A review of First They Took Rome: How the Populist Right Conquered Italy, David Broder (Verso, 2020), £16.99
Back in the 1970s, Italy was arguably the European country in which the clash between capital and labour was at its most intense.1 Enormous protests and wildcat strikes regularly hit all the major industries, especially in the North. Rank and file workers constantly defied the reformist and bureaucratic approach of trade unions, building their own forms of representation in the workplaces. The extra-parliamentary left could count on an estimated 100,000 militants, and armed groups proliferated as well. In the most iconic episode, the Red Brigades (Brigate Rosse) kidnapped and killed Italy’s former prime minister, the Christian Democrats’ Aldo Moro, in 1978. At the institutional level, the Stalinised and de facto social-democratic Italian Communist Party (Partito Comunista Italiano) was very strong, receiving 34.4 percent of the votes at its peak in the 1976 general election. The Communists could rely on a mass membership, which remained over 1.5 million until 1988, as well as extensive networks of cooperatives and other groups that connected vast sectors of the popular classes to the party.
Half a century later, the scenario is radically different. Since the historic defeat in the 2008 general election, leftist parties, excluding very minor and reformist forces, have consistently failed to enter parliament. Marxist groups are tiny, fragmented and often based in individual cities, resembling more urban collectives rather than national organisations. The previously powerful labour movement has suffered from repeated setbacks, culminating in the approval, under the government led by Matteo Renzi and his Democratic Party (Partito Democratico), of the Jobs Act in 2015. This law rolled back a historic conquest of the working class: the prohibition against freely firing workers in factories and offices with more than 15 employees.
The passing of the Jobs Act neatly sums up the overall trajectory of the Democratic Party, the main force on the centre left in Italy. Founded in 2007 through a merger of the Democrats of the Left (Democratici di Sinistra) with left-leaning Christian Democrats, the Democratic Party has become the most consistently neoliberal party on the entire political spectrum. Due to this, and because of the shattering electoral defeat of the parliamentary left grouped around the Party of Communist Refoundation (Partito della Rifondazione Comunista, or simply “Rifondazione”) in 2008, the already weak links between workers and political left were severed. Since then, the lower classes have lost any distinct form of political representation. Instead, they have veered towards new forces, such as the Five Star Movement, or already existing political parties that have significantly transformed themselves, such as Matteo Salvini’s League (Lega). David Broder’s First They Took Rome aims to explain this phenomenon, focusing primarily on the growth and success of the nativist and xenophobic right in Italy.
The author, a journalist and translator in Rome who serves as European editor for Jacobin magazine, provides a robust historical reconstruction of the development and transformation of Italy’s party system since the end of the Second World War. Avoiding the often repeated but meaningless cliché of the “uniqueness” of the Italian context, Broder shows how the highly stable political system that characterised Italy during the so-called First Republic (1948–92) has given way to an extremely volatile situation. Though the First Republic’s politics was based on mass parties that encapsulated vast sectors of society, today Italy is subject to global trends towards the development of catch-all parties and the personalisation of politics. Weak political identification has become the norm among the population. The two critical turning points in this stark shift were the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the start of an unprecedented judicial investigation into political corruption, known as Clean Hands (“Mani pulite”), in the early 1990s.
In post-Fascist Italy, the Christian Democrats and their allies governed interruptedly for more than four decades, constantly excluding the Communist Party at the national level. Despite its references to Antonio Gramsci and Lenin, the Communists initially adopted a strategy inspired more by Eduard Bernstein, the early social-democratic revionist theorist, by trying to win a parliamentary majority together with the Italian Socialist Party. It was after the 1973 coup against Chile’s elected left-wing president, Salvador Allende, that Communist Party leader Enrico Berlinguer first proposed a “historic compromise” with the Christian Democrats. Though correctly realising that a new world could not be won at the ballot box, the Communist Party drew the wrong lesson. Rather than turning leftwards to self-organised committees in the workplaces and neighbourhoods, it sought an institutional pact with the Christian Democrats.
Due to both domestic and international factors, the historic compromise failed miserably, as we are reminded by the dead body of Moro, one of the most fervent supporters of the pact. Consequently, the Communist Party was pushed back into an oppositional stance in the 1980s. Paradoxically, this very obviously social-democratic party was excluded from government posts because it was still formally “Communist”. Its leadership found this a difficult problem to overcome due to the continuing identification of its membership with the label. Unsurprisingly then, the Communist Party leaders saw a golden opportunity with the astonishing images of the collapse of Stalinism that emerged from East Germany in 1989. Rebranding itself as the Democratic Party of the Left (Partito Democratico della Sinistra) in 1991, and later as the Democrats of the Left (Democratici di Sinistra), it re-emerged as a decisive force in the promotion of a neoliberal agenda based on mass-scale privatisation and anti-labour policies.
