November 8, 2016

1954. The Italian Communist Party Draws Support Nationwide

The Growing Communist Movement West of the Iron Curtain
Communist leader Palmiro Togliatti speaking before the Fourth National Conference of the Italian Communist Party, 1955 (source)
Bill Downs

CBS Rome

March 7, 1954

This is Bill Downs substituting for Howard K. Smith.

It has been only in the past three months that the world has suddenly become conscious that something dangerously illegal—if that's the term—has been going on in Italy.

The statesmen of the free world have for many years been engaged in a series of meetings and maneuvers to contain the threat of communist aggression—moves that began with the Marshall Plan and NATO and culminated somewhat frustratingly last month in Berlin with the "Big Four" foreign ministers conference.

But while Communist bullets fly in the Far East, and while the top diplomats attempt to find solutions that will keep the Cold War cold, the Communists in Italy have been quietly and feverishly working to bring about what no other communist party in the world has ever done—to come to power in this ancient peninsula without the use of force or revolution, but through a majority of the free electorate voting them into office.

It's not a new story. Actually, the facts were all too evident following last June's election, wherein the Catholic-led center parties lost such strength to the extreme right and left that no single group can command a majority in parliament. As you know, the post-election government crisis was resolved temporarily by the formation of Premier Pella's so-called caretaker government. But when the Christian Democratic political leaders began fighting among themselves and brought about Pella's fall, then world attention again centered on Italy, and people began to wonder what really is going on.

Actually, major credit for bringing this situation to the attention of the free world must go to U.S. Ambassadress Claire Boothe Luce. Mrs. Luce and her political and economic advisers have long been reporting the growing communist threat in Italy, but apparently no one paid any attention. After all, Italy is a Catholic country—a billion and a half dollars in military and economic aid had been poured into the Italian boot, and the general assumption was that Italy will be all right.

Then, about two and a half months, ago Mrs. Luce took a brief trip home. She reported to the State Department and told Secretary Dulles her story. Then, in Washington and New York, she talked with every political reporter, publisher, and columnist available. The resultant publicity has now resolved itself into what has become known as the "dangerous situation in Italy."

Ambassadress Luce has had her critics both in this country and in America, but she did prove one thing: if you want to spread a story around, let a woman do it for you.

Actually, her campaign to make the world aware of Italy's growing left-wing movement served a double purpose. It made the Italians cognizant of the threat. The Christian Democratic party and its press since the June elections had adopted a "live and let live" political attitude toward the left and right, obviously shocked by the unexpected centrist setback at the polls. However, gradually the Italian press and leaders like Premier-designate Mario Scelba and ex-Premier De Gasperi now are at least discussing the situation—something that was not done here three months ago.

The effectiveness of Mrs. Luce's one-woman news campaign can be judged by the Communists themselves. They have instituted a series of charges that Mrs. Luce is interfering in Italian internal affairs. The Red press charges that the Christian Democrats are nothing but tools of the American embassy. In other words, the Communists do not like all the publicity, because if people talk about a problem long and earnestly enough, then perhaps they may take steps to eradicate that problem.

However, up to now, the Christian Democrats—the largest single party in the country—have done little but talk. Meanwhile, the Communists keep working and working, and there is no evidence that they have lost any of their momentum.

No political situation is ever simple, but here in Italy it is more paradoxical and complicated than in most countries.

Italy is the home of the Roman Catholic Church, yet it has the largest communist party west of the Iron Curtain. Pope Pius XII has proclaimed that Communist Party members be excommunicated, but in recent village election campaigns, the Communists carry statues of saints in their parades.

The most daring and progressive step taken by the Christian Democrats has been the land reform in Southern Italy, where big estates were broken up. Still, the peasants in the south—normally strongly pro-church or monarchist—have for the first time in Italian history doubled their pro-Communist vote. Only ten percent of the south voted Communist in 1946. Last June, twenty-one percent voted extreme left.

All told, the Christian Democrats lost more than two million votes, most of which went to the Communists or the fellow-traveling Socialists. The Christian Democrats held only 44 percent of the seats in the parliament. The Communists, including the Nenni Socialists, hold just under 39 percent of the seats. A switch of 24 seats—that is four percent of the chamber—from the center to the right could give the extreme left-wing control of the Italian government.

The extreme left polled nine and a half million votes in the June elections, which means that one out of every three Italians who went to the polls voted left. Or, to put more dramatically, go to an Italian theater—it's possible that the men on either side of you will be a Christian Democrat or Monarchist, but the man sitting behind you would be a Communist.

So what are the sources of strength in the growing left-wing movement now being led by the Reds? A couple of books could be written on the subject—and probably will be—but, boiled down, most experts here list three conditions. They are history, failure, and enterprise.

Historically, Italy's fertile soil has been overworked. There are simply too many Italians crowded on the peninsula. The resultant unemployment and poverty give the nation one of the lowest standards of living in Europe. There are two million unemployed with another five million working in seasonal or part-time jobs not sufficient to support their families.

There is also a historic element in the factor of failure which plagues this country. As one American businessman explained it to me: "The Industrial Revolution was never allowed to develop in Italy," he said. "In effect, a small group of industrialists and aristocrats captured that revolution and kept it for themselves. They are still keeping it."

