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Italian Identity Doesn’t Have to Belong to the Far Right

Xenophobic nationalism has assumed a central role in Italian political life in recent decades. But calls for the country’s Left to “reject Italian identity” are a dead end — and risk distancing it from its own popular traditions. 

Italian fans wait for the Italian national football team to arrive the day after the victory of the Euro 2020 final match between Italy and England, on July 12, 2021 in Rome, Italy. (Antonio Masiello / Getty Images)

In recent decades, Italy has been struck by a wave of xenophobic nationalism. With slogans like “Italians First!” (as per Matteo Salvini’s anti-immigrant Lega) or “Let’s Defend Italy!” (a slogan of Giorgia Meloni’s post-fascist Fratelli d’Italia), right-populist forces have succeeded in repoliticizing national belonging. Now cast in ethnocultural terms, Italian identity is today brandished against various “outside enemies,” from the European Union to migrants.

It’s worth emphasizing how new this debate really is to Italy. Indeed, while in postwar decades a shared sense of belonging to a national community was doubtless one part of popular consciousness, references to this identity were relatively marginal to shaping political conflict. Religion and social class had much more impact: tellingly, these were the identities at the core of the country’s two biggest parties from 1945 till the early 1990s, i.e., the Christian Democracy (DC) and the Italian Communist Party (PCI).

Writers on the Left have, in turn, sought to grapple with this sea change in the country’s political life. Francesco Filippi’s recent volume Italians First! (Okay, But Which?) is but one example of this trend, also drawing on the arguments made in a 2019 book by Roman author Christian Raimo, strikingly titled “Against Italian Identity” (Contro l’identità italiana). This latter is notable for its concise but effective historical reconstruction of the resurgence of Italian nationalism, showing how today’s “Italian identity” and the patriotism derived from it are not eternal facts but the result of conscious political choices. Yet, in its efforts to provide a left-wing response to this harshened nationalism, Raimo’s Against Italian Identity also comes across more difficult problems.

 

New Nationalists

The most striking example of a resurgent Italian nationalism — and that which Raimo dwells on most — came not from the far right but from the identitarian operation launched in the late 1990s by President Carlo Azeglio Ciampi. Faced with the anti-Italian secessionism at that time being promoted by the Lega Nord (which sought to break away the country’s wealthier northern regions), former central banker Ciampi pushed back using public communications heavily laden with Italian constitutional patriotism.

This powerful institutional initiative had paradoxical consequences. The effort to make the foundational myth of the postwar republic and its constitution — namely the anti-Nazi Resistance of 1943–45 — into the common heritage of all Italians also demanded that it be made substantially apolitical. Thus, in the quest to mold the most widely acceptable Italian identity, the Resistance’s values were hurriedly abandoned.

Ironically, Ciampi’s gestures toward a renewed patriotism in fact ended up favoring the party against which his efforts had originally been directed. Not only was the anti-fascist charge of the Resistance legacy softened, but Ciampi’s  focus on Italian nationhood prepared the terrain for the identitarianism promoted from 2013 onward by Matteo Salvini’s new Lega, an all-Italian nationalist party that began to downplay its specifically northern chauvinism.

The reconstruction of this history is the best part of Raimo’s book, for it conveys one important truth: national identity is not an objective characteristic, as if it were predetermined or unchangeable. Rather, it is a political construct articulated by various political subjects based on their own ideologies and objectives. In “deconstructing” the Italian national identity that has taken form in the last twenty years, Raimo succeeds in demonstrating how artificial it is.

Rejecting Italy

Yet this “nonessentialist” approach tends to disappear as soon as the author begins asking how the Left can respond to the overbearing wave of nationalism. Here, a paradox emerges: national identity ceases to be something the author sees as contingent, artificial, and politically constructed, and becomes essentially right-wing, a naturally reactionary phenomenon that — it can be assumed in advance — is invariably racist and sexist. Italian identity is to be rejected entirely, something we should be “against” independently of its contingent construction. Thus, Raimo comes to insist on a sharp rejection of any kind of identification with Italy.

Such a position enjoys some sympathy in the progressive intellectual and cultural milieu, which tends to have a pro-EU and declaredly “cosmopolitan” political hinterland. This same position is adopted — perhaps even more radically so — by Francesco Filippi in Italians First! (Okay, But Which?), which ridicules Italian identity as false, ahistorical, and imposed from the top down: something only the naive could identify with. The problem is, as a declared political position, a keen rejection of our own Italianness finds no support among the popular classes and the poorest — even the most progressive — who often combine their self-identity with an Italian national one.

The weakest part of the book thus lies in Raimo’s political proposal — in some ways reminiscent of ideas today widespread on the German left — as well as his dubious use of sources. For instance, he cites in support of his argument a lecture by Eric Hobsbawm on identity politics and the Left, claiming that the English historian strongly opposed any kind of “national” identification. Yet, at the end of this same article, Hobsbawm had also discussed the possibility of the Left making use of national identity, which he differentiates from the other types of identity he had taken a stance against in the previous pages. One quickly starts to think that Raimo might have skipped over this part of Hobsbawm’s text.

