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Varieties of Civil Religion by Robert Bellah and Phillip E. Hammond

Robert N. Bellah is Ford Professor of Sociology and Comparative Studies at the University of California, Berkeley. Phillip E. Hammond is Professor of Religious Studies and Sociology, University of California, Santa Barbara. Copyright by Robert N. Bellah and Phillip E. Hammond.

Chapter 4: The Five Religions of Modern Italy


(This chapter was first published in Italian under the title "Le Cinque Religioni Dell’Italia Moderna," in Fabio Luca and Stephen R. Gaubard, eds., Il Casa Italiano (Milan: Garzanri editore, 1974). pp. 439-468.)

This chapter takes as its point of departure and as recurring touchstones several texts of Benedetto Croce and Antonio Gramsci. The method of the chapter pretends to no more than elucidation, interpretation, and commentary on these and certain other related texts. The justification of such a method can only come from the exceptional grasp and penetration of these two men and the great influence they have had -- they are probably modern Italy’s two most important thinkers. Both were profoundly concerned with the meaning of modern Italian society in the broadest historical and philosophical perspective. It is not a question of accepting their views; indeed, they differed sharply from each other. But I have found that grappling with their views in the context of Italian history has been a serviceable way to understand the place of religion, in the sense of systems of ultimate meaning, in modern Italy.

Benedetto Croce (1866-1952), the son of an aristocratic Neapolitan family, was a philosopher and historian of culture who became a living embodiment of liberal culture during the first half of this century. Believing "history is the history of liberty," he opposed all totalitarianisms. During the Mussolini period he withdrew from public life and, though never silenced, lived on the margins of political toleration. After World War II he was felt to be the greatest living symbol of the old liberal Italy and was as such both honored and disregarded.

Antonio Gramsci (1891-1937) was the son of a poor Sardinian family, ultimately of Albanian extraction. After coming to Turin he became one of the first outstanding leaders of the Italian Communist party. Arrested by Mussolini in 1926, he spent the rest of his life in prison, except for the few days he survived, diseased and physically broken, after his release in 1937. His greatest work was done in prison and became known only when it was published after World War II. Gramsci’s work has been widely popular among Italian intellectuals since the late 194os, but he has had no outstanding continuator or successor.

Both Croce and Gramsci, viewed in the proper light, can be seen as lawgivers and even as prophets. Both were intensely concerned with the ethical and political orders of Italian society. Both had a vision of a good normative order they hoped to persuade their society to adopt. Both based their norm giving or law giving on a fundamental conception of reality to which they gave ultimate respect and that they invoked as legitimation for their normative demands; so they can rightly be called prophets. To Croce the historical realization of liberty was the highest good; to Gramsci it was the dialectic of socialist liberation. But lawgivers require law takers, and prophets require followers. Each in his own way finally found himself alone. Each, though concerned with power, had to renounce power, to reject his society as it was, and to refuse to collaborate with it. Both of them joined that long line of Italians, saints and heroes, who refused the demands of the powers of their day. They are thus not unworthy guides to the study of the meaning of reality in modern Italy.

Croce and Gramsci

Benedetto Croce began his well-known book History of Europe in the Nineteenth Century, with a chapter entitled "The Religion of Liberty." After describing various features of liberalism as it came to be expressed in the early nineteenth century, he writes,

Now he who gathers together and considers all these characteristics of the liberal ideal does not hesitate to call it what it was: a "religion. He calls it so, of course, because he looks for what is essential and intrinsic in every religion, which always lies in the concept of reality and an ethics that conforms to this concept.... Nothing more was needed to give them a religious character, since personifications, myths, legends, dogmas, rites, propitiations, expiations, priestly classes, pontifical robes, and the like do not belong to the intrinsic, and are taken out from particular religions and set up as requirements for every religion with ill effect.1

It is clear that Croce wishes to broaden the definition of religion beyond the traditionally religious elements he heaps together in the last sentence and that point to Catholicism. Croce’s argument is close enough to my own that, following him, I will treat modern Italy as a land not of one religion, as common sense would dictate, but of several. Even the varieties I will consider are all but one to be found in Croce’s book. In his second chapter, "Opposing Religious Faiths," he discusses Catholicism and socialism as competitors to liberalism, and in his last chapter he discusses a more recent religion he calls activism, which includes, among other things, fascism, though that word is not mentioned.2 I will add a fifth religion, or class of religions, which I will argue precedes temporally, and in a sense, logically, all the others, and which I will call pre-Christian or sub-Christian religion. But I will not be satisfied, as Croce largely was, to lay out passively and statically the five religions side by side.

Antonio Gramsci criticized Croce’s History of Europe in the Nineteenth Century for beginning in 1815 and his History of Italy for beginning in 1871, that is, just after but not including the French Revolution in the one book or the Risorgimento in the other.3 He thus excluded "the moment of struggle; the moment in which the conflicting forces are formed, are assembled and take up their positions; the moment in which one ethical-political system dissolves and another is formed by fire and steel; the moment in which one system of social relations disintegrates and falls and another arises and asserts itself."4 Gramsci’s view of the "religions is instructive because it emphasizes the element of struggle, of process, of politics. His conception of religion modulates from the Crocean to something more recognizably Marxist: "Note the problem of religion taken not in the confessional sense but in the secular sense of a unity of faith between a conception of the world and a corresponding norm of conduct. But why call this unity of faith ‘religion and not ‘ideology, or even frankly politics’?"5 Gramsci sees two major functions of such "religions." One is essentially defensive or, one might say, "integrative":

But at this point we reach the fundamental problem facing any conception of the world, any philosophy which has become a cultural movement, a "religion," a "faith,’ any that has produced a form of practical activity or will in which the philosophy is contained as an implicit theoretical "premiss." One might say "ideology’ here, but on condition that the word is implicitly manifest in art, in law, in economic activity and in all manifestations of individual and collective life. This problem is that of preserving the ideological unity of the entire social bloc which that ideology serves to cement and unify.6

The other is to provide new forms of consciousness appropriate for new stages of social development. Of particular importance to Gramsci is a religion or ideology that can provide a "national-popular collective will" such as he saw in Protestantism in the Reformation or Jacobinism in the French Revolution.7 For him the particular problem of Italy arose from the fact that the Renaissance was not in this respect the equivalent of the Reformation nor was the Risorgimento the equivalent of the French Revolution. It thus remained the task of Marxism ("The Philosophy of praxis corresponds to the nexus Protestant Reformation plus French Revolution") to awaken the national-popular collective will so long dormant in Italy.8 One need not accept fully the terms of Gramsci’s dynamic analysis to see it usefully supplements Croce’s more static structure.

In addition to the theoretical resources drawn from Croce and Gramsci I would like to apply two of my concepts developed from the analysis of American and Japanese society. In dealing with the religious dimension of American political life I borrowed the notion of "civil religion" from Rousseau and showed the extent to which a rather articulated set of religious beliefs and practices had grown up in the American polity that was independent from though not necessarily hostile to the various church religions that flourish in America.9 In applying the notion to Italy it becomes important to realize that all five religions are civil religions. This is above all because Italian Catholicism is and has always been a civil religion. Not only is it the nature of Catholicism generally, or at least until quite recently and in certain countries like the United States, to express itself in particular social and political forms, but above all because the papacy, with its ineradicably political implications, has been for centuries an Italian institution. It has therefore, and again until quite recently, been impossible to challenge the Catholic political system without challenging Catholicism as a religion. It is for that reason, especially in Italy, that liberalism, socialism, and activism have had to be civil religions religiopolitical organisms, in competition with the Catholic civil religion. The interrelations and interpenetrations are important, as we shall see, but the general point still stands. The sense in which the pre- or sub-Christian religions are civil religions is somewhat different and necessitates the application of still another concept, adapted from the language of music, of the "religious ground base."

