. In the last couple of years, a number of Catholic as well as Socialist leaders have been making advances to the Communists. Their courtship, though assiduous, is somewhat less than hearty. Few are actually prepared to propose honorable marriage: a government ministry or two, the presidency of a big bank or state enterprise, a voice in inner councils. What they would like is more along the lines of a mariage de con vena nee, in which a hundred and seventy-five discreetly kept Communist deputies would help them pass laws which what with their snipers, factions, and endless intramural quarrels—they have been incapable of passing themselves.

Obviously, the democrats would have to make a more tempting offer. As time goes by with no change in the dismal outlook, they seem bound to. The greater their need, the less inclined they are to dwell on the Communist Party’s distasteful features. The Italian Communists have renounced armed conquest, rejected Soviet Russia as a guide-state, challenged its right to interfere in their affairs. They sharply condemned the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia, begrudged Russia their backing in its ideological conflict with China, refused to endorse many decisions made at the Moscow summit conference of world Communists in 1969. They have even hinted that they would settle for appreciably less than a neutralist foreign policy.

At the Party’s thirteenth congress last year, its incoming General Secretary, Enrico Berlinguer, stated baldly that the issue of NATO could no longer be approached with the Party’s simple slogan: “NATO out of Italy; Italy out of NATO.” The question now was not “simply one of pronouncing for or against this military pact” but of working gradually toward liquidating all military pacts, he said. Furthermore, the other terms on which he offered the country social peace would scarcely cause a ripple in America’s Republican National Committee. They include practically all the reforms promised but unrealized by every government since 1963, from schools, health, and housing to the national bureaucracy, prisons, and the penal code. No more nationalization would be necessary, he went on, since more than half the economy was under state control already; and the institution of the family would be not only preserved but strengthened. “We are not for a society where everything is permitted,” said this chaste Party official.

Plainly, he was speaking for many of his followers. By now, more than a quarter of the Communist Party’s million and a half members are shopkeepers and tradesmen, housewives, notaries and lawyers, doctors, journalists. Questioned in a public opinion poll recently, only 5.1 percent of the Party’s militants said they wanted a revolution, while 32 percent favored gradual reforms. In an earlier poll, only 27 percent had considered the Soviet Union to be the best example of true Socialism. For 15.8 percent, the exemplary Socialist model was Sweden.

All this has given the Italian Communists a respectable image, magnified by competent propaganda and effective use of the three Communist-controlled regions as a national showcase. No other city of comparable size in Italy is remotely as well-run as Bologna, under a Communist mayor for over twentyfive years. Its schools, hospitals, and health services are the last word in modernity, its parks and green belts impeccable, its historic center is being restored with meticulous care and forethought unique in the country. Even (or especially) its solution of the urban traffic problem, including an efficient free public transport system, is the envy of all Italy.

Nobody knows how genuine the Communists’ apparent conversion to democratic ways really is. It is hard to believe that present-day Italian Communists would revert to primitive Russian methods when and if they got the chance. But that is far from saying that their presumably subtler methods reflect a strong faith in parliamentary democracy. For all the Party’s dislike of the Czechoslovak invasion and the Brezhnev Doctrine of limited sovereignty that came with it, Berlinguer has said flatly that the Party would never dream of breaking with the Russians over this or anything else. He has yet to explain how that might affect the Communists’ posture here if the Brezhnev Doctrine should be applied to Italy someday. “What guarantees can I give you?” was his reply to the question not long ago. “Strictly speaking, none.”

Accordingly, a grain of caution still keeps most Italian democrats from being ready for a deal with this seemingly domesticated Communist Party. Even if they could be sure of its democratic credentials, they could not be sure whether, once a bargain were made, the Communists could deliver the goods. In fact, the Communists are none too sure themselves.

