THE ITALIAN CAULDRON

Much attention has been devoted in the five chapters of this book to the case of Italy. A few comments are thus in order to attempt to provide an explanation for the particular vibrancy and colourful presence of the Italian variant of second wave Left Catholicism south of the Alps. At the risk of doing injustice to the inner force and outlook of il dissenso cattolico, I believe that a comprehensive answer to this question has to take into account the peculiarities of Italian politics and society in general. The key to the astounding (if, ultimately, temporary) ascendancy of Italian Left Catholicism in the turbulent central years of its existence—the ‘red decade’ of 1965/6 to 1975/6—is due above all to features of Italian culture as a whole.

The polarization of Italian society and politics as such, with the western world’s most powerful Communist Party—in a position of ideological hegemony in many walks of life—confronting a staunchly conservative Christian Democracy in a quasi-permanent stand-off from the 1950s to the 1970s accounts for much of the local colour of conflicts throughout the Italian boot. In addition, the dislocations of European society resulting from massive waves of migration from south to north probably affected no other country as centrally as Italy. Countless southern Italians in search of employment fled to Northern European states, but for a huge number of such migrants their journey north ended within the confines of the Italian state. Northern Italian cities thus lived the conflicts and contradictions associated with this massive influx of migrants just as much, if not more, than Europeans further north. In Northern Italy, however, such southern migrants spoke the same language and were more readily integrated into protest cultures emerging autonomously in Italy’s North than their brothers and sisters who travelled to the far side of the Alps.

No Western European country had given rise to a similarly powerful and militant antifascist resistance movement in the closing years of World War II as had Italy. To the west of the subsequent Iron Curtain—with the exception of Greece at the southeastern tip of the post-1945 ‘free world’—no other country saw a more deep-going and literally all-encompassing development of radical antifascist activities than was the case in Italy. And this truly popular Italian resistance was by no means solely a result of the particular vibrancy of the Communist tradition. Socialist, dissident socialist, radical Catholic, and secular radical democratic currents (e.g. the Partito d’Azione) all contributed their fair share—and shared in the attendant sacrifices and bloodletting—to the liberation of Italy and the creation of a forceful and upright tradition favouring self-reliance and autonomous action. The legacy of this unique constellation of forces centrally affected social movement discourse and practices all the way up to—at the very least—the 1970s. The particular poignancy of Italian Left Catholicism in the Italian sessantotto arose out of this highly unusual and, indeed, unique conjuncture and concatenation of circumstances.

Italy, however, may stand for only one example of the creative confluence of secular and Catholic cycles of radicalization in the course of the late 1960s, which created a unique opportunity for innovative experiences. The remarkable story of the rapid growth and efforts at national coordination of Italian gruppi spontanei may stand merely as one exemplary showcase incident of secular and Catholic radical sentiments working in tandem to find solutions to the vexed questions of the day. For a brief moment, it appeared as if progressive Catholics would be able to link arms with the spirit emanating from the nonconformist secular Left in the search for a New Jerusalem in a great variety of Western European states.

In fact, when looked at more closely and placed in a comparative perspective, a whole series of such efforts to coordinate secular and religious forces can be discerned in the period under review. In underground Spain, it should be highlighted once more, the traditional deep-seated hostility between Catholicism and the secular Left was finally beginning to be overcome. And the conditions of illegality ensured that such new alliances did not just link Catholics to the New Left, but crucially to the Communist Old Left as well. In Leuven, for more than half a dozen years after 1968, it may be recalled, Left Catholic student groups became mainstays of the vibrant local protest culture, demonstrating in the city streets alongside Trotskyist and Maoist agitators from the Far Left.

 
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