I developed the notion of the religious ground bass to get at that aspect of Japanese religion that cannot be subsumed under the headings of "Buddhism" or "Confucianism."10 It is close to what is meant by Shintõ not in the more formal aspects of that not very formal religion but at the point where Shinto shades off into the religion of the basic social structure itself, the religion embedded in the family, village, work group, and so on. What is evident in Japan just because there is such a thing as Shintõ is more obscure in Italy but nonetheless important.

The Religious Ground Bass

As a figure of a much more general phenomenon and as an example of its most extreme form let us consider Carlo Levi’s description of the religious life of a village in southern Italy in which he lived for a year, a life so alien that he considers it not only pre-Christian but in a sense pre-religious.

To the peasants everything has a double meaning. The cow-woman, the werewolf, the lion-baron, the goat-devil are only notorious and striking examples. People, trees, animals, even objects and words have a double life. Only reason, religion, and history have clear-cut meanings. But the feeling for life itself, for art, language, and love is complex, infinitely so. And in the peasants’ world there is no room for reason, religion, and history. There is no room for religion, because to them everything participates in divinity, everything is actually, not merely symbolically, divine: Christ and the goat; the heavens above, and the beasts of the field below; everything is bound up in natural magic. Even the ceremonies of the church become pagan rites, celebrating the existence of inanimate things, which the peasants endow with a soul, the innumerable earthy divinities of the village. 11

This passage and the one that follows are interesting not only as descriptions of what Levi saw but of how a cultivated Italian intellectual thought about what he saw. The following is a description of the procession at the local feast of the Virgin Mary:

Amid this warlike thundering [of firecrackers] there was no happiness or religious ecstasy in the people’s eyes; instead they seemed prey to a sort of madness, a pagan throwing off of restraint, and a stunned or hypnotized condition; all of them were highly wrought up. The animals ran about wildly, goats leaped, donkeys brayed, dogs barked, children shouted, and women sang. Peasants with baskets of wheat in their hands threw fistfuls of it at the Madonna, so that she might take thought for the harvest and bring them good luck. The grains curved through the air, fell on the paving stones and bounced up off them with a light noise like that of hail. The black-faced Madonna, in the shower of wheat, among the animals, the gunfire, and the trumpets, was no sorrowful Mother of God, but rather a subterranean deity, black with the shadows of the bowels of the earth, a peasant Persephone or lower world goddess of the harvest.12

Not only, for Levi, do the peasants live at a level of "subterranean" intensity beneath the "clear-cut meanings" of reason, religion, and history, they are finally and deeply antagonistic to those meanings:

Governments, Theocracies and Armies are, of course, stronger than the scattered peasants. So the peasants have to resign themselves to being dominated, but they cannot feel as their own the glories and undertakings of a civilization that is radically their enemy. The only wars that touch their hearts are those in which they have fought to defend themselves against that civilization, against History and Government, Theocracy and the Army. These wars they fought under their own black pennants, without military leadership or training and without hope, ill-fated wars that they were bound to lose, fierce and desperate wars, incomprehensible to historians. 13

I would like to take Levi’s description of the pre-Christian or sub-Christian religion of a desperately poor village in the far south of Italy as standing for that particularistic religious life, embedded in the roots of the social structure, that I have referred to metaphorically as the religious ground bass. Here I would include all those loyalties to family and clan, to pseudokinship groups like the mafia, to village and town, and to faction and clique that so often in Italy, as elsewhere, ultimately define reality more significantly for their members than all the formal religions and ideologies combined. The musical metaphor of the ground bass is meant to suggest a deep and repetitious sonority, a drone bass that continues in spite of all melodic developments in the upper registers, the more formal theologies and philosophies, and not infrequently drowns them out altogether.

While something like a religious ground bass is probably universal, its strength relative to other components of the religiocultural system is certainly variable -- probably greater in Japan than in China, in Italy than in France or England. It’s strength within Italy also clearly varies in time and space; it was stronger a century ago than today, stronger in the south than in the north. But of the latter contrast I have come to suspect that the south stands not only for a geographical region but for a region in the Italian soul and that there is something of the "south" everywhere in Italy. The characteristics of the particularistic religion generally can be extrapolated from Levis description: It is emotional and intense in contrast to the ascetic rationalism of high Italian culture; it is fiercely closed to the outside world (there is not one such religion but as many as there are groups), as opposed to the universalism of high Italian thought; and it is presided over by a woman, an epiphany of the Great Mother of the Mediterranean world, only partially and uncertainly articulated with the Virgin of Nazareth.

To borrow an analogy from the political realm, I might say the religious ground bass has been traditionally the "real religion" and Catholicism the "legal religion." Certainly the attitude toward the church has often been legalistic and external -- one does what one must in terms of the deep loyalties and obligations of the particularistic structure and then squares it as best one can with the demands of the church. The statesman Minghetti, himself a religious man, described the Italian masses in the late nineteenth century as almost devoid of "religious sentiment." For them, he said, "habit counts for more than faith. The latter has little influence on thought, and even less on action."14 The degree to which a genuine Catholic piety has penetrated the Italian masses has varied in time and place over the last century, but it must certainly be said that Catholic identity has often been more of a shield for particularistic loyalties than an expression of deep inner faith. But then the same thing must be said for the secular religions of liberalism and socialism as well.

Only in this connection can we understand how a society that seems, if one considers its articulate and self-conscious classes, so intensely ideological can show such low rates of political and ideological knowledge and involvement when compared with other modern societies.15 The gap between intellectuals and masses, between conscious ideology and popular feeling, is probably greater than in most Western countries. This can be and has been interpreted in terms of fragmentation and alienation, but we need more than merely negative terms to describe what is going on here.16 The ground bass religion involves deep loyalties and even a kind of faith. It is understandable as a defensive reaction to a long history of bad government, oppression, and brutality, especially in the south, and to the partial failure of mass religious and ideological movements to penetrate the masses. But it is also the expression of a cultural continuity with an ancient past, a form of culture not only pre-modern but also pre-Christian and even pre-Roman. In particular there seems to be something central about the place of the woman in the ground bass culture, a place never quite adequately expressed in the writings of the self-conscious intellectuals. The position of the Italian woman is markedly less equal than in most modern societies, but as the female opposition to the divorce law suggests, there are rewards other than equality for women in the traditional system.

Finally we may consider the ground bass religion as a civil religion, not of the nation but of the particular group whose essence it expresses. As such it may be a powerful force in combination, alliance, or opposition to one of the great rival civil religions seeking dominance in the state. An Italian professor pointed out to me in Italy there is always a gap between believing and doing and between belief and action comes the political calculus. But here I think political refers primarily to group interest and group loyalty rather than to civic concerns broadly expressed. The priority of particular group loyalties has protected the Italians from the worst extremes of ideological passion of the twentieth century -- even fascism never went very deep -- but it has also operated to undermine a genuine commitment to democratic and liberal values when these did not seem to pay off for particular groups.


The presence of the papacy in Italy has always been a mixed blessing for Italian spirituality. It has inhibited the development of a national church in the sense that France and Spain have national churches religious patterns that are at the same time genuinely Catholic and expressive of the national popular culture. The ablest of the Italian clergy have been drawn into the international bureaucracy of the church, not into the formulation of a peculiarly national expression. At the same time the political priorities of the papacy seem to have inhibited in recent centuries the intellectual and devotional creativity the church has sometimes shown in other countries. Until a little over a century ago the papacy was itself a temporal power, one of the major states of Italy, and it remains to this day a sovereign state recognized diplomatically by many nations. It is impossible to understand the history of modern Italian Catholicism without understanding the politics of the papacy.

