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Marxist Discontents with Ginsborg’s View of Italy

Paul Ginsborg, Italy and Its Discontents: Family, Civil Society and State, 1980-2001, Allen Lane: The Penguin Press, 2001. Hardback, xv + 521pp, £25.00.

Reviewed by Tobias Abse

THE MOST serious opposition to the second Berlusconi government has come from Italy’s labour movement, especially from the CGIL, the largest and most left-wing of the mainstream trade union confederations. In March 2002 Italy’s organised working class was the leading force in the largest demonstration in Italian history when 3 million people gathered in Rome to protest against the attack on Article 18 of the 1970 Statuto dei Lavoratori (Workers’ Statute), protecting workers against sackings "without just cause". In April the trade unions were capable of involving 13 million people – many of whom were not members of any union – in an eight-hour general strike on the same issue, a mobilisation the like of which had not been seen since the 1970s.

Nobody reliant on the analysis offered in Italy and Its Discontents, with its central emphasis on the political, social and cultural importance of the "reflexive middle class" (groups such as university professors, school teachers and social workers) and its eulogies of "virtuous minorities" amongst magistrates and bankers, would ever have been able to predict this renewed wave of labour militancy which looks set to continue in the autumn of 2002. Ginsborg, who believes that "The defeat of a divided working-class movement at FIAT in the autumn of 1980 was the most visible sign of the end of an epoch, the dramatic finale of a whole cycle of struggles" (p.x) and claims that the unions lacked any real "unity of action" (p.57) after the defeat over the scala mobile (wage indexation) referendum in 1985, adopts a very minimalist approach to the working class upsurges of the early 1990s, making only a very brief reference to working class discontent with Amato’s vicious austerity measures in autumn 1992 (p.272) and offering us just a few lines on the massive demonstration of 12 November 1994 against Berlusconi’s attack on pensions (p.298), which seems to be regarded as merely one of the "various debacles" Berlusconi ran into rather than as the coup de grâce which triggered Bossi’s break with Berlusconi and put an end to the media magnate’s first government.

To draw attention to the key weakness of Ginsborg’s book – its very fashionable assumption that the classical class struggle between labour and capital is now, at most, no more than a sideshow in modern Italian society – is not to dismiss it altogether. Ginsborg’s work (an updated and slightly revised version of the text published in Italian in 1998 as L’Italia del tempo presente: Famiglia, società civile, Stato 1980-1996) may not quite measure up to his earlier book, A History of Contemporary Italy: Society and Politics 1943-1988, but it is the best single-volume account of the last two decades of Italian history available in English. He links economic, social, cultural and political developments far more successfully than most books about contemporary Italy, avoiding the pitfalls of journalistic accounts on the one hand and political science accounts on the other.

However, it is a left liberal account, not a Marxist one. Whereas A History of Contemporary Italy (1990) was in essence written within a Marxist tradition of social history, even if its perspective was sometimes closer to the PCI than to the New Left with which Ginsborg had associated himself in the 1970s, the liquidation of the PCI and the collapse of the Eastern European Stalinist regimes seem to have triggered a qualitative rather than merely quantitative shift in Ginsborg’s worldview. We should not allow our appreciation of Ginsborg’s astonishing powers of synthesis and capacity to write gripping narrative to blind us to the book’s deficiencies.

Some on the left, particularly Ginsborg’s erstwhile comrades in the SWP, have responded to the book in a very indulgent fashion1 that would have been more understandable if the author’s political and ideological trajectory over the last two decades had been a leftward rather than a rightward one. Conversely, this book has evoked hostility amongst those sympathetic to the Italian right or to the social groups that Ginsborg appears to dislike – small businessmen, small shopkeepers, dentists, those involved in advertising and public relations. Whilst such a reaction was predictable and could be seen as confirming the accuracy of his diagnosis of Italy’s ills, there is arguably some validity in the right-wing critique of Ginsborg’s book as excessively moralistic or the work of an Anglocentric intellectual snob.

Once Ginsborg abandoned even the remnants of his old Marxism, which had been the inspiration not just for A History of Contemporary Italy but for his first book, Daniele Manin and the Venetian Revolution of 1848-49 (1979),2 his rather pessimistic critique of the existing order, coloured by acute disappointment with the failure of the dramatic events of 1992-93 to produce the kind of deep and lasting change in Italian politics and society that many of us had hoped for, was almost inevitably going to have such overtones, laying him open to a reading that sees the book as displaying the lofty condescension of a member of the "reflexive middle class" towards the less educated and more acquisitive entrepreneurial middle class, as well as the patronising disdain of an "Englishman" (a strange persona for the very Jewish and cosmopolitan Ginsborg, even if one of his sons has converted him to an astonishing belated enthusiasm for football) towards Italians trapped in familist and clientelist patterns of behaviour and unable to create a strong "civil society" (which apart from any intrinsic problems of definition, strikes me as an increasingly mythical construct in an atomised neo-liberal, post-Thatcherite Britain, characterised by mass electoral abstention, low trade union density and an almost universal obsession with programmes like Big Brother).