It was in this context that the downfall of the First Republic took place, resulting from a vast investigation conducted by judges in Milan into political bribes and corruption. Broder correctly underlines that nothing particularly new was exposed by these criminal proceedings. What really “broke the political system apart” in 1992 “was its loss of internal solidarity”, itself an effect of the disappearance of the “red menace”.2 The implosion of the two leading parties of the governing coalition—the Socialists, who had become strongly anti-Communist and pro-market under the leadership of Bettino Craxi from the late 1970s, and the Christian Democrats—paved the way for the emergence of new political forces in post-1993 Italy.
Broder’s most valuable contribution is his capacity to depict important features of the so-called Second Republic. His description of Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia party and its television populism, crude anti-communism and rehabilitation of post-fascist forces is accurate and impressive. So too is his depiction of the PD as the party of the liberal, urban middle classes. Moreover, he provides a balanced account of the Five Star Movement and Lega, the two parties that formed what journalists described as the first “all-populist government” in Western Europe in June 2018.
Lega is currently the oldest party in the country, founded as an alliance of northern Italian regional parties at the end of the 1980s as the Northern League (Lega Nord). Under the leadership of Umberto Bossi, Lega Nord portrayed itself as “the voice of the productive, modern North in rebellion against ‘thieving Rome’ and the ‘lazy, corrupt South’”.3 From the outset, the party had a strong anti-statist approach, favouring tax cuts and demanding that wealthier regions should keep more of their own tax revenues.
Although it advanced an ethno-regionalist and cross-class message that attracted strong support in the small towns and villages of the North, the material interests defended by Lega Nord were always those of small and medium-sized capitalists in north eastern Italy. This is an area that rapidly developed from being mainly agricultural in the 1950s to becoming the most industrialised and dynamic region in Italy a few decades later. For a brief period in the second half of the 1990s, Lega Nord transformed itself into an openly secessionist force, demanding independence for Padania, the lowland area around the River Po. However, the party’s involvement in Berlusconi’s 2001-06 and 2008-11 governments marked “its conversion into a more conventional hard-right force”.4 One sign of this was that Lega Nord began allowing its candidates to run in coalition with the National Alliance (Alleanza Nazionale), the heirs of the fascist Italian Social Movement (Movimento Sociale Italiano). When Salvini became party secretary in 2013, a more thoroughgoing transformation took place, with Lega dropping “Nord” from its name and adopting a fully “nationalist, Eurosceptic and anti-immigrant agenda”.5
Lega then radicalised its xenophobic narrative against migrants and NGOs, even forming a short-lived anti-European Union front in 2015 with CasaPound, a party that refers to itself as “fascists of the third millennium.” For the first time, Lega also moved beyond its heartland and fielded candidates in every region of the country, which represented a real break with its past. Surprisingly, it did well in the South, despite its previous denigration of the region. Indeed, the electoral growth of Lega has been striking. Its share of the vote rose from 4 percent of the 2013 elections—its historical low, following a long series of bribery scandals—to more than 17 percent in 2018. Journalists have repeatedly argued that this success is based on winning over formerly left-wing voters, but Broder convincingly rejects this. Rather, it was Berlusconi’s decline as leader of the centre right and the radicalisation of parts of his support base that have boosted Salvini.
Up to the 2018 general election, in fact, the popular classes turned en masse towards the Five Star Movement, which had already become the single most popular party in the 2013 parliamentary election before winning almost one third of the votes in 2018. The Five Star Movement was created by comedian Beppe Grillo as a vocally anti-establishment party, blaming the rapidly falling living standards of working-class families on a corrupt and inefficient political class. It articulated a “judicial populism” with roots in the Clean Hands period. In contrast to the emerging left-populist parties in other southern European countries, the Five Star Movement did not promote social justice and wealth redistribution. Instead, it vehemently rejected the left-right political spectrum, arguing that policies are what matter rather than ideologies. To confirm its supposedly radical, anti-establishment character, Grillo’s party went so far as to call for a march to Rome, a clear reference to Benito Mussolini’s takeover in October 1922. Party officials also met with leaders of CasaPound and expressed the desire to abolish the old political parties and trade unions. At the same time, it also supported environmental battles, such as the left-wing mobilisations against high-speed rail in the Susa Valley and a gas pipeline in Apulia. However, the party’s lack of any clear social agenda and its overwhelming reliance on an anti-establishment message became a problem once it entered coalition government with Lega in June 2018. This decision belied the often repeated promise that the Movement would govern alone. Aiming to distance itself from “traditional” parties, it chose a hitherto unknown law professor, Giuseppe Conte, as prime minister; yet, as a political patchwork, the Movement immediately “began to fragment along its own internal fault lines”.6
Salvini benefitted the most from this. He incessantly toured Italy in a police uniform, heralding the closure of the ports against what he described as an “invasion” of migrants. This allowed Lega to successfully impose its political agenda, mostly focused on immigration, security and order; meanwhile, the Five Star Movement looked like the junior partner in the coalition government, despite actually holding the most seats. Salvini’s rallies attracted thousands of people across the country and his message started to gain support beyond the “traditional” centre-right and right electorate. For the first time, Lega made inroads among the lower classes and previously left-wing voters. According to Broder, this became clear in the 2019 European election, when Lega obtained more than one third of the national vote, while the Democratic Party won about 23 percent, and the Five Star Movement won just 17 percent—half that of the year before.