Ultimately, the mistake here lies in considering that, since Italian national identity is “artificial,” it is intrinsically reactionary. This means forgetting Benedict Anderson’s great insight that analyzing this problem in terms of “falsity” and “genuineness” is always misleading: all identities (national or otherwise) are socially constructed. But what matters is the “style in which they are imagined.”

National-Popular

This is, indeed, a strange political position for a left-wing intellectual trained in the traditions of the Italian left — this being the country of Antonio Gramsci, who highlighted the importance of the national-popular factor in politics. For Gramsci, one of the fundamental revolutionary tasks was precisely to construct a “sentimental connection between intellectuals and people-nation.”

Always committed to the highest internationalism, Gramsci was also well aware that — as the Marxist sociologist Michael Löwy writes — to be an internationalist does not mean despising the popular classes’ cultural traditions and national roots. Gramsci insisted that there could be no effective fight for emancipation if a political project was developed “in opposition to the spontaneous sentiments of the masses.”

This was a lesson forever close to the heart of the Italian Communist Party (PCI). As longtime Communist Luciana Castellina recounts, it was Jean-Paul Sartre who gave the best explanation of that party’s success, during one of his visits to Italy: “Now I have understood [why the PCI is so strong],” he said — because “the PCI is Italy!” By this, Sartre meant that the party was not a separate vanguard but a body molded by the same emotions, behaviors, and memories as the mass of the Italian people.

In this, the PCI built on a long tradition of “left-wing patriotism,” meaning not a harsh nationalism but a combination of love of homeland with the imperative need for friendship among all peoples. In the nineteenth century, Giuseppe Garibaldi was a fervent patriot and at the same time a sincere internationalist: it was he who termed the First International the “sun of the future,” a line that became one of the Italian workers’ movement’s most famous slogans. The Italian Communist partisans of World War II — not by chance organized in the “Garibaldi Brigades” and “Patriotic Action Groups” — widely drew on patriotic rhetoric, accusing the Fascists of being “traitors to our patria.This wasn’t just political pragmatism: the private letters of those condemned to death by Fascism were full of moving words of sincere love for Italy.

Getting Real

But Raimo’s answer to right-wing nationalism isn’t just at odds with the Italian Communist tradition — it’s overly simplistic and a dead end. Rejecting Italian identity en bloc, it ends up legitimizing our enemies’ discourse — and leaving it unchallenged in its battle to define what Italy is and what being Italian means. To declare oneself “against Italian identity” leaves it up to the Right to impose its own vision of this identity, focused on ethnic and monocultural themes. This is an exclusive idea of Italianness for which migrants and ethnic minorities pay the price every day, now that they are labeled non-members of the community.

Rather than taking this idea of Italianness as a permanent fact, we should be opposing it with an inclusive and progressive sense of what this identity means. It is no accident that this is exactly the strategy advanced by the great majority of politically significant left-wing forces in recent years. The Labour Party led by Jeremy Corbyn advertised its ambition to “rebuild Britain for the many, not the few,” rather than say it was “against Britain for the many, not the few.” When Donald Trump accused Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib, and Ayanna Pressley of not really being Americans, they didn’t just accept this, but rather turned Trump’s claims around, insisting that the United States was their country and that he was angry because he couldn’t conceive of an America that included them.

When right-wingers tried to interrupt a rally by Pablo Iglesias by chanting “Viva España,” Iglesias did not reply by denouncing Spain or Spanishness. Rather, he insisted on his party’s long-standing position that the Right shouldn’t go unchallenged in trying to give lessons on what it means to be Spanish. Podemos has always insisted that the real anti-patriots are those who privatize and destroy the public services on which Spaniards rely, while those who truly have Spain’s interests at heart are the women who demonstrate on International Women’s Day, March 8, and the students who mobilize against climate change. What really troubles the Right, Iglesias argues, is the emergence of an inclusive idea of the national community in which migrants can fully identify, regardless of their language or skin color, and in which the enemies of Spain are those who move their funds abroad to evade taxes. The point, as Michael Harrington put it in a famous text, is that, “If the Left wants to change this country because it hates it, then the people will never listen to the Left and the people will be right.”

But we don’t need the great minds of today’s new Left to tell us that this is the most effective response to the xenophobic nationalism of the Right. For in Italy itself, migrants’ movements are doing this already. The Lega Braccianti — an organization of African farmworkers in Italy — has understood the importance of the national-popular tradition better than many progressive Italian intellectuals have. When, on March 8 this year, it protested against the exploitation of migrant women in the farms and fields of Italy, it did so under the national flag and carrying mimosa flowers — the bloom typically used in Italy on International Women’s Day. And in Afro-Italian singer Tommy Kuti’s songs, he proudly insists that he is both African and Italian, in order to attack the racist right-wingers who would call for him to be “sent back home.”

Indeed, this refusal to accept the far right’s monopoly on “Italianness” is also what most Italians do when they stand up against the spread of racism. We saw this recently when an Armani-suit-wearing landlord insulted two young women of color near Milan’s central station — who defended his racism by saying, “This is Italy.” The spontaneous response of those who confronted him? “No, Italy isn’t this. Italy means solidarity.”