Gramsci’s analysis of Italian history focused on the recurrent problem of the isolation of a cosmopolitan intellectual elite from a national-popular base that the structure of the Italian church exemplified but did not originate. Indeed, he traces this phenomenon back to the formation of a class of "imperial" intellectuals in the early Roman Empire.17 Nor did, in his view, the modern secular intellectuals wholly escape from an analogous position relative to the mass of the Italian people. But in many respects the Catholic clergy remain paradigmatic of the place of the intellectual in Italy, and the two-class structure of the church the clear distinction between the religiously elite clergy and the common people, has had enormous general repercussions. It is in part to this phenomenon, emphasized especially by the presence of the central organ of the church, the papacy, that I would link the tendency of Italian thinkers of all persuasions to think in terms of elites, of governing classes and political classes, more or less clearly differentiated from the general population.

One of Gramsci’s central theoretical problems is the conditions under which an "organic" intelligentsia is formed, that is, one closely tied to a social group or class, which expresses its inner needs and aspirations, rather than, as has usually been the case in Italy, one that remains isolated from effective social involvement. This perspective explains why for Gramsci the lack of an Italian Reformation is such a significant fact: "The Lutheran Reformation and Calvinism created a vast national-popular movement through which their influence spread. . . . The Italian reformers were infertile of any major historical success."18 It is partly in response to that void of an Italian Reformation that we may understand Gramsci’s fascination, and not Gramsci’s alone but that of almost every major modern Italian intellectual with Niccolo Machiavelli, the Italian contemporary of Luther and Calvin.19 Gramsci treats Machiavelli as a Reformer in secular guise, a "precocious Jacobin," with a vision of a people armed, a national Italy, and Gramsci used the figure of Machiavelli’s Prince to express the unifying and leading function of the modern Communist party. Gramsci does not mention that in the Discourses Machiavelli expresses an admiration for the religion of the ancient Romans, a truly "civil religion" relative to which he found Christianity largely impotent politically. Nonetheless Machiavelli’s Discourses were undoubtedly one of the sources for that political faith that Gramsci so admired under the name of Jacobinism.

The Counter-Reformation in Italy has often been condemned for its political and cultural effects, for its final confirmation of absolutism as against any kind of popular sovereignty, and for the stultifying consequences of its cultural policy. Its religious consequences were also negative, as for instance in the crushing of Sarpi’s "national-popular" Catholicism in Venice.20 The externality and legalism of Trent encouraged not a deeply internalized piety but only the theatrical and mannered religious fervor of the baroque.21 Yet within the pores so to speak of Tridentine Catholicism other possibilities were growing. The sober and sincere piety of Alessandro Manzoni in the nineteenth century was perhaps only a harbinger of things to come: a serious lay piety that would penetrate and transform the popular consciousness, at least in certain areas of the north.

But long before the fruits of such an inner transformation could become evident, the church was, in the middle of the nineteenth century, confronted with a major crisis: the emergence of the national question in Italy and the implications of unification for the papacy and the church. After a brief neo-Guelph flurry in 1847 and 1848, the first years of Pope Pius IX, when Italy was momentarily swept by the wild hope of an Italian confederation under the presidency of the pope, it became clear that the papacy would not only not lead the process of unification but would vigorously oppose it. The church was ideologically still locked in an encounter with the French Revolution, which it saw as the work of a liberal sect spawned ultimately by the Protestant Reformation and inimical to the principles of true religion. Throughout the nineteenth century the papacy resolutely opposed every effort to develop a liberal Catholicism, and it always felt closer to absolutist regimes like that of Austria than to any liberal polity. The Papacy was, after all, one of the firmest of the remaining absolute monarchies of Europe, and within Italy after 1848 it felt closer to almost every regime than to that of Constitutional Piedmont, which was to form the territorial base for the unification effort. It was thus not surprising that Italy had to be unified in the teeth of papal opposition and that devout Catholics mourned instead of celebrating when in March of 1861 Cavour proclaimed the existence of the Kingdom of Italy. Italy could not be unified without that large block of territories in the center of the peninsula known as the Papal States, and given its hostility to the nature of the new regime and the continued assertion of temporal sovereignty it would not relinquish for decades, the papacy would not accept the legitimacy of the new state. The aggrieved papacy in effect declared its loyal followers to be without a country. By its famous non expedit decree it forbade Catholics to be electors or elected in the new nation. The Catholic press referred to "King Victor Emmanuel" (presumably of Piedmont) and not to "the king" (of Italy). The liberal leaders of the new state did not engage in a religious persecution but neither did they fail to take advantage of their moment of triumph over the temporal power of the church. Many religious orders were dissolved and their properties confiscated. Anticlerical demonstrations were not unknown and a certain anticlerical rhetoric was common to the more radical liberal politicians.22 A heritage of ill will was created in the first fifty years of the new nation whose full effects would not be evident until the Fascist period when the church, which on every conceivable ideological ground was antithetical to fascism, nonetheless found in it, at least at first, an ally, on the principle that an enemy of my enemy is my friend.

Finally the church consistently referred to its lay opponents as "sects." The issue was not religion versus politics but two kinds of religion and two kinds of politics or two kinds of civil religion.


Gramsci would have agreed with the Catholic apologists in seeing the French Revolution and its accompanying ideology as simply another stage of what had already been begun in the Reformation, though for him the valence would have been different:

France was lacerated by the wars of religion leading to an apparent victory of Catholicism, but it experienced a great popular reformation in the eighteenth century with the Enlightenment, Voltairianism and the Encyclopaedia. This reformation preceded and accompanied the Revolution of 1789. It really was a matter here of a great intellectual and moral reformation of the French people, more complete than the German Lutheran Reformation, because it also embraced the great peasant masses in the countryside and had a distinct secular basis and attempted to replace religion with a completely secular ideology represented by the national patriotic bond.23

That aspect of liberalism, as I am using the term in this chapter, which Gramsci describes and tends to call "Jacobinism" with a very positive value, Croce, in whose terms this "secular ideology" was certainly a religion, called "democracy" with a rather negative value compared to the "liberalism" with which he identified. Croce contrasted the "democracy of the eighteenth century as mechanical, intellectualist, and abstractly egalitarian, whereas the "liberalism" of the early nineteenth century was personal, idealistic, and historically organic: "The democrats in their political ideal postulated a religion of quantity, of mechanics, of calculating reason or of nature, like that of the eighteenth century; the liberals, a religion of quality, of activity, of spirituality, such as that which had risen in the beginning of the nineteenth century: so that even in this case, the conflict was one of religious faiths."24 Transferring these general conceptions to the Risorgimento reveals a characteristic difference of evaluation between Croce and Gramsci. For Croce, Cavour is the great liberal hero of the Risorgimento, the man with a sense of organic continuity, of history, of the necessity of the monarchy. Croce viewed Mazzini as a mechanical democrat whose views would have ruptured the natural growth of Italian society and who justly failed. Gramsci sees the victory of Cavour and the moderates as a "passive revolution," a victory of the ruling classes that the moderates organically and effectively represented but a defeat for the people. His sympathies would have been with Mazzini and Garibaldi had they been able to link their Action party with the organic needs of the masses, especially the rural masses, but it was just this that they failed to do.

