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From a Political Party to a Cultural Lifestyle: Trends of Post-Communism in Italy

From the beginning of the 1960s to the end of the 1970s, Italian Communism—represented by the biggest Communist political party in the West—lost its propulsive force. The myth of “revolution” expired; the crucial social and economic role of the industrial working class disappeared; the capitalistic system consolidated itself as a mass consumerist society. In addition, there were important sociological changes in the leadership of the Italian Communist Party. First, we must specify who the Italian Communist militants were at the beginning, especially in the immediate years after World War II and in the first twenty years of the Republican period (1945-1965). During these years the Communist Party presented itself as an organization with a clearly defined identity and sense of purpose toward both outsiders and its own militants: the militant’s everyday life was dominated by the so-called “Stalinist metaphor” (“metafora staliniana,” a term coined by the Italian scholar Giuseppe Carlo Marino). What does that mean? To Communists, words such as “Stalin” and “USSR” signified an “ideal of absolute happiness, synthesis of moral standards and welfare, in opposition to the disturbing and corrupting promises of the American capitalism.”

The cult of personality surrounding Stalin persisted well after the death of that Soviet leader, continuing into the 20th Congress of the Soviet Communist Party and the so-called “de-Stalinization” efforts begun in 1956. Pictures of Stalin still graced the premises of many local branches of the Italian Communist Party, pictures that were nonetheless hidden during visits from party officials in Rome. For these members of the old guard, Stalin stood as a symbol of real Communist utopia, the realization of a human society no longer defined by contradiction or struggle. In some ways nostalgia for the first period of the USSR’s life, the early days of the Revolution, was already apparent among Communist militants in the mid-1950s. During the first ten years of the postwar period, the leader of the Italian Communist Party, Palmiro Togliatti, frequently stressed the “diversity” among Communists. Because they saw themselves as fighting for worldwide social justice, assisting the poor and the oppressed, Communists believed themselves to hold the moral high ground in Italian cultural life. A kind of Manichaeism took a hold of the mind of the Communist militant, a belief in the purity of his struggle and in his cultural superiority. Togliatti always said that the dialectical materialism of Marxist-Leninist theory was the only true understanding of universal human history. If many Italian intellectuals believed this, it was the party’s militants above all who were persuaded by it.

These firm political beliefs influenced everyday life, especially in places, such as most of Tuscany and Emilia-Romagna, where the Communist Party was able to govern in the early post-war years. The Party helped Communist militants to feel as a “people” unto themselves, well defined and well distinguished from the “others” (especially Catholics, but also Socialists) by separate cultural institutions and public rituals. This was the function of institutions such as the “Case del popolo” and the “Feste dell’Unità.” (L’Unità was the journal of the Italian Communist Party, founded by Antonio Gramsci in 1924.) In addition, the Party went about establishing organized leisure and sport through organizations such as UISP, allowing young people to socialize and compete in athletics under the auspices of the Party. It is not wrong to see the influence of the Party in managing the life of its territory as a continuation of the Fascist legacy of cultural organization during the 1930s. The reasons for such involved social control were twofold: first and above all, the ideological commitment of Italian Communism to a radical alternative to Western capitalistic society was a commitment that required citizens to be educated in an alternative manner; second, these collateral organizations were seen as lending much needed support to the Party in order to resist attacks arising from an adverse context (Italy was in the Western block under U.S. protection) and to compete politically with the Christian Democracy Party, which could count on the support of the Catholic Church and its collateral organizations. In some Italian regions, such as Tuscany and Emilia-Romagna, but also Umbria and Marche, the Communist Party succeeded in creating a kind of a world apart due to such efforts. This fact explains the long life of the Stalinist myth and, especially, the myth of Soviet Communism among the Italian militants. Of course, while this ideology persisted with the older generation, it was soon lost upon the young.

The real turning point in Italian Communism started with the so-called “boom” or “economic miracle,” the definitive Italian industrial revolution taking place during the 1960s. The 1968 protest movement, started by university students, was only a consequence of the dramatic acceleration of the changes taking place in Italian society. 1968 was also a consequence of the growing expectations of anti-capitalist and anti-bourgeois revolution on the part of young Communists, who, having grown up hearing Communist myths of “diversity” and superiority, threw such teaching back in the faces of the older generation. For this fundamental reason the first consequences of the 1968 protest movement were a radicalization of the ideological struggle in everyday political life. The 1970s were dominated by a second civil war among young militants of the far right and the far left, but it was only the noisiest part of the large youth movement of protest. Effectively, there was an underground process of change and reform during those same years, as many young people rejected extremism and abandoned the far left utopias of the Communists and Maoists, as well as their doctrine of terrorist armed struggle. The industrial revolution of the 1960s introduced step by step a new way of life for the Italians: individualism.

