Italian Right

RUZZA, C. & FELLA, S. (2009) Reinventing the Italian Right: Territorial Politics, Populism and 'Post-Fascism, London, Routledge.


Series Editors’ Preface




For much of the ‘short twentieth century’, history was characterized by the clash of great ideologies, internal violence and major wars. Although most catastrophic events took place outside the Western world, Europe and the USA were not immune from the turmoil. Two world wars and a series of lesser conflicts led to countless horrors and losses. Moreover, for long periods Western democracy - especially in its European form - seemed in danger of eclipse by a series of radical forces, most notably communist and fascist.

Yet by the turn of the 1990s, liberal democracy appeared destined to become the universal governmental norm. Dictatorial Soviet communism had collapsed, to be replaced in most successor states by multi-party electoral politics. Chinese communism remained autocratic, but in the economic sphere it was moving rapidly towards greater freedoms and marketization. The main manifestations of fascism had gone down to catastrophic defeat in war. Neo-fascist parties were damned by omnipresent images of brutality and genocide, and exerted little appeal outside a fringe of ageing nostalgics and alienated youths.

In the Western World, political violence had disappeared, or was of minimal importance in terms of system stability. Where it lingered on as a regularly murderous phenomenon, for instance in Northern Ireland or Spain, it seemed a hangover from the past - a final flicker of the embers of old nationalist passions. It was easy to conclude that such tribal atavism was doomed in an increasingly interconnected ‘capitalist’ world, characterized by growing forms of multi-level governance that were transcending the antagonism and parochialism of old borders.

However, as we move into the new millennium there are growing signs that extremism even in the West is far from dead - that we celebrated prematurely the universal victory of democracy. Perhaps the turn of the twenty-first century was an interregnum, rather than a turning point? In Western Europe there has been the rise of ‘extreme right’ and ‘populist’ parties such as Jean-Marie Le Pen's Front National, which pose a radical challenge to existing elites - even to the liberal political system. In the USA, the 1995 Oklahoma mass-bombing has not been followed by another major extreme right attack, but there is simmering resentment towards the allegedly over-powerful state among a miscellany of discontents, who appear even more dangerous than the militias which emerged in the 1990s. More generally across the West, new forms of green politics, often linked by a growing hostility to globalization-Americanization, are taking on more violent forms (the issue of animal rights is also growing in importance in this context).

In the former Soviet space, there are clear signs of the revival of ‘communist’ parties (which often masquerade as 'socialists' or 'social democrats'), whose allegiance to democracy is (in varying degrees) debatable. In Latin America, there remain notable extremist movements on the left, though these tend not to be communist. This trend may well grow both in response to globalization-Americanization and to the (partly-linked) crises of many of these countries, such as Argentina. This in turn increases the threat to democracy from the extreme right, ranging in form from paramilitary groups to agro-military conspiracies.

The rise of Islamic fundamentalism has been an even more notable feature of recent years. This is not simply a facet of Middle Eastern politics. It has had an impact within some former Soviet republics, where the old nomenklatura have used the Islamic threat to maintain autocratic rule. In countries such as Indonesia and India, Muslims and other ethnic groups have literally cut each other to pieces. More Al-Qaeda bombings of the 2002 Bali type threaten economic ruin to Islamic countries which attract many Western tourists.

It is also important to note that growing Islamic Fundamentalism has had an impact within some Western countries. The terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and elsewhere in the USA on September 11, 2001 are perhaps the most graphic illustration of this impact. But in democracies generally, the rise of religious and other forms of extremism pose vital questions about the limits of freedom, multiculturalism, and tolerance. This is especially the case in countries which have experienced notable Islamic immigration and/or which face the greatest threat of further terrorist attack.

Democracy may have become a near-universal shibboleth, but its exact connotations are being increasingly challenged and debated. As long as the ‘evil empire’ of communism existed, Western democracy could in an important sense define itself by the ‘Other’ - by what it was not. It did not have overt dictatorial rule, censorship, the gulags, and so on. But with the collapse of its great external foe, the spotlight has turned inward (although Islam is in some ways replacing communism as the 'Other'). Is (liberal-Western) democracy truly democratic? Can it defend itself against terrorism and new threats without undermining the very nature of democracy?