The Action party was steeped in the traditional rhetoric of Italian literature. It confused the cultural unity which existed in the peninsula -- confined, however, to a very thin stratum of the population, and polluted by the Vatican’s cosmopolitanism -- with the political and territorial unity of the great popular masses, who were foreign to that cultural tradition and who, even supposing that they knew of its existence, couldn’t care less about it. A comparison may be made between the Jacobins and the Action party. The Jacobins strove with determination to ensure a bond between town and country, and they succeeded triumphantly.25

Both Croce and Gramsci underestimate Mazzini, the greatest liberal and popular prophet of the nineteenth century, perhaps because both of them are too imbued with a Hegelian historicism that tends to applaud the winners. In spite of the fact that for nearly forty years Mazzini was the heart and soul of the movement for Italian unity, it was not his ideas that were actualized in 1871 and he ended his days in sadness and disappointment. But Mazzini’s significance, as Luigi Salvatorelli has pointed out, is in his effort to reestablish the spiritual unity of the Italian people that had been draining away ever since the time of the medieval communes. His slogan, "Dio e popolo," was not an empty phrase but the expression of a deep national need:

Every nationalistic conception presupposes the primacy of politics over any other activity of the spirit. The Mazzinian conception of the Risorgimento, on the other hand, completely overcomes the political through the spiritual. Not only is all ragion di stato radically rejected, but politics is integrally subordinated to ethics; and ethics is nothing but the application of religious faith. Mazzini took up the Italian religious problem, with a view toward a radical solution. Here we touch the true depths of the Mazzinian revolution. It does not reside in a political rearrangement (which might allow for gradualness and expediency); nor does it reside in insurrection which is a simple temporary instrument; rather his revolution resides in this inner religious transformation. He speaks explicitly of a new faith, which goes not only beyond the old Christian confessions he now considers impotent, but also beyond the skeptical and materialist nonbelief of the eighteenth century. . . . What remains necessary is otherworldly faith, which for him is faith in God, who manifests himself to humanity through successive revelations; one day, all humanity will be called up to God just as individuals ascend to him in their successive lives. Until such time as social unity is established, ecclesiastical and political authority must remain as independent of each other as possible. But once the new society has really been constituted, there will be no more reason for the separation of Church and state, or of political and religious institutions. Ethics will conform to faith, and will be realized in politics; so, too, the state shall be the Church and the Church shall be the state. No divorce between heaven and earth; our work on this earth is a sacred task, the realization of the reign of God.26

In the end, of course, the Risorgimento did not lead to such a grand national regeneration. It was a revolution "from above," a passive revolution" leaving the Italian masses largely untouched. Cavour’s formula of "a free church in a free state" was not only entirely unacceptable to the Vatican, it woefully underestimated the religious transformation that would have been necessary to create the free people for whom the free church and free state could have had real meaning. This is not to say that Cavour’s vision was not ethical and indeed religious in its own right. But it remained the special property of a ruling elite and was not really translated into a national culture.

Even when liberalism became so widespread among the educated classes, as it did by the end of the nineteenth century, that it was almost taken for granted, it was by no means securely institutionalized among the masses, as the rise of socialist, Catholic and fascist parties uncertainly or not at all committed to democratic institutions would subsequently show. But even the greatest of the twentieth-century Italian liberals, Benedetto Croce, suffered from the elitist restriction that had always characterized Italian liberalism. Again it is Gramsci who makes the point when he criticizes Croce for not understanding that

the philosophy of praxis, with its vast mass movement, has represented and does represent an historical process similar to the Reformation, in contrast with liberalism, which reproduces a Renaissance which is narrowly limited to restricted intellectual groups. . . . Croce is essentially anti-confessional (we cannot call him anti-religious given his definition of religious reality) and for numerous Italian and European intellectuals his philosophy . . . has been a genuine intellectual and moral reform similar to the Renaissance. . . . But Croce did not "go to the people," did not wish to become a "national" element (just as the men of the Renaissance -- unlike the Lutherans and Calvinists -- were not "national" elements), did not wish to create a band of disciples who . . . could have popularized his philosophy and tried to make it into an educative element, starting in the primary school (and hence educative for the simple worker or peasant, i.e., for the simple man of the people). Perhaps this was impossible, but it was worth trying and the fact that it was not tried is certainly significant.27

Gramsci goes on to criticize Croce’s elitist distinction of religion for the masses but philosophy for the educated elite. The following passage from Croce’s The Philosophy of Conduct with its delicately patronizing tone toward the "younger brother" illustrates precisely the weakness to which Gramsci points:

This function of an idealistic ethical symbol, this affirmation that the moral act is an expression of the love and the will of the universal Spirit, is characteristic of the religious and Christian Ethic, the Ethic of love and of the anxious search for the divine presence, which, as a result of narrow partisanship or lack of insight, is spurned and vilified today by vulgar rationalists and intellectualists, by so-called free-thinkers and similar riff-raff who frequent Masonic lodges. There is hardly any truth of Ethics that cannot be expressed in the words of traditional religion, which we learned as children and which rise spontaneously to our lips because they are the most sublime the most appropriate, and the most beautiful of all: words that are, to be sure, still redolent of mythology, yet at the same time instinct with philosophy. Between the idealistic philosopher and the religious man there is undoubtedly a deep rift; but it is no different from that which appears in ourselves on the eve of a crisis, when we are mentally divided, and yet very close to inner unity and harmony. If the religious man cannot help regarding the philosopher as his adversary, indeed as his mortal enemy, the philosopher for his part sees in the religious man his younger brother, himself as he was but a moment before. Hence, he will always feel more strongly attracted to an austere, compassionate, allegorical religious ethic than to one that is superficially rationalistic.28

Liberalism as an articulate movement remains elitist in Italy to this day. The parties that remain loyal to it in parliament are small and do not represent the popular masses, Yet who can say the Catholic and socialist subcultures who represent the Italian masses have not, over the last century, steadily and continuously felt the influence of liberalism and been in part transformed by it? Perhaps Croce was not wrong after all in his claim for liberalism.

Because this is the sole ideal that has the solidity once owned by Catholicism and the flexibility that this was never able to have, the only one that can always face the future and does not claim to determine it in any particular and contingent form, the only one that can resist criticism and represent for human society the point around which, in its frequent upheavals, in its continual oscillations, equilibrium is perpetually restored, so that when the question is heard whether liberty will enjoy what is known as the future, the answer must be that it has something better still: it has eternity.29


Many historians have described the first decades after the unification of the country as a period of mild disillusionment. The great battles of the Risorgimento had been fought and a victory of sorts had been won. Liberalism in the saddle proved disappointing compared to the heroic days when liberalism was in the opposition. The intense moral idealism of Mazzini was gradually replaced by the rise of positivism as the dominant philosophy -- Herbert Spencer was everywhere read and quoted. The unification of the country provided the basis for a gradually accelerating industrial growth, particularly in the north but this sign of positivistic "progress" seemed to be creating as many problems as it solved. It is these circumstances that make understandable the emergence of socialism as a major force in Italy. As Croce saw it: "The psychological conditions which we have described, uncertainty with regard to aims, doubt as to means bankruptcy of ideas all these symptoms from which Italy was suffering explain how it was that her young men were fired with such lively enthusiasm for the doctrines of socialism. Beginning about 1890, the cult of socialism grew rapidly and continued throughout the decade."30 According to Croce the work of Karl Marx, "who created the new religion of the masses’ in the same sense in which Paul of Tarsus created Christianity" was at first known only second or third hand.31 But when Antonio Labriola discovered Marx’s writing and popularized his theories "Herbert Spencer whom every one had read and quoted as the highest authority, was no longer quoted or read, and was allowed to fall into complete oblivion."32