Most Italians lived in the countryside until the early 1970s. The legacy of a peasant society, with its traditional beliefs and habits, lasted long into the twentieth century and validated Communist “diversity.” Peasant life was far less distant from the collective values of Communism than urban life. Urbanization and the increased mobility created by an industrialized economy produced a dramatic change in the everyday lives of Communist militants. These changes brought about a growing appreciation for liberal values of individual freedom, the value of an individual free choice in any and all aspects of their own lives. Official Communist Party positions were rather traditional concerning moral standards, since the old-fashioned industrial worker and peasant were the main social and political constituents of the Party. Divorce, abortion, women’s emancipation, sexual freedom, and gender equality, all of growing concern to younger members of the left during the 1970s, were certainly not favorite topics of discussion for the Communist Party.

During the 1970s, a younger generation, sometimes supported by older socialist and liberal politicians or intellectuals, pushed the Party to modify its positions. This change in Party attitudes was brought about, in part, by the sheer demographic force younger that people represented in that period. During those years, Italians aged 14 to 18 represented 27% of population, whereas today this number is only 19%. In 1968 and afterward, there was a dizzying increase in the number of young people who went on to receive educational degrees. The percentage of young people who continued their studies after the age of 14 was about 10% in the mid 1940s; it increased rapidly to 20% in the 1950s. Around 1970 it reached 50%.

As a result the young were a very important political demographic force. To the Communist Party, which wished to overtake the Christian Democratic Party, they were potential voters who seemed likely to sympathize with the party’s goals. However, the elder militants didn’t much change their orthodox beliefs or their positions, and thus fidelity to the Party as a “Church organization” (political-religious organization) weakened during the political transition to a post-Communist worldview. Suffice it to say that only with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the breakdown of Eastern European Communist regimes can we see the definitive break with faith in Communist utopia and Marxist ideology, even if they had long represented only a confused idea of an alternative.

Only an analysis of everyday socio-economic life can explain the political changes that began in the 1970s. The Party hid this kind of change because it saw itself as the only constant in a world of overwhelmingly rapid transformations, especially concerning personal relationships, private life, and the increasing values of self-government and personal freedom. During the subsequent twenty years, from 1980 to 2000, the younger generation of 1968 protesters became the ruling class of the Communist Party and gained important roles in the mass media. The first step of this generational renewal of the ruling class was in the local branches of the Party. During the mid-1980s, after the death of Enrico Berlinguer, a new generation of leaders looked at the leftist movements outside the Communist Party to create a new identity. The Italian Communist Party lived through a real identity crisis during the 1980s. This crisis was also produced by the political success of the Socialist Party, which had chosen a modernizing approach to policy since the late 1970s, under the new leadership of Bettino Craxi. The definitive secularization of Italian society shocked both the Christian Democrats and the Communists. Two different kinds of religion were weakened, and everyday life was the best indicator of this fundamental transformation. If you read the novels and short stories by Giovannino Guareschi, you can see that the Catholics and the Communists were remarkably similar in the way they conducted their private lives, because each grew out of the same sort of societal ethos. The only marked difference between them was the acceptance of the cult of Stalin and the Soviet Union, which more and more began to coexist with Western welfare society from the late 1950s onward. 1989 and the fall of Berlin Wall accelerated this process of change, but the preconditions for a “mass radical party” were born before that big event. Post-Communism in Italy became a special kind of radical liberalism. The social classes that now support the post-Communist Party (PDS, then DS, and now PD) are less and less the lower classes that the Party was supposed to emancipate—industrial workers and rural laborers. Factory life has fundamentally changed with the realization of post-Fordist mode of economic organization. Individualism has even conquered the factories themselves, as many of have less than fifteen workers and the owner-enterpriser is a former worker.

The earlier forms of socialization and politicization have disappeared. Today, “Feste dell’Unità” are no different than other social and cultural events. “Case del popolo” have since dropped this name and are very similar to any other pub or wine bar. There is no more alternative society, no more party, no more need to propose another way of life. In fact, there are no longer any myths strong enough to be opposed to current consumerist society. These changes are similar in all of Europe. The main difference between Italy and other EU countries lies in Italy’s recent political past; it lies in a left dominated by the biggest and most influential Communist Party in the Western Bloc. Some old attitudes have remained, such as an anti-establishment way of thinking about politics, the temptation to adopt extremist solutions or slogans, and a certain hostility toward modernity, which still lingers among the Italian post-Communist left. This is also due to the lasting legacy of Italy’s widespread peasantry.

This collapse of historical myths has led to an excess of cynicism and pragmatism. Today the lack of a solid identity is a problem for the entire Italian left. It risks absorption into the contemporary society of consumer lifestyles (as a consumer lifestyle). This homogenization can be a problem for the Italian left, even if the feeling of being “diverse” and even morally “superior” was a way not to accept sincerely the Western democratic system, and even if inside this mentality a violent antagonistic attitude could also arise. This political and cultural trend began after 1968; 1989 was only an accelerator, its death certificate.

Another consequence of 1989 in Italy has been that post-Communist intellectuals reached the same “orphaned” condition that had been typical of post-Fascist intellectuals. The Italian political system today continues to suffer a low level of legitimacy, just as it did in the 1960s. Some of the roots of the crisis of the left lie in the shared characteristics of our post-Communist political transition. Today a new generational change is coming, and liberal democracy is a little bit less contested than in the past, even if the former ’68ers (as high school or university professors) usually teach anti-establishment cultural attitudes.

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