However, despite the dangers of Ginsborg’s approach – dangers of which he is to some extent aware, as can be seen from his nuanced and cautious discussion of Banfield’s controversial theory of amoral familism (pp.97-8) – there is a lot to be said for explaining the Italians’ distrustful attitude to the state in terms of their attitude to the family and to the use of small-scale clientelism, or even low-level corruption, in everyday life. Whilst the sheer scale of corruption exposed in 1992-93 may have shocked people, there was no real expectation of total honesty in public life, and this underlying cynicism helps explain why the magistrates so quickly lost the wide degree of public support they had at the height of the crisis when the ex-policeman of peasant origins, Antonio Di Pietro, by far the most flamboyant of the Milan pool of prosecuting magistrates, was the most popular figure in Italian public life. Unlike many authors of journalistic accounts of contemporary Italy, Ginsborg manages to make some very clear analytical distinctions between familism and clientelism as well as between clientelism and corruption. Given the rather Manichean distinction between a corrupt political class on the one hand and a virtuous "civil society" on the other often made in 1992-93, there is much to be said for Ginsborg’s more realistic analysis of the complex and subtle links between family, society and state.

Ginsborg’s enthusiasm for those magistrates willing to confront political corruption in Milan or the Mafia in Sicily should need little justification, given the appalling record of Craxi and Andreotti in the past and Berlusconi’s increasingly arrogant contempt for the rule of law in the present. Unfortunately, Ginsborg’s respect for the murdered magistrates Falcone and Borsellino is somewhat undermined by his failure to reach a robust verdict on Andreotti. Whilst Ginsborg provides us with much material about Andreotti’s links with many dubious characters in Sicily and elsewhere, he is far softer on him than on Craxi, an arrogant man who engaged in the full spectrum of financial crimes and misdemeanours without any scruples but never faced accusations of involvement in murder. One does not have to be as psychoanalytically inclined as Ginsborg, whose title is a variant of Freud’s Civilisation and its Discontents, to note the total repression of any mention of Andreotti’s period in the dock as a defendant in the Pecorelli murder trial in Perugia, even more sensational for an ex-Prime Minister than the generic accusations of Mafia association he faced in Palermo (the trial that Ginsborg does mention). To see Andreotti as a "major tragic figure" (p.211) seems ludicrous in view of his acquittal on all charges, which only demonstrates that "power consumes he who has it not", to use Ginsborg’s translation of Andreotti’s favourite aphorism. The "divine Giulio" will continue to sit as a life senator for the rest of his days and doubtless the Pope and cardinals who defended him in his hour of need will attend the funeral of the man some left-wing curmudgeons unaccountably dubbed "Beelzebub" and "the Diabolical Hunchback". Of course, this unappetising deference to Italy’s most sinister statesman is nothing new on Ginsborg’s part – the one major weakness of A History of Contemporary Italy was that it was far less hostile to Andreotti than to Aldo Moro, a man who, for all his typical Christian Democratic faults, was nonetheless the only real "major tragic figure" amongst the old guard, abandoned to his fate in 1978 by Prime Minister Andreotti and Interior Minister Cossiga, those very strange partisans of a totally rigorous line towards terrorism.

To return to the last few years, Ginsborg is quite right in pointing out that: "The Centre-Left had to make up its mind from the very beginning whether or not it was going to give its whole-hearted support to the process of cleaning up Italian public life which had begun with the Milanese magistrates’ actions of 1992. By and large, it decided against, and was quite content to allow ‘Tangentopoli’ to fizzle out" (p.313). He also cuttingly but accurately remarks of the Centre-Left’s reforms of the administration of justice that they "were mainly confined to providing further guarantees for the accused, and to rendering the task of prosecuting magistrates more difficult" (p.313). Furthermore, he rightly blames D’Alema for placating Berlusconi during the Bicameral Commission on constitutional reform in 1997-98.