Besides having a strong appeal for many of Italy’s educated youth, among whom Croce himself was numbered for a while, Marxian socialism early met success among the industrial workers, especially in the urban north. The Italian Socialist party gradually began to build up not only a network of institutions -- labor unions, mutual aid societies, and cultural organizations -- but a distinct subculture, what according to Arturo Carlo Jemolo might almost be called "a new religion." Jemolo vividly describes the quality of that early socialist culture:

The Italian -- and in general the Latin -- socialist of the first ten years of the century was totally different from his brother of today. He would never have admitted, for instance, that any question of wages was of greater moment to him than a great abstract question. He longed for the moral and material redemption of the poorer classes, but he believed that this should be achieved by a transformation of the world. Depending on his school of thought and the particular concepts of the section of the Party with which he identified himself, he might differ from his fellows as to the manner in which he hoped to effect his regeneration, but his true aim was the complete obliteration of the past. He even had his special forms of dress, used the appellation "Comrade," and wore a distinctive flower -- a red carnation -- in his buttonhole. If be was a fanatical believer in the new ideas he did not even observe the rites of civil marriage, but openly lived in "sin." To his ideal system a fundamental reorganization of the economy was not less essential than a humanitarian outlook, anticlericalism, internationalism, anti-militarism an aversion to all that had its origin in the military spirit or was infected with that spirit -- whether it was a question of decorations, even for valor, or of duels.33

Just as the policy of various ministries ranged over time from vigorous repression of the socialists to tacit encouragement of them, especially in their efforts to unionize the workers, so the policy of the Socialist party modulated from one of intransigent opposition to the entire "bourgeois regime" to one of gradual acceptance of the framework of democratic institutions. This tendency was set back at the time of the colonial conquest of Libya in 1911, which the socialists bitterly and in some areas violently opposed, and there ensued the dominance for a time of a militantly revolutionary faction led by Benito Mussolini. But all indications were that in the long run the Socialist party tendency to enter the political system and thereby bring the newly emerging working classes into active participation in political society would prevail. The Great War, however, in Italy as elsewhere, shattered the illusion that this and similar trends were "inevitable," as had been widely believed only a short time before.


The last of modern Italy’s five "religions" is what Croce calls "activism." For Croce, activism, which he defines as "morbid romanticism" and links loosely to incipient trends in the same direction in the early nineteenth century, is a parody or perversion of liberalism, a sickness of liberty.34

For if liberty is deprived of its moral soul, if it is detached from the past and from its venerable tradition, if the continuous creation of new forms that it demands is deprived of the objective value of this creation, if the struggles that it accepts and the wars and the sacrifice and the heroism are deprived of the purity of the end, if the internal discipline to which it spontaneously submits is replaced by external direction and commands -- then nothing remains but action for action’s sake, innovation for the sake of innovation, and fighting for fighting’s sake; war and slaughter and death-dealing and suffering death are things to be sought for and desired for themselves, and obedience too, but the obedience that is customary in war; and the upshot is activism. This is, accordingly, in this translation and reduction and mournful parody that it achieves of an ethical ideal, a substantial perversion of the love of liberty, a devil-worship taking the place of that of God, and yet still a religion, the celebration of a black mass, but still a mass.35

Such trends were general in Europe in the first years of the twentieth century according to Croce, but in Italy they focused around the "morbidly romantic" figure of Gabriele D’Annunzio, whom Croce calls libidinous and sadistic.

It was not an accident that D’Annunzio, who would play the role of John the Baptist to the movement that was to be the fulfillment of activism in Italy, namely Fascism, was a poet. Indeed, Fascism attracted many of the leading innovators in Italian literature of the day men like Marinetti and Pirandello. In this context a remark by Croce about socialism takes on a particular interest: "Thus not only political opinion but the whole of Italian thought and culture was permeated and invigorated by Marxian socialism. Only on literature and poetry it did not, and could not, have effective influence, owing not to lack of enthusiasm, but to its philosophical and practical character, which moved outside the mental process of poetry."36 The strictly rational tendency of Marxian socialism was characteristic of Italian thought, since both liberalism and Catholicism were, each in its own way, highly rationalistic and in the early twentieth century, unpoetic. In all these traditions reason and intellect were highly valued, in part for their ability to control emotion and passion. In this regard activism was closer to the religious ground bass, with its intense emotional commitments and its relative lack of theoretical complexity, than to the other three traditions. However, in the years before World War I activism was a largely elite movement appealing to the educated but bored sons of the bourgeoisie, eager for excitement and glory and disappointed in the Italietta, the "Little Italy" of the liberal politicians. It seems likely that without the drastic disruptions resulting from the First World War activism would have remained little more than a literary mood and Fascism as a major political movement would never have been born.

There were, however, even before the war, a few connections between activism as a literary movement and a broader mass following, connections that would be broadened and strengthened when the Fascist movement emerged after the war. One such point of connection was the work of Georges Sorel, translated in about 1909 by Croce and enjoying a vogue in Italy, partly thanks to Croce’s efforts, that it never enjoyed in France. Sorel was the socialist closest to activism and also, not accidentally, a partial exception to Croce’s rule that socialism was not "poetic." Croce’s own ambivalent assessment, published after the triumph of Fascism, suggests Sorel’s importance:

Revolutionary minds, scornful of accommodating reformism and impatient of the flabbiness into which orthodox socialism had fallen, devoted themselves in Italy also to seeking new formulas, better fitted to them; and one was supplied by Sorel with his syndicalism. Sorel assimilated socialism, as he conceived it, to primitive Christianity, assigned to it the aim of renewing society from its moral foundations, and therefore urged it to cultivate, like the first Christians, the sentiment of "scission" from surrounding society, to avoid all relations with politicians, to shut itself up in workmen’s syndicates and feed on the "myth" of the general strike. It was the construction of a poet thirsting for moral austerity, thirsting for sincerity, pessimistic with regard to the present reality, stubbornly trying to find a hidden fount from which the fresh pure stream would well forth; and tested by reality, his poetry quickly vanished, even in his own eyes."

Among many others, Mussolini was infected by the mood of Sorellian apocalyptic activism well before he left the Socialist party.

According to Gramsci even Marinetti’s rather esoteric movement of futurism held some appeal for the workers. In a series of manifestos and theatrical demonstrations Marinetti declared all traditional culture obsolete -- one of his most famous manifestos called for the filling in of the canals of Venice and the leveling of her marble palaces to make way for railroads and factories the true poetry of the future. Gramsci claimed many workers before the war "had seen in futurism the elements of a struggle against the old academic culture of Italy, mummified and alien to the popular masses."18 Gramsci also claimed four-fifths of the readers of Marinetti’s review, Lacerba, with a circulation of twenty thousand, were from the working class.

But one thing that differentiated all the activists, D’Annunzio, Marinetti, and Mussolini from a left-wing socialist like Gramsci and a conservative liberal like Croce was their glorification of war and more particularly their violent interventionism in the First World War. That war, traumatic for so many nations, was a major disaster for Italy. It seriously disrupted the economy and set off an inflation that was serious for wage earners and all but fatal for small property owners and produced a class of ultrarich war profiteers. It gravely overloaded the political system with serious problems at a time when it had not fully assimilated the consequences of universal male suffrage voted in 1912. One of the new political elements was the emergence of a Catholic party, the Popular party, for the first time since the unification of the country. The 1919 elections showed the two great popular parties were the Catholics and the Socialists; the Liberals, who had ruled Italy for half a century, were a declining political force.