There is no telling what the Italian working class would do as soon as the Communists’ backs were turned. Already the fact that they speak and think of themselves as a “government party” has compromised them hopelessly in the eyes of many workers influenced by the intransigent extra-parliamentary leftists. Certainly, they could not dream of carrying all ten million of their electoral followers with them if they should actually join a government alliance —the extra-parliamentary Left would automatically pick up much of the anti-Establishment support that now goes to the Communists. The problem is all too familiar to their former Socialist allies, who. upon joining the first center-left government in 1963. lost half their former voters.

Furthermore, joining the government might also provoke a reaction that could well end in calamitous defeat and/or civil war. The Italian Communist Party has no foothold in industry or the banks, no crucial keys to financial power, no influence in the armed forces, no leverage in the police force or in key levels of the bureaucracy.

For all these considerations, the Communists here may not really want to take power, however peacefully. at least right now. “The time has not yet come for that.” one of their Central Committee members observed recently, “and frankly, it would not be in our interest.” But power could be thrust upon them, for either of two reasons, or both: through simple default on the part of democratic politicians incapable of pulling their own socks up: or through panic at the prospect of a rightist take-over.

Memories of Mussolini

Two years ago. a middle class, frightened of the Left and exasperated by strikes, seemed to be drifting toward a rightist solution. Until then, the neo-Fascist Italian Social Movement (MSI) had remained beyond the pale for all but a small (5 percent) fringe of Italian voters. For all the efforts of its wily leader, Giorgio Almirante, to present a front of respectability, the brutality of his goon squads and the presence in top MSI councils of the most unregenerate racists and Fascist diehards who had served Mussolini to the bitter end awakened too many harsh memories.

In June, 1971, however, the MSI suddenly surged forward in partial administrative elections, more than doubling its vote. When Parliament was dissolved in an atmosphere of electric tension the following year, there were fears that the neo-Fascists would move into the next Parliament with a hundred deputies, a sixth of the total, enough to condition if not control succeeding governments.

Evidently, the time had not yet come for them either. A solid core of the Italian electorate saw the risk of toying with a party whose leaders could ask nothing better for Italy than a replica of the Greek colonels’ military junta. Some voters were repelled simply because they retained too acrid a taste of totalitarian rule to stomach more: others realized that a large vote for the neo-Fascist MSI would almost certainly push a great many decent anti-Fascists into the Communists’ arms and. more likely than not. provoke civil war. Whatever their reasoning, the MSI vote increased only from 5.8 percent to 8.6 percent (including 1 or 2 percent inherited from the defunct Monarchist Party); it returned to the Chamber in less than glorious triumph with only fifty deputies.

Now, after years of predicting calamity. mans foreign commentators have fallen into complacency, saying that no amount of maddening governmental incompetence can push Italy off the democratic rails. The amazing stability of the Italian electorate, which rarely shifts allegiances more than a few decimal points under whatever provocation, is the true Italian miracle, they say. Since very little actually happens in Italian politics, whatever the frequency, length, and depth of ministerial crises, they may be right. But it is just possible that this country’s governing parties are crowding their luck. For more than two decades, Italy’s patient and enterprising people have managed somehow to shift for themselves, finding their own way around formidable obstacles, not least their own government. But the democratic parties’ squalid performance has made the Communists and Fascists both look a good deal more glamorous than they are. Ten years ago, even five years ago. a man with as lurid a Fascist record as Giorgio Almirante could never have conned three million Italians into voting for him; nor would it have been conceivable that the Communists might be regarded as even potentially acceptable government partners by so many impeccable Italian democrats, not to mention members of the Vatican hierarchy.

If it is true that all peoples have the governments they deserve—despite so much evidence to the contrary here—the Italians may be rewarded for their miraculous patience with a better one, by and by. If not, though, they might well be heading for disaster. Totalitarian rule may look ugly—indeed, appalling—to many or most Italians, especially because they have already been through it. The point is, though, that they have indeed been through it. that it has happened before in this country when the state broke down utterly, and could happen again.

-CLAIRE STERLING