Ginsborg’s approach to these issues seems far more rational than the shrill knee-jerk judge-bashing of a review of his work by a recent leftist commentator3 who prefers to highlight "real abuses and mistakes by some judges, and too many convictions without proper grounds",4 and to wax lyrical about the imprisoned ex-Lotta Continua leader Adriano Sofri whose innocence is debatable (although Ginsborg believes in it) but whose latter-day political apostasy as a regular columnist for the bourgeois daily La Repubblica is indisputably nauseating. At a time when the basic principle of equality before the law which emerged from the French Revolution of 1789, and used to be regarded as the formal foundation of liberal bourgeois democracies, is under attack from Berlusconi, Previti and their numerous courtiers in both Chambers of the Italian Parliament, Ginsborg’s approach is saner than one that treats any demand for law and order as a "moral panic"; racism can not be confronted by blanket denials of the involvement of certain immigrant groups, especially the Albanians, in widespread criminality, sometimes "micro" but sometimes "macro" (the rise of organised crime in Apulia in the form of the Sacra Corona Unita can not be detached from the Albanian gangs with whom they work).

Ginsborg’s enthusiasm for leading figures connected with the Bank of Italy seems altogether more questionable to those of us who still view society in class terms. The Bank of Italy played a key role in pushing Italy towards a neo-liberal agenda, as did the process of European economic and monetary integration, about which Ginsborg is at least equally enthusiastic, believing the "external constraint" has done much to improve Italian public life. Even Ginsborg has to admit the overwhelming character of the enthusiasm for the privatisation of both industries and services demonstrated by Guido Carli, the Governor of the Bank of Italy between 1963 and 1975, who became Minister of the Treasury under Andreotti from 1989-92 and, unlike Ginsborg, I cannot help feeling grateful that the career politicians curbed him, even if for the wrong, clientelistic, reasons.

Ginsborg’s enthusiasm for Carlo Azeglio Ciampi, former Governor of the Bank of Italy, Prime Minister 1993-94 and currently President of the Republic, is even greater than his penchant for Carli. Ciampi is described as "the natural head of the ‘progressive’ coalition" (p.292) in 1994, when a more balanced assessment would accept that the "progressisti" were electorally weakened by their close association with the grim policies of Ciampi’s austerity government – at a time when Berlusconi promised tax cuts and "one million new jobs" – even if the PDS leader Occhetto, rather than Ciampi himself, was the leader of the electoral bloc. Ginsborg may be right in believing that "Ciampi represented the very best of that particular culture enshrined in the Bank of Italy" (p.276), in that he was far more genuinely democratic and far more honest than most within Italy’s rotten state apparatus, but to claim "his sense of social justice" was as "invaluable" as his "economic expertise" seems a bizarre judgement. The Ciampi government may not have been quite as draconian in its austerity measures as Amato’s first government, whose deflationary measures forced down consumption by 2.5% – the first such fall since 1945 – and actually reduced GDP by 1.2%, but the objective circumstances Italy was facing in the international economy by Autumn 1993 were not as dire as they were in the immediate aftermath of Italy’s enforced exit from the EMS in September 1992. Ciampi’s "equidistance from employers and employed" (p.277) is debatable and, contrary to Ginsborg’s argument, the "social peace" in the form of an incomes policy introduced by the tripartite protocol of 3 July 1993, far from being in the best interests of Italian labour, worsened the damage done to working class living standards by the agreement of 31 July 1992 between the government, Confindustria and the unions, which had already destroyed such remnants of the scala mobile (wage indexation) which had survived the defeats of 1984-85, removing even the "dented shield" left to the workers by Amato’s political tutor Craxi.

In Ginsborg’s view, "much of the merit" for the "unity of action" among the trade unions in 1992 belonged to Bruno Trentin; in reality, any serious Marxist has to regard Trentin’s actions as an inglorious capitulation to Confindustria and the more right-wing trade union bureaucrats of the CISL and the UIL, if not an outright betrayal of the CGIL’s justifiably angry rank and file. Trentin’s shamefaced explanation – summarised by Ginsborg (p.440) – stressed not only his desire to keep the three trade union confederations united and to avoid divisions between Socialists and ex-Communists within the CGIL, but the need to avert a new government crisis "at such a dramatic moment for the country". The third of these threadbare excuses for turning his back on the most fundamental interests of the class he was supposed to represent is the most absurd. In retrospect, it is quite clear that the period between autumn 1992 and spring 1993 offered an astonishing window of opportunity for a combative and quick-witted Left to have precipitated another general election, at a time of maximum working class discontent with the most concentrated dose of neo-liberalism inflicted on any Western European proletariat in the wake of Maastricht, under the old proportional electoral system whose progressive potential in a crisis situation was obvious to Segni and the most intelligent representatives of capital who, in their terror, made haste to abolish it in the April 1993 referendum, using their control over La Stampa and Il Corriere della Sera (both owned by FIAT) and La Repubblica (owned by Olivetti) and the collusion of a subaltern PDS majority to persuade the majority of voters that the blame for corruption lay with the electoral system rather than the political parties themselves.5