In the disturbed period just after the war all the tensions and divisions of Italian society were exacerbated. Class conflict was intense; returning veterans were bitter toward the pacifist workers with their draft exemptions based on their essential occupations; small property owners were afraid of losing the last vestige of gentility in the galloping inflation; the Catholic left, genuinely dedicated to nonrevolutionary social reform, did not unite with the socialists, many of whom were coming under the spell of the Russian Revolution, but formed rival "white" labor and peasant unions in competition with the "red" ones. Above all the great wave of strikes and demonstrations of 1919-1920 led to the fear that a Bolshevik revolution was in the making, though nowhere, not even in the best organized Turin group around Gramsci, was there any real revolutionary plan. Under these very severe tensions and pressures Italian politics reverted to its subideological base in the particular loyalties of families and small groups. Only thus can one understand the triumph of Fascism, which never gained what Gramsci called ideological hegemony -- indeed, which never had an ideology at anything like the level of articulation and sophistication of the Catholics, liberals, or socialists.

Fascism in the immediate postwar period was a highly personal movement, an eclectic mixture of whatever Mussolini found that worked. Composed of veterans, former socialists and anarchists, and enraged bourgeois youth eager to fight the socialists as a substitute for the war they were too young for, fascism focused around the leader role Mussolini copied largely from D’Annunzio but with effective organizational forms Mussolini had learned in his years as a socialist. In the beginning its program contained a leftist flavor but the situation dictated that Mussolini shift to the right, for it was the antisocialist violence of his squadristi that swelled his ranks. In free elections Fascism never approached the vote of the Catholics and socialists. It only came to power through the tacit conviction of millions of Italians that Mussolini would protect family and home, property, and tradition. That tacit conviction created the possibility of Mussolini coming to power; it took the cowardice of the king and the weakness of the liberal politicians to ensure it.

Even though Fascism remained ideologically eclectic and chaotic -- Gentile’s systematizations never had any organic connection with the movement -- and in large measure it was simply the acting out on the national stage of some of the less pleasant aspects of the Italian underculture -- the band of thugs tied to their leader in bonds of personal loyalty -- it did develop an ideological style and became once in power, a church, as Jemolo describes it:

Fascism like Bolshevism was itself a Church, claiming the whole man, in all his waking moments and in all his activities. Even in art and literature it prescribed what he must condemn and what he must admire. It had its uniforms, its epistolary style, its formulas, its gestures of salutation, its rites that accompanied the party-member to the grave: the summons to the burial service, the Roman salute with which the Blackshirt greeted even funerals, even religious processions. (For many years the anti-Fascist was easily recognizable by the way he saluted a hearse and by his behavior when passing a cemetery, by his recourse to the traditional forms of greeting and his refusal to adopt the Fascist salute.) As the parish church and its presbytery are a focal point of the activities of the good Catholic, so was the local party headquarters a place of meeting, recreation, and meditation: a place where the new faithful forgathered in the evenings and on feast-days. where all initiatives, whatever their object, had to originate, and where -- after 1935 -- a bride would often go immediately after her wedding to exchange the gold ring which the priest had just blessed for a ring made of iron. The party was a Church that persuaded its zealots to renounce all other interests: a Church that did not concern itself with the life to come, because in the Fascist Weltanschauung, as in the Communist, every aspiration has to be fulfilled in this world and there is no place for a future life in which earthly injustices may be set to rights.39

Given the hollowness of his ideology, the meagerness of his successes, and the fact that Mussolini never gained the kind of totalitarian control over Italian society that Hitler did over Germany, one must ask about the social and ideological bases of support of his regime. There is no question that the Italian liberal bourgeoisie convicted of impotence in handling the postwar crisis, surrendered control of the government though not of the economy, to Mussolini, some of them willingly some of them reluctantly, but only a few of them going into principled opposition. Even the latter as long as it remained theoretical, Mussolini tolerated particularly in the figure of Benedetto Croce, who continued to write and publish all through the Fascist years. But in tolerating it Mussolini largely neutralized that opposition. It was the socialists who took the brunt of Fascism. Already in 1921 and 1922, even before Mussolini came to power, socialism’s painfully built up network of institutions had been destroyed by the squadristi and many of its leaders murdered. Gramsci himself, by that time the leader of the Italian Communist party, was arrested in 1926 after his parliamentary immunity was violated and died in 1937 after years of bad food and maltreatment in a Fascist prison. Nevertheless, after the hurricane of terror it is probable that a sector of the working class grasped what comfort it could from the ideology of the corporative state and gave it its tacit consent. But, ironically for both parties, Mussolini’s securest basis of popular support came from his religious policy and derived from the Catholic church.

Fascism in its earliest days was both anticlerical and republican. in continuity with Mussolini’s earlier socialist position, but the Duce soon learned he had to swallow both monarchy and papacy to become dictator. The latter was for him the bitterest pill of all. After he had worked out the Concordat of 1929, which was to signal the high point of his popularity in Italy, Mussolini stipulated that in his audience with the pope he would not have to go through the ceremony of kissing the ring, and he forbade photographers when he participated in the religious service in Saint Peter’s during which he had to pray on his knees. There is no reason to believe Mussolini ever had anything but contempt for the church in his own personal life. On the other hand there is very little in Fascist ideology to escape condemnation at the hands of religious orthodoxy, had the church desired to apply rigorous standards. The relations between party and church were indeed not untroubled, and the church successfully resisted Mussolini’s efforts, soon after the Concordat, to destroy its lay organization Catholic Action. After the racial laws of 1938 and especially after the German occupation, the church became increasingly alienated from the regime, and the role of many of the clergy in the resistance was a heroic one. Yet the fact remains, and needs to be explained, that the relation of the church to the regime was for many years a close, indeed, an intimate one, as can be seen in Jemolo’s description:

But the government gained far more from this co-operation than did the Church -- among other things, a sense of legality, almost of divine prescription, such as no Government had ever enjoyed in the past: and that not merely as a Government, but as a regime. It might have seemed of small account that in their processions the boys of Catholic Action walked in threes, in imitation of the Fascist militia, and not in fours, as they had done up to 1922; that they carried their flags with the staffs resting on their stomachs, again in imitation of the Fascists, and not on their shoulders, as had been the custom before the March on Rome; that even the most obscure parish magazines and journals of religious associations showed the year of the regime along-side that of the Christian era; and that Catholics habitually observed all the outward forms of Fascism, beginning with the Roman salute and the conversational use of voi, abandoning, because the Duce so willed it, the age-old use of the third person as the polite form of address. These things might have seemed unimportant, but they were not. Thus, only thus, by drawing a veil over the past, by keeping lowered the curtain which divided the Fascist world from all that lay beyond its frontiers could the Government assert itself as a regime, as the regime: not merely as a system of government, but as a philosophy of life; one might well say, as a Church.

Nor was it a matter of indifference that the Houses of the Fasci, the shrines of those who had given their lives for the Fascist revolution, were invariably blessed by the local bishop; that no party initiative which sought to create a new way of life, a new outlook, ever lacked the co-operation of the clergy; that a course on the mystique of Fascism could be inaugurated with a speech (albeit of strict religious orthodoxy) by a cardinal.

All this went far beyond the idea inherent in the precept "Render unto Caesar," far beyond respect for and co-operation with the lawful Government. All this was a sanctification not of the Fascist Government but of the Fascist outlook, the Fascist way of life. The non-Fascist, the anti-Fascist, was approaching a point at which he would have to ask himself whether the parish church was still his church; he was now having to go to mass early in the morning if he wished to avoid the sermon, which too often comprised a full-scale attack on all the democratic, masonic Governments which were opposing the providential plans of the Duce.