Grillo’s “neither left nor right” approach served, Broder claims, as a “gateway drug” to Salvini’s far-right politics.7 However, the argument that some left-wing voters first defected to the Five Star Movement and then to Lega lends too much credibility to the notion that these forces are two examples of “insurgent parties”. The term “insurgent” is a generic and poor analytical category, similar to other adjectives commonly used in social sciences to describe rightist parties such as “radical” and “extreme”. These descriptors tend to judge parties normatively against a liberal set of values that coincide with the ideology of the leading faction of the capitalist class. Put simply, if parties aim to exclude people who were not born in the country from political rights, they are nativist, racist and xenophobic, not radical or insurgent.
Indeed, such terminology can incorrectly portray the Five Star Movement and Lega as potential challenges to the status quo. Since both entered the grand, almost all-encompassing coalition government of Mario Draghi, former president of the European Central Bank, in February 2021, descriptions of either as insurgent parties are difficult to support. Of course, it is certainly easier to make this judgement now than when Broder completed his book in late January 2020. Nonetheless, even at that time, the label “insurgent” was at odds with reality. Two examples are worth noting in this regard. First, the Five Star Movement-Lega government submitted budget plans to Brussels in December 2018 that depended upon a 2.4 percent budget deficit. As Broder himself notes, not only was this within the 3 percent maximum, but it was also subsequently reduced to 2.04 percent, the lowest budget deficit since 2007. If anything, the “insurgent parties” were even more fiscally “mainstream” than “mainstream parties”. Second, shortly after Lega’s triumph in the 2019 European election, Salvini tried to capitalise on his popularity by breaking the coalition with the Movement and calling for a general election. The Five Star Movement and the Democratic Party formed a new government to prevent an overall victory of the centre-right coalition under Lega’s leadership. Tellingly, Conte retained his position as prime minister throughout, casting doubt on how insurgent the Five Star Movement ever really could have been.
To understand the genesis and development of the Five Star Movement and Salvini’s Lega it may be more useful to take into consideration three features of the situation. The first is the Second Republic’s conservative, reactionary and nationalist consensus, which has become enduring and hegemonic. This has provided a particularly favourable environment for the growth of these political forces. The second is the disdain that both Lega and the Movement have shown for any active, independent intervention of the masses into politics, instead emerging as the point of reference for frustrated sectors that felt excluded from politics and unable to mobilise autonomously. The third is the prevalence of what Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks refers to as transformism (“transforismo”).
Today, “transformism” often merely means a MP’s passage from a parliamentary party to another. However, Gramsci described transformism as the “real historical document” of the actual nature of Italian parties. When the ruling bloc is weak and fails to incorporate the lower classes, the political dominance of capital is guaranteed through the constant co-option of those opposition parties that ephemerally win support in important segments of the working and popular classes. These opposition parties capture this support by endorsing seemingly radical programmes, often under petit-bourgeois leadership.
It is interesting to note that some of this description also applies to Giorgia Meloni’s rapidly growing Brothers of Italy (Fratelli d’Italia; FDI), which might attract analysts’ attention if the electoral breakthrough predicted by polling becomes reality. As Mark Thomas has pointed out, the FDI has the ambiguous stance towards bourgeois democracy that characterises other parties of the European far right such as Marine Le Pen’s National Rally (Rassemblement National) in France. However, the FDI mainly remains a cadre party at the current stage. It is not a mass party, let alone an organisation with a paramilitary wing, but it can potentially provide a framework for the growth of street-fighting fascism.8
In addition to the mistakes flowing from its description of the Five Star Movement and Lega as “insurgent”, there are three further problematic aspects to this book. First, typically for social-democratic scholars, Broder’s focus is on a country-based rather than a class-based analysis. Italy’s capitalist class is currently facing deep problems: decades of economic stagnation, falling productivity, low investment in research, the prevalence of non-innovative small enterprises, and a negative demographic balance between births and deaths. Working-class people too face a crisis, with falling living standards and serious attacks on their rights. However, Broder tends to collapse these two sets of problems into another. Although it is true that some of the capitalists’ problems affect the lives of the working class, workers will not gain by helping to solve capital’s difficulties. The best thing that the working class can do is organise itself and struggle for a better world.
