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The Colossus of Milan

The Colossus of Milan

Stanton H. Burnett (October 10, 2007)

(This article was first published in US Italia weekly on May 28, 2006)
We suggested last week that the true derailing of the Historic Compromise was not the cruel destruction of Aldo Moro, which might very well, by demonizing the enemies of the Compromesso, have enlarged the ranks of its supporters, but the developing thundercloud in the...


... Italian Socialist Party (PSI). The trail that led to Mani pulite, the Berlusconi era, and today’s Technicolor governing coalition starts, not on Via Fani, but in the Milan of the hard young Bettino Craxi.

Craxi, frequently invoking, from the Pantheon of post-War Socialism, the name of Pietro Nenni, not only turned his back on the PSI’s historic link to the Communists, but went directly to the question of the PCI’s link to Moscow (which we showed earlier to be the principal cloud over the idea of Communist entry into the “control room”), and gave it a twist that changed the debate forever.
Craxi’s arrival on the scene went back to the summer of 1976, before the Moro affair. His capture of Italian Socialism followed the electoral crisis of that June: the Socialists were once again unable to break into double figures in voting percentage, while they watched the Communists gain 34.4 percent of all votes cast, the leap that, as we saw, had propelled the Compromesso project. The following month, the PSI central committee met at the Midas Hotel in Rome and ousted their party secretary, the aging Francesco De Martino. Craxi, at 43, was known already for toughness, drive, and, along the Socialist spectrum, moderation to the point of conservatism. Comparisons to German Socialist star Helmut Schmidt were frequent and, in fact, Craxi was close to the German SPD. But Craxi was of such a new breed that when, in some future column, we describe the unwritten rules of Italian politics, we will watch Craxi breaking most of them.
The significance of what had happened at the Hotel Midas was not well understood at the time, partly because of the focus on the surging Communists and the Historic Compromise. In fact, it was the first soft ringing of the death knell of the Compromise, which would soon disappear entirely from the Italian political vocabulary, re-shuffling Italian politics so that it began to look something like, well, today.
Most such historic changes are brought about by economic distress (or boom), scandal, election surprises, or outside fireworks—rarely through an intellectual shift. And yet that’s precisely what Craxi pulled off. What he did to transform Italian public life was, remarkably, to change the terms of the political debate. (It haunts one to realize that our younger readers did not live through the time when this one figure, whose party remained mathematically dwarfed by the Big Two, willfully shaped political Italy.)
After Mani pulite, after his stormy televised testimony in the Cusani trial, after the Roman mobs who taunted him, after his Tunisian exile and death, Craxi is not now much remembered for his substantial accomplishments. Yet it was on his watch as prime minister (two terms, from 1983 to 1987) that Italy finally got off the escalator: modified the wage indexing which most outside economists believed was about to puncture fatally the post-War economic miracle. And, playing a role less well understood, Craxi had as much to do with the end of the Cold War as any other Western public figure. That sounds like a vast exaggeration, but we shall set out to prove it in a later column.
When US Italia Weekly returns in the fall, its brilliant front page analysts will explain to us where we are, and Gothic will resume its effort to understand how we got there. We’ll start by describing the precise intellectual change, the transformation of the political debate, wrought by Bettino Craxi.

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