And, after 1929, one would have been hard put to it to find a bishop’s pastoral or sermon, an inaugural speech at a diocesan conference, that did not contain the word, the invocation, the blessing, the epithet appropriate to the Duce. And the epithets chosen became progressively more sonorous, and the person invoked tended more and more to assume the likeness not of a Head of Government, but of the pioneer of a civilization.40

The only thing that can explain how the church clung to this strange alliance for so long is the history of bitterness of the first seventy years of the Kingdom of Italy and the fact that the church was at last coming into its own, legally recognized as a central institution of society instead of existing in some limbo of marginal toleration and occasional minor persecution, that and the fact that the church was, for many people and in many areas, embedded in and serving the interests of the particularistic groups and their essentially pre-Christian group loyalties that regarded Mussolini as their savior.

The Recent Past

The aftermath of the Second World War was remarkably similar to that of the First World War, though the outcome was radically different. Once again there was the threat of revolution, this time from the armed partisans and workers in the north; once again there was the upsurge of a great fear from all those concerned about family and property, stability and tradition. Only this time all such elements coalesced under the leadership of a reborn Catholic party, the Christian Democrats. The 1948 elections were the high water mark of this upsurge, the greatest electoral party victory in modern Italian history.41 Italy after 1945 was certainly different from Italy before 1922. The Fascist regime itself, whatever its negative features, probably contributed to that "passive revolution" in another of the senses in which Gramsci used the term, in which important social changes can go on even under reactionary and repressive regimes -- the gradual erosion of particularistic and traditional authority structures and the development of more egalitarian social forms -- though it may be in the nature of the less effective Italian Fascist regime to have served more as a guardian for such structures and less as a corrosive to them than in the more efficient fascist regimes in Germany and Japan. In any case Italy after 1945 was neither a mass society nor a very mobilized one. Never having had a Reformation or a revolution, the formal religions and ideologies continued to float on the surface of Italian society appealing to a mobile educated elite but not permeating much of the substructure except in certain areas of the country where Catholic piety or socialist fervor were genuine popular phenomena (for example, the Veneto for the Catholics and Romagna-Emilia for the socialists). A culture of decadence reminiscent of the pre-World War I activism was again in evidence in the postwar period, though lacking in vigor and, fortunately so far, in any effective political expression. All the elements remain and remain with a viscosity that leads many to despair of fundamental change in Italian society. Yet there are a number of new factors in the Italian situation that give rise to at least the possibility of creative change.

An important contextual factor for much of the recent past has been a relatively favorable international situation that provided neither the threat nor the temptation of war nor with the decline of the cold war, any intense external ideological or political pressure either. Thus the kinds of external threats and disturbances that have frequently diverted modern Italian history from what might be thought of as a "normal" course have been on the whole less in evidence. The serious international economic crisis and the renewal of big power rivalry of the late 1970s threaten once again the fragile balances of Italian development.

The electoral triumph of Christian Democracy within the institutional framework of the liberal state created a new situation with respect to the problem of civil religion. The very logic of the early cold war forced the church into a defense of liberalism and democracy to a degree unprecedented since the French Revolution. The liberal state, instead of being the church’s persecutor, was now its defender and so had to be evaluated differently. Particularly now that liberalism was not a major independent political force or contender for rule its values could be accepted as the legitimate norms of the state and given religious approval. On the other hand in the immediate defensiveness of the first postwar years, instead of a rather clearly differentiated liberal civil religion toward which the church could maintain a nonantagonistic autonomy, there emerged a fusion of religious and political values, as the very term Christian Democracy suggests, which led almost to a clerical democratic state. Under John XXIII the tight bearhold union of party, church, and state began to be broken on the initiative not of the Christian Democratic party but of the church. With the "opening to the left," itself made possible by that incipient differentiation of the party and the church in the early 1960s, the possibility of an autonomous liberal civil religion became more real. It would be based on the symbols of the Risorgimento, inevitably, but it would include the celebration of democratic values to which at several crucial points Catholics had also contributed.

If such a solution to the civil religion problem does eventually emerge, a solution based on the common acceptance of certain political values rather than a struggle to the death between different religiopolitical ideologies, it will depend on changes in both the church and the socialist left. Relevant changes in the church have been clearly evident, as I have already mentioned, from the time of the aggiornamento of Pope John. Developments have not been smooth and recent years have seen something of a "reverse course," but the long-range tendencies do not seem likely to change. The basic implications of the changes are a greater freedom of the church from party and state on the one hand and a wider range of political options for Catholics than support of the Christian Democratic party, options that include support of more vigorously reformist or radical parties of the left. It is true that the church in Italy has probably not responded as quickly to the new freedoms of Vatican II as have some other national churches -- the habit of authority at the center of power has been too strong -- and opportunities have been missed, as when the church responded too defensively and too unsympathetically to the movement of so-called "spontaneous groups of idealistic youth in the late 1960s. But if the church will not lead the way to new freedoms, it has already lost its power to maintain strict discipline. A purely negative erosion of authority could prove dangerous for the church and for Italy, and there is no assurance that vigorous leadership will again be asserted. But the Italian church in the last fifty years has come a long way out of the wilderness. It faces no formidable secular enemy -- even the Communist party prefers not to face it head on -- and it has long been close to the sources of secular power. It can afford, as Pope John so well saw, to open up all kinds of new possibilities, not out of weakness but out of strength. Temporary reversals should probably not obscure the long-term trend toward liberalization.

If the Catholics have, in the last half century, gradually moved back into the centers of power, the same cannot be said of the socialists, who have never held effective power in Italy. Indeed, the history of socialism in Italy is a history of persecution from the very beginning, a persecution that reached catastrophic proportions in 1921 and 1922 and the long night that followed. Since the war socialists have been harassed rather than persecuted, but only in the last few years has a large socialist group, the left-wing Italian Socialist party attained a share of political power, and that certainly not the lion’s share. If there has been no aggiornamento within the Italian Communist party, no equivalent to Vatican II, it is certainly in part because an embattled defensiveness has been objectively warranted. Nevertheless the Italian Communist party (CPI) has a tradition of flexibility, humanism, and appeal to intellectuals that is perhaps unique in the Western world. This does not by any means mean the CPI is clearly committed to liberal democratic values; it only means in the right circumstances it might be possible to open the door on that question. There have emerged in recent years a number of groups to the left of the CPI, disillusioned by its flaccidity and, if anything, more authoritarian than the orthodox parent. These groups express a left-wing activism reminiscent of the Sorellian variety previously discussed. The terrorism a few of these groups have spawned impedes rather than advances the evolution of a national community. It rouses once again the anxiety that strengthens particularistic commitment. The main problem on the left, however, remains the Italian Communist party, the largest excluded group in modern Italian history. The eventual entry of the Communists into some share of governmental power, unthinkable only a few years ago, has come to be widely discussed. Such an eventuality would create the possibility for the transformation of Communist values in a way parallel to what has happened to the Catholics. But if such a transformation is to be something other than a sellout that will just produce a new mass alienated party to the left of the Communists, it will have to be accompanied by at least the beginning of the solution to some of Italy’s basic social problems. In other words the only way to democratize the socialists is to socialize the democracy. How difficult that will be is already evident from the fruits of the several efforts at establishing a center-left government.