Ginsborg recognises that "the PDS failed almost completely to launch initiatives that would have taken the crisis away from the courts and television screens and into everyday life. In this respect, there re-emerged an old failing of the PCI; a certain immobility and lack of imagination with respect to modern social movements and civil society. To have challenged the many closed and often corrupt corporations of society, a revolt, pacific but determined, was necessary. Strangely enough, such revolt was alien to the political culture of the PCI/PDS. Instead, after decades of entrenched opposition, caution and mediation were their hallmarks. Faced with the choice between Gramsci’s political categories of the war of position and the war of manoeuvre ... there was no doubt that his heirs preferred the first. Indeed, they were culturally and temperamentally quite unprepared for the second. Yet this was probably what was needed in a situation as fluid as that of 1992-3" (pp.282-83).

At first sight this reads like a healthy left-wing critique of the PCI/PDS, a flashback to the old Ginsborg whose radical approach to Italian history and politics so inspired some of us in our youth. However, Ginsborg’s suggested course of action, far from involving any attempt to link working class anger about austerity with the temporary but widespread cross-class disgust with the corruption of the old political elite (a disgust best articulated by Rete leaders like Nando della Chiesa, Diego Novelli, Claudio Fava and Leoluca Orlando), is that the PDS should have compromised with the monetarists and the old order to an even greater extent than it actually did. As Ginsborg puts it: "it is possible to suggest that the moment of maximum disorientation of the old political forces was in the spring of 1993, and that that was the time to press for a greater leadership role. Instead, as we have seen, the PDS no sooner entered government than it exited from it. There could have been no clearer sign of its political uncertainty" (p.283). In fact, the PDS and the Greens were extremely stupid to have accepted ministries in Ciampi’s government – an unstable hybrid of fanatically monetarist technocrats and the battered remnants of the old order hoping to escape avvisi di garanzia from the magistrates – on 28 April 1993, and quite right to get them to resign the following day when the Chamber of Deputies, stuffed full of the corrupt representatives of the old regime, predictably voted against the Milanese magistrates’ requests to lift Craxi’s parliamentary immunity. Ginsborg’s view that "it was not a wise decision, for the responsibility for what happened lay with parliament not government, and by retiring from the latter the opposition deprived itself of an important role at a crucial moment" (p.277) fails to understand that the role of a genuinely radical progressive opposition, even an avowedly reformist one, faced with a rotten, corrupt, neo-liberal government is to oppose it vigorously both in parliament and on the streets and, at the very least, aim to throw it out lock, stock and barrel at the ballot box at the first possible opportunity, not to engage in underhand deals that disillusion its own supporters in some farcical replay of the Historic Compromise of 1976-79.

Ginsborg, tired of acting as D’Alema’s courtier,6 has played an important public role in mobilising discontent against Berlusconi amongst the "girotondini" of Florence this year, even if the national leader of the movement, which has primarily focused on questions linked to justice and media ownership, is clearly the film director Nanni Moretti, who lost patience with D’Alema somewhat earlier than Ginsborg did, as the film Aprile, whose protagonist shouts at a television set with increasing desperation "D’Alema, say something left-wing", wittily demonstrated. In my view this movement, which is largely of the "reflexive middle class", although less exclusively so than Ginsborg affirms in his role as the would-be ideologue of the social group, needs to be linked to the forces of organised labour, just as the movement of anti-capitalist youth, which in Italy has survived 11 September 2001, is now working together with the more radical trade unionists, particularly the FIOM (metalworkers’ union).