Italian business leaders speak with justifiable pride at their expansion since the war. Production levels are running more than fifty percent over what they were in 1939. And there is a notable record of expansion of electric power, gas consumption, reconstruction, and railroad and highway building. These industrialists and the government are also proud of the fact that, with a yearly population increase of 400,000 persons, they have been able to hold the unemployment rolls to two million individuals.

However, the old cartels and monopolies have reestablished themselves. Except for a few enlightened businessman, the worker is still very poorly paid. And there is virtually no such thing as employer-employee cooperation.

This too is a matter of history. Another American business expert sent to this country to explain American techniques to the Italians said the basic problem of this country's economic life is distrust. "It begins at the top," he explained. "The owner doesn't dare tell his true income because he fears the government will tax him out of business. This poison seeps down from the owner to the manager, who does the same. It seeps down to the foreman on the production line, and finally to the worker. No one trusts the other. But you must remember Italy has had four wars in the 93 years she has been a nation united from various duchies and principalities. Italy became a nation 75 years after America won her independence. The attitude is that the government is an enemy rather than a servant."

The Christian Democrats in fact still have a large task of erasing from the books a number of laws and regulations inherited from Mussolini's fascist syndicalist regime—laws which favored certain fascist businessmen. As a matter of fact, it still has to be written into the Italian code that a man is innocent until proven guilty.

These are only some of the reasons behind the growth of Communism in Italy. The third important factor is the Communist Party organization itself.

No one knows for certain, but it's estimated that there are slightly more than two million card carrying party members up and down the length of the Italian boot. Their greatest strength is in the industrial north, in such cities as Milan, Turin, Genoa, Bologna, and even in such agricultural centers as Sienna.

Communist boss Palmiro Togliatti has built his party structure with care and skill. Although every community or factory has its cell or party headquarters, the basic organization is called the "groups of ten." These groups are made up of the most trusted and faithful Communists—they police the unions, fellow-travelers, and sympathizers, promulgate the party line, and lead strikes and demonstrations. It's estimated that there are 200,000 such groups in the nation.

They are the teachers in the party's network of schools. They are the activists who issue such instructions as, "During the Christmas season, many comrades will be visiting friends and families. Here is an opportunity to bring the discussions around to the peace campaign. Teach your children," says the directive, "to sing the party peace song."

If there is one major difference between the Communist Party of Italy as compared with the organizations in other countries, it is that Togliatti and company are bending over backwards to make their organization respectable and acceptable in the eyes of most Italians. The wave of violence which marked the 1948 elections—when Red bullyboys roamed the streets of the cities destroying property and creating public panic—those days are gone, at least temporarily. The tactic now is one of down-to-earth hard work on the precinct level. Through front organizations and various so-called "national committees," the party takes a stand on everything from public nurseries, cinema clubs, and sports to associations of housewives, war damages, and university professors.

Their most intensive work is being done with Italian youth—youngsters who see no future in an Italy already short of jobs, sunk in poverty and embittered by lack of democratic leadership.

This is perhaps the greatest threat posed by communism, and some say that the party's future success is only five years away or less.

This, then, is the essence of the communist situation in Italy. It is also the challenge to the democratic center. There are no hard and fast answers, but many Christian Democratic leaders see their only salvation in meeting and defeating the extreme left on their own grounds. This would mean a prompt and firm attack on such problems as taxation and the prosecution of tax evaders. It would mean immediate and extensive expansion of low-cost public housing. It would mean some system of public work relief to help restore the dignity and a measure of income to the unemployed. It would mean increasing the burden of taxes on the rich and probably controlling prices of basic commodities. It would mean government-sponsored drives for export and a coordinated plan to expand the basis of production, and making laws distributing a greater share of the national wealth and income to the working classes. And it would also mean an attack on the monopolies and cartels and a serious effort at redistributing the land and breaking up the old ducal estates.

The Christian Democratic party, like the country, is divided right, left, and center. Opponents of such a program say it is socialism or worse—that it is economically impossible and would bankrupt the economy. The left wing of the Christian Democratic group says it does not go far enough.

And there is a growing number who simply don't know or don't care as little men with big ideas fight in the parliament for petty power and position.

Premier-designate Mario Scelba, the 52-year-old, tough talking Sicilian, looks like he will get a narrow vote of confidence in the Chamber of Deputies next week. He got a bare five vote majority last week in the Senate. Scelba hates Communists. He favors fighting them on their own terms, just as he organized the riot police to handle their uprisings in the streets.

But Scelba is going to need more unity than the center parties have been displaying in the past if he is going to remain in power for long. Former Premier Alcide De Gasperi said last week that if Scelba is not successful then the only alternative is to dissolve the parliament and hold new elections.

What would happen then? No one knows, except the Christian Democrats would be forced to go to the country badly split without a program, without a leading personality, and with a record of achievement during the past ten months that adds up to exactly zero.

And in conclusion, just one diplomatic note. Two weeks ago the new Soviet ambassador, Aleksander Bogomolov, arrived in Rome to take up his new duties. His last major post was in Prague, where he was serving at the time that country was satellitized. Members of the Italian Foreign Office who have seen Ambassador Bogomolov say that he is smiling.

This is Bill Downs in Rome substituting for Howard K. Smith. I return you now to CBS Radio in New York.