But in spite of some grounds for optimism, no observer of Italian society today could call it a happy one. Corruption and cynicism, as so often in the past, go hand in hand, and basic demands for justice and welfare go unanswered. These are generic problems in all modern societies, but the will to meet them seems more lacking in Italy than in many other advanced Western countries. The immobilism of particularistic interest, far more than fervid ideological differences, threatens every effort to create a genuinely democratic society responsive to popular need. Centuries of failure to institutionalize the dreams and ideals that again and again have grown up on Italian soil have led to a certain fatalism. Whatever their differences, the greatest of modern Italian novelists -- Manzoni, Verga, Moravia, Silone, Lampedusa -- share a fundamental pessimism about the human capacity to alter social institutions. All of them opt instead for a certain dignity and integrity in the individual human soul.

And yet modern Italy has not been poor in individual souls who have had the courage to try to alter institutions. Arturo Carlo Jemolo, with his ceaseless struggle to defend religious liberty, critically, polemically, and legally, is such an example.42 So is Danilo Dolci, with his effort to find, outside of any religious or ideological orthodoxy, forms of social participation that will be neither impersonally bureaucratic nor boss dominated.43 Nor should the achievements of many such men, working through parties and independently, be underestimated. Croce, who led at several points an active political life, always reminds me of the modest but real institutional successes of modern Italy. And Gaetano Salvemini, another man of conscience who was not afraid to enter the political arena, warns there are no paradises on earth and if we will not settle for some kind of purgatory, we are likely to end up in hell.44

Italian history states with stunning clarity the central issues of the sociology of human existence: the very partial institutionalization of morality, the role of the moral hero and the immoral hero, and the problem of when to take power and when to renounce power. Italian history has produced a continuous series, century after century, of men larger than life, extraordinary as intellectuals but above all as moral virtuosi. But at the same time no other society has illustrated so clearly the problem of continuous inveterate corruption and ineptitude.

I shall close by quoting Ignazio Silone, whose words sum up many of the themes of this chapter in the way that they interweave the strands of socialism, liberty, and, implicitly, Christianity:

Consideration of the experience I have been through has led me to a deepening of the motives for my separation which go very much further than the circumstantial ones by which it was produced. But my faith in Socialism (to which I think my entire life bears testimony) has remained more alive than ever in me. In its essence, it has gone back to what it was when I first revolted against the old social order; a refusal to admit the existence of destiny an extension of the ethical impulse from the restricted individual and family sphere to the whole domain of human activity, a need for effective brotherhood, an affirmation of the superiority of the human person over all the economic and social mechanisms which oppress him. As the years have gone by, there has been added to this an intuition of man’s dignity and a feeling of reverence for that which in man is always trying to outdistance itself, and lies at the root of his eternal disquiet. But I do not think that this kind of Socialism is in any way peculiar to me. The "mad truths" recorded above are older than Marxism; towards the second half of the last century they took refuge in the workers’ movement born of industrial capitalism, and continue to remain one of its most enduring founts of inspiration. I have repeatedly expressed my opinion on the relations between the Socialist Movement and the theories of Socialism, these relations are by no means rigid or immutable. With the development of new studies, the theories may go out of fashion or be discarded, but the movement goes on. It would be inaccurate, however with regard to the old quarrel between the doctrinaires and the empiricists of the worker’s movement, to include me among the latter. I do not conceive Socialist policy as tied to any particular theory, but to a faith. The more Socialist theories claim to be "scientific" the more transitory they are; but Socialist values are permanent. The distinction between theories and values is not sufficiently recognized, but it is fundamental. On a group of theories one can found a school; but on a group of values one can found a culture, a civilization, a new way of living together among men.45



1. Benedetto Croce, History of Europe In the Nineteenth Century, trans. Henry Furst (New York: Harbinger, 1963), p. 18.

2. The book was first published in Italy in 1933 and it was necessary for Croce to be somewhat guarded in his language.

3. Benedetto Croce,. A History of Italy, 1871 -- 1915, trans. Cecilia M. Ady (New York: Oxford University Press, 1929).

4. Antonio Gramsci, Selections from the Prison Notebooks. Ed. and trans. Quintin Hoare and Geoffrey Nowell Smith (New York: International and London: Lawrence & Wishart, Ltd., 1971), pp. 118-119.

5. Ibid., p. 326.

6. Ibid., p. 328.

7. Ibid., p. 130

8. Ibid., p. 45.

9. See Robert N. Bellah, "Civil Religion in America,’ in Robert N. Bellah, Beyond Belief Essays on Religion in a Post-Traditional World (New York: Harper & Row. 1970). p. 117.

10. Robert N. Bellah, "Values and Social Change in Modern Japan," in ibid.

11. Carlo Levi, Christ Stopped at Eboli, trans. Francis Frenaye (New York: Noonday Press, 1970), p. 117.

12. Ibid., pp. 118-119.

13.Ibid., pp. 137-138.

14. Arturo Carlo Jemolo, Church and State in Italy, 1850 -- 1950, trans. David Moore (New York: Oxford University Press and Oxford: Basil Blackwell Publisher, Ltd., 1960), p. 39.

15. Joseph LaPalombara, "Italy: Fragmentation, Isolation, and Alienation," in Lucian W. Pye and Sidney Verba, eds., Political Culture and Political Development (Princeton, NJ.: Princeton University Press, i965), pp. 286-288.
16. Ibid.

17. Gramsci, Selections, p. 17.

18. Ibid., p. 394.

19. Ibid., p. 523. Croce, A History, p. i52, traces this modern interest in Machiavelli to the,8gos and says, "With the Marxists, Machiavelli returned to Italy." By that he meant the Marxists were the first Italians since the mid seventeenth century to take Machiavelli seriously. Croce’s own role in reviving Machiavelli scholarship was not negligible.

20. ‘William Bouwsma, Venice and the Defense of Republican Liberty (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1968).

21. "The Counter-Reformation in Italy was essentially an authoritarian superstructure raised over indifferent individual consciences, a baroque decoration covering the religious and moral void." Luigi Salvatorelli, The Risorgimento: Thought and Action (New York: Harper & Row, 1970), p. 19.

22. Jemolo, Church and State, p. 42.

23. Gramsci, Selections, pp. 394-395.

24. Croce, History of Europe, p. 31.

25. Gramsci, Selections, p. 63.

26. Salvatorelli, The Risorgimento, p. 96.

27. Gramsci, Selections. p. 132.

28. Cited in Jemolo, Church and State, p. 95.

29. Croce, History of Europe. p. 358.

30. Croce, A History, p. 145.

31. Ibid., pp. 145-146.

32. Ibid., p. 154.

33. Jemolo, Church and State, p. 141.

34. Croce, History of Europe, p. 343.

35. Ibid. p. 342.

36. Croce, A History, p. 156.

37. Croce, History of Europe, p. 306.

38. Gramsci, Selections, p. 93.

39. Jemolo, Church and State, p. 191.

40. Ibid., pp. 268-270.

41. For postwar politics generally but particularly for a helpful treatment of the Catholic and socialist subcultures see Giorgio Galli and Alfonso Prandi, Patterns of Political Participation in Italy (New Haven. Conn.: Yale University Press, 1970).

42. See H. Stuart Hughes, The United States and Italy, rev. ed. (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1965), p. 241.

43. My visit to Dolci’s headquarters in Sicily and my talks with him in Rome during my research visit to Italy in the spring of 1972 were the most impressive moments of that trip.

44. Gaetano Salvemini, Italy from the Risorgimento to Fascism, ed. A. William Salomone (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday Anchor, 1970), p. 453.

45. Ignazio Silone. The God That Failed. ed. Richard Crossman, (New York: Bantam. 1965), pp. 101-102.

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