These general opening comments provide the rationale for the Routledge Series on Extremism and Democracy. In particular, there are three issues which we seek to probe in this series:

·         Conceptions of democracy and extremism

·         Forms of the new extremism in both the West and the wider world

·         How democracies are responding to the new extremism



Given all the commotion following the installation of the Austrian ÖVP-FPÖ government in 2000, it is often forgotten that the first postwar government in Europe that included a populist radical right party was constituted in Italy in 1994. It consisted of an odd mix of new and old parties, most notably Silvio Berlusconi’s brand new Forza Italia (FI), Umberto Bossi’s relatively new Lega Nord (LN), and Gianfranco Fini’s old Movimento Sociale Italiano/Alleanza Nazionale (MSI/AN).

            Maybe part of the lack of outrage can be explained by the difficulties that many commentators had with categorizing the parties. FI was so new and based upon the personality of its leader that it was almost impossible to determine whether it stood for anything other than Berlusconi’s corporate and personal self-interest. The LN was notorious for its leader’s antics and volatile programmatic positions, which initially included the breakaway of the prosperous north of Italy (‘Padania’) from the rest. And the MSI/AN was in the process of transformation from a clearly neo-fascist party into a yet to be defined new party.

            While the government was short-lived, the three parties would come together again in 2001, and this time their coalition government would survive for a full term (a unique accomplishment in postwar Italian politics). But while the parties became better known and established, debate remained within and outside academia about their ideological profiles. This book is the first to systematically analyze the ideologies of all three parties and compare and contrast them. It shows that much remains vague and uncertain, given the parties’ dependency on their highly idiosyncratic leaders (though less so for the AN, which in 2009 merged into the People of Freedom (PdL), which had emerged from FI in 2008). They are all right-wing, that much is clear. All are also populist, although in the case of the AN, this seems to have been a matter of strategy rather than ideology.

            In addition to analyzing the parties’ ideologies and categorizing them within broader party and political families, this book also provides a clear and concise overview of the fundamental political changes that have taken place in Italy since the period of scandals and transformations in the early 1990s. Drawing upon a wealth of mostly secondary sources the authors show how the right-wing parties, mostly for their own motives but also as a result of a form of competitive cooperation, used clever and sometimes cynical strategies to fill the political void left by the implosion of the main parties of the Italian ‘First Republic’, most notably the Democrazia Christiana (DC). It is no surprise that their new identity, even if more constructed than real, and populist rhetoric were so successful at a time that almost half of the members of the lower house of parliament  were under criminal investigation for fraud and other crimes.

            But the book also provides lessons for the study and understanding of populism in other countries. Among the most important points it makes are that the populist (radical) right (1)  is not simply a successor of the traditional right and (2) is an active actor in its own success. Moreover, it provides findings that go against some of the main theories in the literature on the populist radical right. For example, contrary to the broadly held belief that populist parties fare badly under majoritarian electoral systems, the Italian Right actually profited from a change away from proportionality and towards a more majoritarian electoral system. A possible explanation for this atypical finding is that most literature on the populist (radical) right assumes that it is shunned by other political parties. However, as has also been the case in various countries in postcommunist Eastern Europe (e.g. Poland, Romania, and Slovakia), when the populist (radical) right is part of larger political block, often in a two-block-party system, it can profit from electoral majoritarianism and political polarization.

            In short, Reinventing the Italian Right is, first and foremost, the ultimate study of the three main contemporary parties of the Right in Italy. It provides an original ideological analysis and a broad overview of the history and explanations of their electoral and political successes. As such, it is a must read for all students of contemporary Italian politics. However, scholars with an interest in general populist politics will find much to reflect on too. This will hopefully help make the remarkable Italian case a more central part of comparative studies on populist (radical) right parties in Europe.


Roger Eatwell and Cas Mudde



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