However, I want to end by examining the ideological basis of Ginsborg’s current politics, rather than Italy’s future prospects. Writing of 1992-93, Ginsborg claims: "The crisis offered the possibility of creating a public sphere in which Italian citizens could easily copy some of democracy’s virtues and not just its vices, and with which they could perhaps come to identify" (p.323). In Marxist terms this could be plausibly interpreted as a call for the completion of an unfinished bourgeois-democratic revolution, so I will take this opportunity to remind Ginsborg of the views he once expressed in an essay entitled "Gramsci and the Era of Bourgeois Revolution in Italy".7 Firstly, he correctly stated that "in fact the Italian bourgeoisie, unlike the French or English, never made its own revolution at any stage" (p.44). Is the Italian "reflexive middle class" belatedly going to accomplish in the 21st century the task which Mazzini, Garibaldi and Manin failed to carry out in the 19th? Secondly, the younger Ginsborg has something quite interesting to say about the whole notion of uncompleted democratic revolutions, and it is worth quoting in full. He wrote: "In a speech of June 1945, Togliatti claimed the ‘democratic revolution on our country has never been either brought to an end nor seriously developed’. Togliatti, of course, always spoke of the need for ‘progressive democracy’, but this somewhat vague formula came to mean in reality, as Quazza has shown, the acceptance of a standard bourgeois parliamentary regime" (p.43).

Is a "standard bourgeois parliamentary regime" Ginsborg’s current maximum programme? Even if it is, where will he find it? Whilst Berlusconi’s video-Bonapartist regime, with its allegedly "post-fascist" ministers and widely rumoured Mafia connections, is perhaps the most extreme instance within the 15-member European Union of a move away from classic bourgeois parliamentarianism based on formal equality before the law, and to describe it as merely the Italian face of neo-liberal globalisation – as some members of Rifondazione occasionally do in polemical mode against Fassino – is far too schematic, nonetheless the continent-wide advance of monetarism enshrined in the European Central Bank and the Stability Pact, the cutbacks in the welfare states and the genetic mutations (albeit in varying degrees) of the formerly social democratic parties mean that something close to the British system between 1945 and 1979, which one suspects has in late middle age become Ginsborg’s ideal, has long since ceased to be the norm. A fascist was the runner-up in the French presidential election, the heirs of an overtly racist gay Nazi who loathed disabled people sit in the Dutch cabinet, Haider has dominated the Austrian government from his Carinthian lair, and so on.

In the Europe of Maastricht, only a labour movement organised across national boundaries can defend democracy, let alone extend it, or even perhaps begin the advance towards socialism.8 A "reflexive middle class" that places its faith in neo-liberal monetarist bankers like Carli or Ciampi, as Ginsborg seems to do in this text, is digging its own grave, given the neo-liberals’ longing to privatise health and education and make social workers redundant. Even basic self-interest dictates an alliance with organised labour. As late as 1988, Ginsborg admitted that one of the lessons 1968 had taught him was that "students by themselves would never get anywhere".9 The same goes for the "reflexive middle classes".


1. See reviews in Socialist Review 261, March 2002, and International Socialism 95, Summer 2002.

.2. The very first line of the preface to the work states: "It is now nearly thirty years since Antonio Gramsci’s notes on the Risorgimento were first published" (p.ix). The absolute centrality of Gramsci and Marxism to the whole project was made explicit on the following page: "Gramsci himself talked in the Prison Notebooks of the necessity of detailed monographs which would cover the lacunae in his own work, and test the validity of its major themes. That is the purpose of this book" (p.x).

3. One wonders if this is an acceptable description of a Jekyll and Hyde character who gets scarlet fever when writing for Socialist Worker, Socialist Review or even New Left Review, but succumbs to post-modernist, anti-Marxist hysteria when contributing to academic journals.

4. John Foot, "Heirs of Tangentopoli", New Left Review, Second Series, 16, July/August 2002, p.157

5. Ginsborg predictably approves of the regressive change in the electoral system, although he believes it was an "unsatisfactory compromise", seeming to prefer a French-style two-round model and "a bar of 5 per cent of the national vote for smaller parties wishing to enter Parliament" (p.279), a bar which, as Ginsborg knows, has been intermittently advocated by PDS/DS leaders like Veltroni, aware that even a vestigial parliamentary presence of leftists committed to class politics – like Rifondazione – impairs their ability to ape Blair’s neo-liberal politics.

6. Massimo D’Alema and Paul Ginsborg, Dialogo su Berlinguer, Florence, 1994, probably marked the peak of Ginsborg’s reign as a PDS court intellectual, whose allegedly "English" persona gave him added credibility. The groundwork had been laid in Cambridge in 1985, when Ginsborg resorted to subterfuge to ensure Giorgio Napolitano a free stay in Churchill College’s Master’s Lodge.

7. In John A. Davis (ed), Gramsci and Italy’s Passive Revolution, 1979, pp.31-66.

8. Attentive readers will gather that, unlike some contributors to the previous issue, I do not believe in national roads to socialism, and regard "Keynesianism in one country" as no longer a practical proposition after the French experiment of the early 1980s.

9. Ronald Fraser et al, 1968: A Student Generation in Revolt, 1988, p.11.