Second, Broder supplies no serious explanation for the disappearance of the political left. This is surprising. After all, the weakness of the left certainly helps to explain the growth of the Five Star Movement. Moreover, once the Movement had occupied the space of protest, this became a serious hindrance for left-wing parties. Although the left elsewhere in south Europe managed to advance in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, Italian leftists failed to benefit from growing social frustration. This is quite a contrast to the late 1990s or early 2000s, when Rifondazione, as Broder recognises, was “something of a beacon for Europe’s radical left, with some 120,000 activists, regularly scoring around 8 percent of the vote and showing a particular enthusiasm for social movements”.9 Despite this, there is not a single word in the entire book that explains the disappearance of Rifondazione, except for a few lines on the left’s disastrous participation in the centre-left coalition government of 2006-8. Equally, there is no explanation of the failure of the subsequent attempts to recreate social-democratic parties. It would have been useful, for example, to examine the fate of the Communist Rifondazione strategy of combining electioneering and extra-parliamentary activities such as the anti-capitalist and anti-war movement in the early 2000s. This policy was reversed in favour of a strong focus on parliamentary politics once the leadership of Fausto Bertinotti prioritised the entrance of the party into a centre-left government above all over objectives.10 As a result, the party increasingly employed a cross-class perspective to focus on issues such as civil rights and the protection of minorities, obscuring its ideological reference points and diluting its claim to be the party of the working class. In order to push this agenda though, it concrentrated power undemocratically in its leadership, aiming to defeat an increasingly vocal internal opposition. Rifondazione’s participation in a neoliberal government that cut social spending and financed military missions in Afghanistan and Lebanon was the last straw; many militants and workers simply abandoned the party. Unfortunately, Broder also leaves unexamined the failure of Marxist groups that had previously operated as factions within Rifondazione to emerge as national parties and points of reference for the most advanced parts of the working class. That this would happen should not be taken for granted; two Trotskyist parties—the Workers’ Communist Party (Partito Comunista dei Lavoratori) and Critical Left (Sinistra Critica)—left Rifondazione and ran on separate lists in the 2008 general election, collectively winning over one percent of the vote. Of course, these results were largely a reaction against Rifondazione, not a real political breakthrough. Yet, this was a historically high result for the Trotskyist tradition, which has been particularly weak in Italy. Why did these parties fail to consolidate their positions?
Third, Broder says nothing about Italy’s profound capitalist transformation and class recomposition since the 1970s. One aspect of this is the disarticulation of the gigantic, vertically integrated factories concentrated around the north western urban centres, and their replacement with medium and large-scale industries in rural areas around small towns in north eastern and central Italy. This shift is key to explaining both the real material interests that Lega consistently defends and the retreat of the labour movement, which was strongest in the mammoth, semi-urban manufacturing complexes. Other critical phenomena such as the significant growth of the logistics sector are also ignored—a significant flaw since the most radical and powerful labour struggles over the last decade have taken place there. Broder makes no reference to this and also surrenders to a pessimistic and reactionary narrative exemplified by claims such as, “The atomised and precarious are unlikely to have a strong sense of class identification”.11 The capacity of poorly paid and mainly immigrant logistics workers to organise and struggle in a traditionally non-unionised sector defies such commonplaces of the institutionalised left.12
To conclude, Broder’s First They Took Rome is a well written, non-academic and readable book that might be useful for those readers interested in learning more about Italy’s party system and the main features of the Five Star Movement and Salvini’s Lega. It is not, however, the kind of book for which international socialists are looking.
Gianni Del Panta is an Italian socialist and frequent contributor to Middle East Solidarity.
1 Thanks to Mark Thomas for feedback on an earlier draft of this article.
2 Broder, 2020, p19.
3 Broder, 2020, p8.
4 Broder, 2020, p43.
5 Broder, 2020, p163.
6 Broder, 2020, p176.
7 Broder, p183.
8 Thomas, 2019.
9 Broder, 2020, p73.
10 Harman, 2008.
11 Broder, 2020, p93.
12 Cillo and Pradella, 2016.